Thursday, 19 February 2009

The World Won’t Listen

So today I’m on the bus (as is often the way) and I pick up the Ever Inadvertently Amusing “Metro” and flick through what is laughingly described as news. Sometimes there are some nice pictures in this publication, some of which I have used as the basis for paintings. Mostly it’s celebrity gossip and headlines from around the world.

Today the item that hits my attention the most is about a school where the teacher asked his very young kids to write down a list of the swearwords they knew, what they thought they meant and how they would feel if that word was used as an insult or to bully them.

The article was basically saying that a bunch of parents had got together and complained that their kids had come home with a list of swearwords in their books with a “well done” tick from the teacher.

Whilst I agree that this was probably not the best response I think that, personally speaking, I would be a little more worried that my five-year-old knew words like c**ksucker and had a good idea what they meant. I might even go so far as to applaud the teacher for making the kids think twice before using such words. As it is the teacher has been reprimanded and the pages removed from the books.

As I have mentioned before it is the common practice around my way to use a swearword as a thinking gap in a conversation. A recent survey that said that the average person swears 15 times a day missed the mark entirely down my street and needed to replace the word “day” with “second”

And of course, there is always the temptation to look back at one’s own childhood and imagine it to be a “Just William” style time of Swallows And Amazons and lashings of Ginger Beer, when the Police were to be Respected (with capital “R”) and everything was so much more innocent – when of course no such thing was true. I can’t deny knowing and using swearwords from a very young age, but I do worry that the frequency of use denotes a deterioration of literacy.

Some of the people I know are surprised when I use an unfamiliar word (I recently described something that had been said as a bit “Jingoistic” and then had to explain what that meant, as well as putting out an email that advertised “Sugar based comestibles” to general confusion) – but I guess it just comes from the fact that I love to read and am genuinely interested in language.

We are the only species on the planet that has developed such a complicated manner of communications; most others have only managed grunts, squeals and exchanging smells (admittedly this mirrors the behaviour of the average British Teenager on holiday in Greece) and I think that we should delight in the freedom of expression that this brings.

Quite recently there was a complaint that many public signs are now spelled incorrectly – for instance a road sign that stated “City Center” (US spelling) instead of “City Centre”. Meanwhile I can't name a single senior Manager that can get through an email without a spelling mistake and our Communications Department recently put out an email advertising Casual Dress Day as an opportunity to "where red". Even I, incredibly well-versed as I am, would struggle to cope without my ever-ready Spell-check.

And the question that many people have asked is “well, does it really matter?”

Well – in a way Yes, and in a way No. If linguists controlled the world (instead of the cats/traffic cone manufacturers conspiracy we’ve previously agreed on) then language would never change and would be written in stone. Rules would always apply and there’d be none of this nonsense where the word “Phonetic” was not even spelt phonetically.

But the truth is that language is forever changing and evolving to match our means of communications. If you were to travel back even 100 years the chances are that you wouldn’t be able to communicate with someone you met there because the language and the terms of reference have changed so much.

English is, alongside Japanese, described as the most difficult language to learn for a foreigner because of its inconsistencies (try explaining why “Stationery” (things you find in the office) and “Stationary” (not moving) are spelt so similar, but mean totally different things to a non-English language user and see what I mean) – but it is equally one of the most beautiful.

For a good example of what I mean, and in honour of the memory of my Gran and Grandad (father’s side), please find below a poem written in the local dialect of Sheffield:

Where's tha bin tha mucky tyke
Laykin t'all afternoon
Inter't sink oil yorll be fun
Look at tha britches showin
Muck an splat reet up t'neck
Black as soot thee clothes
No more laykin for thee tonait
Intert 'outhouse tha guz begone

And a rough translation (by myself, so apologies for mistakes)

Where have you been, you mucky kid?
Playing all afternoon (NB: I’m not sure exactly what “Laykin” means)
In the sink (wash yourself) or you’ll be in trouble
Look at your underwear showing
Muck splattered right up to your neck
Your clothes are black as soot
No more playing for you tonight
Get in the outhouse now – begone!

In its way this poem is as beautiful as any Shakespeare poem, with its own unique way of showing the world that says a lot about the times and the society it was written in.

