Speaking of language…

Last night, I went to see the musical Made in Dagenham at the Adelphi Theatre. I remembered the film very fondly, and if the songs turned out to be not all that memorable, the comic timing was superb (it’s worth it for Harold Wilson’s dance routine alone). Since I knew the plot in advance, I was in the rather fortunate position of being able to sit back and take time to think about the implications of the script, the action, the way that certain scenarios were presented. And for me, one of the most moving scenes was Rita’s visit to her son’s school, to complain that he is being caned. The teacher is tall, serious, attired exclusively in black. He patronises her terribly (of course he does – this is a show about the unequal treatment of women and men, after all), and sends her packing. But he does so in a particularly horrible way. He achieves her defeat through language.

Elsewhere in the story, language is again used as a weapon – the trade union speak that Rita has to circumvent to make her point convincingly – but it was this scene in the schoolroom that stuck with me. Rita is nobody’s fool, and yet she is comprehensively trounced by this smug educationalist, because he knows longer words than she does. It is only when Rita finds an unlikely ally in the form of middle-class, well-educated Lisa Hopkins that she is able to take action against the school, in the form of a petition. Alas, we never find out whether or not this is successful.

Language is immensely powerful, constantly evolving and – let’s be honest here – it can exclude. This can be accidental, of course: the use of a phrase with which our interlocutors are unfamiliar but which we use because we’re so used to it. Or it can be entirely deliberate, a weapon with which the linguistically superior can beat those of us with less sophisticated vocabularies or networks of meaning (as in the case of Rita’s son’s school teacher). So it’s important to think about how you want to use it. Is it going to be your means of buoying up that inferiority complex you’ve been nurturing? Are you simply going to stick to your own words and expressions, and be damned if others struggle to keep up? Will you start from assuming that everyone is stupider than you, and that words of one syllable are the best solution in all circumstances? Or is a rather subtler approach needed?

Brahms cartoon with a balloonI’ve had several conversations with people over the last month about how I find appropriate language for the different parts of my working life. Teaching undergraduates; writing programme notes; introducing concerts in person, and speaking on the radio; writing this blog, of course. Their responses have been interesting. Many consider an educationalist who uses complex language to be quite simply ‘a bad teacher’. Concert organisers should seek to be inclusive, and vocabulary must be tailored accordingly. Self-satisfied radio presenters who think everything is ‘gorgeous’ and ‘transcendental’, and speak with plummy accents, irritate some. And the blog? Well, the blog is my concern, and since you’re still reading it, I can only assume that you’re not horribly disapproving of it so far.

Here is the tightrope that we must negotiate, if we wish to ‘speak’ to people (and here I include writing) in public. Audiences in a concert hall are often diverse; a way must be found to offer new information to the well-informed, and not lose the less expert. Radio presenters must advocate for the music they include, introduce it to listeners who may be unfamiliar with it, yet also try to avoid patronising those who have studied Schoenberg’s serial works in detail. And teachers – well, with teachers, I have particular sympathy. I don’t believe that using complex language is bad teaching, if the teacher succeeds in developing their students’ vocabulary and stretching their minds without abusing their position of authority. By which I mean that the students must be encouraged to pursue a line of thought, and not left simply to reflect upon how erudite their teacher is, without any hope of following him or her along that path.

I also don’t believe that complex vocabulary is obligatory to relate difficult theories or concepts. It is perfectly possible to maintain intellectual rigour without resorting to sentences in which every word has at least five syllables. Certain books spring to mind as wonderful examples here: Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World (which allowed me to teach a group of undergraduates the theory of Platonic ideals in about ten utterly painless minutes); C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, in which successive novels of just 100 pages bring to life a world as complex and multi-coloured as many authors manage in ten times that number; and of course, A.A. Milne’s complete output. Where would we all be without Winnie the Pooh?

So yes, in my first live radio appearance on Friday, speaking on the music of Brahms, I brought a fancy-dress beard along to make a valid aesthetic point – and make the audience laugh. In teaching the importance of late Beethoven, I show my students stills from The Simpsons and cartoons about Napoleon. I also expect them to be able to explain to me what mimesis is, as a result of the same lecture. The two are not mutually exclusive, and nor (I believe) should they be. And I categorically do not believe that divisive language is helpful – which probably explains why reading Slipped Disc often sends my blood pressure through the roof. As far as I am concerned, language should be a tool to open doors that people have never seen before, not a way to slam them in the faces of the uninitiated. Language is powerful, and also power. Use it wisely.

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