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Strictly Speaking

19th September 2019

“To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture”

- Frantz Fanon, Author and Philosopher 


"It was like watching a stork who'd been struck by lightning"

- Craig Revel Horwood, Strictly Come Dancing Judge 


With the launch of the seventeenth series of Strictly Come Dancing on Saturday, this is as good a time as any to consider the links between dance and language. It’s a subject that’s invited a great deal of serious study, and the two functions have many characteristics in common.  

Gestures such as waving and pointing were used by our ancestors in the time before language, and we see them today in young children reaching out and communicating for the first time. Both language and dance originated with gestures, and however differently they’ve evolved, they still have that in common.

When we refer to dance as a language, or comment on someone’s body language, we’re speaking metaphorically. But how far can we extend the metaphor? Dance sequences are often described as “phrases” and professional dancers and their coaches refer to their combination of positions and movements as a “vocabulary”.

Like a sequence of speech, a dancer’s phrase can have a beginning, a middle and an end. But the two diverge when it comes to their actual meaning. A simple sentence can be accurate or inaccurate. When someone tells you it’s raining outside you’ll either get wet or stay dry, and what they’ve told you can be classified as true or false accordingly. A dance sequence can give us beauty, it can give us yearning and it can move us to tears, but can it give us objective truth? No matter what the Strictly Come Dancing judges may say, I don’t believe the word “truth” can be applied to a dance movement. It may be correct or incorrect to place your feet in a certain position, but that’s a different matter. Only language can give us truth.

So what?

So everything.

In an age of fake news, when the words “post-truth” are often used to describe our society, the certainty of truthful communication could not be more important. Language isn’t a scam, a dodge to hide behind. It’s mankind’s greatest achievement. When translators and interpreters volunteer to work in war zones, risking their lives to find common ground between people with loaded guns, they remind us of the power of plain truth. In a less dramatic way, every working linguist does the same thing every working day. Translators can help you reach out across languages and border. They can help you speak to the world. And they can help all of us preserve the truth of human communication.  

Strictly Come Dancing is based on Come Dancing, a BBC show with professional dancers and no celebrities that was eventually cancelled because nobody watched it. It’s a good example of media evolution; survival of the fittest in a harsh, competitive world. Language evolves too, and the English language is evolving all the time. New mash-up versions such as Konglish and Singlish enable young people in Korea and Singapore to steer the language towards greater relevance for their culture. It’s that evolution that keeps language fresh and alive. And, just as importantly, we have linguists to thank for keeping it truthful.


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