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 2.0 and because, well, it’s a subject worth thinking about at any time and because fewer things interest me quite so much.

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

A podcast version will be made available on Friday 7th November.

This blog was posted in Blessays

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

  1. landscapejoel says:

    fantastic as always. who knows why i hate the words fruition, copious and the use of the words tasty and treat together.Strange how some words make some hearts flutter and others flounder.

  2. waldocentini says:

    “I’ve used this analogy before, but I’ll use it again. Think of London.”

    Your analogy reminded me of Peter Ackroyd’s “London; The Biography”.

    Wonderful book, wonderful language.

    A tip for those reading this.

  3. nickb123 says:

    Can I just say that this blog post has just made my day? I’m sure I can, but of course I should say “may I say”. You can now tell that my view on pedantry is similar to that of Stephen’s. I did love this blog post though, and have noticed on YouTube if you search “Stephen Fry Jonathan Ross” – you’ll find a nice video where some of Stephen’s basic points about language are expressed verbally and visually (much easier for a lazy student like myself).

    The post has really cheered me up though as I said, mainly because I love language. I love grandiloquent words (even if I seldom know their meaning), I love how the order of words can change an entire meaning, I love looking at alternatives and how to simplify language, and I love slang and the etymology that goes with it.

    I love too that Stephen has also read Pinker and Chomsky – part of what really got me excited (yes, I’m a complete loser). But, I have to just recommend something – as I think Stephen would like it – Buffy. Hear me out! People have such a stigma with this show, but in terms of language, I absolutely adore it. It is so contemporary in its use, the creator himself being at the helm of this linguistic melting pot. The use of simple things like “much” for “pathetic much” (used in response, for instance, if I said something rude – it’s kind of like a rhetorical), is so interesting and so American in my opinion as a form of communication. The ellipsis of “deal”, simply making “no big” when Buffy receives apologies from her friends. Or even the many pop-culture references, like in response to someone saying you have blue eyes, “my eyes are hazel, Helen Keller”, or “you can’t come here and go all Dawson on me whenever I have a new boyfriend”, or even just making a reference into a verb, “I got that just before I King-Arthured it out of the stone”. What about the suffix “ish” (“I’m going to go home first, slip into something a little more breaking and enterish”), or the one Joss Whedon himself uses so much, the suffix “y” (“explainy”, “it’s becoming all focusy”, or “you’re bait, go act baity”). I think these examples of manipulations are so clever and just make you think in a refreshing way. I furthermore love any work depicting the future where language is changed to a writer’s view of it in years to come, and Whedon also does this with his comic series “Fray”, with the taster for example where the protagonist asks “what’s a bullet?”, clips century to “cen”, spin=lie, toy=a joke, spled=good (splendid I would assume), etc etc. I’m being awfully repetitive and listy, and I do apologise, but I find these uses fascinating, and actually view them as a sign of shrewd intelligence instead of elitist boredom with language, who often see divergence as something used by poor or “dumb” people. Pop-culture references in especially I think show great wit and smarts to incorporate this into spoken language such as making them into verbs – a completely new way of communicating a message as well as making it sarcastic and dry at the same time. Just incredible, and I can’t stand those who want to stop language progression. Language is fluid, it is always changing. What if they’d stopped language progression a couple of hundred years ago – we’d never have moved on, and if you share the Whorfian view about language dictating/influencing thought – surely by language’s progression, our critical thinking should also develop. Thus, if you restrict language, you are restricting creativity, vibrancy, and personality.

    I have never loved Stephen Fry more than after reading this blog entry.

  4. Midori says:

    One of my favorites: Here Lies Miss Groby, by James Thurber. It begins, “Miss Groby taught me English composition thirty years ago. It wasn’t what prose said that interested Miss Groby; it was the way prose said it. The shape of a sentence crucified on a blackboard (parsed, she called it) brought a light to her eye. She hunted for Topic Sentences and Transitional Sentences the way little girls hunt for white violets in springtime.”

    Of course, if you love language, almost anything by Thurber will thrill and amuse.

  5. scottbeau says:

    It was an excellent first comment by tinimaus – by which of course I actually mean that I was to write exactly the same until I read it there.

    Learning another language, living another language, creates such a wonderful bond with your native tongue and an inquisitiveness about the one you are studying. As I learned other languages, I became more and more impressed by how english has evolved over time; if that now means growing americanisms and txt speak then that is the price to pay for its contuining vibrancy and the fun you can have with it. I love also finding phrases in other languages that are a product of their own evolution that just will not translate into english.

