Language is a funny thing…. well, other people’s language is; and our own if we can slip outside of it and look back, nome sayin?

My title for this week’s blog-post is taken from Tom Wolfe’s novel, Back to Blood. That’s the one! He uses the phrase to signify the ‘neg-speak’ of Antoine, one of the minor characters. Unnerstan? He uses that too.

We ask the question, not quite rhetorically, that implies we’re not quite confident we have been understood, or even listened to. You know what I’m sayin?

Doesn’t it make you, sometimes, want to answer, of course I know what you’re effin saying! Do you think I’m some kind of moron? But of course, la politesse holds us back, init?

I installed my initial language programme, as most of us do, in the first three to five years of life. Naom Chomsky reckoned there is a brain function that more or less switches off after this time – which is why we have such problems learning second languages. Since then I’ve been taking updates. It won’t have been quite the same initial package as my contemporaries got; not in the same street, not in the same town, definitely not in the next county; over the border. It won’t have been quite the same initial job-lot as the three year-olds a few months earlier, a couple of years later either? You know?

As to the updates, well, they’ll have varied from house to house, from day to day too. Consider the fact that I couldn’t even have explained it in these terms, if I had been my father. Install? Updates? There was a famous book in the nineteen fities, written by a nun who had left her order. Over The Wall, I think it was called. In interview she was asked about the changes in the world since she had gone inside. It wasn’t the technological changes, automobiles, radio and TV, jet ‘planes, that surprised her most, but the changes to the way people used language. Knowhaddamean?

We’re all speaking our own languages to some extent: translating the languages spoken to us; parents to children; locals to incomers; stranger to stranger.

The invention of the printing press cut across all this; seemed to set some sort of standard. What it didn’t do was to popularise, or democratise, the telling and receiving of stories. In fact, it may have done the exact opposite.

Stories and storytelling not only go back to the origins of language, they may have been one of the prime reasons for developing it – and my guess is that it developed in individuals, one language at a time. They knew what they were trying to say – others tried to work out just what that was.

Would the invention of writing have constrained this? Did the invention of printing tighten the noose further? Reading and writing are skills built upon an already existing language, aren’t they? And the casting of stories into print, which must be deciphered, rendered them unavailable to those who had not learned that skill.

Literary people will celebrate the obstacle, which, like the maxim gun, ‘we have got, and they have not’, because they have their hands on the font and galley. It is their stories that suddenly can be disseminated more widely than any voice can reach, in a single telling, and seemingly, for all time. And those who can’t read? Best learn, or be deemed unimportant, however good a speaker, or thinker, you might be. The digital revolution though, has put everybody’s finger on the keypad, threatening a breakdown of that hegemony.

Earlier in the week, David Crystal, author of a definitive study of English, and given the definitive article as ‘the authority’ on the language by Radio 4, threw his weight behind the efforts of a north-eastern head-teacher to learn her pupils (dilated or otherwise) some standard English! The further we cast our voices, he seemed to be saying, the more ‘standard’ we should make them. Yet, he also said, that there was a place for the local dialect, t’auld twang, as it’s called round here.

I’ve often thought that when people stop talking to each other their languages will drift apart (The Mackwater Seam, in Talking To Owls was based on this premise); the more they talk to each other, the more closely their languages will conform (the poem ‘Doggin’ In’, which I think reached the dizzy heights of publication in the Loweswater parish newsletter, picked up on the theme).

Closer too, as writers, as makers and tellers of story, there’s a place for our individual voices, our individual languages. They are what make

the stories our own, and that’s what makes them worth something to the people who read and hear them. Got me?APennySpitfire-frontcover