Like fire, storm or thunder… the written word

By Posted on Location: , 4 min read
Summer in rural Peru
January 2020

I cannot read her work, so when a journalist friend tells me that she’s surprised when someone compliments her writing, I cannot judge for myself what she is publishing.

However, I am well-acquainted with her self-possessed use of the English language. You wouldn’t guess that neither of her parents speaks English from the elaborate emails she writes to me. Although, when free from the newspaper word-limit she’s undoubtedly verbose, her words captivate.

Words are magic.

Written words stimulate the imagination as much as any other external reality – fire, storm, thunder – and yet they can express an internal reality – hope, philosophy, mood – in ways which also provoke the imagination, engage with that astounding faculty and set it off to make more words, adding to the visible map of the mind. Writing helps us to see what it is to be more completely human.

Melvyn Bragg, The Adventure of English

I think by writing. My borrowed thoughts and beliefs get tested and made mine by my efforts to commit them to paper. When times get tricky, I reach to the written word. Through the written word I learnt to communicate about rape. My diaries hold the words I often don’t know how to say. Words like love, fear, grief, sex.

Considering that I was born with some mild disadvantage when it comes to the spoken word, it’s unsurprising that my linguistic confidence is so linked to pen and paper. Maybe Freud would say that after a childhood of having my h’s, t’s, a’s, u’s and f’s corrected (ridiculed), it’s of no surprise that I make my living teaching others to speak well. Or proper, as I would prefer to say.

My father thinks it mad that I am an English teacher. His daughter who started life with clogged up lugs and a lazy tongue, who couldn’t work out how many claps to fit in the rhythm of her own name, who, he jokes, learnt to speak after the younger one…

And yet, last summer my increasingly deaf grandfather complimented the clarity of my speech, quite taking me aback. But, he’s right. Not without toil, I am cleaning up my pronunciation: letting my day-to-day English slide towards what we call received pronunciation, standard, BBC or posh. I am challenging my substandard articulation and like a boy, whose voice is deepening, from time to time make sounds that surprise me. Sometimes I cringe to hear myself.

I’m not eradicating my language of the past, just reducing the ignorance that limited it.

I know full well that the way we speak forms and restricts our identities. I have no problem with teaching at the weekend as on the weekend to my Latin American students (even if I think it sounds ugly), but I’m clear that it’s not the way I speak. My students need a consistent, reliable English and there’s no point getting all uppity about one flavour of the language being better than another. Prepositions are tricky enough at the best of times. People are generally insecure enough about their language without having it picked-to-death by pedants.

I would correct their use of I am sat if they ever thought to make such a mistake, with the caveat that it’s not unsaid back home. When I teach, I do not pretend that there is one righteous English. And the more I teach, the more I fall in love. The richness is in the variety, the endless possibilities that tempts and taunts us. Yet I no longer feel at the mercy of the rulebook. My dialectical twists of grammar exist because I choose them to. I know more about English grammar than most native speakers. When someone points out that a word I say doesn’t exist to them, I no longer take it quite so personally.

Chaucer used a different flavour of English for each of his storytellers in his Canterbury Tales. Since then the language has grown, but the idea that we can each have such unique voices is still as true as ever. 

We each have our vocabulary – visible maps of our minds. Mine holds my words, whilst my friends each have their distinct linguistic maps. Idiolects mostly coinciding with the dictionary and grammar guides, but not always. Even within the closeness of family, my mother and I debate across the dining room table with phrases that the other would never say. I rarely invoke any Gordons.

The distinctiveness of our voice lays visible to others and yet we are oft-times unaware of it.

We might be perplexed by the words we do not understand but think little of those we do. We might have the ambition to sound like someone famous we’ve read, and realise we never will. I wonder if my journalist friend knows that Gabriel García Márquez was a brilliant journalist, though terrible at spelling

She listens to her language. During her voice messages, she frequently pauses to ponder which of a few words would be the most apt for her particular phrase. I’ve sat in awe, listening as she muses over regional distinctions between tiny populations in the 5-million-strong country of Finland. Her awareness of language, of identity, of the power of words, is a treasure.

Maybe though, she has no idea how special what she does is.