Sunday, November 02, 2008

Politics and the English Language

Disclaimer: This is not a political blog. I write humorous alien romances about power struggles and political intrigues in outer space, about heroes who are tyrants by birthright, and enchanting villains who steal elections by hypnotizing the electorate.

Real politicians don't influence me at all.

I am a word geek. I revel in words when they are used well. I feel strongly about those who misuse words, whether it is a romance lover with "baited breath", or an internet librarian who ignores definite or indefinite articles in book titles, or a political slogan that reminds me of "Star Wars".

Most of my alien romances' alpha male tyrant-heroes are smooth orators, with the notable exception of Djetth (Jeth) hero of Insufficient Mating Material who can be quite foul-mouthed, but is an admirable leader in a one-sided battle, despite his fondness for the F-word.

Since I write alien romances from the POV of the alien gods from outer space, I spend a lot of my time looking at written road signs, slogans, public directives and headlines which could be misunderstood by an alien, and wondering "What if...?"

Unfortunately, my futuristic novels are set in 1994 through 1995, so a lot that I see, I cannot use. Linnea had similar fun with contemporary gestures and written instructions in "Down Home Zombie Blues".

Since the use of language is important to the Western political process, I went looking for "Politics and the English Language", an essay written by Englishman George Orwell in 1946.

George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language," 1946

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.

Vicious cycle. I love the way George Orwell applied the idea to the use of language.

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.

It is amazing to me that George Orwell wrote this in 1946. It resonated with me in the 1970s when I read his essays and also "1984" and "Animal Farm" and "Homage to Catalonia" and the others, and it still does today. It's the chicken and egg of thought. If you don't have a word for an idea or concept, can you have the idea or concept?

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.

One of these days, (as I may have said before) I intend to explore the dynamics of being perceived as a god-Emperor. I think it will have a lot more to do with Big Brother type surveillance than the persuasive use of language.

What's the alternative for a speculative fiction writer? If an alien civilization, or a future human civilization didn't have a verbal or signed language, how would we choose our leaders? By aggressive displays of physical fitness and strength? By subliminal messages in campaign broadcasts? By smell? By touch? Why do politicians literally touch voters?

By pheromones? I wonder... is there a particular after shave that winning politicians wear? I've never been close enough to smell one. I'm sure it is done. Why not use every tool possible? It is said that the smell of apples makes a home buyer perceive that a house is larger, or the aroma of baking bread influences them to feel at home. Jasmine is supposed to make a female feel more attractive, and orange (or some such thing) is supposed to make her feel more alert.

However, I started with Politics and the English Language, so I'll end with it.

Sixty-two years after George Orwell wrote his essay, I suspect that the problem of murky language is much worse than it was in 1946. Arguably, we wouldn't be in a global financial crisis and other messes, too, if small print/fine print and other bad habits of spoken and written communication had been cleaned up years ago so that it wouldn't take a lawyer or an accountant to understand the tax code, the mortgage agreement, the loan contract, the stock offering, the financial statement etc.

George Orwell wrote:
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.

1 comment:

  1. As you obliquely alluded to, Orwell's 1984 addresses the same problem. The essay on Newspeak at the end of that novel is fascinating. The creators of Newspeak have the ultimate goal of making rebellious or heretical thoughts literally unthinkable "as far as thought is dependent on words." Happily, psychologist Steven Pinker in THE LANGUAGE INSTINCT maintains that the Newspeak project would fail in the long run. The children of the Newspeakers would start with their parents' closed language and open it up, creolizing it back into a natural, growing tongue.