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Chibiabos83

The beauty of language

For all Stephen Fry's general marvellousness, his website has tended to leave a lot to be desired. Happily it's undergone a revamp recently, and is now bright and shiny and user-friendly. Visiting it today, I was struck by his most recent blog entry, which I am sure will appeal to many here once they have joined.

http://www.stephenfry.com/blog/?p=64
Evie

Wow, that's a truly fantastic article.  Thanks, Chibiabos!  I do look at the Blessed Stephen's website from time to time, but hadn't seen that.  The man really is a genius.

I *knew* there was something not quite right, not quite smart enough, about that 'One nation under CCTV' slogan, but hadn't thought enough about what it was that was wrong - and he has absolutely spelled it out!  Wonderful.
TheRejectAmidHair

I was reading that and thinking to myself; "Bloody hell! And I thought I wrote long posts!"

Entertaining as always, but I don't know that I'd go along with everything in there. Of course language changes with usage - 'twas ever thus. But is it pedantry to object to the use of "infer" when what was intended was "imply"? For surely, if "infer" becomes commonly understood to mean "imply", what word should I use when I actually want to say (and mean) "infer"?

"Deduce," I hear you all say, "use the word deduce".

But at this rate the word deduce will probably have started to mean something else as well.

I think that's my worry: in our fast-moving world, changes come so quickly (usually from igorance rather than from that ludic delight in the possibilities of language that Mr Fry so obviously relishes) that we risk linguistic anarchy. No-one denies that language is far more than a means of communication, but even to say so is to imply (or do I mean infer?) that language is, still, a means of communication. And if "infer" is understood to mean the same as "imply", and if such transfigurations take place faster than fuddy-duddies such as myself can hope to keep up with, then, I'd argue, the efficacy of language as a means of communication is compromised.

Be creative with language by all means. Mr Fry can be creative because he has a good grasp of language to start with. But I'd question how creative one can be with language (or with anything else, for that matter) if one lacks that good grasp to start with.
MikeAlx

My feelings are very similar to yours, Himadri. I don't mind change, but I do mind loss of clarity. The whole point of language is to distinguish between things - indeed Saussure's entire theory is built on the idea that words don't map directly onto things, but rather distinguish classes of things from other classes of things. This is evident in the way that different languages partition the world differently: sheep does not have exactly the same meaning as mouton, because you can eat mouton but you can't eat sheep (only mutton/lamb).

It seems to me that this distinguishing ability of language is compromised when lazy or muddle-headed usage creeps in.

The evolution analogy is interesting - it's worth remembering that natural selection has evolved most species to the point where the reproduction mechanism has error-checking built in at various levels. Genetic drift is kept to an acceptably low rate - too much mutation and you risk a population wipe-out. Perhaps, after all, we pedants are the guardians of evolution rather than its enemies!
Chibiabos83

Though I wouldn't like to suggest he didn't know his own mind, I wonder if Fry's objection isn't more to the spirit of petty pedantry than to a stubborn resistance to the evolution of language. I think most of us can appreciate the benefits of making a distinction between imply and infer, deny and refute etc., even if I'm not always sure whether what I am saying makes semantic sense.
Evie

Yes, I agree with you, Gareth.  I remember him talking once before about having little time for those who write to R4 about using 'less' when they should use 'fewer', which is a particular bugbear of mine - but I am quite enjoying becoming a reformed pedant!

I do take Himadri's point that SF is talking from a point of view of understanding and loving and appreciating language, in both its technical and aesthetic sense - I am not sure SF has really taken that on board - though maybe he has, far be it from me to question his intelligence on any level!  But I also think both that language does need to have flexibility, and also that there are more important things to worry about - we need to encourage people to care about language rather than making them feel that what comes out of their mouths or pens is simply wrong.  Language is a tool, not an absolute measure.  Lots of words have changed their meaning over the centuries.

It's a fascinating subject, though.  Things will continue to annoy me - as they clearly do him - but I think he is right to try to make language less of a problem and more of an adventure.
TheRejectAmidHair

I think a distinction needs to be made between, on the one hand, Picasso distorting the human figure because he takes a delight in the possibilities of shapes and forms and in different ways of seeing things, and, on the other hand, me distorting the human figure because I can't draw.

