GEOFF BARTON: Power of words is really important

A Personal View
A Personal View
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Excuse a personal question. If you’re in a relationship with someone – say a husband or wife, a girlfriend or boyfriend – just how did you choose that person? What was it that made him or her catch your eye out of the seven billion or so people inhabiting Planet Earth?

Was it someone whose looks you found attractive? Someone with similar interests? Someone rich or famous or socially connected? Was it someone perhaps who you sensed had a gift for making you feel better about yourself – more confident, more comfortable, funnier, more sociable?

Or was it someone you just liked the look of and who, as you conversed, made you think ‘here’s a person with a similar outlook on life to me?’

I ask because one of the most compelling mysteries of human life is how and why we find ourselves with the partners that we do.

We probably assume that, initially at least, it’s a matter of physical looks, that there’s something in the facial features – those piercing eyes, the quirky ears, the distinctive nose – that catches our attention and won’t let go.

However, brace yourself for an alternative view of the rules of attraction. According to the London University academic Geoffrey Miller it’s none of the above. In his provocative book, The Mating Mind, he says that what leads us to select our partners is their vocabulary – the words they use.

Miller compares us to peacocks. He shows how evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin struggled to explain these birds and their flashy, attention-seeking tails. Those feathers get in the way, draw attention to enemies, and apparently serve little practical purpose.

They are, Miller says, the equivalent of our words. We use language to show off and show how interesting we are. After all, if we have the word ‘blue’, why do we need ‘azure’, he asks. Why then also have ‘cobalt’, ‘sapphire’, ‘ultramarine’ and ‘indigo’?

It’s a good question, to which Miller’s answer is that we use our language to show that we are clever or different or funny. He calculates that the average adult knows 60,000 words. This compares with the average ape which is able to produce between just five and 20 calls. So we humans use our vocabulary in part to attract would-be partners – just like those strutting peacocks.

I was reminded of the importance of language a few weeks ago when literacy guru Pie Corbett came to town. (I suspect only a literacy guru could get away with a Christian name like ‘Pie’).

Pie is a national expert on children’s reading and writing, and he came to talk to 450 staff from the various schools which form the Bury Schools Partnership. Gathered together were teachers of four-year-olds sitting alongside those preparing 19-year-olds for their A-level physics exam next Tuesday morning.

We spent a fascinating, joyful morning learning more about how we can help children of all ages to read and write better. The key to it all is talk.

The most powerful message of the training was the importance of parents in talking with their children, of sharing family jokes and rhymes, of telling stories, and reading together.

The main role of teachers is to provide a rich language environment, to help children of all backgrounds and ages to practise using words, first in speech, then in writing, supported by a habit of reading.

Even if we think Geoffrey Miller’s theory of language and attraction is far-fetched, few will dispute how important language is in a child’s life. Talk matters, reading matters, and books matter hugely.

This week is Children’s Book Week. The half-term break is just around the corner. We have some great bookshops in town just waiting for us to drop by and replenish our imaginations, extend our knowledge, and expand our vocabularies.

Yes, it’s time to read a book or two and then to talk about it. It’s one of the gifts of being human – whether you have a partner or not.