One way of thinking about it

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For some time now I have been trying to pin down a thing that troubles me about language – to be exact, the relation between its literary form and speech, and my sense that our perception of how they stand to one another is out of kilter.

Here’s a way of thinking about it that occurred to me on my Autumn walk today, in the pleasant environs of Kinnoull hill, where you can see this fine (if rather alarming) giant squirrel:

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Consider a stream or river, flowing vigorously down from the hills. By exercise of our considerable ingenuity, we can dam the stream and create a vast reservoir which has enormous potential – we might use it to power industry, directly by water wheels or indirectly by generating electricity; we might irrigate the land; we might supply many households with water – indeed all of these things together. Naturally doing so would entail considerable specialist skill and knowledge and people who had such knowledge would be rightly respected.

And yet there are two things that we must not overlook: the first is that the reservoir remains ultimately dependent on the stream that feeds it – if the source dries up, then the reservoir will eventually be exhausted; the second is that, for all our ingenuity, we have merely harnessed the water, not added to it: its power and properties are exactly those of the river, and indeed in order to be of use it needs to resume its form as a flowing stream.

There is a parallel here with language: however much we order it and standardise it, by giving it a written form, a fixed spelling, a system of punctuation, a systematised grammar, we are still only harnessing the properties of speech. True, a whole set of skills must now be acquired to master the language in its literary form, yet ultimately these are all secondary and derivative: you could have speech, full and flowing in all its power, without its literary form, but without speech, the literary form would not exist in the first place, and (as is the case with Latin, say, or Ancient Greek) once speech dies out and there are no native users who learn it at their mother’s knee, the language dies, though its literary form may continue for a time artificially sustained by some conventional use, as when Latin became the language of both church and university.

This is something you should call to mind the next time you hear someone pontificating about spelling or punctuation, and making a fetish of grammar. These things have their place, to be sure, but in the right order of things it is always a subordinate one: speech has primacy, and the language learned at our mother’s knee and spoken in the home and street is the vital source and origin, not to be disparaged but rather revered and respected.

So there.

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