Words, words, words
Words have always interested me. I love the way they shape our thoughts, and am equally fascinated to observe how our thoughts direct our language. The Shakespeare celebrations are in full swing this year – is there anyone out there who still does not know that it’s 400 years since the Bard died? – and his language rings in our ears every day. I have my personal favourites from the plays I know well, and it was an ‘A’ level English teacher who first introduced me to the old joke that ‘the problem with Shakespeare is that he’s so full of quotes.’
Equally notable are the quotes that Shakespeare’s language has itself generated. Francis Crick commented: ‘ “What a piece of work is a man!” said Shakespeare. Had he been living today he might have given us the poetry we so sorely need to celebrate all these remarkable discoveries.’
And lest we get too hung up on the quotes alone, Samuel Johnson’s observation carries weight, in my view: ‘He that tries to recommend him by select Quotations, will succeed like the Pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his House to Sale, carried a Brick in his Pocket as a Specimen.’ You have been warned.
In recent times the sound bite has become a contemporary version of a quote and has too frequently replaced real speech. When Princess Diana died, Tony Blair declared her ‘the people’s Princess’. It went down a storm, but I would hate it if everything was reduced to a one-line summary. The joy of language is in the shades of meaning that can be conveyed, and sometimes people need to be credited with the ability to understand complex arguments, rather than having everything reduced to the lowest common denominator.
Then there is the effect that speaking a foreign language has on our thinking. Sometimes when talking I am suddenly aware that the word I am seeking would work better in one of the other languages I know. My foreign language skills are passable, but one of my daughter’s friends is a real polyglot. As well as the main western European languages, he can easily get by in Mandarin, Turkish, Arabic, Japanese, Russian and Hungarian; this last, as we all know, is reputed to be one of the most fiendishly difficult languages on the planet. It’s a bit like some people just ‘see’ Maths – and some don’t. He just ‘sees’ language – lucky guy.
How many of us managed to keep a straight face when John Cleese recited a poem in Russian by Lermontov in A Fish called Wand’, which had Wanda (Jamie Lee Curtis) in ecstasy? Obviously there were unlikely to be many people in a UK audience in 1988 who understood a word (Cleese himself certainly didn’t), but the scene had people cracking up all round me in the cinema. If you want to refresh your memory, you can find it here:
So let’s say a resounding no to translation software and instead celebrate the joy of the thesaurus; as far as I’m concerned, what could be better than exploring the synonyms – and antonyms – of a word on a peaceful Sunday afternoon? But maybe I’m just odd…