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DamaNegra
09-24-2009, 06:20 AM
Stumbling across the internet, I came across this essay by Orwell (http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit), which deals with the decadence of language and the way it affects not only the way we form our thoughts (a la 1984), but our political and cultural life as well.

The most important points of the article, as I understand it, are these:

The decadence in the English language is caused by laziness, which has made wrongful use of stock phrases and words that no longer carry any meaning to give the illusion that one is saying something.
By using these stock expressions, one is excusing oneself from doing any actual thinking. The true danger in these usages lies in that they often distort and change original ideas to fit them into an established rhetorical mold.
Pompous language only serves to obscure meaning, and thus it is necessary to move towards simpler usages of language while being mindful of the exact meaning of the words.


I'm not sure if I agree totally on point number 3, or if it just applies to the English language. I cannot think of a time when the Spanish language was more beautiful than the Siglo de Oro, where language was used in the most complex ways imaginable. Read any poem by Góngora and, at first, you'll be both fascinated and mystified. Yet, those writers were able to use the words in those ways because they knew the exact meanings of those words.

There is no doubt that this misuse of language is a huge problem nowadays (corporate speak, anyone? hell, you don't have to go any further than the P&CE forums), and that some people deliberately misconstrue the language to sound like they are saying something without adding anything to the conversation.

Any thoughts on this?

Medievalist
09-24-2009, 06:23 AM
I call your attention to his examples of politically correct language and how they are abusive both towards the language, and towards readers/audience.

benbradley
09-24-2009, 06:55 AM
I think it was Dilbert who first said, just before a meeting was to start, "business buzzword bingo, anyone?"

DamaNegra
09-24-2009, 07:00 AM
I think it was Dilbert who first said, just before a meeting was to start, "business buzzword bingo, anyone?"
We actually used to do that with a teacher that used greek words (this was a classical literature class) instead of giving us actual content. So we designed bingo cards to make her classes half-bearable. She was sacked this year, though.

C.bronco
09-24-2009, 07:02 AM
Nice, Dama.

I remember writing a paper on the cognitive effects of language, and how a broader range in vocabulary actually affects cognitive understanding and making distictions betweens ideas.

I read business speak, and think that things should be put in more concise terms, e.g. English. The language is so vast that there is nearly a correct term to express every subtle difference, yet it is not taken advantage of on most occasions.

The more differentiations we can make between terms adds to our understanding of a situation.

I love Orwell so very much.

DamaNegra
09-24-2009, 07:08 AM
I call your attention to his examples of politically correct language and how they are abusive both towards the language, and towards readers/audience.

Yes, I've always been extensively bothered by the use of politically correct language. It's like, by calling black people "african americans", suddenly the problem of racism doesn't exist. It's just a smokescreen that does not let us address the problems in a constructive manner.

I'm actually wondering how prevalent this is in other languages. Of course, Orwell was thinking exclusively of English when he wrote this, but I have never really thought of the tergiversation of language (ja! there's a big latin word for you, but can I be excused because of my latin roots?) in other contexts. Hmm... I wonder...

DamaNegra
09-24-2009, 07:12 AM
The more differentiations we can make between terms adds to our understanding of a situation.

Yes, but at what point does the differentiation become mere nitpicking? I'm actually wondering if there is a point in which the language is way too vast and needs to be pruned to keep meanings concise.

Of course, this leads to a question that I find interesting. Does a larger or a smaller vocabulary (in language as a system, not in an individual speaker) lead to more conciseness?

ColoradoGuy
09-24-2009, 07:12 AM
I love Orwell so very much.
Yes. And we've talked about him in the forum before (http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=54603&highlight=orwell).

benbradley
09-24-2009, 07:17 AM
There's also "loading the language" or overloading, adding new meanings to ordinary words, often only subtly different that the original ordinary meanings. I first read about this when reading about "high-demand, coercive groups" (a longish and somewhat technical phrase, but less pejorative-sounding than "cults"), that most such groups do this with ordinary words. See what words are used a lot in a group (even if, or ESPECIALLY if the word is directly related to what the group overtly claims to do), and watch carefully how it's used with meanings different from the dictionary definition.

This can be confusing or misleading to those outside the group unless one sees what's going on with the redefinition of words.

Examples on request. ;)

C.bronco
09-24-2009, 07:19 AM
I believe that the fine lines between feelings breed understanding when named.
Is angry:
frustrated?
Disappointed?
Wronged?
Helpless?
Naming and differentiating aids in learning.

maxmordon
09-24-2009, 07:29 AM
This is part of the Sapir-Whorf effect (AKA Linguistic Relativism), we have words, meaning we can define things broadly since we understand them, if we lack of a word to define that then that concept becomes harder to understand and define, it becomes vague.

