Sunday, 1 February 2009

fry's language

Yesterday I spent a very enjoyable hour walking the dog and listening to a superb podcast by Stephen Fry on the theme of language. I make no apologies for being a fan of Mr Fry. His reading of the Harry Potter series on audio cd has guaranteed our family many hours of hassle free travelling in the car. He is an occasional reviewer and blogger for The Guardian technology section and his observations about new gadgets and innovations (e.g. Twitter) are helpful because he writes as an everyday punter. I enjoy watching Q.I., which he presents for the BBC, and his acting in films as diverse as Gosford Park and V for Vendetta.

Anyway, Fry’s latest podcast is a celebration of the pleasure of language. About half way through he slips into a rant against the pendants who expend their energies campaigning for the proper use of language and asks why they don’t do something more creative with their time. Fry suggests that these people are no more the true guardians of language than the Kennel Club is of dogs. For Fry language is constantly evolving and he argues that we should luxuriate in using it, not hedge it in and crush it with ‘rules’ which in most cases are no more than conventions.

There are times when the rules of language are important. My wife is a lawyer and is trained to use language in a very precise way; a misplaced comma can make all the difference to the interpretation of a contract. Fry accepts this yet argues that all to often those upholding the rules do so not out of a love for language or because the context demands it but out of an over inflated sense of their own importance and to denigrate others. These people do not love language, they are squeezing the joy and pleasure out of language.

One of my delights at the moment is reading my young children’s stories and listening to them explore language in conversation. My son is continually asking what words mean and my daughter pushing the boundaries of her vocabulary in her writing. I guess in this I am no different from many parents though I have to remind myself not to take it for granted. When my son was very young and attending the health clinic for a check up, my wife was asked whether he had started to construct simple sentences like ‘that is a dog‘. Kate didn’t have the heart to tell the questioner that on the way to the clinic my son had looked out of the car window and said ‘look Mummy there’s a Dalmatian over there’. Occasionally I sigh at my children’s misspelt words or inaccurate punctuation and then I stop and rejoice that they want to experiment in their use of language. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want them to learn how to spell or to understand grammatical rules, simply that those things are tools to be used in serving their love of language and not chains to bind and restrict them.

Fry recommends Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language but concludes his podcast with the following:
‘Don’t feel the need to study language as a subject. The sheer act of reading, writing, talking and listening is enough.’

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