    And if Stephen is willing to let these apparent errors and slips pass by, then I am certainly not in a position to argue. I shall even adopt “twazzock” into everyday usage.

  6. michael says:

    i’ll try to say all the thoughts going on briefly

    1) is wanting all of the words and tenses and punctuation correct, is it more so in britain? i’m an american and i’d never seen people get so intense over it until being on your forum!

    2) a mean fella showed up on your facebook proxy group and kept badmouthing everyone, then he would pick apart the grammar of anyone who responded, instead of listening to them. i railed out a paragraph in southern “redneck” talk and it must’ve overwhelmed him, i never heard back.

    3)and what that fella did i think a lot of people do, if anyone interrupts me to correct something i say or finish a sentence for me (sometimes my brain won’t do it) usually they weren’t listening to what i was trying to say. so the whole point of me talking is totally lost.

    4) i used to hate language and words…if no one understands what i mean, why fucking bother? like how i’ve seen you respond to dancing & just refuse to talk. i didn’t learn to talk by repeating my parents. and in college, i didn’t talk either. even if my grade was docked. i hated the whole mess.

    5)and i used to think i was just downright bad at it. sometime back i bought your poetry book for $1 at a library sale. when you described their rhythm, that made sense…i was learning an instrument at the same time and would think about different words while my hands played the strings. at first i pushed to do the exercises, but your humor made me smile. if you’d made us (readers) write poems about serious, painful, dramatic emotions i might have given up, cause i felt depressed already, but instead you had us write about food or lighter things. (actually, the food poems were hard because i had no appetite. but that’s ok. hell, maybe that helped too.)

    6)since then, i started reading more poetry, maybe 80% of what i read. partly cause i can read it even when my eyes are jumping around (just happens sometimes) but really, i like it.

    7)i don’t think i’d have ever learned to like (not love yet) language from someone who demanded perfection. if i worry about that, there’s no brain energy to think about what it is i want to say. that’s probably what made me dislike it in the first place.

    8)thank you for having that attitude about it. the book was very helpful. if you weren’t so famous, you’d make a very good teacher. well i guess you can do both!

  7. michael says:

    i meant: you respond to dancing with not wanting to, i’d respond to talking with not wanting to. my sentence got screwed up badly and sounds like you respond to dancing by giving everyone the silent treatment. sorry!

  8. I signed up especially to comment on this.

    It’s like a geekgasm!

  9. lisa says:

    You are right: language can and should be a source of immense pleasure for people. And we also get a very special kind of pleasure from foreign languages if we know them to a considerable extent. I, for example, enjoy my mother-tongue (that is Russian) a lot, however, English makes me happy in a paricular way.
    Thanks for the posting!

  10. Miha says:

    The mind of Stephen Fry is truly wonderful:)

    Greetings from a long-time lurker and first-time poster!

  11. Pepito says:

    I must applaud you, Stephen, you have (to use a Meatloaf-ism) taken the words right out my mouth. I am a great lover of the English language and while I was a bit of a grammar Nazi back in the day, since beginning my studies in Linguistics I have eased up on my pedantry: I now only demand correct punctuation. Perhaps it is a failing of the Australian education system, but when I see tutors who do not know how to use the apostrophe of possession, I am filled with a quiet horror. One imagines that if they saw a semi-colon they would get a haemorrhage of some description. But I digress…

    I love words, I adore vocabulary, a well chosen adjective to me is like a glorious drop of nectar nestled in the petals of a phrase, and consequently, I am forever being accused of being a private school toff (I say ‘private school’ in the Australian sense; a public school to the Brits out there in cyber-world) merely because I use words of more than two syllables in everyday conversation. Even in my Linguistics course, where one would hope to find people who share one’s love of words, I am shunned and scoffed at for saying nay to language used by the grunting throngs. If only there was some word to describe the sensation of speaking and using language, a sort of haptics of speech, then maybe people would wake up to the beauty that they’ve ignored for their whole lives.

    Touching briefly on what you wrote about Orwell and the idea that language precedes thought, you may be interested to know that one of the underlying theorems of linguistic anthropology is called the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis and essentially posits the same idea. Sapir and Whorf believed that, as well as demonstrating what is important to members of a speech community, the vocabulary and structure of a language to some degree dictates the way the people think. For example, in languages where time and space are described differently, they are understood differently, and as a result, completely different ‘laws’ of physics can be developed. Quite a horrifying thought, I imagine, to the physicists out there, when they realise that their ‘laws’ may only work in their English-speakers’ understanding of the world.