The other I had an argument with a novelist because she outright refused to say "Banana Split" considering it cultural imperialism, but I pointed her out that its thanks to having taken words from Arabian language that Latin became Spanish and evolved to the West, using words from that galaxy of tongues in the new word, becoming something beautiful and unique, a garden as you may wish.

benbradley
09-24-2009, 07:32 AM
Yes, but at what point does the differentiation become mere nitpicking? I'm actually wondering if there is a point in which the language is way too vast and needs to be pruned to keep meanings concise.
I've heard English is the most expressive language, due mainly to its large number of words, about half a million, though of course most English speakers' working vocabularity is much smaller than that. For years I did the "SAT question of the day" in an attempt to increase my vocabulary among other things, but it only has about 1000 questions and I've exhausted them. I've started the GRE questions at http://number2.com - the words are at a college level and are more challenging.

As for pruning, it appears to happen naturally, as some words go out of style. I've seen lists of archaic words, but the only one that comes to mind is flapper.

Of course, this leads to a question that I find interesting. Does a larger or a smaller vocabulary (in language as a system, not in an individual speaker) lead to more conciseness?
I think it leads to conciseness, as you get to choose a single specific word for a meaning, as opposed to a more general word and add one or more modifiers.

Or as a joke/tagline I once read says (this doesn't exactly demonstrate that principle, but it's in the ballpark), why used a big word when a diminutive one will do?

DamaNegra
09-24-2009, 07:45 AM
I've heard English is the most expressive language, due mainly to its large number of words, about half a million, though of course most English speakers' working vocabularity is much smaller than that.

Actually I believe this to be completely irrelevant. It is not the number of words in a language (and how do you count them? do you count Chinese tones as making different words? how about German compound words?) that makes it more expressive, but the language's capacity for linguistic creation. I put forth as an example the property of German nouns that allows them to combine and form different meanings. Now there's an element of expressiveness that, in my opinion, has really helped philosophy written in that language, and makes German a very hard language to translate.



I think it leads to conciseness, as you get to choose a single specific word for a meaning, as opposed to a more general word and add one or more modifiers.

Or as a joke/tagline I once read says (this doesn't exactly demonstrate that principle, but it's in the ballpark), why used a big word when a diminutive one will do?

You should really read Gongora. He uses all the big words in the right places and what he creates is truly beautiful (dare I say, sublime?)


This is part of the Sapir-Whorf effect (AKA Linguistic Relativism), we have words, meaning we can define things broadly since we understand them, if we lack of a word to define that then that concept becomes harder to understand and define, it becomes vague.

Actually, what George Orwell is talking about is the deliberate application of the Sapir-Whorf effect: the deliberate misusing of words to create vagueness. Which leads to all sorts of troubling implications.

maxmordon
09-24-2009, 07:55 AM
What I have noticed here in the Venezuelan government is the owning of especifical words and terminology until it automatically becomes something to associate with the goverment, for example "Revolution, Endogenic, Social, etc." to the point that nobody is sure what the hell is talking but everyone pretends to understand what they are talking about (e.g. something government-related, but mostly vague) not a single time in the official website of the official party has a definition of what is XXIst Century Socialism, yet is mentioned as the official idea... which seems to me an example of what you mention, a empty core that says nothing, yet pretends to say a lot.

Higgins
09-24-2009, 08:53 PM
There is no doubt that this misuse of language is a huge problem nowadays (corporate speak, anyone? hell, you don't have to go any further than the P&CE forums), and that some people deliberately misconstrue the language to sound like they are saying something without adding anything to the conversation.

Any thoughts on this?

Orwell's posturing looks pretty absurd now. If langauge was in bad shape in April 1946, perhaps language should be cut some slack (as we are wont to idiomatically circumlocute) since the world was in bad shape in 1946. Perhaps language was only reflecting the horrific traumas of the decades leading up to 1946...less than a year after atomic bombs blew up two or three hundred thousand people without quite equalling the one day slaughter of firebombing Tokoyo...but coming close. It's also very odd to see somebody write in 1946:

Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism?

Where had Orwell been for the twenty years leading up to 1946? Locked in his own head with all its nice language? While (oh dear in linguistically bad form) the rest of the world was locked in a life-and-death struggle?
I guess some struggles are more equal than others: fascism was defeated, but the decadence of language managed to hold its own in Orwell's brain.

ColoradoGuy
09-25-2009, 12:36 AM
Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism?

