HL Deb 21 November 1979 vol 403 cc156-96

Debate resumed.

4.32 p.m.

The Marquess of AILESBURY

My Lords, I crave the indulgence of the House. I imagine that any normal maiden speaker rises in this House with a burning desire to sit down again. On this occasion the very long list of those waiting to speak gives me an exceptionally good excuse. I almost went on to say I am not the man to look a gift excuse in the mouth; but this is not the right debate for that sort of talk.

What is it that brought me to my feet? "That", as politicians say on television, "is a very good question". I have to thank the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, but I feel strongly about the subject of this debate. Perhaps I could illustrate how strongly I feel and how much trouble that sometimes gets me into. Your Lordships will remember the days when the noble Lord, Lord Stokes, was in charge of that jewel in our industrial crown which nowadays is elegantly styled "BL". In Lord Stokes' day, the company put out an advertisement which split the infinitive. This caused me such anguish that I actually wrote to the great man to complain. Looking back on that, I am amazed at my own presumption. I think I put forward the lame excuse that I owned a Mini. That was, at least, true; although it hardly excused my taking up his Lordship's extremely valuable time.

Those who are privileged to know the noble Lord will not be surprised to hear what happened next. The reply was swift; the reply was wholly delightful. It was so laden with charm that for some time I failed to notice that the subject of our correspondence had mysteriously changed. We were no longer discussing the luckless infinitive and what, if anything, might be done to bind up its wounds. Instead, we were both wondering how I could even contemplate resuming my underprivileged existence without having bought one of the more exotic models from the Leyland range. I fear that the moral of this story is depressing. The way of the pedant has always been hard but nowadays, at several thousands of pounds per infinitive, it has become exhaustively expensive.

Some people in high places ought to set a better example. I recall an unhappy time when Her Majesty's Minister of Transport—not the present incumbent of that office—conceived an idea for a new form of bus transport to be operated by "standee buses". If that meant anything, it meant, I suppose, a form of bus in which one would be stood on. Despite this commendable honesty of description, I am happy in the belief that nobody could be found to operate a bus service with quite so revolting a name, and therefore it has not been inflicted permanently upon the language.

I suppose that no speech on this subject would be complete without a reference to the BBC; and it could be argued that no reference to the BBC would be complete without a story about Lord Reith. It is widely known that in his day wireless announcers, as I still quaintly call them, were made to wear dinner jackets. I also understand that one evening one of these immaculate but invisible men was caught by Lord Reith chasing a typist round her desk. He was immediately sacked. It happened that this particular announcer was not only very good at his job but also, with the possible exception of one typist, was extremely popular among the staff. A campaign was mounted within the BBC to try to get him reinstated. The pressure on Lord Reith became so great that he finally conceded in terms of the immortal: "Very well, he may read the news but he is never to read the Epilogue '."

Although some of us may regard standards as rather splendid, I have to say that I do not think that they could have been carried forward into the post-war world. I feel that the proper colour for the modern BBC is pale grey—definitely not deep pink; but pale grey. It seems to me that if they were in the modern world, then, to be whiter than white, they might as well go away and re-classify themselves under the heading of "Foreign Languages".

I think that the real villains are the advertising profession. If I ever make another speech in your Lordships' House, I shall make a great effort to drag into that speech, however irrelevantly, what I really think about the advertising profession and the things that they do to the English language. But this is a maiden speech; I am not supposed to be controversial so I shall merely accuse them of murder and leave it at that. Many of us, alas! commit occasional manslaughter, but that is a totally different crime.

I will end by unveiling a pitfall which my fellow pedants and I must try to avoid. We must not reject all new words. Perhaps I may take two which possibly point the contrast. I suppose that the most reviled new word of modern times—and rightly in my view—has been "ongoing". As I have said before, some people ought to set a better example. I can remember seeing the Financial Times filled with top people's stockbroking firms wanting analysts for ongoing research. It occurred to me at that time that if there had not been any research being carried on, this sudden demand for very expensive analysts would have been totally inexplicable. It was, and is, an almost completely superfluous word.

My Lords, I can now reveal my tip for the next madly-fashionable word—a sort of "son of ongoing "—and that is "upcoming", as in the "upcoming Christmas holidays ". I must confess that I first read this with dismay. But then I thought that one must judge this on its merits. One must think what word it seeks to replace, or one must consider how one would express the meaning if one found that the word completely choked one. If you come to think of it, it means, surely, the same as forthcoming. "Forthcoming", I suppose, is an inoffensive word but it does sound rather archaic; so, until somebody points to the error of my ways—and, looking down the list of speakers, that may be sooner than I expect—I shall have to give at least two cheers for "upcoming ". But now, since the nine-minute marker is upcoming, it is time that my speech ceased to be ongoing.

4.40 p.m.


My Lords, in the course of his entertaining and most welcome maiden speech, the noble Marquess, Lord Ailesbury, made it perfectly clear that he does not like the advertising profession. As the director of an advertising agency, I should nevertheless like to thank him very much indeed for his maiden speech and say that no offence will be taken and I hope that in due course I may be able to correct some of the errors of his thinking.

When I first saw this Motion on the Order Paper I rather wondered how the noble Lord in whose name it stood was going to relate it to the responsibilities of Her Majesty's Government, which is primarily the purpose of debate in this House. The question, however, that I wish to put—and I only wish to put one—to the noble Baroness who is to reply is directly concerned with Her Majesty's Government's affairs. I want to ask the noble Baroness whether she will use all her powerful influence to make certain that Government departments, when they communicate through the media, pamphlets, or written instructions to ordinary humble men and women in the street, do it in much simpler language than they do at the moment.

We know perfectly well that in this House we frequently have to handle immensely complicated legislation, such as finance Bills, which none of us—not even the noble and learned Lord, the Lord Chancellor—can hope to understand. We take that for granted. I have a guilty conscience because I well remember in 1959 standing at the Government Dispatch Box, representing the Home Office, and trying to persuade your Lordships to accept Clause 39 of the Shops Bill, which took 19 lines of the draftsman's deathless prose to establish the principle that only a practising Jew or a Mohammedan could operate as a barber in Scotland on a Sunday.

However, these are the exceptional cases. What I am concerned with are the matters of legislation which we pass here and which are then translated into laws which the man in the street has to try to obey: simple things concerned with rates, his telephone bill, his pension, his savings bonds, "Ernie" and his driving licence. Many of these matters are drafted in language which is far too complicated for the average man in the street to understand. If your Lordships doubt my word, ask any village postmaster or postmistress how often they are approached by people who bring in some instructions from some Government department and ask for it to be translated into English.

I would therefore bid the Minister to make it strongly known to her colleagues that there is a necessity, not for them to try their instructions off on some other brilliant civil servant in the next office or on some senior wrangler, but to go down (if this sounds snobbish, I apologise) and try it on the lift man, try it on the lady cleaner, try it on somebody really simple, if needs be, like me, and see if we can understand it.

I say this with a slightly guilty conscience because when some years ago we were debating the introduction of the postal code, I begged leave to suggest that it was going to be far too complicated for the man and woman in the street to understand or to remember, and it would be years and years before it would ever be in wide introduction. I received from the GPO (as it then was) a most courteous and carefully reasoned letter as to why it was going to work. It was beautifully drafted and really very convincing. But it was delivered to a house in a road two streets away. Therefore, I would ask the noble Baroness again to see that all Government departments are impressed with the need for clarity.

I am just finishing a stint of 10 year's service on the Council on Tribunals. One of our tasks is to go round the country visting all the hundreds of tribunals that exist and see that all is well and that justice is being done. I am impressed times without number by the confusion, and possibly injustice, brought about by the fact that there has been a misunderstanding of the Government's instructions, which have not been drafted in sufficient clarity. I do not necessarily say that they should be short. That may seem a paradox but it will be remembered that George Bernard Shaw apologised to somebody for having to write such a long letter—he had not time to write a short one.

