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Friday, 8 February 2008

The Language is Under siege

Carol Anne Duffy has a little gem of a poem called Poet for Our Times, the first four lines of which are:

I write the headlines for a daily paper.
It's just a knack one's born with all-right squire.
You do not have to be an educator,
just bang the words down like they're screaming Fire!

There's more of the same quality. For example, the poem ends:

The poems of the decade... Stuff'em! Gotcha!
The instant tits and bottom line of art.

A few weeks ago my wife, Doreen, and I decided to grace the local pizza emporium with an order for our evening meal. I rang the order through. The conversation went thus:

Good evening sir, how may I help?
I'd like to order a delivery, please.
Fantastic! What would you like?
An eight inch vegetarian hot...
...thin base.
Fantastic! Anything else?
Yes, one portion of kebabs.
Fantastic! Anything else?
No, that does it.
Fantastic! How might you wish to pay?
Fantastic! It will be with you in twenty minutes.
Fantastic, sir!

There was more, in point of fact: we had to confirm my telephone number and address. Both of those were fantastic also.

They are both in their respective ways, extreme examples of the same process, my friendly pizza purveyor and Duffy's self-styled poet. Extreme, but by no means rare. For a long time now - four or five decades to my personal knowledge - we have witnessed this process of cranking up the meaning of words or over-using them to exaggerate some aspect of (usually) a very ordinary happening or situation. Now no sportsman or team can ever just lose. You might have said that Andy Murray lost the last of five closely-contested sets 28-30. Not a bit of it :he crashed out. Manchester United may have lost by the odd goal after extra time or on penalties; no matter, they would have crashed out. No team or sportsman ever just loses. Not dramatic enough. Know what I mean? Alternatives to crashing out would include being thrashed or humiliated, but simply losing... never! A browse over the paper stand in my local newsagent shop this morning (Friday) turned up the following headlines: "Archbishop of Canterbury wants Sharia Law", "Winter has gone for ever", "Sold for £100 million : the soul of football", "Our children are being tested to destruction". A while ago, "Nation rocked by blizzards", greeted a rather ordinary fall of snow and strong winds.

Although not in this morning's examples, the hyperbole (hype as we usually now refer to it) will very often centre around the stretching "to destruction" of the natural meaning of a single word or phrase. Such words and phrases gather certain associations or emotions, usually pejorative. The words then become trigger words, releasing their newly acquired charge of emotion whenever they are rolled out for that purpose. Examples from this morning's cull would include Sharia, alien (referring to justice), Muslim and tolerance (as opposed to zero-tolerance, another such word, though usually having welcome associations). Each hype or over-use sucks out a shade more of the word's original meaning. Hyperbole becomes almost hyperbolism, used as an art form.

While I was still mulling over these things the other day, I discovered that Jim Murdoch had weighed in with his post on swearing (Feb 7th)and with a comment to that post, mentioning how swear words were losing their power. Exactly so, they are a splendid example of what I have in mind. I do not doubt that this overuse of words, stretching their natural meaning, and this incessant "shouting" is today's greatest threat to the language, for we have all become guilty of it. Here are some I have heard recently: "I hate men with large knots in their tie!" Really? I take leave to doubt that she meant what she said. She probably meant that she doesn't like to see large knots in men's ties. Not the same thing at all. "I love bald men!" What, all of them? Trivial examples, no doubt, but those two words "hate" and "love" are constant offenders and process is sometimes easier to see in the trivial than in the cataclysmic. (So, why shouldn't I indulge myself once in a while?) One of the basic rules of hype is: never use a comparative when a superlative will do. It's no good having a better car, you must have the best. "Today" was not just warmer than yesterday, it was the warmest this month, even if it is only the 4th of the month. I haven't mentioned advertising, one of the worst offenders, but everyone will have their own examples. Here is mine: "It is more than a car: it is a culture".

