When I first co-presented a programme on BBC Radio Sheffield in the 1980s with my old mate Martyn Wiley I remember getting a letter from somebody complaining that I wasn't speaking properly; to be precise, I wasn't using The Queen's English. Around the same time somebody stopped me on the street and said, in a voice as sharp as the neb on his cap, "Tha can't talk like that on't wireless" to which I replied "But I'm talking like thee…" He wasn't impress
As far as I knew, the Queen didn't come from Barnsley so there was no way we were going to talk like each other, and I wasn't sure what the right way to talk on the wireless was, although I was aware that I didn't talk much like the chaps I heard announcing programmes on Radio 4.
The idea of Proper English, of there being a right way to speak and a simpler way of organising written and spoken language, has been around for years and it looks like it'll never go away. In an illuminating new book, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, Henry Hitchings has written a detailed narrative of the attempts of mainly amateur pedants to make rules about how we speak and write, from Cave Beck's 17th-century attempts to "set out a system in which all words were replaced by minutely combinations of letters and numerals, so that a fly was r1941 and a firefly was r1944" to the current outcry against "upspeak", that way of ending a sentence with the last word somehow lifting in the air as though hauled aloft by a crane, which seemed to originate with the TV favourite Neighbours .
When I was growing up in South Yorkshire it always felt there were at least three language registers that we all used; there was the way we spoke at home, which was a little bit broad but still understandable to the outside world, there was the way we talked to our mates in an effervescent spray of language full of dialect, private phrases, jokes and rhymes, and the way we spoke to teachers and vicars and people in suits, which was not full of what some grown-ups called Slang and some called Lazy Speech but which was somehow more polite and well-constructed.
It was always felt that the local language wasn't good enough for the world beyond Barnsley, that it wasn't a language at all but a variation on a theme, a copy of a language, a toy language that would fall to bits in real society.What Hitchings shows is that language cannot be tamed, cannot be codified, cannot be forced into stylistic straightjackets; if you try, it just pops out like a seaside postcard landlady bursting from a comedy corset. In the end, as he says, we're simply looking "for a language in which to live…" which is the kind of emollient phrase that wouldn't satisfy those who get cross about various aspects of language use.
People get angry about grammar, for example. The apostrophe is a case in point, the kerfuffle over which neatly illustrates Hitchings's (or is it Hitchings' ? Let's start a row!) argument; he describes it as "a entirely insecure orthographic squiggle" and predicts its eventual demise. He writes about Lynne Truss's bestselling grammatical equivalent of the Highway Code or the Book of Common Prayer, Eats, Shoots and Leaves and her incandescent rage when she encountered a sign outside a petrol station that read "Come inside for CD's, DVD's, VIDEO's and BOOK's". She writes that "we should fight like tigers to preserve our punctuation" but, as Hitchings points out, who is this "our"? Are they the same people who told me that dialect was sloppy speech and that it was proper not to pronounce the L in Ralph? Personally, I'm relaxed about apostrophes; I know where they should go but it doesn't bother me that people improvise with them. In the end, language is about improvisation anyway. I reckon that once a year we should have Apostrophe Amnesty Day. Pu't them where you li'ke!
At the core of this big-hearted book is a desire for us all to take charge of language, to speak it and write it in a way that is appropriate for us. Hitchings also made me think about the fundamental connection between speaking and writing; as he points out "things we say cannot be deleted, and they linger in people's memories longer than we may find it comfortable to imagine" which is probably why I can still remember the exact tone of voice that bloke used when he told me off for how I spoke on the radio.
In the end, as Hitchings writes, language is "the dance of the moment", so let's dance.
The Language Wars, published by John Murray, priced 17.99, can be ordered on 0800 0153232 or online at www.yorkshirepostbookshop.co.uk