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Speaking Proper 

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Episode credited cast:
Melvyn Bragg ... Himself - Presenter
Rest of cast listed alphabetically:
David Gwillim
Amanda Root
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November 2003 (UK) See more »

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Trying to Stop a Changing English.
8 February 2015 | by rmax304823See all my reviews

One of the things I find most appealing about this series is the host's not simply describing -- dryly, academically -- the changes undergone by the English language, but his reeling off a list of words and phrases from earlier periods that we still find in daily use today. Here, in an offhand reference to the English Civil War -- Cromwell vs. the King -- we get, among other tidbits, "keep your powder dry" and "warts and all." Isaac Newton brought us "lens" and "apparatus." In 1680 they invented "mob", from Latin "mobile vulgus," the fickle crowd.

Early on, Bragg, the benign host, brings up a brief description of the Enlightenment and John Locke's argument that words need to be carefully defined, otherwise we will wind up arguing about words that have different meanings. One that comes to mind at the moment, a word over the definition of which several sides are currently clashing, is "terrorist." Locke was a philosopher, educated at Christchurch College, Oxford, and he lived in the 17th century, but we're still arguing indirectly over some of his words today. Where Locke wrote that all human beings are entitle to "life, liberty, and property," the good people who wrote the Constituion used "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." What does the word "liberty" mean in that context?

Mostly this episode, "Between You and I," deals with attempt to fix (or "ascertain" as the taste makers of the period would have it) the pronunciation, definition, and grammatic forms of English words. The various writers differentiated between "different from", which they considered correct, and "different to", the common English usage of today. "Shall" and "will" were fixed, although I have to admit the difference between the two seemed nonexistent to me in grammar school. (I had -- and still have -- trouble with "farther" and "further".) Strangely, they allowed a sentence to end with a proposition. I don't know when that practice was banned. Certain pronunciations did become fixed -- the vowel sounds in "bath" or "last" turned into "bahth" and "lahst", a process I think linguists call back gliding. In the South Pacific, American Samoa is only eighty miles from the former British possession that is now Samoa, but the differences persist. You can tell on which island a speaker was born, because on Samoa it's "bahth" and on American Samoa it's "bath."

Thomas Sheridan, an Irish playwright, wrote a book designed to teach everyone to speak alike -- elocution -- while thinking that it would eliminate the class differences that were emerging. It didn't work,. It only distinguished between those who spoke "properly" and those who copied proper speech. This is funny stuff. Bragg has a dry wit. Very British, don't you know. Not everyone accepted the idea of universal rules. There was also considerable effort put into using the speech of the common people, including regional dialects. In Britain, William Wordsworth resisted. In Scotland, Robert Burns wrote in the local dialect and some of his stuff has come down to us, either raw or refined. "Auld Lang Syne." And what Burns put down as "Tae a Moose" has reached us as "To A Mouse." Here's one verse, about "the best laid plans of mice and men."

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane, In proving foresight may be vain: The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft agley, An' lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, For promis'd joy!

The plowman has turned up a mouse's nest and ruined it, and the mouse dashes off in fright. The same thing happens to people who work hard and plan, only to see everything fall down. Cute, isn't it? If it was good enough for Steinbeck, it's good enough for us. Only the punch line has been changed from "gang aft agley" to some version of "go oft awry." Meanwhile, some novelists of considerable historical import were beginning to write, like Jane Austen, but the prose was very decorous. Outside her circle, lesser writers were hard at work inventing euphemisms for unmentionable objects like the male organ -- "Captain Standish" and "the silent flute."

The beginning of the Industrial Age, around 1850, pretty much put an end to attempts to "ascertain" English speech. Too many new things required new names, and the now-crowded cities with their factories, created what the people who had to live in them called "slums." Cockney speech and its rhyming slang was established among the poor -- "Elephant's trunk" meant "drunk." I think we can still occasionally run into "Bristol Cities."

The series is both informative and vastly entertaining. Don't hesitate to watch it.


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