‘You can, but you may not’ – if I could count the number of times that my mother said that to me and my siblings over the years my head would spin. She had been brought up in a home and school where only correct English was spoken and we were expected to do so as well. She must be ‘turning in her grave’ as the saying goes when she hears how some people talk these days; and as for SMS language that would be the final straw for her.
As with my older siblings, (the 3 younger ones were spared this) I had to take Latin at school and spend school holidays with an elderly aunt, an expert in the subject as well as being a teacher and headmistress, and do extra Latin lessons with her. This was not considered a fun school holiday, of that you can be certain. What it did do for me is instil a need to speak and use proper English words and phrases. That is why we heard the phrase, ‘you can but you may not’ rather frequently as we would ask the question, “Can I go out to play?” instead of “May I go out to play?” Then there was another favourite, “Can I come with?” which was almost considered treason as we ended a sentence with a preposition.
Not only the speaking and writing of words needed to be correct but, if one could not spell a word, help was not given except for a dictionary which you were expected to have handy. I often wondered how I could find the word if I did not know how to spell it but that did not deter either my mother or my aunt. They only came to our aid if they felt that we had really tried and cried enough tears. Amazingly, we would usually find the word in the dictionary and feel really chuffed. It took a while to learn not to close the dictionary immediately on having the spelling in your head because, invariably, we would be asked the dictionary meaning and pronunciation!
What I can say with pride though, is that this firm line on pronunciation and correct use of words taught me to speak and think well. Today I am always fascinated by how the meanings of so many words have changed through every day use and slackness or because the new use makes one seem better than if the word was used accurately. Having just been through the end of a school year and thousands more youngsters describing themselves as matriculants, the use of the word matriculation has once again been brought to the fore. If one checks the dictionary, on-line or hard copy, to matriculate means ‘to be accepted into university’. It comes from the Latin word matricula meaning the little list and the list of those registering at university is certainly little when compared with the number on the list who do not get to do so. One writes Grade 12 examinations and, depending on those results is either accepted to matriculate or not. Apologies to the masses, but you are not matriculants, have not matriculated nor have you done, or passed, matric. You have completed Grade 12 – a wonderful achievement in itself as less than half of those who enrol in Grade 1 in South Africa even reach Grade 12.
Over the years many words have been added to or dropped from the English language, as with all other languages. We no longer use the English spoken in the 11th Century by Chaucer, the 16th Century by Shakespeare nor as in the 19th Century by Jane Austen. Correspondingly, they would not understand the terms internet, ipod, gigabyte and all those words that technology has brought to us but what is important is to use words in their correct manner. Not only words but comparatives and idioms as well. It is so embarrassing when one hears a speaker or newsreader use an idiom in the wrong context. Let us pride ourselves on using words which give meaningful, and not pretentious, conversation for all to whom and with whom we converse.