  12. Woof says:

    Very nicely written. (No joke there, I think).

    Right now I am reading your ‘The Ode Less Travelled’ and I can thoroughly extend my hand to you (or perhaps just in a waving gesture) in a similar appreciation.

    Your early point of language at a distance versus its use reminds me very much of quantum physics (not to be boring) and the Heisenberg principle within it. The old shine a light on the particle and it changes, study it from afar and not truly know it problem, so to speak. Perhaps with language it is a case of, as I have worded it, studying it from one view to know it, but study it more personally to understand it. But then, I am sounding particularly pathetic with my attempts at wisdom there, aren’t I?

    Another thing I was reminded of was ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest’ – O, what was it – yes, “well, at least I tried, damn it” or something to that effect. Or is it affect? (Sorry, simply had to). Anyway, your point on those knit-picking, annoying, irritating, (so on so forth) people who comment so freely with their noses high and their fingers long are indeed a nuisance. Something of that is in us all too I suppose – perhaps again a subject I should not approach. (For a person is a complex thing from afar, but a simple thing when up-close in many ways [you see what I did there? Hee-hee]). ANYway – I was simply going to agree with you, but I am droning out drivel in droves now. McMurphy, convicted on a charge of battery as he is, might still be that minority genius. The one who knows how to live – not one who knows life.


  13. andyhawkes says:

    Certainly an interesting and compelling call for fluidity and tolerance in everyday language.

    What irks me more than a poorly declined verb or an erroneously applied apostrophe is what seems to be the gradual, almost casual degradation rather than bastardisation of language in everyday use.

    I was taught to use language and to communicate in a clear way (although the best grammatical endeavours often a elude me as much through my own lazyness as through lack of formal knowledge or practice), and I find it soul destroying to hear people, like, you know, talking all kinds of stuff about you know, this and that, innit?

    Language will necessarily twist and turn, revolt and evolve, but surely we can retain some kind of “quality” – not necessarily in terms of grammatical rigour, but in the clarity with which we communicate?

    English is an especially mongrel tongue, and is widely famed and decried for its lack of dependable structure and the versatility with which it can be deployed, but perhaps the ‘innit’ generation will herald a new-found dialectic direction – the English not of Chaucer and Shakespeare, but of Bebo and MySpace.

    I’ll still go off on one if buzzword-spouting business types use the word “leverage” instead of simply “use”, though – some things are just beyond the pale!

  14. ficklefiend says:

    Wordord- I doubt you will see this but I humbly present you with the unashamedly stolen “Shtum”


    1. to be quiet (rfv-sense)


    1. silent, speechless, dumb

    Etymology: (Yidd.) ”

    Although, we do tend to use it as “keep shtum”, ah well, nearly!

  15. Zarniwoop says:

    Firstly, great post. You have obviously thought about this a lot. Though if pressed for an initial critism, I’d have to call your essay ‘a bit waffley’. Though you probably already knew that.

    On an intellectual level, my major critism about your post, and indeed, that of almost all western philosophers, is that you seem to believe that all we can know is all we can describe with words. That everything seen and unseen can be described using the letters of the alphabet. That language and conciousness are one and the same, or at least that it is impossible to separate one from the other. I think this is selling us short somewhat, with regards to our imaginations and creativity, and I think that Zen Buddhists would agree with me. After all, the more abstract something is, the harder it is to describe. Thus it follows that there could be things so abstract that they’d be impossible to describe.

    I mean, yes, one of my favourate books is ‘Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintainance’, a book written by a man oft criticised by supposed intellectuals as being “the worst kind of pseudo-intellectual twazzock”, and yes, I was confused by the fact that the word ‘rhetoric’ doesn’t appear once in you essay, but even so, I am yet to find a substantial answer to this line of thought.

  16. Mephisto says:

    This one little cartoon did more than anything I think to make me see a particular point in the tangential form vs content debate:

    If the debate is aesthetic however (joy of words), I would have thought this is precisely where the pedant is entitled to her foibles as much as anyone.

  17. Kramasha says:

    You are an inspiration Mr. Fry to millions out there who you have touched with your beautiful mind.

