Good enough for Jesus

Charlotte Brewer

  • The State of the Language: 1990 Edition edited by Christopher Ricks and Leonard Michaels
    Faber, 531 pp, £17.50, January 1990, ISBN 0 571 14182 X
  • Clichés and Coinages by Walter Redfern
    Blackwell, 305 pp, £17.50, October 1989, ISBN 0 631 15691 7
  • Rhetoric: The Wit of Persuasion by Walter Nash
    Blackwell, 241 pp, £25.00, October 1989, ISBN 0 631 16754 4

The second edition of The State of the Language, published ten years on from the first, contains 53 essays and nine poems, each by a different author. The dust-jackets of both editions are almost wholly taken up, front and back, with a well-spaced parade of contributing writers’ names, and this provides a visual counterpart to something that emerges very clearly from the essays themselves: the ‘state of the language’ is a notional concept, impossible to separate out from the myriad (famous) voices who contribute to it.

In both books, the essays are arranged under various snappy titles: ‘Proprieties’, ‘Identities’, ‘Media and the Arts’, ‘Ways and Means’, ‘Societies’ in the first edition; ‘Englishes’, ‘The Body Politic’, ‘Money’, ‘Practices’, ‘Art’ and ‘Rectitudes’ in the second. The implication, perhaps, is that the 1980s were judged by the two editors, Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks, to be likely to rate correctness of language above its political and social implications, while the 1990s will reverse these priorities. There is little point in taking issue with this, since in practice such divisions don’t hold fast: most of the writers claim, explicitly or implicitly, that their particular interest in language touches many different cultural and political issues.

‘Englishes’, the first 1990 category, begins with an irresistible epigraph: ‘If English was good enough for Jesus it is good enough for you’ – apparently from the lips of a school superintendent in Arkansas refusing a request that foreign languages should be taught in high school. The section turns out to be partly about the status and possible future of English as a world language, partly about a variety of experiences of the relationships between English and another language. Professional linguists (among them Sidney Greenbaum and Randolph Quirk) jostle with poets and novelists (including Medbh McGuckian and Amy Tan). David Dabydeen writes ‘On Not Being Milton: Nigger Talk in England Today’, and discusses, in impeccably establishment English, a question that might just as well come under ‘Art’: how does a black writer in English find an authentic voice: what does s/he do with the cultural legacy of Milton, on the one hand, and Creole writers, on the other: which of the various English-speaking audiences should be aimed at? He describes the dilemma as follows: ‘Either you drop the epithet “black” and think of yourself as a “writer” (a few of us foolishly embrace this position, desirous of the status of “writing” and knowing that “black” is blighted) – that is, you cease dwelling on the nigger/tribal/nationalistic theme, you cease folking up the literature, and you become “universal” [i.e., address the ‘narrow, self-serving parochialism of Europe’] – or else you perish in the backwater of small presses, you don’t get published by the “quality” presses, and you don’t receive the corresponding patronage of media-hype ... The pressure is to become a mulatto and house-nigger (Ariel) rather than a field-nigger (Caliban).’ In ‘Talking Black’, Henry Louis Gates, searching for a black critical language with which to read black texts, describes the same problem from a different point of view.

How can we write or read the text of ‘Blackness’? What language(s) do black people use to represent their critical or ideological positions? In what forms of language do we speak or write? Can we derive a valid, integral ‘black’ text of criticism and ideology from borrowed or appropriated forms?

Put simply (or simplistically), black writers probably want to talk about the same sorts of things as white writers – love, loss, desire, power, their relationships with their personal, social and political communities, with their environment, with other texts. Each writer, whether white or black, will draw on a varying experience of these things, ranging from the unique to the universal. But the language available to writers, if they are to be accessible to a reasonably wide audience, seems to come with certain (white) cultural and political assumptions and connotations built in, some of which may be directly in conflict with the sort of experience the (black) writer wants to convey. How can a writer’s parole (individual speech or writing) make any headway against langue (the language system)?

