One of the funniest things about language is the fact it is ultimately nothing but sound. It’s just air rushing up from our lungs made noisy by that weird and wonderful muscle that is the larynx, then moulded and shaped by the even weirder and more wonderful muscle that is the tongue. Unlike all those unimaginative, monotonous animals that moo or quack, we can make an almost infinite number of different noises; so many that we even combine them into ‘words’. With these ‘words’ we built vast nations of language. Words that that are the threads of a beautiful poetic tapestry on the process of existence. Our words create not a jungle cacophony, but a graceful vocal dance, where delicate breaths of sound leap from tongue-tips like exquisite ballerinas – powerful and poised. Yes, beautiful words, such as ‘girth’, or ‘carbuncle’, or ‘plop’.
Well, they’re not all beautiful, obviously. But it’s interesting how often a word’s sound adds to its meaning. Is it coincidence, or a matter of ingrained association? If ‘carbuncle’ actually meant ‘a rainbow over nude pixies frolicking in a field of sunflowers’ – would we still think it an ugly word? Probably not. You see, when we were all living in dank caves, banging rocks together and running away from sabre-tooth tigers; whatever weird thoughts clattering around in our simple little brains were broadcast by impulsive grunts and nonsensical groans. Eventually we settled that ‘nngh‘ meant ‘stick’ and ‘uuggh!’ meant ‘Shit, run! the sabre-tooth is back’. As we evolved, so did our langauge – but there remain some instinctively enjoyable utterings. Here are some of my personal favourite examples of words that are beautifully united in sound and meaning – or just plain fun to say.
Vessels for drinking take many a name and form – cups, mugs, glasses, tumblers, flagons, tankards et cetera. But none are as mighty as the great goblet. Beer seems to make the most sense being in there, but you can put any liquid in, say lime cordial or cough syrup if that takes your fancy. What’s great about ‘goblet’ is not only the way it kind of falls out of your mouth and splatters over the ears of the listener; but how it’s almost an unintentional portmanteau. It’s a guttural splicing of ‘gob’ – as in mouth; and ‘let’ – as in, letting in copious amounts of fermented happy juice. So, so fitting. Ultimately, the word is just a joy to say, especially over and over and over again, until someone finally reaches for the actual thing to batter you over the head with.
I’ve deliberately excluded onomatopoeic words from this list, simply because they are sounds – in a way. ‘Blimp’, however, is the onomatopoeic word that never was. In fact it could well have been any type of word. It would have made a fantastic verb: ‘…and then the giant podgy man blimped his way from the buffet to the condiment bar, where he released a biblical flood of barbeque sauce upon his tower of chicken wings...’. Or even an adjective: ’…she was nothing but an argumentative, brazen and unashamedly blimp woman…’. It could even have made a pretty top-shelf swear word. Imagine shouting at someone who just cut you off in traffic to go find an oak branch and blimp themselves with it? That would be amazing! Sadly, though, its only association is with those plump, tyre brand-sponsored bags of helium levitating above football stadiums, resembling many of the people wedged in the seats. And so ultimately ‘blimp’ has a tragic evocation to it – it could have been anything, but instead it was a big ball of gas.
Apparently, many non-English speakers are struck by how ugly the English language can be. There’s no consistency, no style and rarely any elegance. Imagine if the world’s major languages formed a football team. French would be centre-forward, showing off its silken moves and fluid motion, while Spanish and Japanese would sit on the wings, mesmeric with speed and flair. From the middle of the park Mandarin and German would be in charge of keeping things short, sharp and precise, and the striker, Russian, would get all up close and aggressive. You’d line the back with Hindi, Arabic and Bengali, simply because they’re quite ubiquitous. And then you’ll have English, lumbering around the pitch, bumping into its own players and being both shit and everywhere at the same time. But, every so often a flash of brilliance would emerge from the clumsy haphazardry, and English would go from Ali Dia to Lionel Messi for one fleeting, glorious moment. That moment is the word ‘sumptuous’. It’s classy, and smooth – like Audrey Hepburn ins a bathtub of custard. It sounds so apt that saying it is basically the verbal equivalent to wearing a ridiculously plush bathrobe and sipping some $700-a-bottle Tawny Port. In fact, if you soak a ridiculously plush bathrobe in expensive port and drop it,’ sumptuous‘ would be the exact sound it makes when it hits the floor.
