§ 5.19 p.m.
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale rose to call attention to the benefits which would flow from a simplification of the English language; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, at the beginning of last Session, on 21st November, 1979, the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, opened a general debate on the English language. Your Lordships will be delighted to hear that we are again to be favoured with a contribution from him today. I intervened in that debate, but on a very much narrower issue, the issue I bring before the House today; namely, the desirablity of a simplification of the English language and the benefits that would flow from that. The noble Baroness, Lady Young, replying to the debate, was rather curtailed by the volubility of those of us 771 who contributed to it, and she could deal only quite shortly with the matters that were raised by individual noble Lords.
So far as I was concerned, I suggested that the matter might he dealt with by a language commission, rather on the lines of the highly successful Law Commission that we have had. The noble Baroness replied to that suggestion merely with the word, "quango," and said that we cannot conceive of having more Quangos. I think that since that time the Government have recognised that there are Quangos and Quangos, and that many of them are valuable. The noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, the other day made that very point and so, emboldened by that, I ventured to put down this Motion, and I am encouraged by the number and the distinction of the noble Lords who propose to contribute to today's debate. Your Lordships will in particular be looking forward to the maiden speech of my noble and learned friend Lord Bridge of Harwich, who brings great juristic gifts to your Lordships' House, and I think that after hearing him today, your Lordships will be assured that his contributions go wider than that.
I am asked by the noble Lord the Chief Whip to draw attention to the length of the debate and to the number of speakers, and to point out that the ration works out at about nine minutes for each speaker. The noble Lord did not give me that figure, and I am barely numerate, but that is what I make it. The noble Baroness will tell me if I am wrong. I shall try to improve on that myself by curtailing the introductory remarks that I propose to lay before your Lordships.
The importance of the English language hardly needs emphasis. It was brought out by the debate of 21st November 1979. I think that over 340 million people speak English as their first language, and there must be almost as many who speak English as their second language. It is even more important than that. In many of the developing countries there has been an attempt to have one of the vernaculars as a national language—for example, Hindi in India, but that is unacceptable to the Tamil—speaking people in the south of India, and English remains the lingua franca. The same applies in many places elsewhere. I think that in Uganda, with all its native languages, no single first language is spoken by more than 16 per cent. of the people, and again English is the lingua franca; and so on in many other places.
So I think that your Lordships will be assured that we owe a duty not only to those who speak English as their first language, and who therefore have to learn it as their first language, but also to those who with greater difficulty learn English as their second language. In many respects English is a superb language to learn, a remarkably easy language to learn, owing to, for example, the rubbing away of inflection by the inter—penetration of various people who have come to these islands. But for years it has been recognised that English presents one very great difficulty. The grammarians have technical names for it, but we describe it as the difference, the discrepancy, between spelling and pronunciation. The Bullock Report, A Language for Life, drew attention to that. I am very sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Bullock, cannot be here today. He wrote me a letter apologizing 772 and saying that he hoped that the Motion would be carried. My only trepidation about that is that the Motion ends with a Motion for Papers, and I do not know what I would do with any Papers that were vouchsafed as a result of the passing of the Motion. Nevertheless, again and again in the Bullock Report one finds the problems that are aroused by the discrepancy between spelling and pronunciation.
There is one very easy reform that we can make, and that is to adopt the American spelling where it differs from ours. We read it almost every day in American books which are reproduced in this country by various technical methods. For example, nobody has any difficulty in spelling honour "honor". It is etymologically right. That is the way that it was spelt by the great leader of the noble Baroness's party, Lord Beaconsfield; and I see that the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, is on the Back—Benches, proposing to speak. He was, I think, Grand Master of the Primrose League—I see he nods—and so I hope that he will favour that simple improvement. It is not just that one word—there are also, for example, the words, "favour" and "ardour". Every time one of those words is typed by a typist, every time it is printed by a printer, time is wasted, material is wasted. Can we really afford such waste these days? Is what I have suggested not the simplest possible reform and improvement that we can make quite painlessly? There are similar examples, such as the spelling of the word "traveller" with only one 1, and the word "travelled" with only one 1. So that is the first reform that I would venture to urge on your Lordships that could be consummated without the smallest difficulty.
Then, again, I think the only respect in which our own usage is superior to that of the United States is in the word "wilful", for which I think they use two "1"s; but if in the word "wilful" we can use one "1" for the "will" and one "1" for the "full", why can we not spell "will" as "wil" and "full" as "ful"? That was the way that Robert Bridges spelt it in his great poem, The Testament of Beauty, which your Lordships will have read without the smallest difficulty, without the smallest adverse reaction. Can the noble Baroness point to anywhere within her sphere of responsibility where a 25 per cent. saving, economy, could be made without the smallest pain, without any difficulty and without offending anybody except the most inveterate obscurantist?
My Lords, I think that is enough to say about spelling, because others of your Lordships will no doubt wish to expatiate on that, but then there is grammar. The tendency of our language has been to eliminate irregular verbs. I suppose that most your Lordships will, as children, have had the Schoolboy's Diary, and the noble Baroness will have had the equivalent Schoolgirl's Diary with the tables of irregular verbs, and will remember how we used to puzzle over them. A child says "teached" as the past participle of "teach". He says "reached". Formerly, the past participle of "reach" was "raught", but without difficulty we now say "reached". Why should we not eliminate all those irregular verbs and make them regular?
The only reason why the English language, so far as I know, has not developed in that way is because of the advent of printing, which has crystallised spelling and 773 crystallised grammar. In one respect in grammar there has been a development, and your Lordships may well think it an adverse one. In the 18th century one said, "I was, we was, they was". We now make it much more difficult and say, "We were, they were". That is what we have to teach our children, and that is what we have to teach those who honour us by learning English as their second language. So that, in general, is the sort of simplification that I would venture to urge in this debate.
How should we do it? Obviously, there are some of the improvements that stand out so clearly, that are so uncontroversial, that they could be done by statute. A Bill was recently, a few years ago, introduced in another place. I am sorry to say it was blocked by the noble Baroness's department. But at the end of the last century, when Germany was in its great creative era, they had a verb "to do" which was spelt "thun". For centuries the "h" had never been pronounced, and quite simply by legislative effort they decided that "thun" should be spelt "tun". A lot of people—they are the people I venture to call obscurantists—objected, but now everybody takes it for granted; and, again, 25 per cent. of type and of the time of typists and type-setters are saved. Can the noble Baroness suggest another area within her departmental responsibility where 25 per cent. can be saved?
The Bullock Committee drew attention also to the fact that children have to learn two sets of alphabet, the ordinary lower case alphabet and capitals; and of those capitals, 17 give no idea at all of the minuscule, the lower case, which they represent. It is not merely a question of a typist or a printer here: there are literally hundreds of thousands of pounds at stake. I heard the other day of somebody who had to decide on the installation of computers into his concern, and one of the questions he had to decide was whether the computer should process upper case letters, capital letters, as well as lower case letters. They decided, in fact, in favour of capital letters because all their secretaries had been trained to recognise and differentiate between upper and lower case. But that cost them thousands of pounds; and if one thinks of the number of companies which are now installing computers, should one not look at that problem?
So that is the next solution that I was going to venture to lay before your Lordships. Why should we not have an inquiry into this? We have had Royal Commissions on this, we have had departmental committees on that and we have had working parties on the other. The one thing we have not looked into is the simplification of the English language, although people have been agitating for the past 100 years on the subject. People as diverse ideologically as Bernard Shaw and Robert Bridges were at one on this. I am sorry to have to say this, but what has stood in the way is the tradition in the Ministry of Education and its successors. I am all for a department having a tradition and sticking to it, as long as it does not do the sort of damage that this particular obstruction is doing.
Finally, I come to my last specific—I do not apologise for repeating it—and that is a permanent Language Commission. Now that the Government have admitted that some Quangos are beneficial (and no doubt the noble Baroness has heard from my noble and learned 774 friend the Lord Chancellor how valuable the Law Commission has been) should we not have a Language Commission to look into this—perhaps a Royal Commission first, but then a Language Commission as a permanent institution? My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 5.40 p.m.
§ Lord Strabolgi
My Lords, I am sure that we are all very glad that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, chose this subject when he was lucky in the ballot for a short debate. I certainly have listened to his speech with the greatest of interest. I shall also try to speak for only a short time since the debate has attracted a number of speakers and f know that we are all looking forward to the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridge of Harwich.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, spoke about the difference between spelling and pronunciation; but just as important, in my view, is the structure of sentences and the correct meaning of words. I shall hope to show how important this is during my speech. Our language, which is after all a method of communication, must be and indeed always has been in a developing state. Usages which are current in one generation pass out of favour in the next. What was not acceptable to a previous generation may well become current and acceptable later on.
The split infinitive was not considered correct English when I was a boy. I remember that when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and I were at school together at Gresham's, there was a contest among the boys to count up the number of times that the masters split infinitives. Now, I gather, it is acceptable to split an infinitive, just as it is acceptable to use the objective pronoun "me" after the verb "to be". Indeed, to reply, "It is I", in answer to the question, "Who is there?", would be rather pedantic today. On the other hand, my Lords, one must I think be concerned at some modern tendencies: the use of more words than are necessary, and the general sloppiness of sentence structure.