The problem is exactly analogous to that faced by feminists, and in the section on ‘The Body Politic’ Marina Warner, Hermione Lee and Sandra Gilbert explore the ways in which women might or do speak and write so as to convey their experience in a way that communicates a female point of view without being disenfranchising. Marina Warner writes of ‘Fighting Talk’, the punitive, aggressive, violent and (she argues) male-orientated language of pleasure, which uses words like impact, force, explosive, shock, searing. ‘I find my voice falters in the site of pleasure,’ she confesses, ‘that I have no words for it, that there, I am gagged ... Is saying something violently saying it well? Is feeling something violently feeling it in the only possible way? In a study of the (male) connotations of the word ‘power’, Hermione Lee traces some of the conflicts and debates in present-day feminist theory. Is écriture féminine, that which is ‘located in the gaps, the absences, the unsayable or unrepresentable of discourse and representation’ (Mary Jacobus), a possible or indeed sensible strategy? Or is it a ‘kind of programmatic writing’ which ‘consigns women and their language, all over again (as they have been traditionally consigned by inspired “phallocentric” writers such as Yeats, Whitman and Lawrence), to the realms of “inchoate darkness”,’ the unconscious, mothering, hysteria and babble? She takes as illustration a ‘conscientious Americanised version of ‘ecriture féminine that ‘uses strategies of syntactic blurring, fragmentation, exclamation, rhythmic patterns and an alternative vocabulary to ridicule the culture’s mythical respect for male linguistic power’: ‘Save the sun, everybody, from the watery deeps, the dark underneath it must go – Into – Every night into such dangers, such soft inchoate darkness, what will become of it, will it rise again will it rise again?... That limp dick – an entire civilisation based on it, help the sun rise, watch out for the dark underground, focus focus focus, keep it high, let it soar, let it transcend, let it aspire to Godhead.’ In some ways it is easier for blacks, for black language does actually exist, while a secret and wholly female language (as reported in the Chinese press in 1986, so Marina Warner tells us) ‘cannot be produced pure, out of women’s ground of being (whatever that is) without reflection of her social and historical conditions’. Or as Lee puts it, ‘no one speaks, or has ever spoken, a distinctive, alternative female language. If it is to come into being, it must be an entirely fabricated, artificial, written invention.’

After feminism (to which Roger Scruton also contributes, see below), the essays in ‘The Body Politic’ turn to the subject of Aids. Here, too, but somewhat more straightforwardly, language is seen as something that buoys up the Establishment, and explicitly or implicitly downgrades the feelings and experiences of a minority group. In ‘Aids: Keywords’, Jan Zita Grover runs through a lexicon of Aids vocabulary after the manner of Raymond Williams, angrily expounding the ways in which PLWA (people living with Aids) are linguistically punished by the rest of the community. Her approach is determinedly polemical, so that despite what must be an overwhelming sympathy with many aspects of her case, the reader may well feel bullied rather than cajoled (usually on account of a poor choice of language, or of rhetoric).

Grover’s essay is interestingly counterpointed by those of Wayne Koestenbaum (‘Speaking in the Shadow of Aids’) and Michael Callen (‘Aids: The Linguistic Battlefield’). For example, it seemed to me at first sight exaggerated to decry, as Grover does, the term Aids victim: ‘Fear and pity are the emotions raised by the victim,’ she writes: ‘these are less than useless emotions for dealing actively with serious issues. Fear and pity are aroused in order ultimately to be cathartically disposed of, to enable passive spectators of the Aids spectacle to remain passive, and eventually to distance themselves from the scapegoat object of fear and pity.’ Hauling in the language of the theatre to imply that non-Aids victims regard Aids victims as fictional constructs with no real existence, for whom they need feel no responsibility, and whose main function is to heighten the aesthetic and emotional excitement of the uninfected, seems disingenuous, especially since no argument is provided to show why Aids victims should be equated with characters in a tragedy (for whom ‘victim’ is anyway not a technical term). But Michael Callen persuaded me with his rhetorically more sophisticated argument, which sympathises with my scepticism before showing me how to discard it:

The difference between the descriptors person with Aids and Aids victim may seem subtle until one watches oneself on reruns on TV. To see oneself on screen and have the words Aids victim magically flash underneath has a very different feel about it than when the description person with Aids appears. Its very cumbersomeness is startling and makes the viewer ask: ‘Person? Why person? Of course he’s a person ...’ In that moment, we achieve a small but important victory. Viewers are forced to be conscious, if only for a moment, that we are people first.