Where had Orwell been for the twenty years leading up to 1946? Locked in his own head with all its nice language? While (oh dear in linguistically bad form) the rest of the world was locked in a life-and-death struggle?
I guess some struggles are more equal than others: fascism was defeated, but the decadence of language managed to hold its own in Orwell's brain.
Orwell was personally wounded in the fight against fascism -- shot through the throat in Catalonia, during the Spanish Civil War.

Ruv Draba
09-25-2009, 12:53 AM
There's no doubt that language was changing rapidly in Orwell's time, but I think that it was due to more than just social decay. The same tectonic shifts that enabled WWII were transforming economies and societies throughout the developed world.

For all his democratic socialist ideals, the English Orwell wrote was never the English that working classes spoke, nor was it the English of factory-owners. It was British clerical English, Civil Service English. 'Lower-Upper Middle Class' English -- to borrow a term by which he once described himself. It was the official English of the realm.

And the realm, in his later life, was collapsing.

DamaNegra
09-25-2009, 05:12 AM
Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism?

What? I guess you skimmed over that part, so I'll just give context:


Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don't know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.

He's actually arguing against this attitude, which is part of the "chaos" created by the misuse of language in political context.

Are you really going to tell me that this article is outdated and does not apply to the current context?

Dawnstorm
09-25-2009, 11:05 AM
Are you really going to tell me that this article is outdated and does not apply to the current context?

Well, it is interesting to see what came of his examples, say, of words that count as "pretentious diction". Just for fun, let's arrange them in slots:

perfectly normal words, these days: element, individual, objective (adj.), effective, virtual (though this one's more complex, with cyberspace applications adding to the semantic load), basic, promote, exploit, eliminate

normal words, in specialised contexts: phenomenon, objective (n.), categorical, primary, constitute, liquidate

controversial, and even to those who call it normal often abused: utilize

Railing against the storm? Every age spells out doom for the current batch of language. He's certainly found sad examples of writing, but that's not that impressive; you can find them at any time, more often in an age of mass literacy. And he makes some good points, especially about vivid imagery vs. cliché. But I think his analysis is incomplete and overgeneralised.

I don't know what to think about this line:


Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against.

Yep. He has. So he's aware of it, and he tells us we can make a difference, but he prefers to include that line instead of trying to set an exaple? Is this a joke? A trick to see if we're paying attention? Surely, if he's passionate about it, and he knows he's prone to his own criticisms, shouldn't he try to do his best to avoid them?

Or is this a disclaimer, trying to cover up that his points can and will be interpretated differently by different readers?

As I said, I don't know what to make of this. It's basically a rant.

This also interests me:


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.

I've never checked, but I'd suppose that dictatorial language tends more towards slogans (short and snappy and easy to memorise), whereas what Orwell attacks is the rise of beaurocracy, where beaurocrats have to represent an ideological position tied to their job rather than to their opinion, and where appeasing a maximum number of people is more imporatant than polarising and winning.

Certainly, the Nazis were beaurocrats before they ever became a dictatorial force. I haven't looked in detail how their language changed, but listening to Hitler, I have to say he was trying to inspire people rather than fatique them with word-clouds that no-one can follow. The result of word-clouds that no-one can follow can bee seen in Kafka's novels, particularly The Trial and The Castle.

I suspect Orwell may be barking up the wrong tree with that line. (But I'm just improvising, here.)

Higgins
09-25-2009, 05:03 PM
What? I guess you skimmed over that part, so I'll just give context:



He's actually arguing against this attitude, which is part of the "chaos" created by the misuse of language in political context.

Are you really going to tell me that this article is outdated and does not apply to the current context?

I think Orwell's reading of linguistic decadence is as incoherent in itself as he claims Chase's question about Fascism is incoherent. Ie what Orwell says about Chase applies to Orwell. Apparently some abstract nouns are Okay. Fascism is okay but not phenomenon. How does that make any sense at all?

It made no sense in 1946 and it makes no sense now. You can apply senseless readings to the current context (which is what? What is the current context? We are a lot better off than we were in 1946 and is language more or less decadent than it was in 1946? If language is no more decadent that it was in 1946 then there was no decline in 1946. If language is more decadent now then the decadence of language seems to have helped rather than hurt us.) but I don't see the point.

Higgins
09-25-2009, 05:09 PM
Orwell was personally wounded in the fight against fascism -- shot through the throat in Catalonia, during the Spanish Civil War.

Does somebody have to be shot through the throat to use an abstract noun? So apparently he knows what fascism is but only because somebody was willing to shoot him so he could get the point. It seems to me that the whole point of abstract nouns is that you don't always have to be shot to understand them -- with the exception of course of Orwell.

