Don’t Mind Your Language…

Language. Language, language, language. In the end it all comes down to language. I write to you today on this subject as a way of welcoming you to www.stephenfry.com 2.0 and because, well, it’s a subject worth thinking about at any time and because fewer things interest me quite so much.

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Image: Nicole Stewart for SamFry

There are so many questions and issues jostling, tumbling and colliding in my mind that I can barely list them. Is language the father of thought? There’s one. Somebody once said, “How can I tell you what I think until I’ve heard what I’m going to say?” Is language being degraded, is it not what it was? Is there a right way to express yourself and a wrong? Grammar, does that exist, or is it a pedantic imposition, a kind of unnatural mixture of strangulation and straightening, like pleaching, pollarding and training pear-trees against a wall? Can we translate from one tongue into another without irreparable loss? And many, many more.

“Language is the universal whore that I must make into a virgin,” wrote Karl Kraus or somebody so like him that it makes no odds. One of my favourite remarks. T. S. Eliot said much the same thing in a different way: “to purify the dialect of the tribe”. But is there a “higher language”, a purer language, a proper language, a right language? Is language a whore, used, bruised and abused by every john in the street … is the idea of purifying the dialect of the tribe a poetic ideal or nonsensical snobbery?

I suppose we should remind ourselves of the old distinction made by the structuralists and structural linguists. I wrote a sketch about this years and years ago and if you know it, you’ll have to forgive the similarities between what I found to be a source of humour and what I am now apparently taking seriously. Actually the one doesn’t cancel out or refute the other. We can make fun of this kind of language about language and we can value it too. So bearing in mind that I am fully aware that I sound like the worst kind of pseudo-intellectual twazzock, let’s look at that distinction. There is language, the thing itself, the idea of language. And then there is this or that example of language in praxis, in use. There is Chess and there is this or that game of chess. The Game of Chess and that game of chess going on over there. There is language, the human capacity – ‘competence’ as Chomsky calls it, The Game of Language – and there is utterance, the actual instance of its use – this sentence for example. Of course aside from both of these, there is the local tongue, English, French, Cantonese, Basque, whatever.

The two for consideration however as those once fashionable Frenchies designated them are Langue, language as an idea, and parole, language as utterance. In this instance of parole I am using not only English, but my own brand of English, an English English salted, spiced, pickled, seasoned, braised and plated up to you bearing all the flavours of my class, gender, education and nature, discourses as you might call them. I am in some sort a language professional I suppose, in as much as I write and broadcast, I linguify for a living you might say. Nonetheless, I can no more change my language and the sum of its discourses than I can add a cubit to my height or, sadly it seems, take a pound from my weight. Well, perhaps that’s going a little far. I can attempt to disguise my language, I can dress it up into even more elaborate and grandiose orotundity, prolixity and self-consciousness, Will Self-consciousness you might say, or I could dress it down into something stripped. Stark. Bare. Simple. It would be hard to dress it down into something raggedly demotic without it being a patronising pastiche of a street argot to which I quite evidently have no access and in whose mazy slang avenues I would soon get lost, innit? In a sense I am typecast linguistically and although I can for fun try on all kinds of brogues and dialect clothes, my voice, my style, my language is as distinctive as my fingerprints.

My language (as the sum of my discourses, as linguistic strata that betray my history, as geology or archaeology betrays history) is my language and it is a piece of who I am, perhaps even the defining piece. In my case it is in part a classical ruin, inherited boulders of Tacitus and Cicero bleaching in the sun along with grass-overrun elements of Thucydides and Aeschylus … not because I was a classical scholar, but because I was taught by classical scholars and grew up on poets, dramatists and novelists who knew the classics as intimately as most people of my generation know the Beatles and the Stones. Without knowing it therefore, heroic Ciceronian clausulae and elaborate Tacitan litotes can always be found in the English of people like me. In part classical ruin, then, my language in particular has also mixed in it elements of my three Ws, my particular world wide web, my w.w.w, Wodehouse, Waugh and Wilde, three writers who greatly excited my imagination and stimulated my language glands like no other. I would add Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Peter Cook and Alan Bennett as others of whom I am consciously aware. But the language of British movies, classic novels, sixties and seventies broadcasters like Malcolm Muggeridge, James Cameron, Alistair Cooke, John Ebden, Anthony Quinton, Robert Robinson, they all played their part in informing my spoken and written utterance too, not to mention the elemental styles which in turn informed their language. As Henry Higgins reminds us in Pygmalion, English is for all of us the language of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible. We unconsciously use the tropes, tricks and figures of our great writers, just as we might without knowing it use a tierce de Picardie or a diminished seventh when humming in the shower. And to our native English today we have added the language of American sitcom and drama, American movies and Australian soap operas.

I’ve used this analogy before, but I’ll use it again. Think of London. Some of its outline was determined by the Romans who conquered it two thousand years ago, since then atop the ruins of the Roman, Saxon, Dark Age and Norman London was constructed a medieval city of winding streets, jostling half-timbered mansions and soaring stone cathedrals and churches. Then came, after the Tudor and Jacobean palaces and halls and after the restoration a period of renewed classical elements, the squares and avenues of Georgian and Regency London, elegant, spacious and harmonious. The Victorians brought long suburban streets, warehouses, libraries, schools, town halls and railway stations and in the twentieth century arrived a new architecture, office towers, corporate headquarters, airports, housing projects in glass and concrete, American and European statements of self conscious modernity, statehood, brutalism, socialism, capitalism and democracy. It isn’t I think, too much of a strain to see the history of our language in similar terms. A long sticky flypaper onto which at varying times of their importance the church, royalty, aristocracy, industry, commerce and international entertainment have accreted themselves. Saxon and Roman elements overlaid with the Norman French and Chaucerian and Church medieval English. A great renaissance of Shakespeare, the Bible of King James, Milton and Dryden leading into the classical English of Johnson and Pope. The Victorian English of industry, Dickens and music hall giving way to the English of the twentieth century, all the way through the arrival of radio and cinema, the political language of fascism, communism, socialism and finance, the Americanisms, the street talk, the rock and roll, the corporate speak, the computer jargon … and here we are. Glass and concrete sentences right next to half-timbered Elizabethan phrases, a Starbucks of an utterance dwelling in an expression that once belonged to a Victorian banker, an Apple Store of an accent in a converted Georgian merchant’s lingo. You get the point. Whether or not we are aware of the difference between a transitive verb and a preposition, a verb and a vowel, we are willy-nilly, heirs to Marlowe and Swift, just as that new Waitrose is a descendant (albeit a bastard one) of the Parthenon. Bear in mind that phrase willy-nilly, by the way – I shall return to it later. For the meantime, seal it in a baggie and stash it in your hoodie. Or fold it in scented tissue and lay it tenderly in your hope chest, according to taste.

