Tag Archives: language

One way of thinking about it


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:


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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Three Misleading Oppositions, Three Useful Axioms

There is an interesting comparison to be made between people and language: we can – especially when we are young and earnest – come to see both as standing in need of improvement, though essentially perfectible (with ourselves as the agents of perfection, naturally); only when we are older do we come to think that it might be better to accept both as they are and accommodate ourselves to their quirks and foibles, rather than seek to correct them.

Language allows words to have a range of meanings, some of which are contradictory – but where once I would have deplored that and sought to correct it – in pursuit of some Holy Grail of clarity – I now think it better to accept it but be aware of it, and consider what effect it has on our thinking. 

Of particular interest to me as a writer are a number of oppositions that we make and often take for granted, which I think can mislead us. Three I would like to single out are

truth and fiction

real and imaginary

invention and discovery

‘Telling tales’ can be a matter for praise or opprobrium, depending on whether we are talking about Homer or the class sneak, but it is interesting that we use the same words for both – ‘just a story’ ‘a mere tale’ ‘pure fiction’ can all be synonyms for ‘lies’ yet we can also speak of fiction telling us profound truths. Although we can (usually) distinguish specific instances without much difficulty, this use of the same word for both creates a kind of infection, so that all fiction is tainted with the suspicion of falsehood and – more importantly, perhaps – it is assumed that the truth must lie elsewhere and have a different form.

So, I would say: always remember that fiction can be true.

In the same way, we use ‘imaginary’ and ‘made-up’ to mean ‘false’ and ‘not real’ yet if we take ‘imaginary’ to mean ‘the product of imagination’ then surely everything that we think of as characteristically human – that is, anything that is not the unassisted product of nature – is imaginary, in the sense that it is something we have ‘thought up’ or ‘made up’ – trains and boats and planes, canals and agriculture, cities – all these things are ‘real’ yet equally none of them has come about by accident – they are the results of design and forethought, of deliberation – they originate in the human imagination, in our ability to envisage what is not present to us, to manipulate things mentally (and isn’t it interesting that ‘seeing things which aren’t there’ serves as a synonym for insanity as well as an exact description of imagination? – this is a division that runs deep).

 So, likewise, do not forget that something can be both imaginary and real.

And are these products of our imagination inventions or discoveries? We tend to use the former to mean things that we have brought about by our own efforts, things that did not exist before we dreamed them up – bicycles and steam engines, say – while we reserve the latter for things that were ‘there all along’ but which we have at some point come upon or uncovered – like penicillin, maybe, or the source of the Nile, or Gravity – yet is the distinction as clear-cut as it might seem at first glance? 

To begin with, both words mean much the same, etymologically – ‘invention’ is from  the Latin ‘to come upon’ and can still occasionally be found in that sense in English (‘The Invention of the True Cross‘  (3 May) was a catholic Feast-day commemorating the discovery of the supposed cross of Jesus by St Helena, Constantine’s mother, though it has afforded wags like Rabelais the opportunity for witticisms – ‘The Invention of the Holy Cross Personated by Six Wily Priests’ is one of the many fantastically-titled books found by Pantagruel in the library of St Victor ). And any invention could equally be described as the discovery and application of existing principles.

So: inventions generally involve discovery, too – to say that something is an invention does not preclude the possibility that it existed beforehand and independently, in some form.

Is music a discovery or an invention? Is mathematics? Is God?

Are they real or imaginary?

Truth or fiction?

– all questions rewarding to dwell upon on a rainy afternoon.

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