The Last of the Monoglots

As an island nation geographically isolated from continental Europe, speaking foreign languages has never been Britain’s forte. With the majority of English speaking residents having no practical need to speak anything else, most UK citizens have never bothered to learn a foreign language. Apart from going on holiday a few weeks a year, where the hotel staff, waiters and tourist information guides inevitably all speak English anyway.

What incentive do you have to learn a new language that you will probably never use? Speaking foreign languages in Britain is essentially a bourgeois luxury – a cultural reference point for the urban middle classes, a demographic who want to order a bottle of Bourgogne Pinot Noir with their friends on holiday.

With the majority of the population immune to foreign languages, the number of students taking A-levels in England and Wales has fallen to a new low. Likewise Scotland is not faring any better with more than half of all foreign language assistants in state schools axed due to budget cuts.

In a provincial region such as Aberdeenshire, which is geographically isolated even in the context of Scotland, the majority of students don’t leave the North East after graduating. Bordering only England what practical incentive does an English speaking child in Scotland have to learn German or French? A truck driver from Luxembourg or Switzerland will be expected to speak at least three or four languages in order to communicate with their clients.

Linguistic exchanges are certainly not something a Scottish driver has to worry about when he or she travels through Cumbria to England. With the English language establishing itself as the global lingua franca due to the British Empire and the economic dominance of the United States, British citizens don’t really have much incentive to learn any language other than their own.

If France had won the Seven Years’ War and North America became a French colony then the English language might have been seriously challenged. Such is the historical power of this Anglo-American hegemony then unless British students are learning new languages purely for intellectual reasons the rewards are pretty slim. Understanding all the grammatical peculiarities, complexities and declensions is a tall order, like learning a code, and then you have to be confident enough to express yourself fluently.

The UK education secretary, Michael Gove, has proposed that every child aged five or over should be learning a foreign language at school. Speaking in the Guardian newspaper, Gove says “understanding a modern foreign language helps you understand English better” and “there is no one who is fluent in a foreign language who isn’t a masterful user of their own language”.

It’s hard to dispute this and teaching languages at nursery level, where children can learn easily is probably the best way ahead. What language should these children learn to speak though? English still remains the superpower of languages despite Mandarin’s numerical advantage. Will young children ever have the chance to converse in French, German or Spanish?

Languages were never meant to be the ornamental indulgences of the upper-middle classes. Speaking in a foreign tongue requires constant practice and attention. As native speakers of the global language, British citizens are almost given a carte blanche to be lazy. Unless you can practice a new language on a regular basis then these early linguistic abilities are incredibly fragile. Britain is arguably a victim of her geographical isolation and imperial past when it comes to learning new languages.

In the Tamil Nadu state of Southern India, most citizens can speak Tamil, Telugu, Malayam and Kanada by the age of twelve. With the majority of South Indians having to learn the state language of Hindi and English to communicate with the outside world, Britain’s monolingualism looks increasingly parochial.

If the UK education secretary’s proposals are implemented on a national scale then perhaps in 30 or 40 years time, the current generation of monoglots will be an endangered species. Somehow you don’t need to speak three languages to realise not even the most successful of human empires will last forever.

Aye Right

As part of this year’s census people in Scotland will be asked if they understand, speak, read or write in Scots. The census counts everyone in Scotland once every ten years and I was initially surprised that the Aye Can website referred to ‘Scots’ as a language. Gaelic in my opinion is Scotland’s only independent tongue whereas Scots is a broad term for a loose confederation of dialects. Scots is a Germanic language and has evolved from Old English and Norse to be spoken throughout the land although not exclusively, as speaking in a Scottish accent is not the same as speaking in Scots.

Having spent the majority of my life in the North East of Scotland, I am already familiar with one of the richest Scottish dialects in Doric. The 18th century poet Allan Ramsey (1686-1758) was the first to apply the name Doric as an alternative name for Scots. In the 18th century, Scots was compared with the rustic peasant tongue of Ancient Greece, spoken in Doria, while English, the official language of the new British state of 1707, became associated with Attic, the standard language of the city states.

