Who cares about English?

I’ve been meaning to share this for months, and a tweet today by @OxfordWords has prodded me into action. Late last year the British Council and the OED sponsored an expert panel discussion on the state of the English language, titled ‘Who cares about English?

The talk is chaired by John Knagg, head of English research at the British Council. He takes questions from the audience and puts them to panel members John Simpson, chief editor of the OED; Prudence Raper, former honorary secretary of the Queen’s English Society; novelist Romesh Gunesekera; and author and critic Henry Hitchings.

Among the topics covered are language regulation and correctness, change and innovation, history, social media, favourite words, and regional and global varieties of English. The speakers offer insight, learning, and humour, and there is some inevitable (and extreme) peeving from the floor.

You can watch part 1 below, or go here for the full video, which lasts a little over an hour. Enjoy!



15 Responses to Who cares about English?

  1. Nurn says:

    Hi Stan,

    Extreme peeving – you’re not kidding! I’m finding this kind of thing harder and harder to understand. I was particularly struck by the man who spoke of the “extreme ugliness” of Estuary English, who said that people “understandably recoil in disgust” when “assailed” by it.

    I understand that people do like some accents better than others (I do myself) – but “recoil in disgust”??

  2. dw says:

    Prudence Raper, former honorary secretary of the Queen’s English Society

    Please tell me you made that up!

  3. Stan says:

    Nurn: Yes, that’s the example I had in mind. The speaker’s reaction to Estuary English was extreme to the point of being disturbing. I wonder what motivated it. Like you, I prefer some accents to others, but if I ever found myself feeling so viscerally about one, I would be worried.

    dw: I did not!

  4. Nice idea, but something of a lost opportunity, I thought. Why give a platform to a representative of the (now defunct?) Queen’s English Society? I suppose her presence at least showed what a pathetic organisation it always was.

  5. Shaun Downey says:

    Recoiling in disgust at Estuary English? Well it keeps some people out of Essex!

  6. peter mare says:

    I would like to thank Stan for bringing this to our attention and the BC for organizing and taping this discussion.

    The major point that I learned from the discussion, though, was that time, place, and motivation determine the level by which one communicates. That makes perfect sense to me. Thus, I think the debate whether or not language is a tool or an art form is a false debate. It depends on the circumstances!

    Although the topic of whether or not anyone cares about English (and who should) was much broader that the discussion ended up being, mainly confined by the knowledge of the panelists on matters pertaining to semantics, lexicography, etymology, and socio-linguistics, it seems, it was a worthy and instructive exercise.

    There were a lot of precious moments during this insightful discussion, but I thought it was particularly telling that, on the issue of grammar fascism, as Henry HItchings correctly pointed out, the one person who was so concerned about civil servants using the right words was in fact the one choosing the wrong words to demand that everyone else use the right words! And “they” call themselves smarter! However, I think all panelists agreed that jargon or other obfuscations should be avoided! I agree.

    Peter D. Mare

  7. Stan says:

    Barrie: Maybe because the QES embodies (or embodied) a common, conservative attitude to language that would otherwise have gone unrepresented. She seemed polite and pleasant, even if we’d likely disagree on a lot.

    Shaun: That’s true! It probably keeps him away from a lot of conversations he’d enjoy if he got over that hatred, though.

    Peter: You’re welcome. Yes, much depends on circumstances and context; I felt that fact was acknowledged sufficiently in the discussion. The practice of calling oneself a “grammar fascist” (or “grammar nazi”) has always seemed a bit off to me, and it’s something I’ll address in a future post.

    [Peter, I edited your comment to remove several hundred words about spelling reform. As you pointed out, the subject of spelling was largely glossed over in the talk; you might have considered following suit instead of going off-topic. I welcome constructive contributions to this blog, and I don’t want it used as a platform for ideological essays.]

  8. peter mare says:

    Stan, when are we going to have a debate then on the notion of a spelling reform?

  9. peter mare says:


    You do not like the idea of a spelling reform. Right?

  10. Stan says:

    Peter, I don’t know who you mean by “we”, but if it includes me, then I suggest we discuss spelling reform when it appears in the title of a post here. That could be next week, or it could be never.

  11. peter mare says:


    Let’s cut to the chase, shall we?

    You do not like the idea of a spelling reform. Right?

  12. peter mare says:

    I would like to send you a direct message, Stan. How do I do this on this blog?

  13. […] List for Translators Who cares about English? Adventures in co-working […]

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