Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Words' worth

What I’m about to say might annoy some of you – but I’m going to say it anyway.

OK, here goes.
(Takes a deep breath and braces herself for the inevitable backlash):   
Words don’t belong a museum.

'Where did that come from?' I hear you cry (I do, don't I?). Well, I've been getting increasingly itchy and uncomfortable at public debates bemoaning the way we teach our children their native language.

A little while back, there was outrage at the news that England's school curriculum would include non-traditional examples of language in action, such as comedian Russell Brand’s interview on the BBC, writer Caitlin Moran’s twitter feed, and even (horror!) rap lyrics. Then, last week, Education Secretary Michael Gove worked himself into a patriotic hissy fit and decided that American literature should be excluded from English kids’ study list.

Here in Greece, where my own son is a year away from the culmination of his Senior High School career, I’ve again been hearing the bleating of traditionalists horrified at the proposed study of their beloved ancient language in less traditional forms – adverts, song lyrics, newspaper articles, even recipes – presumably because they think that thousands of years of living Greek couldn't survive the onslaught.

I'll take a well written phrase wherever I find it. And I see no harm in engaging our kids and young adults with something they can identify with and – heavens! – perhaps be interested in. After all, what better way to entice them into the wonders and power of language, used well?

I’ll admit I often find Russell Brand to be an annoying, loud-mouthed hipster-hippy with more issues that ‘Punch’ magazine, but there’s no denying the bloke knows his way around a dictionary. His style's a little florid for my taste at times, but anyone who can expand the teenage vocabulary of approval beyond “cool”, “nice”, “awesome” and “s’alright I spose” deserves some recognition.

As for Caitlin Moran – well, have you read “How To Be A Woman”? I zipped through it in a few days of commutes, and in the process alarmed many a fellow passenger with my explosions of laughter and expletives of approval of her pencraft. And anyway, isn't the 140 character discipline of Twitter is just an extreme, modern day version of what we used to call ‘Precis’ when I was at school?

Then there's rap. I'm not a fan, in general. But I find some of its cleverer lyrics to be the redeeming quality of the genre. Really, who’s to say that this:

"Like a crowd in my head, so loud.
I wonder what it's like to be dead, I hope it's quiet.
Noise in my head like a riot.
Any remedy you have for me, I'll try it."

is less worthy than a dusty, half-forgotten ode to some long-dead heroine of Victorian melodrama?  

And as for removing the Yank interlopers from our bookshelves, Mr Gove. Do you REALLY want to us to wave goodbye to Maya Angelou, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Robert Frost, J.D. Salinger, Ray Bradbury, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Miller, Alice Walker, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe….  and more? 
I certainly don’t.

The joy of language is that it’s alive, constantly changing, mutating like an X Man mainlining caffeine. The route it takes from one form to another is a fascinating process – often an insult to our sensitivities, sometimes just plain wrong, but occasionally quite brilliant. Sadly, many gems are lost in the general condemnation of modernity.

The inclusion of more recent, informal examples of language use doesn't mean we have wiped Shakespeare off the curriculum, nor any of his literary chums. Nor does it mean ignoring Greek classics like Homer’s Odyssey – or even the cute little poems learned and recited parrot fashion by generations of Greek six-year-olds. (I’m thinking specifically of “Φεγγαράκι μου λαμπρό” - literally “My bright moonshine” - a trite set of couplets sung to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with which most Greeks feel a strong emotional bond. But the reason is not literary merit, but the fact that it describes a Greek child going to night school during the Turkish occupation when formal schooling in Greek was forbidden. Its significance is cultural, not poetic.)

I’m lucky. I grew up loving words. Thanks firstly to my mum and dad who read to me every night when I was small, and encouraged me to read anything and everything I fancied once I was old enough. Then there was a series of brilliant English teachers (take a bow Dorothy Griffiths, Bill Hazledene, Alex Gear and Dick Brewis) who revealed to me the power and beauty of words in action.

I’ve been a ‘language professional’ (yuck!) for more than three decades and I’m a fully paid-up member of the Word Nerd Club. I love me a bit of Shakespeare, or Voltaire, or even some of the saucier sections of Chaucer. I even found myself quoting King Lear on Facebook yesterday. But why does that mean I have to condemn other forms?

Advertising, when done really well, is a symphony of wit and vision packed into a 30-second spot. Quality journalistic writing can reveal more in a few paragraphs about the human condition than pages of some 18th century rural idyll ever will. Some of the best rhyming couplets the English language ever produced came in the not-so-dulcet tones of Ian Dury. And speaking as one who loves her food almost as much as her words, a well-written recipe can be a thing of beauty.

In our paroxysm of piety about the materials we use to teach our kids to use their own language, we’re missing something. If they can’t relate to it, they will simply switch off. All but the most devoted wordists among them will – at best – engage their literary muscles for as only long as they need them to get past their end-of-school exams. And they may never pick up another book again.

That detachment from good language use has led to the Copy/Paste culture and apostrophe abuse that I can often be found ranting quietly about in a corner of the room where I’ve been put to avoid disturbing respectable company. 

At the risk of being ostracised and even exiled from both my homeland and the country I now live, I pronounce loud and proud: Bring on the new stuff!

Let me wallow in the brevity of wit displayed on the smartest Twitter feeds. Let me bathe is the glory of a phrase in an article so elegant that I just have to read it out loud to anyone who’ll listen. Let me rejoice in the conscious-piercing barb of that ad for “Medicins sans Frontiers”.

Shakespeare, Dickens and Chaucer aren’t going anywhere. Nor is Aristofanes or Kazantzakis.  Byron and Wordsmouth will still be waiting patiently on the shelves for us to revisit their words whenever we feel the need. So too will the divine Roger MGough.

Words are not just to wander lonely as a cloud or ask whether this is a dagger I see before me. They are there for the taking, to explore, play with and rearrange in a way that helps us connect with the world around us and something that lies within.  

After all, do you really think that all the world’s great literature has already been written?


  1. I *love* how you think. And write!

  2. Mandi - nice piece and well written - but I would expect that! As someone who didn't take English Literature at school (I don't really know why, but I think it involved other choices that included Latin and that would have wasted everybody's time and money!) it is difficult for me to comment on the validity of the great American novels. bhowever, this very subject came up elsewhere on Facebook and a point I made was utterly ignored: namely the interpretation of the word 'English' in the subject 'English Literature'. Could Micheal Gove have taken this - well - literally? Or does it refer to 'Literature that was originally written in English? agree with you that subjects should be chosen which are most likely to keep the majority of students interested but still they should be alerted to acknowledged works, English or not. You cited above both Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allen Poe - I lapped up Bradbury at a younger age and enjoyed Poe, yet their styles are vastly different. Shakespeare was the greatest of writers but can be hard going - nevertheless selected works should be compulsory (in my opinion). And as for apostrophes, don't get me started! Local Councils have adopted the 'no apostrophe's heresy, thus my neighbours live in 'Pauls Walk' and I once pointed out to an employer of Morrisons Supermarket that I wouldn't work for a company that could not 'spell' their own name right!
    I finish with the good news that in the above diatribe, the words 'Pauls' and 'Morrisons' both have red squiggles underneath them, but if the correct punctuation is administered then all is well!