Dot writes: there are still a few things I try to do the way the Baby Whisperer told me to, and one of them is Fighting the Whinge.
“Muuuuum, I want miiiiiiilk!”
“How do you ask nicely?”
“Can you say it in a nice voice, like this: can I have some milk, please?”
“Canave milk please?”
“That’ll do. Yes, you can have milk.”
I can’t begin to count how many times we’ve been through this routine or versions of it (for instance, there’s the one where I would have to put Hugh’s first speech in capital letters, and the one with theatrical sobbing). And sometimes I wonder how much sense it makes to him – does he ever properly realise how whingy and whining he is being? I mean, the first time he always thinks it’s about the content (whether he said please); to change the tone of voice I have to demonstrate. And he is actually reasonably good at remembering the please first time, these days. Isn’t it a bit like that infuriating thing that teachers did at school, of putting red marks all over the spelling mistakes and punctuation errors and hardly seeming to notice what the work actually said? Why is the presentation important?
My approach to this question has been muddied over the years by dipping the odd toe into History of the English Language and having it drummed into me the extent to which today’s grammatical solecisms are often yesterday’s or tomorrow’s perfectly decent usages. It’s all just presentation. Take that dear old shibboleth, the glottal stop: from the perspective of descriptive linguistics, this is not an error, just the realisation of the phoneme /t/ in medial and final position in quite a number of words in quite a number of varieties of English. And again, the split infinitive: what is really the problem with ‘to boldly go’? No words are interrupted in the making of this phrase; it’s entirely comprehensible; it’s simply that some grammarian long ago didn’t like it because you can’t do it in Latin.* Usages like these make no difference to the clarity of the message and there is nothing inherently ugly about them (what could be inherently ugly about a place of articulation?). What they do proclaim, extremely loudly, is a social message: this person does not adhere to the rules of pronunciation associated with middle class speech / the rules of writing associated with published texts. And isn’t it a bit shallow and snobbish to care about that sort of thing? Isn’t a cockney just as good (indeed rather better) than an Old Etonian in these democratic days? Is not the lavishly-sprinkled apostrophe proud to be championed by the industrious greengrocer?+
Fortunately sociolinguistics leads us back out of the mire of relativism (having helped to lead us in). OK, these usages give social messages. Those social messages are an important part of what we communicate when we speak or write, and we need to master the codes. That annoying teacher had a point: your second-year essay on the Babylonians was never going to be the high point of your scholarly career, and you’ve forgotten what you said in it anyway, but if you hadn’t finally got the hang of full-stops there would still be people getting cross with you about it. Ken is no fan of Lynne Truss, but I like her analogy between punctuation and manners: there’s something arbitrary about the rules, but they help people to relate to you. They show you’re making an effort; you’re playing by the rules of a shared game. Accent, of course, is quite hard to modify (though a lot of us accommodate slightly to the people we’re talking to, in an almost unconscious effort to be friendly); but the conventions of written language can be learned at school and it seems worth doing.
Which brings us back to tone of voice. The whinge is part of the message. In fact, a lot of the time it is the message: Hugh doesn’t especially want milk, he just feels out of sorts and wants me to do something for him (and not for his brother). The whinge says “you are mine, mother; I hang on you; deal with my discontent.” And fighting the whinge says “oh no I won’t. I’ll get you milk but you have to pull yourself together first and not drape your mood on me like a wet towel.” And next week I’ll start teaching Hugh about the apostrophe.
*I haven’t checked this – it’s the equivalent of linguistic folklore – but I expect it’s true.
+This is my descriptivist Achilles heel. I HATE the greengrocer’s apostrophe. I know there is no difference between “it’s” and “its” in the spoken language. I know it’s not a sign of moral weakness to get it wrong. But still when I see “it’s” as a possessive I start to grind my teeth.