I remember a while back I attended a lecture by Terry Eagleton, a rather dull sermon on… well goodness knows, some pseudo-Marxist bluster no doubt. Even so, despite the overwhelming boredom that is my principal memory of the event, one thing Eagleton mentioned did in fact stick with me, and it was when he started talking about the morality of grammar, before bringing forth some examples of medieval dissertations, with one of them entitled something along the lines of ‘the morality of the semi-colon in [poem/thesis/argument]’.
Now of course, in itself this is wholly unremarkable – grammatology and sociolinguistics have long been the fetish of the loony-left, that bourgeois clique of daintily middle-class Marxists fighting culture wars from their dreamy humanities-habitats in universities up and down the land. Either way, the comment stuck with me, not because of any great insight it offered into the reality of things, nor because it whet my nostalgist appetites with its reference to medieval manuscripts, but simply because it offered an alternative perspective into something else that had increasingly come to my attention at that point in time.
For you see, there was a particular lefty lecturer at this university who, when sending e-mails, would never use any capital letters nor use any formal mode of address when writing. He would just launch into what he wanted to talk about, devoid of all but the most necessary grammatical restraints (usually the full-stop, which in a punctuation desert suddenly becomes really quite brutal), and leave it there, occasionally with an odd attempt to sign the message off in some sort of formal fashion. In so doing this lecturer was clearly trying to make some kind of passive-aggressive statement – or, if my presumption of extreme revolutionary fervour is unjustified, then he was certainly trying, by consciously contravening established norms, to make some kind of statement, whatever it might actually be.
I was thinking about that episode again today when I read this blog by Toque, which reproduces a response from Ed Balls to a question regarding the public funding of St George’s Day celebrations. The letter was courteous, and engaged with the topic thoughtfully, but it contained the following passage;
Thank you for your recent email asking for my views on St. Georges Day, and for your kind words of support. I apologise for the short delay in responding. You ask if I am in favour of state funding for an official St. Georges Day celebration and making St. Georges Day a public holiday in England.
I think it is right to recognise the importance of St. Georges Day, what it means to the history of England, and for the values that England represents [etc.]
Now it is of course entirely possible, and even probable, that the expensively educated Edward Michael Balls, Shadow Secretary of State for Education and former Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, simply does not know how to use an apostrophe. And it could be theoretically possible, although this might be pushing it a little far, that Ed Balls is wholly ignorant of the St. George story and therefore thinks that April 23rd is dedicated to a whole collection of people, all called St. George, though it is not their possession, thereby rendering the apostrophe redundant.
Either way, it seems unlikely that Ed Balls is being linguistically seditious, at least not in the same way that that university lecturer was trying to be. Even so, by omitting the apostrophe one subliminally denies the connection between that particular day and that particular saint, the singular St. George, patron saint of our nation and dragon-slayer extraordinaire. The association is sundered, rendered generic and meaningless, stripped of the history, tradition and legend that gives the dedication (and our adoption of St. George as patron saint) any meaning whatsoever.
And who can really deny that our sense of national identity suffers from precisely this sort of sterilisation of our historical and cultural consciousness, of our ‘island story’. In the inevitable vacuum we keep creating for ourselves, it is those who prefer to destroy than to build up that increasingly emerge triumphant; those who boldly denounce having any patron saint as simply pointless, an irrelevant anachronism, a silly tradition from our less civilised past that no longer merits inclusion in our enlightened present.
The tragedy is that, increasingly, they may well be right. If people hold on to customs and practices whilst simultaneously stripping away the very social, cultural, historical and, dare one say it, religious language (and grammar) within which they have meaning, then one is merely dressing up a mummy in modern clothes and make-up the better to pretend that it is still alive. As soon as someone points out that, all things considered, the mummy seems to be dead, then the illusion is finished – and so is the mummy.
Am I taking this grammatical slip too seriously? Undoubtedly I am. But I don’t apologise for it. Because it is a small sign of a greater cultural sterility that has stripped society of those foundational pillars that once fashioned some sort of shared identity. In essence, it is this – our society has lost a shared sense of sacramentality; with regards to national identity, this ranges from the gradual erosion of our Christian heritage, to the mock and derision of our public institutions, to the haughty disdain of our historical establishments, to the general distaste for the once honoured place of tradition and custom, to sheer indifference to all of the above. But without that shared sacramentality, that transcending cultural apparatus, society will fragment. Because if a society casts off all sacramentality, then nothing is sacred. And when nothing is sacred, everything can be destroyed.
Grammar is important. And April 23rd is St. George’s Day.