Thursday, 3 March 2011

Apples of Gold

The King James version of the Bible in 1611, translates Proverbs 25:11 as "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver". I have always liked that. The New Century Version tries to bring this up to date with, "The right word spoken at the right time ...".

To Virginia Woolf, "Language is wine upon the lips". To Mark Amidin, "Language is the means of getting an idea from my brain into yours without surgery". Salid Sadeem encourages us to forget the claims of fire and the wheel as the greatest of inventions, "Their claim may have the weight of the scientific community, but for the masses, the language is the real innovation".

The writers website, Everything2 says, "The ability of language to evoke strong emotions above and beyond the strict definitions of the words used in the construction of a phrase, is part of what makes language such a beautiful thing. Language allows us to express our thoughts and feelings to each other. We can feel rapture reading about love or despair. We can know that there are others out there like ourselves, that we are not alone. We can communicate, because we have language, and that is a beautiful thing". B Syamalakumari, in volume 4 of 'Language in India' writes, "Language has no equal, let alone a rival. Language can and does absorb the beauty of a thing/being just as the blotting paper does with the ink". Wrapped up in the beauty, language used can also be confusing.

My purpose here is not to look for purity and perfection of grammatical form, or to focus on linguistic pedantry. Stephen Fry, in a podcast from 2009, rants about the "absurdity of being a pedant about the English language, that most glorious, reeling drunken bastard of a tongue that has neither academy nor dictator to rule on 'correctness' and so has blossomed into a million variegated subforms in every corner of the globe".

My purpose here is simply to ask what do we use language for? How and why are we communicating with others? What does "A word fitly spoken ..." mean to us? It sounds pretentious I know, but my life's work has been about lifting people up, when they have felt cast down. Language can be uplifting, demeaning or demoralising. I heard a mother say to her child, "You're shite, just like your Father". Others are proud of their hostile interaction with other people. "I speak my mind, and they can like it or lump it". Somehow such people are often not so appreciative when they're at the end of "I tell it as it is". The language of contempt and self-righteousness is egotistical, and is a million miles away from being described as apples of gold in a setting of silver.

Meaningful Moments
I know that this blog sounds a bit preachy and straight out of Hallmark cards, but I prefer to see it as examining how we interact with others. I spent too many years listening to too many people using language as a destructive force, rather than as a thing of beauty.

Robyn Freedman Spizman wrote, "As we pass through this life, each of us has an opportunity to identify meaningful moments with our unique signature. We use words as tools to accomplish this. Our word choices are endless and offer great potential for us to embellish every occasion. No matter where we go or what we do daily, the words we use help us connect in large and small ways with each other".

I like the thought of having a unique signature, and I wonder what it says about me?

From 'Language in India' again, "Language creates and protects because it maintains people with a beautiful style and nuances to bring cohesion in spite of diversity within a socially hierarchical world". If after reading this blog, your response is, 'What the hell is he talking about?', I can only apologise and put it down to a poor grasp of language, and a weakness in communication. To make up for this, I leave you with the following piece, for no other reason than I enjoyed it, and found it funny.

The Beauty in English Language
Posted by Sarat Gamini on June 01, 2009

We’ll, let us begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.
One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice,
Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.
If the plural of man is always called men, then shouldn't the plural of pan be called pen?
If I speak of my foot and show you my feet, and I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth, why shouldn't the plural of booth be called beeth?
Then one may be that, and three would be those, yet that in the plural would never be hose, and the plural of cat is cats, not cose.

We speak of a brother and also of brethren, but though we say mother, we never say methren.
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him, but imagine the feminine: she, shis and shim!
Let's face it - English is a crazy language.
There is no egg in eggplant or ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple.
English muffins weren't invented in England.
We take English for granted, but if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square, and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.
And why is it that writers write but fingers don't fing,
grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham?
Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend?
If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?
If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught?
If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

Sometimes I think all the folks who grew up speaking English should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane.
In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital?
We ship by truck but send cargo by ship.
We have noses that run and feet that smell.
We park in a driveway and drive in a parkway.
And how can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?
You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out, and in which an alarm goes off by going on.
And, in closing, if Father is Pop, how come Mother's not Mop?

1 comment:

  1. What a joy! I have much I common with you on this one. In fact, when I wrote what I laughingly describe as 'my memoirs' I called them 'Word by Word' and they began with the comment: 'I have always loved words.......' The older I get the more important they become - not particularly the pedantry of 'good grammar' (important though that is)but rather the clarity of what is being said and its implications. I constantly find myself 'analysing' what politicians and the like say, testing it for logic, contradiction, integrity, clarity etc. I have always felt that the Tony Judt comment is so true: '..... For many centuries in the western tradition, how well you expressed a position corresponded closely to the credibility of your argument. Rhetorical styles might vary from the spartan to the baroque, but it was never a matter of indifference: poor expression belied poor thought. Confused words suggested, at best, confused ideas. There is now a glib "popular" articulacy based upon shoddy prose and quality of argument and when words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express.' Judt was right - we see it everyday in the debating chamber at Westminster and read it on most of the national press and other media outlets.