HL Deb 21 November 1979 vol 403 cc124-37

3.5 p.m.

Lord KINGS NORTON rose to call attention to deterioration in the use of the English language; and to move for Papers. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I rise to call attention to deterioration in the use of the English language, and to move for Papers. There are 21 names down for this 150 minute debate. Allowing myself the privilege of a 17-minute introduction and allowing for the customary 20 minutes at the end for the noble Baroness, Lady Young, means an average of 5.95 minutes each for the rest. I know that your Lordships are looking forward to hearing the two maiden speakers, the Marquess of Ailesbury and Lord Perry of Walton, and I hope that the need to be brief accords with their intentions.

The English language is still a wonderful instrument for communication, but I am disturbed by the ways in which uncritical performers are using and modifying the instrument, and I believe that we have reached a stage at which it needs to be defended. I am, of course, not alone in my concern. Many others have deplored some of the changes occurring in our usage. In recent times, at least two eminent specialists have done so. That great, and now lamented, lexicographer, Mr. Eric Partridge, in the introduction to the recent re-issue of his Dictionary of Clichés, said: As we advance scientifically and technologically, and as standards of living improve, we tend to become lazier and slacker in our attitude towards speech and writing ". And Mr. Philip Howard, who formerly wrote so entertainingly on words in The Times, and who I hope will soon be doing so again, wrote in the introduction to his book Weasel Words: A sort of Double Dutch Elm Disease seems to be nibbling away at the roots and branches of our language ". So I knew, my Lords, when I put down my Motion some months ago that I already had distinguished support, and the list of speakers today means, I hope, that I shall discover many more.

I believe that our language confers two great merits on expressions—conciseness and precision. I suggest that in our common usage these two qualities are being more and more neglected. There are other trends of which many of us are critical, and I hope other noble Lords will deal with them. My chief concern, however, this afternoon is with conciseness and precision.

The conciseness of English is well illustrated by the parallel translations which we so often see in commercial literature—in, for example, directions for the use of apparatus. They are frequently given in English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. Almost always the shortest is the English version and almost always, if one studies it closely, it could be shorter still. It is not so easy to give an equally general illustration of precision. I shall illustrate it, however, by giving particular instances of its lack.

The extraordinary richness of the English language, a richness in vocabulary which I believe exceeds that of other Western languages, springs from the Norman Conquest. Had King Harold won the Battle of Hastings—and he jolly nearly did—our present situation would have been very different, certainly in language. Anglo-Saxon was a terse, compact language. King William I brought with him a language of admirable variety but with longer words. What has consequently developed is a language in which many things have more than one name, and most actions more than one verb. This is of course a great advantage, but one unfortunate consequence is that polite society in King William's time used the longer alternatives and left the shorter Anglo-Saxon alternatives to the rude mechanicals. Things indeed reached a position, in which we still are, in which some terse Anglo-Saxon words dropped out of polite usage, supplanted by their longer Norman-French equivalents, and preference for the longer word still continues, militating against the conciseness which I claim for English as a virtue. Too many of us prefer to commence than to start, to donate than to give.

I hope that your Lordships will not regard me as a fanatic in my desire for brevity and precision. I hope, too, that in advocating the use of short alternatives I am not thought to be critical of long words in general. I know, of course, the long word is often the most appropriate word. Frequently it is the way to the shortest expression. It is of the use of long words unnecessarily and of long words when short words are equally correct that I am critical.

In recent times, the tendency of which I complain has been even more noticeable in the USA than here and a great deal of the long-windedness and ambiguity which is creeping into our usage originates in America. Unfortunately, there are many uncritical folk here who think it clever to copy American usage. I became aware of what I now regard as a genuine danger many years ago when in the United States people began to use the word "alibi" to mean "excuse". An alibi is a special kind of excuse and to use it for "excuse" is to introduce ambiguity, and to diminish precision. If a man says, " I have an alibi ", one does not now know whether he means that he has an excuse or that he was elsewhere when the act attributed to him took place. Other examples are the use of "anticipate" to mean "expect"; of "disinterested" to mean "uninterested" and a more recent neologism of this kind is the use of "hopefully" to mean "hope". To say, "I am hopefully going to Timbuctoo", used to mean, quite certainly, "I am going to Timbuctoo in a spirit of hope". Now it can also mean "I hope I am going to Timbuctoo".

