The thirteenth of January, 2011: Watch out! There is a hazard. Don’t laugh.

A lovely lunch at Leeds’ Arts Cafe (try the Yorkshire Plate, it’s the best in the city), and an interesting discussion of the written language used by certain semiliterates who pass as university students. The idea came up that, while an earlier generation regarded the word as the basic unit of language, modern writers think in, to put it kindly, pre-formed phrases (or, to put it less kindly, clichés).

And what do I find, now, on settling down to another happy session with Believe In People: The Essential Karel Capek, Sárka Tobrmanová -Kühnová ed. (Faber, 2010)?

‘When we write, we write in a way that stops us having to think too much, or chew our sentences laboriously. It lets us swallow them at one gulp. We find it hard to read old writers, with their unfolding clauses, copious metaphors and adroit, circuitous turns of syntax. We start sprinting through old texts at our usual reading speed, but soon come to a halt in those stylistic mazes, and begin to skip over them impatiently. The ancient style was tailored for slow reading, for readers who analysed the sentence and built word upon word, for people who grasped the point gradually but thoroughly. Our style shows us best how much smarter we are, but also how much more slipshod and superficial than people in earlier days.

‘Analytical reading seems to us to be too mechanical. But even that almost intuitive perception of words and sentences we have trained ourselves in is mechanical, just as speed is, and so it is ultimately as thoughtless as pronouncing every syllable. The so-called telegraphic style of newspapers, composed of stock collocations and formulas, political language perpetually reeling off the same clichés and slogans, office-speech and business jargon, these are all global styles that bank on the spiritual automatism of their readers. It’s no longer necessary to read and listen carefully, word by word; it’s enough to get a fleeting glimpse and we know where we are. But the thought of questioning this global method of generalised reading and speaking doesn’t even enter anyone’s head.’

Hurá! for that. I’m new to Capek, and so far (58 pages in) he’s completely charmed me. That was from ‘About Global Reading’ in The People’s Paper, 24 February, 1934. Here’s what he says about the relationship between language and nation (a simpler issue for a Czech-speaking Czech writer than for a 21st century English-speaking English writer, but one I think we’re wrong to neglect):

‘The thing is we writers won’t let ourselves be thrown out of the nation. Please note that there are things we won’t let anyone take away from us – the first of them is our allegiance to the nation whose language we write in. If anyone wants to deny us this closeness, there’s just one answer to it – a punch in the teeth. I’m not going to explain it to you in some subtle way, but no-one becomes a writer, no-one becomes a linguistic creator and a poet without infinite spiritual love for their nation, for language is the soul of the nation. Without an inspiring love, which not many are capable of, a writer remains a mere scribe who blots the paper with ink, but doesn’t create. And even if the poet has never in his life used the words nation and homeland, he remains the chosen darling of the nation’s soul, as long as he is a poet and a creator, of course. Every word of his native speech uttered in his poetic work is as if spoken for the first time, it is bedewed as on the day of creation, unfingered by lies, clichés and averageness. The speech of the nation, threatened by professional gasbags and anonymous scribblers, is always being newly born from two living sources: the people and poets. And then someone comes along, some General-writer or other, some anonymous journalist or whoever, and will say that if things are like this or that, the nation can do without writers. How poor the nation would be if it did without them, it thought, felt, perceived reality through the language of meetings and editorials! Can’t you see, you idiots, what you are depriving the nation of?’

Reading that, I feel like I’m in some mitteleuropean city square, shouting ‘hurrah!’ (or ‘hurá!’) and throwing my trilby in the air as a statue is toppled or a wall comes down. All right, I could do without the infinite spiritual love bit, but the averageness, the punch in the teeth, the professional gasbags? If my flat had rafters I would now be cheering Karel Capek to them. That was from ‘The Nation Doesn’t Need Us’, The People’s Paper, 9 December, 1934.

And then, what does he do, this Capek, but hit on the exact problem that was facing me yesterday – immediately before, that is, I picked up Believe In People. From ‘A Flu-sufferer’ (The People’s Paper, 22 February, 1935):

‘He tries to read the paper, but there’s nothing in it that would buoy up a distressed creature, and besides he’d have to hold it in both hands, while he just needs one to wipe his nose. That’s when he discovers the advantages of literature in book form, because it can be read single-handed while the other hand is squashing the hanky.’

I feel bad for not having read Karel Capek sooner.

With all this chatter about language it would be remiss of me not to (a) credit Sárka Tobrmanová -Kühnová with the above translations from the Czech, and (b) point language-lovers in the direction of Stan Carey’s always-interesting Sentence First blog.

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