Stephen Fry: The Pleasure of Language

A tweet from pausetowonder alerted me to the fact that Stephen Fry (of Jeeves,Wilde, and Ode fame) was on Twitter. I soon found out that along with being a prolific twitizen, he also has an elaborate multimedia website. One of his recent blog posts and “podgrams” concerns his thoughts on language. I highly recommend listening to him deliver it in his velvety humane voice (try clicking on the RSS buttons to get direct links), but you can also read it. Here are some of my favourite bits:

My language (as the sum of my discourses, as linguistic strata that betray my history, as geology or archaeology betrays history) is my language and it is a piece of who I am, perhaps even the defining piece. In my case it is in part a classical ruin, inherited boulders of Tacitus and Cicero bleaching in the sun along with grass-overrun elements of Thucydides and Aeschylus … not because I was a classical scholar, but because I was taught by classical scholars and grew up on poets, dramatists and novelists who knew the classics as intimately as most people of my generation know the Beatles and the Stones. Without knowing it therefore, heroic Ciceronian clausulae and elaborate Tacitan litotes can always be found in the English of people like me…. As Henry Higgins reminds us in Pygmalion, English is for all of us the language of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible. We unconsciously use the tropes, tricks and figures of our great writers, just as we might without knowing it use a tierce de Picardie or a diminished seventh when humming in the shower.

For me, it is a cause of some upset that more Anglophones don’t enjoy language. Music is enjoyable it seems, so are dance and other, athletic forms of movement. People seem to be able to find sensual and sensuous pleasure in almost anything but words these days. Words, it seems belong to other people, anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed. The free and happy use of words appears to be considered elitist or pretentious.

But above all let there be pleasure. Let there be textural delight, let there be silken words and flinty words and sodden speeches and soaking speeches and crackling utterance and utterance that quivers and wobbles like rennet. Let there be rapid firecracker phrases and language that oozes like a lake of lava. Words are your birthright. Unlike music, painting, dance and raffia work, you don’t have to be taught any part of language or buy any equipment to use it, all the power of it was in you from the moment the head of daddy’s little wiggler fused with the wall of mummy’s little bubble. So if you’ve got it, use it. Don’t be afraid of it, don’t believe it belongs to anyone else, don’t let anyone bully you into believing that there are rules and secrets of grammar and verbal deployment that you are not privy to. Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years. How they feel to us now tells us whole stories of our ancestors.

I am enchanted by the idea that our use of language gives away not only our own personality but our cultural genealogy right back to antiquity. It is one of the wonders of language in general and English in particular that it keeps reinventing itself. Fry sides, at least in theory, with those who say there is no right or wrong in language. It is merely a matter of convention, and convention changes whether we like it or not. It’s hard to argue against that, but if there is no right or wrong language, there is still good and bad language, and it is good language that Fry is championing.

He is absolutely right that those who like to play with words very quickly learn how unacceptable that is to those who don’t. Aside from social opprobrium, there usually isn’t much scope for creativity when writing for school or work. I remember once at work sending a piece I was rather proud of to an editor and receiving it back with every passive verb slavishly converted to the active voice, something which did considerable violence to the flow of the paragraphs in question. In the end she did concede that it was better as originally written and reversed the changes, but another higher-up decided to change the order of one section, demolishing the crescendo that I had carefully built up. The notion of telling a story and taking the reader somewhere, even in technical nonfiction, did not compute. What is sadder still is that after a few more years of churning out governmentese I was starting to use it outside of work. I don’t think I have recovered yet!

What are we to do? How can we make society safe for the sort of speeches we read in Austen or even Shakespeare? We barely have time to enquire after each other’s health these days, never mind tell each other ornamented tales. I think we’ve been tweeting at each other for some time now; Twitter has only made it visible. Perhaps the blog will help reverse the tweetification of English. Where else can ordinary people express complete thoughts in any style they like in public? I say: Long live the blog!