There is also, harking back to long-windedness, a strange tendency to say "I am hopeful that" instead of "I hope that", an appalling desire to "meet up with "instead of" to meet", and a hope that actions will "pay off" instead of just "pay". The transatlantic liking for the long word of course has long been evident in the use of "apartment" for "flat", of "elevator" for "lift", of "assignment" for "job", of "location" for "place" and of phrases such as "mission accomplished" for "job done". But the liking for the long locution is, I think, more recent.

For example, for some time we have been aware of the spread of the word, "capability". It all started in the world of technology. An aeroplane had "a long-range capability" instead of merely "a long range". We have now reached the stage indeed of saying, "It has the capability of doing" instead of "It can do ". This sort of thing seems, in cold blood, incredible, but it is happening. Worse still is the prevalence of "currently". That is a word I feel very strongly about. The present is one of the few precise notions we have: It is the instant dividing the past from the future. It rarely needs qualification and if, for emphasis, it does, the word "now" is available.

We have reached a pitch, however, at which if I had said in my preamble this afternoon, "I am currently speaking to your Lordships on English usage", I doubt whether I should have attracted any criticism. More and more such unnecessary words are being inserted. People today no longer have just good or bad records; they have good or bad track records. "Track" is not only unnecessary; it is really rather silly, but it is in common use. In another place recently a Member referred to "the crisis situation". The word "situation" was unnecessary. Rather worse, in a broadcast report of the Pope's visit to Mexico, I learned that in Mexico City there was "an ongoing chaos situation", which meant, I suppose, "continuing chaos".

We indulge too, my Lords, in wholly unnecessary phrases such as "at this moment of time", "as of now" and "in this day and age" or "at present" or "now ". I will not bore your Lordships by continuing to give examples of the use of long words where short ones are equally accurate, of ambiguity, of two or more words where one is sufficient, of tautology, of jargon, of mispronunciation. There are hundreds of them. The Queen's English Society collects them in a sort of verbal chamber of horrors. I have, I hope, given enough to indicate the nature of my concern. But I do not believe that all is lost. I do not think the decline which I believe has begun cannot be arrested. But I do believe that unless we do something about it, the deterioration will worsen, or, in modern usage, "escalate". An attempt, as I think the French still make, to control the development of the language from an academic centre would not, in my view, succeed here, and if your Lordships are persuaded, as I hope you will be, that action is needed, then I think it must be voluntary action. It would be unreasonable to expect ordinary people to guard their utterances so carefully as always to be brief and accurate, but it is perhaps not unreasonable to expect them to be especially careful in their written work and when speaking in public.

But most important in the context of my anxiety, my Lords, is the teaching of English. Is the way in which English is taught today producing a proper concern for well-balanced usage? I take leave to doubt it. We seem to be less critical in our usage than of old and this must surely be, at least partly, a consequence of how we have been taught. In the distant days when I was at school I believe the way in which English grammar was taught and indeed the way in which Latin grammar was taught were, if somewhat severe disciplines, salutary ones. And if our teaching sometimes left us in later life uncertain of proper usage, there was—indeed there is—always the great work of Mr. Fowler to guide us.

In this connection, my Lords, there was published in 1975 a report of a Committee of Inquiry into the teaching in schools of reading and the other uses of English. It was called A Language for Life, and the chairman of the committee was Sir Alan Bullock, now Lord Bullock. I find it surprising that this massive work has not been discussed in your Lordships' House. I do not pretend to have absorbed it—it has 609 pages and weighs two pounds—but in my somewhat superficial study of it I noted that one third of teachers of English in secondary schools had no qualifications for teaching English. I also found myself very much in sympathy with the Note of Dissent by Mr. Stuart Froome which was critical of some aspects of our teaching methods.

But, of course, the broadcasting authorities have a great influence on our usage and sometimes I feel they let us down. Years ago I know that the BBC had a Director of the Spoken Word. They do not have one now. Whatever organisation has taken his place must be inadequate, because too often we hear mispronunciations and usages of the kinds I have been criticising. Perhaps the broadcasting media can be persuaded to take English more seriously. There is indeed some sign of their doing so, for recently, as your Lordships will know, BBC radio—not television—commissioned reports from three assessors on the present quality of English radio broadcasts.

