Monday, 31 January 2011

Mind Your Language

While leafing through a magazine the other week I came across a full-page advertisement for an upcoming film ('movie' to my American readers) which had a notice down in the bottom right-hand corner stating that the film contained "Strong Language".
This, of course, got me thinking. They were referring to swearing of course, the kind of language you might want to avoid in polite company, but why is such language described as "strong"? Strength normally suggests potency, effectiveness, the ability to influence, the posession of power being of renown. And presumably, therefore, if profanity is "strong" then other non-profane utterances are somehow by comparison weak, ineffective and of lesser use.
Strength also carries with it the idea of renown, and by extension honour, praise, respect, admiration and being considered of worth and value. (Think about it - have you recently praise or admired someone for their weakness? It's the strong that we talk about and respect.) Does this mean, then that "strong" language is somehow better, more praiseworthy and of innately greater value than other forms of speech? We certainly seem to be hearing more and more of it; our cinema and TV screens are awash with graphic expletives as producers and directors seek to grab the attention of a bored and fickle public by outdoing everything that went before. You can barely walk down the street now without encountering sewer-mouthed idiots F'ing and cursing away without any consideration or regard for the child by your side or the old lady two steps behind you.
Strong language may be everywhere, and so ingrained in our culture that it has almost become part of us, but universal popularity doesn't make something right and just because everyone's doing it doesn't mean it's healthy. If you doubt this, I offer you the following suggestion: eat excrement - after all, ten million flies can't be wrong.
No, rather than being "strong" this outpouring of verbal violence is weakening our language. Many people seem to have lost the ability to express themselves adequately using just normal words. They have become incapable of expressing strong emotion, deeply held conviction or even of simply arguing a point without swearing. And yet, at the same time, those "strong" words have now become so commonplace that they themselves have lost their meaning. I come across people on a daily basis who drop the F-word into almost every sentence without it adding anything to what they are saying. It's as if that word has become something they say just because they ought to, a verbal full-stop or comma perhaps.
It is, however, very possible to communicate both clearly and powerfully without resorting to strong language. When I was at school we had an English teacher named Mr Gould. An almost-bald giant of a man, he always came to school in a suit and he never, ever swore. Yet he told errant pupils in no uncertain terms exactly what he thought of them and every one of his classes was attentive and calm. I remember clearly one lesson in which some lad was whispering to his friend at the back. Mr Gould straightened himself up in his chair, placed his big hands palm-down on his desk, fixed the young man with one of his famous hard stares and thundered, "Silence, boy, or I will cleave your brains apart with an axe!" In today's misguided age Mr Gould would probably be suspended for such threats, but we all thought he was brilliant and he was by far the most popular teacher in the school.
And what about that other linguistic traversty, "Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics"? Well excuse me, but aren't all lyrics meant to be explicit? What exactly would the point be of lyrics that did not explicitly convey the emotion or meaning of a song? Again, we have a generation falling into the trap of feeling they cannot adeqautely express themselves without filling their lyrics with F-rated profanities and thinking they are really cool for doing so. I beg to differ: if you want explicit lyrics try listening to the the old hymn Jerusalem by Willam Blake. Or if that's too old for you then perhaps the song Eleanor Rigby by Paul McCartney, Heavenly Homes by Bill Nelson or Money by Pink Floyd. You'll find there a far more eloquent and emotionally charged experience that you'll ever get from some foul-mouthed barely educated bling-toting wannabee rap star with his hat on backwards.
Friends, it is time for us to rise from this lazy cess-pit of linguistic filth and reclaim the language we once knew how to use. As Ephesians 4:29 says, "Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers."
Let me know how you get on.

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