    I suggest a reading myself, namely:-

    1. The Meaning of Meaning by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards.


  18. languagehat says:

    I am absolutely delighted by this post; not only is Stephen Fry one of my favorite writers and comedians (The Liar is still perhaps the funniest books I’ve ever read), but the post makes the case, far better than I could hope to put it, that I have been trying for years to make at (where I have posted about this). To provide some recompense for the pleasure this post and thread have given me (I’m shaking my head in amazement at how few “thoughts on which inaccuracies and grammatical ‘mistakes’ irritate you” there are), I’ll translate the Russian comment by From_Saratov above (November 4th at 7:59 am):

    “Forgive me for writing in Russian. In English I can only read, I can’t write a thing, but I’m completely delighted with what I read here. For a long time I’ve meant to drop by and simply say something nice, but I was too shy. But this post on language is such a good opportunity. I’m translating everything written here into Russian — even if I’m not much of a translator, my lazier countrymen will be able to learn at least approximately what’s written here. It goes without saying that I won’t publish the translation anywhere — I’ll just let my friends read it.”

  19. This is so wonderful. All of it. But in my increasing old age, I find it harder and harder to read 5 screens worth of densely packed text with no paragraph breaks.

    Stephen, you are one of my Gods. But can you please break up your text a bit more with some white space here and there?

    Your acolyte.

  20. Ardellis says:

    Brilliantly said, Mr. Fry.

    A lot of people don’t understand that language is always evolving, and that that is precisely why it can be as useful and beautiful as it is.

    Still, I do find misplaced apostrophes annoying. But then I proofread form letters as part of my day job, so I can’t help being a little pedantic now and then. :)

  21. Archaeologyant says:

    I read this in something quite obscure and thought it was quite apt.
    “One word will create a thousand pictures for a thousand men; No one man can ever hope to frame it”
    The Grammar’s probably terrible,but I have never got my head around it. Perhaps this stresses the point.

  22. elzadra says:

    Lovely language, but a little more paragraphing might make it more legible on screen.

    (Also, elegant implementation of WordPress. It’s a real showpiece for WP.)

  23. Scrapper says:

    Amen, amen.

    And can I nominate the half-cousin of the linguistic pedant’s facism for the hall of shame – the “I KNOW WHY THAT WAS FUNNY” laugh…

    I sincerely believe that 95% of school children’s first encounter with Shakespeare is ruined because the first time an actor proclaims an archaic quip, the theatre erupts into that horrific, slightly louder than it really needs to be gleeful “ma ha ha ha” noise.

    This noise only ever emanates from intellectual snobs who feel a need to let everyone around them know that, whilst lesser mortals may not understand the nuance of that particular joke, “I DO”.

    To the kid on the school-trip, whose household hasn’t spent Sunday afternoons reciting poetry over the dinner table, the immediate reaction is more than likely to be “OK – I didn’t get that, whilst all these fusty old folks did. Ergo, there is something wrong with me. Ergo, I’ll never ‘get’ Shakespeare”.

    ALL snobbery is an attempt to belittle another human and to exclude from a particular “club”. Language, music, art, drama, dance – we all have a right to participate and to contribute to their evolution. Beware the cretins at the gate who try to bar access through their snobbery.

    PS – For perhaps the most depressing example of the “I know why that is funny” laugh, google a video of an audience ‘reacting’ to a performance of that John Cage 3:47 piece (no, I can’t be bothered to google the correct title….).

  24. hdasmith says:

    Having just read this, then read an american blog talking about “math”, it just has to be said. It’s “maths”. Very rarely do you only do one sum at a time, you do multiple.

    Also, I have to agree with the “haitch” thing. My name is Harry. Originally born in Edinburgh, at a young age, I moved to Essex, where “haitch” is used to such an extent that I wanted to move. To make matters worse, when pronouncing my name, the people I knew insisted in dropping the “haitch” to call me, “‘arry”.

  25. Joe says:

    I suggest the following to eliminate this kind of prescriptivism:

    1) Compile a list of prescriptivist rules, no matter how silly or dishonest. I imagine that the Plain English folks ( would be more than willing to provide such a list.

    1) Invent a personal device that emits a loud, obnoxious noise whenever the user breaks these rules. Perhaps a silent but sharp electric shock may be better, provided that it has the same effect–the emitting of a loud obnoxious noise from the user.

    2) Have the prescriptivists wear this device everywhere they go.

