Friday, 25 November 2011

Use it or lose it

"It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words."
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

I have been reflecting just lately on language. I love words; and I love the way they can be put together with huge subtlety, enabling us to express with precision and beauty the tiniest detail, thought, or experience.

I was revisiting a favourite episode of John Esmonde and Bob Larbey's 1970's BBC sitcom The Good Life recently, and one scene particularly got me thinking. Tom and Barbara, who are striving for self-sufficiency and have suffered a disappointing harvest, are having dinner with their neighbours, Margot and Jerry. They are out of sorts, and the conversation has stalled:

Jerry: You two are very quiet.

Barbara: Oh are we? Sorry. 

Margot: Yes. Now come along. We have such a rich language. Let's use it. 

Tom: Alright then.


Barbara: Err...

Margot: I've finished.

Tom: I've finished as well.

Margot: Oh yes. Have you finished, Jerry?

Jerry: Yes, thank you, darling.

Margot: Then I've finished too.

Jerry: It is a rich language, isn't it?

This is comedy of course, comedy of the highest order, written by two men who were masters of bringing character and situation to vivid life - through words. But it got me thinking about the English language and our use, abuse, and neglect of it.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, there are at least 250,000 words in the English language; and depending on what you actually term a 'word', this number could be as many as 750,000. It is one of the richest languages on the planet, partly as a result of being such a mongrel: much of our language has Germanic roots, courtesy of our Viking invaders; but the Norman Conquest brought with it lots of French and Latin too.

Is it just me, or are our language standards falling? Every day I seem to notice examples of poor communication. My husband once had a client whose email communications were written with a carefree disregard for most of the basics - grammar, punctuation, good manners - and with the same sloppiness and informality he might use to text his mates and invite them to the pub. And he considered himself a businessman.

I'm talking about a paucity of self-expression, an inability - or a disinclination - to use our wonderful language to the best of our abilities. Trying to do business in the language of the text seems unprofessional, not to say counter-productive: how can you expect to get what you want when you're not prepared to communicate clearly what that is? It also seems disrespectful, both to the language and to the recipient of the message. Perhaps this reflects on a growing lack of respect within society generally?

In his 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell created the concept of 'Newspeak'. This was a system of repression, where words were gradually made to disappear from the language to limit the citizens' imaginations, and therefore their activites and behaviour. For instance, the word 'revolution' was deleted, the theory being that if the word did not exist, people would not even be able to conceive of the idea of revolution. 

I do sometimes wonder whether we might be imposing a form of Newspeak on ourselves without even realising it: if the only contact we have with our own language is through the limitations of the text message, are we not in danger of limiting our imaginations, and our creativity, too?

In neglecting the huge potential for expression open to us through our native tongue, perhaps we are also limiting our ability to appreciate the riches of the world around us, to share that appreciation with others, and to grow in the process. But it takes practice. Like a muscle, it needs to be exercised and challenged to be kept in optimum shape. Perhaps language is like the human body or the human mind: if you don't use it, you are in danger of losing it.

It's a bit depressing, isn't it? So here is a YouTube clip from the episode of The Good Life I referred to earlier. The dinner party scene is at 4'30", although it is well worth seeing all the way through. Enjoy!



  1. I agree that we are sliding towards a kind of "Newspeak" with brevity the goal rather than repression. And I also agree--we should use it, lest we lose it! Interesting post, Sophie :)

  2. Hello Elizabeth. It's lovely of you to drop by.

    Sometimes I think it's just me, or that I'm getting old and grumpy or something, so it's very reassuring to find someone who shares my concerns!

    Thank you again for popping by!

    All the best,

  3. Hello myboundlessandlawlessperceptions! Thank you very much for your comment. It's always lovely to see new visitors here!

    Best wishes,

  4. Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations. They have been out and about, on people's lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries. Applying correct word at the correct situation is very necessary. To get a hand over vocabulary get in touch with