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25 APRIL 2011

Stephen Fry: Don't Mind Your Language...

"For me, it is a cause of some upset that more Anglophones don't enjoy language. Music is enjoyable it seems, so are dance and other, athletic forms of movement. People seem to be able to find sensual and sensuous pleasure in almost anything but words these days. Words, it seems belong to other people, anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed. The free and happy use of words appears to be considered elitist or pretentious. Sadly, desperately sadly, the only people who seem to bother with language in public today bother with it in quite the wrong way. They write letters to broadcasters and newspapers in which they are rude and haughty about other people's usage and in which they show off their own superior 'knowledge' of how language should be. I hate that, and I particularly hate the fact that so many of these pedants assume that I'm on their side. When asked to join in a 'let's persuade this supermarket chain to get rid of their 'five items or less' sign' I never join in. Yes, I am aware of the technical distinction between 'less' and 'fewer', and between 'uninterested' and 'disinterested' and 'infer' and 'imply', but none of these are of importance to me. 'None of these are of importance,' I wrote there, you'll notice – the old pedantic me would have insisted on 'none of them is of importance'. Well I'm glad to say I've outgrown that silly approach to language. Oscar Wilde, and there have been few greater and more complete lords of language in the past thousand years, once included with a manuscript he was delivering to his publishers a compliment slip in which he had scribbled the injunction: 'I'll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, wills and shalls, thats and whiches &c.' Which gives us all encouragement to feel less guilty, don't you think?

There are all kinds of pedants around with more time to read and imitate Lynne Truss and John Humphrys than to write poems, love–letters, novels and stories it seems. They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound–sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it. They're too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer's less than perfect use of the apostrophe. Well sod them to Hades. They think they're guardians of language. They're no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind.

The worst of this sorry bunch of semi–educated losers are those who seem to glory in being irritated by nouns becoming verbs. How dense and deaf to language development do you have to be? If you don't like nouns becoming verbs, then for heaven's sake avoid Shakespeare who made a doing–word out of a thing–word every chance he got. He TABLED the motion and CHAIRED the meeting in which nouns were made verbs. New examples from our time might take some getting used to: 'He actioned it that day' for instance might strike some as a verbing too far, but we have been sanctioning, envisioning, propositioning and stationing for a long time, so why not 'action'? 'Because it's ugly,' whinge the pedants. It's only ugly because it's new and you don't like it. Ugly in the way Picasso, Stravinsky and Eliot were once thought ugly and before them Monet, Mahler and Baudelaire. Pedants will also claim, with what I am sure is eye–popping insincerity and shameless disingenuousness, that their fight is only for 'clarity'. This is all very well, but there is no doubt what 'Five items or less' means, just as only a dolt can't tell from the context and from the age and education of the speaker, whether 'disinterested' is used in the 'proper' sense of non–partisan, or in the 'improper' sense of uninterested. No, the claim to be defending language for the sake of clarity almost never, ever holds water. Nor does the idea that following grammatical rules in language demonstrates clarity of thought and intelligence of mind. Having said this, I admit that if you want to communicate well for the sake of passing an exam or job interview, then it is obvious that wildly original and excessively heterodox language could land you in the soup. I think what offends examiners and employers when confronted with extremely informal, unpunctuated and haywire language is the implication of not caring that underlies it. You slip into a suit for an interview and you dress your language up too. You can wear what you like linguistically or sartorially when you're at home or with friends, but most people accept the need to smarten up under some circumstances – it's only considerate. But that is an issue of fitness, of suitability, it has nothing to do with correctness. There no right language or wrong language any more than are right or wrong clothes. Context, convention and circumstance are all.

I don't deny that a small part of me still clings to a ghastly Radio 4/newspaper–letter–writer reader pedantry, but I fight against it in much the same way I try to fight against my gluttony, anger, selfishness and other vices. I must confess, for example, that I find it hard not to wince when someone aspirates the word 'aitch'. ..."

(Stephen Fry, 4 November 2008)

Fig.1 Matthew Rogers (2010). 'Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language'. http://rogerscreations.com/blog/?p=202

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TAGS

Anglophone • animated presentation • apostrophe • Charles Baudelaire • circumstance • clarityclarity of thoughtClaude Monetcommunicationcontextconvention • correctness • cultureeducation • elitism • evolutionexpressiongrammatical rulesGustav Mahler • heterodox language • Igor Stravinskyinnovationintelligence of mind • John Humphrys • kinetic typographyknowledgelanguagelanguage developmentlanguage habitslinguistics • Lynne Truss • meaning makingmotion graphicsmotion typographyOscar WildePablo Picasso • pedantry • pleasure • pretension • Radio 4scriptible • sensuous • sentence • sharpie • signageStephen Fry • technical rules • Thomas Stearns Eliotusageuse of wordsverbal freshnessvisualisationWilliam Shakespearewords

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
08 NOVEMBER 2008

Language may shape human thought

"Hunter–gatherers from the Pirahã tribe, whose language only contains words for the numbers one and two, were unable to reliably tell the difference between four objects placed in a row and five in the same configuration, revealed the study.

Experts agree that the startling result provides the strongest support yet for the controversial hypothesis that the language available to humans defines our thoughts. So–called 'linguistic determinism' was first proposed in 1950 but has been hotly debated ever since.

'It is a very surprising and very important result,' says Lisa Feigenson, a developmental psychologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, US, who has tested babies' abilities to distinguish between different numerical quantities. 'Whether language actually allows you to have new thoughts is a very controversial issue.'
...
Gordon says this is the first convincing evidence that a language lacking words for certain concepts could actually prevent speakers of the language from understanding those concepts.

Science Express (19 August 2004/ Page 1/ 10.1126/science.1094492)"
(Celeste Biever)

[this adds weight to the social constructionist notion that reality is formed through our use of language (not that language is merely an impartial carrier of information)]

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TAGS

Brazilconceptualisation • counting • culturehabits of mind • Hiaitiihi • hunter-gatherers • knowledgelanguagelanguage habits • linguistic determinism • linguisticsmathematicsNew Scientist • numbers • numeracy • Pirahã • social constructionismthoughttribetruth

CONTRIBUTOR

Simon Perkins
16 FEBRUARY 2005

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

"Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication and reflection. The fact of the matter is that the ''real world'' is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group."
(Edward Sapir, Benjamin Lee Whorf)

[or we language reality into existence...]

TAGS

Benjamin Lee Whorf • Edward Sapir • languagelanguage habitsSapir-Whorf Hypothesiswrite yourself into being
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