    I’m not necessarily opposed to prescriptivists–but I do think it unfair that they get to wield their prescriptivism when it suits them. The device would take care of that. If this device were around in 1946, Orwell would not have written this line in “Politics and the English Language”: “Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.”

    Perhaps he would not have written it at all.

  26. betsyperry says:

    I know that raspberry wine exists, because I have a carboy in my crawlspace. Not only have I made raspberry wine, I have purchased it from professional vintners.

    In general, if it’s a fruit containing sugar, you can probably ferment it, with varying degrees of success.

    And if you claim that “raspberry wine” is not a subset of “wine”… well, I think you have already described people who do such things to words.

  27. Brother Jacob says:

    Thought you (who?) might like this from George Eliot:

    “We learn words by rote, but their meaning; that must be paid for with our life-blood, and printed in the subtle fibres of our nerves.”

    A truly masterful use of the colon.

  28. Swivel says:

    Sadly, “Telepresence” is taken. It is the marketing name of a video-conferencing product/service from a well-known communications hardware company (which I hesitate to advertise). It recently got some conspicuous placement on a US TV program (which I decline to plug) about forensic scientists in New York City.

    On the other hand, I can offer an alternative exegesis of SCUNT: Surveillance Camera Ubiquitous National Tracking. No? Ah well.

  29. Scrapper says:

    A quick post-script to my previous post…. One of my favourite quotes (heard from Melvin Bragg, although i’m not sure of it’s exact provenance… shall we perhaps attribute it to Michael Fish?) –

    “Snobbery is the wearisome badge of authority worn by those desperate to be different but without the talent or imagination to be truly distinctive”

    How much more refreshing to have a society which encourages its members to run free with flights of fancy (even if they sometimes cross boundaries – Ross/Brand etc ad naus) than one which always seeks to condescend, to patronise and to censor.

    Oh, and I will certainly be calling all CCTV cameras SCUNT UNITS in the future. Brings to mind my favourite (if perhaps apocryphal) parliamentary exchange…. Apparently a particularly insulted Australian MP who represented a rural constituency was heard to demand

    “How dare he acuse me of such a thing? I’m a Country Member!”

    To which his opponent took the despatch box, and quietly began his respones

    “I do remember…..”

  30. DomLawson says:

    Wonderful. It’s particularly glorious to discover that Stephen shares my dislike of the aspirated ‘aitch’. No, of course it shouldn’t matter, but it still makes my hair stand on end. And I have very long hair, so it’s a sight to behold.

    Currently wading through a Pinker tome, so I’ll be sure to check out the Guy Deutscher book too. Many thanks, Mr. Fry.

  31. PhilWorthington says:

    My knowledge of grammar and my use of punctuation are bad to middling, as my mother delights in reminding me. My spelling is passable; yet in these times of spell-checkers and drive-thru mega-marts I feel like a Cyclops in the land of the blind. It is easy to become bitter and cynical, bemoaning other’s stupidity whereas actually it is blissful ignorance.

    However I then remind myself that all of that pretension is trivial in the face of my love of communication, for that is the function of language. Words can be beautiful in their own right, a well-turned phrase or word is a wonderful thing, and the distillation of a thought or emotion into a carefully chosen word is a joy. Yet the real importance for me is how well they communicate the emotion, the intent, and the idea of the writer. The tower of Babel ceased construction once the ability to communicate had been stripped away from its builders, and this provides a good illustration of how no significant human achievements could have be made without the originator of the idea being able to communicate their vision to others. Without this form of communication we would have been without the emotion of all the poets who have ever lived, and without the centuries-long discourse on scientific and philosophical ideas, which has been added to by each generation. Of course there are other ways of communicating: kisses and frowns, music and painting to name but a few, but while each convey a multitude of emotions and concepts in a moment, they cannot separate them, strip them down to their individual components, in the way language can.

    So this is what we should be wary of losing, not the language itself but the ability to express ourselves fully. So many people today live frustrated lives, feeling misunderstood by the society they live in. Is this because we’re failing to equip them with the tools they need to express their innermost desires? Or is the problem that we cling so tightly to the old that our understanding of the new is stilted at best? I would suggest that anyone who has self-imposed shackles of elitism and snobbery instead focuses on the real issue: how can we communicate with the people around us?