Finally a word of violence! Any violent word is exciting in some way: punch, kick, smack, slap, whack, whip, triple-spinebuster suplex… all marvellous and beautiful phrases. But if I were a merchant of hurt; a bringer of pain; the undisputed world champion of agony – emblazoned in a big, mean font on my spandex bottoms would be the fearful alias: The Bludgeoner (safely assuming of course that wrestling fans wouldn’t recognise it also as a Harry Potter reference). It’s somewhat visceral, in a nasty enough way that even if you didn’t actually know the meaning of the word, if someone offered to ‘bludgeon’ you, you’d politely decline. It’s perfectly adapted to the Australian accent, too. It begins with ‘bl-‘, which is always promising start for an Aussie word- and the subsequent ‘uh’ is dragged right out of the deepest recesses of the throat. It’s so ochre that people with an especially broad accent (anyone living more than 25km inland from the coastline, in other words) can actually physically choke on it. So far no fatalities have been recorded, but that’s probably because only a tiny percentage of folks from that way posses a large enough vocabulary to run the risk.
This is the big daddy. This is the one you save for a special occasion. You must light some candles, pour some Chablis and wait for the moon to appear before wrapping your tonsils around this one. You can go mad having fun saying ‘blimp’ and ‘goblet’, and you can soothe yourself with a relaxing ‘sumptuous’… but phantasmagorical, plainly and simply, is sex. It’s twisty and turny, syllables stick out here and there, and your tongue can get a little tired. Then after you’ve finally writhed your way through it, you take a deep breath and dive right back to say it again. Faster this time. Caution is advised though, you really cannot overindulge and go blurting it out all over the place. You’ll shock old ladies and corrupt the innocent ears of children for miles around. You’ll probably go blind, too. No, you must wait for the the conditions to be right, when your tonsils tingle and the lighting is moody. It’s such a special sound that it doesn’t even seem like a real word, and often as you find those six sexy syllables tingling on your lips you can barely believe you’re actually speaking it. But you’re sure as hell glad that you are.
I hate ‘puritans’ of language. Hate is a strong word, but I really do. You know the type, the pretentious stormtroopers of the grammar Nazi party: the feckless, condescending jerks who seek desperate intellectual credit by spouting endless nonsense about their false passion for and knowledge of The English Language.
I’m not talking about those who respect correct spelling. I’m talking about the smarmy ones who peer down their beaks at anyone whose Facebook status is missing a comma and wince whenever ‘who’ is used instead of ‘whom’. They clutch their little orange Penguin Classic paperback tightly and find joy in their pompous judgement of texts. It is of zero importance to them that something reads enjoyably or naturally or poignantly. It can be so overwrought and tedious your eyes would tear up and refuse to read it, but so long as it is cleansed of demonic split infinitives, non-reflexive pronouns and (gasp) stranded prepositions, then it gets their stamp of approval. Well, to these people I repeat the withering retort that may or may not have been said by Sir Winston Churchill: “This is the kind of tedious nonsense up with which I will not put.”
There is nothing wrong about being passionate about language. I love it, it’s a fascinating phenomenon. But it’s just so fascist to think the joy of language is to sniff out the zee radicals and punish them in zee manner befitting zee crime. I believe the true joy found in language is its artistic malleability. The written word yields great power when used cleverly, not necessarily correctly. Churchill’s quote demonstrates this deftly, cheekily – utterly brilliantly. True mastery of language is not to adhere to linguistic law but to bend its supposed boundaries and rules to craft a message with wit, intention and impact. The message is always more important than immaculate grammatical piety. Think of the ‘spoon’ scene in the Matrix. There is no spoon. Of spoon, there is none. Cut to Keanu Reeves’ vacant expression aaaand there it is. It all makes sense now.