Over-brevity in Government instructions can very often produce extra confusion. It is the clarity one wants, not necessarily the brevity. If, of course, the noble Baroness can get both, and get her colleagues to do both, well and good. I will give her one example if she wants one. About four years ago a will was contested in the high court of Texas. It was the will of a well-known tycoon and was challenged by his next of kin. They failed. The will was very short; it consisted of one sentence. It was correctly witnessed and signed. It followed the law in every possible respect. The will consisted of this one sentence: Give Mabel the works ". I ask the noble Baroness and her colleagues in the Government to think frequently and carefully about Mabel.

4.47 p.m.


My Lords, I will do my best to keep within my allotted 5.9 minutes; but I hope that the House will give me its indulgence if I take an extra 30 seconds in which to say how very much I appreciated the two maiden speeches which we have heard today, not merely because they both said things with which I wholeheartedly agree but also because they were extremely well put, and in the context which we are discussing tonight I think that is an excellent thing. I hope that we shall often hear them.

I feel very grateful to my noble friend for having introduced this debate. I think that it is an important subject, because as the noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, pointed out in his speech, English is becoming an international language, and one has to remember that foreign nations will learn it from us. It is up to us to speak it properly so that they may learn it properly. The BBC has a great responsibility here and, regret to say, that responsibility is not always fulfilled. In fact, it has become almost an insulting description of anybody's English to call it BBC English.

They certainly have propagated some very bad traditions. There are one or two mispronunciations which I could add to the examples that my noble friend gave which are becoming quite wide- spread and which I think originated at the BBC. One is "controversy", which I think is a most appalling word, and the other is "formidable". I hope that, despite the BBC, those will disappear. Both spoken and written English are important. The desire to preserve good written English does not imply a return to Shakespearean or even Victorian English. It is not generally realised today that modern English, if well written, can be very beautiful. We have all become so used to the chatty magazine English—and one has to remember that 90 per cent. of the population very rarely read anything els—that we forget that English can be beautiful. I quote two examples. One is a description by Osbert Sitwell of an Italian castle which he visited. That is quoted in Edith Sitwell's book A Nest of Tigers. The other example is the first chapter of Daphne Du Mauler's novel Rebecca. Both of those are perfect examples of beautiful, descriptive modern English. There is no need to make it academical or long-winded: the simpler the better.

Now I come to spoken English. I should like to make it quite plain before I go any further that there is nothing in anything that I say that implies class distinction. Some people think it does, but that is absolutely false. It has nothing of the sort to do with that. Anyone can speak English well if they try. Of course, young people are very largely influenced by the English that is spoken round them when they are young, as I well know. I spent the years from the age of five to 12 in America and I arrived home with an American accent that could be cut with a knife. I am very thankful to say that within a month or two it had completely disappeared and I can give your Lordships a guarantee that it will never cone back—because if there is a more hideous language on the face of the earth than the American form of English, I should like to know what it is!

I have no desire at all to do anything to the local dialects which are, after all, forms of English in their own right: in fact I believe it was the third Earl of Leicester—the grandfather of the present Earl—who had a broad Norfolk accent and did his best to cultivate it. Those things should be preserved; and those of your Lordships who are old enough to remember it will, I am sure, agree that cockney was the same. Real, good cockney was a dialect in its own right and it was full of wit and charm. Unfortunately, in the course of education, as it is so called, we have watered it down to a very disagreeable half-breed English which I, living as I do in northern Surrey, hear all round me every day. It is not one thing or the other: it is just bad English.

I have tried to analyse what causes this. A great deal of it, of course, is due to voice production. The very nasal production which one hears is partly inherited from cockney, which was a very nasal tongue. It is still there and it seems to he particularly prevalent among young women. I passed a group of young girls chatting to each other the other day and, quite frankly, it sounded just like a consort of cats. I have no objection at all to that noise, coming from cats—it is their natural language and their natural sound—but coming from human beings I find it extremely disagreeable. And have your Lordships noticed—I must hurry because I have already spoken for six minutes—how often one suffers from the glottal attack instead of a final t or k? That is becoming increasingly prevalent.

The question now arises: how are we going to battle against all this? It is an unfortunate fact that many of the teaching staff in our schools are themselves quite incapable of speaking good English. But surely we have enough teachers with a good knowledge of English who could act as what I believe today are known as "speech therapists". Perhaps every school should have one, and although I do not think it necessarily need be made compulsory, it could be there for anyone who wanted to improve their language to make use of. My Lords, as I am already over my time, I apologise.

4.53 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of NORWICH

My Lords, I, too, should like to pay my tribute to the wise speech of the noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, and to the witty speech of the noble Marquess, Lord Ailesbury. We look forward to hearing them often, and with the same beauty and wisdom that we have heard from them both. I was delighted that the noble Marquess broke into broad Scots because, as the noble Lord, Lord Somers, has just said, we must not lose our regional voices in England. When on Saturday in the directors' box at Carrow Road, my football team, Norwich City, were losing one-nil and were not playing very well, I said at half-time: "Nothing but a miracle will now save us". Those around me imagined that I meant I was going to do something about this! When Justin Fashanu scored an extraordinary goal, and it was rather an odd one, somebody behind me slapped my shoulder and said: Keep you going, bishop: keep you going! "— and then he scored again! So I hope we shall not lose our regional accents and the beauty of our Norfolk and Suffolk voices—I speak in the presence of the noble Earl from Suffolk beside me.

At the same time the English language is a living language, and it is a hybrid with its background of Anglo-Saxon, of French and Latin and with a smattering of Greek; but it has so many varied uses, whether for legal accuracy, for clear precision or for lilting poetry, or the proclamation of eternal truth—the title of our Lord, "the Word", is an example of this—or for the solemn offering of praise and worship in hieratical language. That is where I felt I had better come in, because I have noticed recently that anxieties have been expressed about the way in which the Church is using language today, particularly concerning The Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version. As I use The Book of Common Prayer in my chapel every morning for the loveliness of the Daily Office, I am second to none in loving its beauty and its richness and the wide variety of its ability to express eternal truth.

But we have a particular problem about the English language and it is not, I think, necessarily deterioration if we find ourselves seeking to use modern language for eternal truth. I would give your Lordships one example, and that is the example of emphasis. That great writer of English prayers, Archbishop Cramer, had a delicacy of touch when it came to emphasis. We underline, we exaggerate, we put into capital letters and we use exclamation marks; but his way of emphasis was to put a double, or two words in the place of one, and the second word was delicately a little stronger than the first word: Dearly beloved brethren, I pray and beseech you to acknowledge and confess your sins and wickedness ". In that way of emphasising, it was an emphasis on a double set of words which we understood in those days. In the "snippetyness" of our television interviews we find that hard to do. That is one of the problems we face when it comes to helping people to know and love The Book of Common Prayer. Let it be said that in the alternative services measure, provision is made for alternative services and not replacement services. No alternative service can be used in a parish church without the vicar and the church council agreeing to it. If there is difficulty and disagreement, it is referred to the bishop—and of course bishops, as we know, are wise people. I say that with all the humility for which we bishops are renowned!

Therefore it is probably a good thing that we are experimenting in the way that Cranmer did, because he sought to bring from the straitjacket of a Latin knowledge which was that for the few into the fullness of the English language—and, by the grace of God, he did it at a marvellous time and with great ability—and so The Book of Common Prayer stands today and I believe it will never not be used. But still his principle was to seek to use language which was understood by the people. And so we do the same and, as I have no financial interest in it, I should like just to remind your Lordships that the new King James's Bible has the best of everything. It has the rhythms and the patterns of the Authorised Version. It has "You" replacing "Thou", with a capital "Y", and I believe that this is the new bridge book which is going to be found acceptable to young and old, with the same beautiful patterns of the Authorised and with a delicate amount of revision which make it to me an absolutely thrilling book.

So I believe that, with the new King James's Bible, with alternative services which are well done and with the maintenance of The Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version, we shall not deteriorate in our language, but find that that language continues to he a beautiful, lovely and clear instrument for the worship of God.