Is this the fault of the way English grammar is taught in our schools? The best way to learn English grammar used to be through the discipline of Latin. But now Latin is rarely taught in the public sector and one must ask, what is being done to ensure that English grammar is properly taught? Perhaps the noble Baroness, the Minister of State, will have something to say on this when she comes to reply.
In France, where they have, of course, a better and more democratic system of education than we have, French people in all walks of life usually have a healthy respect for their language, they construct their sentences better in conversation and they still write letters in elegant French. The French, of course, have their Academy. I was interested in what the noble and learned Lord said and his proposal for a permanent language commission. The Scots, Welsh and Irish also have the advantage over us. I am very glad that my noble friend Lord Davies of Leek is to speak today. With two languages—their own and English—they have a richer vocabulary and more command of sentence structure. I believe also that in Elizabethan times English had a much richer 775 vocabulary than it has now. We only have to read Shakespeare to realise that.
English is subjected to various influences, particularly television and American, which has become almost a different language. The noble and learned Lord touched on the matter of American and spoke about the different spellings. But in my opinion the structure is just as important, and here American is becoming very, very different from English. For example, in American the verb "to protest" is now often used without a preposition: "He protested Vietnam war", "He protested Algeria", instead of "against" or "about" or whatever it is. This of course can lead to complications once one starts telescoping a language in this way.
Then we have, in English in this country, the flight from the verb. This means using at least three words where one will do. People today never confer, they have a conference. They rarely meet, they hold a meeting. A simple adverb such as "now" on television has become "at this moment in time". The subjunctive is all over the place with usage such as "I would agree" instead of the simple indicative "I agree". And in written English, certainly in commerce, "should" and "shall" are rarely used for the first person. "Disinterested", which means unbiased, is used when people mean "uninterested". "Less" is used instead of "fewer"—sometimes by Government spokesmen, I regret to say—and we hear that something is "almost unique", which means of course that it is not unique at all.
The lack of appreciation of the meaning and impact of words can sometimes lead to trouble and embarrassment and this is why in my humble view it is more important really than the way words are spelt. It can lead to embarrassment, such as the occasion when an Englishman asked a Moslem Arab for a note of his Christian name.
Therefore, my Lords, while I agree that we must not be too pedantic, I think that there is concern at the way English is taught and used today. Now that Latin has almost disappeared, how is the basic meaning of words and the structure of the language being taught to the younger generation? I hope that the noble Baroness will have something to say on this when she comes to teply.
§ 5.46 p.m.
§ Lord Airedale
My Lords, we are indeed very grateful to the noble and learned Lord for giving us this opportunity to discuss this very interesting question. The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, has given me the opportunity to mention something which was going to be my last point in our last debate about English which the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, initiated, but time prevented me from doing so on that occasion. I was going to relate to your Lordships a conversation that I had with the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, about the use of the word, "unique" and how one cannot say, "very unique". The noble Lord, Lord Raglan, said: "Well, no two apples in this world are identical. Such is the miraculous power of the Almightly, no two apples are made identical. Therefore, in a sense you can say that every apple is unique. But if you came upon an apple in the shape of Hampton Court 776 you could surely say that that one was more unique than all the others"! I leave that matter, but I am glad to have had the opportunity to have remembered it.
I think it was Cecil Rhodes who said, "So much to do and so little time". This evening there is so much to say and so little time. There is no question that if there is to be a world language it is going to be English. Whether it is going to be English English or American English I do not know. I suppose that it will be a mixture of the two. I suppose that I am prejudiced in favour of English English, and I would say under this heading to the noble and learned Lord that although the Americans economise a little in their spelling, they undo this good work by always preferring the longer word to the shorter. The Englishman leaves his flat by the lift and he goes in his car to see a film. The American leaves his apartment by the elevator and he gets into his automobile and goes to see a motion picture. If I were a foreigner struggling to understand the language, I would know which version of that sentence I would prefer to hear.
If we are going to foist our language upon the world as its world language, we certainly owe the world a duty to provide them with a form of English which is easily teached as we have just been teached to say!
I do not think this is necessarily peculiar to English, but it is our idioms which are so horrifying for foreigners to understand. Supposing you were introduced to a professional footballer from South America with a rudimentary knowledge of English and you said to him, "How do you do?", he might say to you, as Sir Noel Coward used to say, "How do I do what?" After that unpromising start you may say to him, "I used to play football quite a lot". He might say, "Used to play—what does that mean?" then you say, "I meant that I once played". He would say, "How could you once play football quite a lot?" Then you might say, "I mean that once upon a time I played football". He might then say, "'Once upon a time' does not seem to mean anything at all"—and so it goes on.
I do not think there is any cure. Our idioms are so ingrained in the language that we could not get rid of them, however hard we tried. I think foreigners simply have to struggle away and try to understand them. But there are things we can do. Surely we can get rid of those ugly "ough" suffixes, which look so ugly on the printed page and which are no guide to pronunciation. An "ough" word can rhyme with "low", with "now", with "off", with "who", or with "cuff". I applaud the good work being done by the English Speaking Union and by the BBC World Service in trying to do what we are seeking this evening to achieve; but they lapse from time to time, as we all do. It is quite common on the BBC World Service to hear that some event, "has got under way". The other day the BBC—I think it was on the World Service—told us that some conference, after a certain delay, finally "got off the ground".
I have been in communication with Mr. Douglas Muggeridge, the Managing Director of BBC External Broadcasting, and he points out that the BBC feel themselves in some difficulty because they address themselves in the World Service not only to people with a rudimentary understanding of English but to many professional people and diplomats with a perfectly good 777 command of the language, and they do not wish to be thought to be talking down to them.
I think it is possible to have the best of both worlds. If your Lordships read the collected lectures to law students by the noble and learned Master of the Rolls, Lord Denning, you will find there a delightful simplicity of language without any suggestion at all of talking down to his audience.
There are many speakers and I think my time is about up. Let me finish by quoting a sentence from the Managing Director of External Broadcasting, reminding me of the work being done by the English-by-Radio and Television Department. I quote:They have, for instance, produced programmes teaching the simplified standard formulae devised for communication in international air transport and others teaching the Standard Marine Navigational Vocabulary…".Finally, I would say, "Good luck" to the English Speaking Union and to the BBC World Service.
§ 5.54 p.m.
§ Lord Bridge of Harwich
My Lords, I am extremely grateful to my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale for the quite undeserved, flattering remarks with which he was kind enough to commend me to your Lordships. My only fear is that after such a glowing "commercial" you will be sadly disappointed in the product! I understand, of course, that as a maiden speaker I am not expected to be controversial. That I find rather daunting because my experience in life has been that I can hardly ever say anything without being liable to provoke somebody to disagree with me; so if I transgress in that respect I crave your Lordships' forgiveness in advance. At all events I shall start by sitting decorously on the fence and saying of the proposals so brilliantly expounded by my noble and learned friend for the simplification of the English language that I see that they could yield enormous advantages, but at the same time I see them confronted by formidable obstacles—and I hope nothing could be less controversial than that.
One minor problem occurs to me and it occurs to my mind because of something that happened some years ago when I was trying a criminal case on the Western Circuit. I had just concluded my summing-up and sent a West Country jury out to deliberate on their verdict. I had not been in my room for more than a few minutes when I received a note from the foreman of the jury. It read:Would your Lordship be kind enough to give us a further explanation of what you mean by the onus of proof'?The note was written in what looked like a quite well-educated hand, but unfortunately "onus" was spelt "owners". I am not quite sure how my noble and learned friend's proposals for assimilating spelling to pronunciation would be able to grapple with that problem!
I hope I do not digress on to something which is irrelevant to the main topic of this debate if I say there is one field where the cry for simplification of language is by no means a new one: that is in the field of legislation itself; and, of course, foremost among those raising such a cry have been none other than Her Majesty's judges. The complexity of statutory language is a favourite target for judicial sallies of wit and sarcasm. May I quote what I always regard as 778 a classic instance of this kind? It comes from a judgment of the late Lord Justice Harman, delivered in a case in which I appeared before him in the Court of Appeal, unsuccessfully— and unsuccessfully, I fear, again in your Lordships' House. It was a case concerning the meaning of some provisions of the Land Compensation Act 1961, and Lord Justice Harman began his judgment in this way:To reach a conclusion on this matter involved the court in wading through a monstrous legislative morass, staggering from stone to stone and ignoring the marsh—gas exhaling from the forest of schedules lining the way on each side. 1 regarded it at one time, I must confess, as a slough of despond through which the court would never drag its feet but I have, by leaping from tussock to tussock as best I might, eventually pale and exhausted, reached the other side where I find myself, I am glad to say, at the same point as that arrived at with more agility by Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls".It is at this point where I have to confess myself to be something of a judicial heretic. Here it may be that I am trespassing on a potentially controversial area but, while that kind of sally is immensely entertaining, I sometimes cannot help thinking that the criticism it implies is a little bit unfair because, of course, the criticism is directed primarily at the parliamentary draftsman, whom I have always regarded as an unjustly maligned character, and it is directed indirectly against the legislature itself.
