Thursday, 30 December 2010

A Last Grumble at Year's End

In his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell wrote this:

"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. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers."

No-one has ever put it better.

Sadly, the situation has not improved since Orwell wrote those words. For example, there is a report in today's newspaper about a government plan to hand more power to individual schools. This is how the bureaucrats explain what they're up to:

"The aim of the initiative is to facilitate systemic national reform to establish autonomous school operation as the norm across all Australian sectors, with schools predominantly being self-governing. Increasing school autonomy will improve student performance by providing principals, parents and school communities a greater input into the management of their local school."

What does all that actually mean? Possibly this:

"The plan's aim is to let schools in all states govern themselves. This will help students to learn and allow principals, parents and school communities (whatever they are) to  have a say in how their local school is run."

I think that passage expresses the same ideas as the original but is much easier to understand.

I particularly object to the idea of students providing a 'performance' and as for 'facilitate' - pah! Then there's 'systemic', 'autonomous', 'input' - blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Almost all of these are Greek or Latin derived words, so often the ones that are favoured by obfuscators. I know there is a push to retain the teaching of Ancient Greek and Latin in schools, but I am too afraid of an increase in this kind of stuff to be able to support it; (I did study Latin, but apart from getting distracted by what was happening on the 'insula' to which first the 'puella' and then the 'nauta' went, neither of them returning until several chapters later in my battered Path to Eating, when at last both the plural and the verb 'to return' were introduced [at which point, as if to confirm my worst fears, they reappeared together], I hated the pompous in-jokes that my fellow Latin scholars adored - they were never particularly funny, unless you enjoyed feeling superior to those who couldn't understand them).

Anyway, the argument in favour of schools teaching these subjects rests partly on the idea that it is useful to be exposed to languages with grammars different from and, arguably, more complex than English. If that's what's needed, why not teach children German and Russian? There is lots of great literature written in both those languages and, what is more, you can actually go and engage with native speakers, if you are so inclined.

Returning to the matter at hand - the state of the English language - what was it Orwell said? "A man may take to drink". He was right, of course, on this as on almost everything else. What he didn't go on to explain however is that a woman may, if driven to an equal depth of despair, join that man in his resort to strong liquor. (Sound of calvados sloshing into cup).

A very happy new year to all.


  1. Happy New Year - here's hoping you won't be 'impacted' by any 'significant flooding events' in 2011.

  2. The Parrot - I just amused myself writing a reply made entirely of government speak, full of 'issues' and 'hopefully' and 'going forward' and 'at the end of the day', but I lost it all somehow when I pressed post, so I shall have to be content with 'A Very Happy New Year to you too.'