One only has to look around the net for only a few seconds - look through the various blogs and messageboards - and you come across people who have no business to be writing anything, because they have not the slightest ability to put even the simplest of thoughts into words. Indeed, reading some of the stuff that gets posted, one wonders whether it is muddled thinking that leads to muddled prose, or whether it is poor grasp of language that leads to incoherence of thought. Let us not pretend that, in these cases, the lack of grammatical correctness has anything to do with creative use of language.

And while creative use of language can be exhilarating, it is hardly the sole criterion when judging the quality of prose. When I want to communicate certain specific thoughts and ideas, then my overriding concern is clarity; and the more complex the thought, the clearer I need to be.

I think I'm with Mr Fry in objecting to petty pedantry - but I nonetheless want to make the case that not all pedantry is necessarily petty!
Greywolf

Fry has little time for pedants who complain about "ugly" new words. Is there a case for the new texting vocabulary? (eg Imit8 or luv or nvr)

It's fast, it's up to date, it's shorthand - and outside the mobile phone I loathe it beyond belief!! I do hope this board will never descend to its use here.

Cool
Chibiabos83

I suspect even he would draw the line there!
Greywolf

I post on other boards and am irritated beyond measure to see the widespread use of texting. Poor spelling is tolerable - we can't all spell well. But texting in such places is simply lazy and an insult to those to whom (grammar) it is addressed.

So my hope is that whoever moderates the posts will bar all texted versions.

Cool
Chibiabos83

We will have to judge each case on its own merits, but there hasn't been an issue with txt spk on these boards for a very long time. I doubt it will be a problem.
Evie

I hate text language too, and would certainly make every effort to keep this board free of it.

I can see various angles of the original conundrum, about pedantry.  But I think Stephen Fry's comparison with the Kennel Club is a good one - if you try to keep things too pure and correct, you end up with something sterile and overbred.
Chibiabos83

Yes, what seems to exercise him more than those who misuse English are those who appoint themselves guardians of the language. It's a good thing to try to be accurate in one's language, but the pendulum can go too far in that direction - I don't know if it's still the case, but I believe there used to be a government-appointed body in France charged solely with protecting the heritage of the French language (presumably avoiding travesties like the German downloaden etc.). I'm glad there's no such tyranny here.
MikeAlx

I don't want to steer this thread into the kind of quibbling that gets SF's goat, but the latest thing to annoy me is people saying podcasted for the past tense of the verb to podcast. It's so ugly and so wrong! You wouldn't say I casted the nets, it's I cast the nets. Grrrrr...!!
Greywolf

One of the many reasons why I'm proud to be English is the language. I love it because it's such a mongrel, made up of thousands of different forefathers and a million offhand couplings!

Yes,  its misuse often annoys me, but (and I speak as one who taught Modern Languages all his life) nothing but nothing can match the English language "on song".

Cool
Caro

I find text language irritating too and in part I know this is because I am an old-fashioned fuddy-duddy.  But I also find it very slow to read - it might be quick to write but it is has to be deciphered to read (I find even formal England without the capitals etc is much slower for me to read and I find it hard to get the sense of it).  To me text language is a variant of English to the degree that it is a separate language really, almost like Pidgin English.  I have considerable admiration for people who can use it so readily, but using it in a forum which generally uses fairly formal English seems to be muddying the waters.  

(But I am the sort of person who would be happy to go everyone's posts and correct the spelling and punctuation!)  As regards pedantry I like the differentiation between things like less and fewer, but when I read a book on this sort of language things, I am surprised at how many I am unaware of.  Real pedants must find everyday writing huge exercise in irritatants.  I do tend to avoid 'due to' because I am a little uncertain of its correct use.  And I have said before that Bill Bryson considered the correct use of 'meticulous' to have a slight pejorative feel.  I haven't seen any other suggestion of that, however.  

