Thursday, 20 May 2010

That volcano!

It bothered me not knowing how to pronounce Eyjafjallajoekull, so I wanted to buy a teach-yourself Icelandic book. Amazon offered three, so I began to read the reviews. The general agreement was that Glendening's primer was terribly difficult because it expected you to understand grammatical terms like 'nominative' and 'subjunctive'. I suddenly realized how handicapped - sorry, lingusitically challenged - the younger generation of Britons must be. Actually, I already knew it; I even have to teach undergraduates what a paragraph is. Fifty years ago we were taught the grammar of our own language.

That reminds me of my shock in reading a statement of Prime Minister Bliar, who clearly didn't know the difference between 'may' and 'might'. That becomes important when it comes to knowing that 'Saddam Hussein may have weapons of mass destruction' is not the same as 'he might have them'. Clarity of thought, as George Orwell always insisted, cannot be divorced from clarity of language.

There is a lot to be said for the use of a 'dead' language for international relations. As long as people used Latin, everybody knew that it required effort to write it clearly. Now that sloppy English is considered good enough, disastrous misunderstandings can arise, as for example in the argument over whether Israel is required to withdraw 'from occupied territories' or 'from the occupied territories'.

No comments:

Post a Comment