Saturday 20 December 2014

Words are the bricks of thought

Con Houlihan believes the tendency to use meaningless words is more worrying than actual bad language

Published 01/06/2008 | 00:00

LET BATTLE COMMENCE: Members of An Dal Cuinn re-enact the Battle of Clontarf. For too long history has been taught from a slanted perspective. The Irish were always right and somebody else was always wrong. Long ago, in the primary schools, this attitude reached comical heights: we were taught that the Battle of Clontarf was a kind of European Cup Final between Ireland and Denmark, and that Ireland won

About 60 years ago, a man called Kenneth Tynan -- who posed as a drama critic and an intellectual -- decided that he would become famous by being the first person to use a certain four-letter word on television. He thought that this might cause a revolution.

He used the word, but next day the sun got up; the rooks left their high-rise flats and went about their business; the red buses continued to brighten London. The use of that word didn't change the world.

That word goes back as far as Shakespeare and beyond. I think you will find it in the Old Testament. A certain Irish politician used it lately and his admirers thought that it was an example of his outspoken speech.

People with innocent minds think that such language is strong language. Indeed, it is not. That word and its derivatives have long ago lost their force. When somebody uses those words, he is indulging in weak language. Indeed, you could say that it is a meaningless language.

Nevertheless, the man involved is probably sorry that he used that word -- or at least that he was found out. He should give an example: in this country bad language is all too common. It is a sign of bad thinking. We are often told that the best English is spoken in Dublin; I believe that the best English is spoken in Kerry -- but it doesn't matter where it is spoken, it shouldn't be profane.

Words are the bricks of thought: whether in speech or in writing, we should strive for the best words. Some journalists think that by using foul language they are being very bold and very articulate. They are not.

Such words are creeping into even the better papers. The Irish Times doesn't give a good example.

In our neighbouring island, in the pubs and in the cafes and in the work places, you will not hear the kind of foul language that is all too common here.

I am familiar with about 20 pubs in London: some of them are very much working-class places, especially in the East End. In those establishments, if you use certain words you will be asked to take your custom elsewhere. And there is a strange rule that seems true all over Britain: the poorer the pub that you are in, the more there is regard for language. We could do with such an attitude in Ireland.

I am not much worried about Brian Cowen's use of a four-letter word. I am far more worried about a tendency to use words that have no meaning at all. Of course, every language has to grow by acquiring new words, but the new words should have a clear meaning.

What did Brian mean by the word "constitutionalised"? This is only one of the pretentious words that some people think are examples of sophisticated articulation. There is another word which I detest: it is "prioritise". Surely there is a better way of expressing that meaning.

The Dail and indeed the Senate are not noted as places of oratory. There is only one good orator in the Dail. As it happens, he is a Kerryman. Joe Higgins says what he means and means what he says. Michael Noonan, my Limerick neighbour, is a good orator too but in recent years we haven't heard much from him.

There are many people in the Dail who have the wonderful gift of waffling: they can talk at length, but when they finish you cannot remember what they said -- if anything. There was a standard question in examinations long ago: you were given about 500 words in prose and asked to summarise it in about a third of that length. I do not know a better test of intelligence. If some of the speeches we hear in the Dail were to be summarised, you would end up with nothing because nothing had been said.

Incidentally, people who think in stereotypes may believe that Brian's slip-up is a mark of a culchie. Those same people think of Bertie Ahern as a jackeen. The simple truth is that Bertie isn't a jackeen and Brian isn't a culchie -- they are both complex men.

A good many decent people are worried about the standard of Gaelic in the schools; I think we should be equally worried about the standard of English.

If I were Minister for Education, I would go away to a little hotel that I know in the heart of the Black Forest and get away from the media in all its manifestations -- even The Kerryman and Ireland's Own. There, I would indulge in a rare exercise called thinking. For a start, I would wonder how to go about restoring Latin in the schools. Believe me, it must come. I won't say sooner or later because that, in political language, means later.

Already in Britain there is a movement to bring back the so-called dead language. First of all there is the pragmatic reason: it is the seedbed of several European languages and it has contributed to English and Gaelic.

Latin has such a wonderful body of poetry that we tend to forget that it is also an engineers' language. Therefore it is precise: you don't mess around with words when you are building an aqueduct. If you were tempted to translate a typical Dail speech into Latin, you would see how little meaning was in it.

I would also think about the teaching of history: for too long it has been taught from a slanted perspective. The Irish were always right and somebody else was always wrong. Long ago, in the primary schools, this attitude reached comical heights: we were taught that the Battle of Clontarf was a kind of European Cup Final between Ireland and Denmark, and that Ireland won. It wasn't that way at all: there were Danes fighting with Brian and there were Irish fighting with the Danes. Then we were told that Brian, who belonged to the same league as Saddam Hussein, was slain while praying in his tent. More than likely he was tired and emotional.

All this was childish nonsense; more perverse was the general attitude that saw Ireland as being oppressed for centuries by the British, and especially by the English.

In this context we see how language is abused: for "Britain" you should read "Britain's power elite". Innocent people grew up with the concept of one nation persecuting the other. Of course this is absurd.

The seas between our two islands are not boundaries -- they are roads. For centuries there has been great coming and going between the two islands. The sweet music of the Gaelic language was heard in London in Shakespeare's time. Most of Wellington's army at the Battle of Waterloo were Southern Irish. It is said that after Gallipoli there was a crepe in every second house in the Coombe. I'm merely trying to say that these two islands have long been bound together. The British power elite abused their own common people just as much as they abused us. The eviction of the Highland Scots was an example of a people being cruel to their own.

We will come nearer home: even in the worst times of the bombing in England by our "Freedom Fighters", there was no significant backlash. This proved, if proof were needed, that George Orwell was right when he always claimed that the English were essentially a decent people.

I will give you a personal example. I was in London on the day of the Harrods bombing at a game in Highbury. That evening, I feared that I would be held back at Heathrow. I approached the security barrier apprehensively. One of the two Special Branch men said to me: "What game were you at today, Mr Houlihan?" I had several match programmes in my bag; I gave them one each.

Of course, the Lisbon Treaty is creating a certain amount of speculation. The book issued by the Government could be said to contain revealed truth that we cannot comprehend. The second little book is clear enough. I know some people who fear that our neutrality will be compromised. They needn't fear, because there is no such thing. We were often told that Dev kept us out of the war. He didn't. The Royal Air Force and the British Navy did. And even then we weren't quite neutral: the contribution made by our men and women in the armed forces and in other spheres cannot be measured, but it was big.

We haven't been neutral in the context of the Iraqi invasion: only a small number of brave people protested at the Americans' use of Shannon. We are guilty of contributing to the tragic mess that is now Iraq.

Of course, Barack and Hillary are dominating our screens. Some people think that Hillary is being very gallant in fighting what seems a lost cause, but that little lady has been too long around to waste so much energy. She's having an each-way bet: she is hoping that Barack will commit a monstrous own goal and ruin his cause. If he doesn't, she will get the Vice-Presidency.

If George Bush doesn't get some kind of settlement in Iraq before October, the Democrats will get back into the White House.

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