Emma Thompson’s lecture on the English language; what does she mean?

Emma Thompson is a successful actress who in a recent interview complained that people who do not speak properly upset her. The words she used, as quoted by the BBC, included “we have to reinvest, I think, in the idea of articulacy as a form of personal freedom and power.” She objects to the use of slang because she thinks it makes people sound stupid.The only reason for using words is to communicate; slang sometimes communicates more effectively than “proper” English and sometimes it does not. With slang the meaning is usually clear. This is a pre-requisite. Unfortunately, if you use English absolutely correctly without a scintilla of slang, you are not necessarily communicating anything clearly, as the words used by Ms Thompson quoted above prove.

Ms Thompson uses nineteen words. Out of those nineteen words the only phrase I understand is the phrase “I think”. The rest of the words she uses are very unclear to me. Let us look at the first eleven words she used, “we have to reinvest, I think, in the idea of articulacy”.

It may be that I am thick (to use a slang expression), but I do not understand what re-investment in the idea of articulacy means. Does she mean that people should be encouraged to be more articulate and one way of doing this is to avoid slang, or the state should set up a special programme to teach people to be more articulate and take money out of existing programmes or because she used “re-invest” that we must put money and resources back into enabling people to be more articulate?

There are other possible meanings for those eleven words and I am left to guess the meaning of this bit of gobbledegook.

I must try and tease out a meaning for the last eight words of the quotation: a form of personal freedom and power; I admit I find this very difficult. I can be as free as a bird using slang or dialect. She has not explained the link between freedom and articulacy; if there is a link, which I very much doubt, it only arises if you use the word “freedom” as meaning something which it does not mean, and debases thus the concept (or the idea) of freedom. She has not explained what a form of freedom is – a curious concept, that you can have different forms of freedom, one of which is not using slang.

As for articulacy as “a form” of power then I admit that I am completely lost in her meaning. Does power have different forms; or is it power in the sense Ms Thompson uses the word a tool or an attribute or a quality? We should be told, and told clearly. I am confused.

There is no point in stringing together a bunch of long words and fashionable concepts if taken together those words have no meaning. Speaking words without meaning is worse than slang and speaking words with uncertain meaning is as bad as speaking gibberish.

Ms Thompson is a graduate of the University of Cambridge, where she studied English. It has probably helped her tremendously in her acting career and she ought to understand how to use English. A degree in English from Cambridge University is a wonderful start in life. It is interesting to see that when she complains about the use or abuse of the English language she fails to communicate her complaints and ideas in a way that a reasonably dull person, like me, can understand. Is that what she learnt from her studies?

One Response

  1. so good …

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