5.1 p.m.


My Lords, I shall do my very best to keep within the straitjacket of five minutes, but I must add my congratulations to the deliverers of those two magnificent maiden speeches this afternoon. They are tremendous additions to this highly congenial and very selective group of Benches at this end of your Lordships' Chamber. I was grateful to the noble Marquess for adding to my repertoire of what he would not doubt call "up-throwing" expressions. But I am going to seize this debate, if I may, by the scruff of its neck and turn it into a quick commercial for the poor, long-suffering British Council. I declare a posthumous interest, in that I was Chairman of it for four years from 1972 to 1976. I do not haunt its corridors, but I still feel very strongly that it is something which must be preserved.

On 6th November—I was not here—I understand that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, said: I cannot pretend that the British Council will be exempt from consideration in the cuts which we are making, but we shall certainly do our best to ensure that the effect of those cuts is kept to a minimum."—[Official Report; cols. 746–7.] He refused to be drawn when that up-to-date Hound of the Baskervilles, the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, leapt snapping at his heels and asked for an assurance that he meant more than mere words. I do not blame the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. He repeated what he had said before, and sat down.

Everybody always claims to be a special case. When I was Director of Combined Operations and trying to preserve one of the Combined Ops training areas, I went all around the country. They said, "Yes, you must have one, but not here". They are all willing to bury nuclear waste on somebody else's doorstep, or to dig coal anywhere but in the Vale of Belvoir, or wherever they happen to live. The British Council has so far loyally accepted the principle that the Government has set, that the cuts must be spread right across the board. But they are still hoping that what my soldier-servant in The Black Watch used to call the "Sword of Damockles" will not fall.

At the moment, a high level committee is sitting to decide how these cuts will he implemented in the future, but your Lordships must realise the implications of phase one alone, which is being put across. It means an 11½ per cent. cut in total spending, or 15 per cent. in real terms. It is a tremendous lot. What does it mean for trade promotion? There are heavy cuts everywhere, cutting out most of the advisory tours by 15 per cent.; heavy staff cuts; the promotion of books down by 15 per cent.; the provision of books at libraries overseas by 30 per cent.; English teaching ceasing altogether in nine countries, and professional and academic exchanges down by 50 per cent.—that is, one-year scholarships down by 50 per cent., and all two-year scholarships abolished.

Commonwealth exchanges are to be scrapped, exchanges with Italy and Poland scrapped; all the machinery scrapped for finding overseas students accommodation in this country; arts promotion down by 25 per cent.; staff reductions in 8 countries; staff cuts of 360 posts for British-appointed people and 180 for people appointed overseas. These are swingeing cuts, and that is what is proposed for phase one alone, so Heaven help us with phase two and phase three! They are really too devastating to contemplate. They will mean closing all libraries throughout the world, and closing all United Kingdom regional offices in countries such as Brazil, Japan, Nigeria and Venezuela, with the loss of 700 posts.

I understand that a starfish can lose an arm or whatever it is. If you cut off an arm once, it will grow again. If you cut it off twice, it may grow again. But if you cut it off three times, even the starfish will be discouraged. The British Council has over the years been cut more than somewhat, and you cannot expect it to continue taking these near fatal cuts and go on surviving. We are in danger of killing off or fatally wounding a magnificent creation which has taken half a century to grow and which is unique. There is nothing like it. So I hope that the high-level committee which is now sitting will seriously ask itself whether even phase one needs to be implemented in full, realising what damage it will do. These are four times the cuts asked of the Foreign Service and twice the cuts originally asked of the BBC External Services, which have now been spared.

I should have preferred to speak in the main stream of the debate, condemning slipshod English and giving your Lordships instances of such abuses as mixed metaphors and clichés. But I decided to use it instead for a commercial for the British Council, so I shall end with a mixed metaphor and a cliché, just to give myself satisfaction: I beg your Lordships not to throw out this particular baby with the bath water until you see the light at the end of the tunnel.

5.7 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to begin, as the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, began, with the need for conciseness, saving of course the attractive double emphasis of Archbishop Cranmer. The way I had stated this in my notes was "abbreviate whenever you possibly can" Only yesterday, I was reading an article about our liability for defective products, which is pertinent to one of our debates next week, which begins, Management attention tends to be preferentially drawn ". I must say that my heart sinks at having to read a paper which begins like that.

I had noted the Americanisms; the Americans love for long alternatives for short words which the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, mentioned. But there is an exception, I think, to every rule and, because I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Somers, was a little hard on the Americans, I should like just to say that I have always thought that the American expression "Monday through Friday" is a great improvement on whatever the alternative is in English English. Company chairmen, in their annual reports, are always telling us that they "anticipate" such and such results. Nine times out of ten, what they mean is that they "expect" those results. The derivation of the word tells one that to anticipate is to do something about a future event which you expect. If I think that it is going to rain and recklessly do not bother to take my umbrella, I merely expect that it will rain. If I am careful to take my umbrella, I am anticipating a downpour. The media do not seem to appreciate this distinction.

We are often told now that people are going to restructure things. If they cannot rebuild them, why do they not reconstruct them? Why do they jettison the accepted verb and twist the noun into a verb form? The media tell us, for instance, that the Lancaster House talks "got under way" Even the BBC Overseas Service said something like that the other day. What do some of the foreigners listening to the service make of this three-word nautical expression which means" begin "?

The noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, mentioned "pay off", to which may I add "lose out". If you made a losing bet in the old days, you lost. Nowadays you "lose out ". I suppose that by the time Royal Ascot comes around next year we shall be told that the bookmakers usually "win in". I think that the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, spotted the champion piece of current verbosity in "at this point in time" I must say I was a little shaken the other day to hear that expression used in this House by a former Lord Chancellor, so I thought that perhaps it must be all right. But twice on the radio I have heard American speakers say "at this particular point in time", and by the time they had finished saying it, it seemed to me that we had already reached a discernibly different point in time.

The other theme for my speech was: think clearly before you say what you have to say, and above all think clearly before you write down what you have to write down. Let me quote two short sentences from a Written Answer of last summer in Hansard: It is not possible to assess the effect of the export of live animals on hide availability.—"[Official Report; 12/6/79; col. 597.] And, further on, at col. 598; … dates for supply of leather … are lengthening ". At this time of the year we do know that the days are shorter and, likewise, that they lengthen, but I really do not think that dates can be said to wax or wane.

Then one hears so often nowadays "that is what so-and-so is all about". I never seem to think that I do understand what is being said. I think what is being said is this: "I haven't quite had time to think out what I mean to say. I therefore throw out this piece of flannel. I may get away with it, but if I am taken to task and asked what I really do mean I shall at least have these few valuable seconds in which to think out what I really do mean ".

My Lords, I must close. Let me simply say that when the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, mentioned "hopefully", I thought that a good example would be this: on the BBC's Overseas Service there was a talk which began: Hopefully, few people listening to this programme will have served a prison sentence ". This is positively dangerous. If any foreign listeners think that "few people" means "a few people", they will have got the exact opposite to the meaning intended by the speaker. I was going to tell your Lordships what the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, said to me about the misuse of the word "unique", but I am afraid that this will have to await another occasion.

5.15 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to be associated with the expressions of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, to the two distinguished maiden speakers and to the other noble Lords who have made the speeches with which your Lordships have been favoured. We require, do we not? three things of language: first, that it should be rich, subtle and forceful at the highest levels of communications; secondly, that it should be clear and economical at the various ordinary levels of communication; and thirdly, that it should be easy to teach and learn.

So far as the first is concerned, the highest levels of communication, we have had in our own lifetime great poetry written in our language, and it seems to me impossible to say that there has been any such deterioration in our language as to prevent it fulfilling that first purpose. As for the second, communication at the many ordinary levels of meaning, that has been the main subject of your Lordships' speeches. I do not desire to add to them except to say that it seems to me that there are three particular diseases to which language may be subject: first, inflation; secondly, cliché; and, thirdly, the propaganda use of words. The first two have been abundantly illustrated in this debate.

