Neil McNicholas: Speaking up for the English language

BBC newsreaders at Broadcasting House have been accused of mangling the English language.
BBC newsreaders at Broadcasting House have been accused of mangling the English language.
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A COUPLE of years ago, all announcers and newsreaders on the BBC seemed to have been instructed to begin pronouncing the word sixth as a lisping “sickth” rather than the more sibilant “sicksth” as stated in the dictionary.

Clearly an edict must have gone out to all department heads and anyone failing to comply would have their diphthongs removed, otherwise why and how did it happen?

Until then no one behind a microphone had said “sickth” but once the BBC set the ball rolling all at once everyone on television was pronouncing it that way. No one else does, but television announcers do.

No one can have failed to notice the very annoying habit of people’s voices going up at the end of a sentence as if they are talking to an idiot who might not understand what has been said without the added emphasis.

Where did that come from – how did it get started? Everyone didn’t wake up one morning and start talking that way. It certainly wasn’t homespun and may actually have come across the Atlantic. If people would just listen to themselves, they would realise how unnatural and extremely annoying it is, but they obvious don’t – or they don’t care – because it continues to spread like an infectious disease. The latest thing that everyone is suddenly doing when asked a question on radio or television is to begin their answer with the word “So”. Question: “What do you think of the decision?” Answer: “So I agree with it.”

Question: “How old are you?” Answer: “So I’m 54 this year.”

Question: “Was the second goal offside?” Answer: “So I thought it was.”

“So” isn’t the way to start an answer. Some sentences can begin with the word, for example “So far as I know”, “So it would seem”, “So what?”, but that’s it. It’s not even grammatically correct. So (oops) why is everyone suddenly speaking like that? How did it start?

Another thing you hear all the time is people quantifying the word “unique”: “This is extremely unique”, “What a very unique experience”, “It was far more unique back then”, etc. There are no degrees of “unique-ness”, something is either unique or it isn’t. Don’t people listen to themselves? Don’t they hear what they are saying?

Just how much of this can be laid at the door of failing standards in our schools is a point for discussion when it comes to the average pupil’s knowledge of the English language, but such things are unacceptable when they are used by correspondents who are wordsmiths by profession.

Not for the first time I heard a reporter the other day say “I am stood”, instead of “I am standing”, and as a matter of course they will get singular and plural subjects and verbs wrong: “The town council say…”, “Man United are…”, “Neither of them want…”

The English language is taking enough of a beating these days as a result of poor teaching and, as a consequence, poor learning, without apparently arbitrary decisions being taken by whoever is responsible – or irresponsible – for further injecting the language with erroneous pronunciations and bad grammar.

Call me pedantic if you like (and I’m sure someone will) but these things are important. Yes, language changes over time – decades usually, sometimes centuries – but I think we need to question arbitrary changes that follow fads or are the result of, shall we say, less than enlightened influences. This is our national language that is at risk.

You will be familiar with the parlour game Chinese Whispers? A person whispers a word or phrase in the ear of the person next to them and so on down the line. Usually what the last person hears will bear little or no resemblance to the original.

At least with the game you know what was said at first and you can work out where the changes entered in. You can’t do that with the English language. Once you’ve lost what you started out with there may be no way to roll things back, and so it is all the more important to monitor changes and influences along the way rather than when it may too late to do anything about them.

It’s the same with adding salt to food when you’re cooking. Once the salt goes in, you can’t take it out again, and so it would be better to let people salt their own meal rather than inflicting it on everyone whether they like salt or not.
So, too, with the use and abuse of language.

Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.