Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Decline and fall of the English language?

Maybe India-born Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell ("Every book is a failure."), fancied himself in the role of a prophet, if we go by his Animal Farm and 1984. As early as 1946, though, when the British were preparing to quit India more or less willingly, he had prophesied a bleak future for the English language in his essay, Politics and the English language. He saw "inflated style" ('..."a kind of euphemism" that hid the real meaning') and use of "swindle and perversions" as the chief villains. He was more perceptive than everyone else, I reckon, to see it coming so early on.

In Why George Orwell's Ideas Still Matter to Lawyers, Judith D. Fischer http://tinyurl.com/6c7oj8 pinpoints the parallel themes of his Politics and the English language: (1) writers should use plain English; and (2) "euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness" prevent or conceal clear thought ("necessary for cogent analysis" in his own words). 1984, published in 1949, the portrait of a dystopia set thirty five years thence, has been described by Bob Hodge and Roger Fowler in Orwellian Linguistics as his "major work on language". Remember Big Brother, Thought Police, Newspeak, Doublethink, Doublespeak, War Is Peace, Ignorance Is Strength, Freedom Is Slavery (the last three Newspeak slogans illustrate what he meant by "swindle and perversions")?

Orwell's six rules of style for English writers relating to his first theme were:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you're used to seeing in print. (For him, clichés were to living English what crutches were to a leg. )

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. (In short, be succinct.)

4. Never use the passive when you can use the active. (There are two clear benefits. You clearly know who did what to whom, i.e. the identity of the actor. What's more, you need to use fewer words.)

5. Never use a foreign word, a scientific phrase or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. (About foreign words, Orwell wrote that a "mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details." Jargon is the specialised language of a particular field. For example, "void and of no effect", "give and bequeath", "whereas", "herein", "forthwith' and "aforementioned" are legalese, "lawyerisms" or legal jargon. Suggested alternatives: "Herein" = "in this document. "Forthwith" = "immediately. "Ab initio" = "from the beginning". "Ipso facto" = "among others". By contrast, "dictum", "habeas corpus" and "res ipse loquitur" are appropriate terms of art "conveying meaning more precisely and economically than ordinary English does".)

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. (The final, and the most important, rule: use your own discretion. Rely on common sense. Writing is an art. For best results, eschew formulae.)

Coming to Orwell's second theme ("avoid misleading and duplicitous language"), his objection was to political speech and writing calculated to deflect attention from the facts, even to "make lies sound truthful". The Party of Oceania in 1984 encouraged Doublethink, i.e., holding two contradictory ideas at once and forgetting (banishing from the mind) "whatever it was necessary to forget". Doublespeak is "the language that pretends to communicate but rally doesn't. ... that makes the bad seem good, the negative appear positive, the unpleasant appear attractive or at least tolerable." ("War Is Peace" = War keeps the Oceania public pacified.)

Orwell gave instances of political euphemisms from real life of his time designed to conceal the truth. For instance: "Pacification" = Bombing of civilian villages. "Transfer of population/ rectification of frontiers" = Ousting peasants from their homes. "Elimination of unreliable elements" = Imprisoning people without trial/banishing them to the Arctic to die in prison camps. The intent behind this coinage is to refer to things without calling mental pictures of them and to defend the indefensible.

Orwell's examples of meaningless words (i.e., vague terms intended to arouse positive emotions of which the user has his own private definition but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different) were "democracy", "freedom" and "patriotic". A recent "almost Orwellian" variation is the post-9/11 USA PATRIOT Act. The acronym was cleverly coined from the awkward mouthful "Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism". The emotive terminology is obviously expected to deflect attention from the Act's encroachment of civil liberties.

A recent illustration of the Orwellian euphemisms intended to make the bad sound better (killing seem respectable, for instance) is the current common phrase "collateral damage" to connote killing, maiming and wounding civilians while attaching military targets.

Finally, "tort reform" where there is merely curtailment of tort liability without even-handed reform exemplifies the Orwellian "evasion" (= hiding a concept's real meaning, masking disagreements/controversies).

The English language is also being abused and misused for other than political ends. Hype rules the life in the globalised world. Ask John Humphrys. In his Beyond Words: How Language Reveals The Way We Live Now (Hodder & Stoughton, London, 2006), his gripes are many. "The prevailing wisdom about language is that anything goes" is just one of them. The "new" (21st century?) vocabulary (semantics) bothers him no end. "Fun events", "deliverables", "silos", "product offerings" (of the US Army, no less), "empowerment", "passionate", "lifestyle", "awareness" and so forth turn him off. "Enjoy!" from a waitress instead of "Enjoy it!" makes his blood curdle. The decline and fall of formality in public life (Blair addressing him as "mate") makes him stop in his tracks. We're all doomed is his verdict. http://tinyurl.com/3p6yre. His row with Professor David Crystal via Her Majesty's Royal Mail reproduced here http://tinyurl.com/58yjwb in selected extracts is "virtual linguistic character assassination", in the Professor's words.

These dudes are from the linguistic Mars (= United Kingdom), mark you. Wonder what lengths they would have gone to had they been on the linguistic Venus (= India) where English after her big comeback has to cope hourly with Hinglish?