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.

2 Comments

  1. Aruna
    19 October 2005 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    Maybe she’s complaining that the problem is children spelling things as they believe they should be pronounced? Because they’re watching Mindless TV instead of reading? I got the impression from the article that the commission’s complaining more about “crassness and cruelty” than grammar anyway, and it’s the newspaper that’s chosen to focus on grammar.

  2. Harry
    19 October 2005 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    Hi Aruna.

    I think the emphasis on language is mainly due to the Times. I still think that if Ms Watts has been fairly quoted, she is talking crap.

    To pick up her other example from the article:

    She said: “One student once said to me, ‘R dun wanna talk posh, miss’. My response to her was, ‘I’m not asking you to, but I am asking you to speak properly’.”

    Again, “R dun wanna talk posh, miss” looks like perfectly grammatical English to me. The girl is saying “I don’t want to talk posh, miss”. I guess there’s an argument about whether ‘posh’ should be used as an adverb, though it’s hard to see an alternative which isn’t clumsier. But the ‘R dun wanna’ bit is just ‘I don’t want to’ pronounced with a regional accent and written phonetically.

    If CBBC is a child’s main model for how language works, it has bigger probems than grammar.

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