Last week linguistics professor Willem Hollmann argued that snobby British examiners mustn’t penalise those who say “I were” rather than “I was”. But the way we speak matters, says Clare Foges in The Times. If young people from across Britain are to conquer disadvantage and low expectations, they must first “conquer diction and grammar, smashing the invisible sound barriers that have held them back”.
Linguists such as Hollmann would dismiss this as hopelessly old-fashioned. They think there’s no such thing as speaking “correctly” and that language is a living thing. But the sad truth is employers don’t agree. Subconsciously, we label the speaker who says “pacifically” instead of “specifically” as not up to the job. Before “enviously mellifluous” Brummies, Geordies or Scots think I’m attacking them, I’m not. “Properly” isn’t shorthand for “speaking like the Dowager Countess of Grantham”. Huw Edwards and Sir Lenny Henry have burrs bred in Bridgend and Dudley respectively but “speak clearly and correctly”. To truly “level up” society, better elocution is economically vital – and satisfying. As Professor Henry Higgins puts it to Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion: “Think what you’re dealing with. The majesty and grandeur of the English language, it’s the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative and musical mixtures of sounds. That’s what you’ve set yourself out to conquer … And conquer it you will.”