The answer to the criticism is that when Parliament is legislating on many subjects, of which the fixing of compensation for compulsory acquisition is a very good example, 90 per cent. of the complexity of language which finds its way into the Act of Parliament is really inherent in the legislative process itself. The draftsman is required to embody in statutory terms some highly sophisticated social policy, articulated in great detail and required to be imposed on an already complicated social structure. Above all, the statutory terms must—if language can achieve the object—be proof against judicial misconstruction. Of course, that is an unattainable ideal, but is it any wonder that in those circumstances, in pursuit of his object, the draftsman sacrifices simplicity and lucidity of expression for what he hopes will achieve certainty of meaning?
What is the alternative style of legislative prose which can be adopted to avoid such complexity? I think the only style which can be suggested is that Acts of Parliament should confine themselves to broad and simple statements of principle, leaving the elaboration of the details of policy to the courts. But whether that would be a wise move I doubt, for it seems to me that it would carry the danger of imposing on the courts—or allowing to the courts, if you prefer it—a breadth of essentially legislative discretion which the courts are not really well qualified to exercise.
The fact of the matter is that the adversarial process of the courts does not equip us to look at questions which are essentially questions of policy, in the light of the wide spectrum of considerations which ought to influence the decision on every question of policy. That is essentially a matter for the deliberative process of your Lordships' House and the other place.
§ 6.3 p.m.
§ Lord Mancroft
My Lords, it is clear that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, did not exaggerate when he told us with what pleasure we should listen to 779 his noble and learned friend Lord Bridge. Happily, it is my task to congratulate him warmly on a most interesting maiden speech. I hope to take up one or two of the points that he raised in the course of my own few remarks. He and I have one thing in common. We were both called to the Bar by the Inner Temple but there, I am afraid, the likeness ends, though I vividly remember appearing before Mr. Justice Harman, whom he mentioned, at the Chancery Bar. He was the first judge that I appeared before. My clerk said to me, "If you think the judge is talking nonsense, by all means tell him so, but don't do it too quickly." Fortunately, I think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridge, has been talking arrant common sense and I hope that we shall hear him do so on many occasions in the future.
I was slightly puzzled when I read on the Order Paper the Motion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, as to what was the Government's responsibility, because I was always told, as a beginner, that one must not put down Questions or Motions which are not the responsibility of a Minister or a member of the Government. But now, of course, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridge, has made matters perfectly clear. It is the Government and Members of your Lordships' House and another place who are responsible—if I may use a charming Americanism—for so much of the gobbledygook that creeps into our legislation and into our debates, and which we are trying to remedy in this debate here today.
I myself am responsible for one example. I vividly remember standing at that Dispatch Box many years ago, when we were trying to put the ill-fated Shops Bill through your Lordships' House. I was then Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, and I spent a long time trying to explain to your Lordships why it took 19 lines of the draftsman's deathless prose to establish the principle that only a Mohammedan or a practising Jew could operate as a barber in Scotland on a Sunday. Your Lordships, rightly, would have none of it.
We are all guilty of misuse of our beautiful language. If your Lordships doubt me, I ask you to turn to today's Minutes of Proceedings, which you had on your breakfast tables this morning, but which I have in my hand. If you look at page 395 you will see, "Die Martis 27º Januarii 1981". That is gobbledygook, if you like. Most of your Lordships can, I think, cope with "Die Mortis". I wonder how many of you know what the small "º" after "27" stands for, and why is it "1981" and not—since we are speaking Latin here—"MCMLXXXI"? I hope I have got that right. It took me nearly a quarter of an hour to work it out.
On another page, there is a further example of what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridge, was hinting at. On page 409, under "Special Procedure Orders in Progress", there is the sub—heading,Waiting for expiry of Resolution Period…M25 Motorway (Leatherhead Interchange Section) Compulsory Purchase Order (No. CSE 7)".I am not making fun of that. It is very important—not to all your Lordships, but I am certain to the good citizens of Leatherhead, the man on the Leatherhead omnibus. We too often forget in this House, when we are legislating, that we are legislating for the man on the Leatherhead omnibus.
780 It is, of course, impossible to make the Finance Bill understandable to every man on every omnibus. I very well remember Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest, speaking from exactly the same place as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, has just been speaking. He told us that he had been the whole way through four clauses of the Finance Bill which we were then discussing and had not understood one single word—and Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest was no fool. If he could not understand it, what were we doing passing legislation in such incomprehensible language? As I said, the Finance Bill is something which it is very difficult to draft simply. I therefore beg the noble Baroness who is to reply to encourage her colleagues to proceed further with their present admirable habit of producing small pamphlets and explanations in the papers, which can be understood by the man on the Leatherhead omnibus. The matters are usually very important to him. Although Lord Morris could not understand them, they are about rents, about specific benefits to which people are entitled, about pensions and such like.
If you go into any small village post office, the postmaster will tell you that most of his time is spent in trying to explain to innocent and bewildered people what are their rights and privileges and what they are missing. That is something which we should bear in mind when we are trying to put into legislation something which has to do with ordinary people.
Your Lordships will remember that George Bernard Shaw once wrote a letter to a friend and said:I apologise for the length of this letter. I have not the time to write a short one".It is not easy to put complicated legislation into simple language that people can understand. It is something which any Government should do. The language need not be absolutely perfect. Sometimes the most imperfect language can provide a perfectly vivid example of what you mean. Your Lordships may remember the great German conductor, Hans Richter, who once turned to a recalcitrant second trombone in the orchestra at Covent Garden and said:Up with your damned nonsense twice or once will I put, but sometimes, always, by God never".Your Lordships know what he meant. I therefore beg the noble Baroness to put the idea further around among her colleagues that we need more simplification and explanation for people who have their rights, which ought to be explained to them.
There is a second point about which we can help. Your Lordships will remember the appalling shambles which our timetable got into at the end of July and August, necessitating our coming back here two weeks before the other place returned. Why was that? It was because we had crammed far too much legislation into the programme, as a result of which neither the Ministers, nor the civil servants, nor the draftsmen involved had time to go through the Bills, sit back quietly and see whether mistakes had crept in. Many of your Lordships of an older generation will remember Lord Simonds who occupied the Woolsack with such distinction. From time to time I used to assist him, in a very junior capacity, on the Front Bench. I remember one wonderful evening when we discovered that he was moving on Report an amendment which was diametrically opposed to one which he had moved 781 a few days before in Committee. It was discovered just in time.
In order to reduce the standard of gobbledegook, can we not allow our timetable to expand a little further so that we have time at the end of a long and complicated Bill for the draftsmen, the civil servants and the Ministers to look back—not to change the policy or the politics of the Bill; that has all been settled in debate—and see whether or not the gobbledygook can be amended, removed, changed or improved and the English of the Bill put in such a way as will not cause the trouble which Lord Harman had and which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridge of Harwich, described to us so vividly.
Those are the two points I want to make: simplification of legislation and time within the timetable to look at Bills much more carefully. If the noble Baroness wants any help in the drafting of simple leaflets for the man on the Leatherhead omnibus, all she has to do is to bring it to me. If I can understand it, anybody can.
§ 6.11 p.m.
§ Lord Kings Norton
My Lords, this is a short debate. Therefore, much as I should like to, I shall not elaborate my congratulations to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridge of Harwich, on his quite delightful maiden speech. My congratulations are none the less sincere.
I expect all noble Lords will agree and be in sympathy with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and with the general idea of the simplification of our language. Broadly I agree with the spelling changes which the noble and learned Lord advocated. But transatlantic improvements in spelling, however welcome, are in my view—and, I gather, in the view of the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, and the noble Lord, Lord Airedale—utterly negated by the appalling prolixity which has developed in the United States both in the written word and in the spoken word and which has already crept across the Atlantic, even into the speech and writings of our most intelligent contemporaries.
A person for whom I have the greatest possible respect—indeed one of the ablest men I know—in writing a report for a committee on which I sit, the other day wrote:I am hopeful of obtaining",when he could have written, "I hope to get". That is a percentage improvement even better than the 25 per cent. which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, demonstrated for us.
Despite the impact—I hope that there was an im-pact—of the debate in November 1979 to which the noble and learned Lord referred and in which the noble and learned Lord spoke so very effectively, we are still talking of "missions" instead of "jobs"; we still make "value judgments" instead of "judgments"; we still look at people's "track records" instead of "records"; and we still send "naval task forces" instead of "naval forces" to the Shatt-el-Arab. We must learn to be briefer and, when we have learned, we must try to teach others to be briefer, too. As has already been indicated to your Lordships' House, the benefit would be manifest.
I believe that to develop brevity, to develop concise- 782 ness, is really more important than to reform spelling. If a policy of brevity were seriously implemented by teachers—if they could be convinced of its merits I suppose they could implement it—they would find that it would be greatly helped by adopting as often as possible the Anglo-Saxon alternatives to the many words we use which are of Latin origin: our Norman French heritage. We should "start" rather than "commence"; we should "leave" and not "depart"; we should "end" rather than "conclude"; and we should "spit" rather than "expectorate".
