As a lifelong linguist, I am only too aware of the power of language: its power to communicate or obfuscate, impress or offend, please or disappoint. Language is power. Years of study, experience and teaching language have blessed – or cursed – me with an acute sense of the value of language, and a feel for fine nuances. Worse, it has endowed me with a compulsion to indulge in compulsive wordplays at every opportunity: “Oh, oh… here comes another Dad joke!” So much so that my kids and the older grandchildren have inherited this pernicious habit!
In terms of art and creativity, my raw material is not paint, clay, wood or stone, but words. A former fellow-linguist colleague had an email address in the name of ‘wordsmith’, which I coveted! However, my first email address, invented by me to use for correspondence relating to my activities as a consultant in all matters Spanish was… ‘spancon’. Try playing with that one! It backfired on me. Like all forms of behaviour, it is a question of knowing how to control the punning habit: there is a time and place for everything.
As we grow up and acquire our fantastic ability to speak, we also (most of us) develop an awareness of what linguists refer to as register: the ability to know what sort of language suits a particular situation. When a Singaporean Navy student asked me the meaning of “piss off” a few years ago, having heard his UK counterparts using the expression in different circumstances with different intent, I had to explain how “I’m pissed off!” was quite different from telling someone to “piss off”; even that could have different nuances, having the value of “go away and leave me alone!” when spoken with a vehement tone of voice, or “you must be joking!” when uttered in a jocular way. Hence, when teaching English to our international students, I covered that sort of language with a caveat: OK to use among your mates, but not in front of the captain’s wife! Rather like choosing the appropriate form of dress for the occasion…
Teaching at the naval college also brought the responsibility of interpreting for foreign visitors, when one’s language had to be suited to the requirements of tact and diplomacy. On one occasion I was asked to accompany the head of a military academy from an east European country who was visiting the college, on the basis that his language was related to Italian, one of my languages. I could understand about one word in five! Fortunately, as well as being accompanied by his military lieutenant, he had with him a London-based native interpreter. At one point the lieutenant complained that the interpreter was not reporting exactly what his boss was saying. The interpreter, a very discreet lady, explained to me that what the rather boorish man was saying was too impolite to translate without causing offence. Her ‘filtering’ had possibly avoided a diplomatic incident!
One could cite many similar incidents, and others in which possible offence – or hilarity – was caused accidentally. Perhaps the most famous at the level of international relations was John F Kennedy’s notorious 1963 speech in Berlin: he declared: “Ich bin ein Berliner” often misconstrued as “I’m a sausage”! The statement still gives rise to debate; what is certain is that apparently innocent words and phrases can sometimes be misunderstood!
Kennedy was a true statesman, and like other true statesmen, did his very best to utter at least some of his speech in the language of the country he was visiting. Of course, a fundamental element of sounding convincing – indeed of showing respect to the language – is to make a reasonable attempt at producing intelligible pronunciation. As an aside, I remember a CSE French oral exam candidate who answered all 20 of the simple questions in English… but with a perfectly plausible French accent! “Ma nem ees Trevor. Ah am seextin. Ah leev een Wolverhampton…” Try the last bit yourself in a French accent: most of us could manage it because we have absorbed an awareness of how French should sound, even if we can’t speak French.
OK, every language has its ‘caricature version’; one only has to watch an old episode of ’Allo, ‘Allo! to identify several examples. Fine in comedy, but one would never mimic such an accent when speaking to a native speaker in a formal situation; to do so might well cause offence. The role of a good language teacher is to teach respect for their foreign language, and appreciation of its value, not to poke fun at it or its native speakers. Similarly, students need to be taught respect for the culture of the country of the target language; that helps with an appreciation of the value of the language.
