Language Conversation

A sketch from A Bit of Fry & Laurie

Stephen and Hugh are in a TV studio, talking animatedly - at least Stephen is animated.

Hugh Well, let's talk about instead about flexibility of language - linguistic elasticity if you like.

Stephen I think I said earlier that our language, English -

Hugh As spoken by us -

Stephen As we speak it, yes certainly, defines us. We are defined by our language if you will, then please, for goodness' sake, do.

Hugh (To camera) Hullo! We're talking about language.

Stephen Perhaps I can illustrate my point - let me at least try. Here's a question: is our language capable, English this is, is it capable of sustaining demagoguery?

Hugh Demagoguery?

Stephen Demagoguery.

Hugh And by demagoguery you mean ...?

Stephen I mean demagoguery, I mean highly-charged oratory, persuasive whipping up rhetoric. Listen to me, if Hitler had been English would we, under similar circumstances have been moved, charged up, fired by his inflammatory speeches, or should we have laughed? Er, er, er, is English too ironic a language to support Hitlerian styles, would his language simply have, have rung false in our ears?

Hugh (To camera) We're talking about things ringing false in our ears.

Stephen Alright, alright, do you mind if I compartmentalise? I hate to, but may I? May I? Is our language a function of our British cynicism, tolerance, resistance to false emotion, humour and so on, or do those qualities come extrinsically - extrinsically, from the language itself? It's a chicken and egg problem.

Hugh (To camera) We're talking about chickens, we're talking about eggs.

Stephen Let me start a leveret here: there's language, the grammar, the structure - then there's utterance. Listen to me, listen to me, there's chess and there's a game of chess. Mark the difference, mark it for me please.

Hugh (To camera) We've moved on to chess.

Stephen Imagine a piano keyboard, eighty-eight keys, only eighty-eight and yet, and yet, new tunes, melodies, harmonies are being composed upon hundreds of keyboards every day in Dorset alone. Our language, Tiger, our language, hundreds of thousands of available words, frillions of possible legitimate new ideas, so that I can say this sentence and be confident it has never been uttered before in the history of human communication: "Hold the newsreader's nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers." One sentence, common words, but never before placed in that order. And yet, oh and yet, all of us spend our days saying the same things to each other, time after weary time, living by clichaic, learned response: "I love you", "Don't go in there", "You have no right to say that", "shut up", "I'm hungry", "that hurt", "why should I?", "it's not my fault", "help", "Marjorie is dead". You see? That surely is a thought to take out for a cream tea on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Hugh looks at camera, opens mouth as if to speak, decides against it. Speaks to Stephen instead.

Hugh So to you language is more than just a means of communication?

Stephen Er, of course it is, of course it is, of course it is. Language is a whore, a mistress, a wife, a pen- friend, a check-out girl, a complimentary moist lemon-scented cleansing square or handy freshen- up wipette. Language is the breath of God, the dew on a fresh apple, it's the soft rain of dust that falls into a shaft of morning sun when you pull from an old bookshelf a forgotten volume of erotic diaries; language is the faint scent of urine on a pair of boxer shorts, it's a half-remembered childhood birthday party, a creak on the stair, a spluttering match held to a frosted pane, the warm wet, trusting touch of a leaking nappy, the hulk of a charred Panzer, the underside of a granite boulder, the first downy growth on the upper lip of a Mediterranean girl, cobwebs long since overrun by an old Wellington boot.

Hugh Ner-night.

Vox Pop

Hugh Then Betty took a bit of better butter and put it in her bitter batter and made her bitter batter better. Something like that. It was before the next war of course.

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