Anglo-Saxon has since 1066 been greatly neglected. When we have wanted new words, we have built on our Norman French, our Latin. Many of us even think that it is not possible to build new words from Anglo-Saxon with the same facility as from Latin. I believe that it is. I often recall the Anglo-Saxon alternative to the "impermeability of matter". It is the "ungothroughfulness of stuff". That is just as descriptive and it has three syllables fewer. I believe that the result of the Battle of Hastings dealt a blow to brevity from which our language has never recovered. It is time we went back to 1065.
§ 6.16 p.m.
My Lords, I want to concentrate on a very few facts. 1 shall possibly say something controversial because I want to put in at least one word for English as it is spoken or written at present, while allowing full scope to many of the reforms which the noble and learned Lord has suggested.
There is a certain confusion in people's minds between what is brief, or short, and what is clear. One noble Lord mentioned Bernard Shaw. He is a good example. He wrote the longest sentences but it was always possible to understand every word, whether or not one agreed with him, because of the rhythm in which those sentences were written.
Language has to do two things. It has to have sound and it has to have sense. One of the reasons why 1 believe that the English language is particularly difficult to simplify is because, as has been said, it is a young language compared to, say, Chinese or to Hebrew, or to many other languages which have kept their individuality. Our language has been invaded by the Romans, by the Saxons and by the Angles. Much later it was invaded by Norman French. It was not until 1400 that English as a language came into existence. Before that, there were a number of separate languages.
I shall be corrected by the noble Lord who is to speak later, but I think that there is something called Boyle's Law of Chemistry, due to Robert Boyle, known as the Father of Chemistry. I think he was the brother of the Earl of Orrery. There is also something called Chaucer's Law. Geoffrey Chaucer produced a new language. It happened to take the form of verse but Geoffrey Chaucer was the first person, I think, who combined French words with English words in a way which could not be bettered. Some of his lines are absolutely perfect: for instance, "Up rose the sun and up rose Emily", or the description of treachery as "The smiler with the knife beneath his cloak." He managed to get a great many thoughts into short words. However, he also used long words.
Many people reasonably think that Latin words 783 are always longer and harder to understand than Anglo-Saxon words. Anybody who attended the debate on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill will regret some of the names which are given for clarity only to some of our most beautiful flowers or animals. It seems to me that the only creature which got it right was the corncrake; in classical language this is known as the Crex crex. Both the name Crex crex and the word "corncrake" suggest to me, without a musical ear, the sound of the corncrake. However, the Latin word is slightly shorter than the Anglo-Saxon word.
If the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridge of Harwich, had a Latin name, he would be named Lord Pons. That is a slightly shorter word. May I take this opportunity, because it is almost the only thing I have left to say, to congratulate him on an excellent maiden speech which I shall read with the greatest interest tomorrow. He was speaking about the law. I will not, as I would have done had there been more time, go in to some of the loss which I think there would be to people learning English if nobody took any account of English poetry, which is one of the gifts which this country has given to the world, and it would be very difficult if one went extremely far in simplifying the language.
An attempt was made by Milton to make it more classical. His greatest poem, of course, ran to 12 books, each of enormous length. That could certainly be shortened, and I know that it has been shortened to eight lines, of which seven lines are Milton's own, and they tell the story clearlyOf Man's first disobedience, and the fruitOf that forbidden tree, whose mortal tasteMBrought death into the world, and all our woe,Those lines tell how, when our first parents ate that fruitThe world was all before them, where to chooseTheir place of rest, and Providence their guide:They hand in hand with wandering steps and slowFrom Eden took their solitary way".I think all those words are perfectly clear. The only long words, of which "disobedience" is one, are familiar to children of about 6 years of age. But of course it leaves out a good deal of the substance of the poem while telling the story. Among other things it leaves out the most glamorous figure of the anti—hero of the whole poem as well as everything that the poem is read for.
I believe one of the great difficulties about simplifying English is that mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, that one has to understand some very difficult idioms. For instance, when one says that it is "quite simple" to simplify English what does the word "quite" mean? Does it mean more or less? When one says that someone is quite pretty, that is rather modest, rather under-valuing; but if we say that she is "quite beautiful" that means more. This happens over and over again. If one says "quite cool" does that mean very cool or only slightly cool? The more words that one thinks of to which "quite" is applied, the more one realises that it is a fairly subtle rule. If the word is a superlative one, "quite" makes it more so; if not it makes it less so. Those are things which are very difficult to simplify, however much one simplifies spelling.
784 I would join with the noble Lord, Lord Airedale, in wishing very good luck to all attempts to simplify the language, but I do not believe it is as easy as many people think; and as the language goes out, not only into the world, but possibly into other worlds in their different forms, I think it is important that it should not only remain a language but that it should remain English.
§ 6.24 p.m.
§ The Earl of Cork and Orrery
My Lords, I looked forward with great interest to hear what the noble and learned Lord who initiated this debate would have to say upon this subject. I found myself cast into a great cloud of wonder as to what advocacy he could put forward in favour of simplifying the English language. My wonder is not totally dispelled now because, if I may say so with respect, he has not made much in the way of recommendations for reforming the language beyond doing away with a certain number of irregular verbs.
Spelling—yes, because surely spelling is the method by which the language is communicated rather than the language itself. However, that would be a rather pedantic and niggling sort of remark to make. It would also debar me from saying what I think of his remark about American spelling, which is very much to the point so long as it is confined to words ending in "or", but as other noble Lords have pointed out, there are several others. The noble Lord, Lord Airedale, mentioned that American spelling forms are highly undesirable. Also it seems to me there is a risk that if we were to adopt American spelling we might even go so far as to adopt American pronunciation. It occurs already in fact, and I am thinking of the word "kilometre". "Kilome-ter", I suppose, is euphonies and sensible to an American but really to an Englishman it is (or ought to he) purely illiterate, a "kilome-ter" being presumably an instrument for measuring kilos and nothing to do with a "kilo-metre" which is 1,000 metres. However that is slightly by the way.
It seems to me that we have already one of the simpler languages. I would deplore the idea of setting up a commission to interfere with it at all. I am not very keen on commissions anyway. But think of what we miss, to our own advantage, compared with other languages. We have no case endings, no conjugations; we have irregular verbs, certainly. We do not have to think, as we might have to when speaking French, whether "day" is masculine and "night" is feminine (or the other way round.) In German a "girl" is feminine, which is reasonable even for a German. But if she is a little girl, with a diminutive suffix put on at the end, she suddenly becomes neuter. That may also be reasonable from the German point of view but I personally find it rather complicated.
Again, still on the subject of German, it is possible for us English to refer to the man who yesterday was seen walking across Hyde Park wearing a green overcoat. But a German would have to describe this chap as the "yesterday walking in the park in green overcoat see man". You have to wait until the very end to find out what a person is talking about anyway. It is all 785 very well for Germans, but we have our own particular logic and, whether it is good or not, I hope very much that we shall stick to it.
There are other complications which other people have. The languages which I have in mind at the moment have words of particular simplicity—mono-syllabic very often—and have reduced their vocabularies to such an extent that they can practically say nothing without the greatest circumlocution; they become more complicated. In Burmese, for example, you have to speak of "the time when brothers would not know each other" instead of the simple word "midnight". In that same language, incidentally, you cannot "smoke"; you have to "drink a tobacco roll". That is simplicity carried too far.
To return to our own language, it becomes both more simple as time goes by and also more complicated. Mention has been made already of the frequent use of three words for one. The noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, mentioned that and it was very much to the point, but also strange words keep coming in. I received a letter last Friday, and I daresay other noble Lords received a copy of that same letter, the writer of which said that the firm that he represented "operated two retail outlets". I do not know why, unless of course it is a more classy way of saying that he ran two shops. Why do we have to do that? I do not think we can get rid of that sort of nonsense or gobbledygook by legislation or by a commission. I think people have to be allowed to grow out of it by example—the example of reading or listening to good English; perhaps listening to some of the better speeches which fall from the lips of your Lordships in this House.
Yesterday morning I heard on the wireless a reference to "school dinner ladies". I do not actually move in a world in which there are school dinner ladies but I think I grasped the idea. I suppose if a man were to be employed he would be a "school dinner gentleman". Would he?—I do not know. In these egalitarian days perhaps he would. But does that have any correspondence of any kind with the sandwichzman or sandwich gentleman?
Let us leave the language as it is, I beg. Let us read the good examples; let us read the supreme master of writing, clear, simple and unambiguous English, P. G. Wodehouse, who imposed no hardship on anybody to read. Let us listen to and look forward to listening as often as we can to those lucid speakers, Her Majesty's judges, and particularly, if I may say so on this occasion, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridge of Harwich.
§ 6.31 p.m.
§ Lord Davies of Leek
My Lords, this is a fascinating debate. I should like to follow the noble Lord who has just spoken by paying a tribute to our learned judges, to the Prelates, and particularly to the Lord Chancellor, who is not on the Woolsack now. When his English is at its best it is a beautiful piece of oratory at times, but much better than that, it is purposeful and the selection of the language is superb. That is particularly when he is not dealing with campanology, if I may make a crack; some noble Lords will remember that he once rang a bell at a Conservative conference. But forgetting that, the depth of his knowledge of 786 language and his learning in Greek and everything else helps to make his English very beautiful.
As a Welshman, I was taught to parse and analyse and worked hard in school, and we were forced to do it. I do not think there is a child today who can analyse or parse a simple sentence. They do not know the difference between a preposition and a leg of pork. You get them reading comics. If you want simplicity of spelling, I can buy comics every day that the kids read, full of American spelling and full of some of the most vulgar spelling in the world. It hurts me when I look at it. But, nevertheless, it is simple and, nevertheless, it is part of the culture of the world in which we are living. It is part of a move towards man getting a universal language. As one interested in Esperanto, you can use it, but I cannot see linguistics and the depths of philosophy being used in Esperanto.
There is an absolute need in the pharmaceutical and medical profession to have words that can mean only one thing. So you are bound to build up a language with Greek and Latin roots that can only mean one drug. The chemist and the doctor and the surgeon know the gamut of this language. Is it English? Anyway, it is a complete vocabulary. If you have the misfortune some time to be cut open by one of these men who have this marvellous vocabulary and discuss philosophy or Welsh or English poetry he is out of his depth, but I am out of my depth when he is dealing with his profession. In other words, when we are talking about the English language we must remember that the gamut of the English language is greater than any other language in the world.
It results from conquest by outsiders, campaigns that built empires. We have brought into our language Malay words, Indian words, Greek words, words from all over the world. Used beautifully it is, apart from Welsh, one of the most colourful languages in the world.
I should like to pay a tribute to the maiden speaker and thank him very much, because we have a typical example of the mix—up with homonyms, words that are spelled differently but sound the same owners and onus, shoot and chute. We used to play a game as children called coffee pots, guessing what the homonyms were. What are we after in our simplicity of language? I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, for opening it up. We are after clarity of diction; we are after, too, the need for sonority and the beauty of sound. Sometimes the words are not so important. The sound can create a mood in poetry and in oratory; all these things are part of the tingling necessity of a beautiful language, and English has it. When I get to the seven minutes which I am going to take I will read one verse to prove that. May I remind your Lordships that Sir Ernest Gowers did a job of work second to none. He was invited by that aristocratic bunch of boys in the Treasury to do it, so that letters from the civil servants were legible and could be understood. Sir Ernest Gowers wrote a book to help officials in their use of written English, to simplify and clarify their use of language. I suppose all noble Lords have his works on their study shelves, the ABC of Plain Words and Plain Words, the use of good and simple English. This was a first-class job of work done by Sir Ernest, because of the kind of thoughts that have been demonstrated in this House and all areas of education this last 20 or 30 years, to get simple and good 787 English. Writing and speech, he says, are instruments for conveying ideas from one mind to another. As Cervantes said in his Don Quixote:Do but take care to express yourself in a plain easy manner, in well-chosen, significant and decent terms and give …this is the lovely bit—… a harmonious and decent turn to your periods;That is what the Lord Chancellor can do.… study to explain your thoughts and express them in the truest light, labouring as much as possible not to leave them dark nor intricate but clear and intelligible".That is a problem for judges often, but the jury have to interpret it.
We suffer from "televisionese" and "journalese" and sometimes it is pathetic. There are fashions. When I was a child Trafalgar was good enough. Now it is Trafalgar and it is Himalayas. I believe in Anglicising foreign words to make them clear, especially if you do not know the language properly; for Heaven's sake try to get a correct English pronunciation of foreign words. I do not run up and down the street shouting "Paree, paree". These are points that one should take into view; the other is a sort of kitsch, which is stuff and nonsense.
The English sentence at its best is one of the most lovely and there is a natural process going on that will please the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, Words change; words can become obsolete and their meanings change. Simple words powerfully used are shown in all our best writings. Shakespeare used 15,000 different words. Nobody has used such simple words. There was a beautiful example given me yesterday over tea by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, of a beautiful line from Shakespeare with no more than three or four letters in a word. I could find other examples. The Bible uses 8,000 words, Milton 6,000, beautifully put together.
Finally, using English, I would quote Dylan Thomas. Nobody would know what he was meaning but the effect made mood, and mood is important in the use of language and mood is paramount if one wants to get one's meaning across very well. I will finish with two verses from the Reverend Eli Jenkins prayer in Bethesda House as he gropes his way out of bed in the early morning when the dew is there but the air is beautiful.Dear Gwalia! I know there areTowns lovelier than ours,And fairer hills and loftier far,And groves more full of flowers,And boskier Woods more blithe with springAnd bright with birds adorning,And sweeter bards than I to singTheir praise this beauteous morning.By mountains where King Arthur dreams,By Penmaenmawr defiant,Llaregyb Hill a molehill seems,A pygmy to a giant".You understand that, and it has got you in the mood for the "Bible black" Under Milk Wood. I am grateful to the noble Lord for getting us in the mood to look into our own beautiful language.
§ 6.40 p.m.
§ Lord Kilmarnock
My Lords, I should like to start by congratulating the noble and learned Lord, Lord 788 Bridge of Harwich, on a truly model maiden speech and, also, of course, to thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for providing the opportunity for it and also for the rest of us to express our views.
While conceding the importance of spelling I think that one must put it into proportion. It has been called "the graphic dress of language". I think that that is fair. Graphics are important but, of course, they are not everything. There is one other point on which I should like to take issue with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, and that is the question of the regularisation of verbs. I have a small son, aged nine, whose first native language was Spanish so he learnt English as a second language and he is firmly convinced that all verbs in English are regular. The result is that I hear practically everyday of my life— perhaps not every day, but certainly every weekend—" putted as the past participle of "put" and "gotted" as the past participle of "got". On the percentage basis I think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, will find that there is a 100 per cent. additional gain in letters on those verbs, if they are made regular. I agree that we come out roughly equal between "wreaked and" wrought and "teached" and "taught". However, I think that that is a point we should bear in mind if we are to aim at the exclusive regularisation of all verbs in the language.
One of the difficulties in talking about the English language stems from the many variants that are in use. Obviously there is mother English—the tongue of Shakespeare, first codified by Dr. Johnson in his great dictionary of 1755 with its 43,500 root words and 118,000 illustrated quotations. Then there is American English which we have heard referred to in some cases slightly disparagingly this afternoon. But there is another variety that I should like to refer to and which I can best describe as "Euro" or "UN English", which might also be called "Conference English". It is one of the five official UN languages in which most reports are written, and that includes the reports of United Nations bodies and agencies; the World Bank; the EEC; and the Brandt Commission, and many British Government reviews and reports are tending to be couched in this language. I happen to believe that the greatest threat to clarity and understanding in our tongue in fact comes from that quarter. I fear that it is making constant inroads into mainstream English and sapping our language's native strength.
Of course, we all have our pet aversions and most of those can probably be found in Sir Ernest Gowers's Plain Words which, incidentally, was revised—really rewritten—by Sir Bruce Fraser. The last edition, which makes very good reading indeed, was issued by the Stationery Office in 1973 at the price in those days of only £l. I do not know what would be the cost of a new edition now, but it is still very good reading.
Gowers follows Fowler and some other noble Lords this afternoon in preferring the Saxon word to the Romance. He deals severely—but with not much hope of killing it—with "hopefully" on page 162. I recommend page 162 on the subject of "hopefully". He gives a useful list of vogue words to be avoided on pages 204 to 206 and among them are, of course, "capability", "dialogue", "dichotomy", "extrapolate", "parameters" and "syndrome"—just to take only a few out of a fairly lengthy list.
789 Also, I think that I might recommend to your Lordships page 223 in which he gives us an entertaining version of the "gobbledygook" game which has already been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, and others. This version is called the "buzz-phrase generator" and it is said to originate from the Canadian Defence Department. It is three columns of nine words each and one is required to combine a word from each column and one can do it across the board—if that is the right phrase— and come out with exactly the same mixture of sense or nonsense whichever way you do it. So you can get "compatible logistical projection", or "integrated reciprocal flexibility"; "functional digital concept" or "responsive logistical time-phase" et cetera. This game was recommended to me by the noble Lord, Lord Willis and I was glad to be able to find it in Gowers also.
We all have our pet aversions and among my own are "strategy" which has a misleadingly grand and sweeping ring about it. You feel, wrongly, that any organisation with a strategy knows what it is doing. "Transfer of resources" is the common euphemism in international affairs for "gift or loan of money" —I suppose because we cannot bear to recognise what we are really talking about. I imagine that we must also feel that "educational provision" is somehow more painless than straight "teaching". What on earth are "perceived needs"?—which I read in a Government report this afternoon. It sounds reassuring but who perceives them and were they perceived correctly? Then, in a desperate attempt to correct these tendencies we lurch into the pseudo-vernacular with phrases like "cope with" or "take on board". I also—and I accept that this is a personal quirk—dislike the pervasiveness of business terminology where it does not belong, giving us, for example, "client groups" in a free public education system, where no semblance of any market transaction takes place. Children will shortly become "customers" for the services of the state and so on.
What can we do about this? What are the remedies? Should we have an academy on French or Spanish lines? Despite Matthew Arnold's enthusiasm for the French academy, I think that most of us here should be more inclined to Dr. Johnson's view thatlanguage is the work of man, from whom permanence and stability cannot be derived".So an academy, I think, is not appropriate in this country. Should Gowers become obligatory reading? I think that there is certainly no reason why it should be confined to the Civil Service for whom it was intended. I think that it would be a good idea if the Stationery Office contemplated a further edition and a wider distribution.
I cannot see whether the noble Lord, Lord Foot, is present. However, I do not think he will mind my saying, as he is not speaking this afternoon, that he has a preference for someone called Vallins who apparently wrote three books: Good English; Better English and Best English. I do not know them, but they may also be worthy of your Lordships' consideration.
Finally, I should like to make a suggestion to the Government—a modest proposal of my own. I should like to suggest that they set up a small quango. This suggestion has already been made this afternoon by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of 790 Glaisdale. I want to set up a rival Quango to his. I dare to hope that the noble Baroness, who was such a doughty Quango hunter in the last Parliament, will not wish to push her campaign to the point of complete extinction of this endangered species.
The one that I propose might be called the English Language Monitoring Service or possibly the English Language Review Board. Its main job will be to read, digest—or digest where it could—and comment on the reports of international agencies written in English; Government circulars; White and Green Papers; reports and reviews of Government departments and NGO's (which, incidentally are non-governmental organisations)—in fact, anything issued in English by people in responsible positions using language to the detriment of understanding and the perversion of meaning.
In these days of unemployment it should not be difficult to engage a corps of part-time readers on the lines of publishers' readers, who take their work home, thus stimulating a useful cottage industry. A quarterly report would be issued, chiding, correcting and praising, where praise was due. It would be circulated to all Government departments and local authorities, chambers of commerce, NGOs, international agencies, branches of the British Council and would be compulsory reading in schools up and down the country. The central office would require only a secretary-general, one administrative assistant and a couple of secretaries. In order to save Her Majesty's Government the expense of advertising this post I should be happy to offer my own services as the first secretary-general at a very modest salary, as is proper to a modest proposal. I am sorry that I did not have time to give the noble Baroness advance notice of my suggestion, but I have no doubt that she will pass it on to the proper people, and I hope for a favourable response.
§ 6.50 p.m.
§ The Marquess of Tweeddale
My Lords, first, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for the opportunity to discuss this very interesting subject and, if I may, to congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridge of Harwich, on what I thought was an extremely elegant and a model maiden speech.
I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, that English spelling is in need of attention, but I would go very much further than him in that I think that finally there is an unanswerable case for wholesale reform. I start with the premise that the purpose of writing to is to record words, and that is really the only purpose. It seems to me to be self-evident that a system of recording words should be as efficient as possible. I think that we may, very rightly, find excuses for inconsistencies in language, although I do not think that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, would be quite so enthusiastic about that proposition as I am. But I do not think that we can find any excuses at all for inconsistencies in the way in which these words are represented on the printed page.
We have arrived at a system which is both highly inconsistent and quite unnecessarily complicated. In fact, I think that our system of orthography is quite 791 uniquely bad. We have a possible rival in France, but that country's system lags behind quite a bit. One could give all sorts of examples and many have been given, so I shall not delay the House with many. I think that the height of absurdity is reached by the spelling in the same way of both the present tense and the past tense of the verb "read ", although again the noble and learned Lord might prefer us to say readed" for the past tense.
Our system of spelling means colossal wastage of time for foreigners, and for us, at least when we are children, although many of us continue to have difficulty throughout life. Abroad, at least in Europe, I think that it is true to say that logical systems are the rule rather than the exception. I know that German is rarely inconsistent although it is somewhat prolix. Italian and Spanish are, I believe, highly consistent. I hope that this will not be too obscure for the House, but in Yugoslavia their system of spelling is so consistent that anyone who knows one of the two alphabets—a point to which I shall come later—can spell without any difficulty at all.
Perhaps I should give some indication of what I think should replace our present, highly messy system. I do not believe that a new alphabet is necessary or even desirable; not even a highly modified Latin alphabet, such as the initial teaching alphabet. That was conceived primarily as an aid to learning and it seems that in setting it up conciseness was a matter of first concern. There are certainly plenty of possible schemes using only the Latin alphabet, with possibly the introduction of a few accents if we came to the conclusion that dipthongs could not be rendered very elegantly using combinations of vowels.
I should like to see the adoption of a scheme which was entirely consistent—that is to say, that each sound in the language would be rendered by one letter or a group of letters; and, secondly, a system which was as concise as possible—that is to say, with as few letters as possible per sound.
Of course, a number of objections can be raised to this, the first of which is that one might say that this would result in our language looking like Finnish, Swahili, pidgin English or God knows what. I do not think that that would matter a great deal; in fact, I do not think that it would matter at all. In all probability it would end up looking much more like Anglo-Saxon than anything else, which is where we started.
Secondly, there is the objection that we would need worldwide agreement on pronunciation. But I do not think that this is true either. If American pronunciation of the word "tomato" would require a different spelling from ours, so be it, there would be no problem. There would be no objection to my mind either to Scots spelling their writing in a different way from ours. In fact, this would have a desirable side-effect in encouraging dialect. Elizabethan writers spelt as they felt appropriate to the utterance and anyone who has looked at Donne's poems, for example, with the original spelling, will I think have to agree that they knew what they were doing most of the time.
A third objection is that it would be difficult to change. But I think that the people who say that underestimate the ability of people to cope with different linguistic systems. Perhaps I could give a couple 792 of examples. The Scandinavian languages—by which I mean Danish, Swedish and Norwegian—are very similar but they employ different spelling systems in the various countries. However, a Dane has absolutely no difficulty in reading a Swedish newspaper, or, for that matter, a Norwegian one. Perhaps I may quote Yugoslavia as an example. Its two alphabets, the Cyrillic and the Latin, are both in widespread use for the same language. All educated people can read both alphabets and I can vouch for the fact that at least a working knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet can be gained in a matter of a few days.
But one need not to go so far afield. I understand that in the transition that has to take place between the initial teaching alphabet and normal English for children who are learning to read, very few problems have been encountered. Therefore, I think that there would be much less difficulty than is commonly supposed. We would, of course, need a transitory period, such as we are still having with metrification, and we do not seem to be doing too badly.
The fourth objection is that it would upset the overseas book trade. I think that this is the best argument against it. Briefly, the argument is on the lines that we would be putting ourselves at a disadvantage as against the Americans who, it is supposed, would not be adopting a new system. Indeed, I think that we ought to have reformed our spelling a hundred years ago, before English became a world language and before widespread literacy. But it seems to me to be fairly certain that one day the matter will have to be tackled, if not by us, presumably by the Americans. It might well be that overseas buyers would, after getting used to the idea, be delighted at the new-found ease which they encountered on reading English. I think that we, rather than anyone else, ought to give the lead in this matter.
§ 6.59 p.m.
§ Lord Fraser of Kilmorack
My Lords, I should like to start, as other noble Lords contributing to this debate have done, by thanking my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale for giving us this opportunity. I have found it a most fascinating debate. I should also like to congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridge of Harwich, on an excellent maiden contribution.
On the matter of spelling reform, to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, and others have referred, I am a little doubtful. But I am sufficiently broadminded to feel that, if it will help make English, which is a wonderful language, into a more useful world language and be more helpful to young people, then I should be very happy that that should go forward, if anyone can decide how to do it. I believe, though, that there are some problems involved.
However, having started my own education in a grammar school in the north of Scotland—and perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, would be in agreement with me here—I have always thought that I was rather good at spelling and, indeed, at parsing. As one of the older generation now, I think that on the whole, even if these changes do take place after careful thought and examination, I should like to phase myself out, as it were, on the old system. I am not 793 going to pursue the spelling point any further than that, however, because time is short.
Words change their meaning of course and always will and always should, and new words have to be invented. When a word changes its meaning almost imperceptibly over a long time that can be rather a charming process. One thinks of the word "chivalry" which started by meaning something quite concrete, a lot of armed men on horseback, but over a long period came to mean the code of knightly or gentlemanly conduct, and that is quite an interesting and charming development.
Equally, there are long changes over time which completely change the meaning of the word, and I am thinking of the word "liberty", which meant something concrete at the time of Magna Carta and now means something rather abstract, and in fact really quite opposite things. In that sense that excellent little book 1066 and All That I always thought captured the spirit of Magna Carta a good deal more successfully than some more serious historians have done since. It was a charter of liberties; that is, privileges being transferred from one place to another, and not a charter of liberty in the sense of the word as we know it now. I shall not go further into that now. Words are always doing that.
