What powers do words and language have?
Ian has given me blanket permission to use any of his Quora answers on my blog. Thank you, Ian! Here is what he wrote in answer to the above question. A round of appreciative applause from yours truly, Ian!
From Ian Lang, Leading Technician:
It’s often said that the pen is mightier than the sword, thanks to Bulwer-Lytton. With this in mind I went into Harrods and got myself a really nice Cross-Townsend and went and poked some members of the Blues and Royals with it during the Trooping of the Colour last year.
Bulwer-Lytton, you were not right I’m afraid. This year I’m going to try it with a Montblanc but I’m not terribly hopeful.
Words though. They do have a power. In Western languages we have an alphabet based on the Roman one, and in English there are twenty-six ugly little characters (thirty-six if you count numerals too) which, when strung together in just the right way, can delight, enthrall, cause despair, joy, pain, love, hate, jealousy, anger and all emotions between.
Daily I thank God for the circumstances that caused me to be able to read and write for I’m sure I would have made a most miserable illiterate, and words cast to paper (or as in these days to the server) are the shapers of our history, and the echoes of our lives.
Writing and Oratory are the two most important skills any person can have. Applied properly, they can cause the world to shake. Let’s have a look at this chap:
Cicero. His letters and speeches were of such perfection that they ringed for two thousand years and still today anybody who does Latin at school will be tormented with and influenced by him. He could strike chords in men’s souls and such an accomplished gobshite was he that they had to murder him to shut him up.
Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet). Jesus, I thought I was a snarky bastard, but this bloke could take snarkiness to an art form. His writings so chimed with the stroppy, awkward squad of pre-revolutionary France that he was exiled and his books were burnt. He’s widely thought to have made the first serious cracks in the Ancien Régime.
Then there’s this bloke:
I’m sure he needs no introduction. Now think what you like about him personally and politically. But can you, through the power of your voice alone, persuade millions of people that have seen the slaughter of a great war in Europe a mere twenty-one years previously, take a course of action that’s going to land them in an even bigger one and make them think that this is a good idea? Because I can’t.
Up against him was an equally brilliant gobshite:
Sometimes I just wish I’d been around at that time because I don’t think there’s ever been anybody before or since that’s been better at using the English language to do something really on the face of it monumentally stupid, and yet fire up enough spirit to not only actually do it but do it so well that the opposing side is completely crushed. The German War Machine rolled right over Europe unstoppably. It got to the English Channel. It’s a hop, skip and jump over twenty-two miles. All it’s got to do is get to London and the game’s finished. We couldn’t stop them in France and Belgium. They’re on the Channel Islands. It’s bloody hopeless. Except-
A fat little bloke educated at Harrow who likes a drink and a smoke stands up and effectively says:
“Right. No. We’re not giving in to this little bastard. We’re going to kick his arse roundly and if we all have to die in the attempt so be it.”
But he delivers a factual account of how hopeless it looks and then at the end puts in shining words:
“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
God almighty. The British Army’s been booted out of Europe. The Luftwaffe is at its highest glory. The Wehrmacht just can’t be beaten. There’s U-boats everywhere and we could easily starve. The only advantage we’ve got is the Royal Navy and the Home Radar. Neither going to help if the Germans can get air superiority. And it’s a BIG and very cocky Luftwaffe now. The sensible thing is to sue for peace. And yet……and yet………
What did Winston just say? Hey, do y’know what? He’s right! "Bollocks to Hitler! If he thinks he’s just walking in here he’s got another bloody think coming. Right. Sleeves up. Boots on. We’ve stuff to do.”
And it rang with every man and woman in the UK, and didn’t stop there. Men of the Empire came. Men of Europe came. Men from countries who had nothing whatsoever to do with it came. All because they’d read and heard the words of power emanating. Who’d have thought that some ink and some electro-magnetic waves could do that?
To our shame, in so many ways we today are not the equal of what our grandparents were and one of those deficiencies we suffer is in the field of literary and oratory works. There is no Orwell writing his simple but resonant sentences now. There is no Churchill stirring us on to punch well above our weight. Where is the Voltaire that can mock for millions? Perhaps our lives are too easy; perhaps our days are filled with business and we have no time for the craft now.
Sic transit gloria mundi.
Which doesn’t mean that some woman threw up in my van at the beginning of the week. But it’d be nice to think so.