Childhood glimpses of a truer reality

talk on the wild sideYou know that electric thrill when something jostles a shapeless old sack full of dim notions in one of the dusty, dark rooms at the back of your head and it rolls overs and its contents somehow rearrange themselves and suddenly coalesce to form a coherent idea that bursts out of the sack, crackling with energy, glowing with light, beautifully new and familiar at the same time?

My brain doesn’t treat me to those moments all that often, but I now owe one to Lane Greene and his new book Talk on the Wild Side: The Untameable Nature of Language.

It’s a great book, lucid and insightful, a riposte to the grumpy sticklers who complain that our language is going to the dogs, who see every change as a sign of decay. Greene rejects their implicit view of English as “an easily threatened logical system for conveying meaning without loss or confusion, which could crumble if we don’t mind it carefully”. Instead, he says, we should realise that language is “a robust, organic and evolving phenomenon that needs relatively little intervention”.

Our language may be untidy, inefficient and imprecise at times, Greene says, but it is hardy, resourceful and adaptable.

To make his case, he explores the natural, social history of language change, the links between language and national identity, and the enormous difficulties of teaching machines to speak. He marvels at the dreamers who have tried to invent logical new languages and despairs at the clueless certainty of amateur grammarians. He even explains the underrated linguistic skills of Donald Trump.

The bit that really made my brain perk up, though, was a single well-placed turn of phrase.

Greene discusses what happens when children first bump into unexpected “rules” of English, rules that clash with the language they’ve picked up from the adults around them. Lots of us can remember a teacher telling us not to say “Can I?” when asking for permission, or not to say “Me and Billy went”…

When children are suddenly told that what they know their parents and virtually everyone else says, and what they have been saying all their lives thus far, is “wrong”, there’s an early disconnect between the child’s native competence and the new idea of an invisible but Platonically correct language out there, one that nobody seems to be using.

As Greene says, the typical reaction to this is puzzlement and even humiliation at being wrong when you’re sure you were right. If you continue to be bruised by encounters with “grammar”, you’ll grow to resent it.

But here’s what this made me think: Not all children react in the same way to those early encounters with the Platonic realm of proper English.

There’s a scene from a David Tennant episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor talks about how the Master first became power-crazed:

When he was a child. That’s when the Master saw eternity. As a novice, he was taken for initiation. He stood in front of the Untempered Schism. It’s a gap in the fabric of reality through which could be seen the whole of the Vortex. You stand there, eight years old, staring at the raw power of time and space, just a child. Some would be inspired, some would run away, and some would go mad.

When kids glimpse Platonic English, some of them realise that they’re supposed to learn how to use it, and they make partly successful efforts to do so. Some are distrustful, thinking it a threat to their own language, and they try to avoid it. And some stare at this elusive, mysterious knowledge – a purer, higher truth that sets the elite few apart from the masses – and they go mad.

Is this the moment when apparently ordinary children turn into budding grammar-peevers? Is this the catalyst that makes a love of knowledge fuse with a respect for authority to produce a desire for linguistic superiority?

When I remember my own early experiences of being “corrected” by teachers, I think I managed to avoid going mad. Just.

I was one of those annoying kids who took pride in being clever, and I had a pedantic streak that nowadays is mostly under control. More charitably: I liked understanding things. And the rules of English were something I could take an interest in. I was at risk of proto-peeverism, and as young as seven or eight my speech and writing were already more formal than the average kid’s (even the average smart-alec kid’s), but I managed to keep my feet on the ground. During my teens I grew out of the idea that formal language was a sign of sophistication and intelligence and maturity.

But some people don’t grow out of it. They grow ever more fixated with the Platonic world, anxious to protect its perfection from the barbarian hordes of real life and zealous to conquer the rest of us in its name.

If they were to read Talk on the Wild Side, they might learn to ease up. Maybe just a little.

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  • Jan  On November 9, 2018 at 11:53 am

    Sometimes, even with our beloved language, it’s fun to be an iconoclast. One of the things I most enjoy about writers like Hilary Mantel is that she has such a mastery of language that she can allow herself to play with it occasionally. There is never a dull sentence, but every so often one really jumps out and makes you laugh aloud with a teasing choice of word or deliberately odd phrasing. Not too much—the element of surprise is what makes it work.

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