Saturday, September 13, 2008

Politics and the English Language

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.

Read the rest of George Orwell's essay here. Then tell us what you think of his essay. After all, just because it's George, doesn't mean it's cast in stone. Right? Times change, and so do rules and opinions.


  1. Language evolves. Reading George is almost difficult because its structure is foreign to us today. Things change and we get used to the changes. That's fine, for the most part. The new generation creates new words and new shorthands for saying things. It becomes natural to them - and foreign to the older generation. But the new generation must realize that their language flow, usage, and style will become outdated when the next group takes over.

  2. It wasn't an easy essay to read, was it? I'm trying to remember how I felt about it in college, but it's been so long, I don't recall. I only vaguely remember a lively debate in class.

    I rather like that language and rules change with the times. But, that's the artist in me speaking, because too much structure and rigidness can stifle creativity. On the other hand, not enough structure just results in crappy work. I guess it's all about finding the right balance.


  3. As a linguistics student, tracking the changes to language is absolutely fascinating. If English didn't evolve, we'd still be speaking and writing like Chaucer: "Yet in oure asshen olde is fyr yreke."

  4. And back atcha three-fold! I hope it was good, that last line. LOL. I'm also fascinated with the subtle speech differences between English-speaking countries. You can convey so much about a character with those nuances in speech, can't you? Or more formally, "can't one"?

  5. Roughly: "There's still fire in the ashes", which, in context, (Canterbury Tales) is a metaphor meaning something like "You can still get a rise from a dying man."



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