My final event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, last weekend, was hosting the linguistics professor, David Crystal, one of the world’s foremost authorities on language.
A consummate communicator, David was speaking mainly about the wonderfully titled Begat, his new book about the influence of the King James Bible on the English language. The book features the 257 expressions (fewer than he had expected when he began his research, he admitted) that in one form or another have found their way into the common parlance: expressions such as ‘fly in the ointment’, ‘my brother’s keeper’, ‘east of Eden’ and so on.
During the talk he briefly mentioned another book, A Little Book of Language, which has also just come out. I had been sent it by the publishers and had dipped it into before the event. It describes our relationship with language from our very first infant cry to the way we develop our own distinctive ‘voice’ as adults. It is simply and charmingly written, illustrated with pleasing woodcuts, full of fascinating information (‘salary’ and ‘sausage’ have the same etymological root, for example) and peppered with did-you-know pages featuring talking parrots, rhyming slang, foreign language texting and the like.
But it left me with a question: who was it written for? There was nothing on the jacket to say it was for foreigners or children, but there was something in the voice that nagged at me. I asked him when we met before the event. ‘I wrote it for twelve-year-olds,’ he said proudly. ‘What’s more, I road-tested it with several. They didn’t let me get away with anything!’
Twelve-year-olds. Yet this was a book that would entertain and inform any adult reader. In fact, my bet is that one would learn much more about language from this little volume than from any weighty textbook.
More and more I think that the communicator’s greatest gift is to be able to be universal, to speak to everyone. Today I’m going back to Delhi, and one of the exercises I will set the participants on the communication skills workshops I’ll be running is to describe what they do as if to a twelve-year-old. We did it last time and they found it both surprisingly difficult and unexpectedly enlightening.
I once heard the former Children’s Laureate, Michael Morpurgo, say that the adults he found most interesting were those who know that the child inside them is their soul. One of the things that child craves, in this world of ever increasing complexity, is simplicity. And that child is in all of us. We should remember it when we write.