Monday, 31 March 2008

Strong Language Warning

Warning: this post contains 'strong language'.

Whenever I see “Strong Language Warning” on a CD cover or a book cover, I think of storm warnings issued over the radio, of hurricanes or gale force winds. I imagine fishing trawlers tossed from peak to trough of 8 metre high waves, with thunder and lightning crashing into a dark ocean, and of lives in peril. And then I think of D.H.Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and know I'll listen to the CD or read the book regardless of such a warning, because it'll inevitably be over a storm in a teacup.

On the whole, we’re an inventive and playful species, and one of ourStorm_in_a_teacup inventions is language. It’s an artificial construct, which we communicate through, build upon and play with. And yet, as with all artificial constructs, the way we use it, abuse it or play with it, says something about us and the era we’ve created for ourselves.

It strikes me as odd sometimes that people will complain that so-and-so “used the F word” or so-and-so “used the C word.” As if the actual pronunciation of the word ‘fuck’ or ‘cunt’ might cause the sky to fall down. It’s just about okay to write ‘f***’ or ‘c***’ in a publication like a newspaper or a magazine, but not the complete word. The most obvious allusion is fine, but not the actual word in full. It’s as if we’ve invested these specific sounds and symbols with such power that they have a magical, but destructive potency, of their own. But why do we do this? What is it we’re really frightened of?

One answer, I believe, is that such responses reflect what is currently socially taboo; that language is a barometer of the age in which we live, and that ‘unacceptable language’ reflects that which society, as a whole, hasn’t yet matured enough to accept. We deem that language is offensive, or strong---and thereby use it abusively, offensively---when we’ve become Lady_chatterleys_loveruncomfortable with what it was intended to convey. And perhaps the only way to overcome this and move forward is to reclaim the word and the idea behind the word, and to refuse to snicker or be offended or complain when someone uses ‘strong language’.

To an extent, D.H.Lawrence achieved this approach with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, even though the novel was banned in 1928 and Penguin Books were prosecuted (but vindicated) under the Obscene Publications Act during 1960 when they decided to publish it. Sometimes it takes an age for society to move forward, but sometimes, unfortunately, we also go backwards.

There’s an anecdote from the introduction to Lady Chatterley’s Lover that’s stayed with me from when I first read it, which is relevant to the way we use and abuse language, and what it says about us. It goes something like this:

A soldier, recently returned from overseas, appears in court on assault charges and is asked to explain himself to the magistrate. “Well, your honour,” he says, “I’d spent eighteen fucking months fighting for King and country, and when I’m demobbed what do I fucking find? I arrive home on the last fucking train of the day, and decide to surprise my wife, so I walk all the fucking way home, let myself quietly into the fucking house, and make my way up the fucking stairs to our bedroom, where I fucking find ... where I find my wife having relations with a stranger.”

No comments: