Wednesday, 15 February 2017

politics and the English language

Because George Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language has influenced so many usage writers (including Strunk and White), I think it's important to point out its problems. It's supposed to be a call for clarity of expression, but in fact it's not much more than a list of words and phrases Orwell doesn't like. He laments that English is in decline, but he provides no evidence that language in the past was any better. And he unquestioningly promotes a strong linguistic relativity: using these words will anaesthetize our brains.

I'm not the only person who doesn't like it. Geoffrey Pullum calls this essay "a smug, arrogant, dishonest tract full of posturing and pothering, and writing advice that ranges from idiosyncratic to irrational".

Orwell begins by discussing some of the characteristics of modern English prose, and how awful they are.

Dying metaphors. There are a number of metaphors that are "merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves." As if we should never use a metaphor that we have heard before! Furthermore
Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.
This is the etymological fallacy. I don't need to know the origin or even spelling of "toe the line" in order to know what it means. I'm not familiar with the expression "the hammer and the anvil", but I think it's likely that most people who use it are unfamiliar with the physical properties of actual hammers and anvils, and there's no reason why they should be.

Operators or verbal false limbs. He says that using two-word verbs (as opposed to "simple verbs") saves the witer the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns. Shouldn't appropriateness be detemined by your audience and the meaning you want to convey? Isn't a word's meaning so much more important than its length?

He complains about nominalization, the -ize suffix, and not un-. He doesn't explain what is wrong with any of these, other than saying not un- gives banal statements an appearance of profundity. That's fair, but this can't be the only period in history when writers have tried to sound deep. He writes (using the passive voice) "the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active", implying that there is something terrible about the passive voice, when there isn't.

Pretentious diction. He has something against foreign phrases, which I can understand, but he goes much further: he dislikes not just foreign phrases like, presumably, je ne sais quoi, but English words borrowed from Latin or Greek!
... the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one's meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.
How does creating new words lead to an increase in slovenliness and vagueness? And he implies that a word like impermissible is somehow not English, even though it has been an English word since at least 1858.

Meaningless words. I don't understand what he means here. I think he just doesn't like art criticism:
When one critic writes, "The outstanding feature of Mr. X's work is its living quality," while another writes, "The immediately striking thing about Mr. X's work is its peculiar deadness," the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way.
Both "black/white" and "dead/living" are metaphors. Why is one proper and the other meaningless?

As we would expect, a lot of words on his blacklist are unobjectionable now. Who complains about extramarital, impermissible, make contact with, objective, or predict nowadays? Here we are, 71 years later, using language that Orwell said would turn us into machines.

More importantly he doesn't show us that bad writing was not common in the past as well. He starts this essay with the claim that "the English language is in a bad way", and if he wants to convince us of that, he should provide evidence that English is worse now than it used to be.

He spends the rest of the essay pushing his extreme linguistic relativity: that the specific words you use directly and intimately determine your thought, and vice versa. Here's my favourite bit:
When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. 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.
He makes more incredible claims, for instance "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts", "A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine", and
This invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one's brain.
Why is it only now that language has declined so much that we are in danger of becoming foolish robots? Why didn't it happen thousands of years ago?

There is no evidence that language controls thought in this way. There is evidence that "language nudges thought (in certain circumstances)." Mark Liberman writes about Caitlin Fausey and Lera Boroditsky, "English and Spanish speakers remember causal agents differently", CogSci 2008:
Even modest statistical differences in the way that different language communities tend to express things may correlate with modest differences in the way that their members remember things, if the experimental circumstances are carefully calibrated to produce memory performance in a range that allows these effects to be measured.
But there is no evidence for the idea that using "pretentious words", or the -ize suffix, or the passive voice, etc. determines your thought.

