From the immortal psalms, gospels, and epistles of the King James Bible to the eloquence of Cicero and Homer; the galvanising wartime speeches of Winston Churchill; the soaring oratory of Barack Obama, and then to the divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump, it is ever more evident how vital a constituent element language is to human civilization. Language is unique to our species and plays an inestimably vital role in our daily lives.
Not only is language a means through which we communicate our thoughts and ideas, but it also forges relationships, deepens cultural ties and is instrumental in shaping our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. Language and how we use it is such a complex phenomenon that it has set many questions tumbling and colliding in my mind that I can hardly make sense of them… Let us think for a moment; is language being degraded? Tell me, should it be ‘my eyebrows on fleek’ or should it be ‘my eyebrows are flawlessly groomed’? Are you irritated at the misguided smug pomposity of god-forsaken grammar Nazis? Is there a right way to express yourself and a wrong? Is the English language set in stone, or should it like our species, evolve?
Karl Kraus, the venomous Austrian satirist, opined that language is a ‘universal whore that we must try make a virgin’. T.S Eliot in little Gidding pretty much says the same thing in a different way: ‘to purify the dialect of the tribe’. But my friend, is there as Eliot suggests, a purer, higher, and proper language, or must we embrace Kraus’s thesis of language being the universal whore that has been used, bruised, and abused by every Tom, Dick, and Harry? Well, dear friend, as you read this, I am assured that you’ll become prisoners of my persuasion and come to agree that we are the masters of language, and not it the master of us.
Before we proceed further, let me put it to you that the ways in which we all use language are unique to each and every one of us. This opinion piece which I have written, and which you’re now reading with such unalloyed pleasure, is not only in Anglo-Saxon English, No, it is written in my brand of the language. It is an English that has been infused and imbued with the rhythms and rhetorical flourishes of my African peoples.
The way I speak and therefore write can never be divorced from the sum total of who I am. My brand and particular style of the English language bears all the flavours of my race, my gender, class and education. It also reflects the influences of my choices in literature, culture, and art. Consequently, given that my relationship with language is inextricably linked to who I am, I can no more change the way I use language that you can separate the wind from the air.
Stephen Fry, the beloved polymath and public intellectual of our times lended his support to this argument in a blog wherein he states that he also, could not change his language and the ‘sum of its discourse’ than he could ‘add a cubit to his height’ or sadly it seemed for him ‘take a pound from his weight’. The argument advanced here, by both Mr Fry and I, is that the way each of us uses language is unique to us, it’s an aspect of who we are that helps define our identity; so why are people hesitant to explore and use language freely and happily?
The fact is, that this thing, language, which via the written word you’re reading this, can be exquisitely beautiful. Think of Shakespeare who continues to seduce and entrance anglophile audiences with his sweeping romances, continues to delight and entertain them with his comedies, and also continues to probe and provoke his audiences to think with his tragedies and histories. Shakespeare the man, wields just as much, if not more, impact and influence over his audiences today 500 years since he last drew breath. The Bard, through his body of work remains an unrivalled literary authority on how to live, how to love, vice and virtue, order and disorder, appearances and reality, guilt and conscience as well as violence and tyranny. William Shakespeare, unequalled in his pre-eminence as a lord of language, presents a marvellous example of how powerful language can be and why we need not fear using language freely and imaginatively.
Those of us who can speak, can use language in the way that a dancer uses dance and a painter uses paint. Expressively and creatively. I am convinced that language is the most magnificent thing we have yet oddly enough, the most ignored. Wilfred Owen, the poet of the First World War trenches, was motivated to enlist in the army in order to fight for the language of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats. Language is what separates us from the all other species more than anything else and yet more often than not, we tend to use it when we dial 0800 838 383 to order a pizza. For me it is a great cause of upset that most of us, don’t enjoy language. Music, sport and other forms of movement and expression seem immensely enjoyable. People seem to be able to find pleasure in almost anything but words. Words seem to belong to ‘other people’ and the imaginative and creative use of words appears to be considered elitist and pretentious. Much to my dismay however, some of the very people who hail themselves the defenders of language, go about it in the wrong way.
Let me introduce you to my neighbour Ruth.
Ruth is quite a character. Mrs Reynolds, as she fancies being addressed, spent her professional life as a secretary, she is now a pensioner who passes time mainly by reading. When she is not rebelling against her caregiver, Ruth has a prodigious penchant for writing letters to broadcasters and newspaper editors, in which she is rude and haughty about other people’s usage of language. She also relishes opportunities to showcase her superior knowledge of how language should be. One time, Ruth was going around our street trying to collect signatures in order to get Pak’nSave to introduce a grammatically correct version of their ‘10 items or less’ sign. ‘Ruthie’ is an absolute darling. Yes, I understand the technical distinction between ‘fewer’ and ‘less’, but does Ruth realise that these things just don’t really matter? None of these are of importance or should I say “None of them is of importance”. What a silly approach to language.
Stephen Fry correctly points out that there are all kinds of pedants out there with more time to read and imitate the greats than to create and write new poems, novels and stories. They’re more than willing to whip out their sharpies and take-away and add apostrophes from public signs and shake their heads at less-than-perfect punctuation, misspellings and split infinitives. But, Mr Fry flamboyantly questions, do people like Ruth ‘bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongue transport them to blissful euphoria? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to?” Do they? I doubt it.
Unlike Ruth I think that above all, there must be freedom. Let us be free enough to use language creatively and expressively. Language, as I have sought to argue is unique to each and every one of us. Words are our birthright. Unlike other forms of expression such as painting or dance, with words you do not need to buy any equipment to use them. All the equipment you needed to speak was with you from day one. I say, if you’ve got it: use it. Do not be coaxed into believing that words belong to ‘other people’, or that there are special rules and secrets of language that you’re not privy to. Words are free, and all words bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years.
How words feel and make sense to us, tell our stories. So let words be free.
Let there be sophisticated, silken, sodden, soaring, soggy and simple speeches. Let language flow freely like pools of lava. Just let words flow from your lips, your pen, or the tips of your fingers tapping a keyboard. Give them rhythm, depth and height. Let there be verbal and textual delight. But above all let there be freedom.
Header image by Drafter123 / Getty Images
Written by John Sibanda, Published on 01/06/2018