    Maybe it’s a matter of equipping others, maybe it’s a matter of simply listening with a real desire to understand: most likely the truth lies somewhere in between. Either way words are building blocks with which we can help to construct a bridge into the hearts and minds of others, and I really hope and pray that that sense of importance (and joy) in communication is never lost – no matter what form it takes.

    Lastly, as proof that I really do love words for their own sake, here is something I created purely for my own amusement:

    Please gather round and pay heed to my tale
    Of that extraordinary creature,
    The striped vengeance snail
    This small gastropod with a shell on its back
    Has rage in its heart and a desire to attack
    Its anger unbridled, its temper extreme
    Nobody knows what has made it so mean
    Maybe the years of pent-up fear
    Each time a giant foot treads near
    Whatever reason, when it sees us – its prey
    Its rage is unleashed and a chase underway
    With a subsonic snarl and a miniature roar
    It races along with its foot to the floor

    (Of course you see for the sake of the narrative, when I say ‘race’ I’m being comparative. Compared to a rock or a tree it is speedy, but in your or my sight its pace is quite weedy)

    Like a slime-powered steam train on miniature scale
    It’s a miniscule Ahab, chasing his whale
    In its mind a vision of huge crushing feet
    A victim no longer, revenge will be sweet
    Yet despite self claimed status: executioner and jury
    This snail’s vendetta is an impotent fury
    As aforementioned, its speed and its size
    Are too insignificant to capture its prize
    Each time it sees us the chase may be on
    But when it gets where we stood, we’ve already gone
    So next time you see one, please hurry on past
    If you tarry too long it’ll catch you at last
    And you may beg for mercy, but to no avail
    For revenge has a name, and its name is:


  32. Cocolori says:

    I think that it’s quite difficult for people with a pedantic sort of brain to switch it off; both my mother and my brother get easily irritated by apostrophes floating all about the place. Fortunately I have do not seem to have an active copy of the pedant gene. However, there is one pedantic bone in my body that aches when people misuse ‘literally’ or ‘ignorant’. I think it’s probably because they are both excellent words with very precise meanings that are used to mean things which already have perfectly good words to describe them.
    It would be shame to lose their original meaning because I can’t think of other words that could replace them – how can I call someone ignorant without causing offense when I really do mean ignorant and not stupid?

  33. sanddef says:

    Of course in Welsh we have verbs that become nouns, the ‘berfenw’ (verbnoun), although that is of course a common enough feature of English as well, although Anglo-Saxons tend to insist that a word be either one or the other at any given time, never both.

  34. the_larch says:

    Hello Mr. Fry,

    I just want to say that I do believe that language in fact is the “father of thought,” although I don’t really have the intellectual background to back this up except for my personal experience. I am a nineteen year old college student studying in the U.S.A. and English is not my native language. Although I’ve always been able to understand it really well, I’ve never had to speak English before I came here which I though wouldn’t be a problem since I had no trouble understanding it. However soon I found out that I actually had a lot of trouble expressing myself and putting ideas into words even when I was trying to say the simplest things. Then I also noticed that I was unable to come up with new thoughts and ideas for my classes, because I was lacking the words to formulate them in a meaningful way. I basically could not think in English which for me meant that I could not think at all. Just as Orwell suggested, the ideas in question were completely lost to me because I didn’t have those words in my lexicon. This frustrated me a lot since I had never had trouble expressing myself in my native language and I really love exchanging thoughts and ideas. I am only hoping that this will get better eventually. Until then I guess I will have to do only with a one-way exchange of thoughts and just continue to read your magnificent blessays, waiting for the day I will be able to express myself half as articulately as you can Mr. Fry.
    Thank you so much for everything; you are a true inspiration to me.

  35. geraintrees says:

    Words are the clothes we hang on meaning, make sure they fit.

  36. NickBarnes says:

    It has become clear that “ect” is now part of our language, as an abbreviation for “ecksetra”. They make me want to remove my own ears with a claw-hammer, but they are certainly here to stay.
    I can’t prevent my own children from using them, and have come to realise that I probably shouldn’t try. At least my son understands that they are probably best not used in school work.

  37. missblue says:

    Hmmmmm, I’d suggest, dear Stephen, that until you know the rules you can’t break them, and that to teach an elegant usage of English to everybody and then let them free to shape and reshape it, would be a fine idea.

    I can have joy of language and consort with it and it with me and we can copulate wildly on every piece of paper in my office or indeed on any screen. But I don’t have to have a stick up my overeducated arse to do that. I do think you draw the lines (at length) rather too strictly…perhaps because you still fear criticism?

