A single McLuhan but twice the Blairs

Good to Talk? - The Language Imperative

September 1, 2000

It is perhaps ironic that, despite all the concern at the decline of language learning, there should be quite so many reports and publications appearing on the subject of communication. Deborah Cameron's Good to Talk? has an up-to-the-minute approach, building on the BT TalkWorks manual (1997). It looks at modern day communications from every angle, ranging from the realities of work in call centres through to the phenomenon of the confessional talk show. Suzette Haden Elgin, in The Language Imperative , surveys language from a broader perspective, located within an American context.

Cameron's approach is academic and readable, with ample cross-reference to work being carried out by others. It includes a current bibliography, which would be a useful reading list in its own right. She draws on the apparent contradiction that people cannot express themselves better in an age when there is so much emphasis on oral communication. At the same time,the way in which people communicate is being increasingly controlled in the workplace: some helplines even have computer-controlled responses that can be handled by non-expert, semi-trained staff. Yet it is difficult to get a clear picture of how training in communications actually takes place.It is predictable that inquiries go to the press office, for fear of negative publicity, which serves to stifle communication, not improve it.

Changes in the use of language also create new pressures. The concern over the way that language is evolving (to some, for the worse) is itself indicative of a deeper anxiety about the way in which society is undergoing change - a reversal perhaps of Marshall McLuhan, with the message inflicting change (possibly irrevocable damage) on the medium. Communication is on the agenda and in the syllabus, and is becoming significant due to the idea that the world changes according to the way people view it. Hence the importance of the popular perception that we do not express ourselves as well as we once did. There is also the common view that girls are more articulate than boys and, therefore, more employable in a workplace that is based increasingly on "feminine" principles such as sympathetic listening, rapport building and projecting emotion. In contrast, the "masculine" forms of oral behaviour such as verbal duelling, competitiveness and point scoring are listed in one GCSE oral English syllabus as items to be marked down.

The planet we inhabit is taken up with gusto by Elgin, who underlines the link between language and perceptions of reality, building on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which links views of the world with the language employed to express ideas about them. Controversial subjects (for example, abortion in Japan or gender in religion) are analysed through the medium of language and local belief. But concrete examples are weakened by forays into hypothetical languages, including one invented by the author (who, in a different dimension, is a writer of sci-fi). There are some interesting examples of terms designed to express the perceptions of women, like Rad!idin - "a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion" - but these contrast oddly with concrete examples drawn from Native American languages.

Cameron's style and range of topics are British, apart from an irritating tendency to use nouns as verbs - "to critique their performance". She draws on Tony Blair and the NHS. Elgin (despite the odd diversion around the galaxy) remains firmly within the United States, but without coming to grips with the delicate political questions that can arise from language learning and the imposition (through the education system or public services) of a language policy. These points are raised but not really contextualised for the reader or subjected to cold analysis.The position of bilingual families, the cohesive role of language for immigrant communities, the function of language to express the cultural otherness of the First Peoples, all appear. They do so in a discursive manner that makes for easy reading, while raising a number of questions that are not fully answered, even though Haden states her position in the last sentence of the book: "We go on as we are at our peril."

The Language Imperative is lively, entertaining and based on a lifetime's commitment to the subject. It reads like a series of lectures, which makes it accessible, but the tendency to use lengthy anecdote and hypothetical examples does rather cloy. Haden's evident familiarity with Amerindian languages could have been used to give the book a welcome dimension, to the European reader in particular. Stories about aspects of language and examples of behaviour or cultural attitudes would have had more impact had they been developed further. The "evidential" mood, whereby a source or reason has to be given for an utterance, would play havoc with the Labour Party's tribal spin doctors, and the "passive exonerative" (invented by linguist Geoffrey S. Nathan) ought to find its way into modern books of style if not formal grammars.

It is perhaps indicative of modern-day concerns with honesty, let alone accuracy, in language that both authors refer to George Orwell's "newspeak". Cameron reiterates her hypothesis of "verbal hygiene", whereby language tends to be cleaned up in order to conform to certain standards of correctness, clarity, beauty or morality. Haden goes into historic artificial languages like Volapuk and Esperanto in some detail, though the idea of some externally imposed International Auxiliary Language is surely a piece of "unthink". However, she concludes by saying that she has tried to restore some of the sense of wonder that human language is entitled to. Both writers have surely succeeded in doing that.

Tim Connell is professor of languages for the professions, City University, London.

Good to Talk?: Living and Working in a Communication Culture

Author - Deborah Cameron
ISBN - 0 7619 5770 7 and 5771 5
Publisher - Sage
Price - £45.00 and £ 16.99
Pages - 213

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