Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, 63 years on

Language is important.

Recently I found George Orwell’s seminal essay Politics and the English Language online, originally written in 1946. I’d heard of it before but never thought to track it down.

Here’s some of the intro:

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.

If you’ve ever enjoyed the Birtspeak section in Private Eye or wondered about just what our authorities and our local and national government(s) are really saying and not saying, do read the whole thing. Orwell does an excellent job of dismantling the slippery, cliched communications of our time, without the benefit of actually being alive right now. This is a real issue with real consequences and not just for pedants.

We had the perfect example last month. One way to judge UK chancellor Alistair Darling’s recent Budget would be to calculate its impact on your personal finances. (Disclosure: Darling has indirectly gifted me an approximate saving of £71.61 next year according to the BBC’s budget calculator.)

But another way to judge the imaginativeness, the clarity and the originality of the ideas would be to look at the language Darling used. Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times has examined the Budget speech and calculated a sharp increase in the use of cliched jargon words:

“Stakeholders”, “overarching”, “benchmarking” and “strategic” – all words recently banned by local authorities – were more in evidence this year than last.

It goes on. (In that sometimes annoying and self-defeating habit of newspapers, the entire column is produced verbatim on one web page without guidance – you have to skip past the first section to see it.)

As far as the English language is concerned, I’m always divided about the well meaning work of, say, the Plain English Campaign. Sometimes, more complex ideas do take more specialised words and longer sentences to describe. And often what I read of their earnest work strikes me as a bit precious or reductionist. For instance, from their site:

1. High-quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process.

2. Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.

Does the admittedly clumsy sentence 1 retain any of the full meaning it might have been intended to have when re-expressed as sentence 2, I wonder?

3 Replies to “Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”, 63 years on”

  1. Orwell is far from the only man to have noticed the language-thought link… out of curiosity, I had a dig through some quotation pages, and here are a few relevant ones:

    “Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.”
    – Benjamin Lee Whorf

    “Change your language and you change your thoughts.”
    – Karl Albrecht

    “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”
    – Ludwig Wittgenstein

    … Finally, here’s one that I read a few days ago, that got pulled to the surface upon reading this post (it is, naturally, Orwell himself)

    “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

  2. Yeah, Orwell. I know – so far, so original. It’s become pretty commonplace to point out that Orwell forecasted, warned about and identified nearly all this stuff. Don’t take my word for it though, the English Language essay is well worth a read. You’ll find that cuttlefish quote and a lot more besides(!)

    Just be grateful I didn’t shoehorn in a manifesto advocating bilingualism. Maybe next time.

    I like the fact you’ve trimmed the mighty Wittgenstein down to a pithy quote. Feel the limits Ludwig.

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