LINGUA FRANCA

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LINGUA FRANCA

Language ought to be the joint creation of poets and manual workers.
George Orwell

Ever since the acquisition of words provided me with a receptacle for memory, I have loved language.  Its music, its power to evoke, its absurd variety delighted me as a child and my joy in it flourished into my adolescence and youth.

My love of language drifted me into teaching – English first, then, for the greater part of my career, Drama.  As during my time in teaching time passed and experience accumulated, goals shifted, routes changed and strategies altered. But one constant remained at the heart of whatever version of whatever syllabus I followed. It was contained within a small but perfectly formed lecture that I would deliver, not particularly original in content but imparted with a messianic zeal undiminished by time and repetition.  

In it I would urge my students to take every opportunity they could to broaden their vocabularies and to recognise in language the key to knowledge, understanding, independence of mind and, ultimately, a degree of real personal autonomy. A keypoint of this address was reference to George Orwell’s 1984 and the mighty and potent weapon of Newspeak.  I would ask them to examine their own speech forms – the unquestioning reliance that some may have had on deliberately vague, oblique or discursive vocabulary, or on acquired slang forms whose terms of reference, however linguistically rich in their own way, were meaningless within the cultural territory that these middle class students occupied.  

I would proselytise further about language as a universal resource whose capacity for articulating beauty and truth as we understand them need not be limited or constrained by social or cultural circumstances.  I used as exemplars of this certain Gypsies I have known whose illiteracy, far from being an impediment to the development of language, actually provoked the need for an enhanced flexibility and richness of expression because of reliance on the purely oral form.  I asked them to see that there need be no conflict of interests between their acquisition of linguistic skills and nominal subscription to a resolutely anti-intellectual culture. Indeed, such skills would provide an opportunity for agile movement across cultural territories. I would insist that the objective must be always to avoid being trapped within one register of language usage, unable to move with ease and grace from level to level.  

I would conclude by telling them to read, to read anything and everything. To make it a habit; to regard every unfamiliar word, phrase, term and figure of speech as a challenge to understanding that must be met.  Master language and ultimately you need never be manipulated, exploited, controlled, owned by anyone! 

And they would listen politely, only glazing over if I ventured too far past the 10-minute mark.  Occasionally, long after the event, the odd ex-student has made reference to the sermon and expressed gratitude for having been nudged towards a greater respect for language at just the right moment.  

o0o

For all that I can sometimes add to a well-turned sentence a word too many, only to have it collapse in on itself like some poorly constructed architectural folly, I loathe promiscuous language.  Listening to cornered politicians turning on the tap and shamelessly letting it flow unchecked has me barracking from the sofa.  Hysterical Oscar winners in verbal free fall, pretentious artists endeavouring to translate piles of house bricks into meaningful messages, pop stars who read a book once and now imagine themselves to be sages – all who sling words around like frisbees – piss me off to the point of inarticulacy, which, in current context, is ironic.  This is not language in reaching for light; it’s language whose sole achievement is pure sound.

But what really brings down the red mist is the use of language as a means to exclude all but the cognoscenti. When language becomes so abstruse, so convoluted, so comprehensively up its own arse, I know that I’m dealing with a man (almost invariably) who, were he not overdriving the keyboard, would be driving a very fast car very fast.  These professional intellectuals – almost all of them inhabiting the worlds of recherché philosophy, arts theory or, God help us, linguistics – have no interest whatsoever either in language’s capacity to communicate complex concepts with absolute clarity or in its intrinsic beauty in utterance or on the page.  The wielding of language is for them a kind of aristocratic sport by whose obscurantist rules and protocols they may celebrate their membership of an exclusive higher order of being.

Meanwhile, out in the bearpit a similar, if less refined game is being played. Consider the out-of-control IT jargoneer, the estate agent (realtor) describing a property and those drones who compose the letters that banks send you when you’re overdrawn. Each mangles and distorts language into something convoluted and grotesque, seeking to establish through it only the branding of his or her particular agency.  

These are the true perpetrators of word crimes, not those whose earnest attempts to communicate are hampered because their command of classical grammar may be faulty and their non-colloquial vocabulary sparse.  The latter struggles for meaning and truth; the former intends the obscurantist tyranny of trade jargon .

o0o

Now, how about this document.  I stumbled across it whilst doing some internet research and as I read it I searched in vain for irony. I present it as evidence for the prosecution, item 1. It comes from a PhD dissertation entitled Immersive Ideals/Critical Distances: A Study of the Affinity Between Artistic Ideologies Based in Virtual Reality and Previous Immersive Idioms. Okay, I might be accused of emulating Hermann Goering and reaching for my revolver at the utterance of the word ‘culture’, but please – is this an authentic statement about an area of art theory and practice so arcane that it can’t communicate its specifics without the exclusive use of entirely specialist language – or is it simply check-this-out bollocks?

A lacunae world of incessant transmutation has emerged in art and established a seemingly unrestricted area of prodigality which I identify as viractuality. With the increased augmentation of the self via micro-electronics feasible today, the real co-exists with the virtual and the organic fuses with the computer-robotic. Consequently, I am interested in a new interlaced sense of artistic viractuality which couples the biological with the technological and the static with the malleable. As such, viractualism strives for an understanding and depiction of an anti-essentiality of the techno-body so as to allow for no privileged logos. Here images of the flesh are undone by machinic viral disturbances they cannot contain. Here thought detaches itself from the order and authority of the old signs and topples down into the realm of viractual reverie.