I’ve mentioned those French intellectuals the structuralists: one of their number, perhaps the best known, Roland Barthes, liked to use two words jouissance and plaisir. Le plaisir du texte. The pleasure of the text. Those who think structuralism spelt or spelled death to conscious art and such bourgeois comforts as style, accomplishment and enjoyment might be surprised that the pleasure of the text, the jouissance, the juicy joy of language, was important to Roland and his followers. Only to a dullard is language a means of communication and nothing more. It would be like saying sex is a means of reproduction and no more and food a means of fuelling and no more. In life you have to explain wine. You have to explain cheese. You have to explain love. You can’t, but you have to try, or if not try you have, surely, to be aware of the astonishing fact of them. We would never notice if the fat and protein rich food with which cows, ewes and nanny goats suckled their young could not be converted to another, firmer foodstuff that went well with crackers and grapes. We wouldn’t go about the place moaning that sheep’s milk was only of any use to lambs, any more than I have ever heard anyone wonder why pig’s milk doesn’t make a good yoghurt. In fact if you suggest drinking pig’s milk or horse’s milk, people look askance and go “yeurgh!” as if it’s the oddest suggestion they’ve ever heard. We take what nature and custom have led us to accept. As Eddie Izzard pointed out, it’s odd that bees make honey: ‘after all,’ he said, ‘earwigs don’t make chutney.’ And take that arbitrary fruit, the grape: suppose grapes didn’t uniquely transmogrify themselves, without the addition of sugar, into a drink of almost infinite complexity? We wouldn’t wonder at the lack of such a thing as wine in the world, any more than we wonder that raspberry wine (despite the deliciousness of raspberries as fruit) can’t, in the proper sense, exist or speculate on why the eggs of carp aren’t as good to eat as the eggs of sturgeon. But every now and again we should surely celebrate the fact that caviar is so fine, that the grape offers itself up so uniquely, that milk products of three or four species have such versatile by-products for us, that the grain of some grasses can be transformed into bread, that the berry, pod or leaf of this plant or that plant can give us chocolate, coffee or tea, and that while the fuzz of this plant can’t go to make a shirt, the fuzz of that unique one canand the thread of this insect can go to make a tie, while the equally impressive thread, in nature, of that other insect can’t be spun into the simplest handkerchief. Is it weird that silkworms exist or is it weird that only the silkworm will do when it comes to silk and only the cotton plant when it comes to cotton? To put it again, in an accidental line of decasyllabic verse, ‘none would be missed if they didn’t exist’. And if language didn’t elicit pleasure, if it didn’t have its music, its juiciness or jouissance would we notice, or would always be destined to find pleasure in it because that’s a thing we humans can do? Out of the way we move we can make dance, out of the way we speak we can make poetry and oratory and comedy and all kinds of verbal enchantments. Cheese is real, and so it seems, is the pleasure of the text.

I’m veering all over the shop. We’ll return to pleasure later. Steven Pinker, the Harvard Professor who writes on psycholinguistics and the evolutionary development of language and the mind, has made quite a tidy living out of popularising what you might call Chomskian ideas. Noam Chomsky may be better known now for his penetrating critiques of American foreign policy, but he made his reputation as a pioneering linguist. His discovery (or theorem if you prefer) was that the mind comes pre-equipped for language, syntax and grammar, much as the body comes pre-equipped for growth and sexual development. A baby doesn’t have underarm hair, but it has the innate program within it which, at a certain age, usually between twelve and fourteen, will be activated to start producing hair under the arms: a parent doesn’t have to teach it, only the right and natural nutrients need to have been ingested over time so as to allow normal growth and it will just happen. So it is, argue the Chomskians, with language: each baby (given normal development) has an innate language faculty, a language instinct Pinker calls it: local differences between Chinese and English are not, according to this theory, so very profound. A parent doesn’t teach language, much as they may think they do, they just occasionally spoon-feed a bit of vocabulary: moo-cow, baa-lamb, colours and so on, usually – you’ll never hear a parent say “and these are called ‘stairs’ or ‘to wash’ means ‘to clean with water’” – the child absorbs that kind of vocabulary without teaching. The really clever bits, the structure and lexical rules … these no parent can teach because it’s highly unlikely they will even be aware of them. You do not say to an English child: “the aorist of ‘to see’ is ‘saw’ the perfect is ‘have seen’”. You don’t even tell them that to give a sense of the past you add ‘-ed’ to the end of the verb. ‘I play,’ ‘I played’. Many parents will not know what a verb is, nor will they need to, any more than you need to know what an alternator is to drive to the shops or, more pertinently, any more than you need to know what a bronchial tree or alveoli are in order to breathe. This may sound obvious to us all, language as a natural, evolved innate faculty; after all, the theory has been understood and mostly accepted for forty or so years, but if you look back over the history of linguistics to beyond the time such a word even existed, over the shoulders of Saussure, Jakobson and the Brothers Grimm to the earliest philologists and language investigators, there was no obvious reason to suppose that language was innate. Or at least not innate in that way. Many believed, quite seriously, that the Biblical explanation in the story of the Tower of Babel was the true answer to the riddle of language, just as they believed in the Flood and the Creation. Others thought that there was a ‘natural’ language, a primary tongue. Some suggested that it was Latin, others, out of religiosity, that it must be Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic. They went so far, under the patronage of bishops and monarchs who took an interest in the subject, as to take foundling children by way of experiment and isolate them completely from all human congress, to give them no access to language at all while they grew up, in the hope that they would revert to some posited universal and original language, the linguistic equivalent of a chemical element or primary tissue, and thereby prove once and for all which of the world’s tongues had primacy. Of course what happened was that such children invented their own language amongst themselves, true languages with wide vocabularies and complex syntactical structures. It is a shame in a way that it would now be considered too cruel to repeat the experiments, just imagine how much would be revealed by a study of these unique languages.

