In 1921, Britain had a population of forty-three million, but the British Empire had a population of about five hundred million, or about a third of the known world. Those are staggering figures. They are even more staggering when you realise that Britain at that time was effectively ruled by an elitist aristocracy, so the number of people who actually controlled this huge population could probably have been measured in the thousands. Less than one hundred years on, the empire has vanished and the British Prime Minister, Teresa May, now finds herself cast in the role of Romulus at the time of the fall of Rome. She presides over a society that cannot quite believe how far it has fallen, nor how tall is the precipice on which it teeters.
What allowed a small nation on the outskirts of Europe to wield so much power over such a huge number of people?
Oddly enough, I had not thought about the question of how empires fall until I began to teach English full-time, six years ago. In Taiwan, my daily exposure to the vagaries of life without the precision of a language that marks time makes it rapidly and abundantly clear that the British ruled the world because they spoke English. The subjects of the empire on which the sun never set must have had some inkling of the power of the language because even now, the teaching of English is a huge business in Asia and grammar, not the gun, has become the weapon of choice for those who aspire to world domination.
Teachers in the UK and other English-speaking countries have been bemoaning the decline in grammatical standards for years. When I was a lad, grammar was very important. The announcers on the BBC talked down to us in their Home Counties accents, so we attached little value to our own local accent for years. Grammar was the one thing that levelled the playing field. Grammar has no accent and it is the most accurate and obvious sign of intelligence that I have yet come across. In the 1960’s, my working class mother realised that grammar and manners were the two things that made the person and drilled her children in the strict observance of both.
Anyone who has perused an Internet sales site cannot have failed to notice that most of the English-speaking population now seems to regard grammar as an optional feature of the English language.
A recent BBC documentary about a school that employed four Chinese teachers for a month was very enlightening for my Taiwanese students. The standard of grammar that the students exhibited was extremely poor, which was really surprising for my high school students. Some of the British students were totally unaware of how to form perfect tenses and most used the present tense to describe past events (So we’re, like, really tired yesterday so we can’t pay attention).
My students are simply not allowed to speak in this way in my class. Their own language, Mandarin Chinese, affords no way to order the past and once they learn to impose an order on actions, using English grammar rules, they are reluctant to let that understanding of the past become clouded by such careless use of inappropriate tenses. English is an escape from the vagaries of communication in Chinese. It is a language in which they rarely have to ask the speaker to clarify his or her meaning, as they must do regularly in their own language. My students see the advantages of grammar right away because almost every negative aspect of their society can be explained by the total lack of grammar in their mother tongue.
During the campaign before the Brexit referendum, I noticed many voters allowing themselves to believe that that they had heard something that had not been said simply because they did not understand the meaning of the tense in which the information was delivered. In the northeast of England, many voters whose families had immigrated from South Asia allowed themselves to believe that limiting immigration from Eastern Europe would leave the field wide open for an expansion of immigration from southern Asia. A shrewd politician from the “leave” camp who wished to insinuate this possibility without actually stating it outright needed only to employ the weapon of decent grammar to allow this misconception to persist.
“If immigration from Eastern Europe were limited sufficiently, there might be scope to increase immigration from other regions.”
In this context, might is a combination of maybe and would, so it is immediately apparent to anyone who has a command of English grammar that this sentence alludes to an imaginary concept and not a fact. Anyone who casts a vote based on an imaginary concept is on a hiding to nothing.
The use of the past tense to signify an imaginary concept is all but lost on many British citizens because their command of English grammar and structure seems now only to cover the simple tenses. Their idea of the time line is also totally corrupted because they use totally inappropriate tenses to describe various parts of the past, present and future and have no way to differentiate between imaginary concepts (If – past tense verb, followed by would) and real facts (simple past, present and future tenses only).
Grammar helps us to analyse and gain our own understanding of the world around us. If you want to see how effective grammar is, you need only look at the current UK cabinet. The members have been mostly privately educated and exhibit a standard of grammar in their prepared speeches that is usually pretty good. However, in impromptu situations, Teresa May in particular has often shown the cloven hoof.
The one thing that grammar really provides is a clear path between cause and effect. This is one of the greatest deficiencies in my Taiwanese students, who cannot distinguish instinctively between a cause and an effect because their own language never gives a clue as to which occurs first. When I begin to teach complex grammar to high school students, my first class is a synopsis of the rise of the British Empire. That story, more than any other, shows the pure power of grammar. A small band of individuals went abroad and quickly realised that their ability to analyse the past because their language allowed them to order it gave them a huge advantage over those whose languages limited their consideration of their lives to the present. Because they could order the past, they could generate ideas by considering different past scenarios and comparing with their experience. When they had done this, they could perform thought experiments to assess the best idea for the future (If we did this, we would be able to grow more crops / make more money / rule more effectively / subjugate more nations / sell our philosophy). These thought experiments allowed them to develop their ideas more rapidly than those whose language did not allow the description of an experimental process that involved imaginary concepts and they thrived as none before them ever had.
The Brexit vote was more than anything else a denial of intellect. The intellect is their in the language but it seems that a large number of English speakers renounced logical clarity for a confused notion of a dream. The reaction on the days after the referendum made that clear. If people had only the considered the implications of a “leave” vote, most could surely not have come to the conclusion that an exit from the EU was the best choice.
In the UK, grammar is making a comeback in 2016. It is to be included in the syllabus for official exams for secondary school students. These students will be fifteen when they begin to study the new syllabus and they will be able to vote when they are 18, in 2019. It seems that the referendum was called three years too early.
If you need any more proof of the power of grammar, you need look no further than the “leave” campaign leaders’ promises of devolution of power to the people. Take a look at the cabinet that will be leading the country out of the EU and let me know if you can spot anyone who has a proletarian background. I see old Etonians whose views are slightly to the right of Attila the Hun, loyal climbers of the greasy establishment pole and self-serving “pragmatists” whose political agenda is suitably undefined to accommodate any eventuality. The new Prime Minister is one such chameleon.
In short, there is very little difference between this cabinet and any other since the 1921 cabinet of David Lloyd George. The establishment always wins. However, in 1921, the general standard of grammar was higher so the public realised that there was still some way to go before things would be fair. In 2016, quite a large percentage of the general public seem to believe that Nirvana is here and that its name is change. If you can see any evidence of change in the corridors of power, which is where change is initiated, I wish that you would let me know how to find it.
As Malala Yousafsai said in a memorable speech, one, book, one pen and one teacher can change the world. If the book were an English grammar book, that child could probably change the world a lot faster. As my mother always said, “With good grammar and good manners, you can og anywhere.”