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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2004-08-1)

Language seems to be under discussion more frequently of late, perhaps because it’s under dire stress.

In his book Beyond Supernature, published in 1986, Lyall Watson remarks that “There are around half a million words in the English language, but a recent statistical study of telephone speech discovered that 96% of all conversation over the wires consists of just 737 different words. This retreat into stock phrases is a cause for real concern. It is not only dull and predictable, but could be warping our view of reality.”

This is precisely the situation envisaged by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty Four, published in 1948, in which he described a totalitarian future state where language has been brutally simplified with just that object in mind – altering the world-view of the population. The only favourable adjective is “good”, which can be intensified to “plusgood” and “doubleplusgood”. Its opposite is “ungood”, with similar degrees of comparison. The people of this state live in a condition of mindless subservience to the government, partly because they cannot articulate anything but the simplest thoughts.

Enter Bill Cosby, expressing some blunt opinions about the street language of young black Americans: “Civil rights campaigners marched and were hit in the face with rocks to get an education and now we’ve got these knuckleheads who can’t speak English. You can’t be a doctor with that kind of crap coming out of your mouth.”

He was quoted in a recent article in the London Daily Telegraph by Lynne Truss, whom I mentioned in No.52 of this series. She also quotes the publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary as saying that “half the people using it these days are stumped by the difference between “reign” and “rein”, and “pouring” and “poring”. She goes on, “I am heartened to hear that people are looking things up in dictionaries at all. I have been told repeatedly that everyone now relies on spell-checker programmes, just as they rely on grammar-checkers for their punctuation.”

So we seem to be faced with a predicament where people struggle first to understand the world around them because they lack the vocabulary to describe it, and then to make themselves understood because they cannot express what limited thoughts they have. Lynne Truss again: “‘Ah, but does it matter, so long as we get the gist?’ they ask, as if saying something original and profound. ‘Is conveying a gist the highest aim of language?’ I ask (sometime a bit emotionally).”

She goes on to discuss that sorry means of communication, the SMS, whose rudimentary shorthand is creeping into school written work, according to a South African teacher. An English essay can contain the word “gr8” and a phrase like “2 hard 4 U”. “Thanks” is spelt “Tx”. What really depresses me is that local schools seem to have given up the struggle against illiteracy. In Act I of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth reads a letter from her husband describing his meeting with the three witches and their prophecies. A pupil I know, in her last year of school, was told to reconstruct this letter as an SMS message. I still cannot imagine why.

Meanwhile, there is still some entertainment to be found in the world of spell-checker journalism. The following are from our Durban morning newspaper in the last couple of weeks:

“…a senior police officer and a judge determined to trek Brossard down” … “These buses have air suspensions [and] anti-lock breaking systems” … “As far as crime is concerned, the government appears to be soft-peddling” … "They removed their clothes after threatening them."

And this from a radio journalist at an AIDS conference in Thailand: “South Africa came in for criticism for its unconsolably high death-rate.” I think the original speaker must have said “unconscionably”, which means “outrageously”. But that isn’t a word often used, and I think the reporter simply panicked and used the only word she knew that looked something like it. (And then she got it wrong.)

Keep the banners flying. We are not alone.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




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