Not everyone will agree with me that the examples mentioned above represent the greatest threat to our language, and it is true there are others. An interesting one I have come upon recently, though not one likely, I think, to prove fatal, comes from predictive texting. Prophets of doom have long bemoaned the "C U l8er" culture, though I see no reason to think that the youngster (it usually is) who sends that will thereby become unable to write "See you later." No, it is the predictive element that might become of interest. The predictive function on the mobile guesses at the word you are wanting to write and changes the letters in the current word whenever you type a letter that indicates to it that its latest guess is incorrect. If when you have completed the word, it is still wrong, you then make the corrections - usually by pressing the * when all the letters will rearrange themselves and form the word you want - or not, when you will have to correct it manually. I find this very tedious, and so, apparently, do some youngsters, for they are developing the habit of not correcting the final word, but leaving the mobile's guess in place. I tried writing (not sending!) a few texts using this system: my intended "Giving Pat a lift." became "High sat a Jjj". On another attempt "Barmaid" became "cabmad", "At the pics with Pat" became "At thief sigh whig sat"The incredible fact is that the kids are learning to read these messages . A new, alternative, language is developing! Handwriting and neologisms are blamed for much that is wrong or going wrong, as is one of my pet hates, the ascendancy of graphics over words. Practically every User's Manual and every set of Assembly Instructions contains either no words or a bare minimum. Instead you get symbols, arrows and drawings of unrecognizable objects. No need to read at all these days, some would say. Nevertheless, I remain convinced about the major evil.

Don't misunderstand me, I am not arguing for stasis. When you have that you have a body on your hands, yet people have tried: governments indeed have set up committees to rule on correct and incorrect use. All such are doomed to inglorious failure. The language goes its own way in response to changing circumstances and changing needs. it has always done so, and long may it continue to do so, but abuse of the language is not a changing condition or a changing need. Even so, it has seen off greater threats in the past and will no doubt do so again. In my view, one group of people charged with the responsibility of acting as guardians to the language are the poets. It is not why we write or try to write poetry, but it remains the case that while there is a body of writing being produced in which such issues are paramount, there remains hope of a full recovery. Seamus Heaney is a good example. His interest in Anglo Saxon poetry, his feeling for each word, knowledge of its roots and, through those roots, his awareness of its associations and allusions, all contribute towards making him the poet that he is and guardian supreme.


Anonymous said...

I'm with you on this, Dave. Well said all through. Fantastic, in fact..!

Just a few notes to add. That teacher-looking-over-shoulder horror predictive texting can be turned off on most mobiles. And touching on a further example of verbal hype, I'm cautiously optimistic that the tic-like use of the American
adjective of indiscriminate approval 'awesome' (or, in its phonetic form, 'ussome') hasn't caught on. This is a good thing.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that, Dick. I agree with you completely about "awesome". That really grates every time I hear it. What puzzles me about the predictive texting is how youngsters are able to read the mobile's uncorrected version. My phone and my wife's phone produce different versions of the same message - at least, they do in my hands!

Jim Murdoch said...

Excellent post, Dave and I mean that in the true sense of the word; I'm not being the slightest bit hyperbolic.

I'm like you, I think, in that I savour words and it bothers me, at least in spoken English, that I feel the need to hold back a lot of the time. That said I do have words that I favour in conversation. One which I overuse is 'nice' and it's so ingrained now that I think it'll go with me to the grave. It's not the first word I've got hooked on either but I can't seem to shake it. The thing is, and this is where written English falls flat on its face, there are so many ways to say even a simple word like 'nice'.

And, for the record, I detest predictive texting with a vengeance. The first thing I did with my phone was to turn it off. I'm afraid I dig my heels in. I use proper English and punctuate my texts and everything not that I send many of them.

Dave King said...

Thanks Jim,
I recall an English lesson in my far off school days, in which the teacher was warning against the over-use of certain words. He took "nice" as an example and asked what could it mean when you could have a nice meal, a nice day, a nice time, etc, etc. He asked what they could all possibly have in common, and then asked for a definition of a nice dress. One brave lad offered "one long enough to cover the point and short enough to be interesting." I've heard it a few times since, but never forgotten that lesson. I wonder why!

Unknown said...

I love hyperbole to death?

Tamara said...

It's always 'nice' to find people against the butchering of the English language. Or any language, for that matter. Now if we could train people out of using multiple emoticons and exclamations in their business email correspondence, and explain to marketers that not every noun needs to be accompanied by an adjective, wouldn't the world be a merrier (or at least less annoying) place?

Dave King said...

Yes, Gabriel, me too - but should I?

I can go along with all you say, Tamara. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. Much appreciated.

Unknown said...

I was cut short in my fabulous diatribe in my head.

I play World of Warcraft online, there are something like 6M people doing that, including my wife, my son and his wife, so it is a family affair at our house. For the most part the written communications of the game are limited to what one can type very quickly... as you are usually in the throes of having to kill something. Regardless, it has been fascinating to me, as a poet, to see what levels of meaning, context and in the rare case emotion can be conveyed through the quickly writ one line of text media.