The point made is that language can act as therapy or as its reverse, in this instance enabling the subtle switch from victim to person to be a change in reality (or at any rate, in one’s own perception and that of others) as well as merely a change of words.

It can, or course, be very difficult to distinguish between reality (or ‘reality’) and language, or tell which determines which. This is a problem tackled in an interesting article by Roger Scruton (‘Ideologically Speaking’) on feminism, Gorbachev and deconstruction, which is in some ways engagingly frank about its aims, in some ways (I think) mistaken in achieving them. He sets out to perform ‘a great service ... to the dwindling body of linguistic reactionaries’ – namely, to provide an argument for the use of he as opposed to he or she, s/he etc. He first argues that if we change our usage then we cut ourselves off from the literature of the past. This is clearly false: very many words have changed in meaning over the last six hundred years, and we have simply learnt to adapt. (If we applied Scruton’s argument more generally, language would become completely static, a state almost inconceivable and certainly undesirable.) Secondly, Scruton shows that there is no necessary correlation between genderless languages and female liberation. This is clearly true. But he then goes on to say that, because in many other languages gender applies (in varying ways) to all nouns, both animate and inanimate, this indicates that grammatical gender has ‘not the slightest bearing on sexual politics’. Nevertheless, since in English ‘he and she are used (almost) exclusively of things with male or female sex... it may really seem, to someone faced with the choice of using he as opposed to he or she, that he is confronting a question of sexual morality, rather than one of conventional usage.’

Scruton’s implication is clearly that such a person would be mistaken. But why? Surely it is the very fact that, in English, grammatical gender is confined to animate objects which creates the choice of she/he as one of ‘sexual politics’ rather than grammar? The overwhelming proportion of English-users are not comparative philologists, and even those who are may not be influenced in their native usage by their knowledge of other languages: it is the internal contrasts of our own tongue which count. At this point Scruton switches tack, and offers us a linguistic deconstruction of Communist ideology. The Marxist attempt ‘to chase ideology from language, to achieve a discourse transparent to social truth, has in fact produced the opposite: a discourse that is opaque to truth, precisely because it is devoted to uprooting “class ideology”. Such a discourse has become an ideology, in the Marxist sense: an instrument for legitimising power. But it is nothing else.’ Returning to feminism, he brings to bear the comparable argument: feminists have deconstructed the language of patriarchy only to replace it with a different but equivalent one. The solution, Scruton seems to think, is to have a language which is transparently referential. This hardly accords with Scruton’s starting-point, where it was precisely feminists’ understanding of the impersonal he as literally referential (in a way that excludes the female) which he objected to.

‘Money’, ‘Practices’ and ‘Art’ provide further pearls and stumbling-blocks. They include accounts of the language of advertising, Wall Street jargon, philanthropy, an extract from David Lodge’s Nice Work, articles on legal language and on Ronald Reagan’s speech-writer, a rant on modern television from Frederic Raphael, and views on editing (John Gross), Post-Structuralism (Alison Lurie) and computers. ‘Art’ in particular contains some notable essays, among them Walter Ong on subway graffiti, and the section opens with a splendidly passionate and ambitious piece by Margaret Doody on the revision of the hymnal used by Princeton University Chapel, a booklet called ‘Inconclusive Language Hymns’ which is produced by the First Congregational Church. From here, Doody strikes out boldly into territory of wide aesthetic and cultural interest, arguing that the revisers’ refusal to admit any references to the Church Militant, God as man or king, or spiritual strife (militancy again), goes hand in hand with the tenets and practices of deconstruction, since it is deconstruction which sanctions disregard for historical and authorial authenticity, and hence allows the revisers to perform their grotesque operations on texts. Like many of her co-authors, Doody sees deconstruction as an academic canker which has exerted a devastatingly harmful effect on literary criticism and on personal (especially authorial) liberty.

