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The Queen’s English, not German or Greek

07/06/2012

I said it in Hebrew. I said it in Dutch.
I said it in German and Greek;
But I wholly forgot (and it vexes me much)
That English is what you speak!
[Lewis Carroll. The Hunting of the Snark]

The Queen’s English Society [QES] is 40 years old this year. Since 1972, its 1,000-ish members have struggled and railed against sloppey speling, lazy slang (yeah), the temptation to continually split infinitives and Americanization of the natural ‘color’ of our glorious native tongue; darn toot’n’. Do pay attention at the back!

France has an official institution, l’Académie française, to defend the purity of its language. L’Académie was established in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu. Its rulings are, however, only advisory, as can be seen in the relentless tide of Franglais on the streets. La Dictionnaire de l’Académie française does have official standing and authority. So far, the first two volumes of the ninth edition have appeared.

The 40 members are known as les immortels, from the motto, À l’immortalité. They have an official uniform. The habit vert, worn at l’Académie’s formal ceremonies, was first adopted during Napoleon’s reorganisation of the Institut de France, after its suppression during the French Revolution. Members wear a long black coat and black-feathered bicorne hat, both richly embroidered with golden-green leaf motifs, with black trousers or skirt.

In Britain, by contrast, language is a far more flexible commodity, and we have only a worthy and dwindling band of earnest, unelected volunteers to defend it against what they see as its corruption. I say ‘have’, but that should be ‘had’. The QES will not be celebrating its 41st birthday, as it is about to disband. This decision was prompted by the pitiful turnout at the recent AGM, which was attended by just 22 people.

The chairman has written a peevish letter to members: “Despite the sending out of a request for nominations for chairman, vice-chairman, administrator, web master and membership secretary, no one came forward to fill any role. So I have to inform you that QES will no longer exist. There will be one more Quest (the society’s journal), then all activity will cease and the society will be wound up. The effective date will be 30 June 2012.”

The writing has long been on the virtual wall, as the QES website is still advertising the September 2011 AGM and summer lunch as a future event. The society, however, have a role in helping to shape the spelling, punctuation and grammar elements of English in the schools’ national curriculum. Common complaints listed by the QES include:

Missing and wrongly used apostrophes, and not only by greengrocer’s
Profligacy with exclamation marks!!!!
Not using inverted commas for direct speech
‘Fewer’ and ‘less’. You don’t say ‘fewer money’, so don’t say ‘less people’
Americanisms such as ‘snuck in’
American spillchuckers
not starting sentences with a capital letter, or ending them with a full stop,
Confusion of homonyms – their/there and licence/license
Misuse of semicolons; this is admittedly a bit recondite, but I love them

Mind you, the QES seems to have been so tediously meticulous and obsessive about preserving the language in aspic (in much the same way as l’Académie française tries, and fails) that it did inadvertently spawn The Anti-Queen’s English Society. It was formed “to promote inclusion and resist essentialist and imperialist views of language, as promoted by the Queen’s English Society”. It has to be asked whether the A-QES will itself fold, now that it no longer has a QES to be A-.

“You know, I do speak the Queens English. It’s just the wrong Queens,
that’s all. It’s over the 59th Street Bridge. It’s not over the Atlantic Ocean.”
[Cyndi Lauper]

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