Words and punctuation are just the materials to create language. They are imbued with their own meanings and purposes, but they are there to be manipulated, reshaped – reforged. Language is alive. It evolves over time, it empowers those who use it and it defines the culture they live in. But it can only do so if it’s able to move as nimbly as society itself. Worrying over correctness of words is like sheltering a child from the world; safeguarded from evil, but denied the opportunity to grow and flourish. If you really loved language, you’d let it be free. You wouldn’t allow it to perish, imprisoned on the pages of stale dictionaries and reference tomes.
So, if I casually slip in a ‘totes’ mid-conversation without a need to explain its meaning – where’s the problem? New words come, old words go. Words have to change. They need to adapt so they can continue to survive in the vibrant ecology of language. We naturally decide what sticks; we adopt the terms and idioms that offer us enough sense to improve communication and reject those that don’t. Why did so many English words shed the letter ‘e’ from their posteriors? Why is it that Americans and British use semi-colons differently? For the same reason our modern banter is a delicious, steaming casserole of leftovers from ancient Greek, Roman, Celtic, Viking and Germanic speak: you cannot quell the course of nature.
Sure there must be something keeping us from falling into complete linguistic anarchy – but it’s self regulation. I believe the rules are ‘should’ not ‘must’. It’s not engineering – you build intangible structures with language, not bridges that could buckle and fall into the sea and claim thousands of lives with it. The only thing at risk of collapse is meaning, but that’s a relative concept.
If we insist on composing a list of rules, they should be flexible enough to change too, when the time is right, or when someone shows us a better way. William Shakespeare cared not for Propere Englishe. He wrote for his audience: the great unwashed, the toothless and uneducated. His words today are vaunted today as the absolute epitome of English eloquence and mastery of phrase, and perhaps that’s because in the 16th Century there were no defined rules of grammar. In fact, its the shoulders of the Bard and contemporaries such as Sir Philip Sidney and Christopher Marlowe (who some believe was Shakespeare), that carried the English language into a new era – to it’s very own enlightenment. These literary pioneers enriched language by expanding the vocabulary, giving words more life and purpose. Nouns and verbs meshed; phrases were coined; words were invented, extended, inverted and upended. The number of words Shakespeare is responsible for introducing to the English tongue is something in the region of 2,000. It’s staggering, and it confirmed his place as one of the most important people in English history. But today, as the English language sits wrapped and bound with more locks and shackles than even Houdini would dare wear, anyone daring enough to experiment with words so liberally is a linguistic heathen.
Well, besides the fact that no-one can ordain themselves the right to police language, I think the language pedant’s problem has nothing to do with their love of language and pain at seeing it tampered with. It’s that they are scared of the fact that they really do not have control over something that’s used to apply some sort of class superiority over others. Education is the foundation of class-division in a Anglicised society; centuries ago it was having an education at all, these days it’s about exclusive schools and the supposed quality attached to that. Proper English, it seems, is a projection of this educational superiority, not talking like a commoner and all. But, like all nobility in history, they fear the peasantry. Land barons forever dreaded the day they’d awake to peer out their castle window and see the entire townsfolk lined at the crest of the hill, hoisting pitchforks and baying for blood. Well, that innate fear of uprising exists within the pretentiousness of the language pedants. ‘The commoners are after our words and heaven knows what atrocious evils they will commit upon them!’
Well, as long as peasants with pens continue to mangle, mutilate and maim the English language, I’ll indulge the apparently sadistic pleasure. Language is rad, like totes rad.
And here, doing it a shitload betterer than I, is Stephen Fry making the same argument.