The last section, ‘Rectitudes’, takes us into the area of explicit public debate on language. Roy Harris investigates swear-words and their place in those ‘litmus-paper areas of British culture’, poetry and cricket, in a discussion of the controversy which surrounded the reporting of two major linguistic events of the Eighties: the broadcasting on Channel 4 of Tony Harrison’s v., a poem which expressed Harrison’s outrage at the daubing of his parents’ gravestones with obscenities, and the quarrel between the umpire and the England captain in the 1987 Test Match at Faisalabad. Harris attempts to isolate the arguments used to condemn or defend swearing, regarding these as far more significant than the words themselves (he asks whether it will one day seem as strange to object to fuck as it would be now to object to gadzooks). He concludes that we need to straighten out our ideas about the relationship between public and private language.

Comparable incidents are investigated by Liz Hasse in a discussion of some recent American court cases. Was wearing a jacket bearing the plainly visible words ‘Fuck the Draft’ in a Los Angeles courthouse corridor an act of ‘political speech’ or a disturbance of the peace? Should the death of a teenage boy (also from Los Angeles) who shot himself after listening to a recording of Ozzy Osbourne, ‘the madman of rock and roll’, be laid at the latter’s door or not? Was a 12-minute radio comedy called Filthy Words, where seven words were several times repeated in various popular phrases (‘shit’, ‘piss’, ‘fuck’, ‘motherfucker’, ‘cocksucker’, ‘cunt’, and ‘tits’), obscene or not? Both articles show the inadequacy, and potentially dangerous absurdity, of our national arbiters, whether Press Council or law courts, in dealing with acts of speech. Harris derides Lord Thomson’s exoneration of Harrison, who was let off on the grounds that he did not intend to ‘shock’ his readers: ‘a reader whose grasp of contemporary English is so weak as to result in a failure to recognise verbal shock as one of the central mechanisms of Tony Harrison’s poem immediately forfeits any credibility as a literary judge.’ Hasse detects a worrying double standard in the attitude applied by the American constitutional law to the language of sex, on the one hand, and the language of the violence, on the other. Where sexual language is concerned, the state may punish an author if a jury thinks the words ‘may at any time incite a prurient (defined by Webster’s as lustful, lewd, morbid or lascivious) interest in the mind of another’ (the radio programme was therefore banned). But in the case of, violent language or images, ‘its effects must be visible and physical and lawless and violent and immediate and intended and foreseeable’ before the state will intervene (so the jacket-wearer, who didn’t cause a fuss, was exonerated, as was Ozzy Osbourne, since the court deemed his lyrics to be ‘unintelligible’ and therefore incapable of inciting to violence). What are the implications of this double standard? Hasse draws a moral for feminists: ‘redefining pornography’ away from the sexual, where rules against it also threaten to suppress feminist and sex education books, and instead within the violent, as violence and provocation against women, might have the effect of affording pornography far more protection from state censorship than it receives under a sexual obscenity standard’.

Other essays include a splendid job by John Algeo routing some linguistic myths on tag questions, Keith Thomas on how to end a letter, and Enoch Powell on the relationship between the decline of the classics and that of grammar. A short, bad-tempered article by Kingsley Amis complaining of the ignorance, misuse and misprision of language nowadays is cunningly placed just before a confessional piece by Christopher Ricks, describing how such linguistic ‘decline’ can on the contrary bring comfort and enlightenment. After his wife of twenty years ago called the police during a bout of ‘marital misery’ (Ricks had punched in the conservatory windowpanes), his heart leapt up as at a ‘rainbow in the night sky’ when the policeman said to him: ‘We get a phone-call, sir, telling us that someone has gone beresk.’ ‘On a night like this,’ Ricks tells us, ‘it was good to be alive. Beresk! Bereft, burlesque, grotesque and berserk as I had become, beresk was exactly what I had gone ... I felt better at once.’