The reports are not on the whole particularly critical of present BBC radio, but nevertheless they show a number of ways to improvement. They do not—I repeat, do not—deal with television which, in my experience, offends more often than radio. Dr. Burchfield in his report to the BBC quotes Professor Quirk as saying, The BBC should have the courage to give a lead ", and, No other organisation has such an opportunity or such a responsibility to present a first-rate model of present-day English: precise phrasing, well-chosen words, soundly constructed sentences ". Mr. Timothy, who is rather more severe than Dr. Burchfield or Professor Donoghue believes, … that the BBC has a clear duty to uphold the standards of spoken English "; and I hope your Lordships agree that we all have a similar duty.

It is indeed, my Lords, a matter which I believe we should all take very seriously. It is clearly important to express oneself with precision and desirable to do so concisely. But also, my Lords, language is the instrument of thought, and if we allow our usage of it to become imprecise as it changes and develops—because change and develop it must—we shall not be able to think clearly. We do not think all that clearly now and it might be dangerous if our performance became worse. Furthermore, as English is the major language for international exchanges it is vital that ambiguity in its usage should be as nearly as possible eliminated.

I believe there is still more to be done in comparing the results of different methods, including the old methods, of teaching English, and in this connection I should like to ask to what extent the 350 conclusions and recommendations of the Bullock Report have been accepted. And is the employment to teach English of teachers unqualified in English diminishing?

Finally, my Lords, I believe that material support should be given to the bodies which have been formed to stem the decline in English usage. I have already mentioned the Queen's English Society, whose concern is similar to mine, and there is the Plain English Campaign, whose chief and most laudable objective is the clarification of official forms. There is also, of course, the English Association, which for most of this century has been concerned with promoting knowledge and appreciation of the English language and its literature; but it also seeks to uphold the standards of English writing and speech. In this connection it has in membership 200 schools which receive its papers. This must be helping to slow the decline which I find so worrying. There may be other bodies in the field, but clearly the combined efforts of them all are not enough. They deserve the strongest possible support to extend the scope of their lectures and discussions. Most of all, however, I am convinced that their concern for our language must be diffused far more widely in the schoolroom. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.22 p.m.


My Lords, I rise with great diffidence to address your Lordships' House for the first time and I crave your customary indulgence. I have spent my entire career being an expert of sorts, and experts of any sort are characterised first by their abysmal ignorance of all matters outside their own expertise, and secondly by their tendency to be controversial about any subject whether or not they know anything about it. There are, therefore, very few subjects for debate in your Lordships' House upon which I am competent to speak in a non-controversial way. My choice of occasion being so severely constrained, I very greatly welcome the opportunity provided for me by the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, in introducing this short debate, for I am confident that there can be little controversy about the assertion that there has been a deterioration in the use of the English langague.

I wish to draw your Lordships' attention to three of the multiple causes of that deterioration. A major cause of deterioration in the use of the English language is very simply the enormous increase in the number of people who are using it. It has for some time been the lingua franca of science. It is fast becoming the primary language of international communication in other fields. It is already the first language of many nations. It is already spoken by more people than is any other language save Mandarin Chinese. Increasingly it is being adopted as a second language by the nations of the world. As this happens it is quite inevitable that more and more people will use the language ineptly, for it is not an easy language to use well. I recall the rumour that one overseas visitor to Britain shot himself on reading a news headline "Beatles pronounced success".

I do not think we should deplore the deterioration that stems from the increasing use of English. We must accept it as inevitable and yet take what steps we can to ensure that the deterioration is not so severe as to make communication worse rather than better. The courses in English as a second language which are offered in many countries by the British Council are of the very greatest importance in this respect.

A second cause of deterioration in the use of the English language is paradoxically to be found in the structure of the English school examination system. A-level examinations, while they serve to induce study in depth and to make possible the completion of an honours degree in 3 years—a task which no other country has the temerity to attempt—are very ill-designed to encourage general education. Indeed they have, by requiring too early specialisation at school, tended to produce a generation of illiterate scientists and innumerate humanists. Parsing is no longer taught in many schools, and very dull it was as I remember. But how can anyone construct a sentence safely if he is unable to analyse one? Few children study the classics any more. I never managed to read any classical literature in the original, but I did learn enough to know without having to think that antediluvian is spelt "ante" and not "anti" and to recognise hypodermic and subcutaneous as synonyms.

I suspect, my Lords, that few people are aware of just how greatly the present generation is missing just those bits and pieces of schooling which viewed superficially seem unnecessary as preparation for modern life but which actually are of considerable importance to the proper use of language. I suspect, too, that few people are aware of just how many of our most intellectually able university students are unable to spell, cannot correctly construct simple sentences and have no sense of style; or indeed how many are shocked to find that it is a mathematical necessity that about half the population should earn less than the average wage.

