CONVERSATION is the most sociable of all human activities. And it is an activity only of humans. However intricate the ways in which animals communicate with each other, they do not indulge in anything that deserves the name of conversation.
The charm of conversation is that it does not really start from anywhere, and no one has any idea where it will go as it meanders or leaps and sparkles or just glows. The enemy of good conversation is the person who has "something to say." Conversation is not for making a point. Argument may often be a part of it, but the purpose of the argument is not to convince. There is no winning in conversation. In fact, the best conversationalists are those who are prepared to lose. Suddenly they see the moment for one of their best anecdotes, but in a flash the conversation has moved on and the opportunity is lost. They are ready to let it go.
Perhaps it is because of my upbringing in English pubs that I think bar conversation has a charm of its own. Bar friends are not deeply involved in each others' lives. They are companions, not intimates. The fact that their marriages may be on the rocks or that their love affairs have been broken or even that they got out of bed on the wrong side is simply not a concern. They are like thre musketeers of Dumas who, although they lived side by side with each other, did not delve into each others' lives or the recesses of their thoughts and feelings.
It was on such an occasion the other evening, as the conversation moved desultorily here and there, from the most commonplace to thoughts of Jupiter, without any focus and with no need for one, that suddenly the alchemy of conversation took place, and all at once there was a focus. I do not remember what made one of our companions say it-she clearly had not come into the bar to say it, it was not something that was pressing on her mind - but her remark fell quite naturally into the talk.
"Someone told me the other day that the pharse, 'the King's English,' was a term of criticism, that it means language which one should no t properly use."
The glow of the conversation burst into flames. There were affirmations and protests and denials, and of course the promise, made in all such conversation, that we would look it up in the morning. That would settle it; but conversation does not need to be settled; it could still go ignorantly on.
It was an Australian who had given her such a definition of "the King's English," which produced some rather tart remarks about what one could expect from the descendants of convicts. We had traveled in five minutes to Australia. Of course, there would be resistance to the King's English in such a society. There is always resistance in the lower classes to any attempt by an upper classes to lay down rules for "English as it should be spoken."
Look at the language barrier between the Saxon churls and their Norman conquerors. The conversation had swung from the Australian convicts of the 19th century to the English peasants of the 12th century. Who was right, who was wrong, did not matter. The conversation was on wings.
Someone took one of the best-known of examples, which is still always worth the reconsidering. When we talk of meat on our tables we use French words; when we speak of the animals from whic the meat comes we use Anglo-Saxon words. It is a pig in its sty; it is pork (porc) on the table. There are cattle in the fields, but we sit down to beef (boeuf). Chickens become poultry (poulet), and a calf becomes veal (veau). Even if our menus were not written in French out of snobbery, the English we used in them would still be Norman English. What all of this tells us is of a deep class rift in the culture of England after the Norman conquest.
The Saxon peasants who tilled the land and reared the animals could not afford the meat, which went to Norman tables. The peasants were allowed to eat the rabbits that scampered over their fields and, since that meat was cheap, the Norman lords of course turned up their noses at it. So rabbit is still rabbit on our tables, and not changed into some rendering of lapin.
As we listen today to the arguments about bilingula education, we ought to think ourselves back into the shoes of the Saxon peasant. The new ruling class had built a cultural barrier against his own language. There must have been a great deal of cultural humiliation felt by the English when they revolted under Saxon leaders like Hereward the Wake. "The King's Engish" - if the term had existed then - had become French. And here in America now, 900 years later, we are still the heirs to it.
SO THE NEXT morning, the conversation over, one looked it up. The phrase came into use some time in the 16th century. "Queen's Engish" is found in Nash's "Strange Newes of the Intercepting Certaine Letters" in 1593, and in 1602, Dekker wrote of someone, "thou clipst the Kinge's English." Is the phrase in Shakespeare? That would be the confirmation that it was in general use. He uses it once, when Mistress Quickly in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" says of her master coming home in a rage, ". . .here will be an old abusing of God's patience and the King's English," and it rings true.
One could have expected that it would be about then that the phrase would be coined. After five cinturies of growth, of tussling with the French of the Normans and the Angevins and the Plantagenets, and at last absorbing it, the conquered in the end conquering the conqueror. English had come royally into its own.
There was King's (or Queen's) English to be proud of. The Elizabethans blew on it as on a dandelion clock, and its seeds mulitiplied, and floated to ends of the earth. "The King's English" was no longer a form of what would now be regarded as racial discrimination.
Yet there had been something in the remark of the Australian. The phrase has always been used a little pejoratively and even facetiously by the lower classes. One feels that even Mistress Quickly - a servant - is saying that Dr. Caius - her master - will lose his control and speak with vigor of ordinary folk. If the King's Engish is "English as it should be spoken," the claim is often mocked by the underlings, when they say with a jeer, "English as it should be spoke." The rebellion against a cultural dominance is still there.
There is always a great danger, as Carlyle put it, that "words will harden into things for us." Words are not themselves a reality, but only representations of it, and the King's English, like the Anglo-French of the Normans, is a class representation of reality. Perhaps it is worth trying to speak it, but it should not be laid down as an edict, and made immune to change from below.
I HAVE AN unending love affair with dictionaries - Auden once said that all a writer needs is a pen, plenty of paper and "the best dictionaries he can afford" - but I agree with the person who said that dictionaries are instruments of common sense. The King's English is a model - a rich and instructive one - but it ought not be an ultimatum.
So we may return to my beginning. Even with the most educated and the most literate, the King's English slips and slides in conversation. There is no worse conversationalist than the one who puncutates his words as he speaks as if he were writing, or even who tries to use words as if he were composing a piece of prose for print. When E.M. Forster writes of "the sinister corridor of our age," we sit up at the vividness of the phrase, the force and even terror in the image. But if E.M. Forster sat in our living room and said, "We are all following each other down the sinister corridor of our age," we would be justified in asking him to leave.
Great authors are constantly being asked by foolish people to talk as they write. When a mother once asked Charles Lamb how he liked babies, he replied with stammer, "B-b-boiled, madam, boiled." Other people may celebrate the lofty conversations in which the great minds are supposed to have indulged in the great salons of 18th century Paris, but one suspects that the great minds were gossiping and judging the quality of the food and the wine. Henault, then the great president of the First Chamber of the Paris Parlement, complained bitterly of the "terrible sauces" at the salons of Mme. Deffand, and wernt on to observe that the only difference between her cook and the supreme chef, Brinvilliers, lay in their intentions.
The one place not to have dictionaries is in a sitting room or at a dining table. Look the thing up the next morning, but not in the middle of the conversation. Otherwise one will bind the conversation, one will not let it flow freely here and there. There would have been no conversation the other evening if we had been able to settle at once the meaning of "the King's English." We would never have gone to Australia, or leaped back in time to the Norman Conquest.
And there would have been nothing to think about the next morning. Perhaps above all, one would not have been engaged by interest in the musketeer who raised the subject, wondering more about her. The bother about teaching chimpanzees how to talk is that they will probably try to talk sense and so ruin all conversation. CAPTION: Picture 1, Charles Lamb Picture 2, William Shakespeare