Hamstrung by Language

I have been thinking about words recently. I have been thinking in words. Some people are visual thinkers, and I can visually sketch a conceptual, but the machines moving parts are always words. Verb-pistons heft adverbs onto a conveyor of nouns, carrying passive voices into hoppers of articles shifted by whirring cogs of participles.

I recently read an essay by Tony Judt titled If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have. Judt was a historian I read a lot at university. Lucid, intelligent and never overwrought. It is the kind of writing that I wish I could execute. ( In a vain attempt to do so I have just bought The Economist Style Guide and have been recommended by a Philosophy doctoral student The Elements of Style) His analysis of 20th century Europe was consistently engaging and I recommend picking up anything with his name on the cover if you have an excuse to do so.

What jumped out from this essay, though was the key thesis- that ‘when words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express’.

Ideas are bound to the language in which they are expressed. Working on a global piece of advertising business this becomes vastly apparent. Judt was writing about English as a language losing its ability to do this, its nebulous yet incisive nature, its ability to obfuscate and elucidate. The way people express themselves is becoming ever more sledgehammer-like, when to wield a complex idea it needs to be universally held as a scalpel so that we can all understand each incision. However, when you try and take a headline for a print ad crafted to those specification and take it into another language- a different yet equally precision engineered tool, we are working to another set of nuances, completely unrelated, generated by a separate culture and built upon further by the language itself. Languages catalyse the development of their own idiosyncrasies.

So it is hard to take a double meaning for a certain phrase in English and turn it into another language. In German, there are far fewer of those subtle plays on words available. It has the smallest, yet also probably best defined vocabulary of any European language. Unsurprisingly most of their popular comedy is physical, slapstick, rather than the verbal contortionists and bleak humorists we have in the UK. As a result though, German philosophy is generally much better at making you feel less confused about life than when you started it. English Philosophers often have the opposite result….

I would draw out a difference between American and English- people divided by a common language. They are two different languages, with a divergent development. One wrung dry of much of its joy-  rich veins of irony, understatement and bleak, black humour- by puritan exiles and earnest Scandinavian settlers. It would be an overstatement to say this was a universal rule, but when you see any of this kind of comedy in the American media, it is counter-cultural rather than the engrained culture.

Language is both a prism and prison, it is how we deal with the world, but it is also the only world (or worlds for the lucky multilingual out there) that we know.

This can create problems when we try to create global campaigns. The worst become lowest common denominators- bland, idea free wallpaper. The best take a global insight and roll it out as a local brief – Toyata’s latest campaign, post auto-reversing cars debacle, the ‘My Toyota, Your Toyota’ stuff has manifested itself in two very different ways in the US and Uk, but are clearly part of the same idea, or HSBC which has made a campaign out of the same crevasses between cultures that many try to traverse.

I quoted a popular modern commentator in an essay I wrote way back at university on Foucault and the Linguistic turn and what it meant for historians. Having not read the reading list, I wrote 1200 words of polemic on why Foucault was the thin end of the wedge for history ( a view which I have subsequently withdrawn, having actually read him, and about him). My tutor gave me a low 2.2 for the essay and also the best feedback I have ever had ‘Great journalism, but a poor academic effort’ I will close with the same quote I opened that essay with.

“It’s only words, and words are are I have to take your heart away”