I sent my first attempt at a children’s fantasy novel to a publisher when I was 21. It came straight back, and I didn’t feel brave enough to repeat the experiment, and I spent my twenties concentrating on drawing, where I felt on safer ground. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I rediscovered my love of language.
I found my way back into writing through an almost visual appreciation of words – seeing how the short, simple, Anglo-Saxon monosyllables that are the core of English, can be so vivid that it’s almost as if the word itself is a picture. I began just writing lists of (mostly) four-letter words: moon, star, hill, sun, tree, knife, fire, fork, king, snow, cat, girl, boy, dark, rain, leaf, pig, fog, wolf, crown, house, etc. and suddenly I found I could heap up nouns like colourful building blocks, making whatever I liked, and discovering new possibilities in the simplest vocabulary. Putting the words side by side paints pictures – and even the most basic list felt like a poem.
Anglo-Saxon is an earthy vulgar language and there is a thud thud rhythm to everyday English that is very different from the fluidity of a language like Italian where the words seem to blend into one another. I remember an interview with Sven Goran Eriksson, when he was England manager, saying that his Italian girlfriend had described Swedish as sounding “like the noises animals make in the forest.”
English is similarly inelegant – and the English traditionally have prided themselves on bluntness and honesty: calling a spade a spade. I was born in Middlesbrough, in what was then Yorkshire, and no one is more proud of being plain-speaking than Yorkshiremen.
When I was doing a lot of this experimentation with little words, I happened to hear a radio programme on the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas, who had just died. He was recorded saying that he aimed to use “words so simple and moving that they bring tears to the eyes.” The magic of English, to him, was in its smallest words and he explained that the monosyllabic language of the King James Bible is what gives that book its incantatory power.
This is the first verse of his poem ‘Album’
My father is dead.
I who am look at him
who is not, as once he
went looking for me
in the woman who was.
The King James Bible was designed to be read aloud, just as picture books are. William Tyndale was the first to translate the Bible into English – and he paid with his life, burned at the stake: “the strangling was bungled and he suffered terribly,” but he was a wonderful writer. The King James Bible was largely based on his work – and these are a few of Tyndale’s phrases that were carried over into the later ‘Authorized Version':
twinkling of an eye
a moment in time
seek and ye shall find
judge not that you not be judged
the salt of the earth
a law unto themselves
gave up the ghost
the signs of the times
the powers that be
fight the good fight
The very familiarity of the words can make it hard to appreciate their beauty. It isn’t easy to say things simply – much less to say them with style. This was his translation of the beginning of the St. John’s Gospel, which was hardly altered in the King James version:
In the beginning was the word and the word was with God: and the word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by it and with out it was made nothing that was made. In it was life and the life was the light of men and the light shineth in the darkness but the darkness comprehended it not.
Work on the King James translation was begun in 1604 a couple of years after Shakespeare wrote Hamlet. “To be or not to be” has a Tyndale sort of ring to it.
George Orwell, in his essay Politics and the English Language ‘translated’ a famous Biblical passage from earthy Anglo-Saxon into Latinate English, to show how ugly and un-vivid long words can be. This is the original, a famous passage from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift,
nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise,
nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill;
but time and chance happeneth to them all.
And this was Orwell’s ‘translation’ into management-speak:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion
that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency
to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element
of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
Latinate words are emotionally distancing, and that’s why they’re so favoured by academics, or science, or for safety announcements, or when someone is telling you your train is delayed, etc. They conceal blunt truths, they smooth over rough edges, and they sound fancy, as if whoever is speaking is in control.
Long words are boring!