In post-industrial Scotland, the Doric label crept northwards and is now commonly associated with the Grampian region. Despite living in rural Aberdeenshire for over twenty years, I can’t speak in Doric or even read it properly as this wonderfully impenetrable article by Robbie Shepherd will duly illustrate. With my Anglo-Irish parents holding sway, I grew up from my Mother’s knee speaking English and often felt estranged from my peers and elders who did spik in the mither tongue.

As a product of North Sea oil, I found myself being brought up as a British migrant child in the part of Scotland no one really cares about. Geographically isolated and deeply unfashionable, I remember going to primary school and watching oil rigs pump billions into the nation’s economy from my class window. With oil barely receiving a mention in Thatcher’s memoirs, I can recall studying History at two of the country’s oldest universities, one of them being Aberdeen, and hoping to learn about how my region shaped our nation’s fortunes.

But Aberdeen rarely ever featured in my lectures and text books. All the great battles, figures and political incidents took place in the social and economic heartbeat of Scotland’s Central Belt. While the misty romances of Gaeldom provided the poets and tourists with a chocolate box vision of the Highlands. Even when the North East should have become more relevant in the latter end of the 20th century, it appears going offshore every two weeks in Thatcher’s Britain is nowhere near as romantic as ‘goin down pit’.

On being asked whether I speak or read in Scots, I can recollect the social differences in dialect from my childhood years in a commuter village south of Aberdeen. Even my Scottish peers spoke in a far softer tone than the raw Aberdeen dialect we regularly encountered at football matches and school activity weeks. Children from my school would dismiss kids fae Aberdeen as ‘toonsers’ and their accents were frequently mocked for being uncouth and poorly spoken.

Obviously I was too young to understand the social class dimension behind these childish views.  The oil boom of the late 1970s had transformed a previously isolated region, and resulted in a steady influx of non-Scots speakers into the area. Although miles away from the coastal strip of oil rich villages, the Doric tongue continues to baffle outsiders in the traditional braes and communities of the North East. As a student I remember labouring in the summer around the time of last census in the market town of Stonehaven. While obviously out of place, I struggled to keep up with the broad dialect of the labourers in the yard. The old men manning the vans would comically refer to me as a lanky ‘guffy’, and curiously enough this is a derogatory term for an Englishman.

Despite being born and raised in Aberdeenshire, I persistently felt like an outsider during my three month stint in the yard. And while any attempt to speak in Doric would have made me an imposter, I am relieved globalisation has not completely extinguished the ancient tongue of the North East. For while I cannot speak in Scots, I long for it continue regardless of whether it is a language or not.

Broadway Market

Street markets are always colourful and inviting to outsiders. Whether it’s old ladies buying fruit and vegetables, teenagers pouring through vintage stalls or polo shirted lads wolfing down burgers. Everyone loves buying their food and clothes in the great outdoors. Markets reflect their customers and things get a little E2 on a Saturday as Yindies from all over London march along the Regent’s Canal towards Broadway Market.

Amongst the motorbikes, geese and submerged corpses in the canal is an Olympic fuelled gentrification process. With the unseen demolition of old landmarks raising memories like rubble. They are reflective of an era increasingly comfortable building unaffordable luxury homes. Erased from history these ruins will swiftly become aspirational flats with bicycle decorated balconies and parking spaces. No doubt they will become the ideal homes for middle-class refugees on their weekly pilgrimage to Broadway Market.

After being neglected for decades, the market was revived in 2004 and now has over 80 stalls running from the Regent’s Canal down to London Fields. People arriving from the towpath will immediately feel the iconic presence of F.Cooke’s Pie and Mash shop. The old mash store has been trading in the same premises since 1900 and serves traditional pie, mash, liquor and jellied eels to a new generation of Londoners. Back then a ‘jellied eel’ from Frank Cooke would be a good deal to most but the old Cockney dialect has since migrated eastwards to Essex.

A new demographic has taken hold and the social paradox is that while Broadway Market is a vintage mecca for East London fashionistas. They rarely mix or come into contact with the local working class community in the nearby housing schemes. Occasionally this spills into violence and last year’s ‘Bloods and Crisps‘ gang fight led to a 27-year-old hipster being shot in the back. While there are spaces that ache in the uninhabited air, London Fields continues to blossom as traders descends on Broadway Market to sell everything from sunflowers, oysters and spicy Ghanian dishes.

