Language whinge

Yup, it’s negative karma all round, today. I promise my next post will be a glowingly positive comment about something.

An article in the Times explains how a government-commissioned report on CBBC (the BBC’s children’s TV channel), as well as criticising the “crass” presentation, “tastelessness and cruelty” of some programmes also criticised the frequent use of bad grammar, citing “ain’t” and “you was” as examples. OK, fair enough, let’s leave aside the question of whether the BBC should allow children’s presenters to use colloquial English, and move on to the rest of the Times article.

Joyce Watts, a retired teacher, complained of “fast, loud speech” where “all the words run into one and cannot be understood”. Ms Watts said interviewers would ask guests, “What d’ya like best” and, “What’s ya faverit number?” Children’s written work suffered as they began to spell words as they believed they should be pronounced.

Ms Watts may not be able to understand English spoken quickly, but it’s something the kids are going to have to get used to if they’re going to be functioning members of society. It is of course the norm for ‘all the words to run into one’ as anyone who’s ever heard a foreign language spoken will know. But more to the point, ‘what d’ya like best?’ and ‘what’s ya faverit number’? strike me as pretty good attempts at writing how those sentences would be pronounced in perfectly normal spoken English. She seems to be bothered by the fact that unstressed vowels are not given their full value – but that’s normal. Perhaps she should record herself speaking to find out.

To be fair, the way those sentences are written may be down to the journalist who spoke to her. Perhaps if one heard the recording it would be more obvious what her gripe is – though I suspect it’s simply that she objects to accents that sound a bit too working class.

As for the statement “children’s written work suffered as they began to spell words as they believed they should be pronounced” – well, the mind boggles. I hardly know how to put this, it seems like such a truism – English spelling is not reliably phonetic. However ‘correct’ your spoken English is, if you try to write things down the way they sound, you’ll often get it wrong. That’s just a difficulty with learning to write. If students believe that words should be spelt as they are pronounced, someone isn’t teaching them properly, because it isn’t true. You don’t learn to spell by learning to speak properly – you earn to spell by learning spellings and, above all, by reading. I suppose it’s too much to hope that Ms Watts taught some other subject than English.

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Art gallery blurbs

I’m feeling a bit pot/kettle for having been rude to Lynne Truss for whinging about things, because this, for the third post in a row, is going to be a whinge.

This time: those blurbs in art galleries. Specifically the ones that tell you what to think, and how you should be reacting. I don’t mind this kind of thing:

Although the inspiration for Embankment came from the single box she found in her mother’s house, Whiteread selected a number of differently-shaped boxes to construct the installation for the Turbine Hall. She filled them with plaster, peeled away the exteriors and was left with perfect casts, each recording and preserving all the bumps and indentations on the inside. They are ghosts of interior spaces or, if you like, positive impressions of negatives spaces. Yet Whiteread wanted to retain their quality as containers, so she had them refabricated in a translucent polymer which reveals a sense of an interior. And rather than make precious objects of them, she constructed thousands.

[some stuff about the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark which I can’t be bothered to type] Whiteread has spoken of wanting to make the Turbine Hall into a kind of warehouse, and this is an intriguing response to a space which was once industrial but is now a museum. For what is a museum, after all, but a storage depot for art?

There’s a certain amount of editorialising there, but it’s mainly concerned with the thought processes and techniques of the artist, which is quite interesting information which the audience can take or leave. But this, from later in the same leaflet, is the kind of thing that really bugs me:

Dwarfed by these towering structures as we wind our way through them, we become acutely aware of our own physical presence. But there is also a spirit of absence here, a ghostly echo of all the abandoned empty spaces that surrounds us day after day.

Thanks, Mr Tate-Curator, but I can decide for myself how aware I am of my own physical presence.

One particular problem with this kind of blurbing is that it invites the audience to disagree. This is from the leaflet for the Universal Experiences exhibition at the Hayward:

This 28-metre-long light table displays hundreds of colour transparencies of tourist destinations visited and photographed by the artists. The pictures evoke fantasies of escapism and are reminiscent of the illustrations in tourist brochures and travel magazines. Combined in this sculptural travelogue these images allude to the increase in global tourism at the end of the 20th century and re-invest their endlessly photographed subjects with a sense of the extraordinary.

To which my reaction is – no they don’t. Re-invest with a sense of the extraordinary, that is. If anything, they banalify the places shown by lumping together such a large number of generic-looking photos. Now the curators at the Hayward might argue that it’s a good thing that I’m being drawn into engaging with the work. Except that I find myself constantly put into a hostile, confrontational frame of mind; and I don’t believe that irritated and argumentative is the best spirit to get the most out of a work of art.

Perhaps all I’m doing is revealing my own character flaws again.