There are many examples in history, of course, of words being taken over for propaganda purposes. We have had one very distressing, to me, example in our own time, and that is the use of "gay". It seems to me virtually impossible today for a modern poet to write: The choir of gay companions ". What has happened is that a word has been used for propaganda purposes in a way which has destroyed its useful meaning in English.

I want mainly to deal with the third thing that we should demand of language; namely, that it should be easy to teach and to learn. In many ways, English is of course easy in comparison with other languages, mainly because of the loss of inflections due to the several sources from which English has been drawn. Nevertheless, it is notorious that English is appallingly difficult to teach and learn because the spelling gives no or little guide to the pronunciation, or vice versa. That has been known for a long time. The Americans in 1828 spelt "traveller" with one "1" and spelt "favour". and similar words, without a "u". During the ensuing century, the Germans brought their spelling and their pronunciation into line, but nothing has happened in this country, even about adopting the American reforms. Why? This is where Ministers can, I think, help.

The reason is that in spite of two great men and many others—the two great men being Shaw and Bridges, widely different in outlook—having campaigned for an improvement, the Board of Education and its successors have shown unhesitating and unremitting hostility to any reform. We have had Royal Commissions on this and that and we have had departmental committee's on the other; but here, led as we have been by these great men, where every body recognises the imperfection of English, nothing has been done. I respectfully suggest to your Lordships that the first thing that can be done by Ministers is to get their department off our backs in this respect.

Then there are the grammatical forms. Children are taught that one should say "I shall" and "we shall" but the rest of the future tense is to be "will". That is very difficult. It becomes even more difficult when we have "would" and "should". Fowler has pages, almost incomprehensible, of the various distinctions. Why do we need that? Does it make English easier to teach and to learn?

I have mentioned the spelling. If you have "favor" spelt in the American way think of all the saving that there would be in the time of printers and typists. Can the noble Baroness, Lady Young, show anywhere else in her sphere of responsibility where one can so easily get a 12½ per cent. increase in productivity? Robert Bridges in The Testament of Beauty spelt "have" h-a-v and nobody had the slightest difficulty in understanding. That represents a 25 per cent. increase in productivity, quite apart from the fact that that is the only "ave" form which is pronounced with the short "a", so that children and foreigners have to learn that.

I have mentioned the grammatical form of the future tense. There are various irregular verbs which we still have, to our confusion. The old past tense of "reach" was "raucht"; we quite happily now say "reached". But we have to tell children and foreigners that of all those words ending in "each", "teach" alone should not be "teached" but "taught", in spite of the fact that Shakespeare used "teached". Again, with "catch" and "caught"; Shakespeare used "catched" and Scotsmen at various times have used "catched". Why should we not regularise our irregular verbs?

Although I have said that there is a ministerial function which is negative, I venture to suggest to your Lordships that there is in addition a necessity to set up an appropriate institution to see how English could be improved, with particular reference to the ease of teaching and learning, and that is to set up a language commission on the lines of the Law Commission, to have widespread consultations with teachers and institutions and publishers and printers, and so on. If we can achieve that by this debate, my Lords, it will have served an even more useful purpose.

5.24 p.m.


My Lords, I am confident that all noble Lords are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, for putting down this Motion this afternoon. It has been a great delight to me that the noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, chose this occasion for his maiden speech. He has been able to put a new continent to literature in his lifetime through the Open University. I am sure we were all equally delighted by the speech of the noble Marquess, Lord Ailcsbury.

I have to declare an interest in this matter; I am chairman of the Linguaphone Institute. I will be brief by dealing solely with the international side of this question. If it were not for the English language we should be internationally as important as, say, Norway. For over two centuries the influence of English has expanded and its range has increased, even in my own lifetime. Fifty years ago when I was in Cairo all the upper classes spoke French, probably due to the short but brilliant visit that Napoleon paid to Egypt; but now the language is English, as we know from President Sadat. The English language is part of the legacy to the world of our imperial heritage, and I have never been able to understand why the English, admitting so freely all the wrongful things that were done under colonialism, failed continually to emphasise the positive contribution it made to world civilisation; and it made no greater contribution than the spread of the English language.

The only chance for the future lies either in annihilation or in some form of world understanding and, however hostile the auguries may seem today, there is no greater hope for the world than that English should become a universal medium of communication, as indeed the noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, indicated this afternoon. Sadat could not speak to Begin except through interpreters if it were not for English. India has only one language that is acceptable throughout the whole country. Even today, I am told that the Indian Congress—I have not visited it myelf—cannot function without English. When a Hindi speaker goes on too long the non-Hindi speakers bang their desks—a form of interruption which is not permitted to your Lordships.

The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, whom, if I may say so with great respect, we all admire for his patient, long and prolonged conference at Lancaster House, could not have held it at all if it had not been for the fact that the African members, many of them probably missionary trained, spoke English. This world distribution of English is not without its problems, and it is here that I would speak not so much of deterioration but of change. I listened with great interest to all that the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, had to say about America, and the even more severe things that the noble Lord, Lord Somers, had to say. I was glad to hear that later they were modified a little by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale. But let us remember that English would not hold the place it does in the world if it were not the major language of the American people. Unfortunately, there is something called "black English" in America but I will omit that in order to try to finish my few remarks.

I will turn for a moment from America to Africa. The only possibility of breaking through tribal divisions, which are Africa's main problem, is through English, and it is significant that Nigeria, with its 70 million to 80 million people—the richest State in Africa—has recently in its constitution declared English to be the national language of the whole country.

To move further afield, I am told by Professor Quirk, who has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, and who is certainly the most travelled and the most widely informed expert of our generation on English overseas, that he had a recent talk with Chairman Hua and the Chairman told him that English was the only possible foreign language to be helpful in his great programme of proposed modernisation. In Japan they find English difficult to learn. But learning English has been the greatest investment that any commercial nation has made in our time. They are able to manufacture, they are able to sell, because they have painfully gone through the business of learning English; something that is only paralleled by Ben Yehuda's effort to lead the Israelis from the Yiddish of the Diaspora hack to the new Hebrew, but he did it for quite different reasons.

What must we do in all this? First, as a renegade London Welshman who learned English as a second language, I would wish the English would treat their language more seriously. The point has been made already. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, said that the writer of our time who felt most deeply about English, and incidentally made the most money out of it, was the Irishman Bernard Shaw. Shaw felt so deeply about the language that he was prepared to give his whole fortune for its furtherance, unfortunately in a plan that was quite unpractical.

I would only wish to add one word about the British Council, which, fortunately, has its great champion Lord Ballantrae here today. Although we know that British Council grants must be cut as part of the national policy, and it is no good moaning about it, we might at the same time realise that the Council does make earnings, it does even make a certain profit on its English work, and it would be very hard indeed if that side of its work were diminished. I should like to add one suggestion which I am sure will be unpopular with everybody. I do not see why bodies which receive large block grants from the State, the British Council, the Arts Council and others, should not be subjected from time to time to something like a benign Public Accounts Committee of both Houses.

I sometimes wonder, for instance, whether the British Council is not just a little too traditional. Why, for instance, do they need that splendiferous place in Paris when there is a British Institute in Paris as well? And we all know that no member of that delightful country has ever been influenced throughout the centuries by any motive except self-interest. Why should not the grandeur of Paris be transferred to somewhere where the need is greater?

Finally, my Lords (I apologise that I am two minutes over time) I repeat from Lord Kings Norton's speech that we must cherish our language, and let me quote Bernard Shaw's preface to Pygmalion: The English have no respect for their language and will not teach their children to speak it. They spell it so abominably that no man can teach himself what it sounds like. It is impossible for any Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman despise him". Well, of course, this may be a little excessive, but then Shaw believed that it was only by being a little excessive that one could make the meaning sink into the average mind.

