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Meaningful words

21 August 2015


IT IS no wonder that Stephen Fry is a national — nay, an international — treasure. There are certain tones of voice that are universal: the mother cooing to her child, the lament of the bereaved. Play somebody from a Polynesian island a recording of Fry, and they, too, will surely recognise the whimsy and the pedagogy, the intellectual confidence delivered with winsome lightness, which is Fry’s public persona. You need not understand a word; and it constitutes a rich meaning when what is actually being said is rather weak.

Fry’s English Delight (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) took as its subject emotional language — that which communicates beyond the lexical meaning of words — and was a fine example of its own premise: that a trustworthy tone of voice can make up for any amount of incoherence in the message.

A case in point was the inclusion of John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, who has just had a book published. Lydon told us that he hates emojis, those little signs that are supposed to bolster or subvert the emotional authenticity of a text. Most entertaining here was the Professor of Linguistics who discussed his research into the language of restaurant reviews on TripAdvisor.

Apparently, our language gravitates towards particular registers when describing our eating experiences: when it is bad, there is a sense of grief; when it is high-quality, we adopt the language of seduction; and when the food represents a guilty, unsophisticated pleasure, we depict it as an irresistible, addictive draw. In short, language gives us away; and when we can control that leakage, we can, as Fry wonderfully demonstrates, rule the media.

That is the reason that the very act of talking can be regarded as dangerous. Hence the question asked in The Inquiry (World Service, Tuesday of last week): “Should anyone ever talk to IS?” Engagement assumes some level of respect, even before the conversation has started.

Nevertheless, Jonathan Powell, a veteran of the negotiations with the IRA, declared that, at some point, somebody would have to talk to IS. The seemingly unique barbarity of IS was no bar. Everyone thinks their own terrorists are worse than any that have gone before: ETA, for instance, was regarded by the Spanish authorities as being in a different league from the IRA. “All terrorists are barbaric. . . There are no nice terrorists and bad terrorists,” Powell told us.

This is not to say that we do it straight away, or stop fighting. The time to start negotiating is when a political identity emerges from the purely criminal chaos. Indeed, the consensus that emerged from Helena Merriman’s programme was that one must play the long game.

Do not treat them like a unified force: exploit the divisions that exist between fundamentalist Sunnis and Saddam Hussein’s disgruntled but more pragmatic former commanders; and try to establish a humanitarian dialogue based upon an appreciation of the needs of civilian populations. It is less exciting, and won’t make headlines; but it is at that kind of level that emotional language can work.

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