The Englishness of English

Roy Harris

  • Studies in English Linguistics for Randolph Quirk edited by Sidney Greenbaum and Jan Svartvik
    Longman, 304 pp, £18.00, September 1980, ISBN 0 582 55079 3

England has never had an official body equivalent to the Académic Française or the Italian Accademia della Crusca. And that is no accident. For the Englishman has scant respect for experts, of whatever kind. Telling Englishmen what they ought to do for their own good has been a hazardous enterprise throughout history. But a permanent committee to tell them how they ought to use their own native language would be an institutionalised insult. Setting up an English Academy to watchdog it over the language would have guaranteed defeat or exile for any government or monarch foolish enough to try it on.

If we are to believe one of the contributions in this volume, ‘Americans are characteristically more concerned about details of usage the English either accept or ignore as a matter of course.’ (This is explained as due to the fact that in the United States no single urban centre – New York, Chicago or Los Angeles – or any combination of them – ever managed to become accepted as providing the model for ‘correct’ speech.) Be that as it may, it would of course be grossly misleading to suggest that in England people do not care much about their language, or that they have no views about what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’. Floods of letters to the BBC, not to mention regular complaints in the correspondence columns of the Times, bear witness to the contrary. But there is a world of difference between caring for one’s language and allowing some English Academy of experts to care for it. The advice an Englishman might well take from a badly-informed neighbour he will treat with the utmost suspicion when offered by a well-informed civil servant.

But if England ever did go as far even as establishing a kind of Ombudsman for the English language, there is no doubt that a natural choice for the post, in many people’s view, would be the honorand to whom this collection of essays is dedicated, Professor Randolph Quirk of University College, London. Thirty years of scholarly activity devoted primarily to the study of the English language have won him the deserved respect of academic colleagues both here and abroad. Doubtless one of the secrets of his success is that he does not make the mistake of appearing to take sides on matters of how English should be spoken or written. Although he has, I am told, on at least one occasion been called upon to give expert opinion in court upon English usage, he is not an authority of the pontifical kind who, when asked to distinguish between fact and opinion, replies: ‘Sir, in this field my opinions are facts.’ As far as Professor Quirk is concerned, the basis of English linguistics as an academic discipline has always been and must always be an impartial and thorough observation of how the language is and has been used. The Grammar of Contemporary English and the Survey of English Usage stand as monuments to his philosophy as a linguist. They are also sources to which these essays constantly refer for evidence and confirmation.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in