TOO quickly I leapt to the protection of the full stop. It had never mattered much before, but after a Covid-tense August, my defences were down.
I found myself triggered by the news reports that ‘young people’ were becoming alarmed by the latent aggression represented by full stops. I forgot it was August, and if I had stopped to think for a minute, I might have been grateful that a newspaper was catastrophising about punctuation.
A reporter had picked up an inconsequential tweet from a linguistic specialist at the University of Leiden. Dr Lauren Fonteyn may have got bored on her camping holiday as the autumn storms came early, but whatever caused her restlessness, she decided to tweet about Generation Snowflake and the grammar of instant messaging.
In the rather sterile world of university research, where you have to make constant discoveries to keep the money taps open, instant messaging has been a boon to linguists. It has given them a whole new genre of signs and symbols that mobile phones have thrown up as teenagers got inventive and looked for short cuts.
They don’t use full stops. Why would you? The end of the short message is obviously the end of the message, ‘duh’. But making the jump from a short cut in the world of the teen mobile phone to the threat to the rules of grammar is quite a leap.
It’s a bit like Facebook. The instant mums and dads discovered it, the teens fled. It was no longer cool. The same has happened to emoticons. They stopped being useable as soon as adults noticed and appropriated them.
But my interest was grabbed by two things. How easily did the rules of punctuation change (were we really about to lose our full stops?!) and how much did it matter that Generation Snowflake got freaked out by mistaking a full stop for a threat equivalent to being punched in the teeth?
David Crystal is the man to read for a quick informed overview on linguistics. I grabbed his Making a Point on Kindle and was soon much better informed about the total absence of punctuation in Saxon runes and the experiments in 1962 to combine a question mark with an exclamation mark ‘?!’ and call it the interrobang.
The runes weren’t new. I kept a diary in Saxon runes when I was a teenager (not having a mobile phone to hand), but I had never heard of the interrobang and was sad to find it never took off.
In fact the real excitement was whether or not Generation Snowflake gets to rewrite the rules of grammar because its members were unwilling to leave the safe zone of the private world of teen messaging.
Once again we are in the ‘who gets to change our culture and why?’ zone.
The solution to the full stop crisis was that grown-up linguists recognise there is a balance between grammar rules and popular usage, so the status quo may rule. But just then, the Rule Britannia row started, and it turns out that it is a similar issue. Apparently, the word ‘slave’ has the same effect on the ‘woke’ as the full stop does on the terrified teen.
Will Black Lives Matter and its sympathisers get to rewrite the Last Night of the Proms? As cultural icons go, that’s a biggie. Gareth Malone, of ‘build-me-a-choir-in-half-an-hour’ fame, went with the woke. He claimed that his Irish and black singers all sat out Rule Britannia and refused to sing.
I had forgotten what the verses actually say, so I had to look them up. Perhaps I, as a Catholic, should be vexed at the cultural appropriation of British guardian angels in the service of colonialism?
‘This was the charter of the land, And Guardian Angels sang this strain:’
I might mumble that bit next time I sing it, or slip in a ‘didn’t’ in a passing semi-quaver. But equally, it might be more sensible to dial the offence down and remember that not everything that happened 200 years ago was about colonialism. And it’s too much of a good sing to sit out with folded arms and a scowl.
Any half-sensible reading of the lyrics shows you that it is really about freedom. Whether it was the Vikings or Napoleon, it was about standing up to alien totalitarianism. Following Napoleon, it would apply to Adolf Hitler and any other aspiring dictators wherever they strutted – Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Kim Jong-Un and possibly the concept of the EU.
‘The nations not so blest as thee Must, in their turn, to tyrants fall,’ continues the hymn to freedom. ‘The Muses, still with freedom found, Shall to thy happy coasts repair.’
If we have learned anything from history since the lyrics were first penned, it is that you can never take freedom for granted. So, I have a suggestion. Remember the clap for the NHS? Banging saucepans, banjos and harmonicas in the front garden?
For the Last Night of the Proms, those who are grateful not only for being alive and surviving Covid, but also for being free, might turn up the TV to full volume, then let’s stand in our front gardens as the BBC-censored orchestra plays only the tune, and sing loudly about not being slaves.
Include all 36 pigment shades of the Von Luschan skin scale in our mixed society and while we still can – repudiating the hate-filled ‘woke’ tearing down our statues and our history and trying to silence and sack us with their cancel culture – we might celebrate the freedoms we have left.
Long live the interrobang, viva the full stop; but if you want to resist the hard progressive fist inside the velvet snowflake glove, sing the songs of freedom while you can?!
This article is on the Gavin Ashenden website.