“WHERE HAS THE LANGUAGE GONE?”: A CONVERSATION.

Questioner: Excuse me, I am looking for language. Where can I find it?

Answerer:”I’m not sure what you mean. You are using language.

Q: Yes but where is the centre of the language I am using ?

A: Ah get a good dictionary. The Oxford one has a good reputation.!

Q: Yes, I have seen that. But it just gives me words and their meanings.

A : Ah, so you must need a book of grammar!

Q: That gives me the rules but it still doesn’t tell me where the centre is.

A: Again I am not with you. The English language is words in the minds of people who speak English. Likewise the French language is in the heads of French people. And so it goes on.

Q: So language is just subjective?

A: Yes and no. We need dictionaries to tell us the correct words and grammar to tell us the correct grammar. And language is public and it is important that it is used to tell truth and not lies. Hence all the controversy about fake news.

Q: So language is both subjective and objective, private and public.?

A: Yes. It’s rather like money. You have it in your pocket-it’s your private possession but then you take it out to buy something in public, in the market place. Langage is like currency. It’s in your head but it is also shared with others.

Q. : So, like the currency has or, at least had, the gold standard to give it official status and guarantee its validity, language has the dictionary and the grammar book.

A: Ah, now you’ve got it!

Q. : But no I haven’t!. I haven’t got to the centre of it yet. The dictionary is just lists of words and the grammar book is just rules to do with use. I guess I mean not so much language as individual words, but words in thinking, words in speech. Where does language in speech centre?

A: I’m baffled at what you mean. There are millions of dialogues , conversations, group discussions going on all the time. There is no centre, there is just development.

Q: So are there models of good speech, are there speech modes that guide people?

A: Well, there are examples of good speaking! There is received pronunciation. There is Queen’s English . There is great oratory-like say Winston Churchill. There is poetry. There are phrases from great books like the Bible or Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer or Shakespeare that have seeped into the language. Do you mean that kind of thing?

Q : Well that’s getting closer!

A: The thing is, these kind of models operate on people less and less. They are not so fashionable. No one bothers if you speak proper or not. Perhaps we are more democratic today and don’t need models. Or perhaps we live such fast lives we don’t develop speech as an art anymore. Perhaps its new electronic technology that affects laguage and the way we use it and it is all very much more streamlined.

Q: Now here’s a thing. All these speeches you referred to, going on all the time-as they have done in every era, carry with them evaluations what is good, what is bad, what is cool. fashionable. That is they carry with them moral implications of the good and the bad; right and wrong. The society of the day gives a certain weight of approval or disapproval to these valuations. They may vary according to political views etc.- one person might be politically correct in their speech. Another might be deliberately provocative. Is that right?

A: Yes as long as you accept- as towards the end of what you said- there that these “evaluations”, as you call them, will be tremendously various.

Q: Now before that you said something tremendously interesting. You mentioned Churchill but also great works of literature like Shakespeare and also having religious significance like the Bible and Cranmer. Apart from Churchill, did you notice all these works stemmed from around the Elizabethan age- a little before with Cranmer , a little after with the Authorised Version?.

A: Yes, but nowadays you don’t hear the Authorised Version even in church . They all use modern translations with up to date commonplace language, not so much for the public voice. Cranmer is rare. Shakespeare, too, may be popular but is a minority interest.

Q: Exactly. Now for centuries English centred there. The language of the Bible, of Cranmer and what his language made of the language of marriage-“for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish and forsaking all other” and funerals: “Rest eternal grant unto them, O lord; and let light perpetual shine upon them.” This language and its rhythms penetrated the lives of everyone, whether they attended church or not because they still got married and went to funerals. It did not mean they held to the valuations but the valuations were known to them. Shakespeare too is all about the moral evaluations of an immense array of characters. He would have been known to the educated. Remember the character in Jane Austen who said,” Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is part of an Englishman’s consitution.” And this language of strong moral evaluation was carried on by the great poets and writers. But now if all that is gone I repeat the question: “Where does English centre? Where is or are the great public forums where the language is most profoundly alive as it was alive and is still alive in Cranmer, Shakespeare, the Authorised Version created for public worship. Where is the real English now ? Where does it centre? “

A: I’m afraid I cannot answer that.

Published by alan

As a retired lecturer in English Literature with the Open University I continue to run reading groups on our literary heritage. This blog seeks to interest readers in enjoying and thinking about a wide range of classic novels, plays and poems

2 thoughts on ““WHERE HAS THE LANGUAGE GONE?”: A CONVERSATION.

  1. Where does English centre? In essays, courtrooms, poetry, literature, in discussions around cafe tables, by hospital beds, parents with their children – English is concentric and has evolved from Chaucer, Shakespeare et al in ever increasing circles adapting, growing developing……wherever people are talking writing putting their lives into words

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  2. The question is where is the centre of English. There are loads of examples of good English as you point out mainly because they have developed from a tradition of what is good and are seeking to extend it. Extending from what ; and from what tradition-where is it centred?. Whrere is the central charge of significance coming from.? Writers like Ali Smith, Zadie Smith, Jeanette Winterton are v. conscious of writing in a tradition and seeking to extend it. Smith praises Henry James’ sentences. Zadie Smith created “Beauty” working out an idea from E. M. Forster’s “Howard’s End. Jeanetter Winterton praised the influence of the KJV on her working class Lancashire community. There are also lots of signs that business English, utility English, Bureacratic English, technology orientated English abstract English and English affected by extreme political activism are all combining to stifle the power of the language- hence the vital importance of the question: where is the gold standard of the currency centred. .

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