Thursday 21 February 2019

Kevin Myers: RTE's reporters have went from bad to worse wit dese grammatical horror shows on de air

Kevin Myers

I pay my TV licence, just like you, and so we are subsidising a public service, namely RTE, from which I expect public standards; so I really shouldn't have to say what follows. However, that strange organisation doesn't behave like a public service organisation so much as a cult, with overpaid preachers and invisible accounts and strange rules that no one outside the organisation understands.

But it still shouldn't be too much to expect RTE's reporters to get the English language right. And no, I don't mean to speak in the Received Pronunciation of BBC newsreaders of 1958, but merely to use the correct past tenses of irregular verbs, and to pronounce the th- words properly.

Let's deal with verbs first. The simple past tense in English takes two forms: one is what is known (because it is completed) as the perfect tense, formed from the verb "have" and the main verb's past participle (as in, I have killed). The other is the preterite tense (as in, I killed).

The substantive verbs in these different past tenses are often the same, as in the examples just used. But irregular verbs -- the louts! -- do not stick to predictable case endings and the preterites and the past participles are often different.

Thus, "I see" gives us two different past tenses: the preterite, "I saw", and the perfect tense, "I have seen". Similarly, "I show", gives us the preterite, "I showed", and the perfect tense, "I have shown".

And most conspicuously of all, and most regularly confused on RTE, the present tense, "I go", gives us the preterite, "I went", and the perfect tense, "I have gone".

From these basic past tenses we get the conditional and subjunctive forms, as in, "I should have seen", "I should have shown" and "I should have gone".

Yet there is hardly an RTE radio or television news bulletin in which a reporter doesn't say the hideous, "He should have saw," or "he should have showed", or "he should have went".

Correct grammar is not an optional extra for a national broadcaster -- until the day that Jackie Healy-Rae is appointed Head of Pronunciation. To be sure, regional dialects may have different case endings, which makes, "He should have went", valid enough for a member of the public being interviewed on RTE. But a professional broadcaster, or even a nationally elected politician, should conform with the grammatical rules that apply in London, Washington, New Delhi and Ottawa; and that means the irregular-preterite does not usurp the functions of the past participle. So "went" may never be used with an auxiliary verb, as in "he should have went". Except, apparently, on RTE.

To be sure, it's reasonable to wonder how the preterite ever managed to migrate to usurp the role of the past participle in the first place, especially in working-class usage. But whatever the explanation, the outcome is the same: no one takes quite so seriously a speaker who says, "he should have went" or "he should have saw". It was for this usage that Bertie Ahern was lampooned.

Which brings us, of course, to the two dental fricatives, namely words beginning with "th", which can have two pronunciations: the soft version, as in "thin", and the hard version, as in "that".

In the Irish vernacular, especially in Ahern-speak, these are reduced to the voiced alveolar consonant, "d", or the alveolar plosive consonant "t": hence "dis, dat, dese and dose", for "this, that, these and those", and "tin" for "thin", or "terapeutic" for "therapeutic".

Which, in theory, potentially gives us: "You should have saw it when dis tin ting treatened dese tick trobbing troats wit terapeutic teft. (You should have seen it when this thin thing threatened these thick throbbing throats with therapeutic theft). Except, it is far from being of merely teoretical potential on RTE news bulletins: all that is now required is for those words actually to appear in sequence. And then behold, for the hideous pronunciation and mangled grammar are just waiting, ready to tear off their whiskers and pounce.

There are other linguistic problems in RTE news, such as an ignorance of the differences between "less than" and "fewer than", and "rob" and "steal": but misuse of these terms is now tragically endemic across journalism, especially amongst the graduates of those many splendid colleges offering courses in journalism and media studies.

These wonderful institutions clearly taught their students all about the evils of imperialism and the horrors of male sexual chauvinism and the unspeakable crimes of Zionism, and equally, of the boundless benefits of multiculturalism and quotas.

Clearly, this left little or no time for the relatively trivial matter of teaching people how to write and speak English correctly, talents that graduates must presumably acquire on the job.

Meanwhile, until the day when I am Minister for Telecommunications (the shortest-lived in history, for on the first day the station will be closed down by mid-morning coffee-break, the site will be a USAF airbase by teatime, and I'll be collecting my P45 as I leave that evening) RTE will remain our national broadcaster. So why doesn't its newsroom talk as if it were?

kmyers@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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