Amis’s views on language were more wittily aired in the previous volume (in ‘Getting it wrong’). What he seems chiefly to object to is the fact that, as time passes, the ways in which words are used change and evolve – or, as he sees it, decline. But even Dr Johnson, who hoped his dictionary would fix the language, recognised that this was in part a futile wish. The question is: is change necessarily decay? Two articles, by Geoffrey Nunberg and Sylvia Adamson, explore the issue in far more sophisticated, informed and informative ways than Amis.

Nunberg picks up Harris’s argument that it is not the words themselves which are so important. Usage changes whether we like it or not, and new words and uses once objected to often seem unexceptionable years later (as mob, improve, to contact and scores of others). But the attitudes and arguments of those who complain about change can be relied upon to reflect current conceptions of the role of public discourse and it is these conceptions which are really interesting. Nunberg has at his disposal some uniquely valuable evidence, the results of surveys dispatched by the American Heritage Dictionary to ‘members of the dictionary’s “usage panel”, (including Alistair Cooke, Jessica Mitford, Margaret Atwood, Paul Theroux, Fay Weldon, Harold Bloom, Susan Sontag, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Dwight Bolinger, Elizabeth Traugott and many more). What is revealing is how the panel’s response to certain types of usage has changed between 1969, the date of the first survey, and 1988. Take, for example, one of Amis’s favourite bête noires, the evolution of words from an etymologically-justified meaning to an etymologically-unjustified one (aggravate to mean the same as irritate, anxious to mean eager, and so on). It turns out that the panel objects much less to these usages now than it did twenty years ago. On the other hand, it still fiercely resists disinterested to mean uninterested and ‘hopefully as a sentence adverb (in the case of hopefully resistance to its use has actually increased in the last twenty years: 44 per cent of the panel found in acceptable in 1969, 27 per cent in 1988). Why the difference in attitude? Nunberg suggests that the panel’s discounting of etymological rules indicates the diminished relevance and authority of the Greek and Latin tradition in educational curricula. Where native traditions are concerned, however, it felt that the old rules should still apply.

This analysis is supported by the panel’s response to some crafty trick questions on other sorts of usage. Many objected to the grammatically legitimate modification of unique (as in ‘Los Angeles is no less unique a city than New York or Paris’), as well as to its illegitimate modification (as in phrases like quite unique, which imply that unique is not an absolute term): and this indicates that they were over-zealously applying the traditional rule. Similarly, the panel’s nervousness with examples like ‘Much of my life has been devoted to sedulously setting off firecrackers’ suggests that fear of split infinitives leads to suspicion of any construction where an adverb occurs between the word to and its verb. But there is an exception to this conservatism. Where issues of sexism were implicated, the panellists divided either equally or in favour of anti-sexism, rejecting the term ambassadress wholeheartedly, and tending to favour he or she in place of the impersonal he.

Nunberg concludes that the panel’s tendency to be grammatical sticklers in some cases and not in others reflects the relative importance of the issues perceived to be behind them. There is no good reason for not trying to avoid the sort of grammatical pitfalls that got them into trouble at high school, so by all means let none take a singular verb. But the question of whether to use he, he or she, or she raises a real social issue, and it may be justifiable to break with tradition. Like Harris, Nunberg is interested in the arguments used for and against different forms rather than the forms themselves (‘which are merely the disjecta membra of history’). ‘If we keep our eye on the social function of language, rather than on the particular usages it takes as occasions, we will take the discussions of issues like those the feminists have raised as the legitimate successors of the critical tradition.’

