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Fried words (ou, em albanês, “Estevão fritando presuntos, desancando em presunçosos usos das palavras, ressalvando alguma luz que da escrita ainda pode ressaltar”)

por JQ, em 17.07.15

“ […] For me it is a cause of some upset that more Anglophones don’t enjoy language. Music is enjoyable, it seems, so are dance and other athletic forms of movement. People seem to be able to find sensual and sensuous pleasure in almost anything but words these days. Words, it seems, belong to other people. Anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed. The free and happy use of words appears to be considered elitist or pretentious.

 

Sadly, desperately sadly, the only people who seem to bother with language in public today bother with it in quite the wrong way. They write letters to broadcasters and newspapers in which they are rude and haughty about other people’s usage and in which they show off their own superior ‘knowledge’ of how language should be. I hate that, and I particularly hate the fact that so many of these pedants assume that I’m on their side.

 

When asked to join in a “”let’s persuade this supermarket chain to get rid of their five items or less’ sign” I never join in. Yes, I am aware of the technical distinction between «less» and «fewer», and between «uninterested» and «disinterested», and «infer» and «imply», and all the rest of them, but none of these are of importance to me. None of these are of importance, I wrote there, you’ll notice the old pedantic in me would have insisted on none of them is of importance.

 

Well I’m glad to say I’ve outgrown that silly approach to language. Oscar Wilde, and there have been few greater and more complete lords of language in the past thousand years, once included with a manuscript he was delivering to his publishers a compliment slip in which he had scribbled the injunction: ”I’ll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, wills and shalls, thats and whiches, &c.” which gives us all encouragement to feel less guilty, don’t you think?

 

There are all kinds of pedants around with more time to read and imitate Lynne Truss and John Humphrys than to write poems, love-letters, novels and stories it seems. They whip out their sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it.

 

They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than the perfect use of the apostrophe. Well sod them to Hades! They think they’re guardians of language. They’re no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind. And the worst of this sorry bunch of semi-educated losers are those who seem to glory in being irritated by nouns becoming verbs. How dense and deaf to language development do you have to be? If you don’t like nouns becoming verbs, then for heaven’s sake avoid Shakespeare who made a doing-word out of a thing-word every chance he got.

 

He tabled the motion and chaired the meeting in which nouns were made verbs. I suppose new examples from our time might take some getting used to: He actioned it that day for instance might strike some as a verbing too far, but we have been sanctioning, envisioning, propositioning and stationing for a long time, so why not actioning? Because it’s ugly, whinge the pedants. It’s only ugly because it’s new and you don’t like it. Ugly in the way Picasso, Stravinsky and Eliot were once thought ugly and, before them, Monet, Mahler and Baudelaire.

 

Pedants will also claim, with what I am sure is eye-popping insincerity and shameless disingenuousness, that their fight is only for clarity.This is all very well, but there is no doubt what «Five items or less» means, just as only a dolt can’t tell from the context and from the age and education of the speaker, whether «disinterested» is used in the proper sense of non-partisan, or in the improper sense of «uninterested». No, the claim to be defending language for the sake of clarity almost never, ever holds water. Nor does the idea that following grammatical rules in language demonstrates clarity of thought and intelligence of mind.

 

Having said this, I admit that if you want to communicate well for the sake of passing an exam or job interview, then it is obvious that wildly original and excessively heterodox language could land you in the soup. I think what offends examiners and employers, when confronted with extremely informal, unpunctuated and haywire language, is the implication of not caring that underlies it. You slip into a suit for an interview and you dress your language up, too. You can wear what you like linguistically or sartorially when you’re at home or with friends, but most people accept the need to smarten up under some circumstances it’s only considerate. But that is an issue of fitness, of suitability, it has nothing to do with correctness.

 

There is no right language or wrong language any more than are right or wrong clothes. Context, convention and circumstance are all. […] There’s no right or wrong in language, any more than there’s right or wrong in nature. Evolution is all about restless and continuous change, mutation and variation.

 

What was once meant in the animal kingdom to be a nose can end up as an antenna, a tongue, eyes, a pair of lips or a blank space once evolution and the permutation of new DNA and new conditions has got to work. If the foulness of the Kennel Club mentality was operated in Nature just imagine giraffes’ necks wouldn’t be allowed to stretch, camels wouldn’t get humps, such alterations would be wrong.

 

Well it’s the same in language, there’s no right or wrong, only usage. Convention exists, of course it does, but convention is no more a register of rightness or wrongness than etiquette is, it’s just another way of saying usage: convention is a privately agreed usage rather than a publicly evolving one. Conventions alter, too, like life. Things that are kept to purity of line, in the Kennel Club manner, develop all the ghastly illnesses and deformations of inbreeding and lack of vital variation.

 

Imagine if we all spoke the same language, fabulous as it is, as Dickens? Imagine if the structure, meaning and usage of language was always the same as when Swift and Pope were alive. Superficially appealing as an idea for about five seconds, but horrifying the more you think about it. If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that correct use I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be.

 

But above all let there be pleasure. Let there be textural delight, let there be silken words and flinty words and sodden speeches and soaking speeches and crackling utterance and utterance that quivers and wobbles like rennet. Let there be rapid firecracker phrases and language that oozes like a lake of lava. Words are your birthright. Unlike music, painting, dance and raffia work, you don’t have to be taught any part of language or buy any equipment to use it, all the power of it was in you from the moment the head of daddy’s little wiggler fused with the wall of mummy’s little bubble.

 

So if you’ve got it, use it. Don’t be afraid of it, don’t believe it belongs to anyone else, don’t let anyone bully you into believing that there are rules and secrets of grammar and verbal deployment that you are not privy to. Don’t be humiliated by dinosaurs into thinking yourself inferior because you can’t spell broccoli or moccasins. Just let the words fly from your lips and your pen. Give them rhythm and depth and height and silliness. Give them filth and form and noble stupidity. Words are free and all words, light and frothy, firm and sculpted as they may be, bear the history of their passage from lip to lip over thousands of years. How they feel to us now tells us whole stories of our ancestors. […]

 

I do not look forward to your thoughts on which inaccuracies and grammatical mistakes ’irritate you though. This is not Feedback on Radio 4, or the letters page of the Daily Telegraph. Oh alright, I take that back. You are welcome, of course, to disagree with my dislike of pedantry and to attempt to convince me that there is correct ’and incorrect English.

 

If I were to direct you to any books about language, I would certainly recommend Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, but above that I would rate Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language. This brilliant linguist mocks pedantry and the idea of stasis in language with far greater elegance and knowledge than I can. His informed empiricism, in this reader’s opinion, knocks the sometimes tortuously conjectural rationalism of Pinker into a cocked hat. But don’t feel the need to study language as a subject, the sheer act of reading and of writing and of talking is enough. And this too is enough. I shall stop now before I get all…… oh, it’s too late, I’ve already got all… Until the next time, fellow linguists, thank you and goodbye.”

 

Stephen Fry, 2008

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