Sunday, 16 April 2017

Ode to London's Errant Apostrophes

Apostrophes of London! Cease your woes!
You come and go with highs and lows.
The Underground and street signs clash,
Resulting in an awful hash.

It seems Kings Cross and Regents Park
On roads and streets, I must remark.
I see Earls Court, as Barons do,
And no one Gardens quite like Kew.

Ravenscourt and Park as well,
While Seven Sisters cast their spell.
Snaresbrook no challenge and hold fast,
Cockfosters growth that's meant to last.

Those Theydon Bois and Shepherds Bush
Much as those Colliers Wood push.
Do Gunnersbury their hatchets deep,
While Kingsbury their queens and weep?

Pray, let the fair Queen spark and sway,
Just as her Knightsbridge night and day.
So London, sort your apostrophes.
And use St Paul's philosophies.

© Marc Loewenthal

Thursday, 9 March 2017

I swear, to tell the truth. Don't we all?

Trigger alert: swear words present (and correct)

Swearing. Cursing. Foul language. Language of the gutter. Locker room talk. There must be very little in the history of language that has caused as much disagreement and controversy as the use of language labelled undesirable, uncouth, foul, obscene, profane, taboo, or any other word or phrase that you want to apply to it. Its prohibition has been inculcated into generations of youthful minds. Countless mouths have been washed out with soap because of it. Millions of lines starting “I must not swear in class...” have been written after school on its account. Incalculable embarrassment and calumny have been incurred through its use. Polite company is largely defined by its total absence. How many times have we studiously, even obsessively, had to watch our p's and q's to avoid causing offence to family, friends, acquaintances and strangers alike?

And yet, and yet, swearing is probably the most natural, normal and psychologically healthy things that we can do with our language. I would go as far as to say we need to swear to express our feelings about someone or something. We gain a release. We show exactly what we think and feel. We identify ourselves with others through it. It becomes a badge of honour. We learn when its use is acceptable and when it isn't. We effectively become proficient users of swearing, because it's an integral part of our language and our linguistic repertoire. I would even venture to say that without swearing, we are not fully fledged users of our language. This is not just my opinion; swearing is actually part of the structure of our language.

First, let me explain why swearing is the topic of this blog post. Recently, the local council in the English town of Rochdale, near Manchester, decided to ban swearing by using a “public spaces protection order” to warn, or even fine to the tune of £100, anyone using “foul and abusive language”. You can read the report here. While I understand that consistently using foul and abusive language to the extent that people in the vicinity feel threatened and intimidated is undesirable, there doesn't seem to be any concise definition of what constitutes foul and abusive language and to what extent it needs to be used to require sanction. However, the aspect of this matter which intrigues me is the idea that an integral part of our language can and should be banned.

Swearing, far from being an undesirable and iniquitous use of language, is actually an aspect of our grammar. If you want to ban swearing, you might as well campaign to ban the use of object pronouns, modal verbs, superlatives, or even the past perfect continuous. If you open up a grammar book, you will see examples and explanations of the grammar that we use on a daily basis, the grammar which makes our language the English language. Now, you might think that postulating swearing as a grammatical category of the language on the same level as, say, phrasal verbs is going more than slightly beyond the pale. However, there is ample evidence for this, which I present here.

We have adjectives, adverbs and nouns, which we can use in increasingly lengthy strings to give more detailed descriptions, as in these examples:

a book; a good book; a really good book

a house; a large house; a large, wooden house; a beautiful, large, wooden house; an amazingly beautiful, large, wooden house.

We use adverbs to modify our impression of something, to add positive or negative feelings or attitudes to expressions, or to enhance certain aspects of the thing, person or idea that we are describing. And we use swear words in a similar way. However, what makes swear words a separate category from all other modifiers in the English language is how we use them to modify. In short, swear words are the only words in our language that can grammatically split other words. Here are some examples:

abso-bloody-lutely; un-fucking-believable; fan-bleeding-tastic; the under-poxy-ground

We usually use these words to emphasise something, stress disapproval and express annoyance. Their use adds emotion to what we're saying in such a way that other words can't. We can also use swear words in other ways without splitting words. The significant thing is that other words which are not normally regarded as taboo, cannot perform the same function. Have a look at these:

no fucking way; I don't bloody believe it; a piss-poor game; I should sodding-well think so.

There are many more examples if you care to look for them, or even think of them (if you aren't afraid of sullying your mind). Of course, you can go through your life without using swear words, just as you can go through your life without ever using the passive, or relative clauses. It would be quite difficult to avoid doing so, though. The point that I'm making is that swear words form a grammatical category in our language, and attempting to ban their use in natural language expression is both unjustifiable and futile. Certainly, we as speakers should be able to judge when to use them and we shouldn't be sanctioned for the odd use of a choice word. I think that if local authorities want to regulate the behaviour of certain people in public, they would do better to focus on what they do, rather than try to deny them the right to use the full range of language that we have at our disposal.

