Good language


Some years ago Prince Charles wrote an article on "in defense of good language". He argued that our present move to reduce the complexity of language inevitably reduces our capacity for great ideas. Today's language "might be accessible for all, but so is a desert." It is an interesting theory and he argues it with reference to the Bible and the English Prayer Book.

"The Book of Common Prayer has been the spiritual resource of English-speaking people for five centuries. It has survived changes in Church and State that would have destroyed a liturgy less sensitive to the profound human need for continuity and permanence. The language employed by Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was chiefly responsible for the Prayer Book, was 'not of an age, but for all time'".

"If we encourage the use of mean, trite, ordinary language, we encourage a mean, trite, ordinary views of the world." "The idea is to put great thoughts within our reach by changing the words. But the words are the thoughts." "We can have a prayer book that talks like us on a bad day. But what will it say to us on a really bad day? Where is the comfort in a phrase too banal to be remembered? How can we be lifted up by a sentence that itself needs lifting?" "Is it entirely an accident that the defacing of Cranmer's Prayer Book has coincided with a calamitous decline in literacy and the quality of English? We have rejected quality in expression, just as we have rejected quality in the buildings in which we work and educate."

"Ours is the age of miraculous writing machines, but not of miraculous writing. Our banalities are no improvement on the past; merely an insult to it and a source of confusion in the present. In the case of our cherished religious writings we should leave well alone, especially when it is better than well - when it is great. Otherwise we leave ourselves open to the terrible accusation reportedly leveled by that true master of the banal, Samuel Goldwyn: 'You've improved it worse.'"

There is certainly truth in these words from Charlie, yet is he just clinging to the security of the past against the uncharted path of the future? Shakespeare's plays are still worth doing, in fact, they set a standard for us to aim at today. Yet only a fool would write a modern play in Shakespearean English, or limit their work to Shakespearean form. Profound thoughts cannot be conveyed in banal language, but they can be conveyed in simple language. So, here's a test. You probably have an old King James Bible at home; the language is beautiful, but hard to understand. When you get a chance, buy a copy of the Contemporary English Version of the Bible and read one of the gospels and you judge whether simple language can't be profound.


[Pumpkin Cottage]