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18 January 2019
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The power of words

2 March 2015  

Language has fascinated me for as long as I can remember; to listen to someone speak well or to read something well written is a joy. Language evolves, though, and even in my lifetime there has been a lot of change, blogs John Bowen.

Some of that change is a natural process as we seek to use the words that we have to express ourselves in different ways. Another influence has been access to the media that has exposed us to the ways that other countries use words. The import of Americanisms to the UK was something that my parents abhorred, but the cinema and TV were relentless. In France there was a more extreme reaction to protecting the native tongue from British and American expressions, but language will always change with time.

English as she is spoken, or in the way that I was taught it in the 1950s and 60s, was even then a hotchpotch of languages – Latin, French, German, Greek and goodness knows what else in the same way that our racial mix is as varied as, for example, my own background. My surname is Welsh, but my paternal family roots are in the large number of people from Wales who migrated to Ireland centuries ago. My maternal background is German (or what we know today as Germany) and they came to England with William of Normandy who, while ruling northern France, was in fact Scandinavian (Norman being a corruption of Norse Man). Immigration is not a modern phenomenon.

Technology has had a big impact on language, the abbreviations of SMS messaging and more recently Twitter have moved into the way that we speak and the elegance of letter writing that I grew up trying to master has long been lost, sacrificed on the altar of email where even grammar has largely – to use a modern idiom – gone out the window. You see? Even I slip into these laxities. Is grammar important? Yes, because it gives a language structure and if we lose that structure we risk the loss of understanding.

Political correctness has taken away much of the power of oratory that I once enjoyed. There was a time when we had political speakers who were a joy to listen to even if you didn’t agree. And if you didn’t, you could heckle because another aspect of such great speakers was their ability to deal with such interruptions. The current crop of elected representatives seem barely able to string a sentence together and even when they can it has to be either written out for them or agreed by committee before they are allowed to utter a word and what they are allowed to say is rarely more than watered-down platitudes or regurgitated dogma.

But perhaps the one aspect of change in our language that I loathe the most is the encroachment of management speak. The parliamentary sound bite can, now and again, be a delightful use of words ­– a wonderfully elegant use of minimalism in speech. But I can think of no such example from the world of business. Instead, I hear too much stringing together of words each of which, in isolation, I could comfortably explain the meaning of, but would have much more difficulty in explaining the overall sentence (assuming that the words did make up a sentence).

We need to allow our language to grow, to incorporate new words where we need them and to revise the use of existing words however much the purists might decry this because the version of whichever language they hold dear is only one that existed for a short time. The important thing is that we still have a language with which we can communicate and express ourselves. If we can do that and do it well, so much the better.

John Bowen is an FM consultant