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?