That hyydeous strength

We are proud to be hosting the peerless Robert Low here on The Power of Language – author of the Oathsworn series and The Lion Wakes, published by HarperCollins.

ANYONE who has read reviews of The Lion Wakes – or, in fact, any of the Oathsworn series – will know that there are some who simply cannot proceed far in it, because the use of language defeats them. This is more prevalent with The Lion Wakes than the others, since it deals with the Scots ‘language’; despite desperate attempts by rabid nationalists to claim the contrary, Scots is not a language at all, in my opinion, it is a dialect.

Thick as old porridge, growling as winter-woken bear it may be, but there are words and comparisons in it that simply can’t be expressed anywhere else. Like ‘haar’ or ‘mirr’ or any of the other words for rain – Scotland has about as many for precipitation as Eskimos have for snow – or the highly expressive ‘greeting’ instead of weeping. For some reason, ‘greeting’ has always conveyed more sadness and tears and distress than the mere ‘weep’.

Language is the dress of thought. As Ezra Pound says, all the same: “the sum of human wisdom is not contained in any one language, and no single language is CAPABLE of expressing all forms and degrees of human comprehension.”

Yet there are more hours spent in fault-finding language than in taking joy in it. The crassness of Eats, Shoots And Leaves has fuelled a curmudgeonly ( I use the term in its original Brewer’s sense, of ‘grasping and miserly churl’) pedantry in correcting greengrocer signs. Yet Oscar Wilde, that master of the word, once sent a manuscript to his publisher with an attached note airily inviting them to tidy up ‘the wills and shalls, that’s and whiches etc’.

The problem is that the curmudgeons believe they are guardians of the Language, somehow erecting a bulwark against the barbarian flow of tweets and text-speak, of ‘bugger the comma and the apostrophe’ and, above all, of the insidious spread of the American ‘zed’. Well – quisque est barbarum alio as someone once said. Everyone is a barbarian to someone.

Does it worry me that MS Word auto-corrects ‘realise’ to ‘realize’? Or that Pearl Harbor was shown at my local cinema (apart from the abysmal nature of the film itself, that is)? Once it did. I am now more stoked, burned, flamed to a crisp by the idea of someone auto-correcting ‘cell’ to ‘mobile’ and ending up, as they did in Henning Mankell’s last-ever Wallander book, with the phrase ‘canmobileated a dental appointment’. I am driven to flaring incandescence by the likes of ‘centred around’, a nonsensical phrase much used even by the BBC – but the BBC, like the Queen, is no longer the Supreme Head of the English Language. In a TV documentary, I heard – much repeated to every visiting head of state – the Queen’s polite, trite inquiry regarding said visit toAlbion’s shores.

“Is it like what you thought it would be?” she asked, time and again, a nail-grate down the blackboard of my life. There will be those who cannot see anything wrong in it – but that ‘like’ and ‘what’ slammed together makes Her Maj sound as if she should be wearing a hoodie, or white slingbacks.

But the power of the word evolves like nature does. In the beginning of the thrusting, vibrant, muscular culture of the Norse, the rune was held to be magical, positively dangerous in hands other than those belonging to a Master. Four hundred years later, Maes Howe runes proudly proclaim that ‘Orm is a fud’ and that decline of language clearly marks the decline of the culture.

On the other hand, Latin in the days of Rome’s height, was the language of the people and graffiti proclaiming ‘Marcus is a fud’ was everywhere. Several centuries later and it is now ‘magical’ in the sense of being reduced to usage by high priests in the temples of Christianity. Now even that has vanished and Latin is no more than an academic study.

The title of this blog, essay – name it what you will – is taken from Dialog, by David Lindsay, 16th century Scottish ‘Makar’ (Poet Laureate to you effete southrons). ‘The shadow of that hyddeous strength, sax myle and more it is of length’ referred to the Tower of Babylon and was, of course, famously nicked by C.S. Lewis for the title of his book.

The enormity of that tower has been with us ever since – and I use ‘enormity’ in its original sense, of ‘extreme wickedness’ as opposed to what it has become, ‘a vastness’. It is infamous. I use that in its original sense of ‘abominable’ rather than the much weaker ‘controversial’.

All this has been, no doubt, said before by previous generations. It is deja-vu – and I mean that in its original sense, of a fleeting state of believing I have been somewhere I cannot palpably have ever witnessed. Rather than the present usage, of a state which I have actually witnessed and am reliving.

Enough. At the end of the day and going forward (two more phrases I detest) endeavouring to stop language from changing is narrow-minded and pedantic. But as nature changes and words, like polar bears, are threatened with extinction, pedantry is suddenly a force for good and intervention in the course of things is encouraged.

Word species are already extinct. I am more concerned about ‘chalant’ than the polar bear. Where did it go? Or ‘hevelled’? Or any of the other words which seem to have vanished, leaving only their shadow – nonchalant and dishevelled.

We must all become a band of sung heroes travelling cognito. Remain gruntled and consolate, never give in to domitable spirit, or descend into peccable behaviour.

If we are to remain guardians of the Language, we must be choate, a group of kempt people, displaying toward and heard-of behaviour.

It is difficult in a world where most demonstrate a swerving loyalty to the maculate, becoming flappable and plussed. It is, sadly, skin off my nose to witness it and, convinced I am the only ept one left, plainly ebriate where others are not, I will continue to attempt to get proceedings moving in a gainly fashion.

My apologies for the evitable errors.

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One Response to That hyydeous strength

  1. Great post! We *have* become far too pedantic in our language. In Highland King I took a chance and adopted a Scottish dialect for all the dialogue. I think it works. I hope it does. I guess I’ll see how ruth the readers are with me.

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