Stephen Fry on Language

Just over two years ago, renowned, brilliant, English dandy Stephen Fry released a podcast of an essay he’d written about the English language. It is brimming with ideas and pronouncements and history, and more importantly, celebrates a mutable language:

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. 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 ‘action’? ‘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 no right language or wrong language any more than are right or wrong clothes. Context, convention and circumstance are all.

Of course, it wasn’t the first time he’s visited the topic – here he is with Hugh Laurie many moons ago in their show A bit of Fry and Laurie, and it’s pleasing to note that he’s willing to admit that he thinks differently on the subject compared to his younger self. He also has a show on BBC Radio 4 called Fry’s English Delight, which I’ve not heard but am looking forward to downloading.

The essay and podcast produced such a flurry of excitement that someone eventually took the three main paragraphs – the finest six minutes of the original 33 – and made a video using kinetic typography.

One of the beauties of twitter is that we can know things so much more readily than we used to. Fry uses twitter extensively and it is by following him that I can excitedly report that he is doing a five part documentary on Language for the BBC. I called him a dandy above because he uses a most beautiful version of British English that can be seen in his tweets (Larky, hoot, tiredy-poo, etc). The documentary, from what I can tell, includes comedians on swearing, racism and comedyPortuguese students on euphemism, Brian Blessed on yodelling over breakfast, London cabbies on rhyming slang, cuneiform at the British Museum, MRI scans, David Tennant on Hamlet and Shakespere, in N Kenya amongst the Turkana people, near Lokichoggio.

I’ve only just started noticing these tweets over the break, so there may be many other topics I’ve missed – and from other tweets I’ve extrapolated that there are still a number of months of filming, so don’t expect it on your screen too soon. Given his deep intelligence and witty delivery, I’m looking forward to this very, very much.