Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Minding Frank Duff's Language

I've been reading The Woman of Genesis, a book of essays (which were, I think, all originally talks given to Legion of Mary meetings) by Frank Duff, the founder of the Legion of Mary. It's a fascinating book. Duff had a powerful conviction that Catholicism was the true religion and that Catholics had a duty to persuade everybody of this truth. Some of the articles on other religions almost make the reader inclined to titter nervously and look over his shoulder, they are so unabashedly critical and sectarian.

For the purposes of this post, however, I'm more interested in his use of language.

Frank Duff was very long-lived-- he died in 1980 aged ninety-one-- and he was very active almost up to the end. Furthermore, the articles are undated, so it's hard to tell what year any particular article was written in. Nevertheless, his prose style doesn't seem to have changed much over the years.

I was particularly struck by this paragraph (from an article about addiction), as a good example of his style in general:

Of course, fun can seem fast and furious as long as the drink is flowing. In those circumstances, people imagine themselves to be witty and brilliant, but tape-recordings of such outpourings have proved that they are not elevated and can merit to be called drivel.

Reader, does this strike you as very different from a paragraph that might be written today? It strikes me in this way. Indeed, I found myself smiling a little, as I read it. There isn't a single word in it that any writer or speaker would hesitate to use today, and yet the entire thing seems quaint, stiff, stilted. It reminds me of the sort of English spoken by well-educated, upper-class Indians or Pakistanis.

If someone were to write this paragraph today, I imagine it would read something like this: "We all know that, when someone is drunk, they can think that they're being very witty and brilliant. But, when they hear a recording of what they said, they realize that they were actually speaking drivel."

Even the substance of the paragraph is rather odd to our ears. The detail of the tape recorder seems unnecessary, over-elaborate, over-earnest.

Admittedly, Duff had something of a pedantic and stiff prose style, perhaps due to his having been a civil servant. So some of this was down to his own personality, but not all of it.

I'm not lamenting this change. I'm only remarking it. It's fascinating that language can change so significantly, even when it remains entirely intelligible.

Trying to improve my Irish made me very self-conscious of language usage. I found myself wondering first of all how a native Irish speaker would use a particular word or expression, what would "come naturally" to them. Then I wondered what "came naturally" to me speaking English. Once you find yourself wondering what comes naturally, it's hard to get a hold of it. It reminds me of the occasions that someone asks me for the lift code in the library, and I realize that I can't tell them, though I use it all the time-- I key it in entirely through "muscle memory".

The same is true of my writing style. If I'm good at anything (on which subject I'm agnostic), it's probably writing. But when I think about style I go completely to pieces. It's only when I think about the ideas I'm trying to express that I can write-- presuming I can write at all.


  1. This is the kind of stylistic shift I'm trying to get my students to notice in The Lord of the Rings--we've covered words and phrasing appropriate to such places as the Shire, Rohan, Lorien. We are now encountering a formality of manner in Gondor, as well as subtle distinctions in various words for honor and courage (doughty, etc).

    1. You could hardly choose a better text! I think I learned a lot of "archaic" words for the first time from LOTR. Such as "doom" meaning "destiny".