Our dear mother English

August 17, 2010

LESS NOISE PLEASE – photograph by Liz Mathews

Certain words – solace, grace, benediction – recur when people describe why certain works of art are precious to them.  Poetry is often invoked as a specific against the sorrows of life, and a part of its beauty; an expression of the otherwise unsayable and a way of approaching some sort of understanding of these things.  It is a better way of communicating certain thoughts than any other, even when we acknowledge the common fact that words carry a freight of association and variant meaning which weighs differently for each individual.  Obviously, our diversity of experience, not to mention the flexibility of meaning, makes even accepted language an approximate conveyer of ideas, at best.

Literature has always exploited this private language within everyone, both to portray misunderstanding or failure of communication, and also to say more, many things at once, or even opposing things simultaneously.  The exposure of the writer’s own associations of words, the translation out of the inner language, has created some of the most powerful writing ever.  The individual freight words carry, their differentness for each reader, is one of the writer’s greatest opportunities.

When I was working in a gallery, I had a difficult encounter with a Christian who would not accept that the words ‘heaven’, ‘blessing’ or ‘holy’ should be used in any other artistic context than a strictly Christian one (even though the artwork in question quoted a direct translation from classical Greek…).  Eventually we got to the stage where he said that it wasn’t appropriate for non-Christians to listen to a Mozart mass, apparently under the impression that the whole of Western art was his private patrimony, closed to all but a minority of the world.

To suggest that words are not the property of any sect, or forbidden to any other community, is hardly a radical statement.  But it’s complicated, in practice, by the holiness – if I may use the word – of certain words to certain people, in their own particular sense.  In this place where such rich possibilities of poetry lie, even as I insist on the validity of my own reading, I must acknowledge the possibility of other, different ones.

This causes problems for the writer not so much in these attempts to own words (a completely futile effort), but the kidnap of words for sullying uses.  There are a proliferation of dead contemporary jargons which diminish the richness of words, strip them of their associations, leave them without a homeland or a history.  (We all use these non-words in the sterile language of computers, for example, which once offered a truly Elizabethan opportunity to coin new words, but instead took a sinister delight in misusing old ones.) This is the opposite of the genuine secret tongues of trades and places, esoteric words or dialects whose words gradually enrich the common language.

Foreign imports, such as the borrowings the French try to exclude from their official speech, are also a vibrant sign of life that might as well be welcomed, since to police the immigration boundaries here is a doomed enterprise, a struggle against history.  Real slang, which is also part of the development of a language, can be incredibly useful to a writer – like the other specialist languages, especially when it tells its own story of place or background.  The disadvantage is that it freeze-frames at a certain period; in a skilled writer the catchphrases of their own era are marked, so that the later reader can understand their significance and laugh or wince as appropriate.  But if it isn’t a Jane Austen or George Eliot, it can be hard work to disentangle.

But it’s the blatant kidnap that makes real difficulties for a contemporary writer.  How can we use words purely, honestly, with faith in their power, (even in the knowledge of their diverse meanings), when they are taken in vain with such routine extremism?  Margarine called ‘pure’, drinks called ‘innocent’, tampons called ‘liberty’, shoes called ‘freedom’, all attempt to subvert the poetic use of language to commercial ends.  Unfortunately, everyone now understands that ‘home’ is a place on the computer, ‘family’ means a larger size, and ‘urban’ is a black version of something that is ‘beach’ when it’s flowery.  Imagine trying to write a poem, then deciding to avoid the word ‘word’ because a computer programme is called that.

But, in wanting to defend the joint stock of our common language against such corruptions, am I too making an attempt to own the words myself?  The only way forward, for a writer, is to make a resolution to speak one’s own language with all its personal associations, private messages, local words, idiosyncracies, embedded quotations, dialect usages, and all, while remaining open to other voices, whose words may differently weighted.  And then, to resist the rest.

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One Response to “Our dear mother English”


  1. You are so right about the blatant kidnap and corruption. What about
    ‘Turning passion into products’
    the deeply depressing tagline of Hidden Art (www.hiddenart.co.uk)? If they think that’s a good thing to do, it’s hard to know how to begin to tell them what’s wrong with it.


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