Simon Heffer has written a historical fantasy:
This story needs, shall we say, a little clarification. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
Once upon a time, in the Kingdom of Grammaria, there lived a much-loved and happy King.
He was loved for the precise and elegant way he used language. And he was happy because all the people he knew – his family, his ministers, the lords and ladies of court – also spoke and wrote in this fine and most excellent way.
They were good people, and their words were good, and all were happy.
Then there were the peasants of Grammaria. They were honest people, and they knew how to till a field or shoe a horse or sew a dress, but their language was as poor as they were.
Most of them did not even realise this, for the nature of proper language was hardly a peasant’s concern!
But some of them, if they worked as servants for the good people, came to hear the good way of speech and wondered at its splendour. A few of them even managed to learn some of it. Can you imagine that?
And so, seduced by even a little success, they started to spend more time in the company of good people, hoping that maybe – if they tried very hard – they might one day become good people themselves.
But the good people were not fooled. They could tell that while the peasants’ speech was a little more refined, it was still flawed and clumsy. And the peasants were still peasants.
So, in uproar at the uncouth language they were now hearing, they petitioned the King to help.
The King, being just and kind, knew that he had to protect the beauty and correctness of the language but also to allow peasants to be able to better themselves, if they were capable. So he at once summoned his council of wise men.
“My scholars!” he declared. “The language of my fair kingdom is under threat from unwarranted and noxious variety. I command you to establish the correct way of speaking and writing, so that we may once more be free from error and confusion.”
The wise men bowed, and went to the great royal library to carry out their great task.
Some months later, they returned to the palace and announced that they had finished.
The King read the rulebook they had assembled and he was pleased, for the wise men had indeed succeeded in recording the correct way to use language – which, of course, was exactly the way that the King himself used language!
There was much rejoicing, and the King decreed that copies of this rulebook were to be sent to every town in the land. This meant that the good people of Grammaria could use it to set standards and prove that half-taught peasants need not be accepted as their equals. And it meant that the peasants could learn correct speech more rigorously, if their poor peasant heads could cope with it. Most could not, but at least they would now know for sure whether they could become better people or not.
And they all lived happily ever after, at least until violent fanatics tried to overthrow the King and establish a People’s Republic of Linguistan.
Heffer goes wrong because he is in thrall to two myths: that there was once an era of stable, homogeneous English; and that the rules of this English were deliberately established by some benevolent elite.
The real story is one of constant diversity and constant change – mostly undirected. Efforts to control the language, past or present, tend to have little success except when they’re reinforcing existing trends.
I’ve been trying to write an extremely brief history of Standard English, but it turns out that’s actually quite hard. Maybe another time.
Update: While I’m here, I note that Heffer complains about people being “verbose”. That’s rich.