One of the main themes of George Orwell's classic "Nineteen Eighty-Four" is the way that Big Brother controls language through the use of Newspeak - the theory being that if you deny the public the ability to put their revolutionary thoughts and doubts about the system into words then you equally deny them the ability to think those thoughts in the first place.

There is the possiblity that by chosing to limit our language ourselves in this way we have done away with the need for a despot and are heading full throttle into simplicity all by ourselves.

Whether this is true or not it pains me to think that future generations may know little better than to punctuate their every thought with a rude word because they have lost the ability to put their heads in the clouds and dream.


Buddha said...

I have learned the English language at the age of 27 when I immigrated to USA.
My experience: It is an easy language to learn it is damn hard to master.
After so many years I still have many problems with it, like; I have a hard time with the homophones.
And that is something that my spell check doesn't catch.

Michael said...

Nice piece. It takes my mind in the direction of thinking about the way language is the medium of thought. It is also the interface through which we connect to each other. I see the effects of its loss nearly every day with the patients I see. I've also seen it people who don't have aphasia. If only they would just talk to each other!

pohanginapete said...

I love words and the way they work to create meaning (in the very broadest sense, which sometimes appears not to make sense). One of the sad things about profanity, it seems to me, is its capacity to limit vocabulary. On the other hand, a carefully chosen cuss word can have just the right effect. Like so many things, words when overused lose their power.

I suppose the trick is to strike that balance between respecting the tradition and being prepared to challenge it. Simply saying, "I don't give a shit; I'll use language however I effin well want" gets it wrong.

(BTW, I loved the bit about the average British Teenager on holiday in Greece) :^D

Lydia said...

Wow, excellent commentary. It was so well-developed and the last two paragraphs are POW. This should be printed in the newspaper, editorial page.

Argent said...

Apologies in advance for the length of this comment...

I once came across a theory which I love, about why language developed in the first place. Basically, the idea is that our ape ancestors lived together in groups small enough for them to be able to make and renew their social bonds by physically grooming one another (we still see this today in ape/monkey groups). However, our ancestors began to congregate together in larger and larger groups which became too large to allow enough time in the day for everyone to groom everyone else. Thus, language began to develop as a form of audible bonding; a single individual could call out and "groom" anyone within hearing distance. As time went on, the language of the grooming became more sophisticated and so on until today.

The author of this idea cites as evidence for this our fascination with gossip and social news about our friends/family/co-workers etc., as well as our love of in-jokes and the like. The book was written before the cult of celebrity really took hold, but I daresay if it were published today, it would have somewhat to say on that subject. Further proof of this idea might also lie in the astonishing popularity of email, mobile phones, texting, IM, Facebook and, of course, our beloved blogging.

It is sad, of course, that some people are only able to express themselves in a limited way, but that works for their social group. Let's hope for all our sakes that for every f*ck-shouter, there is somewhere a Shakespeare.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting you should say that you curse less because you read a lot. For myself, I find that I grip on curse words and English together, for they have equal value in expressing ideas and emotions.

I've heard a lot of people say that English is a very difficult language to learn, but I found Japanese actually very easy. It's the different Chinese dialects that are difficult. Japanese has hiragana, a basic system of syllables that are used, in addition to Kanji. Chinese is just made of Kanji, a written language which, in itself, is thousands and thousands of symbols.

You are right about the traveling back 100 years thing, but I think teachers, historians and students are studying the language and cultures of that time in order to bridge the gap. Or at least they should be.

On another note, I have to apologize for not having commented here earlier. I oft get busy with trying to plan things out for myself, work, and other stuff.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

Hi Buddha - i am really surprised at your comment, because your posts are so well written that i really wouldn't have known that English was a 2nd language!

Michael - yes, the loss of language in that way must be very painful to see, so you can probably appreciate the sadness of people just chosing to give it away.

Pete - that's exactly it: a good cuss word at the right time is just as valid

Lydia - thanks. It's a subject that's been on my mind on and off for a number of weeks, if not months.

Argent - that is a very interesting theory and makes a lot of sense when you think about it, and explains a lot about the gruntings of the lads who hang about in the street...

Samurai - i totally understand the absence. It's not always possible to comment all the time. Chinese is extra-complicated because the same word can have four meanings depending on how you say it...