In praise of monosyllabic grunts

From a review by Deborah Cameron of Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language:

If the principle of least effort were all there was to language change, we would presumably end up communicating in monosyllabic grunts. The reason this doesn’t happen is that there are countervailing tendencies, among them what Deutscher calls the principle of expressiveness, the drive to extend a language’s communicative range.

Cameron’s subsequent example–the disaggregation of “aujourd’hui”–surely disproves what seems to be her point–that monosyllabic grunting checks expressiveness. Here’s Lord Frederic Hamilton in The Days Before Yesterday on the House of Commons in the 1850s:

John Bright was a most impressive speaker; he obtained his effects by the simplest means, for he seldom used long words; indeed he was supposed to limit himself to words of Saxon origin, with all their condensed vigour. Is not Newman’s hymn, “Lead, Kindly Light,” considered to be a model of English, as it is composed almost entirely of monosyllables, and, with six exceptions, of words of Saxon origin? John Bright’s speaking had the same quality as Cardinal Newman’s hymn.

Slightly (very slightly) more to the point, here’s a colonial anecdote in which a rebellious potentate from up-country has been invited to Government House in (sorry, at) Calcutta:

The ill-conditioned Rajah, though he spoke English perfectly, had insisted on bringing his own interpreter with him. A long pause in conformity with Oriental etiquette follows, then the Viceroy puts the first invariable question: “I trust that your Highness is in the enjoyment of good health?” which is duly repeated in Urdu by the official white interpreter. The sulky Rajah grunts something that sounds like “Bhirrr Whirrr,” which the native interpreter renders, in clipped staccato English, as “His Highness declares that by your Excellency’s favour his health is excellent. Lately, owing to attack of fever, it was with His Highness what Immortal Bard has termed a case of ‘to be or not to be!’ Now, danger happily averted, His Highness has seldom reposed under the canopy of a sounder brain than at present.” Another long pause, and the second invariable question: “I trust that your Highness’ Army is in its usual efficient state?” The surly Rajah, “Khirr Virr.” The native interpreter, “Without doubt His Highness’ Army has never yet been so efficient. Should troubles arise, or a pretty kettle of fish unfortunately occur, His Highness places his entire Army at your Excellency’s disposal; as Swan of Avon says, ‘Come the three corners of the world in arms, and we shall shock them.'” A third question, “I trust that the crops in your Highness’ dominion are satisfactory?” The Rajah, “Ghirrr Firrr.” The interpreter, “Stimulated without doubt by your Excellency’s auspicious visit to neighbouring State, the soil in His Highness’ dominions has determined to beat record and to go regular mucker. Crops tenfold ordinary capacity are springing from the ground everywhere.” One has seen a conjurer produce half a roomful of paper flowers from a hat, or even from an even less promising receptacle, but no conjurer was in it with that interpreter, who from two sulky monosyllabic grunts evolved a perfect garland of choice Oriental flowers of speech. It reminded me of the process known in newspaper offices as “expanding” a telegram.

For me the supreme application of monosyllabic grunts in the service of expression would be to remove the world’s male teenagers to a savage and remote island where, with a suitable interface and generous supplies of memory-enhancing carrots, they could be set to work as a storage and retrieval device for binary data.

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