Other theories touching on the nature and origins of language that have had some vogue include that of Professor Jayne’s 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, a fascinating and bold attempt to explain language and, more fundamentally, consciousness itself. Richard Dawkins said that it “… is one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between.” Whatever the truth or cogency of Jayne’s central argument, it remains an elegantly written and provocative read and helps raise the issue of whether language is necessary for the subconscious mind, let alone the conscious, to exist. His theories of metaphor are especially interesting. But let’s return to pleasure before we get bogged down in bibliography.

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’. Haitch Eye Vee, you hear all the time now, for HIV. It’s pretty much nails on the blackboard to me, as is the use of the word ‘yourself’ or ‘myself’ when all that is meant is ‘you’ or ‘me’ but I daresay myself’s accent and manner is nails on the blackboard to yourself or to others too, in itself’s own way. Myself also mourns, sometimes, the death of that phrase I bade you upon pain of slapping to remember some time back, ‘willy-nilly’, do you remember? Fold it in your hope chest, I urged, or seal it in a baggie. Well you can take it out now. Willy-nilly. What happened there? Willy-nilly is now used, it seems, to mean ‘all over the place’; its original meaning of ‘whether you like it or not’ (in other words ‘willing or unwilling’) is all but forgotten. Well, that’s ok, I suppose. I don’t mind either that the word ‘meld’ is now being used as a kind of fusion of melt and weld, instead of in its original sense of ‘announce’. Meld has changed … that’s okay. There’s no right or wrong in language, any more than there’s right or wrong in nature. Evolution is all about restless and continuous change, mutation and variation. What was once ‘meant’ in the animal kingdom to be a nose can end up as an antenna, a tongue, eyes, a pair of lips or a blank space once evolution and the permutation of new DNA and new conditions has got to work. If the foulness of the Kennel Club mentality was operated in nature, just imagine … giraffes’ necks wouldn’t be allowed to stretch, camels wouldn’t get humps, such alterations would be wrong. Well it’s the same in language, there’s no right or wrong, only usage. Convention exists, of course it does, but convention is no more a register of rightness or wrongness than etiquette is, it’s just another way of saying usage: convention is a privately agreed usage rather than a publicly evolving one. Conventions alter too, like life. Things that are kept to purity of line, in the Kennel Club manner, develop all the ghastly illnesses and deformations of inbreeding and lack of vital variation. Imagine if we all spoke the same language, fabulous as it is, as Dickens? Imagine if the structure, meaning and usage of language was always the same as when Swift and Pope were alive. Superficially appealing as an idea for about five seconds, but horrifying the more you think about it.

If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that ‘correct use’ I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be.

But above all let there be pleasure. Let there be textural delight, let there be silken words and flinty words and sodden speeches and soaking speeches and crackling utterance and utterance that quivers and wobbles like rennet. Let there be rapid firecracker phrases and language that oozes like a lake of lava. Words are your birthright. Unlike music, painting, dance and raffia work, you don’t have to be taught any part of language or buy any equipment to use it, all the power of it was in you from the moment the head of daddy’s little wiggler fused with the wall of mummy’s little bubble. So if you’ve got it, use it. Don’t be afraid of it, don’t believe it belongs to anyone else, don’t let anyone bully you into believing that there are rules and secrets of grammar and verbal deployment that you are not privy to. Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years. How they feel to us now tells us whole stories of our ancestors.

One final thought I should leave you with which only occurred to me the other day. Sometimes, by accident, language fails to provide and when it does the results can be hugely detrimental to the human race. Orwell famously suggested that language preceded thought, such that if the word ‘freedom’, for example, is removed from the dictionary, then the very idea of freedom will disappear with it be and be lost to humanity. A smart tyranny, he said, would remove words like justice, fairness, liberty and right from usage. But my thought occurred to me when I saw a graffito which took up a whole gable end wall in London the other day. It proclaimed, in great big strokes of white paint: “One nation under CCTV”. A good angry point – the American dictum ‘one nation under god’ sardonically replaced with a comment about Britain’s unenviable position as the Closed Circuit Television capital of the world. But … the satirical shout all but fails for one simple reason: CCTV is such a bland, clumsy, rhythmically null and phonically forgettable word, if you can call it a word, that the swipe lacks real punch. If one believed in conspiracy theories, you could almost call it genius that there is no more powerful word for the complex and frightening system of electronic surveillance that we lump into that weedy bundle of initials. For if CCTV was called … I don’t know …. something like SCUNT (Surveillance Camera Universal NeTwork, or whatever) then the acronyms might have passed into our language and its simple denotation would have taken on all the dark connotations which would allow “One nation under scunt” to have much more impact as a resistance slogan than “One nation under CCTV”. “Damn, I was scunted as I walked home,” “they’ve just erected a series of scunts in the street outside,” “Britain is the most scunted country in the world” … etc etc. Or maybe, just maybe, we should stick to the idea of initials and borrow a set that have already taken on the darkest possible connotations of evil and tyranny. Surveillance System. SS. ‘Britain’s SS is bigger than that of any other country.’ ‘The SS has taken over the UK’. Neither of these assertions would sound nearly as good if substituted with those lame letters ‘CCTV’, would they? Well, whether Scunt or SS surely there really should be a memorable and punchy new designation for CCTV – at the moment it is simply too greasy to wrestle. I wonder what other enemies lurk in our society that need names to bring them out into the light? I look forward to your thoughts.

