A Response to Stephen Fry’s “Language”

I had the pleasure of seeing this video a while back and enjoyed its creative structure, its intelligent prose, and the discussion it stirred up in my mind.  I really should hunt down the whole essay, as it’s obvious there are parts taken out so the animator didn’t go mad putting this together, but for right now let’s just focus on what is here.

I think there’s a kink in Stephen Fry’s rationale when he says “the free and happy use of words appears to be elitist or pretentious,” and then goes on to complain about pedants setting out to correct the grammar of the English-speaking world.  He seems to want to use the explanation that those who claim to be “protecting language” are nothing more than snotty people with nothing better to do than tell others they’re wrong, and the people against whom they stand are all budding linguistic geniuses setting out to write love stories and poems.  That is simply not the case, though.  Perhaps things may be different in England; I do fully understand that our cultures are immensely more different than many Americans tend to automatically assume, but in America we have this problem of people mixing “lack of education” with “entitlement” that would LOVE the opportunity to justify themselves under something like Fry’s essay.  Those of us who resist it are, in essence, standing up for the value of education and the importance of understanding the true nature of language as an enjoyable medium.  As I will show, having no grasp on how to properly use punctuation is not the same as using punctuation creatively, though incorrectly.

I want to start with where I agree with Stephen.  It is very tiresome to be regularly exposed to people who have adopted the crusade of pointing out every “your” that should be “you’re” or misspelling of “there” and its kin, and so on.  While I completely understand the temptation, I, like Stephen, have outgrown such nitpicking.  Errors here and there are acceptable when the point is what they meant, and you understood that.  I’m going to risk suffering from the “Lake Woebegone Effect” by stating that I see myself as less of a Grammar Nazi than other Grammar Nazis.  I try to take careful consideration of the context and situation of the written words which I read before I step out on a self-important ledge and suggest they be corrected.  I do not ridicule someone else’s poor language skills as a way to discredit their position in a debate.  I carefully live by the “take the plank out of your own eye first” rule when it comes to my observations of the grammar and spelling of others.

Mr. Fry has even succeeded in having me call into question some of my own “pedantry,” as he would call it, in a broad sense.  After watching this video, I saw the error in my own condemnation of internet languages, most specifically “LOL speak.”  It is a creative use of language and, for those who do it, a fun way to write about their pets on sites about pets.  I still find it really stupid, but in the end it’s not harming anything on its own.  I can say the same thing about text speak in text messages (though I’ve had nary a problem using proper English in my texts) and l337, or leetspeak, in casual websites and online gaming sessions.  Again, I think they’re really dumb and unnecessary, but in their appropriate contexts there’s ultimately nothing wrong with them, and they actually do demonstrate a degree of creativity.  But it appears to me that Stephen Fry seems to think that’s where it stops.  He didn’t mention these new approaches to English in his essay, but I think it’s a simple inference that he would say this is people having fun with language, as they should, and it’s as simple as that, end of story . . . but it isn’t.

He mentioned music at one point, and since music is something I understand fairly well, I’m going to use that as my comparison to demonstrate how he hasn’t looked at this far enough.

A person learns an instrument with a strict set of rules—proper ways to hold it, correct ways to bend your fingers, certain ways to play specific notes, how to read music and play it as it is written, etc.  It’s all very rigid and tends to be boring, especially to younger learners.  But what happens is those students learn all of those rules so that they can be free with their own music later.  Talk to any freestyle jazz musician and they will explain to you that they can “break the rules” and yet get such masterful results because they fully understand the rules they are breaking.  That allows for artistry and creativity.  When you attend a piano recital for a seven-year-old, you expect and understand that the song will be simple and there will probably be more than a few wrong notes and irregular rhythms.  Yet when you go see that same child play a recital ten years later, you expect to hear more skill and precision and complexity.  If they’re just as sloppy and arrhythmic as they were before, you don’t assume creative license, nor do you defend their errors by saying, “I knew what they meant to play.”  Therefore, when I see something written by someone over the age of fifteen, especially outside of the context of casual internet sites, I see nothing wrong with being appalled at excessively poor spelling, complete lack of punctuation, and over-usage of abbreviations like “imho” or “lol.”  They’ve been to school.  They should know better.  And when you see or hear someone defending their right to spell something “how they want to” because “language evolves!,” keep in mind that they are not the literary version of John Cage or Pablo Picasso.  John Cage knew how to play piano correctly.  Pablo Picasso knew how to paint with near picture-perfect precision.  No, those who defend such ignorance are more like someone wanting to be a guitar player but refusing to learn how to tune it, and responding to anyone’s correction or criticism with, “You know, music evolves!”

