Toward Linguistic Grace
For most of us in the West, English, whether you like it or not, has become the universal language. But because so many others are at different stages of learning it you find yourself simplifying your speech in order to communicate more easily.
I don’t mind this at all; it’s good to be reminded on the fundamentals of language. Having heard vox pops from a Midlands town attempting to express why they think it’s economically viable to leave the European Union – ‘Well, Brexit means Brexit, dunnit?’ you start to think that Orwell’s prophecy (if you remove the words, you remove the thoughts) has come true.
It’s not just London that’s a melting pot, it’s every major city that’s not in Austria. My flat was renovated by Paul (Irish), Jordi (Catalan), Yolanda (Galician), Chu (Chinese) and Christmas (Polish). My barber is Ken (Iranian), my barista is Jo (Estonian), my florist is Wichit (Thai), my postman is Josef (Nigerian). My neighbours are Japanese, American, French, Spanish, Polish, Italian, Chinese, and they all default to English. Only half of London is now white English.
This is the new world, and takes a bit of getting used to. London is not the city I grew up in. Our family language was more leisurely, less short-handed, and our sentence structures were more convoluted. I’ve always known that my personal use of language was more complex than was strictly necessary. Working for most of my career with four very witty writers made us faster and sharper than most, and was a lot of fun. I have no problem mixing crudity with erudition.
But how far do you go to make language elegant before it becomes hard to understand? I was gobsmacked to read this in Mel magazine; ‘Who would not make her husband a cuckold, to make him a monarch?’ Emilia asks Desdemona in Othello’s third act. (Translation: ‘I’d sleep with another man if it meant my husband could be king.’) Now, I know Shakespeare doesn’t become easier until you’ve advanced up the language ladder a tad, but translation?
Okay, perhaps some don’t know the meaning of ‘cuckold’, the only rare word there. The rest if painfully simple – or so I thought.
I took a woman from Hollywood to the theatre because she wanted to see a very English play. I thought I’d avoid Shakespeare and give her something easier, so we went to see Sheridan’s ‘School For Scandal’, which is a lot of laughs. At the intermission she told me she was greatly enjoying it and could we go now? It transpired that she hadn’t the faintest idea of what anyone was saying.
I looked back over the play script and thought; what part doesn’t she understand? But perhaps the jump is as big as reading Mel magazine is for me, filled with new words and phrases like alt-right cucks and power-posing.
Clearly I don’t write for those starting out in English, but nor do I use the plain language of say, ‘The Girl on the Train’, which keeps me out of many popularity lists. I’m happy to trade some mainstream success for exclusivity.
I was saturated in Shakespearian prose (and Middle English, God help me) at school; my teachers placed the classics above all other learning. There’s not that big a jump from crime writers like Margery Allingham to Shakespeare, because until the 1970s the language we used was still largely the language of Shakespeare. It was nuanced, shaded and layered with meaning. Some of those meanings have been defined and given modern names, like mansplain and passive-aggressive. Others still defy easy definition because part of what we say is not consciously learned but osmotically absorbed, from family, friends, peers.
Good productions of Shakespeare clarify the language, bad ones bury it in busy effects. It will be interesting to see how the upcoming production of ‘The Tempest’ fares with its added CGI effects.