Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Language does evolve but we don’t always have to ‘like’ it

Language does evolve but we don’t always have to ‘like’ it

Gyles Brandreth | Christ Church | Monday, November 26

ON Monday night, it was dark and cold, the pews of the Christ Church were almost uncomfortably packed, and yet it is not an exaggeration to say there was an extremely excited crowd gathering.

Gyles Brandreth, a Henley Literary Festival favourite, was about to speak. He walked on to the stage, coat draped over his arm, to an enthusiastic welcome. He lifted his hand to his eyes and peered out.

“I’ve made the snap decision to stay,” he declared. The audience laughed, assured they were in for a treat.

Even Brandreth, shaking his head, said: ‘It’s the official start of Christmas and 300 people are here to talk about grammar.”

From that point on, the audience was gripped. “Hi”, “hello”, “how are you?”, “alright” and “how do you do?” are the top five words and phrases used to greet people in English, and so he used all of them to start us off with.

It was a talk about grammar, and his new book Have You Eaten Grandma? is all about the correct use of grammar, but he makes it fun, exciting even.

In one hour, he covered all aspects of the English language, telling stories about how famous names use language both successfully and unsuccessfully, including, John Prescott, Kingsley Amis, Shakespeare, Elizabeth I, Churchill, George Bush and Donald Trump among others.

We learnt that Trump, typically overdoing it, used 3,601 exclamation marks while tweeting in 2017!

In today’s world of instant communication, emails and tweets, it is helpful to have acronyms such as YOLO (“you only live once”) or Brandreth’s favourite YAM (yet another meeting), but we must remember that with good English you can do anything.

The English language is not pure and Brandreth is okay with that. In fact, he said, we need to “accept the evolution of language”.

“Cool” means “great” to the younger generation. To others is means they are cold. Nowadays “wicked” is no longer evil. And so on.

That said, there are still certain disciplines we must adhere to.

“Like,” Brandreth said, is overused, and he told us a story about counting how many times it was used by a group of teenagers on a London bus.

“So,’ he added, appears too often at the start of a spoken answer. There is never an excuse, Brandreth shook his head in mock horror, for using incorrect grammar — giving us the example of “should of” instead of “should have”. There was collective disapproval from the audience.

Mostly, though, he made the audience laugh while somehow teaching us as well. It was a detailed delve into the peculiarities of language; how we turn words on their head and how they “define us”.

It was a whirlwind journey of words. Yes, there was a fascinating lesson at the heart of the evening, but it was a world away from the dreary grammar classes of our schooldays.

Laura Healy

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