Charles Crawford: Language is a tool which must be kept well-honed to do its job

Monday 08 February 2010 01:00
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Language does not decay unless it ceases to be used for communication. It changes, sometimes other people's usage (or mistakes) grate upon those who say it differently, but the language itself is not in any danger.

Language has existed for thousands of years, performing its function adequately, without any care or attention at all, and most have never been subject to it at any time in their history.

A rabid free-marketeer like myself can have little complaint if things indeed change, and millions of people don't mind too much, if at all. Although I do object to my own language and identity changing because the state has effectively nationalised large parts of the teaching of English and simply can't do it properly.

I can not shake off the thought that language is a tool. And tools if neglected can just get blunt, or wear out, or otherwise be less good at doing some vital jobs.

If we start to "lose" spellings and grammar as currently constituted, and therefore some of the innermost subtlety of expression which together have made English such a towering force for human advancement round the world, aren't we all just poorer? We have fewer tools to do the mass of possible jobs with precision.

It's as if Rembrandt had only 10 brushes of varying sizes, instead of (say) 16, after a thief steals six. Sure, he'll manage to do a fine portrait. But it could have been even finer with those extra tools available. And he is diminished and demoralised if he knows that. The issue is all too evident in the quality of writing now being served up in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and across government by the nation's top graduates. A non-trivial proportion of it is unusable and sent back for reworking: it is simply not precise enough. As a result, a product is produced which is less good and less clear and less authoritative than it could have been.

Sure, not much changes. But standards help keep us all on our toes. And if a general sense of unstoppable 'declinism' sets in for our language (and so our very thought) as for everything else, that looks and smells like decay to me.

Charles Crawford was formerly British ambassador to Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Warsaw. A longer version of this article can be read at www.charlescrawford.biz

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