I’ve just taken the time to properly discover Stephen Fry‘s new-look website. (I don’t know what’s taken me so long!) Here’s a snippet from a recent treatise post on language, where Fry describes some of the social, cultural and literary ingredients that have contributed to his distinctive voice. I can’t think of a better way to explain the layers of information (“linguistic strata”) that a translator sifts through and then transfers on a daily basis.
(I know it’s a lengthy quote, but have a look at the length of the original post and all will become clear.)
…I can no more change my language and the sum of its discourses than I can add a cubit to my height or, sadly it seems, take a pound from my weight. Well, perhaps that’s going a little far. I can attempt to disguise my language, I can dress it up into even more elaborate and grandiose orotundity, prolixity and self-consciousness, Will Self-consciousness you might say, or I could dress it down into something stripped. Stark. Bare. Simple. It would be hard to dress it down into something raggedly demotic without it being a patronising pastiche of a street argot to which I quite evidently have no access and in whose mazy slang avenues I would soon get lost, innit? In a sense I am typecast linguistically and although I can for fun try on all kinds of brogues and dialect clothes, my voice, my style, my language is as distinctive as my fingerprints.
My language (as the sum of my discourses, as linguistic strata that betray my history, as geology or archaeology betrays history) is my language and it is a piece of who I am, perhaps even the defining piece. In my case it is in part a classical ruin, inherited boulders of Tacitus and Cicero bleaching in the sun along with grass-overrun elements of Thucydides and Aeschylus … not because I was a classical scholar, but because I was taught by classical scholars and grew up on poets, dramatists and novelists who knew the classics as intimately as most people of my generation know the Beatles and the Stones. Without knowing it therefore, heroic Ciceronian clausulae and elaborate Tacitan litotes can always be found in the English of people like me. In part classical ruin, then, my language in particular has also mixed in it elements of my three Ws, my particular world wide web, my w.w.w, Wodehouse, Waugh and Wilde, three writers who greatly excited my imagination and stimulated my language glands like no other. I would add Vivian Stanshall of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, Peter Cook and Alan Bennett as others of whom I am consciously aware. But the language of British movies, classic novels, sixties and seventies broadcasters like Malcolm Muggeridge, James Cameron, Alistair Cooke, John Ebden, Anthony Quinton, Robert Robinson, they all played their part in informing my spoken and written utterance too, not to mention the elemental styles which in turn informed their language. As Henry Higgins reminds us in Pygmalion, English is for all of us the language of Shakespeare, Milton and the Bible. We unconsciously use the tropes, tricks and figures of our great writers, just as we might without knowing it use a tierce de Picardie or a diminished seventh when humming in the shower. And to our native English today we have added the language of American sitcom and drama, American movies and Australian soap operas…