5.34 p.m.


My Lords, may I say with what great pleasure I follow the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Hungershall. I have been a Member of this House for nearly nine years and in those nine years I have received much wise advice from him, but this is the first time I have had the pleasure of hearing him speak in this Chamber. I hope that from now on he will cease hiding his very bright light beneath a bushel and speak more often, as indeed I hope the noble Lords who have made their maiden speeches, Lord Perry of Walton and Lord Ailesbury will, too. Why they imagined it was possible to make a non-controversial speech on the English language, I do not know. Indeed, I must not contest what the noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, said, but I must disagree with him, when he criticises those newspapers which have short and rather assertive leaders and compares those with the "posh" papers. I think from long study of the latter that they are not always as reasonable as they might seem. They sometimes couch their violent assertions in circumlocutory language and in a kind of architectural syntax.

I want to speak today as a professional writer, as a journalist who for 40 years has hacked out millions of words sometimes for select readerships, sometimes for mass readerships. It is very hard work; in fact, you take more out of yourself in an hour at the typewriter than in a whole day of administration. In this task of writing English I have been disciplined by generations of brutal subeditors who cut down the cumbrous sentence and are swift to cut out the flowery phrase and the pretentious adjective. They are known as the butchers of our trade. I have also benefited from the cruel insistence of several distinguished editors on intellectual rigour in anything I wrote. I was much influenced, too, by the logician Susan Stebbings who wrote Thinking to Some Purpose; and by Robert Graves and Allan Hodge in their manual The Reader over your Shoulder; plus, of course, by Gowers.

But the hardest lessons I had came to me after I had edited two newspapers; they came to me late in my career when by the accident of the greatest take-over in the history of Fleet Street I found myself working as political adviser to the Mirror group. Occasionally I produced a piece not just for the private eye of the chairman or the editors, but for the enormous readership of the Daily Mirror, a readership—not circulation but readership—of over 14 million a day. Then the editor, the late Lee Howard, would ask me in, invite me to pour myself a drink, would take up my piece, and before the liquor had touched my lips would say, "What does this sentence mean?" He would then read out a few words which to any other paper in the English-speaking world would have been regarded as acceptably lucid and say: "Our readers will not understand that. What on earth do you mean? "Then I would labour to explain the obvious in terms that even a backward child could understand." Fine ", he would say, "Then why not write it so-and-so like that? " "So-and-so" represents one of those terse Saxon words, mentioned by the noble Lord who initiated this debate, which have passed out of polite usage. Anyway, I did write it like that; and he was right to insist that I should do so.

In my day as editor I, too, was regarded as a stern taskmaster, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, who is sitting at my side will agree. She has had good cause to know. There is much criticism today of our national tabloid Press, and I cannot defend it against all the current charges, but there is one fault that nobody can accuse the tabloid newspapers of; that of failing to use the English language with clarity and vigour. Look beyond their horrid headlines and the lovely girls, and read the text; and do not just read those stories of sin and passion and bizarre eccentricities which the papers collect so assiduously. Do look at the words of the features and of the serious items of news. One criticism one can make of the serious items is that there are too few of them and even those few are too short.

The tabloids achieve their results, these successes in communication, only by unremitting, disciplined toil and by a determination to communicate with people of all kinds and of varying degrees of intelligence. I wish, as the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft does, that our bureaucrats displayed the same skill and the same determination in conceiving their messages to the citizens. At the highest level of our civil service we have, of course, a splendid tradition of writing very clear minutes and concise prose, and our White Papers are usually admirable. Nevertheless the White Papers are meant for the educated minority. Occasionally a brief and popular version is produced, but only then by leave of the Opposition, for a popular document is always open to accusations of serving the propaganda needs of the party of Government and is something perhaps which ought to be left to Conservative Central Office or Transport House.

When the late Richard Crossman produced his pension plan, a long and complex paper, which was immediately understandable only to actuaries, he asked the Mirror to produce an official popular version which could be understood by the workers' representatives who served as trustees to occupational pension funds. It needed Opposition consent, but that was given because there was a precedent. The job was a very difficult one and two of us went out of town for 10 days to sweat it out. The Minister and his staff were quite pleased with the results. We had managed to get it right. A Cabinet Minister told us that if he had had this document before him instead of the White Paper it would have saved him hours of labour.

On another occasion there were anxieties because the family income supplement was not being taken up by many people who were entitled to benefit from it. It was thought that they had failed to apply for benefit simply because they did not understand the forms that the Ministry made available through the Post Office. Again the Daily Mirror was asked to do a translation job and on that occasion it was printed in the newspaper.

The difficulties that the Government departments face are very real difficulties, especially if they are talking about a pension that is available. If they put it in popular language and put a foot wrong they could receive claims from people who were not strictly entitled to make them. So it is not an easy job. However, it can be done, provided there is the will to do it and provided they are willing to put in an immense amount of work and to have it supervised by very senior officials.

In the last week there has been produced a document from the Department of Healh and Social Security which says: From 12.11.79 the components of pensions will be increased by the percentages shown in the list below. (For the key to abbreviations, see the reverse of the tear-off portion of your payable order.) That document is addressed to old age pensioners. There is then a list of: BC, BC1, DEP. They are all bracketed together and it says "increased by 19.5 per cent." Then it sets out: IVA and AA increased by 17.5 per cent.; and then it says that GRB, AC, AC1 and PUGMPI are increased by 17.5 per cent. I do not know what on earth it means. It talks about the "standard basic component" and the "married woman's standard basic component" and so forth. That is really—I do not want to use the term "a disgrace to the Ministry "—something of which the Ministry ought to be ashamed.

I should like to send a message to the Minister. Will he in future insist that, before forms go out to the public, especially to potential beneficiaries, he vets them himself and ensures that they are in lucid English and in terms which ordinary people can understand? They should also be in big type because many of the recipients may not be able to find their glasses. There must surely be laid down a rule in those Ministries dealing with the public that the forms they send out are comprehensible. After all, they pay vast sums to the people in their public relations department and they ought to be able to get the job done properly.


My Lords, it would probably be useful if I say something about procedure. This debate must end at 6.26. My noble friend Lady Young has of right, under Standing Order, 20 minutes to reply. In view of the shortage of time, my noble friend is prepared to take only 15 of those minutes. Even so, she must get to her feet at 6.11 p.m.

5.44 p.m.


My Lords, in view of what the noble Lord has just said, I shall keep my remarks extremely brief. However, I would like to join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, for having initiated what has turned out to be a not only very interesting but a very entertaining debate. Unlike some noble Lords I think that there are two categories of people who can be excused for abusing the English language. First, there are those who abuse it deliberately, tongue in cheek, which is quite commendable. Secondly, there are those who abuse it because they know no better and who frequently succeed in being very funny.

In the first category I am sure was the Poet Laureate who—when the Monarch was suffering from ill health—wrote in the early years of telephonic communication: Across the electric wires the dismal message came He is not any better, in fact he is much the same ' ". With more sincerity, but with rather less deliberation a poetess who used to live near my home and contributed regularly to the local paper wrote an offering which I think was inspired by a period of inclement weather. The first verse went as follows: Fog, fog, fog, fog, No-one goes out, not even a dog, Oh, how I wish the weather were finer, Nothing can move, not even a liner; I think that even the great McGonagall could not have done much better than that. Then there was the famous conductor Karl Richter who I think deliberately misused the English language, largely I imagine because he resented the way we British expect everyone else to learn our language and if the foreigners cannot understand us we just shout at them more loudly. He apparently was rehearsing in the Albert Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra or one of the major orchestras, and the rehearsal was not going to his satisfaction. He tapped his desk to stop the players and addressed himself to the second flute who he reckoned was responsible for the error. He reproved him as follows: Twice or once your damn nonsense I just can stick but sometimes always, by God, never ". Whether that admonition made it all right on the night or not history does not relate.