I do not look forward to your thoughts on which inaccuracies and grammatical ‘mistakes’ irritate you though. This is not Feedback on Radio 4, or the letters page of the Daily Telegraph. Oh alright, I take that back. You are welcome, of course, to disagree with my dislike of pedantry and to attempt to convince me that there is ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ English.

If I were to direct you to any books about language, I would certainly recommend Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct but above that I would rate Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language. This brilliant linguist mocks pedantry and the idea of stasis in language with far greater elegance and knowledge than I can. His informed empiricism, in this reader’s opinion, knocks the sometimes tortuously conjectural rationalism of Pinker into a cocked hat.

But don’t feel the need to study language as a subject, the sheer act of reading and of writing and of talking is enough. And this too is enough. I shall stop now before I get all … oh, it’s too late, I’ve already got all …

Until the next time, fellow linguists, thank you and goodbye.

© Stephen Fry 2008

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This blog was posted in Blessays

163 comments on “Don’t Mind Your Language…”

  1. tinimaus says:

    I wonder if this lack of enjoyment by English speakers of their own language you describe has anything to do with the generally low uptake of foreign language study in Britain and other anglophone countries. I certainly found that I enjoyed and appreciated my native language more once I was fluent in another language and saw more beauty in both. Having now moved back home after fourteen years in Britain, I’m almost giddy hearing German every day, but on the other hand I already know that I will really miss the conciseness of English. I also have certain subjects I’d rather think about in English.

  2. ravidor says:

    For philosophy of language see Ludwig Wittgenstein.

    Great looking new site.

  3. aleax says:

    Delightful, as usual, but name of the author you mention is spelled “Jaynes”, with a final S. For a contemporary book on the enduring significance of his life and work, see http://www.amazon.com/Reflections-Dawn-Consciousness-Bicameral-Revisited/dp/097907441X/ref=sr_1_3?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1225726838&sr=1-3 . For a homonym (unrelated) contemporary author who around the same time revolutionized a different discipline, see http://www.amazon.com/Probability-Theory-E-T-Jaynes/dp/0521592712/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1225726838&sr=1-1 — I move in peculiar circles where you don’t just say “Jaynes” to refer to either author, because both the nature of cognition and consciousness, and that of uncertain knowledge (probabilities), are both potentially relevant in many contexts. (I’m _also_ a pedant, but that’s a separate issue;-).

  4. crux says:

    Bravo, Stephen. I awfully glad to see you take your seat among the disreputable descriptionists, and moreover, to puncture so thoroughly the caricature of the bloodless, anything-goes academic, who simply doesn’t care enough about actual language or actual speech to accept that there are rules. I’ve written a follow-up of sorts at my own place, http://apodion.net/apo/stephen-fry-it-is-well-to-hear-it

  5. KateM says:

    Re the aspirated H – in Irish-English (Hiberno-English?), ‘haitch’ is standard pronunciation but in Northern Ireland it’s indicative of background. Catholic schools teach ‘haitch’ and Protestant schools ‘aitch’.

  6. Bascule says:

    I’m afraid the ‘haitch’ thing really annoys me too. My children attend a school (C of E to boot!) in which some of the teachers actually teach them to say haitch but I think I’m winning in my campaign to convert them to aitchers.

  7. tobbles says:

    A thoroughly enjoyable, educational and as always entertaining posting. I am always in awe of your ability to play with language and your immense knowledge and skill of the subject. I can only envy your mastery and hope to learn from it.

  8. ninechars says:

    I’ve always liked (the name of) that close relative of CCTV, the Gatso. It sounds so like “gotcha” and it lends itself very well to verbing.

    P.S. Haitch!

  9. Ren says:

    I have to confess that I am somewhat a “grammar bitch”. I know it’s annoying but I can’t help it. It is true that the joy of language is not in the “correctness” of the language but in one’s own ability to produce language, speech or writing and the use of imagination. Rules and guidelines are good when they serve the purpose but language changes all the time and we should all go along.

  10. IanWright says:

    I use “Haitch”… inherited it from my grandparents and parents. I try to lose it but then i found it annoyed my girlfriend… so have retained it.

    I think it came from pride, a very working class attempt to be correct and proper despite a lack of any real education. In roughly the same way the doorstep was always clean and scrubbed and the front of the house always fresh and painted, despite the fact it was always close in the matter of money and having food on the table three times a day.

  11. silentgreybox says:

    “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”

    Just thought that needed putting out there ;)

  12. When I realised that I enjoyed exploring and experimenting with the English language, it wasn’t long before I naturally thought about studying it. Learning about it in depth. Fortunately, perhaps, I then remembered that I had tried the same with music, but discovering the rules, the forms and the various intricacies of it had (temporarily) destroyed the magic of it. I still feel that I sometimes know too much about how English should be used in order to break free of the rules and write in the way I sometimes dream about, but I remain glad that I didn’t take the extremely academic route and retain some of the magic of discovery.

  13. pg says:

    Etymology fascinates me. Language is such an inter-woven fabric of culture, psychology, and geography.

    I once heard a radio interview with notable intellectuals on NPR here in the USA about whether or not Shakespeare would appreciate the modern trends in language, such as the “AIM-speak” phrases such as “LOL,” “BRB,” etc. They wholeheartedly agreed that the Bard would love them.

