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Nick Ang

Language should be a joy

I recently rewatched a short sporting Stephen Fry’s wisdom on the English language (as well as his wonderful British accent in the voiceover). I remember being struck by some of the ideas encapsulated in it many years ago when I first watched it, but I didn’t fully fathom them. Today, after watching it again, I can safely say that I fathom most of it and that I love it. This short soliloquy is ingenious in prose and format equally.

Thumbnail of video on YouTube with Stepehen Fry's narration about language

Simplicity and elegance. The punch it delivered is hard to describe… such precision in choice of words and pace of narration. Not to forget, conciseness in unpacking a sophisticated problem – that language is and should be allowed to evolve and conventions are unnecessarily scripting our writing and speech, and without being hyperbolic, stifling creativity. I remember thinking to myself, “What a wonderful, delicious mess of words that makes a lot of sense!”

Stephen Fry is right, I think. We revere the artistic processes of making music and creating visual art, but creativity in the rightfully artistic process of writing continue to be frowned upon, with people ranging from the language purists to pragmatists mounting arguments like “That’s an abomination of a word!” and “It’s for clarity sake!” against writers who choose to use less popular words. Less popular doesn’t mean less precise. Neither are they necessarily less effective in communicating a message.

Writers know and willingly shoulder the responsibility of their verbosity, just as painters do with their audacity in style. There is a time and place as well as a reason for choosing one word over another. Maybe in order to elicit a feeling of sadness and disappointment, but more of the latter, it’s better to be ‘flabbergasted’ than simply to be ‘overwhelmed.’

Being born and raised in Singapore, I’m familiar with archaic grammatical rules that were designed to produce a very particular kind of Anglophone, the kind that is purportedly most easily understood by everyone else.

“Never start your sentences with ‘but’. Or ‘and’. Or ‘or’!” was something I think my primary school teacher once said in class. Because of these restrictions it can be as difficult to find a Singaporean who writes refreshingly. I’ve struggled against this for a long time and can only say that I have overcome it somewhat.

I’ve had friends who insisted that I rewrite sentences in our school project report so that it would fit into the mould that her primary school teacher made for her. It’s only in university that I had a real chance at exploring creative writing. I still think creative writing is an oxymoron – isn’t all writing inherently creative? Not even our parents could force us to write “I am flabbergasted by the lack of language flexibility in English class” when what we really want to say is “archaic writing rules suck!”

It’s a choice, you see. Exercise that choice or be its exercise. It really is that simple.

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