    Well, yeah, so do I – but we’ll both have to put on our big girl panties and get over it.

  38. jason hobbs says:

    Hello Stephen and all,

    I hope everyone is well and happy.

    I have just enjoyed reading the this latest offering, and I must say it has definitely provided much food for thought. As part of an undergraduate degree in anthropology I took a course in cognitive anthropology. The debate between Chomsky’s theory and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis were hotly debated then, and it seems nothing has changed.

    I wasn’t convinced by Sapir-Whorf then and I don’t think I am now. Although, there are features that are very interesting. I think the very fact that every society has a symbolic language means that there is a definite biological need for for language, or else the capacity to use language wouldn’t have developed. Evolution would have retired it early had it been of no use. Another universal is that children the world over all, more of less begin to speak etc. at about the same time. Something switches on inside our heads at about the eighteen month mark. Nature determined that humans would start to speak at this age. It doesn’t matter what the language, just that there is a language. Take a baby from Iceland at birth and give it to an Australian Aboriginal family, when that baby reaches the right age it will learn to speak what ever dialect it’s adoptive parents speak. Why? Because its brain is hard wired to develop linguistic ability at that point. The sounds, that is the words, are in and of themselves meaningless until the individual learning them is capable of comprehending a whole series notions. Language is after all symbolic. The word dog has no direct, literal connection with a four legged, meat eating mammal. Saying the word dog to someone who has never seen a dog doesn’t tell them what that animal is. The collective representation of a dog must exist in that persons mind before they can use the word dog properly, or, more importantly understand what that word means. Likewise, the fact that there are hundreds of word in hundreds of languages that refer to what in English we call a dog, does not have any direct effect on what that animal is. A dog, is a dog, is a dog, no matter what you call it. If you see what I mean. So for me, thought must come before language. There must exist, in the collective consciousness a representation, an archetype, a thought of something before words can be hung upon it.

    If anyone is interested an anthropologist named Chris Knight has been working on the evolution of language for more that a few years. He suggests that language developed directly out of ritual, which itself was initiated as a result of a biological imperative.

    Blimey, haven’t I gone on for ages!

    As we’re on the subject of language. What do you think, Stephan, about the PC fascists and the damage that they are doing to the English language? I mention this in light of Salisbury council banning its workers from using the phrase: Singing on the same hymn sheet? As in the councils view it may offend atheists. Perhaps this could be a topic for a posting or podcast.



  39. Kadmium says:

    Perhaps “One Nation Under Surveillance” might have worked better. Or, if we wanted to be crass, “One Nation Under Plod”.

  40. Evie-E says:

    Just wanted to thank you for this fun and inspirational look at language and words. It got me actually picking up a pen and writing again, for the love of writing, words and expression, and without a care for what other people think of it.

    I saw a suggestion somewhere in the swarm of comments above this one, that you should write a book on writing more than just poetry. I just wanted to second, third and fourth the request! Please please do write it! I’d be first in queue to buy such a book, and it would go in my “must have with me at all times” book pile, along with The Ode Less Travelled.

    Pretty please? x

  41. Austen_Wodehouse says:

    Very well put Stephen. I believe that those who feel language shouldn’t evolve and change as mankind grows and evolves are misguided and to some extent pompous since evolution, whether it be scientific or linguistic, is inevitable and necessary.
    I have read your books, including ‘The Ode Less Travelled’ and would like to fifth the suggestion that you should write a book on writing and the evolution of the English language in general.

  42. franben says:

    While I am willing to accept changes in the language and agree it is in fact an enriching factor, this morning I raised my eyes heavenward at the CNN business anchor who informed us that” this action raised the decline of the market.” So it went up, down, or what one might ask. In the context of the day, I assume it probably went down. Still, shoddy use of the language, I thought.

    On which came first thought or language, after years of study and teaching, I am still unsure. I am going to read “The Unfolding of Language” and see what G.D has to say.
    I love this blog. Don’t ever stop!

  43. Joshbuckler says:

    I will freely admit that I get a little burst of endorphins, and I probably get a tell-tale smug look on my face, when I see that someone has used incorrect grammar or spelling in an official or obvious setting. I’ve almost learned my lesson though, not to share these moments with my friends and co-workers.