  14. MusicFromBlueSkies says:

    When reading your blogs or articles or whatevers, I find myself speaking the words out loud. I think this can only say good things about your writing.
    So I look forward to hearing you say them in the promised podcast, even if it will probably highlight how poor my pronunciation is!

    I wonder what your thoughts of creating smiley faces out of punctuation… :)
    I resisted them for a long time, and though I still keep them well away from my blog, I have grown rather fond of them in little notes to friends on sites like twitter. Speaking of which, I am enjoying your tweets from Africa, though it seems strange reading those on one hand and watching you tour America once a week on the other!

    x

  15. MusicFromBlueSkies says:

    Oh, and now apparently you can’t write/draw an old school smiley face without it being turned upright and painted yellow! I bet equals eyes will do the trick… =)

    x

  16. Luciani says:

    Forget Wittgenstein, d’you think you could find the return key so in an article about language the paragraphs aren’t 15,000 words long. Makes it very hard to read. Interesting stuff though.

  17. Desdemona says:

    But above all let there be pleasure… How they feel to us now tells us whole stories of our ancestors. (paragraph 13)

    This fills me with confidence, thank you. I have never been able to get my head around grammar and spellings, they have never been my fortay since I was knee high, but it has encoraged me to write more and i am going to, whether my teachers like it or not.

  18. cheekbones7 says:

    Reading this reminded me of Kristeva and how she combined the paternal symbolic essence of language, or Jouis-sense, as Lacan said, and the maternal semiotique essence concerning rhythm and tone, or Juice-sance, as Fry said. The combination of both gives meaning to language, to life. But alas, I’ve recently heard that the French are no longer in vogue; what a shame, they had such playful way with words.

    As for requisite words – in my language, Hebrew, there’s considerable deficiency in some departments and affluence in others; Easy enough to make words up, but nowhere close to sth like “a gay-off”, which I consider brilliant. As for lurking social enemies – I’d say the Frenchies did a great job outing and naming most of them, so chapeau to them again.

    BTW – I thought this blessay had derived from some abbreviations/net-talk complaints on twitter, till u situation-ed it near a London wall.. Also want to add that I get updated on twitter mainly to enjoy your language swings. Quelle jouissance!

  19. stuartnz says:

    Thank you so much for this excellent post! I did love the Fry and Laurie sketch on language, but this post is even better for being at least mostly in earnest. I am going to add it to my list of language-related links in the hope that it might contribute to the salvation and/or redemption of at least one poor prescriptivist. Thanks too for plugging Guy Deutscher’s book. As a devout pieriansipist, his book is one of my all-time favourites and it was a delight to see it so highly praised by someone whose opinion I value.

  20. From_Saratov says:

    Прошу прощения, что пишу по-русски. По-английски я только читаю и ничего не могу написать, но я в полном восторге от того, что я здесь читаю. Долго собирался зайти и просто сказать что-нибудь хорошее, но стеснялся. А тут пост о языке — такой удобный случай. Сейчас я перевожу все написанное здесь на русский — хотя переводчик из меня получится вряд ли очень хороший, но мои более ленивые соотечественники получат возможность хотя бы приблизительно узнать, что тут написано. Разумеется, перевод я нигде не буду публиковать — просто дам почитать друзьям.

  21. elTweeno says:

    Language has always fascinated me, too, though I’m nowhere near as eloquent as this!

    I think my fascination probably stems from moving ‘up north’ to Northumberland at the tender age of 5, & all my classmates thinking I was posh because I had a Hertfordshire accent. It has always been my opinion that people who bully others over grammar and/or pronunciation really need to think outside their precious box of academic rules once in a while.

    The many essays on my desk, waiting to be written, suddenly seem far more enticing after reading your thoughts; I’m truly inspired…

  22. tutormentor says:

    language is such a big influence on how we interpret the world. notice how so many negative words use sexual connotations; how the worst words in the world refer to female genitalia; how the language we use influences how we treat ourselves and others…

    I haven’t read the article in full~ but am looking forward to it over a beer later today…

  23. Gustavo says:

    This reminds me of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In very much the same way that the ruler of the universe, he assumed, had to be someone that did not desire the job, people who would be more suitable for “correcting” the “misuse” of language are those that are not interested in doing so. And the reason they are not interested is the one that qualifies them: they really understand language, and find in every new facet it shows something interesting and valuable. Even if only the possibility of a new pun.

  24. Enormajean says:

    Wow…so many bells rung from my own personal belfry. How did you get in?

    I love the lingo in all forms – both slippery and dry – but it has always led me to trouble. From being accused of plagiarising stories at Primary School, to being bullied for knowing and correctly using the word melancholy in Secondary School (I probably deserved that one), to enduring the deathless jibe “someone’s swallowed a dictionary” since, like, OMG whenever.

    I’m part of a volunteer committee running a community centre in Cornwall, and at one of our meetings, a member of our committee was ranting about how much she hates samba dancing, because it’s too “Notting Hill”. She went on to say it’s alright for…and then used the N-word. Two of us gently, but firmly tried to explain that she can’t say that in a minuted (sorry, verbsnatchers, I’m having that one) meeting, and probably to cover her embarrassment, she turned on me for using “…all these long words.”

    Sad to say, I had the same rush of exposed, effete, bookworm shame as always.

    On the plus side, they do like it when I swear.

    Thanks for this article, Mr Fry. It’s always heartening to read that you don’t have to know ALL the rules of the game before you are allowed to play. You’re a very generous man.

    PS: My favourite word is verisimilitude. This is because it measures the degree to which something is very-similar-to something else. Those bullies had a point, didn’t they…

  25. Ammajiger says:

    Here’s something I found after I read this blessay- http://www.ventrella.com/Ideas/grammar.html
    -that I thought was pretty cute.