If you would like to read a more comprehensive description of taboo words, read the taboo section in Michael Swan's Practical English Usage, a must for anyone keen to know how the English language really works.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

You can't handle the truth!

One of the most fascinating aspects of the human condition is the way in which we deal with truth and untruth, reality and fantasy, fact and fiction. We can use fantasy and fiction to imagine other worlds and other “realities”, as well as to test ideas and hypotheses. The problems come when we knowingly use fiction to replace fact, and then try to present that fiction to the world as reality.

A good example of this was revealed last week by the Trump administration. Now, this blog is not necessarily the place to launch a political attack on Trump and his team, as, among other things, there are people far better equipped at doing that then I am. I will, however, take issue with the language that any politician uses to obfuscate the truth. I have no problem in calling out lies when I see language being used to pretend that they are anything but lies.

On 14th February Mike Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, resigned after it emerged that he had misled VP Mike Pence over his previous contacts with Russian officials. The exact words he used for his misdemeanour were “inadvertently briefed” and “incomplete information”. Now, let's analyse this. He briefed him. OK. That's his job, so I can accept that he opened his mouth and produced words designed to help Pence make a decision or come to a conclusion of some kind. Except that he wasn't briefing in this case – he was responding to a specific question as to whether he had discussed with Russian officials the prospect of raising sanctions imposed on Russia. What was required was a yes/no answer. There was no briefing required here.

Let's now examine “inadvertently”. Dictionary.com defines “inadvertent” as “unintentional, heedless”. Thesaurus.com gives these synonyms (among others): careless, reckless, unintended, unwitting, chance, not on purpose, unpremeditated. So Flynn is saying that the “incomplete information” that he transmitted to Pence in their exchange on this matter somehow emanated from his mouth in an entirely unplanned, unintended and unpremeditated manner. In some way, words expressing that he did not discuss state matters with foreign officials somehow formulated themselves in his mind in an entirely unplanned way, and escaped from his mouth with no intention at all. And he is in one of the highest advisory positions in the administration of the most powerful country in the world. In other words, as far as he is concerned, he didn't lie, as that would have involved premeditation, intention and clear denial of a manifest truth of which he was certainly aware as he had actually held the talks with the Russians.

Of course, Flynn isn't the only politician to engage in this type of wordplay in an attempt to save their bacon. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have confessed that they “misspoke” - Trump when referring to abortion and Clinton when referring to her trip to Bosnia. In fact, “misspeak” has a history stretching back to Old English, though it mostly meant “murmur”, “grumble”, “speak disrespectfully” and “pronounce incorrectly”. However, more recently, especially under the influence of politics in America, it has come to mean increasingly “avoid telling the truth” under the guise of not saying what you intended to say. Another expression for lying, “economical with the truth”, entered political discourse during a 1986 trial over a book, Spycatcher, which the British government was trying to stop from being published in the UK. Alan Clark, a minister in Margaret Thatcher's government, admitted to being “economical with the actualit√®” in Parliament, which stretches the denial of lying even more. Careful research will no doubt produce numerous other examples of alternative expressions for telling lies.

Don't get me wrong. Humans throughout history have obfuscated, denied and dissembled for a variety of reasons. We use euphemisms and other expressions to avoid mentioning the real name of something. The ancient Greeks believed that there existed infernal goddesses known as the Furies, who punished people for breaking their oaths. However, they usually referred to them as the Eumenides, a euphemism which meant “kindly ones”, for fear of arousing their wrath by calling them by their real names. The Black Sea was stormy and difficult to navigate in the ancient world, so the Greeks called it Pontos Euxeinos, literally “hospitable sea”, to avoid incurring its wrath. Some seemingly innocuous words and expressions are even taboo. The Russian for bear, medved, literally “honey eater”, is thought to have been used to avoid uttering the real name of the animal, which has always been a powerful figure in Russian folklore. “The Scottish play” is used to avoid uttering “Macbeth”, “pass on” is used to avoid “die”, and so on. However, in most of these cases the aim is usually to avoid hurting feelings, insulting people, provoking conflict or raising a contentious subject. These ways of speaking are part of our human nature.

Let's be clear, though. When it comes to politicians, who we entrust with our votes to govern our countries, societies and lives for our good, we have every right to expect them to give us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and not conceal it for their own benefit. Politicians use expressions such as “inadvertently advise”, “misspeak oneself” and “be economical with the truth” to deliberately lie. If something is a matter of state secrecy and security, then fine - we can all accept that. Just say so. We're not children to protect from the awful truth. If they want our trust, they should just come out with the truth when there is no alternative. We can handle it. They can't.