Politics and the English Language – II

PG realizes he had a post about George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language yesterday, but still finds it so compelling for many events of the past year or so (at least in the US), he’s going to post more.

From The Orwell Foundation (PG apologizes for any formatting issues you may encounter. The OP is packed with the lack of spaces and other typographical conventions that don’t translate well to HTML):

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language – so the argument runs – must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad – I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen – but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative examples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary.

. . . .

4. All the ‘best people’ from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic Fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis.

Communist pamphlet

. . . .

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house. I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose-construction is habitually dodged.

. . . .

Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenonelementindividual (as noun),  objectivecategoricaleffectivevirtual,  basicprimarypromoteconstitute,  exhibit,  exploitutilizeeliminateliquidate, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biassed judgements. Adjectives like epoch-makingepichistoricunforgettabletriumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic colour, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien régime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, Gleichschaltung, Weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, sub-aqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -ize  formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize,  impermissible,  extramarital, non-fragmentatory and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.  age-oldinevitableinexorableveritable, are used to dignify the sordid processes of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic colour, its characteristic words being: realmthronechariotmailed fisttridentswordshieldbucklerbanner,  jackboot,  clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac,  ancien régime,  deus ex machinamutatis mutandisstatus quoGleichschaltungWeltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in English. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite,  ameliorate,  predictextraneous,  deracinatedclandestinesub-aqueous and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon opposite numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyenahangmancannibalpetty bourgeoisthese gentrylackeyflunkeymad dogWhite Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use a Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the -ize  formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalizeimpermissibleextramarital, non-fragmentatory and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

. . . .

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. 

. . . .

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions, and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White Papers and the speeches of Under-Secretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases – bestial atrocitiesiron heelblood-stained tyrannyfree peoples of the worldstand shoulder to shoulder – one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigours which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’. All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find – this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify – that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

Link to the rest at The Orwell Foundation

PG first learned about Politics and the English Language when he was in college and a couple of his friends read it for a Semantics class. He read it then and has come back to it from time to time ever since.

PG is currently readint an excellent history of the concentration camps in the Soviet Union during the reign of Joseph Stalin, Gulag, A History, written by Anne Applebaum. He picked up Gulag immediately after finishing another book by Ms. Applebaum titled Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-1956, about which PG has commented recently.

13 thoughts on “Politics and the English Language – II”

  1. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

    I have a conscious belief that it is both.

    • Indeed? Languages do not speak themselves.

      When I was an undergrad linguistics student, I met more than one professor who believed implicitly that languages are natural growths; that no human agency and no deliberate choices contributed to their development. These same professors believed that there are no such things as human agency or deliberate choices, because their ideology demanded it. This makes their testimony suspect, to say the least. But at any rate they recognized that a thing cannot be both a natural growth and an artificial instrument.

      • Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

        But at any rate they recognized that a thing cannot be both a natural growth and an artificial instrument.

        Indeed. When I was a Rock-n-Roll Legend the guy who delivered my pizzas believed natural growths can be shaped.

        • You miss the point, which I made earlier:

          Languages do not speak themselves. They exist only in human minds and in the sounds and symbols that pass between human beings. They have no independent ‘natural’ existence.

          But your flippancy is duly noted.

      • Food crops grow in the wild without human intervention. Languages don’t. They are no more capable of existing on their own than an axe is capable of cutting down trees without a hand to swing it.

  2. There is a common confusion of “formal written language X” vs the living languages that cohabit with it.

    Most national Western languages (English, French, Spanish, Italian, Norwegian, etc.) formalized a high-status version of the language, typically based upon the examples of a well-respected national writer(s): Cervantes in Spain, Dante in Italy, King James (committee) & Shakespeare in the UK, etc. Where this practice (a national writer) arrived late (e.g., Norway), you can easily see the significant regional dialects that were still competing very visibly.

    Each of those initial formalizations was originally based on one (or a limited number) writer’s preferred usage and served as models. But the instant they were codified, they immediately began to separate from the living languages in which they were embedded and accrued rules that are readily violated in the surrounding natural language, based on the academic fashions-du-jour. Hence (for English) prohibitions against split infinitives (based on the model of a one-word Latin infinitive (higher status than English) which has nothing to do with Germanic languages – skewered by “to boldly go”), or against ending a sentence with a preposition (the awkwardness of which compliance gave us Churchill’s skewer “up with which I will not put” to point out the inapplicability of the rule for Germanic languages). We refer to these as mistaken “schoolmarm usages,” and it’s delightful to finally (more than a century later) start seeing those lose their grip on the formal language, recognized as the academic errors they are.

