Friday, September 22, 2006

Some Thoughts About Language

So I've been thinking a lot about language this weekend for a variety of reasons, not least of which because I've been trying to finish my chapter on Edinburgh. Sobes and I both agreed that we'd give up Hogwarts dorm breakfast to be able to write as well as E.P. Thompson, who not only wrote beautifully but also possessed a commanding knowledge of British history. Most people simply dismiss contemporary criticism of language (criticism of language NOT, mind you, literary criticism) usage with a head shake and a shrug, usually claiming that language is organic, always changing, and shouldn't be critiqued by 'outmoded' standards. As if this excuses current misuse, abuse, and outright butchery of the English language. Now I won't pretend to be a particularly accomplished writer or the most eloquent when it comes to oratory, but I'm going to make the suggestion that there is a very real connection between poor language skills and the current disaster called American politics. Read what George Orwell had to say on the subject back in 1945 after suffering a generation of fucked-up oratory, propaganda, and 'foolish thought:'

"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." From George Orwell's essay 'Politics and the English Language' (1945)

One wonders what Orwell might have to say, or write, about current 'journalism' in the age of Ann Coulter and Bush-speak. Talk about foolish thought! I'd suggest that a reason men are dying in Iraq today, well in addition to the warped world-view of freaks such as Rove and Cheney, and why we might actually end up bombing Iran as well, is the fact that our leaders generally and George W. particularly simply lack the clarity of language to make sense of the situation or communicate effectively. Essentially the've lost the ability to negotiate or formulate any but the most simplistic of policies and, therefore, can only threaten and resort to the use of force. It's like the teenage football player who, only having spent his time focused on the sport, finds that he has no resevoir to draw on in any emotionally charged situation except the violence he has learned through 'the game.' When language fails him, violence becomes his only response. I have to wonder whether the United States would be a partially radiated cinder today if we had sent George Bush to negotiate with Kruschev in 1962.

Anyway, I've prattled on long enough. While talking with YITS a bit the other day about writing on PW he had expressed a reluctance to write much becuse 'it wouldn't be that good' and he 'didn't have anything to write about.' Well, I just wanted to let all of you out there know that effective communication, both writing and speech, requires practice. We all need as much of it as we an get. We also need to practice thinking and as Orwell says 'slovenly langauge makes for folish thought.' My point is: use this forum of friends and fellow thinkers to practice both writng and thought. That's an open invitation to take a risk and throw it out here on Paddy Wop. Of course I could just be full of shit myself, but hey, what the hell, it was a profitable hour of thought for me anyway.


sobinator said...

I think that you make a strong point there, Paddy. Do you think, though, having a firm grip of your own language can only come from a strong up bringing? Yes, we can work on it all we want in our Hogwarts classes, but a true grasp of the english language is probably only had when rigorously introduced to the language (in its proper form) during the "formative years" (0-13 roughly).Just like kids who learn multiple languages fluently,men who had a complete grasp of there language were set down the proper path at a very young age. Some examples: TS Elliot's family is responsible for the founding of Wash. St.Louis University, his uncle was the president of harvard, the list goes on. Twain apprenticed at a Printer when he was young, until he began writing for a newspaper at age 16. It just seems as though many of the great authors were exposed to good writing when their minds were still malleable. I feel like clarity will always be my struggle and that I will improve, but it will never come as naturally as it does for some. In part I blame the television. There are so many things to blame, but none of that gets me anywhere. All I hope for is that those of us who struggle to make our message an enjoyable read can at least effect society in such a way that when national leaders go to speak in 30 years they wont need an entire squad of paid writers to formulate every statement they ever make. What happened to the days when Presidents wrote their own speeches, never mind books?

sobinator said...

I'm surprised that such a post only merits 1 comment. Whats wrong wop, le duc?

Paddy said...

yeah - im a bit dsappointed myself, but then everyone is busy wih classes

Paddy said...

...and doesn't have time to think!