Literature is a political act in the creation and distribution and for any groups of humans it becomes a source of identification of the 'group' when they obtain to a literature. My daughter-in-law, a political theorist, has expressed the value of 'jargon' in the manner of how it creates and enforces a group identity. As to obtaining to a literature... I reflect on the assimilation of the Vietnamese culture into the American culture with the rise of short stories and small press publications that come out of the American-Vietnamese experience... these risings, here at least in the USA, are usually through the expression of 2nd generation immigrants and not form 1st generation who have not, as yet, obtained a support system in the adopted English/American language.

So, as I see it eventually there will be a poetics that arises up out of the abbreviated staccato of the one line quickly writ. It may not exactly emulate spoken word, but it will emulate inherent values of the originating group as they are expressed through what we may perceive as abortions and distortions of English. I realize that this is somewhat of a Structuralist perspective on my part.

I, myself, find a great deal of delight, wonder and amazement at all of the distorted mess that humans can apply to the act of communication.

I will also add that I distinguish between words meant to communicate, those to entertain, and those to uplift and transcend.

So, yes, I love hyperbole to death... unless I am trying to actually communicate something that I think is vital to get just right.

I have a writer friend with whom I am convinced that a semi-colon means that at that point in the story you raise your arm very high in a motion of exclamation. He butchers the language and the grammar something terrible but all of his small coterie of readers wait impatiently for his next story.

Right now he is off in the Andes, off line, some mountain place building a stone house. When he comes down off out of the hills he usually sends us a story about his adventures. We would not want to miss them for anything.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that. I am fascinated by the story of the English language and its development, often through the most unlikely influences - eg your quickly written one liners. I can see how that might happen. I also made a study way, way back of how jargon consolidates the group and of the different codes of language that we all (adults and children ) use for social purposes - e.g. they in the home and in school; us in church and at the rugby club.
I was not knocking hyperbole: it is a valid tool of language which, however, becomes blunt with overuse. That is all I was saying.
I had a group of Vietnamese refugee children in my class some (many) years back, and was fascinated at the ways in which they influenced the language (and craft skills) of the others.
My thanks for your fascinating contribution. I do not think we are too far apart. It is the language that makes us seem so.

Unknown said...

I have to laugh at "...the language that makes us seem so."

Usually I find myself having to deal with the language being that we use the same words but our cultures bring to them such different meanings that the language deceives us into thinking we are similar in our meaning when in fact we are not...

eg. I have a friend that we can spend an hour talking with each other then only later do I realize that though we thought we were talking to a mutual understanding that we were in fact each talking from two different stories.

I find it particularly difficult with friends from former communist states that what I more-or-less unthinkingly attach to English words, particularly in business, is not the same sort of context/connotation or baggage that they attach.

As to hyperbole... I enjoy it to an extent, but I have also seen it do considerable damage when individuals have taken it as literal.

Quite often those who practice hyperbole are not conscious of their use of it, and likewise those who take it as literal are not conscious of it either, nor conscious of their taking it as literal. The same kind of confusion goes as well in similar ways to irony.

I do think though that we have common interests. I don't know too many people who even know who Wyndham Lewis is let alone have ever ready anything he wrote.

I am curious to know more your thoughts on jargon.

Dave King said...

I am wondering if you know the poetry of Wallace Graham. You have brought it to mind on various occasions. Phrases like "What is the language using us for?" and lines such as:
"Certain experiences seem not to
Want to go into language maybe." This most recent comment is interesting as always. "Two nations divided by a single language" was what sprang to mind on this occasion. Hyperbole, I think, is something to be used judiciously.
Jargon, well I think I might be tempted to do a post on that...

Dave King said...

My apologies, I overlooked your comment, with which I fully agree, although I must confess that I do not use emoticons myself and no one uses them to me. Not among my regular correspondents, anyway.
Thanks for your contribution.

Unknown said...

I will look for Wallace Graham... with trepidation.

My prose fiction is often compared to Pynchon. I absolutely hate Pynchon's work with a vengeance. I would use a discrete emoticon here to signify that I am being playfully ironic as I sense that the subtle intonation of my voice does not come across in these typed words.

One of the dimensions that I find interesting with Structuralist linguistic philosophy is the conception that our language, words and the structure of their use, conditions our perceptions and thus that if one can change the words, and the structures.... which is what the act of poetry can be about, that one can adjust the way in which the world is perceived and that as one end-goal this change in perception be toward a heightened connection of words/language to the portrayal of Being. Being with a BIG 'B', not a little 'b'.

Tamara said...

You had actually responded to my comment, Dave. Thanks for the second reply too.