    (One of my pet peeves is the prohibition of the double negative, as though rhetoric and math were the same fields. Sneering at “I won’t not go” as illogical pales alongside the “I ain’t never going to do that, no how, no way” rhetorical usage which no one parses as a mathematical phrase in logic. Even though there is no allowance for multiple negatives as an intensifier in formal English, no English speaker has trouble understanding them.)

    Our typical confusion is based on the fact that the well-educated among us learn formal written English in school, and most of us internalize that as our “presentation” dialect in all high status situations (essays, job applications, professional writing). But it is easy to forget that this is like learning to dress appropriately — it’s a social response. What it isn’t is a natural language. Natural languages are SPOKEN. Formal English is WRITTEN (and spoken sometimes, by the elite, along with all the rest of the registers available to us).

    All of us speak in a variety of registers (or even dialects) ALL THE TIME . The spoken language is a rhetorical potpourri of quotes, comic performances, references, social registers, fragments — tape yourself sometime in full spate and analyze the results. We can even see language changing, if we live long enough — not the effects of “bad/illiterate usage”, but of the underlying language (and most of its accompanying dialects).

    As an example, back in the Middle English period usage gradually replaced the 2nd person singular pronoun (thee, thy, thine, thou) with the plural pronoun (you, your, yours). Today, you have the rare experience of being able to observe a similar effect happening in your own lifetime with the solution to the removal of the 3rd person gendered singular pronoun (he, she) in indefinite ungendered singular usage by the plural ungendered pronoun (they, them, their, theirs). Even people who use the high-status formal language in everyday speech are becoming ever more comfortable with usages like “If anyone comes early, give them a drink” vs the always awkward “give him or her a drink”. This particular boat has sailed, for the pronoun shift, and maybe (a century down the road) the formal English guidance will recognize it.

    If you want to write an essay, use formal written English. If you want to write a narrative, use voice (the spoken language in all its registers).

    • The key, which hardly any linguists seem to have grasped, is that formal English is rhetorical and colloquial English is conversational. Nearly all the differences between them can be explained in terms of information theory.

      (Referring again to ancient history: when I was a linguistics undergrad, information theory was not offered even as an option as part of the curriculum. It was a third-year maths course open, I believe, only to maths majors. My professors not only didn’t know it, they didn’t know it had any applicability to languages, and some of them, I believe, had never heard of it at all.)

      In terms of information theory, the strict grammar and finely graduated vocabulary of formal English are error-correction devices. When you converse with another person or a small group, your listeners can give you immediate feedback, and if it appears that they did not understand you according to your intentions, you can immediately offer an explanation or a rewording. You can’t do this in either a published text or a speech to a large crowd. You therefore have to include such cues in the text as are needful to avoid ambiguity and misunderstanding. The art of rhetoric is not concerned only with swaying people’s emotions, as some people suppose; it is also about expressing your case with force and clarity when close two-way communication is not practicable.

      This is a difficult art, and those who teach it are rewarded by being called ‘prescriptivists’, who, as any Postmodernist linguist can tell you, are the source of all evil in the universe. One of my professors told me flatly that all prescriptive statements about usage and grammar are by definition wrong; whereupon I concluded that she knew nothing about her subject and transferred to a different class.

      The linguists of the anti-prescriptivist school claim that there is no such thing as an error in usage, that whatever any native speaker of a language says is automatically valid and grammatical. But they do not hesitate to use asterisks to indicate erroneous constructions: *goed, *childs, *gooses, and the like. What they object to is that people who know formal language should presume to teach it to those who only know the language in its colloquial registers. They believe that status-signalling is the only reason why formal language exists, and flatly refuse to ask how or why a given dialect came to be associated with high status in the first place.

      In the cases of English and German, the formal language was codified chiefly in response to the need to translate the Bible, which is a notoriously difficult text. Luther in German, Tyndale and the Douay-Reims and King James translators in English, had to invent numerous idioms and turns of phrase to accurately convey the meaning of the original in a vernacular edition. And they had to do it in rhetorical, not conversational, language, because their translations would be read by multitudes of people who could not ask the translators for clarification, and they would be read from the pulpit to large crowds of people who could not even request clarification from the preacher. They had to solve the technical problem of error-correction for their translations to be useful at all. (Other translators tried and failed, or succeeded to a lesser extent, and their efforts are forgotten except by specialist scholars.)