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11 comments on “Stephen Fry: The Pleasure of Language

  1. Jonathan says:

    It's funny how some people are so afraid of making up new words and phrases. Thanks for the link!

  2. びっくり says:

    Here's to overcoming the trepidation of being labeled 'elitist' or – heaven forbid – 'pretentious', and letting loose the gates of our hearts. Gladly will I accept exotic use of language, for it is in varied use that our tool of communication maintains it's intriguing qualities.
    Blog away!

  3. wil says:

    “Words, it seems belong to other people, anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed. The free and happy use of words appears to be considered elitist or pretentious.”
    I disagree. “[P]henomenological study of the narrative gestures that most deeply characterize the productions of a writer,” for example, might be considered elitist or pretentious. But I really don't think “the free and happy use of words” in general is considered elitist or pretentious. I think it boils down to understanding. If the listener understands the speaker, “originality, delight and verbal freshness” is fine and dandy. But if the listener cannot understand the speaker, or has to struggle for understanding, you've got a problem.

  4. Sylvia says:

    I agree that understanding is extremely important. Even if the listener/reader doesn't understand every word, the context and perhaps even the sound should suggest the meaning. But I also think there is a definite lack of tolerance for the use of any but the most common words. Unknown words tend to elicit more animosity than curiosity (among adults, that is). My personal theory is that people were shamed in school for getting words wrong and their only defense mechanism is to accuse the verbose of being stuck up and deliberately obfuscatory (whee!). I think the tech nerd gets a lot more benefit of the doubt than the word nerd these days.

  5. Sylvia says:

    Bikkuri: “letting loose the gates of our hearts” Nice!

  6. All I know is that he had me with “wobbles like rennet”! His tirade is a good example for the importance of getting out of verbal ruts. I am going to copy that paragraph for reference whenever I find myself writing, for the 800th time, that I am “delighted” with a “great” book.
    I don't know from Twitter, but glad to know Fry has a web site. I'll visit soon.

  7. Sylvia says:

    Yes, I too am frequently “delighted” by “great” books!
    Thanks to Twitter I can inform you that at this very moment Mr. Fry is enjoying the luxury of a private suite on an Airbus A380 on its way to Singapore. It's a strange thing, Twitter.

  8. Stefanie says:

    “Let there be textural delight”
    I love it! I am of an opinion part way between you and Wil leaning more towards Wil. I think audience is very important when it comes to “the free and happy use of words.” You can use high falutin' words with folks that understand them but if people don't then you are in trouble. Doesn't mean you can't use them at all, only that you must be more selective. I also believe you can have free and happy words using only every day language but in interesting ways.
    A former coworker told me often that she loved talking to me because I frequently used such precise and interesting words that she only ever read in books. She was thrilled one day in particular when I described someone as “insipid.” This coworker was quite the ego booster 🙂

  9. Sylvia says:

    All true, but why must there be “trouble” when people don't understand a word or two? The trouble is not when a person doesn't understand—that is easily remedied—the trouble is when a person, being insecure and ashamed of their ignorance, will attack rather than admit they don't know what you mean. I'm not sure it's worth cutting ourselves off from most of our language to accommodate neurosis.

  10. びっくり says:

    Here's thanks to my teachers who answered the question, “How do I spell that?”, with, “Look it up!” And also to my father who taught me how to look up words you didn't know how to spell. And to the bullies who threatened the runt (me) with physical violence if I didn't look up their words as well. And to my sixth grade teacher Mr. Slater, God rest his soul, who taught me how to understand all the details in a dictionary entry; leading me to my odd habit of reading dictionaries.
    I recently told some other English teachers that I accidentally confused prodigious and propitious the other day. I was saddened by the response, which I might sum up as, “…”

  11. Sylvia says:

    Bikkuri, those were some strange bullies, and even stranger English teachers! On the other hand, reading dictionaries (or encyclopedias, hem) is not in the least strange; it indicates prodigious good taste, and is a propitious sign of future scholarliness (which is a word even if Firefox says it isn't!).

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