Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Why can't the English learn to speak?

Henry Higgins: Look at her, a prisoner of the gutter,
Condemned by every syllable she utters.
By right she should be taken out and hung,
For the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.

My Fair Lady - Why Can't The English?

If one can first escape the quite obviously lascivious undercurrent of "My Fair Lady" (its upper-class and specious condolence of the lower ranks of society) and then muster the political acceptability of class warfare, it is quite possible to strengthen the case for "proper English" as initially promoted by George Bernard Shaw in his play "Pygmalion" (1913).

I adore well-spoken and well-written language. But long ago I abandoned any thought of restricting its expression to a common model.  The most persuasive argument for that seemly generosity is that of Mark Twain in the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1884) written throughout in vernacular English suffused with local regionalism.  It is no accident that the book was a scathing satire on entrenched attitudes; nor that it was widely criticized because of its extensive use of coarse language. The book (often called the "The Great American Novel") did however garner Samuel Langhorne Clemens vast amounts of money and I doubt that it was the river rats who read it.

I persist in my literary self-characterization as purely pragmatic.  What wins me over is the utility of language - it is after all an instrument. There is for example small advantage in speaking to a crowd of ingĂ©nues in a manner which guarantees incomprehension - unless the disguise is deliberate such as reciting Latin during worship service. But baring that forgivable deceit, I prefer to lean on the motivation to use language which accurately captures the intent of communication. Otherwise the hardened inclination to grammar and correctness is tantamount to packing black tie when you're not going to the Riviera for the season, simply preposterous. It is only the indignity of swinging from a chandelier which warrants the production or necessity of evening wear.

I've been to a marvellous party

Unquestionably colloquial articulation is at the root of many of the best literary renditions, whether jokes, drama or story-telling. It is a grave mistake to misconstrue "vulgarity" (which I use in the strict sense of popularity) as lacking either meaning or enforcement. Very often it is its contradiction which heightens its identity. I recall having heard a gentleman's account of a conversation between his sister and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. It is important to note the the raconteur and his family lived on the south shore of Nova Scotia. Reportedly after his sister went on at some length about the propriety of theology and preaching, my friend mischievously interjected in his east coast drawl, "And this from the likes of her what had been guttin' a fish on the pier!" Clearly the judicious use of language avoids the utter embarrassment of incongruity.  Not to mention its enlarged definition!

Language has forever been a hobby of mine.  My use of language is no better than the talent of the average golfer - enjoyable but nonetheless just puttering about.  Yet this doesn't dissuade me. From the repeated use of deliberate language will slowly emerge a palatable expression. There is as well the thesis that written detail is a catharsis, a relief from the weight of the day. I view the undertaking as mandatory, not quite as urgent as water or food, but close. Primarily the exploit enables me to expiate my guilt for non-performance, lack of productivity - something which is particularly compelling now that I am no longer obliged to work for a living. Personal empowerment has always motived me.

Language is a bit like money - if you've got it, you don't talk about it.  This naturally conflicts with my innate showmanship.  But it is otherwise credible. It at least affords me the vehicle for interpreting what others say, perhaps a privilege of the initiated.

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