Saturday, January 5, 2008

Life and language; a personal story.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico Philosophicus 1922

Every individual has their own story; a history that makes them who they are. The personal history of our language development is an important factor in the way we evolve as individuals; how we perceive ourselves and how people perceive us. The truth is we all make judgements about people when they speak; variety, lexis and register all subconsciously affect our opinions of people. Sometimes these opinions can be subjective, particularly when style is valued over content.

To examine the way in which an individual’s language develops we must go back to the beginning, even before birth, because it is the language and nurturing of our parents, influenced by their own social and cultural backgrounds, which determines the course of our language development in early childhood.

My own language was heavily influenced by my parents. My mother spoke Standard English with Received Pronunciation, although she was raised by parents born in the East End of London. However, neither possessed a strong accent. Perhaps this was because they married late in life, were successful in their respective careers and sufficiently financially secure to afford the trappings of a convent education for their daughter; by which time the evidence of their humble beginnings had diminished.

My father was born in Wales, the son of a Presbyterian Church of Wales mother and an Irish Catholic father whose families disowned them on their marriage. His father died young and his mother was left, isolated, to look after her four children. Fortunately, she had received a good education - her parents were wealthy landowners – and she was able to work as a district nurse. Her education had become the family’s salvation and her children’s recognition of it altered the course of their lives; my father became a primary school headmaster. A product of an insular family and a well-educated mother, my father also spoke Standard English with little, if any, accent.

So my childhood was spent listening to the conversation of my educated, middle class parents. I never heard a swear word until I was at secondary school and then on the only occasion I used one at home, I was sent to look the meaning up in the dictionary. As a consequence, I also speak Standard English with Received Pronunciation. However, while the foundations of my language were already laid by the age of 11, when I left my father’s primary school, where I had been sheltered from the outside world, I was unaware that there were plenty, less standard and far more dramatic influences, just around the corner.

Despite my parent’s social status, I had a very frugal upbringing. My father believed a mother should be at home to look after her children; a consequence of the years spent in his sisters’ care while his mother worked unsociable hours. However, a solitary teacher’s wage was insufficient for a large, growing family, so the opportunity for a convent school education was passed over for the practicalities of the local comprehensive, where I quickly learnt that I would become the victim of bullying if I didn’t conform. Conveniently, one streetwise boy took it upon himself to educate me with every conceivable swear word and expletive and I was a willing and able apprentice. At home, I was well spoken and polite, but at school, using a combination of colourful language and humour I became a popular and sometimes rebellious child; a chameleon in child’s clothes.

These school years dramatically affected my personal language development. Despite much lip biting, I have not been able to dispense with the occasional vulgarity, but at least now I use it only when I know someone well enough to be sure they won’t be offended or as a source of humour. Perhaps as a result of the double life I led, I now find it very easy to switch my language style and vocabulary to suit any situation; a characteristic which enabled me to be very successful in my career in sales.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that by the time I was approaching my O’levels, both my written and oral language had deteriorated. My English grade had fallen from an A1 to C3 by year 3 and my O’level mock result was a pathetic 34%. I could easily have fallen by the wayside, but fortunately, I came up against a teacher who was up to the task of pulling me back into line.

The indomitable Mary Ticehurst was head of sixth form and wife of a vicar. Wily and perceptive, she was an exacting adversary. Undoubtedly, she was the overriding influence halting my decline and most significantly, helped my writing to evolve into its present form. She relentlessly subjected me to excruciating written humiliation and subtle classroom manipulation. Her red pen was her favourite weapon and it saw plenty of action. The result; O’level, grade B.

Leaving sixth form and university behind, where I had returned to the middle class fold, I lived and worked in many locations including Bristol, Birmingham, Swindon, Ilford and London, but my stay was never long enough to acquire an accent. Home had been Weston Super Mare, on the very fringes of Somerset, but where the regional dialect was much weaker and which I had never assimilated. Probably this was due to parental influence, but also to speech and verse lessons and amateur dramatics; I frequently played the well-spoken ingénue.

My middle class persona and speech enabled me to secure a job at a prestigious West End jewellers where I worked in sales with others of the same ilk. My extensive vocabulary, primarily the result of prolific childhood reading, proved valuable and continued to expand, not only with jewellery jargon, but also as a result of conversing with people from diverse backgrounds and origins. Ultimately, my career reinforced my formative language and idiolect and crystallised its style and presentation; foreign tourists are partial to a typical English accent; it sells merchandise very well.

Now my life has turned full circle and I am consciously aware that my language is influencing my sons and that society and culture and many other factors will play a part in their stories too. How great will the role of education be in their histories? A minimum of 12 formative years. Yet it is reported that huge numbers of young adults are leaving school illiterate. Can this really be true? The government claims education has never been more successful; in fact it’s so good it needs to supplement the A grade with an A* to distinguish the brilliant from the not so quite brilliant. But I know the truth. I’ve heard it on streets and buses, seen it on billboards and magazines and it’s no good the government hiding behind woolly white papers and bleating about imaginary achievements. The English Language is not just evolving, it’s degenerating.

It’s time to do more than just reflect upon our consumer-orientated society and its reliance on texting, email and slang as means of communication and make the changes that are really needed. To preserve the English Language, we must remember the true value of education as a cornerstone of democracy and freedom. Devalue education and you devalue society. We mustn’t let history repeat itself. We mustn’t let the books burn in the fires of ignorance. We all know what has to be done; so we must do it. The time has come to pick up those politically incorrect, red pens and repair the damage.

© Jane Turley 2008


  1. The state of education in this country continually enrages me;children are leaving school without basic numeracy and literacy skills. The curriculum tries to meet too many needs and so lowers the overall standards. I wish it would just concentrate on reading, writing and maths... without which you can do nothing. I am truly sorry to hear that things seem equally as bad in the US.
    I can feel a major rant coming on... but only after I've finished dreaming about chocolate! 5 days without it and I'm ready to explode...

  2. I would love to disagree - being a teacher myself, but i completely agree with you. When i explode about it (at regular intervals) i am made to feel old, and not with the times! Well excuse me! I dont't care what language you use when you text, msn message your friends, chat on the phone etc. slang etc is fine BUT you must also be able to speak accurate ENGLISH LANGUAGE without putting 'well' before everything!!! Sorry, just finished 3 and a half hours of talking non stop at parents evening so i may not be making much sense myself!

  3. What a great personal reflection piece about your own language development! Thank you for sharing the link to it.

    I do social history myself, though I rarely get into the sociolinguistics angle, mainly because of the written sources I use. Though I do see tastes coming through in language, and those can be telling too.

    Since you tie language to personal identity, let me offer a quote from Brian Friel that ties our memories to language too. It comes from his play Translations.

    "It is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language."

    Mark Stoneman

  4. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your appreciative comments. This article was one that I rewrote from one that I originally wrote for a literacy course I was doing. During the course we were made to think about our own personal language development - something I had not really done before. So from a personal perspective it was an interesting task to complete. I haven't read Translations but judging from that quote I think I should take a look.

    If your interested I have recently published an article on grammar on Disconnected Consortium (link on my blogroll) and there is related discussion thread on The Book Readers Group.

    Hey Amanda,

    I see I failed to comment on your message - remiss of me! I try reply to all comments. So if you pick this up.. hope your having a good hols... and have a stiff drink before the next parent's evening!


I am always delighted to receive comments!

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