07 February 2018

'Forever mankind': the transformative power of language

Max Jewell, Senior Account Executive, examines the power of the English language and the different rhetorical devices a range of famous speakers have deployed.

'He has mobilised the English language and sent it into war'. It is these words - Lord Halifax's political valediction - that draw the Oscar-nominated The Darkest Hour to a close.

For all the superb acting, for which Gary Oldman will likely be recognised, it is the exploration of the power of language that is the film's success. After 125 minutes, the viewer can be left in no doubt that Halifax was right: Churchill was a master of words; capable of transforming the very mood of a nation through oratory alone.

His famous speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940 is the perfect example. It is at once both reassuring and sufficiently alarming to motivate the listening masses to defend their homelands. After all, 11.5m had signed the Ballot for Peace in 1936 and thousands continued to attend similarly-motivated rallies across the country. A change of attitude was needed, and in declaring that 'there was always the chance [of invasion], and it is that chance which has excited and befooled the imaginations of many Continental tyrants', Churchill achieved this. Coupled with his reminder that the fleet that defended against Napoleon might easily have been defeated, Churchill assuages his audience that invasion has been averted before, whilst drawing on a deep well of patriotic feeling the memories of past victories would conjure.

George Orwell, in his Politics and the English Language, exhorted the reader not to fall into 'a pretentious, Latinized style'. Though impossible, it's almost as if Churchill had listened:

'We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.'

Short, sharp and clear, this iconic section features only one Latinate word: 'surrender'. There is no ambiguity: it is a simple message, powerfully projected; the repetition is as much the point of Churchill's rallying cry as a rhetorical device. If listeners were confused by the high-flown language of the earlier portions, there could be no confusion now.

Churchill, though a master of language and sophisticated rhetorician, is not without rival. If his speech is indeed considered one the greatest ever, this is only because Richard Nixon happily never got the opportunity to deliver the one that William Safire had prepared for him in the event of disaster besetting Apollo 11.

This speech, the keynote for a period of national mourning, is initially suitably elegiac - a stark contrast to Churchill's fricative, repetitious aggression. He opens with a description of how 'fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace'. From here, Safire immediately shifts into a more optimistic tenor: uniting the whole of mankind ('Mother Earth [...] dared [to] send two of her sons into the unknown'); imputing mythical qualities to the deceased ('In modern times [...] our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood'); and reminding listeners of the achievements and power of mankind ('Man's search will not be denied').

The poetic ending, a paraphrasing of Rupert Brooke's 'The Soldier', gives humanity, and its powers, an almost transcendental quality despite its mortality:

'For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.'

Safire borrowed from the poetry of war; Emmeline Pankhurst borrowed the imagery of war. Her 1913 'Freedom or Death' speech, which presented the speaker 'as a soldier who has temporarily left the field of battle' captured the reality of the female experience at the start of the 20th century in a way that would resonate with a male audience. Though, like Churchill, she made ample and successful use of repetition, Pankhurst's speech makes a point of departure from the previous two in its use of plain language.

Churchill, for all the clarity of his speech's iconic paragraph, maintained the complex syntax that was the hallmark of contemporary rhetoric in its earlier portions. Pankhurst's speech was shorn of any pretention, including expressions like: 'you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs'. The ending is typically unambiguous: 'choose between giving us freedom or giving us death'.

Nowhere is the power of simple language better demonstrated than in the following lines:

'You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under.'

Combining the talents of the three previous speakers, Peter Shore's speech to the Oxford Union during the referendum on Britain's membership of the European Economic Community was masterful in its use of repetition, poetic meter and simplicity. It became the stand out speech of the 2016 EU referendum campaign, despite having been delivered 43 years previously.

In the manner of a Shakespearean hero, Shore invokes the memory of the recent campaign to join the EEC ('Oh! What a campaign it was'), before accusing his opponents of spreading 'fear, fear, fear: fear that you won't have any food; fear of unemployment; fear that we have been so reduced as a country that we can no longer totter about in the world'.

It is a speech founded on simplicity, notably on the trade deficit with Europe ('don't you see? We can't go on borrowing that'); drenched in emotive language ('we are under great threat; we are in peril'); and topped off with an appeal to history ('what generations of Englishmen have helped achieved is [allegedly] not worth a damn!').

But, perhaps the more pressing question is which speaker will Oldman seek to emulate when he wins his Oscar?