Medievalist
09-25-2009, 07:40 PM
Does somebody have to be shot through the throat to use an abstract noun? So apparently he knows what fascism is but only because somebody was willing to shoot him so he could get the point. It seems to me that the whole point of abstract nouns is that you don't always have to be shot to understand them -- with the exception of course of Orwell.

If you come anywhere near an actual point, I'd like to see you, you know, like say something, that's, like in context and sensible.

Actually, no, I'm going to change hats.

RG570
09-26-2009, 09:19 PM
Meh.

Orwell is overrated. If it weren't for the perceived anti-communist sex appeal he has to neoliberals, nobody would be mentioning him. This is because his theories are poorly thought out and full of silly assumptions.

There are shopworn phrases in French just as there are in English, just as there are in any language. This doesn't mean that the differences in signifying chains do not change how the different cultures think, but it does not mean what Orwell says it means.

Lacan is far more useful in this subject than Orwell, but sadly has no reactionary cachet, so he goes ignored.

ColoradoGuy
09-27-2009, 07:18 AM
Meh.

Orwell is overrated. If it weren't for the perceived anti-communist sex appeal he has to neoliberals, nobody would be mentioning him. This is because his theories are poorly thought out and full of silly assumptions.

There are shopworn phrases in French just as there are in English, just as there are in any language. This doesn't mean that the differences in signifying chains do not change how the different cultures think, but it does not mean what Orwell says it means.

Lacan is far more useful in this subject than Orwell, but sadly has no reactionary cachet, so he goes ignored.
An interesting recent essay (http://asbsavar.co.cc/fromtoolbar/rahaei.php?u=Oi8vZW50ZXJ0YWlubWVudC50aW1lc29ubGluZ S5jby51ay90b2wvYXJ0c19hbmRfZW50ZXJ0YWlubWVudC90aGV fdGxzL2FydGljbGU2NzM5OTk0LmVjZQ%3D%3D&b=5) in the Times Literary Supplement disagrees. It has useful information about the relationship of Orwell's writing to his politics.

Medievalist
09-27-2009, 07:33 AM
Meh.

Orwell is overrated. If it weren't for the perceived anti-communist sex appeal he has to neoliberals, nobody would be mentioning him. This is because his theories are poorly thought out and full of silly assumptions.

There are shopworn phrases in French just as there are in English, just as there are in any language. This doesn't mean that the differences in signifying chains do not change how the different cultures think, but it does not mean what Orwell says it means.

Lacan is far more useful in this subject than Orwell, but sadly has no reactionary cachet, so he goes ignored.

You're missing Orwell's point, entirely. He's not talking about cliché. He's talking about linguistic abuse which deliberately uses metaphor to disconnect the signified from the signifier.

He's talking about the same sort of deceit involved in calling a layoff a "reduction in labor."

LyricMuse
10-11-2009, 09:40 AM
What would Orwell think of all this? I think first of all he would applaud any free thought, but at the same time I think he would look at how people compare his writings and laugh. It is only in the sense that those who use his writing tend towards propaganda and a swaying of thinking. If you read Orwell's writing you learn that he was a man who was consumed by the truth, whether the truth turned out to be socialism in India, or communism in Britain. There are all kinds of truth. There is the truth of falling into the mass thinking of current politics, or what he so aptly coined as Groupthink. If you look at the idea of groupthink it coincides with his writing on nationalism. True strength throughout any tyrannical idea has come from unfaltering nationalism, whether it's America, Europe, the Middle East, Russia, or so many other countries. The way to a man or woman's heart is through a call of patriotism or nationalism. Let's take a second and look at patriotism, which seems to be an American saying and nationalism which falls on the shoulders of other countries.
Patriotism as its definition is taken from the Princeton.edu website is "love of country and willingness to sacrifice for it". How many of us are truly willing to sacrifice. It is only a certain few that actually do, and as Orwell pointed out it's usually the poor or proletariat that take the time to "fight for what's right" or so the saying goes. I could go on but you get the idea, patriotism is belief in country and nation. Or Nationalism, but not really, according to definition and phrasing. How often do you hear the word nationalism in America or really other countries as a matter of fact.