Cheers, Caro.
Vita

I get irritated by the need  some have to meddle with perfectly acceptable and understandable words.
For example, sometime back we were told not to refer to the people we addressed in our classes as students ( true, some of them appeared to do very little in the way of studying!) from then on they were to be termed learners. I can't say that has really taken hold except in the more formal documents and presentations by the CEO; between ourselves we still call them students - well, when we are being gracious we do!
Now rumour has it that those learners who have returned to college after sometime in employment are no longer to be described as mature students as that has ageist (clumsy word!) connotations. Apparently they are now to be 'non-mainstream'. How daft is that? Having been a mature student many times over and across decades of my life I never found it offensive and I can't say anyone else I know did. I would far rather be described in terms of something which I am than something which I am not.  
Can't say I am a great fan of words prefixed by 'non' except perhaps for nondescript and of course, nonsense!  Rolling Eyes
Evie

I was told to call my mature students 'participants'.  It is all crazy, isn't it?!  They mostly refer to themselves as students...as you say, I have yet to meet anyone who was offended by being called either mature or a student!
Greywolf

When I was teaching they were always my pupils. I find the word has a ring to it going back centuries and conferring a status of privilege and deference and an ordered enquiring mind.

Student can be too easily debased - student of life, for example, a meaningless concept or at best a synonym for "idle b****r".

The neologisms above render me speechless with distaste.  Shocked

Cool
Billy the Fish

I was going to attempt starting a new thread with this comment, but since this thread is here already I'll just stick it here and wait for more inspiration to come.

Without wishing to come over all Havishamesque (where is he, by the way? Did the river whose bridge he lived under flood?), I don't think the problem is confined to youngsters with their textspeak (the newspeak de nos jours) or celebrities with the unending garbage that comes out of their mouths.

For instance, when a newspaper like The Guardian has to regularly print corrections and clarifications regarding their misleading or cranky use of language, why pick on the comics that pass for newspapers to everyone else?

The point I really wanted to raise is the declining standard of subediting that I'm coming across in books recently. I've just finished Fat Tuesday by Gary Davidson, who no-one will have heard of as he's a debut writer for a small regional press, which in a way forgives the two glaring spelling errors I spotted in the book: Michael Cain for Michael Caine, and Jagermeister for Jaegermeister or Jagermeister with the umlaut which I don't seem to be able to find on my keyboard. Being as these are proper names though, I don't see how they could be missed apart from through careless use of a spell-checker.

More amazing was The Worst Journey In The World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in the Pimlico edition; littered with substitutions in the same (ie, spellchecker) fashion (sadly, just by flicking through, I can't find a single example; oh well).

I'd always assumed that 'correct' texts such as 'Worst Journey...' were held on some kindof printing file and just whizzed off in a standard way, so how mistakes creep in is beyond me.

This also reminds me of an argument I saw somewhere about the phrase 'free reign' and how you tell traditionalists from modernists - is it possible it was on a predecessor of this board? - ie, traditionalists will insist on 'free reign' but reformers will allow 'free rein' as making exactly the same sense and also being probably what most people would have thought how the phrae originated these days anyway.

I'm conscious in a thread about language, that mine is garbled and obscure and goes nowhere near making the point I wanted. Tsk! Thank heavens I can now edit.....
Caro

That, of course, is not so much the fault of the sub-editors as of their bosses, Billy.  I write for a community paper which comes out weekly on Thursdays.  We used to have a deadline of Wednesday lunchtime for this; now it has changed to Tuesday lunchtime.  Staff cuts by the parent body, Australian-owned Fairfax, have meant that there is no longer a specific department for the community papers so they have to manage with the one sub-editor doing everything.  (Fairfax have enough money to buy TradeMe (NZ's very popular version of Ebay) for NZ400 million dollars, but not enough to pay me more than $10 for a photo and not enough to hold onto its sub-editors.)

Having said that I have memories of some damned silly changes by sub-editors which have changed my perfectly all right text to something unreadable.  Or once they changed a hanging participle which no one would have noticed really to a new phrase which meant they referred to a male as 'she', which of course everyone notices and assumes is my fault.   There are also times when I have seen some stupid mistake in my printed text and am ready to moan about the sub-editing when I realise that it how I sent it through and while maybe they should have picked it up I have no one to blame but myself.

Cheers, Caro.
Now let's hope that is not too full of typos.

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