Dot Wordsworth

Register

Register

The fatuousness of remarks on Radio 3, about which Charles Moore complains, is an established aim on Radio 4. Last Sunday, before The Archers, I was invited to ‘Have another cuppa’. The implicit intention was to sound like someone who had just dropped in to the kitchen. But a stranger dropping in to the kitchen and talking as if he were an old friend would be alarming. Indeed, we might suspect him of being a psychopath. It is all to do with register.

Register in language is not mentioned in old-fashioned grammars. It entails differences in vocabulary, pronunciation and even tonality, according to circumstances. (Charles Moore mentioned the funny noise that broadcasters make when they speak as though smiling, as they are encouraged to do. This often combines a sing-song intonation with the use of open vowels, sounded with the tongue far from the roof of the mouth. In the 1860s, this style of speech was known as yaw-haw.)

Children master register untaught. The language of the playground is quite different from that of the family circle, and different again from that of church or the job interview. So it is a betrayal of children’s education to pretend that they can only understand and use language presented to them in an approximation of ‘street’ speech.

A recurrent exercise in such futility is rewriting the Bible in ‘user-friendly’ language. Something called The Word on the Street begins Genesis thus: ‘First off, nothing. No light, no time, no substance, no matter. Second off, God starts it all up and WHAP! Stuff everywhere!’ Apart from anything else, the Bible does not say that in the beginning there was nothing, but that in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

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