    And for in case you read or respond to comments, Stephen, I’ve been wanting to make a comment about one of your podgrams from a while back, but that particular podgram didn’t seem to have an entry- in other words, I couldn’t comment on it directly.
    In that podgram you said that almost every other country gets singular suffix for websites, and one of the examples you listed was South Africa having just a ‘.za’ suffix, as opposed to co.za. Unfortunately, this is not true. I’m live in South Africa, and all our (commercial) websites end in co.za, although we’ve taken to pronouncing them as words and not individual letters, and we drop the dot between the co and the za. “For more info, visit www dot ——– dot coh zah” It’s a right pain in the arse, but then we’re so slow on the uptake that there’s only a bare minimum of South African commercial and useful sites online. If I’m looking for the website for a production company’s short course, I might find articles about it from three years ago on a news site, but not the course itself.

    Sorry for the tangent, just thought I’d mention:)

    Loraine

  26. wordord says:

    First of all, thank you for yet another great blessay!

    As a member of a language minority, I’m completely obsessed with languages. It came as a shock to me that people who speak English as their mother tongue generally don’t share my interest. When I, for instance, try to discuss my (in my opinion) extremely interesting observation; that the English language seems to lack a verb denoting “the act of not speaking”, most English-speakers only answer me with a polite “Oh, really?” – and change the subject. And yet many of my acquaintances are writers, journalists, intellectuals – in general, people who ought to be interested in, and in love with, their own mother tongue, and whom you would expect to enjoy speaking *about* their language almost as much as they enjoy speaking *in* their own language…

    There are so many intriguing aspects of language – the origins of it, etymology, what happens in our brains when we use or learn new languages, how we produce meaning, and so forth! And then there are these tiny details, as my verb problem: There are verbs denoting “the act of not speaking” in most languages; “molchat’” in Russian, “vaieta” in Finnish, “tiga” in Swedish, “(se) taire” in French, “schweigen” in German. But in English? “to keep quiet”, “to remain silent” and such, i.e. idiomatic expressions with auxiliary verbs. Or do you have an appropriate verb hidden somewhere in that hope chest?

    I have met several English-speakers who can perform “the act of not speaking” – but how can they do that if they lack the word for that particular act? ;)

  27. Shanan Kan says:

    Bravo, Stephen! It is a testament to how right you were in your autobiography when you said that we often appeal to writers better than ourselves who can articulate our thoughts so perfectly. Isn’t it ironic that thoughts, the very things that we hold so private, so dear and so innate are often better expressed by others?

    This blessay is a a shining explication of everything I have ever wanted to say about language. I find, during the course of my ramblings on the generative and evolutionary aspects of language, I often rehash your example of “higgledy-piggledy” England vs structuralist France. This blessay here will definitely feature in my future musings to others.

    I will request, and I think that I speak for a few people, that you write a book on the pleasure of language. Much like Ode Less Travelled, but less specific than just poetry, open it up.

    I speak with confidence that if I ever had to bibliography the source of my own lanauge (as a reflection of me and my history), your blessed name will feature rather prominently, and I can only thank you eternally for that.

  28. Pachydermatous Mameluke says:

    Well, I’m not sure that I am prepared to surrender my self image as a language lover, but I really must protest about infer and imply, two perfectly good words with distinct meanings which would happily mind their own business and serve us to good effect if left alone by those who cannot be bothered to use the right one.

    You infer that I am a language fascist? I’m sorry, I can no longer tell what you mean by that, whether it’s a conclusion you draw, a statement that you make indirectly, or both. Or, indeed, neither. Because surely if we surrender the idea that words carry definite meaning then we lose the human-defining ability to communicate precisely through language (or, as Reggie Perrin would have it, earwig).

    Yes, of course, infer is just joining the luxurious panoply of words which, if looked up in a dictionary (dictionaried, anyone?) will proffer multiple meanings, some of them contradictory. But I can’t see that it has advanced the good of humankind through acquiring this superfluous new apperception, merely muddied the waters around a subtle and beautiful interplay, possible only because we are gifted with the marvels of language, thought, metaphor and playfulness that make it possible for a speaker to say one thing and have a listener infer another (be that through the speaker’s intention or the listener’s imagination / paranoia), and possible for a listener to catch that which a speaker only implies (or appears, through pure mischance, to imply).

    Well, that’s it, rant over, but please, can’t we save inference from interference?

  29. MaureenC says:

    Thank you for posting this today–those of us on the other side of the Atlantic are, for the most part, freaking out about polls and electoral votes and swing states and other distressing subjects. We need to converse on something other than predictions on what way Virginia will go.

    It is a shame in a way that it would now be considered too cruel to repeat the experiments, just imagine how much would be revealed by a study of these unique languages.

    It’s known as the “forbidden experiment” among linguists, just because it’s seductive yet ethically abhorrent. However, Nicaraguan Sign Language fits most of the criteria.

  30. quixote says:

    You put that “alright” in there on purpose. Admit it.

    (The blessay was good, too.)

  31. VincentZ says:

    The comment I originally started writing turned into a blog post in its own right, but I felt I should still contribute something here.

    I don’t consider myself a language pedant, though I will admit there are some trends I see as at least mildly concerning backsteps which might narrow the possibility for communication rather than expand it. If any change in language is to be fought, it is that which makes us less able to understand each other. ‘Constant vigilance’ is, as they say, required.

    I do, however, absolutely identify as a language-lover in the fluid, ever-changing, always-something-new-to-discover sense of the term. I hope you will accept that most conceited of conceits (the self-quotation) as proof of my membership in this most excellent society:

    “I do enjoy playing with words and though I am, I am told, perfectly capable of throwing them together in normal comprehensible patterns known to many as phrases, sentences or paragraphs, I am moved more to throw them together in ways that seem pleasing or amusing to me. There will be obscure words dredged from dictionaries esoteric; there will be seemingly unrelated and meandering detours; and there will be phrases started with conjunctions.

    Because I can.”

  32. shannonr says:

    This jumped out:

    “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?”