Sylvia Adamson, in ‘The What of the Language?’, brings the book to a superb finish. She begins by contrasting the structuralist view of language – that it is a closed, rigid system which determines the thoughts people can have and express – with the voluntarist view that language is in a continuous state of flux, constantly modified by the unpredictable and whimsical utterances that fly forth whenever anybody opens their mouth. Some professional linguists take the first view, popular writers on the decline of language take the second. She proposes that we should instead search for a model of language that sees it as both these things, as a continuous dialogue and exchange between langue and parole (and suggests that we should talk about ‘the “between” of the language’). Analysing processes of change in language, she shows that what Amis would think of as decay can also be seen as progression: users develop the meanings of words away from their original significance in order to fill gaps in the existing lexicon or grammar. A ‘floating’ hopefully (as in ‘hopefully, he set to work’) cannot be replaced by any other word or construction which has exactly the same meaning, which is why it has become so ubiquitous. It performs a function that language-users have found truly valuable. And anyway, as Adamson points out, hopefully is only a fragment of ‘a larger pattern of change which has already worked itself through and become accepted elsewhere in the language’. No one would now object to ‘probably/evidently/certainly/surely he set to work,’ and all these, like hopefully, are adverbs which would originally have modified the verb ‘work’ rather than the sentence as a whole. Hopefully is in a period of transition and therefore sticks out as a solecism. And popular solecisms (about which she has many interesting things to say, exploring, like Ricks, their poetic possibilities) are invaluable markers for the linguistic historian, indicating ‘the moment when language as an activity begins to impress itself upon language as a system, changing the code to accommodate the needs of its speakers’. Eventually, when the solecisms have become absorbed into generally approved usage, we reach ‘the stage at which speaker-meanings and context-meanings have been converted into system meanings, or, in Saussurean terms, parole has become langue’.

The flow between parole and langue is not one way, however. Choosing another set of case-histories, those of negative-creating prefixes (un-, in-, a-) Adamson shows that the gradual shifting around and proliferation of these forms rarely results in semantic loss and that norms of usage will reassert themselves. ‘The overall functional ecology of the system,’ she concludes, ‘remains in balance.’ A heartening note on which to end.

The struggle described by blacks and feminists in The State of the Language, that of bodying forth an experience in words which are intelligible (therefore, necessarily, familiar to your audience) yet, at the same time, original to yourself, can also – as I suggested earlier – be looked at in terms of the relationship between langue and parole: how does the linguistic output of the individual relate to that of the tribe? On this view, it is a struggle which no writer, whatever his or her tradition, can escape. Six hundred years ago, Chaucer suffered similarly (makyng means ‘poetry’ and ropen ‘reaped’):

For wel I wot that folk han here-beforn
Of makyng ropen, and lad awey the corn;
And I come after, glenynge here and there,
And am ful glad if I may fynde an ere
Of any goodly word that they han left.

Walter Redfern’s book explores precisely this issue, and his title, Clichés and Coinages, can be interpreted as summarising the whole corpus of possible discourse: either someone has said it before, or they haven’t. This is a somewhat tendentious interpretation, of course, and Redfern has a great deal of fun with it, in a non-stop, quick-gag, relentlessly punning, self-delighting cliché-ridden style that may well strike some readers as eventually wearisome. But it’s worth persevering: he throws in (away) many striking insights on puns, plagiarism, proverbs, slogans, name-calling, euphemism and much else, in a self-conscious text densely patchworked with richly various allusion and quotation. The catch-all quality of the writing, which stuffs an immense amount of valuable but disparate material under each of the various chapter headings, makes one turn to the index for tax-onomical guidance. Readers should be warned that this can be (un)helpfully joky. Half-way through the book (at Chapter 13) Redfern turns from clichés to neologisms. Under neologisms in the index, however, you will find no hint of the discussion which takes up Chapters 14-20, but instead only references to Redfern’s own coinages (some of which, it has to be said, might come in useful: e.g. neminity for the state of being be no one, nusquamity for the state of being nowhere). And, to underline the point of the book, that clichés can be eternally productive and true originality is a chimera, clichés refers you to coinages, coinages refers you to clichés.

Walter Nash’s book, Rhetoric: The Wit of Persuasion, is sober by contrast, but written and organised with superb clarity. Like Redfern, he engages with his audience in a way that may come across as coy: for example, he is cosily aware of the joke that, to persuade people that rhetoric is a good thing, it helps if you’re a dab hand at it yourself. Nash analyses a wide range of discourse (including newspaper leaders, advertising slogans, and canonical texts from Chaucer to Malcolm Bradbury) to show how classical analysis of tropes and figures can be genuinely useful in identifying textual strategies; and he also provides a mini-history of the fortunes of rhetoric from Plato to the present-day.