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23 November 2022

What Charles and Camilla’s dirty phone call taught us about the English language

In The Crown’s reimagining of the intimate exchange, the future King’s longing for linguistic purism caught my ear.

By Pippa Bailey

Critics seem to be sad that The Crown has become a soap opera, trading stockings and clipped vowels for divorce lawyers and toe-sucking. But I am rather happy for the entire monarchic edifice to look as silly as possible, in the hope that it might hasten its demise. I, of course, believe in the fundamental right of the individual to have phone sex without it being recorded and broadcast to the world, but you try reading the Tampongate transcript and then tell me you still believe in the divine right of kings.

On watching episode five of the new series, however, I was less concerned by Charles’ longing to live inside Camilla’s trousers and more concerned by the earlier, entirely innocent portion of their conversation. (For those unfamiliar with this particular piece of tabloid-fodder, in 1993 the Sunday Mirror published the transcript of a sordid call between our now King and Queen consort from December 1989, when both were married to other people; I’ll leave you to google the exchange and discover what tampons have to do with anything.) In Peter Morgan’s creation, the pretext for the call is that Charles wants to run past Camilla a speech he is due to give in Oxford – subject: “the teaching of the English language in schools”. It was this that caught my ear.

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“It is quite astounding,” Dominic West’s Charles recites, “to think that in England we have produced one of the world’s most beautiful languages. However, the rate at which that language is deteriorating has become a cause for concern… The rot begins in the very institutions whose duty it is to preserve our proud linguistic and cultural heritage.”

“I think it’s brilliant,” Camilla (as played by Olivia Williams) squeals. “I think you could go further: our language is like an endangered species, it needs to be protected. It’s a scandal the way we’re letting it be slaughtered.”

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The Crown’s imagining is not so far from a very real speech that the then Prince of Wales gave on 19 December 1989 at the presentation of the Thomas Cranmer Schools Prize. He lamented that English had become “so impoverished, so sloppy and so limited – that we have arrived at such a dismal wasteland of banality, cliché and casual obscenity”.

Charles was certainly not alone in his wish for linguistic purism, for “proper” English to be protected and preserved – though he was perhaps a little late to the idea. Thomas Jefferson observed in a letter in 1825 that: “I learn… with great pleasure, that a taste is reviving in England for the recovery of the Anglo-Saxon dialect.” Charles Dickens stressed his fondness for the Germanic: “Let [an Englishman] write Saxon, and the Saxons understand him,” he wrote. Among his advice for writing well in Politics and the English Language, George Orwell expresses his dislike of the overreliance on loan words from Latin and Greek.

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But the English language has long been a shapeshifter, fashioned and recast by centuries of invasion, expedition and empire. The UK has no academy of language, such as exists in France and Italy, to decide on the borders of English – what’s in and what’s out. Even the Teutonically inspired Old English the Victorian purists considered to be true English had itself displaced the Celtic languages originally spoken by the Britons. And who’s going to tell Dickens that the Saxons were not a single entity, but a cultural group that emerged gradually through stop-start conquering and assimilation, blended and messy – just as “the English” are.

“Complaints that young people cannot write grammatically, spell accurately or express themselves clearly can be found stretching back into the last century,” Charles said at the Cranmer ceremony – neatly undermining himself. Complaints of his kind do stretch back – far enough, in fact, that they were no doubt made by the Prince of Wales’s elders about his own generation. As the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, James Murray, once pondered: “At which Englishman’s speech does English terminate?” Perhaps Charles would have answered: the Prince’s English.

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I thought of our King recently when I heard Countdown’s Susie Dent describe the English language as a “democracy”. She was speaking at an Oxford University Press word of the year announcement – only this year it hasn’t chosen one, leaving it up to the public to vote between three options: “metaverse” (in use since 1992 but made more popular of late by Mark Zuckerberg’s legless world), “#Istandwith” (which spiked around the invasion of Ukraine, though “to stand with” dates back to the 1300s) and “goblin mode” (“behaviour that is unapologetically self-indulgent”). You have until 5 December to vote, Your Highness.

This article appears in the 23 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russian Roulette