Sir Bob Jones

Commentary on issues of the day from the property tycoon, author and former politician

Sir Bob Jones: Mangled language is now the norm

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Sir Bob Jones believes many people nowadays, including Dr Jan Wright, 'can't speak English'. Photo / Supplied
Sir Bob Jones believes many people nowadays, including Dr Jan Wright, 'can't speak English'. Photo / Supplied

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, has degrees from Canterbury University and California's Berkley, plus a doctorate from Harvard, and she can't speak English.

In a recent evaluation report on solar energy presented to Parliament, she wrote, "although it seemed instinctively good to harness the sun's energy ..." and further on, "Instinct and reason both tell us that solar water heaters perform at their best in summer ..."

No Dr Wright, instinct tells us nothing of the sort. First, because the only instinct we have is to suckle and second, because instinctive behaviour is by definition, automatic and unreasoned.

What she should have said is intuition, that is gut feel behaviour based on past experience. Instinct on the other hand is behaviour written into our genes and most important, common to every member of the species. The simpler the species, the more reliant its members are on instinctive behaviour.

To clarify the matter further, instinct and intuition differ from another behavioural response, namely reflexive behaviour which is usually a reaction to a physical stimulus. But here's my point. Am I guilty of pedantic preciousness in raising this? Some readers may feel so but I don't. Surely given Dr Wright's academic background we should expect correct English.

There's been a sharp decline in language standards in recent decades, which ought to be a matter for concern. Yet ironically, it's coincided with a growing romanticising about redundant languages, illustrated in New Zealand by the waste promoting Maori. The same nonsense occurs elsewhere, such as in Wales, while National Geographic magazine is forever wringing its hands about the last two survivors, now in their 90s, who are the only remaining speakers of Wagamishoo or whatever. This is silly. It doesn't matter and to extrapolate knowledge of a language as revealing the soul of the people and similar claptrap, as spouted here by the Maori language proponents, is sheer fantasy.

I have just completed writing a soon-to-be-published book on an aspect of our contemporary language following six years of hobbyist research. I thoroughly enjoyed this exercise but I certainly don't romanticise it. Rather, language is a tool, nothing more and undoubtedly it is the prime reason for homo sapiens' rise to the top of the animal world.

The save-the-whales mob are forever pointing out whales', dolphins' and porpoises' communication aptitude as reasons for their animal kingdom superiority and thus protection. More recently we read of scientists claiming evidence of some plants' ability to communicate although I suspect they may simply have noted common reactive behaviour. But what solely counts with language is its functional value which is diminished when mis-used.

Too frequently bad English is excused by claims of it constantly evolving. For example, almost 70 per cent of current English was unheard of 60 years ago. However, this evolvement process has nothing to do with its mis-use. Consider our Prime Minister, plainly a decent and sensible fellow but he does no service to the nation with his easily fixed, extraordinary mauling of English. His junior Cabinet minister Simon Bridges, introduced himself to me at a parliamentary Press Gallery Christmas party a year ago.

"Why have you declared war on English?" I asked him.

"Everyone says that to me," he laughed.

I told him to call me, claiming I could cure him in a single session. That would have required hammering him to come down hard on his consonants. He said he would but didn't and remains a laughing stock every time he speaks.

Some of our rugby commentators are terrible sinners which is shameful given their communication role. Some years ago I complained on Radio Sport about their absurd describing of a lengthy kick of the rugby ball as "a good nudge", a nudge meaning a gentle push. Grant Nisbett turned up at my office the following day to apologise. This was unsurprising as along with Murray Mexted and Ken Laban, his English is impeccable. As communicators, all three are true professionals. But some of their colleagues are disgraceful. For them the ball is the pill, the dressing room the sheds, the goal line the white-wash, the goal posts the sticks and so on.

In abusing the language in this fashion they make a mockery of their communication roles. Still, relief may be at hand.

The knowledgeable and likeable Ian Smith - who regrettably insists on dropping his "gs" and whom I shall always remember for his wonderful athletic skills behind the stumps in our golden cricket decade of the 1970s - may soon solve this problem. For if he doesn't stop stuffing himself he is destined very soon to explode and in the process, with luck, will wipe out his language-abusing colleagues sitting with him in the commentary box. And in the words of The Mikado's Lord High Executioner, "none of them will be missed".

- NZ Herald

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