    Yes.

    The two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

    Language is pleasure, but language is also a collection of symbols. Imagine if we didn’t “agree” that a stick figure with a triangle-for-a-dress meant “Ladies”. There’d be ‘orrible confrontations in the bogs every day.

    It’s the same with the Greengrocer’s Apostrophe. We’ve agreed — like it or not — that it’s means, exclusively, Ladies. Or, rather, “it is”. That’s the end of the story.

    No amount of blather about “usage” makes any other usage correct, acceptable, interesting, or worthy of preservation. Unless you fancy wandering into the wrong loo every other time…

    Language matters. And so do the wee conventions we adopt to make it _possible_ to enjoy it, revel in it, abuse it, celebrate it.

    Nothing is more likely to cock-block the pleasure of language in mid “cream” than the cold spoon of a word used ignorantly and/or incorrectly, unless for comedy.

    The “pleasure” of watching/listening to a fictional character like “The Sopranos” mobster “Little Carmine” and his delicious misuse of ten-dollar words comes to mind. Without the original meanings being “correct”, where’s the fun?

  33. Personally I’m always sad when a word changes meaning to be the same as another, perfectly good word. Your “disinterested”, for example: soon we will have one less way to say non-partisan. (It’s a good job that we still have “non-partisan”, or I wouldn’t have been able to say that at all.)

    It seems to me that there should be some objective criteria that would let us tell the difference between pointless radio-four behaviour and genuine fear that our language is being dumbed down.

    My personal bugbear is people saying “vee” when they mean “versus”. I know it’s perfectly functional, so I suppose that I have no grounds to object; but to my ears it just makes them sound ignorant.

  34. Vallo says:

    Thank you Stephen for your generosity in keeping us both interested and entertained. I can hear your voice as I read your words.

    My father was a working class man from Shepherds Bush (should there be an apostrophe in there?). He used to say people dropped their aitches in ‘Ammersmith and picked them up in Hislington.

  35. Archy_sailor says:

    Good lord! I was suddenly transported back several years and several thousand miles to a particularly pleasant semester of theory in linguistic anthropology during my undergraduate years. We had many of the same arguments, though the focus was more on the nature vs. nurture debate and linguistic evolution than on the sheer pleasure of making intelligible sounds. This was the first anthropological topic to grab my attention so thoroughly, that I briefly considered going over to the “dark side” into cultural anthropology and working as a linguist.

    The joy of language you speak of so eloquently is what stopped me from going down that path, though. The thought of spending my days dissecting words like lab specimens, looking at individual syllables and phrase constructions like a biologist would look at organs and systems, literally turned my stomach. Eventually, no matter how much I love my work, it becomes just work, and it forever taints my appreciation of the thing itself. I worked on traditional ships for years and loved ever wet, cold, exhausted second of it, but I can never look at Johnny Depp, zipping blithely down a line from the top of a mast, without the instinct to kick someone in the shin. Now that my work involves digging in the dirt, I’m afraid (sadly) that Indiana Jones is the next to be in danger.

    So, perhaps we should just feel sorry for those who go to the extreme of linguistic “purity.” I find them just as aggravating, railing against someone else’s earnest (if grammatically flawed) attempt to communicate. I cannot hold myself blameless, by the way, either in grammatical correctness or in holding my tongue against the more blatant violations of my native language. I look upon the extremists as ones to be pitied, though. The ones who have become so focused on minutia, they have lost the grand view. Like someone who has become so obsessed with a mole-hill, he can’t enjoy the rest of the garden. With these folks, I just shake my head, grin, and split an infinitive.

  36. manxman says:

    I think that perhaps, maybe, possibly, this lack of enjoyment of language is linked to not being read to when we’re young or reading children’s books that talk down to kids or use over-simplified language….
    The greatest children’s books (and the ones that children enjoy the most) talk to children unpatronisingly – kids love the sounds and the rythms of varied language and the change in tone or pitch of the voice. They have an instinctive understanding of words that perhaps they don’t know the meaning of and learn to “feel” what the author is getting at even if they don’t understand the words.

    The wind in the willows:
    Never in his life had he seen a river before–this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver–glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.

    PHWOAAARR!

    Or Roald Dahl!! He certainly didn’t talk down to kids, but knew exactly how to use language to excite, arouse, scare or upset them.

    I am a painting teacher and I have come to realise that children have an instinctive and passionate NEED to draw, paint and make marks. The fact that at a certain age, perhaps where their ambition outstrips their “ability”, drawing becomes uncool and they become filled with awkward inhibition, is a never-ending source of bafflement for me. Sad.

    I also have a pet hate of pedants and language tyrants – it’s that sort of thing that destroys the pure, felt, sexy and naughty enjoyment of language in children who don’t or can’t understand what a verb is or how to use commas. Grrrr.

  37. leeus says:

    I have the same experience as tinimaus (the first post) of enjoying my own language more after learning other languages and seeing how different the ways to express even same things can be. I have to admit that part of this joy comes from the fact I realise that in my native language I have so many different alternatives to express what I want to say and I am also able to have so much more nuances than in any other language. I realise the fact that my abilities in other languages are poor always when using english with my friends. It makes me love my own language, but is also great motivation to learn more different languages and to find those nuances that I am missing now.

  38. persil says:

    As a new member I’ve sneeked in the back door here not necessarily to post a comment on the above, but to say something to SF concerning his attack of the british for “sneering anti americanism”. I’m sorry if this isn’t the right place to do this but I can’t find anywhere else on your site to answer this. It’s ironic really that i’m answering this in a post about the importance of language as along with most other things, the americans butcher this also. I’m all in favo(u)r of language evolving so they can basically do what they like with it (as well as with the UN) but we do all learn the same grammar at school. Leaving aside their spelling, their use of grammar is appalling.