Where, however, I do think that abuse of the English language is not justifiable is among those whose professional training should make them know better. The brattle—that is an authentic onomatopoeic word—of splitting infinitives is something that I think is offensive in journalistic writing. I was glad to hear the right reverend Prelate make reference to the beauty of the literature of the Book of Common Prayer. If my information is correct it took from 1534 to 1549 for Archbishop Cranmer to produce his first liturgy. Since the war our theologians and churchmen have been working for almost as long, if not possibly longer, to produce revised versions of services. I am sorry to say—and I say this with respect—that many of them have got all the vitality, rythm and literary architecture of a bus timetable.

If we must have a revised service—and after all Cranmer was lucky enough to live in perhaps one of the best periods of English history for literature, music and architecture—other than the Common Prayer Book, which I sincerely hope will not go out of usage, could we not look back to 1549 which was perhaps slightly better than 1662, rather than look forward to something which sounds as though it is the output of a civil servant?

5.48 p.m.


My Lords, I have received a note from the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, saying that sadly he is unable to speak. That should have freed another 5.95 minutes for consumption by other noble Lords, but, in fact, it was all consumed by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek. Therefore, I shall not take my one-twentieth part of it. In giving examples of deterioration in the use of the English language. Everyone will have his favourites or perhaps I should say bêtes noires. I happen to share the suspicion of the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, regarding "parameter"—borrowed from mathematics and crystallography. I suspect that in most cases such terms are used to add a spurious ring of scientific accuracy to some line of thought derived from an entirely different subject or discipline.

Of course, there is no adequate way of policing a language except by a voluntary force of special constabulary, to which I hope we all belong. I should like to pay a sincere tribute to the model introductory speech of the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, which could have been shortened, I think, by only six words. He did, in fact, use the phrase "in this connection" three times and I think that it was permissible once. But that does not in any way detract from our enormous gratitude to him for raising this very important subject. I should also like to pay tribute to two excellent maiden speeches.

I wanted to deal with two aspects of English as a vehicle of international communication, which has already been referred to this evening. I was going to start with some thoughts on translation from other languages into English, which is having an increasing, but not always beneficial, effect on the English used abroad. I shall leave that for another occasion to concentrate on the more urgent question of the British Council and join the flag of the noble Lord, Lord Ballantrae, as a member of the British Council Volunteer Defence Force. The Council is unquestionably the most effective single body teaching English or advising on the teaching of English overseas. Under the first round of the proposed cuts in its budget, the 40,000 students taught directly at British Council centres will be reduced, and centres or advisory services will be closed in a number of countries including Brazil, the Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Zaire and Costa Rica.

The total saving to be achieved in 1980–81 is £4.7 million. The elimination of 368 posts for British and 179 for locally-engaged staff will contribute a net saving of £2.1 million in the first year, that is, after subtracting redundancy payments and associated expenses. But this is merely the thin end of the wedge because these redundancies will give rise to a continuing commitment to fund the pensions of redundant staff members under 50 years of age not covered by the British Council's superannuation scheme. Therefore, further staff will have to be cut to foot the continuing bill for the first round of cuts. This further shedding of staff will, in its turn, generate continuing and mounting liabilities. A snowball effect will develop whereby minimal savings are achieved at the cost of increasing damage to the Council's services and its long-term capacity to stage a come-back.

I believe that the Council has accepted the first round of cuts, but it is very properly concerned about the future. It fears that the snowball effect which I have described will lead to the closure of direct teaching centres in Germany, Morocco and Venezuela, and to a cut-back in advisers assisting local bodies in a very wide range of countries indeed. There are, of course, private enterprise schools teaching English abroad, but they are often under-financed, unable or unwilling to pay the proper rates for locally recruited staff and, therefore, unable to engage the best teachers, and in some countries they run into work permit problems not faced by the Council, which is accorded semi-diplomatic status.

A further contribution to the £4,7 million cut in 1980–81 is to be made by eliminating all British Council fellowships for overseas graduates, thus saving £296,000, and 50 per cent. of the British Council's scholarships—of which there are 580 at the moment—saving £416,000. At the same time fees to overseas students are to be raised to a full-cost level, which will make British universities, on average, more expensive than their American counterparts, if not the most expensive in the world.

Some universities whose grant is to he cut are expected to make up the shortfall by charging overseas students these higher prices. But they fear, understandably, that they will simply be forced out of the market and that courses which previously depended for their viability on overseas students will be wound up. The overseas student, faced with a higher course fee and fewer British Council scholarships to help him overcome this, will simply turn to the United States or Germany. But the British students may well be left without a course.

I fully understand that the Government have a commitment to cut back public spending and they were elected partly on that commitment. I am not asking for a volte-face in Government policy, but I urge them to look very seriously at the spin-off effects, if I may use a jargon term, of the relatively small savings that they will achieve by these cuts. I have an uneasy feeling that they may cause severe damage to other activities which they do not strictly intend to affect. I have no interest to declare; I have never worked for the Council, but I have seen its work abroad. As long as English is used as an international lingua franca it is absolutely vital that it is taught to the highest standards—nobody can beat the Council at this game.

5.55 p.m.


My Lords, it is about time that I brought a note of discord into our conversations today. Just to be argumentative I shall maintain that there has been no deterioration of the English language. What has happened—and I look studiously at the ceiling—is that we have been surrounded by fuddy-duddies who have not been able to keep up with the times. They do not realise that the word "lerve" is the word they used to know as "love". They do not realise that in the medical profession so many new words are being introduced that when I go round this country on medical matters I take with me a nurse's medical dictionary. They have not kept up with the scientific language of micro-processing. They do not know what "floppy discs" are or what "opto-couplings" are which has a slightly odd connotation.

When I visited one of my research establishments the other day I received a report on a new product. The breadboard version of this new product was originally produced with an EPROM memory of 16K nibbles. After proto- typing, the memory was converted to 2 x 4K bytes of RAM memory. All production versions of the machine are subjected to a rigorous shake and bake operation, followed by a burn-in period of 96 hours.

These same fuddy-duddies have not got used to the changes in business language. Noble Lords might think that some of it is not a language at all. Most of us will know the phrases "CBI", "TUC", "NEB", "EEC", and perhaps even "MLR". Noble Lords certainly know what "Quango" and "Neddy" stand for. But in this world we seek common objectives, common sense and common understanding, and as long as we get that, I could not care less what the language itself sounds like.

The difficulty today is that in modern life we have to express ourselves so well. As the right reverend Prelates will know, the Lord's Prayer contains 56 words; as they will know, the Ten Commandments comprise 197 words; the American Declaration of Independence has 304 words; but the European Economic Community Directive on the import of caramel and caramel products comprises 26,911 words.

Let us always remember that we must have a common language for use in this country. As Lewis Carroll once said: I said it in Hebrew, I said it in Dutch, I said it in German and Greek, But I wholly forgot (and it vexed me much) That English is what you speak! I plead there that we should give up many of the programmes that are on the BBC for foreigners in foreign languages, and make all the efforts we can to bring them up to date with the common language that is spoken in this country. This is particularly important in the Health Service where, if you are a patient and in the course of a week you have five or six different nurses who come from different parts of the world, it is sometimes very difficult to make them understand what you believe is wrong and what they think should be done about it.

I turn to the Bible. I do so with a good purpose, as your Lordships will see. The twelfth chapter of the Book of Judges reads: Then Jephthah gathered together all the men of Gilead, and fought with Ephraim … And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites, and it was so that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over, That the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth; for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand ". There is a curiosity there and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, will have spotted how it moves from the singular to the plural. But the whole point is that the word "Shibboleth", which in those days meant just a stream, has now become a word which the dictionary describes as testing a person's nationality or social class or orthodoxy; and it is also a party catchword. So it ill behoves anyone from the Cross Benches to bring out a party catchword in the sense of trying to teach me how to pronounce words ill accents which they like. I would not endeavour to do that to any of your Lordships. Finally, I make a plea that to the extent that it is possible in our educational system, let us try quite seriously to see that at the earliest possible age children are taught to speak in public. By "public" I mean speak among their fellow students. I was luckily at a prep school where I was taught to speak at the age of nine. I made a silly mistake; I pronounced the word "picturesque" as though it was "picture-esqueue". They laughed at me, quite rightly, and I never forgot it. But if you can do that, it is going to be an action which is going to serve you through the rest of your life. The only thing is that you may want to speak too long. I am not going to speak too long, but I commend that thought to our Minister—that we should try to bring to all our children the subject of speaking in public at an early age.

