Stephen Fry on Pedants

This wonderfully constructed little video adds a nice visual element to part of a Stephen Fry essay on language.

Fry’s particular stance has always been a mix of the quite old and the very new. And in this piece on language he reveals himself as a progressive again, rallying against pedants whose love for language, he argues, is counterproductive.

They inhibit its growth by smothering it. If somebody writes something that is irregular or wrong, it is pounced upon and then held up as a horrid example by people like Lynn Truss or John Humphreys. Loving language in this way, Fry more or less claims, is like tucking a baby so tightly into its cot that it cannot move.

It’s an interesting essay and one that got me thinking. Whatever Fry thinks of the pedants in Briton, he would be more annoyed by those on the continent. We don’t have a Royal Academy of Language like Spain’s Real Academia Española or France’s L’Académie française, whose official role is to pass judgement on words like courts pass judgements on people.

The English language has always been more flexible than this. That it contains more words than most comparable languages stems from the fact that it is so lightly regulated. We’re so good at stealing words from elsewhere and putting them to good use that approximately 30% of English words come from French.

Hardly anyone from my generation knows anything about English grammar and form. I remember friends in Madrid being horrified when I explained that I didn’t know the rules of my own language. Apart from verbs and nouns in primary schools, the rest is left unexplained. Words ended up going together because they sounded right, not because sentences were formed correctly.

Stephen Fry is an admirable aesthete and for him anything that inhibits creativity or the construction of something beautiful is to be lamented or got rid of. It’s a progressive attitude that seems to be more American than English who excel in scrutiny and scepticism. It’s an attitude that I like.

But there is still something to be said for the pedants. Given that the English education system has abandoned the English language to its own fate and there’s (thankfully) no formal body to moderate the use of words, then you need to have some people holding the whole thing together.

And in their assiduous, misanthropic way, that’s what the pedants do.

Points to @JTownend for spotting the video in the first place.

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