As a final example of the positive deterioration in the use of the English language I come to the mass media. The newspapers have too little space, television and radio too little time, to allow of leisurely and reasoned argument. The successful exploiters of these media are those whose skill lies in the production of the short, sharp assertion. In the space of time available the assertion cannot be logically refuted, so the only answer is to be found in an equally short, sharp counter-assertion. Both may be outrageous but the language employed by both sides is chosen so as to suppress reservations and doubts. It is a language that depends on generalisations which are usually imprecise and often deliberately ambiguous. It is a language that makes unblushing use of jargon wherever that can assist evasion. This is especially true of political assertion, where words like "capitalism", "socialist" and "bourgeois" can be used either in a pejorative or in an adulatory way with an underlying presumption—false in respect of the majority of readers, viewers and listeners—that its meaning is crystal clear.

My Lords, we could, if we wished, do something to counter these last two causes of deterioration in the use of the English language. I fear from my experience that we shall lack the will, for cure will demand radical reforms of some of our most favoured institutions. I hope that at some not too far distant future date we shall have the courage to meet that demand, but I confess that I am not over sanguine. However, unless we do have courage, I fear that we shall go on to see a further progressive deterioration in the use of the English language in respect both of its vocabulary and of its syntax.

3.28 p.m.


My Lords, my first duty is to say how much I have enjoyed listening to not a Celt but a Scotsman, and as a poor old Welsh peasant it is for me a privilege to follow that delightful maiden speech, with so many prefixes used as they should be used. Looking at his distinguished service to the Medical Research Council—I am myself interested in pharmaceuticals—and his professorship of pharmacology at Edinburgh, I am sure all of us on all sides of this House are looking forward to further contributions from the distinguished addition that we now have on the Cross-Benches, and I hope that we shall hear him many, many times in this House.

My Lords, having spent lamp oil trying to work out a constructive speech, I was then informed by my Whip, "You have got 5.9 minutes to speak". My danger is that I might take 55.9 minutes if I am not careful, so I must see that I do not do that.

I should like now to pay a tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton. May I say that it is a compliment to this House that so many noble Lords with outside liabilities, and so on, have without any jocularity taken the trouble to put their name on the list of speakers. There is a long list of Members of this House who are interested in keeping alive the power and purity of the great English language. I believe that this House makes a contribution to keeping alive good English throughout the country.

It is clear that no language can be said to be spoken unless every word of it is meant to be understood. For example, parrots speak; tape recorders screech and scream these days; music centres drive us deaf and communication in words and pictures is now available to men and manikins from the earth to the rim of the universe. What has it done to us? Alvin Toffler said in his famous book Future Shock: People are being overwhelmed by change—we are failing to adapt ourselves to the future … The roaring current of change is overwhelming mankind, his language, his ethics—even his life is threatened by the rapidity of this change. Our images of reality are so rapidly changing and the machinery of image transmission is being speeded up to such an extent that sometimes it is incoherent. Words are changing and being modified more rapidly in this era than ever before, not merely on the slang level but in each technical—and, as the noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton well knows—elcctronic, biological, medical, social or political advance. New words, new acronymns and new neologisms pour from the lips of everyone these days and they tend to creep slovenly into our journalism—which is the worst of the lot—and everyday speech. There is a journalist sitting behind me uttering derogatory remarks about that last sentence.

All that is true not only of English but of all languages, even in my Welsh. Flexner, the lexicographer of the Random House Dictionary of the English Language, which appears in the Library said: Of some 450,000 usable words in the English language today only 250,000 would be comprehensible to Shakespeare. He further tells us that words are being dropped out of the language and being replaced at a rate three times faster than in the period that he took in his studies to be the base period of the study of language—between 1564 and 1914.

We have modern communication systems that need now to change language. The juggernaut—that common thing that runs over our roads and ruins the peace of our villages—and its driver dominate industry. Kipling said that transport is civilisation. It does not look like that when one is on the M.1 or the M.6, especially like I was yesterday in a fog! Therefore, we have to have sign language and that is one of the things that ruins the purity of any language. It is happening in every country. Even in Wales we are setting up our signposts in two languages. When dear old George Borrow tramped through Wales he did not want two signposts. Now we make drawings for the juggernaut drivers.

