Toward Linguistic Grace

Reading & Writing


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.


9 comments on “Toward Linguistic Grace”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    Admin should have taken his American friend to see one of the real English classics: “Sailor Beware”, “See How They Run” or Charley’s Aunt”

  2. Charles says:

    Many of my father’s cousins are hard-of-hearing. It’s an exercise in futility attempting to speak to them on the telephone unless you learn to speak like you’re talking to a simple person. I don’t necessarily mean talking loudly (believe me, they already have the volume at max), but cutting out words like “a” and “the”, not using long words (not that they don’t know them, they just can’t hear them), and forcefully enunciating every syllable, spelling out words when necessary. And still there are times when they will simply not hear you.

    “Cuckold” was a new word to me, but I’m not likely to forget it now that I know what it means. I would say that I look up a word in the dictionary on my phone at least four or five times a day, and scrolling through the lookup history I can nearly always remember their meanings (even the ones from a year ago when I installed the app).

  3. John Howard says:

    Through lack of use my vocabulary has shrunk and I know i could do better that I generally do when talking with colleagues and friends but it becomes worrying when using what I think is a simple set of works I get some puzzled looks. I work with a wide variety of people and there is distinct division between the guys who work out on the road and the people in the office. Is also seems a shame that as I get older and the people around me get younger the range of words I can use narrows drastically.
    I had great fun throwing pulchritudinous into a conversation the other day, completely in context, and having no-one know what I meant. I learn’t that word in my teens and thought it a fabulous word just to be able to use. It makes me think of our Janice.
    Ah well… Back to the books and the people who can still write them.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    My vocabulary shrank as soon as I began teaching elementary school. I can’t blame the kids – after all they were just starting out – but it didn’t seem logical that the same was true of the teachers I met. I had to simplify or have them make fun. I had to downgrade my accent, too. Speech, the way as well as the words we use, is judged by the people around us. It may not be fair but it’s the way things are.

  5. Jo W says:

    To John Howard-
    Pulchritudinous was used last week by Leonard Sachs,the Chairman,on a re-run of the Good Old Days.
    That’s probably the only place to hear such words. Pity the original programme is from the seventies. 🙁

  6. Peter Dixon says:

    Many years ago the seemingly ubiquitous Reader’s Digest used to run a column called ‘It Pays to Increase Your Word Power’ which I always found fascinating. Sometimes a word is picked up and then can’t be put down again – my pet hate is ‘devastated’ in news stories which applies equally to a football team’s performance, losing your job or the scene of a ‘plane crash.

    The fact that there is a precise English word for almost everything is remarkable and it is that precision which makes authors like Wodehouse, Nancy Banks-Smith, Perelman, Clive James and many others so worth reading. Unfortunately we seem to be heading toward a kind of pidgin English in English itself, where language moves inexorably downwards, innit?

  7. Vivienne says:

    How does a child know when a new word is rarely used or ubiquitous? I remember reading Beatrix Potter to my children and they didn’t blink at being told lettuce was soporific – and it was quite clear what that meant from the story. Although there were a few words I didn’t get the exact meaning of, I was never one to go to a dictionary straight away- the hope was meeting the word again a few times just by reading, would get me to a proper understanding.

  8. admin says:

    A good point, Vivienne.
    I reluctantly wrote a Young Adult novel – by far the worst experience of my working life – and was constantly instructed to remove ‘difficult’ words. Difficulty is how you grow.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    I imagine the YA novel was the Medusa one, which I liked and would have recommended to my 10 to 13 year olds. Yes, difficulty is how you grow. There is a series of children’s mysteries set in Chicago, a series in which the children sneak into one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s beautiful homes in one book and recover a Vermeer in another.The author is Blue Balliet and the series is great fun and full of interesting stuff. I loaned readers my book of Wright’s architecture and the Life series book on Vermeer so they could see the real things.

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