I have been recommending to friends a little book recently published by the Cambridge University Press: The Survival of English, by Mr. Ian Robinson, who lectures in the English department at Swansea University.
It is written with great wit and vehemence. Much of it is highly opinionated. But Mr. Robinson's main point seems to me to be valid: that the decline in the accuracy and sense of style with which the English language is now publicly used is central to the decline of English civilisation. I anguage, he argues, is not just a code we use to communicate with each other. lt is a living, creative thing: 'In the beginning was the Word.' Words shape our ideas. attitudes. customs, beliefs. They heighten our emotions and direct our moral responses. If words are publicly used without respect for their intrinsic meaning, or without any sense of their aesthetic value, the realities they express are correspondingly diminished.
Mr. Robinson argues with great force that recent translations of the Bible, and other Christian documents, have undermined faith in God; that misuse of language by politicians like Mr. Wilson and Mr. Heath have undermined public confidence in the political system, and weakened our self-respect as a nation; that the decline in linguistic accuracy of such newspapers as The Times have diminished the perception of the world they convey to their readers, and that the invasion of literature by pornography is destroying our capacity to feel, and respond to, the finer emotions.
lf, he maintains, language is creative, and its proper use can help to mould institutions, to raise moral standards, to make us,. collectively, more civilised and, individually, better human beings: so, by the same token, the devaluation of language can inflict enormous damage on the quality of life. and lead to a deterioration of public and private behaviour.
This argument has particular relevance to Christians today, for the language in which our religion is publicly conducted has been revolutionised, Mr. Robinson suggests that the way in which the Bible has been re-translated, in both Anglican and Catholic versions, reflects a diminution of faith in those who carried out the translations, and that their usc will, in turn, lead to a further loss of faith.
I would add a further point. There is a common assumption today that public documents and utterances, be they political speeches, or sermons, or readings from the Bible, or newspaper articles, or novels, should come as close as possible to the everydi ■ language of ordinary people.
I believe this to be a terrible fallacy. The essence of everyday language is that it is commonplace, inarticulate, inaccurate and lacking in style. It is so because the subjects it deals with are trivial.
If we are dealing with vital subjects — great political issues, high themes in literature, above all religious belief and moral conduct — it is essential that the language should be, not commonplace, but special. It should use the full resources of grammar. syntax and vocabulary. It should seek, not to depress the theme to everyday levels of conversation, but to elevate it to its true and natural importance.
The story of Pentecost. as I understand it, is not so much that the Apostles were granted the gift of speaking foreign languages, hut that the huge theme they were seeking to convey suddenly enabled them to speak in an extraordinary manner.
The Holy Spirit breathed into them; they were 'inspired': and, in turn, they were able to inspire those who heard them — not because their language was commonplace but, on the contrary, because it was astonishingly new. Nothing like it had been heard before, and those who listened felt themselves elevated, and so changed.
In short, language, on great issues, should not be a reflector of ordinary speech but an intrinsic source of illumination: 'the true light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world'.