Lions, linguistics and life lessons

2013-02-06 00:00

ONE of the primary differences between direct and reported speech (indirect speech) is that direct speech, by providing a first-hand account of a person’s experience, encourages the reader to connect to the story and its characters by eliciting emotions of empathy and sympathy in a way that reported speech does not.

I got a stark reminder of this lesson earlier this year. I had just returned home with my family from a wonderful break in the Kruger National Park and was researching the story of the terrifying encounter of Harry Wolhuter (the Kruger Park’s first game ranger) with two lions that attacked him while he was travelling on horseback.

I read two accounts of this incident; the first, a report that appears on the official Kruger Park website; the second, Wolhuter’s own account from his autobiography Memories of a Game Ranger. The story is so awful yet so compelling that I didn’t expect Wolhuter’s account of the attack to add significantly to the report I had read on the Kruger Park’s website — but I was very wrong.

The following are two excerpts from the Kruger Park website.

“Toppled from his horse, one of the lions seized him by the shoulder and dragged him almost 100 metres, into the bush. At this point, the semi-conscious ranger managed to retrieve his sheath knife from his belt and stabbed the lion.

“The mortally wounded lion then dropped Wolhuter who managed to climb into a tree before the second lion came after him. Wolhuter believes he was saved by his dog, Bull, whose persistent barking at the second lion distracted it. Wolhuter’s assistants then arrived, and carried him back to camp.”

Now compare these with two similar extracts from Wolhuter’s M emories of a Game Ranger and judge for yourself.

“… I was conscious of great physical agony; and in addition to this was the mental agony as to what the lion would presently do with me; whether he would kill me first or proceed to dine off me while I was still alive!

“I struck him twice, in quick succession, with two back-handed strokes behind the left shoulder, the lion let out a furious roar, and I desperately struck him again: this time upwards into his throat. I think this third thrust severed the jugular vein, as the blood spurted out in a stream all over me. The lion relaxed its grip and slunk off into the darkness.”

Doesn’t the insight into Wolhuter’s thoughts while being dragged by the lion make you immediately sympathise with his predicament? And doesn’t your imagination immediately generate a searing mental video in response to his description of how he stabbed the lion in a way that the reported account doesn’t?

I am not sure whether it was the Zen-like influence of having spent time in Kruger (we were there just before the very unZen-like flooding), or my unconscious mind’s twisted way of insisting on a New Year’s resolution for 2013, but it struck me that implicit in the linguistics was a life lesson as well.

Reported speech in the context of everyday social communication includes listening to second-hand accounts of events, people’s opinions of others, and two of the least constructive forms of social interaction — gossip and rumour. While they may all (to a greater or lesser extent) be informative, they aren’t great at eliciting sympathy or empathy.

Direct speech in the context of everyday social communication means listening to people’s own accounts of their experiences. This year, I have been trying to bring more direct speech into my interpersonal interactions, and I really do believe that this is helping me foster stronger, more meaningful connections with those around me.

But it isn’t always easy. It requires being open to people expressing their thoughts and feelings to you directly and honestly, and engaging in conversations where you spend more time listening and acknowledging, and less time talking. And spending more time dealing with what comes “straight from the horse’s mouth” means that you are more likely to get bitten, even if yours is the hand that feeds it!

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