Writing, language & Stephen Fry

Dan Holst Soelberg's caricature drawing of Stephen Fry

My caricature drawing of Stephen Fry

My mind is on language at the moment. I am in the midst of expanding a story outline into a proper draft of text that will eventually become a new book. This stage of writing is both exciting and filled with doubt. Is a phrase too obvious? On the other hand, have I left too much out? Simply choosing the right word can set off a whole series of ideas that affect how the book will feel for the reader. After all, a book is revealed as one reads, so every new word is coloured by the previous. I’m constantly throwing out a word in favour of another and reciting the sentence aloud to hear its new shape and linguistic form. I am consciously trying to, as Stephen Fry put it, “yoke impossible words together for the sound sex of it.” Stephen Fry spoke these words in his 2008 podcast on language. There was also a fantastic little viral video made with a segment of his podcast that includes this phrase. Take a break from this article and watch it right now.

Fry possesses a staggering depth of knowledge that dwarfs my own, but I share his sentiments on the subject of language. Fry has a passion for language that is contagious and sometimes intimidating. Why intimidating? Because he has strong opinions and downright condemnation for pedants who use their knowledge of language to wage battles about ‘right’ language and the rules that govern it. And this is why he steals my maverick heart. Stephen Fry has the presence of mind to understand that the purpose of language is not to motivate arguments about the correctness of its application or promote an elite rank that denounces certain thought for violating rules. Fry asks, “Is the idea of purifying the dialect of the tribe a poetic ideal or nonsensical snobbery.” He understands that language is a tool meant to connect us and communicate ideas. The only reason we have rules is to sharpen the tool.

However, rules tend also to stagnate language. Conventional language is primarily good for conveying conventional thought. Someone expressing an original voice has every right to take considerable poetic license and rip convention to shreds. Rules of language aren’t really rules, so there is no right or wrong. If an idea or emotion is communicated more effectively by breaking a rule, it justifies itself.

There isn’t an eternal rulebook for language that has passed through generations since the dawn of its utterance. Those who argue for maintaining the sacred integrity and eternal purity of language have it wrong. Look at published texts that are over 100 years old and you’ll see just how wrong. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, published in 1813, is a good example. Mostly because it’s within my arm’s reach at the moment. Outmoded spelling and punctuation abounds. Far from stagnant, language is dynamic and evolving. Its present state is simply the most now stage in its evolution.

People who argue for strict adherence to rules don’t get it. They aren’t swept up in the sound sex of language. They just like to argue. Arguing and being right is terribly important for so many people. Oh, how they miss out on so much fun! I prefer poets and artists who find unbounded joy in stretching language to its elastic potential.

I do believe in understanding rules before you break them. Having an informed mind gives one a position of authority. Breaking a rule for no particular reason or goal in mind is meaningless. Knowing a language rule and breaking it intentionally for a desired effect can potentially create profound meaning.

Here’s hoping I am on the verge of crafting profound meaning. Back to work…