Home Page The only point of using language is so that people know what you mean - or is it? 02/04/15

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Matthew Hancock
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Hart of the Matter

I expect we shall hear quite a lot over the next few weeks about what various people think it means to be British, or English. Whether the target is immigrants, Muslims, Jews or Scots, there will be people about who see the coming election as a forum for venting their prejudices.

One political leader – let’s steer clear of specifics now we are in the real run-up to May 7 – has suggested we should have a bank holiday on St George’s Day to give us all a chance to celebrate being English. Presumably this would not apply in other parts of the United Kingdom, where they would want their own national saints days.

This argument would carry a lot more weight with me if anyone had thought through exactly what it is about being English that we should be celebrating.

I may think that the English countryside is the best in the world, but that would be highly contested by most other nations on earth. We may hold up what are glibly called our ‘values’ as being particularly fine, but history has shown that, even if the values themselves may be okay, English people have not shown any marked ability to uphold them, particularly abroad.

I don’t think anyone could find much evidence of Magna Carta in action in colonial India, or of Habeas Corpus on West Indian plantations.

To be honest, the record of the British, and particularly the English, abroad has been pretty poor, for all that one may argue for some good intentions having got misconstrued on the way.

So what can we be legitimately proud of in England? I would argue that our greatest gift to the world has been our language, which many people from all countries would agree is the most expressive, the most flexible and the most effective in the world. It may not be as beautiful as Italian or as trenchant as German, but it has the widest range of all.

If politicians were to make April 23 a bank holiday, it should not be in honour of a Middle-Eastern warrior who may or may not have existed, never came to England and, as far as anyone knows, never even thought about this part of the world.

It should be in honour of the greatest practitioner of the greatest language in the world, who died on that day, and was quite likely born on it as well, William Shakespeare.

It is a shame on the English nation that its members are among the least appreciative of Shakespeare of any nation on earth – just ask the Japanese, or the Germans, the French, the Russians, even the Chinese, the list is endless of those who accept his genius towers over all other writers in all languages.

But it is scarcely surprising in a nation which has degraded the language which he used and in part created, particularly over the last 50 years – and I don’t mean just the old chestnuts like grammar, punctuation and spelling in schools, texting, Americanisms, slang and the many other criticism which pedants may throw at modern usage.

I mean things like this:  ‘Public realm is tired in places and inconsistent’. ‘Blank elevations discourage walking’. ‘The focus is to understand how traffic, pedestrians, cyclists, car park users, bus users, etc use the High Street spine and consider ways of improving both the movement and place functions.’ ‘The objective is to understand the pattern and/or complexity of movement across different means of transport and see how any issues can be tackled using a hierarchy of priority’.

I could go on. These are quotes from the first three pages of the Town Centre Masterplan Issues And Options Consultation. The last two quotes are actually statements with which members of the public who respond are asked to state whether they agree, don’t know or disagree.

One could be forgiven for adding a fourth category: ‘Don’t understand the flipping question’ (a mild version).

I suppose there are, somewhere in the world, people who speak like this. Well, I know there are. They work for council planning departments, and town planning consultants.

Presumably at breakfast they state that the objective is to interface the horizontal section of carcenogised wheat-based leaven staple with a scraped portion of pre-churned dairy product and that this might be facilitated by relocation of the latter in an inward direction, and then ask their partner if they agree or disagree.

I despaired of the document when I began to read this sort of thing because it is clearly a disincentive to people taking part in this vital round of consultation, and bears a remarkable resemblance to virtually all the previous consultations, which have told us nothing we didn’t know already and ended up filling shelves, or now diskspace, in council storage.

For goodness sake, let us at least try to speak to people in plain English, preferably with a bit of expressiveness to mask its functionality – that means nice words which conjure up some sort of picture in the mind and stimulate a useful response.

It is just this sort of jargon which discourages people from taking any interest in the local government systems which massively affect their lives, often frustrating them beyond measure.

You can see the effect of it when residents, forced to attend a council meeting by some unexpectedly horrific plan being put forward for the open space behind their home, try to imitate this sort of bureaucratic-speak, usually unsuccessfully.

They are much better off just speaking their mind as some do, often with considerable vigour. At least then everyone knows what they mean. But, of course, you have to wonder in the case of these public consultations, whether that is what the instigators really want.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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