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Who cares about English? Part 1

We at the Oxford English Dictionary recently partnered with the British Council to host a panel discussion entitled ‘Who cares about English?’

The panel was chaired by John Knagg, Head of English Research at the British Council, and consisted of:

  • John Simpson, Chief Editor of the OED
  • Romesh Gunesekera, Booker prize shortlisted novelist
  • Henry Hitchings, journalist and author of The Language Wars
  • Prudence Raper, former Hon Secretary of the Queen’s English Society

Over the next few months we’ll be featuring extracts from the discussion which considered issues including:

  • Does ‘standard English’ exist in today’s globalized society?
  • Who regulates the language – lexicographers, the education system, the media – or the public?
  • Is the language being dumbed down? And does this matter?

Question one: “Why do you care about English, and what have you been doing about it?”

This was the opening question addressed to the four panellists. Watch the video to see what they said, or scroll down for the transcript of their answers.

Romesh Gunesekera

I care about English because, as a writer, it’s more than just the tool that we use. If you were carving a sculpture with a piece of wood, as a writer, it’s a bit like you’re actually growing the wood as you use it, so it’s a deep connection to the language. English has fed me through the years, it’s a deep relationship, a sort of love affair, I suppose. Sometimes I move away from it, and come back to it. It’s something I like to use because it’s a very flexible, malleable language, it changes.

What have I done about it? Well, I’ve been writing books; maybe half a million words I suppose. A labour of love.

Prudence Raper

Well I’ve always been passionate about English, and read dictionaries from an early age, which makes me sound very improbable. I decided before tonight that I had better count the number of books which I had in the house about English, the English language, or dictionaries. I got up to forty, then I decided to stop: I couldn’t believe that I’d got forty books about English.

What do I do about it? Well I joined the Queen’s English Society some years ago, and I also carry a marker pen with me for putting in apostrophes. I haven’t yet got out of my car to do anything about those signs you see on the side of the road which say ‘Advanced Warning’. I don’t know what an elementary warning is.

John Simpson

I’m interested in recording the language from the earliest period up to the present day. I’m fascinated about the links there are between the meanings of words and the history of words and the society out of which they come. So when I’m working on the OED with my colleagues and we take a word like ‘magazine’ for example, what’s important for us is to see the run of meanings from Arabic into Spanish into English, and then bifurcating and trifurcating from the sense of a storehouse, which it originally had in Arabic, into the storehouse of bullets in a gun, or a storehouse of information in a book. It’s those sorts of networks and links that I’m interested in.

I also care about how definitions are written. In the old days, the OED had really quite formal definitions, and I think it’s changing that style into an elegant formality of today is important, and I try to get the editors working on the OED, of which there are about seventy, to maintain that sort of level of standard in describing the meanings they’re writing about.

I also think that a dictionary entry, and I’m talking about dictionaries because that’s mainly what I know about, should have some sort of poetical structure. I think you should be able to look at a dictionary entry and have a sense of how important the word is in the language, and, if possible, how the various senses and subsenses are connected. When I was working on new words only for the OED, I used to carry around a little jotter in my back pocket, and whenever I heard a word or a meaning that I thought wasn’t in the OED, or wasn’t covered by a dictionary’s coverage of the language, I’d jot it down. That worked fine for two or three years, and then I forgot when I put my trousers in the washing machine that the jotter was still there. The first time I did that, I got another jotter, but now we have such good mechanisms for catching words, I don’t have the jotter, but I do still have my trousers.

Henry Hitchings

Well I’ve written three books on the subject, but I think I should start by saying I care about English because as a native English speaker, English is the medium which I use to project myself into the world. As a journalist and a writer, it’s also a medium which enables me to earn a living. There’s another point which no-one’s touched on, which I think is pertinent, given that we’re here partly under the auspices of the British Council, and that is that English is now one of Britain’s few significant exports, and it seems to me that maintaining standards of English is essential to making our capacity to export it in a meaningful way sustainable.

Also, like John, I’m interested in the idea of language as the archives of history. One of my books, which is called The Secret Life of Words, is about words that have been assimilated into English from other languages and I think of individual words as fossil poems. I think each word provides us with access to history and the English language is a wonderful historical document, a kind of tapestry of the history of the English speaking peoples.