Of course, as someone said this morning on the radio, one cannot separate language from culture. That will be the subject of a future article, but for now let’s focus on the language used by our prime minister in the last few days. One needs to remember Boris Johnson’s academic credentials: he excelled in English and the Classics at school, then read Literae Humaniores at Oxford. He too is a linguist: capable of using language and words to powerful effect. He may come over sometimes as a tongue-tied bumbling fool, but this is probably part of a cultivated act. It’s hard to believe that he would ever use language carelessly. Indeed, as I reported in my article on how the Italian press see our PM, if Ms Arcuri is to be believed, he even used language while indulging in carnal pleasures. As reported in Il Messaggero, «Sesso e sonetti di Shakespeare, i miei 4 anni con Boris Johnson» «Recitava sonetti durante il sesso e non riusciva a frenarsi» [“He used to recite sonnets during sex and couldn’t hold himself back“]
The theme of that article was that Johnson IS Pinocchio, the famous liar of Italian literature. The dictionary definition of a pathological liar is that he/she “often has a clear motive”. A clear motive to deceive, to obfuscate or distract. I defy anyone to watch the interview in which Johnson explains how he makes model buses and not throw up; if you manage not to, just observe his body and facial language, and listen analytically to his language and how he is using it to bluster himself out of a tight corner, to lie and create a total fantasy.
At last, some notable figures are recognising Johnson’s propensity to tell untruths and to bend reality. A few weeks ago, Dorothy Byrne, former Editor-at-large at Channel 4 and President of Murray Edwards College, Cambridge, called Johnson a liar in a speech at the Edinburgh TV Festival. So should we believe nothing he says, or should we recognise that he also has a habit of using language to offend in an oblique manner? The latter is certainly what he has done on more than one occasion in recent days.
The obvious example is the way that, in response to France’s understandable discomfiture at the announcement of the AUKUS pact, Johnson indulged in what the Daily Mirror refers to as ‘Del-boy franglais’, also reminiscent of the chimpanzee cyclist in the PG Tips television advertisement. The language used in this interview is veritably cringeworthy. What is Johnson’s purpose exactly? To amuse, to impress, to distract… or to offend?
A superficial assessment might be that he is merely trying to amuse his audience, ‘playing to the crowd’… but surely, he should have understood that such very ‘British’ humour would fall flat with an audience of viewers around the world? As a linguist himself he should take account of register: suiting his language to the occasion, rather than trying to make cheap and rather pathetic jokes. OK, so he might ‘amuse’ his least discerning supporters, but he must have been aware of how he might cause offence to the French by undermining the value of their language.
To make matters worse, a few days later Johnson described Macron’s reaction as being like that of a ‘jilted lover’. Ironic, given his own record as a feckless husband, father and philanderer. As far as I can make out, Johnson is causing offence intentionally, rubbing salt into the wound. He is a nasty piece of work, exhibiting not a shred of diplomatic behaviour in a ticklish situation.
As if that was not bad enough, he chose to refer to Kermit the Frog… in a key speech to the United Nations on the subject of climate change. Hardly appropriate recognition of the formal context and the gravitas expected on such an occasion in such a place. Instead, it was singularly inappropriate; he had no reason or right to assume that all world leaders present had ever heard of or seen Kermit anyway… or was Johnson still in ‘mock the French’ mode? Or was this just an example of his condescension in a situation where gravitas is demanded, not jokiness?
A few days later, Greta Thunberg was obviously referring to Johnson in criticising the ‘Blah, blah, blah’ from world leaders. One might ask oneself which of these two is the grown-up…
In conclusion, one ought to be able to assume that an Eton and Oxford education, especially in a linguistic subject, would have equipped Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson with an ability – and an obligation – to use language carefully: always to choose ‘le mot juste’. The fact that he misuses and abuses language with such abandon leads one to the inevitable conclusion that, as with his careless appearance and frequent clowning, it is all part of the act. That underneath that disarming image lurks a truly nasty, manipulative person who uses language as yet another tool in his armoury to achieve his selfish aspirations. Never trust a word he says, it is merely ‘un mot injuste’.