Tag Archives: BBC

Nation shall prescribe unto nation

11 Jul

‘I’d have gone for “visionnaire” myself. I’m glad we didn’t get “auralooker”:

Historian Nick Kapur’s fascinating Twitter thread about the BBC’s Advisory Committee On Spoken English and its influence on modern speech reveals just how close we came to referring to anticyclones as “halcyons”, but also offers an illuminating insight into what prescription in language really means.

Because of course, there is not one kind of linguistic prescriptivism: there are two. One opposes all language change and all neologism, and attempts to conserve current norms as an eternal standard. But the other seeks to deliberately modify language: not to reject new words, but to invent them, and to influence speech and writing to go in new directions – such as the campaigns to popularise Ms and Mx as neutral  honorifics. It is this second kind of prescriptivism, which one might call activist or progressive prescriptivism, that Kapur is tweeting about here.

The story begins, he relates, in 1926, when Lord Reith sets up a committee to help resolve one of the many problems a pioneer national broadcaster has to solve: how should you pronounce certain words on air? (This group, the Advisory Committee On Spoken English, still exists today, doing very similar work to help BBC broadcasters). Then in 1935, faced with the question of what to call users of the new media of the day – television –  a new sub-committee was set up, not just to advise on pronouncing words, but to invent some new ones. Led by the Anglo-American man of letters Logan Pearsall Smith – an eager language reformer – the Sub-Committee on Words generated the alternatives listed above to start the debate (although it eventually rejected all of them and recommended “televiewer”, subsequently shortened to “viewer”.)

After that, the sub-committee remained active, and widened its remit to mass-produce new words for broadcast far beyond the new industry’s immediate needs, eventually becoming so extravagant and implausible in its inventions that an exasperated chairman of governors closed it down in 1937. But by then it had created several terms – “roundabout” for the road junction, “serviceman” for members of all the armed forces, “art researcher/art historian” to replace the German word “kunstforscher” – that are now commonplace in modern English.

The impression descriptivist scholarship frequently gives is that language is an unknowable stew of errors, localisms, homophone confusions and misreadings, prone to unpredictable change. The emphasis, or the cultural preference, often seems to be bestowed on the unwilled variations to language, not the willed ones. But Kapur reminds us that English is also highly susceptible to the approaches of those who have a design on it, from Edwardian grammarians like Fowler to equalities campaigners to spelling reformers like McCormick at the Chicago Tribune. There are words and conventions in many registers of modern English that were created deliberately by people who wanted to see them catch on and took the opportunity to make it happen.

Sometimes, of course, prescriptivism is institutional, and benefits from that privilege. It might be justifiably argued that the BBC’s committee, as a quasi-official body proposing usage for the nation’s only broadcaster, was in a very strong position to succeed, particularly as it was inventing terms for then-unnamed phenomena. But the Academie Française, which is attempting to do for French today almost exactly what the BBC committee did for English in the 1930s – and from a similarly state-sanctioned position – is greeted with widespread indifference and derision for its efforts.

And in any case, innovative prescription does not need an official platform to succeed. This blog has discussed at length the extent to which Fowler’s suggestions have influenced modern formal and legal English, but Fowler himself was no state official, nor did his books bear any government imprimatur (although Churchill is said to have recommended Modern English Usage to his staff after it came out). His books were a success because, then as now, there is a sustained public appetite for advice on how to engage with formal English. (Indeed, given the existence of a generation of professional linguists who consider it their role to observe rather than advise, the field for such material is possibly clearer today than it was then.)

This is not to say the process is easy: frequently, big innovations just don’t catch on.  There is no doubt that some of the committee’s ideas, like some of Fowler’s, are much worse than others: for example, one member apparently felt it desirable to create a shorter term for “inferiority complex” (“inflex”), and another proposed “yulery” as a collective term for Christmas festivities. The point is not that Fowler or the committee were always “right” about what they proposed; the point is – at least sometimes – that they were successful.

Usage remains the timeless, and the only, judge of current English. But usage does not simply adjudicate on terms that have risen up unbidden from the demos; it also sits in judgment on peri-statal prescriptions and private linguistic entrepreneurialism. Due process is afforded to all new words, whether they are accidents or designs. Linguists say that language is a democracy, and it is: a democracy in which, among other things, anyone is free to prescribe and see what happens.

Neutral News at Ten

24 Jan

Now this – this – is a news organisation that’s committed to impartiality:

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On Fleet Street, where the culture wars rage, no one is surprised that newspapers take sides in their use of language just as they do on their leader pages. But imagine the pressure to stay out of trouble if you’re writing the BBC’s style guide – the benchmark for judicious, non-partisan, inclusive journalism, paid for by all and bound by conscience to reflect all views.

How does it do? By and large, very well. In all areas where it can stay aloof, it does. It frequently links to the painstakingly fair current affairs briefings on the BBC’s Academy website, and it demonstrates a capacity to make distinctions and see both sides that is almost jurisprudential. Whether distinguishing a population from the militants that claim to represent them, or identifying both winners and losers when interest rates rise, it’s hard not to like a style guide that reminds you “not all Tamils are Tigers”, or that “good news” is “not to be used as a blanket term”. For example:

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But the problem for all style guides is that there are areas of political language where it is impossible to stay aloof, because the only terms in common use have become polarised. The BBC guide is more silent than it should be on some of these: there is no help for its journalists on the choice between “bedroom tax” and “spare room subsidy”, for instance, or whether it is fair to call George Osborne’s higher national wage a “living wage”, as he did. But there is at least one controversial area where it does offer guidance, to say this:

Abortion

Avoid pro-abortion, and use pro-choice instead. Campaigners favour a woman’s right to choose, rather than abortion itself. And use anti-abortion rather than pro-life, except where it is part of the title of a group’s name. 

At the left-leaning Tribune, this is not a difficult conclusion to reach. We readily dismiss the term “pro-life”: as the duty editor sometimes observes, “everyone’s pro-life”. Over at Fox News and the Daily Mail, the opposite view is taken and the phrase is in widespread use. So the decision for a BBC style guide editors must have been very sensitive. Indeed, forced to make the best of the bitter rhetoric that surrounds an angry issue, they might have opened themselves to an accusation of  bias. But what would be the alternative? Only to adopt the other side’s terms and opt for framing the debate as “pro-abortion” versus “pro-life”, alienating a different group of licence-fee payers just as much.

Judicious evenhandedness is an admirable approach to journalism, but the straight and narrow way has an awkward habit of narrowing to a point in the trickiest areas. Reading the style guide, it is impossible to doubt the BBC’s essential fairness and good conscience. But when there’s no middle ground, everyone’s forced to pick a side.