6.1 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to join in congratulating the two noble Lords on their maiden speeches this afternoon. Once upon a time there was a pirate whose biography was written by James Thurber. The pirate hated the letter O as his mother had been drowned when his ship sank, as she was stuck halfway in and half-way out of a port-hole. This pirate owned an island and he ruled over it very benevolently, but because he hated the letter O he had it abolished from the alphabet. This made life very difficult for courting couples, as "I love you" became ILVEYU. It was even worse for a girl called Ophelia Oliver, as her name became Phelia Liver. The inhabitants finally rebelled and the pirate reinstated the letter O, and everybody lived happliy ever after. Before this happened, the beautiful English language was completely ruined and bastardised, as it is so often today.

I should like to re-emphasise what my noble friend Lord Kings Norton said on conciseness. I believe categorically that we should all thank my noble friend Lord Kings Norton for being so highly intelligent as so cleverly to put down this highly desirable Motion for a not-too-long debate in this Chamber of your Lordships. For indeed it is a subject that is with us twenty-four hours in the day, and a subject that is even right now suffering many indignities in the too often improvised standardisation from what often seems to be perpetually hurled at us by newspaper journalists, as well as and at the same time (or should I say, simultaneously?) by the radio and television, who in my opinion, humble or not, ought to know better. But then you cannot really blame them if they are allowed to get away with it, because for some reason that escapes all speculisation they have utterly forgotten what they were supposedly taught or learnt at school, especially conciseness which I hope noble Lords will appreciate from what I have so shortly said.

I have one brief suggestion: that on the minute monitor—and I have thought about this for a long time—the first five minutes should be in green, the second five minutes in yellow, and the third in red, and after that it should flash. I most wholeheartedly support my noble friend's Motion for this almost unique debate in your Lordships' Chamber tonight.

6.3 p.m.


My Lords, quite why standards of written and spoken English should have fallen so much is hard to explain. The noble Lord, Lord Perry of Walton, in one of the two really excellent maiden speeches that we have heard today, advanced one possible explanation. I suspect that the fads and the trends of the 1960s, which still linger with us, also have something to do with it. By "the trends of the 1960s," I mean, for example, the rejection of traditional values and standards, the idolisation of the uncouth, the Marshall McLuhan cult, and the cult of the "white heat of technology ", which was meant to supersede such reactionary ivory tower concepts as accuracy in the use of one's native tongue. Whatever the reasons, the legacy is a dismal one, I think we all agree, with the possible exception of the noble Lord, Lord Hayter.

When people talk about bad English nowadays they are broadly thinking of clichés, catch-phrases, vogue words, and the like. I dislike "relevant, ongoing, viable, supportive situations, at this moment in time," as much as the next man, but mainly because Private Eye's public spirited lampooning of such terrible jargon does nothing, alas, to dissuade the practitioners. It only makes people like myself tie ourselves into knots trying to avoid using the word "situation", even in those rare situations when the use of the word "situation" might be entirely appropriate.

However, far more important, because this is a relatively new phenomenon, is the decline in the standards of spelling, of grammar, and of verbal accuracy among those people and institutions who ought to know better, who ought to be setting an example to the rest of us. Only yesterday I spotted on the Press Association tape machine in the corridor the headline, "Blunt admits appaling mistake". It was not only Mr. Anthony Blunt who should have admitted an appalling mistake—because the word "appalling" had been spelt with only one" 1 ".

This seems to be infectious. Even the Daily Telegraph, of all newspapers, in a leading article a few weeks ago, spelt "all right" as one word: a-l-r-i-g-h-t. This is a word that certainly does not appear in my edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Similar examples can be found a dozen times a day. The misplacing of apostrophes is notorious, even in advertisements put out by major public companies. It is evident, too, that many schools nowadays totally fail to teach the use of the colon and the semi-colon. This is deplorable because both the colon and the semi-colon play not only a useful but a vital part in assisting the comprehension of what others are trying to tell us.

Lastly, we come to the problem of verbal inaccuracies. I am certainly not one of those who believe that the English language should remain rigid or static. Often new words are coined (including slang words) which are both vigorous and apt, and welcome additions to our tongue. It is the lazy and careless use of existing words I object to. Among the best-known examples is the misuse of the word "infer for "imply". Another, perhaps less important, example is the use of "decimate" when "annihilate" is intended: I suspect that this is mainly because most people are not quite sure how to pronounce "annihilate". But worse still is when inaccuracy joins hands with inelegance. My heart sinks when I hear Cabinet Ministers, and ex-Cabinet Ministers, speak of " 45 pee ". After all, "pence" is just as concise and monosyllabic. Let us call a spade a spade. A penny is a penny; a pee is merely one possible way of spending a penny.

Two things are needed. The first is to bring the standards of English teaching in the average school nearer to the standards of the best schools in this particular field; and the best do include many State schools as well as private schools. The second is that those at the top, whether in big business, the Government, the Civil Service, in journalism or whatever, should set a better example in their use of our language.

6.7 p.m.


My Lords, I have time for only one short point. I hope it will please the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton. I have been invited to draw your Lordships' attention to the formation of yet one more voluntary organisation, called The English Language Society, shortly, it is hoped, to become The English Language Foundation, the sole purpose of which is to combat the very corruptions and deteriorations which we have been debating today. As I have no interest to declare, other than admiration for the energy and enthusiasm of the young founders of this society, I should be glad to send their name and address to any noble Lord who might feel like supporting them. I am grateful to them for reminding me of just one quotation, which I hope I shall be allowed. It is not in Mandarin Chinese but it is from Confucius. It seems that he was once asked by his disciples what he would do first if he were to have the power to set right the affairs of his country. He answered, I should certainly see to it that language is correctly used ".

6.8 p.m.


My Lords, I have prepared an elegant speech in, I think, extremely good English, but I shall not deliver it because the time is not appropriate. May I quickly say how much I enjoyed the two most witty maiden speeches, and how delighted I was that two noble Lords should put the case so well of the British Council which, to me, is the most grievously affected at the moment in a series of grievous cuts. I also agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, about the total horror of the word "gay" in its new use.

I do not think that the English language is suffering as much as some people think it is, and I quote Dr. Burchfield, to whom the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, referred. He says: It is self-evident that the language has not bled to death through change. Vulgarity finds its antidote, old crudities become softened with time distinctions, both those that are useful and those that are burdensome, flourish and die, re-flourish and die again ". I think that probably is the truth.

I must have a little fun and I will quote a splendid passage from George Orwell: I returned and saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all He said, in other words: "Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with mate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account ".

I believe there is something we can do to stop that, and I ask the Minister to ask her right honourable friend the Prime Minister to instruct every Permanent Under-Secretary to give an order that every private office has a copy of Gowers and that every private secretary reads it; secondly, that no secretary shall be appointed to a commission or make a report—this is very much what the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, was saying—without being made to read Gowers. Gowers is the simple one: it is all there and if you read it you are all right.

Only one minute remains to me to speak. I was very disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, did not speak because he was going to attack the Church's function, which we heard something of from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Norwich. I believe there are two kinds of people; there is the one sort who dislike ceremony and requires very simple worship, and the other sort who are helped by ceremony. Those people who want simple worship can get it in the Free Churches. The function of the Church of England in my belief is to preserve the traditions that we have inherited over the years and about which many people have spoken. I believe that Christianity is a minority body in this country. The Church of England is not more than half that minority body—I do not have the right figures—and I believe it to be totally wrong that there should he a movement away from the ceremonial we are used to. Of course the churches must be allowed to do what they want to do, but I would like the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who under the Queen is our head here, to say that every church must have one service every Sunday in the traditional form. If we did those two things we should have done something about the British language.

