November 1, 2022

The wildness and freedom of using natural language with joy and pleasure

Filed under: education,engineering,mathematics,Science — Duncan Hull @ 9:32 am
Tags: , , , ,
Public domain portrait of Stephen Fry by the US Embassy in London on Wikimedia Commons w.wiki/4wrn

It’s easy to undervalue the importance of natural languages like English because we use them everyday. Scientists and engineers can be particularly bad at this, often overlooking the importance of written and spoken language. It probably doesn’t help that in the UK, and many other countries, many students choose either an exclusively scientific-mathematical path OR an arty-humanities path through their education, especially in the latter stages. This means that the two cultures of humanities and science are thriving, but still living in separate houses like an estranged and bickering couple. In the worst case scenario, two cultures in society produces graduate scientists and engineers with weaker communication and literacy, and articulate humanities graduates with weaker technical & numeracy skills.

Over on BBC4, Alan Yentob is having conversations with prominent artistes. [1] The first episode in the series is with writer, presenter, comedian and actor Stephen Fry. As a self-confessed Fry-fanboi, I enjoyed his description of the joy of using language:

YENTOB: Why do you need all that stuff?

FRY: I think what underlies 90%, if not more, is language, is a real profound love and excitement at the process of putting one word after another and what happens when you do it.

Not just the meanings that are conveyed and the moods you can create with language, but even the text of it, the tip of the tongue hitting the back of the teeth, the rhythm, the swing, the swoop, the flow, the joy, the sound and sex of language. People have that with music. We all have it with music. Music is often described as being beyond language, and indeed it is and I’m the first to say how profound I think music is.

But everybody has language, and yet almost nobody has such a realisation of what a beautiful thing it can be. I mean one of the thrills that’s happened in music in the last 20 or so years, I suppose, is rap and hip-hop and poetry slamming and things like that because then it’s taken away from the normal people who are people like me, who, as it were, have an educated sense of language and its returned to where language belongs.

And so the wildness and freedom of using language with joy and pleasure and realising we’re all the equivalent of grade eight musicians, or painters, only with language.


  1. Janet Lee and David Shulman (2022) In Conversation with Alan Yentob: Stephen Fry bbc.co.uk/programmes/m001dh8p

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