Groovy sauce bottle shakeout

What a momentous week; one that might have come from Henry VI parts 2-3 – warlords appointing kings, then destroying them. While the ruthlessness and violence, figuratively speaking, grabbed the world’s attention, what has not been analyzed, is the change in language that will now sweep the land.

The previous incumbent spoke in a middle management drone barely more captivating than a PowerPoint presentation on data storage. The returned great helmsman, on the other hand, is a notorious mincer and mangler of words.

His language is a combination of arcane abstraction, glazed with a type of slang derived from an American movie, circa 1962, but which has been censored by someone for whom English is not native. This amalgam of syntax is then delivered in a highly self-conscious style as if on a Spelling B and wishing to outperform the other nine year olds.

Fortunately the revised leader is known for speaking Mandarin and it may be that language for which he is better suited. If the mastery of English remains unchanged, we shall all have to resume our early morning lessons in that Chinese language in order to understand what is being said.

What the week has exposed is that transitions of power instigate an examination of the events. Sometimes that leads to revised histories. When Henry VII assumed the throne after he had defeated Richard III he rewrote the history backdating his own kingship to the day before the battle and thus rendering Richard as the usurper. Killing Richard was therefore legitimate. Parliament wasn’t pleased about the twist of fact but could do nothing. Fast forward a hundred years and Shakespeare had no option but to cast Richard as a villain.

It may take less than a century for all the TV series, plays and PhD theses that last week must have started in writers. When those plays and movies are written the poor writers will have to manufacture a form of speech for the protagonists that are more engaging than the reality. In real life the characters of Henry VI and Richard III were probably not thrilling to hear but we have few records of them by which to compare. The problem now is that the archive is overflowing with detail and with a similar dramatic piece no poetic intervention can alter what real people actually said and how.

Perhaps the best answer is to make it unintelligible. That is, turn it into grand opera, if sung in Italian and with Verdi like music – bombastic and banal as that is – an opera of these events will retain high emotion but no one will be forced to suffer the real words. Yes, that could work, and if the antagonist was a Mandarin speaker in a palace the night before the events unfold, there might be an occasion for a big aria. Let me call a producer and investigate.

Guy Cranswick
29th June 2013

Never Saying Anything Clever

Public language, that is, the language uttered by politicians and the media is often shop-worn, stale, occasionally idiotic or just cliché. This is true in many places around the world, especially with the 24 hour news cycle and spin that the public have had to live with.

It’s a bargain that is accepted because there is no alternative and besides it’s not very important because action speaks louder than mere words. It’s easy to adopt the same trick and avoid an argument – just insert a cliché.

The idea that words serve ideas and that poor articulation simply demonstrates bad thinking is rarely accepted. We see through that connection as simply “rhetoric”; a word that is applied as facilely as any other cliché, because – again – actions speak louder than words.

What this perspective permits between the public speaker and public is a choice between banal ordinary speech and management jargon, which has somehow been adopted as the linguistic form that exemplifies action and leadership. How that is possible, when verbs are almost always absent from such speech, shows how bad things really are.

If Nietzsche were alive today he would feel vindicated in his views on the
dispiriting nature of public life as viewed through the words of its practitioners, anti-democrat, that he was. He could reach that view simply parsing the state of discourse. In some nations they do quite well, at least they keep up appearances, though there are lapses. The capacity of “the human being to coexist with fish peacefully”, for instance, has been disproved, though it was valiant to advocate it.

In the land down under the last week has been especially dismal. In a continent known for its dryness, public speech is profoundly arid. This quirk of natural selection is perceived with some relish as a unique quality and to be exalted as a characteristic of the nation. The same thing can be said of any sub-idiom; that its limitations can be celebrated.

Likewise hippies managed to convey quite a semantic range through ‘man’; as no doubt gangstas do with their homies. The essential restrictions on what can be said and in what form however act to inhibit thinking. On this nexus Wittgenstein was right. Thinking and language are intrinsically connected.

Exploring words and thoughts show how. James I of England’s translation of the bible was a significant political act. At the time religion was a means of social and political control. The new translation was critical to James’s project of a Great Britain. There is one facet of that bible translation that is relevant to public speech. Every sentence was read aloud to committees to ensure that, it was not only accurate with the ancient languages from which it was derived, but that it also sounded perfect to the ear. From that one book hundreds of sentences, metaphors, and similes have entered the language. It has nurtured thought and extended the horizon of what can be uttered.

By comparison it would be almost impossible to find any instances today of public language, especially political speech, that would provide the same inspiration.

In Manchester in 1906, Winston Churchill (his speeches were somewhat mocked, even in his own day, for being old-fashioned) observed with typical patrician arrogance:”Fancy living in one of these streets,” he mused, “never seeing anything beautiful, never eating anything savory… never saying anything clever!”
Turning it away from the masses that last clause could be reflected on many politicians today.

Guy Cranswick
16th June 2013

Thru a Glass Darkly

With so many pressures to deal with in daily life it’s quite a relief to be told to relax about spelling. And those apostrophe’s – chill; it’s just cool, like whatever.

(I know that apostrophe is wrong but I am trying to be relaxed about it.)

The authority that instruckted, err sorry, instructed, us about this was a prof at Oxford; the place where they compile all the words in the language so it must be cool and right and stuff, or else he wouldn’t be allowed to say that kind of thing. Or would he?

While it’s easy to have a laugh about such lackadaisical spelling and punctuation, the vigilantism of grammar pedants can be quite extreme. At source, they all seem to have had the same teacher in junior school. This teacher gave them the same principles and then sent them forth in the world as guardians of rightful speech. And a bit like the smoothed over versions of history taught at the same time, there are few details that are left out for young impressionable minds to catch up on later.

What happened was they mixed up style and grammar which is a deadly combination because someone can insist one thing is right when in fact it’s a stylistic and temporal usage. This occurs often between UK and US English, where the former believe – err know – they are right and the cousins are wrong.

Here is a case in point: ‘enquiry’ or ‘inquiry’. The former is English, the latter US some assert. Err, no: they are equivalent. They are not even differentiated by verb or noun use. They are interchangeable yet I have had debates for several lost minutes of my life over the meaning and origin of these words. Likewise the s replacing z, as in organisation or apologise, is seen by many English as true to the language whereas it is not. The Oxford dictionary states otherwise and no less an authority then Inspector Morse ridicules the s-spelling as ignorant. When Morse is on the prosecution there is no rebuttal, its game over.

The professor may have helped everyone and most of all the sub-editors at newspapers who must deal with the email threat of spelling vigilante’s. See, easy. Once you put the apostrophe in the wrong place it gets easier and then, why not, you visit the fruit shop for apple’s and orange’s and then buy some CD’s or even a set of DVD’s. But, like, who cares?

The troubling thing is that MS Word hasn’t detected a problem. It hasn’t inserted a squiggly red line underneath those new and cool spellings and asked me: Would you like us to check on that? Let’s face it these spelling and grammar checkers are how most writing is done and they act as the new guide. If MS and Open Office and Google say its fine, then hit print.

Guy Cranswick
1st June 2013