I do not want to go into my pet hatreds this evening except to refer to them briefly because it is in connection with the meaning of words. Words get murdered and turned about very rapidly in the modern world. One thing that I dislike intensely is the tendency there has been to take words that have had quite clear and precise meanings and turn them into indiscriminate, ready abuse to be thrown about and meaning nothing very much. One hears that all the time, and that is something that I deplore. There are many cases of that sort of thing. I also dislike the meaningless adjective, which is thrown about a great deal. If I had to pick out one that happens to come into my mind as I am speaking, it is the use of the word "diabolical". Pretty well everything, so far as I can recall, in the last week or two has been called "diabolical" on television, and I have become very sick of that word indeed. It does not mean a thing in that context.
I want to finish, as I do not want to go on long this evening, by referring to two points which all of us, particularly as legislators and politicians and so forth, could do something about ourselves, without setting up commissions or doing anything else, though commissions and things may be necessary—I am not madly keen on them—to look into, say, spelling and other more complicated suggestions that have been made in this debate.
I do not think that it has been due to malignity on the part of any individual or group, but, arising out of the intense specialisation of the modern world, we have tended, rather as the medieval guilds were called "mysteries", to turn ourselves into mysteries, and turn our particular speciality into something that, on the one hand, has a convenient jargon and shorthand which means a great deal to those of us who are in the mystery but nothing at all to some perfectly well-trained and well-educated human being who is not in the secret. On the other hand, if you like, it can also become a convenient restrictive practice to see that the mystery remains a mystery and not too many people 794 join it. That is something we could do more to change.
After all, certainly as legislators and politicians, one of our prime objectives must be to communicate with people. It is one of the objects of language. It is not the only object of language: language has many other objectives as such; to charm; to do many other things. However, communication is one of its main objectives, and certainly one of our main objectives whichever party or whatever group we may belong to. To break down the lack of communication between people with different expert knowledge is most important.
Added to that, there is of course the terrible rash of initials. I came across a good instance of this. There again they are a convenient form of shorthand. They can sometimes become a complete language when you hear two specialists talking to each other. It goes almost as far as total understanding in some levels of the Civil Service where they never finish a sentence but understand each other so well. These initials are another very damaging aspect of communication. If only everyone who was going to make a speech, or particularly to go on to the mass media, would look through the last draft, or whatever it is, of the script or preparation that he has been making, and, without necessarily taking Dr. Johnson's advice if he found a fine passage to strike it out, at any rate if he found too many initials to strike them out and find some other way of explaining, he might be very much more widely understood and appreciated.
§ 7.6 p.m.
§ The Marquess of Ailesbury
My Lords, unless my watch has stopped, which I do not think it has, it is time that we pedants began to congratulate ourselves upon our exemplary brevity—so unlike those who previously debated the comparatively minor matter of Gibraltar! Therefore, in order to keep my vow to be always one of the briefest speakers, I shall cut down my speech. It gives me no pleasure to intervene in the noble and learned Lord's debate and totally to disagree with him. I can only hope that he will shrug his shoulders and say, "Well, with enemies like Ailesbury who needs friends?".
My difficulty is that I fear that simplification may come to mean abbreviation. That is important because some of my worst enemies are abbreviations. Some of my more saddening moments came immediately after my father died, chiefly for obvious reasons but partly—and I do not want to be unduly frivolous, but I know that my father's ghost will forgive me for saying this—because of my ordeal when I tried to insert appropriate notices into top people's newspapers.
I found to my intense disgust that I was not permitted to speak of, for instance, Wednesday, 4th October. It was obligatory to say, "Wed. Oct. 4". In vain did I flourish my cheque book and offer to pay for the many words which the telephone persons on these newspapers were so insistent on cutting out. Of course they did not bother to explain. They simply said, "niet". So when I had buried my father and recovered my composure generally, I wrote to a director of one of these newspapers who had the misfortune to be an acquaintance of mine, and I gave him the inestimable benefit of my views on this subject.
He sent my letter down to the commissars in the 795 engine room, from whence it rebounded smartly with a memorandum attached. Since this memorandum of course had been written by these butchers of the English language its prose style was naturally somewhat impure. It was headed, I recall, "Lord Ailesbury's beef". Its message was that all aspects of Lord Ailesbury's beef were covered by the plain fact that Wed. Oct. 4 was part of the house style. Can you imagine a more revolting euphemism?
When I close my eyes and conjure up the emotive words "house style" in this context, I see an elderly scribe seated on a high stool with a quill pen lovingly illustrating something of exquisite beauty. It is really intolerable to use this phrase to describe a process of murdering the English language, foisting jargon on to the unwilling customer, following that with a large bill, and printing it in a somewhat blurred manner on paper of such quality that reading the newspaper has to be interrupted by visits to another room to wash one's hands.
I do not want to claim too much credit for the old roast beef of Ailesbury, but whatever the cause the commissars have relented and nowadays one is graciously permitted to say "Wednesday, October 4th", and long may it continue. But, to be realistic, I cannot help feeling that people who have committed such atrocities may one day return to a life of crime, and that is why I summoned the family doctor and instructed him that in future all members of my family are to breathe their last during the month of May.
I apologise for ending with another tale of jargon but I regard this one as a collectors' item and I feel it should be zero rated for VAT and capable of being passed down free of capital transfer tax as part of the heritage. It occurred recently in the Jersey Evening Post nd took the form of a message inserted by a rather self-important shop; the shop shall be nameless because I still have relations living in Jersey and I fear victimisation and reprisals. It said that such and such a shop at such and such a number,Bar Street, wishes to thank our customers for such extreme loyalty in patronising us during the recent precinctisation of the above Street".Noble Lords will appreciate that after reading that I found it difficult to get to sleep that night. In fact, I might have gone sleepless had it not been that I hit on the happy idea of counting not sheep but brickbats passing in an endless stream through that shop's window, but even then I had nightmares. I do not know what happened in the real world during the hours of darkness, but the next day the black clouds rolled away and that evening I read that so and so of such and such a number,Bar Street, wishes to thank our customers for such extreme loyalty in patronising us during the recent conversion of Bar Street to a precinct".So, while we may often feel we are drowning in a sea of jargon, I feel able to end on a note of optimism, for surely while there is deprecinctisation there must be hope.
§ 7.12 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Baroness Young)
My Lords, I am sure the whole House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord 796 Simon of Glaisdale, for introducing this debate. He referred in opening to the fact that we had a debate on a rather similar subject on 21st November 1979. That was on standards of written and spoken English, and I was delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Kings Norton, took part this afternoon. First, however, I wish to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bridge of Harwich, on his maiden speech. I am sure we all enjoyed it and we look forward to what he will have to say on some of the complicated matters of legislation that we have to discuss.
As I knew the noble Lord was a judge, and in preparation for this debate, I read in The Times Law Reports on Friday 23rd January of that very interesting case, which seems relevant to this debate, in which the point at issue was whether or not the word "Exxon" was an original literary work entitled to copyright protection under Section 2 of the Copyright Act 1956. The report was enormously interesting and in summing up his Lordship came to the conclusion that "Exxon" was not an original literary work within Section 2. I felt on reading his remarks that he rather regretted that, although of course the report did not say so, and that he regretted even more that he was unable to use the American case Life Music Company v Wonderland Music Company (1965), in which the word "Super-calafrajalistickespeealadojus" did not assist in his elucidation of the facts.
On the occasion of the debate in November 1979 there were many views as to what constituted good English. Those views were necessarily subjective, but there was agreement about the fundamental importance of language, and at the risk of some repetition I would say that on that occasion I spoke about the need to distinguish between usages which were wrong and those which were merely different. I drew attention to the fact, particularly relevant to this debate, that English was now a multinational language. I suggested then that it would surely be unreasonable to support the proposition that we could attain a standard pattern of usage in England and that it would be difficult to impose on language standards and simplified forms of spelling or a more logical system of grammar.
In that debate many points of view were put forward, but no reasons were given to fear a catastrophic decline in standards. At the same time the House felt there was no room for complacency and expressed the view that coherent, consistent, intelligent and correct speech forms were important, and said that standards should be upheld by our major institutions. With all those points I am sure we would agree. The question before the House is whether a simplification of English would advance the cause of standards or result in confusion. Would we find ourselves with a universally accepted, logical, elegant form of English, or would we be inviting linguistic chaos? Would we find ourselves like Humpty Dumpty, who said:When I use a word it means no more and no less than I want it to mean".Language is a means of communication and that is its essential, perhaps only, function, whether we are discussing poetry or a technical thesis. We must ask ourselves whether English would be more easily learned by foreigners or by young children, and become a 797 more effective instrument of communication, if it were to be simplified.
In this debate nearly all noble Lords have referred to the questions of the reform of spelling and grammar. Some have argued that our children face particular difficulties in learning to cope with a system of spelling that is complicated and frequently inconsistent. But the history of spelling reform is not encouraging, perhaps partly because of the proliferation of contending schemes. Noble Lords have referred to Robert Bridges, Bernard Shaw, and the initial teaching alphabet, and indeed it was Robert Bridges who wrote his last poem, The Testament of Beauty, in a form of spelling noted particularly for its ommission of mute letters. Shaw, on the other hand—the great reformer of this century—proposed more thorough-going changes, including a new alphabet with between 40 and 50 new letters.