And speaking of masters of certain arts, let’s bring up Oscar Wilde as Mr. Fry has.  The fact that Wilde did not overly concern himself with the finer details of proper English grammatical structure is not something that should justify the lack of grammatical ability of someone with a high school diploma.  As Fry pointed out, Wilde was among the greatest masters of language usage in the past 1000 years.  His carefree attitude with such rules is not a justification to ignore them ourselves.  If I see Eric Clapton perform live and he doesn’t bend a string far enough or misses a fret, that doesn’t mean that it’s all well and good for me to make similar mistakes in my own playing with reckless abandon.  Clapton, as Wilde did, has proven his expertise, so the occasional error is of little consequence since the end result is still a work of genius.  All of that said, though, I can’t imagine Clapton screwing up a solo.

Based on the little I know about Stephen Fry, I can make an assumption that his love for words and the use of language is something that he touts often, and even takes to a level that I don’t completely understand.  Yet he seems to be making an over-arching dismissal of the importance of proper language skills, only really suggesting that correct grammar is for job interviews and business and schooling, as a sort of “dressing up.”  Well as I said before, things very well could be quite different between England and America, but here in the States, this creative license with language is already overtaking these arenas, too.  Honestly, Mr. Fry, I would rather have a world full of insufferable nitpickers, with their Sharpies in hand, in place to be ridiculed by wordsmiths such as yourself, than face what I see coming, which is a world full of people disregarding education under the excuse of free expression, rolling their eyes at the few of us who understand the rules that once were.  There’s no beauty in an enigmatic scale if you don’t have an understanding of major and minor when you hear it.  So in the same light there’s no artistry in creatively written essays when you don’t understand the structure that should be there in the first place.


2 responses to “A Response to Stephen Fry’s “Language”

  1. So really, this is just a pedant who doesn’t like being told they’re wrong? The beginning is deflective and reminds me somewhat of a playground bully saying: “I’d never bully someone” and then going and hitting someone full on in the stomach, because “they were being annoying”.

    I think it is clear that there’s a sense of insecurity here to the point where the author is unable to simply say “actually… I am still unconvinced… I still think language is ruined by people using it ‘wrongly’… I still nit-pick”.

    The opinion of finding certain styles ‘dumb and unnecessary’ is just an unnecessary opinion in itself. If it’s something you don’t use / find yourself immersed in, then of course it’ll look strange to you. I have never learnt any of the Japanese language (for example), this doesn’t lead me to the conclusion of “oh those little picture letter things look dumb and unnecessary, although I guess they’re ok in their context”…

    The further down you get in this ‘piece’, the more and more it just begins to become a blatant attack on language. Just another pedant who feels threatened.

    • 1) There’s a difference between saying “I’d never bully someone” and then punching someone for “being annoying,” and saying “I used to bully all the time but now I try to be aware of that tendency . . . but that said, you’re being really annoying and should stop.”

      2) I am becoming convinced that the term “nit-pick” is abused by those people who think that all errors should go unnoticed, which is exactly what I’ve spoken against here. Also, I never said anything about ruining language.

      3) I honestly hope you feel as silly as you sound by indirectly comparing LOL Speak or 1337 Speak to the Japanese language, or any observations thereof. And if all you comprehended when you read that part was the expression of my opinion, then you missed the point.

      4) It’s not entirely clear to me how comparing the understanding of proper grammar and syntax to understanding music is “a blatant attack on language,” but by the time I reached the end of your comment it was clear to me that I’d really only struck a nerve in you. Let’s try to put something in perspective: Stephen Fry expresses an opinion that I disagree with and I explain in full why I disagree, while simultaneously acknowledging his point and even finding an opportunity to learn something from it. YOU have read my perspective on this and all you can do is toss out words like “nit-pick,” “insecurities,” and “attack.”

      Thanks for reading, “458;” I think you’d do well to read it again.

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