Friday, 11 April 2014

BAD LANGUAGE

Orwellian

I have recently had to to read some pieces of pretty awful native-speaker English – and found myself staring aghast into what lies beneath. I was reading from professional-academic and corporate-managerialist fields. The malaise (as I experience it) is wider, and I am hardly the only one who baulks at it.

In the context of politics and public life, in yesterday's Times David Aaronovich invoked George Orwell –
Orwell's charge was that bad thinking and bad writing are inextricably linked. 'A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure,' he wrote, 'and then fail all the more completely because he drinks.' The same was true for 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.'
And [Orwell] went on to give some examples of the worst kind of writing, before showing how certain habits distorted or, just as often, obscured meaning. These habits would include the use of stale imagery, the replacement of concrete expressions with abstract ones, the deployment of long technical words instead of simpler ones and the use of phrases that are 'tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse'.
The specific occasion for Mr Aaronovich's article was the text of a recent open letter to the Guardian newspaper by nineteen left-wing (leftist?) worthies.
Orwell's point applies here. When you write this badly, when you are so unclear that even experts in your field cannot decipher your intention, there is a reason for it. It could of course simply be that you are an idiot. But two other explanations are more likely: either that you don't really know what you mean yourself; or that you do know but you'd rather not spell it out.

I know what he means. On the whole the sort of stuff that I have been reading is not written by idiots: they have been through the education system (perhaps not the most sterling test) and are managing well enough in their careers to be able to publish this stuff, So, either they don't really know what they talking about, or they are wilfully trying to pull the wool over my eyes. Or as likely, both.

Orwell's essay on the politics of language was first published in 1946. Looking back, its central message once just seemed part of the culture. Last year, Penguin republished it and I was disappointed to find parts of his argument rather unconvincing, and his own use of language not always of the best (though perhaps that rather confirms his point!). Even so, reading official and academic documents on for example 'special educational needs', or the pronouncements of corporate management, I sometimes just do not understand what is being said, and I think of Orwell, thus –
Orthodoxy of whatever colour seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style (p. 13)...

Political language... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits... (p. 20)

This is a matter not solely of language in the service of politics. I think guiltily of some of my own linguistic sins committed in the name of Conductive Education, and I hope that others will do so too, of theirs.

References

Aaronovich, D. (2012) Orwell would loath this leftie gobbledegook, The Times, 10 April, p. 29

Orwell, G. (2013) Politics and the English Language, London, Penguin Books




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