Thank you for your attention. Any questions?

o0o

A final reflection on language and meaning. In 1962 the late Harold Pinter made a statement about his perception of the real function of much the speech that we utter, ostensibly for the purposes of communication.  It’s a difficult statement that requires careful reading and subsequent reflection. But there’s a world of difference between the narcissistic game playing of the writer just quoted and the elegant and painstaking proposition that is now seen as informing at the deepest level Pinter’s extraordinary work.

There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished, or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place. When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.

In conclusion, I must acknowledge that much of the above may be seen to achieve little more than to prove through example the author’s claims. If that is the case then I’ll just have to try harder to pursue Samuel Beckett’s paradoxical aim of trying to pare language back to the bone through the use of language.

An earlier version of this post appeared on the Patteran Pages in February 2007and here in January of this year.

o0o

Here’s a poem that ponders the origins of language and the duality of form that emerged as class and hierarchy established themselves over time.

PALIMPSESTS

A manuscript or piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed.

When we began
the world was made
of hands and eyes –
fingers and winks.

We wove a sense
of what the light
revealed and the dark
consumed by dancing

our extremities
in plain sight, waving
our meaning, daubing
our understanding

onto walls and
growling out
a soundtrack like
the wolves and bears

Words were licked
into life by tongues
stirring in their
bone and water beds.

Ululation into utterance,
one day, one night
when sudden light
or no light at all

twisted noise into
a loop of syllables;
or something was born
by breath in the heat

of loving after the fire
had died; or something
out of grieving congregated
in a mouth a drift

of stones that rattled
into meaning and spat
sense that all could share
and speak again and again.

Then the scribes tugged
our pictograms from walls
and with those tongues
pushing out a bottom lip,

they penned them slowly,
rush-lit night and day,
across the calfskin, line
upon line. Golden ciphers,

language wrapped in
arabesques, concealed in
foliate compartments,
locked into floral curlicues

and stalked by fantastical
beasts across the vellum.
All our words licked now
by gall and gum, by

iron salts and lampblack,
a cultivation so sublime
that each word lifted
sits in the mouth

like a fig plucked from
the highest branch. Princes
and priests turn the juices
on their tongues and tell

the kneeling penitents
how good they taste.
O believe! Have faith!
You only need to hear

our words beneath
a vaulted ceiling and
transaction, intercession
are assured. Your hollow

syllables turned into a fall
of bells, all your raw vernacular
stacked like bricks inside
the architecture of a hymn.

http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/

About Dick Jones

I'm a post-retirement Drama teacher, currently working part-time. I have a grown-up son and daughter, three grandchildren and three young children from my second marriage. I write - principally poetry but prose too, both fitfully published. My poetry collection Ancient Lights is published by Phoenicia Publishing (www.phoeniciapublishing.com) and my translation of Blaise Cendrars' 'Trans-Siberian Prosody and Little Jeanne from France' (illustrated by my friend, the artist, writer and long-time blogger Natalie d'Arbeloff) is published by Old Stile Press (www.oldstilepress.com). I play bass guitar & bouzouki in the song-based acoustic/electric trio Moorby Jones, playing entirely original material. https://www.facebook.com/moorbyjones?ref=aymt_homepage_panel http://www.moorbyjones.net/) https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=MOORBY+JONES spotify:artist:07MDD5MK9MnRGSEZwbsas9 I have a dormant blog with posts going back to 2004 at Dick Jones' Patteran Pages - http://patteran.typepad.com - and I'm a radio ham. My callsign is G0EUV
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6 Responses to LINGUA FRANCA

  1. David Gouldstone says:

    “thought detaches itself from the order and authority of the old signs”
    He/she aren’t kidding, are they? My thought was detached long before I reached that bit.
    No words being licked into life here; rather, killed like lions slaughtering their rivals’ offspring.

    • Dick Jones says:

      Er… Sorry it didn’t work for you. Some you win…

      • David Gouldstone says:

        I didn’t mean your essay or poem! I meant the piece of piece of nonsense you quoted! I quoted from your poem as a riposte to the pretentious piffle of the PhD candidate. (Wonder if they passed, by the way.)

  2. Dick Jones says:

    Ah, gotcha – my no-sleep addled brain! Re passing, imagine the totality of the thesis! Some poor bastard had to read every word. So, a vengeful no, I’d guess.

    • David Gouldstone says:

      My guess is that the closest we can get to a translation of it is: ‘I like playing role playing games on my computer. I also want a subject for a PhD. I realise that my hobby is not really in any way a suitable subject, but I can’t think of anything else. Therefore I’m going to attempt to dress up the emptiness of my thoughts in language I’ve picked up from ‘The Big Boy’s Book of Academic Jargon’ and see if I can wing it.’ I’m afraid that it wouldn’t at all surprise me if the author isn’t now walking around with letters after their name and getting people to address them as ‘doctor’. Universities are ‘customer-lead’ nowadays; you pays your money and you takes your degree.

      • Dick Jones says:

        I believe you’re right. The narcissistic neologists have taken over the library, the refectory and the lecture theatre. Maybe we should gather all the words together and dump them in
        the Cherwell and the Cam and then we could start all over again!

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