For many years I have introduced new entrants to the diplomatic service to the archaic language of third person notes or notes verbales. Some are enchanted by the trappings of their new profession; others scornful of the use of phrases like:
‘avails itself of this opportunity to renew the assurances of its highest consideration’.
I explain this usage as part of the toolbox of diplomacy which, along with protocol, can serve to contain heated emotion and temper hostilities. These have been the tasks of diplomats before and since the French coined such elaborate phrases centuries ago.
Now, when the talk is of a new Cold War, Australia’s Foreign Minister – some people call her our chief diplomat – prefers the TV cameras to the conventions devised to maintain lines of communication even during times of heightened tension. On 28 March she gave the Russian Ambassador what the media calls her ‘death stare’. Logvinov seemed to take this in his stride. He has even appeared to relish his on-screen performances.
This tit for tat isn’t over. Russia’s Foreign Minister had already reacted to the expulsions by Western governments of Russian diplomats by saying that Moscow will not tolerate Western countries’ crassness. ‘Rest assured, we will respond’, Lavrov told the Russian news agency, TASS. ‘The reason is that no one would like to tolerate such obnoxiousness and we won’t either.’
These slanging matches are bad for international relations. If we start to call people out before we have the facts* and prefer to conduct the business of foreign policy in the public glare, we abandon the professional foundations from which to prosecute for peace not war. That’s serious stuff.
I’m just back from Islamabad, where I trained several enthusiastic groups of Pakistani professionals. Their English was good–one introduced herself as a fan of ‘Orwellian’ English, meaning plain-speaking language not the Big Brother type. The participants’ thinking and their expertise was impressive. Perhaps their brains respond well to all the articles they ‘gobble up’, as another participant put it. I tried to help these Urdu native speakers work out when to use ‘the’ or ‘a/an’, articles that their own language doesn’t have, but which in English do matter. Proper use of the definite and indefinite article can add important information to a sentence, such as whether you want to go to the movie that wins the Oscar or any movie that’s showing right now.
One way — not infallible, because English is so complicated — to decide which article to use is to ask:
is this noun one of one or one of many?
The movie that wins the Oscar is one of one; the movie showing right now is one of many. The first movie needs a ‘the’; the second an ‘a’.
For what it’s worth, my choice for the best film is one about the power of the printed word [these two ‘the’s‘ refer to all power and all words, something that is most certainly definite] called Spotlight [no article because you can’t quantify light].
With 2016 soon upon us I challenge all sportsmen, sportswomen and especially sportswriters to promise that they won’t use the term ‘gutted’ for a whole year.
Australian families have enough stress to deal with already; the threat of terrorism and falling behind in the mortgage and having to use public transport all their life. They’re stuck with that. Why inflict the linguistic and anatomical laziness of gutted upon them?
The way we’re headed, four-year-olds will soon be arriving home from pre-school to announce they came second in the colouring in competition and ‘feel gutted’. If only they could just use a word like devastated, downcast, done-in, perhaps even defeated? But even at that tender age they’ve heard far too much sports commentary and their parents, also victims, don’t know better. Otherwise they’d reach for the castor oil.
And pity the medical profession. When Wallabies star David Pocock was injured in 2013 a breathless Canberra Times reported: ‘A gutted Pocock ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament … and needs a knee reconstruction.’ The surgeon wouldn’t know where to start.
Or take the case of English cricketer, Joe Root. He hurt his hand, couldn’t play in an international Twenty-20 competition and declared that he too was gutted. He was lucky he wasn’t taken to hospital for a finger stall and end up with a new liver. Come to think of it, though, that might have encouraged him to choose his words more carefully.
Education Minister Christopher Pyne has announced a pilot for a literacy and numeracy test for teachers in Australia to be introduced in 2016. This won’t be the solution to problems of poor grammar and spelling that abound among school and university graduates but it will perhaps help to change the mind set that bad language doesn’t matter.
I have just spent a month conducting training for public servants. The day-long course includes a session on apostrophes. Yes, I am in the camp that believes in apostrophes because they add meaning and clarity and, really, are not hard to learn. I fear I have chosen the losing side. More and more people are arguing the apostrophe is not necessary . On the Kill the Apostrophe website, the author asserts that apostrophes ‘are wasteful. Tremendous amounts of money are spent every year by businesses on proof readers, part of whose job is to put apostrophes in the “correct” place’. That really worries me, especially when I hear similar views from participants in my course. One person, who has two degrees, dismissed checking spelling and grammar as a waste of time.
English has many, many irregularities. That’s part of its richness, as is its extraordinary vocabulary. The problem seems to be that teachers of English to native speakers have lost the art of making learning our own language interesting. Let’s hope that if they have to pay more attention to their own English skills, they’ll start to think about how to inspire their students.
I’ve just been visiting a parallel universe called the ‘Spirit of Cricket’. It’s Cricket Australia’s good conduct guide for players and it’s hilarious. According to the CA the spirit involves respect for—wait for it—your opponents. What a hoot!
It’s against the spirit to ‘direct abusive language against an opponent or umpire.’ I guess that means when Michael Clarke warned Jimmie Anderson to ‘get ready for a broken fucking arm’ it was medical advice, nothing more (though given the sentence structure I’m left wondering if Anderson fucks with his right or left arm). More recently, when David Warner suggested that Rohit Sharma ‘speak English’ it can only have been a timely reminder to the Indian cricketer of the universality of the language.
When rules, laws or ‘spirits’ are not enforced they become a farce. That’s what we have now.
The solution is simple, update the spirit. Celebrate sledging for what it truly is: cricket’s unique contribution to international relations and intellectual suppleness. Here’s an example from the 1982-83 Ashes series worth thinking about: Rodney Marsh to Ian Botham: ‘How’s your wife and my two kids?’ Botham to Marsh: ‘The wife’s fine but the kids are retarded.’
It’s high time we lauded such repartee. From now on umpires should award sledging style points. Let’s replace the boring old best player award with sledger-of-the match honours. Let’s adorn cricketing venues and equipment with the musings of past sledge artists: ‘This ball’s headed for yours’; ‘You’d bowl better underarm’; ‘Lend me your brain, I’m building an idiot.’
Do that and once more Australia will lead the way. Finally, the spirit and the practice of cricket will be in sync.
What is it about users of English? Haven’t we enough choices already when it comes to saying something is worrying, disturbing, disquieting, upsetting, troubling, irritating, disconcerting etc?
Apparently not, because poor old ‘concerning’ has had the word equivalent of gender reassignment. For years it’s happily chugged along as a preposition meaning ‘about’. Now, ‘common (mis)usage’ has deemed it an adjective as well. It’s been roped in to join the extensive list of fine words which has managed to convey unease for longer than anyone can remember.
So the next time the prime minister, or your boss, says ‘It’s deeply deeply concerning concerning the situation’ they don’t (necessarily) need to change their medication. They’re just showing what a limited vocabulary they have. Most of us are content to draw on 20,000 to 35,000 of the approximate 170,000 words available in English. But it seems that the more ‘modern’ we are the lazier we become.
We’ve just been to Indonesia. In Jakarta we conducted training for both native English and Indonesian speakers. In Bandung I went to a conference conducted in English, despite most of the 600 attendees being Indonesian vocational teachers. They need to speak and write in English, which will be the language of the ASEAN community when it comes into effect at the end of 2015.
As English becomes a lingua franca, it’s going to be worth taking the time in workplaces around the globe to consider how everyone uses the language. You might even want to check out this idea of conducting a tutorial on English as a lingua franca (yes, it’s got an acronym, ELF), developed a few years ago by a team attached to York St John University in England.