  44. zfiledh says:

    I just got to read this–actually, I should have read this the moment I saw the title. Now that I’ve finished it, I can’t wait to send a link to friends of mine who would love this post.

    “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.”

    Filipinos have been doing this for a LONG time. However, in our case, we’re doing it bilingually: we take a Filipino word or phrase and “Americanize” it (or Englishify it–whichever tickles your linguistic bone) into a noun or a verb. Case in point was a comic strip I chanced upon one day during the election period in the Philippines.

    Guy 1: I hate the elections. All these politicians going about pretending to be the Messiah of the Philippines.
    Guy 2: More like MESSIADS, actually.
    Guy 1: LOL

    Messiad is a play on the Filipino phrase “may sayad”, which means “crazy”.

    Sadly, a lot of linguistic purists in the Philippines don’t like Taglish (Tagalog + English) very well. It’s either English or Tagalog or just shut up. Odd, considering that our main dialect happens to be a compendium of Spanish, Indo-Malay, and Chinese words.

    And I’m also guilty of [automatically] correcting a few people with their mispronunciation of certain words. Habit I carried over from teaching, I’m afraid. :[

  45. sinisterfw says:

    I have the (bad?) habit of correcting the use of incorrect Dutch, especially when spoken or written by my children. I’m pretty sure they don’t like me doing so, and I think they are right. It’s just that some of these errors really work on my nerves. For example, the Dutch possessive pronoun “hun” is used as a personal pronoun. Just imagine someone saying “their are walking down the street” in stead of “they are walking down the street”. (difficult to translate the Dutch error : ‘hun lopen over straat” ). Johan Cruyff makes this error very often in his footbal commentary.

    However, I’m aware that language evolves. So within a few decades, this error will be proper Dutch. Have to learn to live with this.

  46. SFCate says:

    I love bad grammar because it can be so damned funny. Take this classic howler from “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell, in which a nuclear plant comes to life and advances along the bridge towards our heroine, Luisa Rey:

    “Crossing the long, long bridge, the Swanneke B plant emerges from behind the older, greyer cooling towers of Swanneke A.”

    Dangling participles don’t come much better than this.

  47. Patricio says:

    Great piece of writing. And although reflecting on language would be considered a futile task by most people, it is important to try to rescue the value of conscious use, not of grammar, but of our words and the worlds we can create with them. I don’t refer to the creation of fictional worlds, but to the day-to-day creation of worlds of meaning and beauty. If there’s an art I cherish, it is the art of conversation, of fleeting literature, of forgettable beauty. There are some things that can be said or heard only once, and we shouldn’t despair about the uniqueness of them, for there is also beatuy in forgetting. A spark can only be a spark once. And after that… silence meant to be broken. Besides, all things are forever unique every time we open our eyes to them.

    I would like to relate that to something you wrote. Namely, the possibility of translating something into another language without irreparable loss. While we would need to ponder on the philosophy of translation (not to mention linguistic theories about the Saussurian dicotomy and semiological theories about meaning), I think the answer to that question is a simple two-letter no. There is irreparable loss in every act of speech, regardless of the language. You would have to be born again to understand my words perfectly. Furthermore, you would have to have lived my life, grown up speaking Spanish, and have read the words of a certain Stephen Fry on a Sunday morning. No, there’s no perfection in human communication. What makes art possible is the divergence of interpretations, that explosion of meanings that makes us grow and build and love and kill… and love.

  48. Dick the Prick says:

    Jolly good article. Perhaps standarses are slipping, people may be cavalier about grammar and syntax but language is art and to coin the phrase most used in politics – ‘ you can’t bullshit a bullshitter’. I’m a glorious bum at the moment and watching Minder, the Sweeney and the Professionals on telly is fantastic fun. By comparing the vain attempt not to offend anyone that has pushed ‘management speak’ bollox to uses that I bet the authors don’t know what they’re gibbering.

    Anyway, must go forward and interface through the proofing matrix with my kettle and a tab. Tinkety tonk.

  49. Meks says:

    The symmetrical sound of this is very nice: “I linguify for a living!”
    And I am pleased to discover that Wodehouse is one of the three Ws.
    Incidentally, only the other day when I was describing the contents of “Laughing Gas” by Wodehouse to a friend, I thought “this sounds like a plot Stephen Fry would come up with”, and resolved to read it again as soon as I finish what I am currently reading.

  50. junkered says:

    Ah, but it is wonderful when you go on, Stephen!

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