Language – a cracked kettle or a versatile, evolving joy?

7 Mar

Wow. That’s such a big question. I was pondering it on the Thameslink train to St. Albans yesterday as I listened to a conversation between two young guys which seemed to be a dialogue of low gutteral exposition and response. If the use of glottal stops at the beginning, middle and ends of words were an art form, these two had mastered it. Extraordinary patois that was identifiably English but only just. Sounds patronising? Apologies. I’m guessing that the interlocutors could up their game when on a job interview. There was something regressive about the exchange though, an evolutionary step back, a reduction in variety and tone. Or is it just me, I asked myself? A case of old fartism.

My mental segway took me to the excruciating BAFTA ceremony t’other day when the stage- frightened Richard E Grant collided with the dreadfully inarticulate Alison Hammond to produce a toe-curling exhibition of how not to present on a pretty big occasion. One longed for either the gravitas, fluency and range of an old fashioned BBC maestro such as Hugh Edwards or Fiona Bruce – ie someone used to speaking before an audience – or the outrageous but brilliant lampooning of a Ricky Gervais who doesn’t care which sacred cow he he milks. Language and its delivery is important for communication, for nuance, for helping us rise above the ordinary. A facility for language elevates us. It can be dangerous , of course, but if our facility for speech and listening is diminished, eroded or shut down as part of a neo-liberal attack on anything which might be associated with some slight cultural or linguistic sensitivity- then I’m against it. I don’t trust the judgements of the current age, largely fuelled by the crassness of social media and tub thumping iconoclasts.

I notice that the mad, bad and sad case of the Yorkshire racism hearing is reaching its conclusion today. Michael Vaughan denies using the words ‘you lot’- a slur which Azeem Rafiq insists he uttered. How powerful those two words have become in the context of English and Yorkshire cricket and the febrile nature of the issue of racism in sport. If either side concedes ground the battle is lost and yet if both sides do so the cultural compromise would be unacceptable to those on the barricades of twitter. Thus most of us retreat, we over-censor, we go quiet in the pub rather than air our views or continue a discussion which is getting tetchy. We reduce our language to the bland; some stop speaking at all; some air views which they know will be acceptable to the group.

When we got in last night after the points failure at Canning Town had turned a 90 minute journey into four hours, we settled to what was left of Monday’s quiz night on BBC (Mastermind, Only Connect and University Challenge). The continuity announcer was an inarticulate imbecile. Work experience – that could be the only excuse. What is the BBC doing? The assumption that its viewers are morons who will love this sort of reverse baseball cap approach to language is patronising at best. And be clear here, I am not talking about accent or dialect. I’m talking about dumbing down, reducing our capacity to speak and hear and understand the world.

It’s sad to see the old curmudgeon Paxman begin to slur and blur as he reads the questions. A man who has made a brilliant life in words, now cruelly diminished by Parkinson’s. We notice, don’t we, when the masters of whatever art begin to drop from the great standards of their prime. More obvious and devastating may be the reduction of sporting heroes but we have YouTube to remind us of the brilliance of a Bradman, Best or Bolt. The next generation seems able to push onwards and upwards but this is far less true of wordsmiths. If language is constrained, constipated by a compliance to a cultural imperative set by people who pour vitriol down the internet or seek to (and succeed) shout louder than the somnolent majority, then we are all diminished.

I do sense a recognition of what is happening all around. And not just about language. I’ll leave the cult of victimhood, mental health and trans rights for another day and finish with Dionne Warkwick, the great American singer who was the subject of a better-than-average bio-documentary this week. Mostly she sang from the great Bacharach and David songbook and she talked of her disdain for the abuse of people and language in the gangsta rap of the 1990s. She called a meeting of the young rappers- amongst them Snoop Dogg. She chided them for their dumbing down of language, the promotion of violence and the labelling of all women as ‘bitches’. She asked them to level up, not round down. Snoop Dogg talked of the profound effect her intervention had on him. Good on her. A great lady and brilliant artist.

OK. I’ll finish the Flaubert quote: Language is a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to while all the time we long to move the stars to pity.
Or, as the Bee Gees might sing: It’s only words and words are all I have to steal your heart away.
Take your pick.


One Response to “Language – a cracked kettle or a versatile, evolving joy?”

  1. Simon Collins March 7, 2023 at 11:26 pm #

    Hey Paul, I loved your piece. We have both been brought up in a families where certain behaviours were required. Courtesies and respect to others, trying to understand, in order to communicate. Having a view, while listening to others’.

    I share your resentment with the way many people speak today. That sounds old – man-ish. Every generation changes: think beatniks, late 60s flower power, drug generation ( though that’s been going on for centuries, in different ways).

    I have met many instances of human kindness, from all quarters. It’s not all so bad.

    Simon x

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