Sunday, April 25, 2010

Coddington on Bennett

Deborah Coddington says Paula Bennett, despite being "not unintelligent", comes across as "a bit of a bint." I confess I had to consult a dictionary to confirm the meaning of bint which is a 'not too bright' woman. This is, according to Deborah, because of the content of her speech. For example, she (and John Key) over-use the word 'actually'.

We are all too familiar with lazy speech. Like, er, like, basically, it's er sort of, well, actually, like that. Absolutely, awesome (never with the -ly), piss poor communication.

I must just drop in a story here. My son's cousin knows a girl who goes to my son's school. The cousin asked her if she knew Robert. The girl replied, "He's that guy that uses big words that nobody can understand". Now that tickled both Robert and I. Robert uses interesting language because he reads a lot. Her inability to understand him isn't his problem. It's hers. Robert isn't about to change to accommodate her because he likes words. Yesterday I had cause to say to him "For goodness sake you," to which he quickly retorted "Don't you 'for goodness sake you' me," which instantly dispelled my annoyance.

Anyway here's the guts of it. We speak like the people we live with and spend time with. My message to the children is, don't use that word when there is a better one available. Don't overuse words until they lose all meaning. Don't swear often. Save your cursing for when it really matters, otherwise what will you have when the need arises?

The English language is rich. I have a responsibility to use it fully and sometimes, painstakingly. The way I communicate with my children is more important in my view than the way I feed them. The way I converse with my husband rubs off on them enormously.

But we are not conformists. We don't try to be like other people. The degradation of language and communication is a product of conformism and, a phenomenon Theodore Dalrymple identifies; the conformism is going in the wrong direction. A physical analogy is tattoos. Once a mark of lesser educated working-class men, now so-called intelligent middle class women flock to affect them. It is a sad fact that some politicians are downward conformists, not only because that is their inherent nature, but because they think it will buy votes.

I agree with Deborah Coddington. It's not good enough to say, speak how you like; that's freedom of expression isn't it? It's just evolving culture isn't it? 'I'm a Westie and proud of it'.

No. Freedom of thought and freedom of expression rely on the ability to think and communicate. Language is the tool by which we achieve both.

I am sick of the dumbing-down process. Never have I said so before because 'dumbing down' is, of itself, one of those hackneyed overused phrases. Apparently IQs are rising as the world becomes wealthier. If so, it's not particularly apparent.

Some of the worst displays of ungrammatical, grating, dull and repetitive language appear in and around sporting endeavours, from both commentators and players. Many times I have cursorily reflected to myself, all brawn and no brain (naturally a 'gender neutral' comment for those academics who do possess healthy linguistic repertoires, but nonetheless fill their written and oral communications with woolly concepts and overladen sentences). Still, the players at least use their physical abilities to best effect. The same cannot be said for commentators.

And it cannot be said for politicians.

Which brings me back to Paula Bennett. If there is merit in having an ex-beneficiary Maori single mother as Minister because she represents realised aspiration, then why not try to inspire people further? For any politician, there is no shame in being articulate.

It is a sad indictment if politicians are merely there to reflect ordinariness and lack of ambition - the characteristics that often go hand-on-hand with low-grade communication.


Manolo said...

English is an extraordinary language, appreciated even more for those of us for whom is not our mother tongue.

A week ago I saw Michelle Obama being interviewd on TV. She uttered "you know" countless times during a very short period.

A local example of speech laziness is the Prime Minister, who has an atrocious diction. Key abuses the language on every occasion he opens his mouth.

Dave Christian said...

Good stuff Lindsay. You are on the right track; Yet still you underestimate language. Oscar Wilde pointed out that "language is the parent and not the child of thought".

The most significant single cause of the rottenness of our state education system is the refusal to regard the teaching of vocabulary as the most fundamental prerequisite of all learning. One consequence is that many kids leave school capable of reading, but with a vocabulary which limits their reading to comic books, rendering them childlike for their entire lives. Another consequence is that many teachers cannot themselves read adult literature. If you don't believe me, ask a primary school teacher to name the last book they read from cover to cover. Amongst other things, it is highly unlikely that they have ever read any serious literature about education; Many will unashamedly admit that such books contain too many 'big' words.

Lindsay Mitchell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lindsay Mitchell said...

Dave, I meant to express that which Oscar Wilde put so beautifully, "language is the parent and not the child of thought" when I wrote, "Freedom of thought and freedom of expression rely on the ability to think and communicate. Language is the tool by which we achieve both."

An individual cannot think to any depth without words to think with.

I was thinking further about the business of cursing also. Swearing acts as a safety valve. If it no longer serves that purpose because it has become part of the everyday vernacular, then another outlet will replace it. Maybe that is why we see so much more physical manifestation of anger and frustration.

Cactus Kate said...

Paula Bennett is the Minister in charge of our lowest denominator. Who cares how she speaks?

Cactus Kate said...

I guess also Lindsay, under MMP we are more likely to get a Parliament representative of NZ, rather than 120 achievers of above average intellect.

Sadly for you all, this one actually does represent NZ and Bennett is by no means the worst.

Anonymous said...

Ah, I think you'll find it should be "that tickled both Robert and ME" Lindsay....if you want to post on correct usage it does rather pay to ensure that yours is....

Lindsay Mitchell said...

Quite right. Forgot the rule about removing the other person and seeing if the sentence still made sense.

pdm said...

An excellent post Lindsay. One of your best and extremely pertinent.

I have been in London since the end of July and I just cannot believe how poor at basic English enunciation and expression the English people I talk to are. Their comprehension is also lacking and the situation is no different to NZ - in fact it may be worse.

The one thing in their favour is that the young girls and teenagers do not use foul language to the same extent that they do in NZ. Then again I may just have been lucky.

Anonymous said...

No, the use of foul language is a particularly NZ problem.