Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Extract from Kingsley Amis's The King's English: A Guide To Modern Usage

Over a decade ago and old friend, well I assume we're still friends, sent me a copy of Kingsley Amis's The King's English: A Guide To Modern Usage. I've dipped into it now and then in the years since. It's never seemed like the kind of book that can be read from cover to cover despite Amis's magnetic wisdom. His prose can be intimidating, especially since, over and over again, I've been proved wrong on a great many things. Perhaps that's what my friend intended. I'd like to ask her some time.

As is to be expected, Amis mentions Shakespeare somewhat. Usually it's in passing, when searching for a paragon. His most impressive outburst is during the glossary, when after lucidly explain the chronological context for Old English (- AD 1150), Middle English (about 1150 to about 1500) and Modern English (everything since including Shakespeare) where he notes that "only a barbarian talks of old English when Elizabethen or Jacobean or other "old-fashined English" is meant.

Inevitably he does dedicate a complete entry to Shakespeare. It's short and to the point:

It is fair, through hardly very important, that to say or imply that the man of this name is not our greatest writer marks a second-rate person at best. The aberration whereby the name was spelt Shakspere is now happily discontinued. I recommend that the derived adjective be spelt Shakespearean with an E, not Shakespearian with an I.

His works should not be taken as justifying subsequent practice. In particular, as a writer and speaker of the period 1590-1610 he threw accentuation further forward than we now customarily do, making actors in Hamlet, for instance, stress commendable and observance on their first syllables.
Except of course in the weeks when I've listened to a lot of Shakespeare and I find myself slipping into iambic pentameter or at least trying to, the words tripping over one another trying to discover the correct stresses and failing miserably because I lack the vocabulary.

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