6.13 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, for introducing this debate and I too wish to add my congratulations to the two maiden speakers, who I thought were both forthcoming, upgoing and, for maiden speakers, not at all uptight. We may not all agree with Max Beerbohm when he wrote in 1898 a letter to Robert Ross in which he said: It is horrible to find a misprint … on page 24 of my works. There is a misplaced comma which has darkened much of my life, and has often made me appear more bitter than I really am ". Nevertheless, such an attitude of perfection is often to be preferred to some of the sloppy and misleading English we read today. I looked for some recent examples in my incoming post. An employer wrote, "It may be that you are already informed about the … relatedness between education and employment". And an article in a pamphlet asked me to "co-operatively consider" something. But is it really fair to suggest that all is getting worse?

In preparation for this debate I re-read that standard work, Sir Ernest Gowers' Plain English, and the noble Lords, Lord Mancroft and Lord Ardwick, will appreciate one of his quotations which is of a Government order of 1943: The Rags (Wiping Rags) (Maximum Charges) Order 1943 (as amended) shall have effect as if in Article 1 thereof for the figure ' 8 ' where it occurs in the last line there were substituted the figure ' 11½ ' ". Such language gave rise to the need for a translation which was later to be called an explanatory memorandum. But just in case we should feel that all is not as bad as we thought, my second quotation, for which there is no translation, is an American quotation which reads as follows Diffusibility of knowledge throughout the environment in which the families are to move is essential if the full expression of their potentiality is to become explicit in action ". We should be able to do better than that. I therefore start by quoting the opening words of the report of the noble Lord, Lord Bullock, on 'A Language for Life', to which Lord Kings Norton referred. He said: In any anxiety over a contemporary situation there is likely to be a wistful look back to the past, with a conviction, often illusory, that times were better then than now. And the times people claim to have been better are generally within the span of their own lives ". It is evident from the speeches we have heard today that noble Lords are anxious about changes in the use of English in what I may call social and cultural terms—all, that is to say, with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Hayter, and indeed we can all point to examples of the use of language in the Press, on radio and television, in official statements and so on which appear to fall far short of what we would expect. But I think it only fair in the defence of the Civil Service, to which the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, referred, to point out that Sir Ernest Gowers had a rather nice passage in which he says: When the official does not know his Minister's mind, or his Minister does not know his own mind, or the Minister thinks it wiser not to speak his mind, the official must sometimes cover his utterance with a mist of vagueness ". It could not have been put better. It is, I suggest, important to distinguish between those usages which can properly be called "wrong" in matters of speech and those which are merely "different". We have examples of language usage from radio, television, the Press and magazines constantly before us and people have far more varied social and working lives, and in addition English is now a multinational language and we ourselves are increasingly a multi-cultural nation.

The noble Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, suggested a language commission and it was not until Lord Hayter spoke that we heard that new English word Quango, but of course it is difficult to accept a Quango in any circumstances now; but perhaps I do not have the time to stop and define it or say what it might be. To suggest therefore that we can attain a standard pattern of usage is surely unrealistic in the circumstances I have described. What I think there should be is a generally accepted usage which enables us to communicate beyond our immediate community and within our own country. I agree that accepted patterns of grammatical usage and a uniform system of spelling are desirable objectives, like reading itself, which should be pursued. Children at school should be taught, in the interests of communicating widely and effectively, to follow these conventions. But it is difficult to assess the achievements of schools in language teaching because it is not easy to find a satisfactory basis of comparison with the past.

The view taken by the Bullock Committee was not that standards had deteriorated but that the demands of society had risen, and we must all agree that this is so. The report of the National Survey of Primary Education found that in the area for which comparative material on reading attainment was available—the reading scores of children of 11 between 1955 and 1977—standards had risen. I shall be surprised if similar evidence is not also found when the report of the National Secondary Survey becomes available in a few weeks' time. However, there is room for improvement.

In the not very distant past a high proportion of "language" time in the curriculum was spent in teaching the skills of spelling and grammar at the expense of developing in pupils a sensitivity to language. A reaction against this in recent years may well have resulted in a more imaginative but less accurate use of language; there are indications that schools are trying to achieve a better balance. The two objectives are not mutually exclusive, but different aspects of the same problem. There is also an inevitable need for the schools to meet the increasingly sophisticated demands of society in terms of new language usage, and indeed the points that have been made about computers and micro-processors illustrate this.

The noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, asked what has happened since the publication of the Bullock Report. Its many recommendations were of course addressed in large measure to local education authorities and the teaching profession, and as such depend on local, rather than central, action. But the report placed primary emphasis on the development of a systematic language policy across the curriculum in schools. That concept, which I regard as fundamental to good language teaching, has been pursued in discussions which Her Majesty's Inspectors have had up and down the country with local education authorities and schools since the publication of the report. My Department's recent report on Local Authority Arrangements for the School Curriculum was published last week. Authorities were asked about their policies on the report of the noble Lord, Lord Bullock. The replies showed that they had undertaken a wide range of measures to promote English language development in schools in the light of the findings of the report and its recommendations. Early in the new year I hope to start discussions with the local authorities and the teachers on a framework for a core curriculum, and the learning of English will be central to this.

The noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, also asked about teachers. We aim to improve standards both for initial training and, through in-service training, for the existing teacher force. As from September, 1984, all newly qualifying teachers will be required to have held, on entry to their course of initial training, a grade A, B or C in O-level English language, or an equivalent qualification. Although the possession of such a qualification is now almost universal among entrants to teacher training, this formal requirement will help to ensure a minimum standard of competence.

After 1982, all newly-trained teachers will be graduates, except for a few who have completed one year certificate in education courses in certain shortage subject areas, which courses will be continuing until 1983–84. In-service training programmes on language development have been initiated; specialist language centres have been set up; there have been many conferences to discuss the problems of language teaching; and in many areas machinery has been established for identifying and helping those children with specific language difficulties. It would be wrong, therefore, to assume—as is sometimes done—that proper attention is not being given to language teaching, particularly in terms of basic reading and writing skills.

However, the debate has not been concerned simply with written English, but with spoken English, too. Here I believe that it would not be fruitful to lay down guidelines for schools on this vexed question of acceptable patterns of speech and usage, even if we were in a position to do so. The consequence would be to reduce much of the richness of our culture, and it would be of questionable value in improving communication skills. Indeed, it could seriously damage the pithiness and flexibility which has always been a characteristic of our language.

However, I agree that there is such a thing as slipshod spoken English, regardless of accent, Coherent, consistent and intelligible, correct speech forms are important. Spoken communication is as important as written communication; often more so in the day-to-day personal contact with others which makes up so much of our lives. Standards should be upheld by our major institutions, and I an glad to hear that the BBC, for one, is seeking to do so, even if, to quote Mr. Burchfield's report on radio English, Robin Day felt that the language was going to the dogs ". I am told that many schools are not as effective as they should be in encouraging children to be articulate in speech, and in encouraging dialogue. Consideration is being given to this at the moment by the Schools Council, among others. I would again hope to see a joining of the best of the old and the new practice, of the traditional question-and-answer approach, with a new development of learning dialogue.

In conclusion, it must be recognised that schools reflect society. If speech is casual in the home and in the street, it would be unrealistic to expect schools to remedy this. If literacy is less prized, it will be less well taught. And if literature, in the widest sense, is degraded, literary studies will suffer. These are some of the issues to which this debate has drawn attention. They are issues of the greatest importance to those who are concerned to teach, to use and to preserve what is the best in the great heritage of our English language.


My Lords, there is no time for me to comment on the excellent debate that I feel we have had, beyond to say that I am proud to have initiated it. All that remains is for me to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.