{ thinking out loud about the things i care about }

A Lesson in Language from Stephen Fry

An essay on language from Stephen Fry has been turned into a completely lovely little Kinetic Typography video.

I love language. Most specifically I suppose I love English since it’s the only one I know how to use, but I do try to use it well. And when I say “well” what I mean isn’t always “correctly” or “properly”. Sometimes “well” means “creatively”. Or “uniquely”. Or even “colloquially”.

Not too long ago I inadvertently got into a bit of a Twitter argument with a surprisingly number of people on whether or not the Oxford comma was a necessity. Should it always be used? Is it necessary? And ultimately somewhere in that long, surprisingly passionate argument was a discussion about the merits of “proper” language as critical for the sake of communication. Stephen Fry’s comments on the nuance between “disinterested” and “uninterested” most perfectly embodies that argument: in particular my side of it.

The nuance of words is and can be important in the right context. In a political speech or poem the difference between disinterested and uninterested could be of great import. But that doesn’t mean it always has to be of great import. The great flexibility of language is that can stretch or shrink as we require it, and as the culture that uses it changes, so too can language.

I know some writers dislike the way texting, tweeting and online chatting has distorted language in ways that are leaking into the vernacular — both written and spoken — but I delight in it. I enjoy the eyerolling nuance writing “LOL” adds that the word “laugh” doesn’t in itself contain. I love how changing “the” to “teh” modifies the entire tone of a sentence, how emoticons clarify intent in two or three characters, and how Twitter hashtags can be functional, thematic and humorous all at the same time.

There is absolutely a place for proper language, just like there is a place for the Oxford comma. But the language we use today is as fluid as it has ever been, and in a world that changes as rapidly as ours I want a language free to adapt and change with it. Language can’t and shouldn’t remain static.

One Comment to post “A Lesson in Language from Stephen Fry”

  1. Tim Northrup says:

    Not to be pedantic but re “none” —

    “1. It is a mistake to suppose that the pronoun is singular only and must at all costs be followed by singular pronouns. It should be borne mind that “none” is not a shortening of no one but is the regular descendant of OE “nan” (pronoun) ‘none, not one’. At all times since the reign of King Alfred the choice of plural or singular in the accompanying verbs, etc., has been governed by the surrounding word or by the notional sense.” Fowlers

    I am afraid Mr. Fry’s slip is showing. It is not only hard to be a grammar snob … it is hard to be a reverse grammar snob. I could not watch the entire six + minutes … I was too embarrassed for him.