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russell smith: on culture

A couple of years ago, the British actor and wit Stephen Fry published a podcast titled Don't Mind Your Language, in which he discussed the origins of his own linguistic style. In one segment, the kernel of the argument, I think, he excoriated language pedants - in particular the grumpy, manners-obsessed followers of Lynne Truss and John Humphrys - and made a plea for freedom and sensual play in language as opposed to rules and condescension.

This part of the essay, a few polemical paragraphs about common grammatical peeves - largely inspired by the books of linguists such as Stephen Pinker - was more recently turned into a pretty little animation using moving letters. The animation is something its creator, a young Australian named Matt Rogers, calls kinetic typography.

It was through this video, now posted on YouTube, that I first came across Fry's lecture. The video doesn't add anything to the substance of the piece, but it is a quick way to get to Fry's point.

It is, as usual for Fry, a wonderfully rambling, eloquent and amusing reflection. It's not terribly original, but it does a great job of popularizing ideas more densely put by French philosophers. The argument is essentially that "there is no right or wrong language any more than there are right or wrong clothes." (A sensitive comparison in the upper classes of Britain, of course, where there are indeed views on right and wrong clothes.)

He wants no part in the campaigns against correct apostrophes in signage, or the use of "less" and "fewer" in newspapers: "Yes, I am aware of the technical distinction between less and fewer and uninterested and disinterested and infer and imply and all the rest of them but none of these are of importance to me."

The use of the plural verb "are" with the singular subject "none" is, he stresses, deliberate - a proud, mature shedding of his former pedantic identity. He is all in favour of "action" as a verb ("He actioned it at the meeting"), since nouns have been verbed since Shakespeare and before. People find "to action" ugly only because it is new.

Of people who insist on conventional grammar, he asks: "But do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss?" (He refrains from asking if they ever crib shamelessly from the opening of Lolita.)

Fry has been accused of being disingenuous, because of course it is rare for speakers to be so virtuosic and ludic with language without first knowing the rules they dismiss. Fry's own grammar and punctuation are utterly conventional (even his accent is Received Pronunciation, a.k.a. the Queen's English). Still, he is right about most of the silly obsessions he uses as examples: disinterested has come to mean uninterested, and there is no longer any lack of clarity in its use. Nobody misunderstands when you say "less" instead of "fewer". (I would bet an elbow, however, that he himself would never use these words in their more recent senses.)

But I don't understand why he thinks one can't be punctilious in punctuation and poetic in polemics at the same time. After all, he is.

The dichotomy between the playful and the learned is a false one. Most importantly, it is strange for someone who claims an obsession with the aesthetic to ignore the aesthetic possibilities that come from having the widest possible range of subtly differing words and constructions. For with each of the metamorphoses he describes comes an extinction.

When "uninterested" and "disinterested" mean the same thing, then we have lost a word: not a necessary word, by any means, but how many words are necessary? I lament every vanishing word, for each minutely differing word adds a colour to our enormous palette, and with that vast palette we can paint the wildest pictures.

Yes, the linguistic landscape changes as does the architectural landscape - but we feel sad when we lose our ancient cathedrals and statues, no matter how irrelevant they are to contemporary values. And we can have it all - we can have "infer" and "imply" and "actioning" too. We don't have to choose between an old language and a new.

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