Other words that creep in have caused man subconsciously to ask himself a question. Indeed, he did so in the 19th century. If any of your Lordships take the trouble to go into the Library and look at the 25th volume of The Nineteenth Century, your Lordships will see that there was a long argument on: Can we think without words? Max Muller wrote a long piece that is fascinating and interesting. He considered that there was an algebra of language far more wonderful than the algebra of mathematics. Muller defined thought as language minus sound. Time will not allow me to go into this in depth, but I am sure that the House would be interested if we could do so. I am sure that noble Lords know the issues as well as I do, and I believe that the slovenly thought that we have today and slovenly thinking lead to a deterioration in our language.

Am I right in assuming that in an age tortured by uncertainty with respect to religion, God, family, self, money and property, there is a worldwide collapse of not only the values of the past but of our language which, more and more in the world of men, tends to be vague, indecisive, careless and often callous? I was delighted to hear the noble Lord talk about parsing. I guarantee that there are not 10 boys in the sixth form—and the sixth form usually comprises about 30 these days—who could parse a sentence like we had to with Shakespeare when we were young. Those things are of value, because otherwise when does one know to insert a comma or to inflect one's voice? Language has beauty with sonority. One wants sound with it and one wants it in the right places—not the wrong ones.

Therefore, we are witnessing a breakdown, and far from bureaucracy increasing the trouble is that bureaucracy is breaking down. The very business systems of the industrial society in which we live are breaking down partly because of lack of thinking. I was delighted to hear the noble Lord, Lord Perry—he did not actually use the phrase—using abstract nouns. Let me give an example of a perfect abstract noun that people bandy about. Marxism was at one time not an abstract noun, but now it is. Some forms of Marxism are utterly intolerable, but Chinese Marxism is now all right. It just depends. Nenni at one time was a Marxist, but later he could dine with the Queen. We use such abstract phrases and there is no real meaning to them at all, unless we are extremely careful. I have been speaking for eight minutes. I do not want to be interrupted because I shall take only another one and a half minutes.

Wars have influenced our language. As regards courtesy and scholarship, I must pay a tribute to our prelates. I misquoted once the words from St. John, Chapter 1. I said, "First the Word Genesis"—but then because of scholarship and decency of language no noble prelate who knew that I was wrong rose to correct me. That is another test of understanding and the quiet use of English language in the right place.

I now come—your Lordships will be pleased to know—to the end of my little speech. There are word fashions. At one time we had "parameters". I guarantee that there were not 10 people who knew the mathematics of a curve or a straight line where Y equals A plus B, or what a parameter meant. Nye Bevan, who I used to know and who was a great pal of mine, was fond of the word "dichotomy". It is only two years ago that this Chamber rebounded with the phrase "charisma". There are fashions in words and those fashions devalue the value of the coin.

How better to finish than by saying what eponyms can bring. Let us take as an example the word "Hovis". Hovis bread was invented by a baker in Stone. He is buried next to Marx in the cemetery at Highgate. He invented Hovis bread. He offered a prize for a name for his wheatgerm. A schoolmaster in Oxford won the prize with the phrase Homonis vis—in the genitive case—which means strength to man and the strength of man. They reduced the words and made Hovis. In other words manufactured words are now creeping into the language and sometimes they are most effective. Indeed, they are very effective because such words give a meaning to bread and a special type of bread.

Probably the best use of the English language is by the judges. I would pay a tribute to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack who when he is not dealing with campanology makes excellent speeches on philosophy. I also include our own ex-Chancellor in that category along with judges and people like them who speak clearly and who keep the language alive.

Lastly, there are the poets. How better to finish than with three small verses; most of the words contain only four letters, although in one case there are seven. If the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, would not twist his features quite so much I should be much happier looking at him.


My Lords, I would not be so happy listening to the noble Lord.


My Lords, that is very clever. If the noble Lord persists in that, I shall tell the Leader of the House and I shall take longer.

When Housman wrote his famous little poem he did not use more than four or five-letter words and his English is beautiful. It reads: When first my way to fair I took Few pence in purse had I And long I used to stand and look At things I could not buy. Now times are altered: if I care To buy a thing, I can; The pence are here and here's the fair But where's the lost young man ". In perfect English and simple phraseology the whole gamut of the problem of life is portrayed. My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, has rendered a service to the English language by raising this issue today.