As food goes there is nowhere better in East London to satisfy your ailing taste buds. Broadway Market is awash with food stalls selling German sausages, wild beef and tangerine pots of hummus. If you do tire of eating from all corners of the world then vintage wares are not too far away. Extremely stylish women in their late twenties are regularly seen flocking past carrying recycled bags full of beautiful dresses, hats and last week’s copy of The Observer.

Attractive young women buying vintage French knickers is always going be a popular activity on Broadway Market. However, they are often ridiculously expensive and prices for knitted adornments are reflective of those who can afford to pay £145 a week for a room in Dalston. Unaffordable luxuries are nothing new in the capital and the London Fields hipster community are no different than their friends in Spitalfields or Portobello Market.

On buying products everyone appears to want but none of us actually need, Yindies are reflective of the materialistic values inherent in our society. Meanwhile the day passes and unseen labour begin to dissemble their iron poles, plastic covers and crates in anticipation of another pay day. Leaving behind a trail of exhaust fumes and debris for another week, there is perhaps, just something about human nature that turns everything into a routine.

Evolving English

If reading your Facebook page doesn’t send you into a murderous rage then obviously you don’t have any issues with the English language. Such is the eclectic range of friends in my feed, I frequently find myself laughing at some of the witty and hilariously stupid updates. One former school friend of mine …wishes this abses would go awa no am nae gan 2 the dentist i hate them al burst it myself’.

Facebook inevitably provided this young Scotsman with counselling and advised him ‘Dina mean to scare u but my fiance’s cousin died from one, burst and all the poison went into his blood and into his brain. Better get it sorted!’ And while that does sound extremely painful, what I found interesting was not his abscesses but the near impenetrable use of the Scots dialect.

On wanting to discover more about phonetics, I decided to go along to the Evolving English exhibition at the British Library.  The concept behind the exhibition is the historical and social origins of the English language from 5th century runes to 21st century ‘txt-speak’.

As a matter of principle I have always written text messages in proper English. Such is my aversion to typing without vowels; I regularly had to endure severe financial penalties throughout the pay as you go era. With a flush new phone contract, I can now compose long messages without having to scratch a voucher card every other day.

For nearly a decade now I have dismissed txt speak with a barely concealed contempt. Some of my prejudices were further exposed in an innocuous conversation with a womanising guy who insisted ‘all girls use LOL’ when they are texting. By doing so he unknowingly confirmed that getting a ‘LOL’ out of a girl is an essential part of the modern courting process.

Lolling along I have considered LOL to be feminine ever since. In stark contrast any self-respecting man using this abbreviation is beyond contempt in my opinion. But why I am being so open misogynistic by inferring only women can get away with such frivolous language? Modern text abbreviations are extremely open to interpretation as this heart warming tweet reveals below.

Considering that nearly two billion people speak varying forms of English, I began to question my own relationship with the language.  Despite having a distinctive regional accent, I have always composed my words according to how I think rather than how I speak.

And while I love reading dialect in stories and poetry, I continue to mock ordinary people who express themselves in txt talk. Following the finest traditions of prejudice, I have always dismissed txt-shorthand as a form of illiteracy and those who use it to be ignorant and lazy.

Although this is to disregard the evolutionary nature of English and texting is just another example of the malleability of the language. Constantly changing and evolving from the 5th century, English has never remained static and while txt speak is subject to serious derision by conservative academics. It isn’t that much different than some of the ludricious office jargon I have to endure on a daily basis, where words such as ‘hyper local’, ‘granularity’ and ‘consumer facing brands’ are considered gospel.

Some of the most cultured and intelligent people I know are prone to a good LOL now and again. Indeed I have a new found affection for people who Laugh Out Loud but for reasons unknown to me I still think men who use it are idiots.

Alas despite being enlightened by the British Library, I refuse to use LOL on grounds of principle. Instead I have an alternative expression of mirth in the form of ‘haha’, which I regularly use when reading about ex-school colleague’s gum problems on Facebook.