Nationalism is an interesting word. At one time it was the same as patriotism, it was a love of country and willingness to sacrifice for that love. If you look at some of the definitions that you find online, it leads to something that is a little different in wording, yet remarkably the same, but politically different now, Interesting to say the least.
nationalism: the doctrine that your national culture and interests are superior to any other
nationalism: the aspiration for national independence felt by people under foreign domination
nationalism: the doctrine that nations should act independently (rather than collectively) to attain their goals
Of course I could go on and on but you just need to type in the search term define:nationalism and you will see that there is actually a wide and disparaging breadth of definitions.
What I want to focus on is the idea of doctrine. I like how some will use the word doctrine to describe nationalism, whereas patriotism doesn't seem to use that word. Of course the web is not all conclusive, but I'm going off of what I've found. If you have found something different please let me know.
Let's define doctrine. Most of us will immediately look at the word and think of religion or some kind of context relating to religion. My favorite definition is this: A rule or idea that is part of a system of belief.
Tough eh?!? It is hard to truly look at words and their connotations, or their meaning and wonder what is really being said or meant. Oftentimes you will hear someone on the news say that so and so misspoke, or they were misquoted. Now I'm not saying that people are never misquoted, I'm just saying that it has become too easy to "take things out of context" or "blow things out of proportion". This leads me to another great idea of Orwell's, the idea that language can be used to confuse and obfuscate the actual truth.
I am done for now. I feel like I've been long winded and somewhat boring...unless of course you're into this line of thinking.;)

Penfeather
11-05-2009, 07:35 PM
The other I had an argument with a novelist because she outright refused to say "Banana Split" considering it cultural imperialism

Can anyone explain this to me? Is there some meaning to 'banana split' that I don't know?

Oh and thanks a lot. I have a fierce craving for a banana split now - with nary a banana or carton of ice cream in sight. :cry:

maxmordon
11-06-2009, 01:19 AM
Can anyone explain this to me? Is there some meaning to 'banana split' that I don't know?

Oh and thanks a lot. I have a fierce craving for a banana split now - with nary a banana or carton of ice cream in sight. :cry:

Well, it's like if someone didn't like people calling French Fries French, since they were made in America and its perceived as some sort of social looking up and choose to rename it to something more local and patriotic. Like Liberty Fries, same thing.

Penfeather
11-06-2009, 07:32 AM
Well, it's like if someone didn't like people calling French Fries French, since they were made in America and its perceived as some sort of social looking up and choose to rename it to something more local and patriotic. Like Liberty Fries, same thing.
Hmm. Well, French-fried potatoes were invented in either Belgium or France, depending on whose claims you believe. I could see a particularly nationalistic Belgian being annoyed by the name 'French fries', I suppose. I thought French fries got renamed to Liberty fries because people were feeling pissy.

I still don't understand how that works with 'banana split' though. What else should we call it? 'Musa sinensis bisection' just doesn't sound as appetising somehow.

maxmordon
11-06-2009, 08:51 PM
Hmm. Well, French-fried potatoes were invented in either Belgium or France, depending on whose claims you believe. I could see a particularly nationalistic Belgian being annoyed by the name 'French fries', I suppose. I thought French fries got renamed to Liberty fries because people were feeling pissy.

I still don't understand how that works with 'banana split' though. What else should we call it? 'Musa sinensis bisection' just doesn't sound as appetising somehow.

The thing is that there's not another way to call it, Banana Split is just a name, but this person was bugged because it was in English and there's no Spanish name for it. It's like if you wanted to call Foie Gras as Greasy Liver just because you feel calling it Foie Gras shows an invasion to your culture torward the French people.

Penfeather
11-07-2009, 12:46 AM
The thing is that there's not another way to call it, Banana Split is just a name, but this person was bugged because it was in English and there's no Spanish name for it. It's like if you wanted to call Foie Gras as Greasy Liver just because you feel calling it Foie Gras shows an invasion to your culture torward the French people.
Ah OK! That makes sense. I didn't know there was no Spanish name for it. I thought she was upset about the Arabic origin of the word 'banana' and didn't know why that was such a problem for her.

Maybe it's just because I'm used to English having so many borrowed words; I've never understood why people get so upset about words borrowed from other languages. I know some German and French-speaking people have an issue with it, too.

maxmordon
11-07-2009, 01:46 AM
Ah OK! That makes sense. I didn't know there was no Spanish name for it. I thought she was upset about the Arabic origin of the word 'banana' and didn't know why that was such a problem for her.

Maybe it's just because I'm used to English having so many borrowed words; I've never understood why people get so upset about words borrowed from other languages. I know some German and French-speaking people have an issue with it, too.

That is, because you speak English which has been the dominant language the last century (First with the Brits and then with the Yanks) and haven't felt culturally threatened by their language and among that the culture. While I don't feel culturally threatened, there are a lot of people around the world they do and see that as a way of domination.

Elias Graves
12-12-2009, 05:58 PM
Language, as a tool, can be used for whatever purpose the writer has in mind. One can use it to deliberately obscure one's true meaning or not.
The PC language police (as illustrated in the above phrase "cultural imperialism") more often than not acts as propaganda and to assuage white guilt than any altruistic purpose.

EG