In 2010, The Economist hosted a debate between Boroditsky and Liberman with the subject "Does language shape thought?" It is no longer available, but I saved Liberman's closing remarks, where he notes that in the experiments that show language affecting thought, the effects can be easily eliminated. He refers to the Fausey and Boroditsky 2008 study I mentioned above:
For evidence of this relative weakness [of the linguistic relativity hypothesis], we need look no further than some of Lera Boroditsky's excellent recent research. Her work with Caitlin Fausey5 suggests that English speakers are somewhat more likely than Spanish speakers to specify an agent in describing accidental events ("She broke the vase" versus "The vase broke"), and also somewhat more likely to remember who the agent was. These effects, though statistically significant, were quite small, in absolute terms as well as in comparison to the within-group variation. Thus students at the Universidad de Chile were on average 4.4% worse at remembering accidental agents than intentional ones, while Stanford students were on average 1.9% better.6 Even to get this much of an effect, the event videos had to be carefully crafted to make the incidents and agents as bland and unmemorable as possible. Furthermore, in a follow-up experiment, the authors found that you can turn English speakers into Spanish speakers-for the purposes of this paradigm-by having them listen to 24 non-agentive sentences before the start of the experiment.

Here a lifetime of linguistic and cultural influence is overwhelmed by a minute or two of passive listening! Similarly, linguistic effects on measures of individualism are twice as small as the effects of two minutes of silent thought about your similarities or differences to others;7 and linguistic effects on orientation experiments are roughly as strong as the effects of room decor.8

5 Caitlin Fausey and Lera Boroditsky, "English and Spanish speakers remember causal agents differently", proceedings of the 30th annual meeting of the Cognitive Science Society, 2008

6 Mark Liberman, "Never mind the conclusions, what's the evidence?", Language Log 8/30/2010

7 Mark Liberman, "How to turn Americans into Asians (or vice versa)", Language Log 8/15/2008

8 Peggy Li and Lila Gleitman, "Turning the tables: language and spatial reasoning", Cognition, 83(3): 265-294, 2002.
Back to Orwell. His belief that language controls thought made its way into 1984, where we are expected to believe that a constructed language (Newspeak) can somehow control how we think because it has replaced bad with ungood. If Newspeak became a native language, it would last less than one generation. I mean that it would change, the way a simplified pidgin turns into a full language, as its speakers created new terms to express all the concepts it was designed to hide.

The essay ends with a list of 6 bizarre rules.
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
As Geoffrey Pullum says, this is impossible: "No one writes without using at least some phrases that are encountered moderately frequently (that's why they are moderately frequent)." Figure of speech itself is a figure of speech.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
Why are shorter words better? Why does Orwell use slovenliness when he could have used the shorter word laziness? As David Beaver says, why do we need a rule based on the length of a word rather than its meaning?
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Why are less words better? Why does he not use "omit" for "cut out"?
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
This is bad advice. And again, no reasoning is given. Nowhere in this essay does he explain why passives are bad, why less words are better, and why shorter words are better.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (page 720) notes that Orwell uses 20% passive clauses in this essay, which is higher than the average from periodicals (13%). Why does he use so many passive clauses if they are so terrible?
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
That depends on the audience. Jargon and scientific words serve useful purposes: they let specialists talk efficiently about their subjects.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
This is a get out of jail free card. Since "barbarous" is a matter of opinion, I could break these rules all the time, and justify it by saying "otherwise I would have to write something barbarous".

I've been told that I'm not seeing the bigger picture, that I'm too focused on the details. I'm only doing what Orwell himself is doing. He spends most of this essay complaining about specific usages. Language and thought are intimately linked, he says, and use language a specific way and you will fix the thought. If he wanted to focus on the bigger picture, why doesn't he simply say "politicians lie"?

I’ve also been told that yes, he is linguistically naive, but who cares? - his advice is still valid. This baffles me. How do we know his advice is valid when he can offer no support for it, doesn't follow it himself, and is so confused about the consequences of not following it?

I don't blame Orwell for being linguistically naive. I blame people for treating this essay like it still has something useful to tell us, when they should know better.


David Marjanović said...

Why are less words better? Why does he not use "omit" for "cut out"?

As one of the LLoggers put it: "Omit needless!"

Also, "less words" – I see what you did there. :-)

goofy said...

Therefore thou needest not greatly wonder, when we are inquiring concerning what we have begun, whether we may prove it with less words or with more.