Real speech

Language has always been globalized in the sense that its always been transacted and borrowed between different speakers. Foreign words are snatched that appeal to speakers, for reasons of ease and commerce, and to a large degree, in order to acquire some status.

It’s not a frictionless transaction; there are some things we like, and others we detest and would prefer expunged.

The Italian writer Annamaria Testa put a very good analysis on her blog that critiqued the use of English in Italian. This was not a rant about English and its import into Italian; she said that some ideas and phrases have a place. Her analysis was on the wholesale and rather silly use of English words in Italian that made for a type of pidgin dialect. She gave a very good example of this run riot where every third word is English. She then did the same sentence in Italian to demonstrate to her fellow native speakers that the same ideas could be expressed in Italian just as well.

Apart from the list of all the words that seem to have been adopted in Itangliano – as she calls it – is the discussion where people posted questions on how to translate English back to Italian. As always on these type of forums there seems to be groundswell of contempt for the speakers who are not true to their language and themselves.

Here would be the right place to segue (not Segway, though that trademark seems to have become the eponym) into that long running dispute over jargon. I say long running, because Gowers’s Plain Words was published in 1948 and this irritation over bogus language has not dimmed. In fact, it may have got stronger.

Gowers wrote his book as a manual for the UK Treasury in 1946. It was privately distributed to civil servants. In the years since it first appeared, government has adopted the nefarious habits of marketing and uses slogans and brand promises and all the other vacuous panoply of business bingo linguistics. Gowers would be perturbed by the asinine progress of public language, though as an English civil servant of his generation, his phlegmatic demeanor would not express it.

The one thing that connects Testa’s criticism of English usage and the viral spread of government jargon is the desire for status. Dropping foreign words shows education, and perhaps travel experience, both of which are proxies for financial status. Using abstract and convoluted syntax and jargon, which limits understanding to a few, is another form of status seeking. It’s impossible to prevent that motive; it’s a very strong impulse to climb above others and show off to the group.

Meanwhile the rest of us must suffer. We can ignore it, just like an expensive car, which the driver wants and hope we will gawk at, in admiration.

The other alternative is to laugh at it. That is usually a good way to prick pomposity. The inveterate foreign word and phrase dropper, who doesn’t get it right, is funny for the rest of us. Similarly, grammatical correction can be better when the prig is brought down a peg or two.

Guy Cranswick
20th April 2014


La sagesse de la jeunesse, c’est de savoir jouir de ses appas

Amongst certain types of families, there is a desire to encourage their children to read the best literature from a young age. If they do not read then they should be involved in some other way and come to know the best writing– meaning the writing that has been most durable – over time.

This motive seems to come from the best of intentions. An appreciation of fine writing, along with music and food, are the qualities that make for an enriching life. It’s a good start to have some sense of what these books are, where they come from and what they have to say. They also promote mental faculties, such as reasoning; develop the vocabulary and understanding of other people.

Humans are status seeking and this type of formation, or engagement in the education, is subliminally a means of giving the child an advantage. It’s not a Nash equilibrium, strictly, but it is competitive, although no one would admit it publicly.

This insight came together a couple of weeks ago when I read an actor’s piece extolling Shakespeare. The idea he was pushing is that parents engage children in the plays. Once they had experienced the plays, he reasoned, the children would be excited, thrilled, charmed and swooning all at the same time.

His own appreciation had come late, as he admitted, because he had been a poor student, and so it was that when he came to acting, he fell completely for the work. He was now committed, like a person who finds religion and want so convert everyone they meet. This is not unworthy feeling.

It can be slightly oppressive. Somehow, though, if it wasn’t literature, it might not be so lofty to tell parents: ‘Engage thine offspring with the Bard! For in him, they shall revel in all that is great!

If it was a father’s deep commitment to football, or cars, and it was those passions which were engaged, it might be seen as a hobby, which had been thrust on junior, and which, due to respect and devotion, she was obliged to enjoy. She might. I knew someone years ago who loved pre-war Bugattis because her father collected them. In this case, pre-war signified before 1914.

Anyway, back to writing.

There a couple of concerns with this engagement. The first one that comes up is that unless it’s the real words, not some diluted version, or a modern day, ‘based on’ with contemporary language, it doesn’t count at all. If it ain’t in iambic pentameter, it’s not the real thing. The second thing is that much of the work is not suitable for anyone under 15; not suitable as current guidelines and censorship would have it. Take Titus Andronicus, a thudding stupid play, which is exceedingly violent; its only quality is the invention of violence, which would get a R-rating as a movie. Maybe not a good idea to read that one, or at least half a dozen others of the same ilk.

These aspirations do seem restricted to the English-speaking world. A quick search amongst blogs and articles in France does not show French parents wishing for the same engagement as the Rosbifs. Obviously French children would be more involved with Molière. It might be so, just not easy to find; or they might be more equivocal on the subject and like Molière know that the wisdom of youth is to know how to enjoy its charms.

Guy Cranswick
10th April 2014