    As for anti americanism, we need this in the world. Although I’m not a huge fan of stephen, I’ve always found his programmes interesting, the subject matter well researched and presented. Suddenly becoming enamoured with the US is one thing, but saying that only people who don;t know america outside of tv or a trip to orlando is naive and ridiculous. Travelling around america, as i have done, only exacerbates how parochial they are. You find the americans polite, friendly, charming and honourable yet they go to war illegally, cause widespread misery to millions of people, lie to their own people and have total disregard to international law. Their “war on terrorism” has left the world a much darker and sinister place. Travelling freely around the world is now fraught with difficulty because of them. So, rejoice that they are polite, friendly and honourable, just don’t speak out against their christian right or tell them that you have a stockpile of oil. You’ll wake up one day with their polite, freindly missiles passing over your head.

    Vegetable rights and peace. Persil.

  39. SonofPearl says:

    “Is language the father of thought?”

    Personally I don’t think so, and I’m rather fond of a lyric from the Suzanne Vega song “Language”, which expresses the opposite sentiment.

    “These words are too solid,
    They don’t move fast enough
    To catch the blur in the brain
    That flies by and is gone…”

  40. SteveCooperOrg says:

    ** In praise of formalism (but not the way you think) **

    Stephen is absolutely right about English, and all the languages humans use to talk to each other in. Too much formality may supress beauty.

    However, there are formal languages where the precision *is* the beauty. The languages of mathematics, like algebra, have an elegance to them that derives from their form. Similarly, good computer programs are, at best, a kind of electric poetry.

    Lovers of formality might want to look there for a place where their precision and attention to detail is not only appreciated, but required.

  41. galadrial says:

    Thank you for another wonderful piece of writing. I admit to being quite a pedant when it comes to words. If I consider why this is so, it probably has more to do with my not wanting to seem ignorant or be open to correction than about upholding the purity of the language. Some modern trends dismay me, yet I have to concede that language evolves according to use and if enough people adopt something, it becomes acceptable. Ultimately, we are free to choose how we want to express ourselves, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I do also take great pleasure from words and from those who can use them well, and love the richness of English that derives from its many sources. Your invitiation to abandon pedantry and go for the jouissance is delightful and hard to resist.

  42. Bankrobber says:

    I’m guilty of having been a horrible pedant in the past, but I’m trying to reform. I’m willing to overlook most desecrations now, with the exception of apostrophe catastrophes. The main thing should be that any piece of writing from the shortest email to the epic-est (yes, I really did just use epic-est) magnum opus ought to be carefully crafted. It’s sloppiness that I object to (or “to which I object” as some may prefer to have it).

  43. Marko K says:

    I don’t think that language is the father of the thought. The language is form of the thought, the way to present it to the world. It is more a physical birth of a thought, so it would be more appropriate to call it a mother. But seriously, i do consider language very important for it is the only way to present yourself truly to the world. I do think that the most important aspect of human being is its spirit its soul if you like. Language is the only way to express your being to the world so the nurture of ones language is of essence. Language is what separates us from animals, and makes us human, by language we can communicate share thoughts, ideas… and ultimately in accordance with each other create a society . Vuk Karadzic a Serbian philologist and a reformer of Serbian language once stated that alphabet is the greats invention in human history, for it allowed us to record our thought and correspond with people through the ages.
    So in many ways language is the most important aspect of human being (beside from breathing) and as such must constantly be developed in limits of each individual.

  44. Pelly says:

    How about “telepresence” for CCTV? Just thought it up – not sure if it’s a word in use at the moment.

  45. niall says:

    What a wonderful blizzard of thoughts. I’m don’t consider myself a card carrying member of the apostrophe police, but those who resort to banal corporate cliche (‘take ownership’, ‘going forward’). Well, damn them to hades too!

  46. MacDara says:

    KateM said: “in Irish-English (Hiberno-English?), ‘haitch’ is standard pronunciation”

    Being Irish, I can confirm this is true. In fact, to me it’s cringe-worthy to hear others say ‘aitch’ — or treat it as a vowel (it’s ‘a historic’, not ‘an historic’!).

  47. mrtom2985 says:

    An interesting piece, particularly the part about being in favour of language evolving (or more accurately, not standing in its way when it happens). Given this viewpoint, I’d love to know how Stephen feels about the way the English language is evolving amongst today’s teenagers, particularly in terms of written English; text speak seems to be the writing style of choice, but also some misspellings of words have actually become so popular that many youths probably don’t realise they are incorrect e.g. “nite” or “donut” (even if the latter is a valid spelling across the pond, it is not how we are supposed to spell it here). I also wouldn’t be surprised if the word “you” officially gets shortened to “u” in a few years’ time, but that is pure speculation on my part.

    My question is: does Stephen, or do any other language lovers, approve of such a direction? If not, is it wrong, or is it just that it’s not the direction we ourselves would have wanted it to move in?

    And yes, I’m playing devil’s advocate here – I do think we can’t (and shouldn’t) stop language from evolving, as it has done throughout history, but I do also get annoyed by spellings such as the above :)

  48. David S says:

    You wrote ‘A’ sketch about language?? I thought you’d written loads. My personal favourite is the translator from Strom.

    But I digress. I am a stickler for grammatical correctness and appropriate punctuation. Nobody has a greater love for the semi-colon than I and I am pleased even to employ it in the occasional text message.

    My quirks, however, are not everybody’s and my mother always told me that it is rude to correct people. When I encounter a split infinitive, a rogue apostrophe, mispronunciation or any other deviation from the widely regarded norm, I like to keep my opinions to myself. As Douglas Adams so accurately wrote, ‘the one thing nobody can stand is a smartarse’.

    This is my first post as I have only just found the website but it is warmly nestled in my ‘favourites’ box.

  49. coco says:

    “Some modern trends dismay me, ”

    How are these trends modern? Im sure slang and jargon have been evolving our language for as long as humans have been able to speak.

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