I love the English language. It’s implausible double entendres, over-reliance on a bastardised history of the French and Saxonion lexicon (see previous) and punchy, lumpen and louty variation of tongue has long made it the verbal choice of business internationalists, pugnacious football hooligans and anyone caught somewhere between two such flaky stereotypes.
Across the sodden fields of England, it’s variance and inflection in pitch and phonology is known to show audible shifts every twelve miles. Which is why tourists and adventurists alike must wonder if they missed passport control as they travel between Portsmouth and Peterhead.
Further afield, a nation of Australians and Americans have created their own version of the English language, stretching and compressing vowels like an accordion with hiccups. And more recently, vowels have all but lost the will to live, eradicated by a concerted global affront to the transcription of a language whose centuries of development had not anticipated the limitations of 140 characters.
For all its virtues, English is not all perfection, harmony and teacakes. Like any well-meaning love affair, as the infatuation dissipates, so the flaws of the English language slowly reveal themselves to those who care.
Despite the laudable efforts of Samuel Johnson, the most obvious imperfection in his mighty A Dictionary of the English Language, is the gaps in diction – big gaps, particularly on the emotive side of the fence. Try using one word to capture spirit-raising malicious pleasure (schadenfreude); the accomplishment of a significant challenge (fiero); or your response to your children’s achievements (naches) and you’d be gravely disappointed. More’s the point, one has to assume that even the formidable Mr Johnson died wondering what he should be calling that pale area behind the knee.
And yet what the English language lacks in its lexiconography, it makes up for in its diversity, sensibility and stomp. So many of the words themselves are exquisite and intoxicating in their own right. They demand no adornment, comfortable in their own space and place. A singular tribute to inference and sentiment.
Better still, when strung together, plucked from anonymity and isolation and aligned with others, they become a choreographed flow with the rigidity of their raw form softened. This may sound dangerously like persiflage or pompous bluster, but the well-constructed use of the English language is an aural dance. A rhythm of language that appeals to the most primeval of human responses.
That may sound odd too. We rarely talk of language as the basis for dance. Except that is exactly what it is. We just have a different term for it. We call it a story.
The correlation between rhythm and stories is not random puff. A song – the very best song – tells a simple story with the added bonus of a soundtrack. A story without music is no worse off. Instead, it is reliant on a silent rhythm and use of language that intoxicates its audience and gives them the cause and means to paint a personalised visual of the story being told.
A well-told story has the theatre, drama and raw emotion of any tranche of music and, because of it, its ability to provoke behavioural change is just as potent. The very best storytellers know that, eschewing any temptation to follow a formulaic, paint-by-numbers format and, instead, turning to their inner ear for a balance of prose and their own experience for the right words. Theirs is a very particular craft – a Moses-like dexterity that allows them to navigate a path through the great torrent of language and settle, gently, on the other side, story line in tact. It is far from easy and not for the faint hearted.
In the run up to Christmas, I was nudged again by the implicit elegance of a well-told story, and the wonder of the English language nestled within it. Tired of the turgid and lame biscuit hampers that seemed to be the default annual “thank you” to clients, our firm took a different line to show our appreciation. As storytellers of one sort or another, we sent each and every client a copy of a literary prizewinner that best captured their own story. Which, naturally, required me to take a quick dip in the sea of narrative within – just to be sure.
And what narrative it was. Each unique in its own vocabulary; each definitive in its own rhythm. Perhaps most telling though, was the emotive response that each was able to garner in just a few pages. A reminder, if ever there was one, that the English language, when used with caution and dexterity by the able few, is a font of unfathomable potency with which to capture the imagination of anyone. And that has to make storytelling the most formidable of a professional communicator’s tools.