I’m minding my language: it’s a very close friend - Ian McMillan

Language and I first met in 1956, the year I was born.
Ian McMillanIan McMillan
Ian McMillan

We weren’t formally introduced because the midwife and my mother were very busy at the time, but there were some noises of appreciation and some official-sounding talk and then somebody cried really loudly.

Ah: that would be me welcoming myself to the world with a series of piercing vowels that made somebody say ‘Well, he’s got good lungs!’ and I reckon I must have cried even more loudly in response.

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That was 68 years ago, and language and I have been firm friends ever since, and as the years have gone on we’ve become close and intimate partners and sometimes I think I must be a bigamist because as well as being married to my lovely wife I sometimes feel like I’m married to language because, like my wife, it knows me so well.

I’m lucky, of course, and I count my blessings that language is my lifelong mate because I know that for many people language is a stranger or, worse, an enemy.

For some people language is the thing that lets them down when they need it most: there’s something they need to say in a tight situation or a situation that threatens to become tight if the right words aren’t spoken and the right words just won’t come. A couple of the wrong words tumble out but then, to quote William Shakespeare (who also had language as his lifelong buddy) the rest is silence.

I’ve seen language as a shouty companion to people, or a sneery one so that then the person who is shouted at or sneered at becomes defensive about language’s qualities or becomes shouty and sneery themselves which is tragic because that’s like only playing a few notes on a piano; so much unrealised music, so many unspoken sentences.

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Language and I have got on like a house on fire from day one. As a child I was, in that slightly disparaging term, a chatterbox. I talked all the time to whoever would listen and to quite a few who wouldn’t.

One of my first memories, or perhaps it’s one of those incidents that your parents tell you about so often that you think you remember it, is of me talking to every diner in a hotel breakfast room in Plymouth when I was three.

A man in a suit turned to my mother and said ‘Mark my words, my dear; one day that boy will be Prime Minister!’. Well, I’ve done better than that: I’m a columnist for the Yorkshire Post!

Yes, because language is my constant companion, I’ve not only spoken a lot and made a lot of my living through talking, I’ve also managed to write all kinds of things over the years, some with more success that others, but always with a kind of unshakeable confidence that the words will do their job and they won’t let me down.

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Sometimes language teases me and hides a few words somewhere it thinks I won’t be able to find them but eventually I do and we’re back on track.

One day, sadly, we might not be so close; some words might slip my mind and some sentences might trail away and sometimes there’s nothing you can do about that but I believe that exercising with your language-pal helps a lot.

Reading helps. Writing helps. And talking helps; talking always helps because if you don’t exercise your language it starts to wither and weaken.

Come on, old language friend: time to take some exercise together. Let’s write a column.

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