Sir James Pitman's initial teaching alphabet, although not designed as a reform of spelling as a whole, owes something both to new spelling and to the Shaw alphabet, and for those who are not entirely familiar with it, the new spelling was published in 1948. To give a typical sentence, in—We instinctively shrink from any change in what is familiar"change" is spelt "chaenj" followed by "whot iz familyar". There is a failure of reformers to agree among themselves and the result is that none has really taken root. The fact is that these reforms, so long as they are phonetically based, face the problem of the wide variation in speech patterns from one part of the country to another, not to mention the differences between different parts of the English-speaking world.
Speech varies over the passage of time, too. Dr. Johnson called the attempt to accommodate spelling to pronunication "measuring by a shadow". Even within the same sentence the same word can be pronounced differently. Thus, there are formidable problems, some of which were drawn to our attention by the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Leek, who gave a number of good examples, to which I would add the word which is frequently used, "meet" meaning to meet somebody, which can be "meat" or "mete"; it makes a difference how the word is spelt. I can, however, I believe, help my noble friend Lord Cork and Orrery on one point. He asked whether the dinner lady would be replaced on some future occasion by the dinner gentleman. I think the answer is, no, she will not; the dinner lady will, I think, I regret to say, be replaced by the dinner person.
I shall of course draw the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science to this debate, and I am certain he is not at all hostile to the idea of language reform. However, that is not something which could be imposed, and if one were seriously thinking of language reform, it would have to win the support of the general public and of those in our schools—teachers, parents and governors. The initial teaching alphabet has been successful in introducing many children to reading, but it would not be right for me to advocate its use everywhere, and I think that it would be wrong to suppose that there is some simple way to the teaching of reading. The most important factor is the dedication and the experience of the teacher.
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, also 798 referred to American spelling and suggested that we might look to the American example in this respect. He said that he preferred "color" and "favor" on grounds of economy. Indeed, I listened with great care to what he said on this important need to save money, and obviously I shall draw this to the attention of my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who I am sure will be very pleased. This is something which we should have ever more before us, but I am sure that the noble and learned Lord will appreciate that it is very dangerous to prescribe in these matters. I suspect that, as in other matters of this kind—dare I mention anything so controversial as metrication? —the cost of the change will be greater than the savings to be made.
Certainly neither Webster, who uses "color", nor Johnson, who spells the word with a "u", can claim phonetics on his side. Etymology favours Johnson, though Webster believes that he was historically correct in deriving these words directly from the Latin. There is of course British inconsistency—for example, the two words "author" and "terror", for which we cannot blame Johnson. But perhaps one of the reasons why the Americans so readily adopted Webster's changes was to cement their unity and mark out their differences from us.
The noble and learned Lord also referred to the possibility of a national language commission. He will be interested to know that this is not the first occasion on which such an idea has been mooted. In preparation for the debate I looked again at the extract from the diaries of the late Sir Alexander Cadogan, who was then the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. In 1943 it was suggested that there should be a committee which would look at basic English. In preparation for that committee—which never actually met—Sir Alexander prepared a memo, which began:Bargee English—Preliminary Report of the Lord President's Committee".It stated:Much thought was being devoted to the debasement of English to a point where it could serve as a medium of communication between Anglo-Saxons and other races, known as OR. For this purpose of keeping the foreigner in his place was required a limited range of forceful and easily memorised admonitions".Sir Alexander then went on to say:Prolonged experimentation with what may be called the raw material of bargee English shows that the number of nouns can be reduced to 1,163 and the adjectives to one. A considerable number of verbs would have to be retained, together with their participles, but the mixed sub-committee, which has not yet completed its study of this particular subject, says in an interim report that the less said about some of these verbs, the better".With that we entirely agree.
However, I find the idea of a national language commission intriguing. I have no doubt that many noble Lords would be well qualified to sit on it. The debate has brought out many differences of view, even on the relatively straightforward matter of spelling. Would agreement on a programme of reform be possible? How could the commission seek to persuade others with ideas of their own? Would they be able to achieve international acceptance, in the United States and in the countries of the old and new Commonwealth? These are not easily soluble problems. I am certainly not convinced that a commission, even if a need could be demonstrated, would work, 799 given our traditions.
I was very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kilmarnock, for his most valuable suggestion of a smaller Quango. I think that he called it the English Language Monitoring Service, and as the noble Lord, Lord Fraser of Kilmorack, would have said, it would rapidly become known as ELMS. I am sure that we would all support the noble Lord's position as I believe a principal administrator of this particular service. I could not help reflecting that if we were looking for people to serve on this Quango, we might bear in mind the fascinating dispute which is currently going on in the columns of the press among the English dons at Cambridge. It is of course a situation worthy of the late Lord Snow himself. Would not the unemployed dons be very suitable to serve on this particular Quango?
I should like to end on a rather more serious note, and turn to a matter to which many noble Lords have referred; namely, gobbledygook. I have much sympathy for those who have banded together to form a society against the proliferation of gobbledygook, and no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, is its president. Official documents which fail to explain themselves properly to those whom they are intended to assist not only serve to alienate the individual from officialdom, but can have serious consequences.
I believe strongly that education today needs to explain itself and its aims clearly if it is to gain the friends and indeed the resources that it needs at a time when there is fierce competition for every available pound. We in education, through clarity and directness of approach, must speak with equal force and equal relevance to the layman and to the professional alike, and through this clarity we must show that we truly understand ourselves what it is that we are seeking from others. I believe that only in this way can we be sure that the message will be correctly interpreted by our audience, whoever they may be. The use of educational jargon does not impress; it does not even blind with science. In my experience it merely serves to alienate and to hinder the proper delivery of whatever message the education service is trying to give.
There is, moreover, a further danger. Too free a use of jargon may not only confuse the outsider; it may also affect the thinking of those who use it. There is a tendency in the social services, and indeed I believe in many Government services that are concerned with people, to use jargon terms, such as "client groups", which is used to describe those at whom a particular service is aimed. In using such anonymous language it is all too easy to forget that "client groups" are made up of people—parents, pupils, patients, the old, the young, the disabled. I believe that it is very important that all of us in public life should therefore be very careful how we use language and we should always remember that it is designed to help the people and not to make things more complicated and more difficult.
During the course of the debate I have looked to see whether it is possible to find some good examples of leaflets produced by my department which are easy to understand. I shall of course show them to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft. Looking at it quite quickly, I believe that the leaflet which sets out details 800 on pay and pensions for teachers—which is itself a very complicated subject—does so very well, in a form which is intelligible to people. The same applies to the leaflet on grants to students; one might expect students to understand something more easily than many other people. The leaflet sets out in very clear English what students can have by way of grants.
I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, what we do about English in schools. I was rather surprised that he felt that we had much to learn from the French system of education. It is true that there is the French academy, but I should have thought that he would not himself be in favour of the highly-centralised system of education in which, it is always alleged—even if it is not exactly true today—that the Minister of Education knows what every child is doing in France at 10 o'clock on a Monday morning—
§ Baroness Young
Our devolved system may at first appear to be more confused, but I believe that it is an extremely good system. It is a national system, locally administered, in which responsibility is shared between local government and the teachers and governors of a school.
I am certain that the noble Lord has had an opportunity to read the document which my department issued last January called A Framework for the School Curriculum. In that he will see—and I quote from it—that the Secretaries of State… consider that English and mathematics should form part of every pupil's course throughout the whole period of compulsory education. These subjects are essential both in their own right and because of the importance of language and mathematical skills for many other curriculum uses".The department will be issuing a follow-up document before too long, and, again, the importance of English in the school curriculum will be stressed. I think this is a matter on which we can all agree, and perhaps on that note of what I hope will be agreement I can once again thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for introducing this debate for us, which I am sure we have all enjoyed and will re-read later with enjoyment as well.
§ 7.31 p.m.
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale
My Lords, at this hour I certainly should not be justified in doing more than thanking those of your Lordships who have taken part in this debate for what I think will be agreed to have been a most informative as well as a most entertaining discussion, and I am truly grateful. This is not a topic on which I think we are likely to make much rapid progress, but I thought the noble Baroness's speech tonight was more forthcoming than on the last occasion we debated this subject. As of course I do not propose to comment on the individual speeches beyond thanking your Lordships, I content myself by associating myself, if I may, with the tributes that have been paid to the maiden speech of my noble and learned friend.
The only other matter I wanted to mention arises out of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, who, in the old Chinese fashion, let off fireworks with his gunfire. I entirely agreed with what he said, and I venture to think it might be well worthwhile exploring 801 whether, instead of the Report stage in the second House which discusses a Bill, we should not devote the time to the scrutiny of the language of the legislation. Having said that, I merely thank your Lordships for taking part in this debate and, in spite of Lord Bullock's encouragement, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.
§ Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.