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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS #67 (article first published : 2005-06-12)

That opener was too tempting to resist. It simply refers to the (atrocious) use of English by professionals – journalists, writers, broadcasters, advertisers and the rest. (To be fair, advertisers are reasonably careful with the language while pursuing their dreadful trade.)

An article by Michael Henderson in The Spectator in February this year makes the point forcibly. I quote:

“How often does one hear the world’s greatest language spoken with respect by its native speakers? Not often in England, that’s for sure.

“It is not only in the streets of our cities … that the verbal barbarians have taken over …Turn on the radio or the television, and anybody who cares for the sound and meaning of the English language must recoil at how it is abused by those who make a living from speaking it. (My italics.) Although it is our greatest gift to the world … too many people are either unable to speak it clearly or, in the case of a metropolitan media class tainted by inverted snobbery, they refuse to.

“As Anthony Burgess, who spent most of his adult life abroad, said, on one of his last visits to this country, “Only in England is the perversion of language regarded as a victory for democracy.”

That’s nearly all true, and the clause in italics is the essence of the matter: these people are professionals, and they should use the language better than they do. Only Anthony Burgess was, alas, wrong; the “democratic” perversion of English is vigorously at work in South Africa. Pronunciation is, of course, bound to be a problem when many broadcasters are not “native speakers” of English. Usually it is simply irritating, but sometimes it is extremely confusing.

A nurse interviewed on radio recently spoke of “her carrier”. She meant her career, but shifting the emphasis to the first syllable destroyed her meaning. A male speaker referred to “INtegrity”; the stress on the first syllable made the word indistinguishable from “nitty-gritty”. And as Rick Thompson points out in his book, Writing For Broadcast Journalists (Routledge, London, 2005), “The moment listeners become aware of the way language is being used, their concentration on the meaning of the words is lost.”

Sometimes the misplaced emphasis can be very funny, especially when humour is inappropriate. A newsreader on South African radio told of a horrific accident in the United States in which a parachutist jumped from an aircraft and had one or both legs severed by another aircraft passing below the first. But she pronounced “severed” to rhyme exactly with “revered”. My dreadfully inappropriate laughter drowned out the rest of the story – I mean, how severe can an accident get?

A curious affectation has crept into the speech of the few native English speakers left on South African radio. They insist on pronouncing the word “envoy” as “ongvoy”, as though it were French. Certainly its origin is French, but that’s true of vast numbers of English words, and envoy is solidly English by now. Interestingly, we also have the word “envoi”, which means “the concluding part of a poem or a book” (Chambers). Although this is also French in origin, and is even spelt the French way, it is also solidly English, and is pronounced just like “envoy”. Try telling that to a broadcaster.

I suppose it is slightly cheering to find that illiteracy is not confined to South Africa (or England). Consider these two sentences from Angels And Demons, by the egregious Dan Brown (author of The Da Vinci Code): “Instantly the breath went out of him. It was like he had been hit by a truck.”

Now consider the following information about the author: “He is a graduate of Amherst College and Phillips Exeter Academy, where he has taught English and creative writing.”

I rest my case.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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