13 October 2009

Words really do matter: Majorspeak revisited

A recent post by Martin Shovel on the Creativity Works blog uses the Wordle website to support an interesting argument that David Cameron is a better speaker than Gordon Brown because he used fewer words of Latin origin in his conference speech than the prime minister did in his.

This reminded me of something I'd written in Lend Me Your Ears in the section comparing written and spoken language (pp. 79-80):

Using words that are hardly ever heard in everyday speech will also make it more difficult for an audience to understand the point you’re trying to get across. For example, the two columns in the example below contain sentences that convey the same message, but the lines on the left and right use different words. Just how much difference the alternative wording makes to the degree of formality and comprehensibility becomes very apparent as soon as you try reading the two versions aloud.


We shall endeavour to commence

the enhancement programme forthwith

in order to ensure that

there is sufficient time

to facilitate the dissemination of

the relevant contractual documentation

to purchasers ahead of the renovations

being brought to completion.


We shall try to begin

the repairs immediately

so that

there’s enough time

to send

the contracts

to buyers before the work

is finished.

Apart from making it difficult to understand, the use of words of Latin origin helps to create what I sometimes refer to as a 'cloak of formality' that can make you sound much more stilted and 'unnatural' than you'd intended.

On this, the way former prime minister John Major spoke used to be a constant source of fascination to me and I once wrote a paper entitled 'Majorspeak' in a book on the 1992 general election. I also touched on some of his eccentricities in a television interview with Martha Kearney before his last conference speech before going to the polls in 1997.

In the following clip, look out for words like 'wayside inn' and 'whomsoever', not to mention the claim that he used to 'erect' a soapbox in Brixton market to talk about 'political matters of the day' - to which the good citizens of the aforementioned borough would respond with 'badinage'.

More recently, if I remember it correctly from when Sir John read his book on cricket on Radio 4's Book of the Week show, the opening line was "On the morrow of my election defeat, I bade farewell to Downing Street and proceeded to the Oval."


Martin Shovel said...

Great post – thanks, Max. I think I may be able to throw some light on why John Major sounds like a nineteenth century man of letters trapped in the body of a late twentieth century trainee accountant.

It all comes down to his passion for the Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope. Major lists Trollope as his favourite author, and is even Vice President of the Trollope Society.

However, it's one thing to delight in the way your favourite author uses language, but quite another to model your everyday speech patterns on the way he writes – especially if he was born over a hundred years before you. And – to quote your blog post, Max – it's never a good decision to speak in the way that other people write unless you want to "sound much more stilted and 'unnatural' than you'd intended."

As evidence of my theory, here's a quote from the great man himself – that's Trollope, not Major! Read it and decide for yourself:

“Such young men are often awkward, ungainly, and not yet formed in their gait; they straggle with their limbs, and are shy; words do not come to them with ease, when words are required, among any but their accustomed associates. Social meetings are periods of penance to them, and any appearance in public will unnerve them. They go much about alone, and blush when women speak to them. In truth, they are not as yet men, whatever the number may be of their years; and, as they are no longer boys, the world has found for them the ungraceful name of hobbledehoy.”

Martin Shovel – http://www.creativityworks.net/blog

Max Atkinson said...

Your Trollope theory is very convincing - and reminds me of some of the discussion that followed a presentation on 'Majorspeak' I did at the Essex University post-1992 election conference.

One theme was that his relative lack of formal educational credentials had led him to model his speech on the way he considered more 'educated' people spoke.

Another was from someone who thought it resembled the way aldermen and other long-serving town councillors used to speak.

Both of which are consistent with your Trollope theory.

Martin Shovel said...

I'm absolutely convinced that Major's stilted speech patterns reflect his misconceived notions of how more 'educated' people should talk. The irony is that despite such eccentricity, he managed to achieve – to use a Major-style turn of phrase – the 'highest office in the land'.

simon said...

Your point on education is absolutely spot on. You hear a very similar dialect amongst the auto didacts of the trade union movement - Kier Hardie, Ernie Bevin etc.

But I don't think it is necessarily always a negative.
Amongst union audiences, this archaic dialect has positive connotations, probably because it does discreetly invoke memories of Hardie/Bevin.

It worked pretty well for Major too. That whole 19th Century nostalgia thing ('milk maids cycling thru the morning mist to holy communion') was very much part of his image and charm... and let us never forget he won more votes in 92 than Blair did in 97.

Max Atkinson said...

He did indeed win the highest office in the land and the 'charm' factor certainly worked well for him in the 1992 election.

In fact, you've reminded me that an (opposition) MP told me just before polling day in 92 of his worry that Major's smile would be worth at least a million votes to the Tories.

And, in the light of the foregoing disscourses, I'm beginning to ponder whether it behoves me to retrospectively include him along with Grimond, Thatcher, Ashdown and Blair as having the 'je ne sais quoi' factor (discussed thither: http://bit.ly/JKoYI).

Anonymous said...

He was wearing some BIG glasses too!

pintosal said...

When speakers use everyday language they sound more sincere to us.
There is nothing like jargon, of any sort or in any language, to turn us off completely.
Sir Ernest Gowers got it absolutely right when he wrote the Complete Plain Words way back in 1948.
One of the reasons why physical objects work so well as Visual Aids is that we can see exactly what they mean.