      A number of languages achieved their first literary form in this way. The principal surviving text in Gothic, for instance, is a large fragment of the Bible as translated by Wulfila (or a committee which he is believed to have led; cf. paintings by the ‘School of Rembrandt’). Several North American aboriginal languages were first committed to writing in the same way and for the same reason. In each case, the dialect employed in the translation became a standard reference point for the later literary use of the language, not because kings and princes favoured it, but because the Christian part of the population were familiar with their vernacular Bible, heard it weekly, often quoted it daily, and there was no other uniform published text which similarly large numbers of people could be expected to know well.

      The Latinate garbage which was grafted onto formal English in the eighteenth century – the shibboleths about prepositions and infinitives and so forth (which I agree with you in despising) – was the product of a time when highly educated Englishmen were expected to be learned in Latin, and English gentlemen were expected to pay lip service to Christianity without actually believing it. To these people, the prestigious author par excellence was Cicero, and you can see exactly how they tried to remodel English to resemble his pompous and artificial Latin. But that attempt did not ‘take’ in the long run, because unlike the Bible, the works of Cicero were of no interest at all to the bulk of the literate populace. The professors worshipped Cicero, the schoolmasters assigned him, the upper-class schoolboys were bored by him, and the classes below them didn’t care a fig about him if they had heard of him at all.

      In light of all this, I would modify your closing advice: If you want to write a narrative, use written (i.e. rhetorical or error-correcting) English – but disguise it with the idioms of whatever colloquial speech is appropriate. Part of the art of rhetoric, after all, is to plausibly deny that one is being rhetorical. Shakespeare knew this perfectly well, which is why he made Mark Antony say:

      I am no orator, as Brutus is,
      But, as you know me all, a plain blunt man
      That love my friend, and that they know full well
      That gave me public leave to speak of him.
      For I have neither wit, nor words, nor worth,
      Action, nor utterance, nor the power of speech
      To stir men’s blood. I only speak right on.

    • See-saw of the hand, there, Karen.

      My rule in fiction writing is “Outside of the quotes, English as she is treated in high society; inside of the quotes, English as she is treated on the street.”

      The difficulty, of course, is figuring out how each character treats her on the street – some will treat her as their sainted mother, others will treat her as a common whore, and everything in between.

      • Your rule is a good one for you and your stories, and Karen’s is a good one for her, and both rules are workable enough to be worth suggesting to others. The trespass is to turn them from suggestions into commandments, as you carefully avoid doing and she (I hope inadvertently) does not.

        I leave it to a far greater expert than any of us to pronounce definitively:

        There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays,
        And—every—single—one—of—them—is—right!

  3. Orwell’s words about the speaker who “has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine” reminded me of an elderly woman I read about a couple of years ago whose Twitter account kept getting banned as a bot. When I read about how and what she posted, I concluded that Twitter was right; the posts did come from a bot, just one implemented in the form of an elderly woman rather than a piece of software.

    As far as the prescriptive vs descriptive debate, my take on that is that there is a set of shared conventions (which slowly change over time) that are part of a writer’s basic toolset. We need to know what the conventions are, just as an artist needs to know colour theory and perspective. Nothing requires us to observe the conventions, because they are conventions, not immutable laws; but if we don’t observe them, it should be on purpose, and with consideration of what the effect will be, not by accident out of ignorance.

    Also, to return to Orwell’s point, thinking about what we are saying and reflecting on our own language and its usage is part of what keeps us from turning into machines (and helps us convey what we actually mean). I think that building a conscious awareness of the conventions and how they work can be a useful starting point for that project.

  4. Fun stuff, folks!
    No much to add except, maybe, that which set of rules to follow should depend on *what* you write. Fiction vs non-fiction, essays vs technical manuals, business reports vs government communications, and more. In particular, organizations have their own cast iron mandates that are policed, for very good reasons. (In government contract work, the nuances between may, will, and shall are critical and used very rigidly. Large sums often depend on careful usage.)
    Preference isn’t always the final word. 😉

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