John Gordon Ross

A Man for All Reasons

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Opposing Orwell

January 12th, 2009 · 1 Comment

David Beaver has a post on Language Log about George Orwell’s 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. I find much to disagree with in Mr Beaver’s post, and Language Log’s Comments Policy says “blog comments should be short. If you have a lot to say, post it on your own blog and link to it.” So here it is.

To begin, I’ll confess that I don’t get the title: “Orwell’s Liar.” Is this a reference to Orwell’s work (the expression “Stalin’s liar” seems to be his), is it directly calling Orwell a liar as other commentors have interpreted, or is it something you have to be a linguist to understand? Never mind, I expect I am being slow and I don’t think it is central in any way. The text of the post begins:

“Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is a beautifully written language crime, though it pretends to lay down the law.”

The parallel between “language crime” and Orwell’s famous “thought crime” is clever, but Orwell’s essay pretends nothing of the sort. It is a complaint, one repeated thoroughout the ages by many cultured but less-than-young people, that things are worse than they used to be. The body of the essay, which Mr Beaver discusses only cursorily, is a discourse on what Orwell sees as vices in the use of English, with a few guidelines thrown in at the end to help writers avoid them.

“Orwell begins with the unjustified premise that language is in decline – unjustified because while he viciously attacks contemporary cases of poor writing, he provides no evidence that earlier times had been perennially populated by paragons of literary virtue. He proceeds to shore up the declining language with style suggestions that, regrettably enough, have never turned a Dan Brown into a George Orwell.”

Come on, David, is Orwell “laying down the law,” or giving feeble style suggestions? It is true that Orwell does not prove that things had been better before then, and I don’t really see why he should, for the examples he gives to illustrate his thesis would have been instantly recognizable to his readers of 1946 as a kind of modern-speak (an effect they may have lost). And Orwell does say in so many words that the English language is in decline. Or, I insist, was, in 1946. Mr Beaver does not agree, and while I am not a linguist and much less a linguistic historian, I would venture to suggest that the English language has had many ups and downs since then, and 1946 could well not have been a high point – the best young minds in the English-speaking world had been involved in the war for the preceding seven years or so, bureaucracy was ingrained, and so on. British English could well have been in especially poor condition, for one thing because its influence was contracting. The world had yet to come to the universal conclusion that English was the business langage of the future, the injection of dynamism that came with immigration and the expansion of English in the not-yet-former colonies had not happened, and the explosion of English that would come with rapid technological progress, television and the Internet was decades away.

“Customers who buy into Orwell’s shit also buy Strunk and White…”

Now this is objectionable in different ways, the least important of which is the scatology, though that alone was pretty well guaranteed (calculated?) to provoke a number of strong protests in the post’s comments. As a Brit, I had never heard of Strunk and White, looked them up and found that they and their work are poorly seen in circles of descriptivist linguistics (as opposed to the prescriptive kind, the sort that tells people how they should use language. Language Log is firmly in the descriptivist camp). Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style seems to have been the standard grammar book in the US for the last half-century and more, so I am not surprised that it is loathed by some. I won’t defend it, or any other grammar book (here), but I must point out that to say “Strunk and White stink, therefore so does Orwell” is nonsense.

And this is where David Beaver’s thesis is essentially wrong. His argument is not against Politics and the English Language so much as against rules about the use of language – prescriptivism. He targets Orwell’s essay in order to support his position – “Orwell is wrong, so I am right.” And to do so, he makes assumptions about Orwell’s thinking which are not supported by the text. Orwell does not says “these are rules English users must follow,” but “follow these rules to avoid using English in the ways I have described.”

David Beaver has managed to highlight the two basic flaws in the anti-prescriptivist case. The first is that it is obsolete, for the battles have been fought, won and lost and to be strictly descriptivist today is like a classically minded music school lecturer acknowledging that “There may be some merit in pop music” – it is redundant, no-one cares. The other (which may well be a contradiction of the first) is that people want rules. Not we’ll-send-you-to-the-headmaster-if-you-split-an-infinitive rules, but helpful rules, how-to rules. And they want them now as much as ever or more so. Running a Google search on “how to write” (complete with quotation marks) returns 18,500,000 results: how to write a novel, how to write an essay, an abstract, a resume, for the web, a dissertation, headlines, a scientific paper, plain English, and so on. Orwell’s essay could almost be retitled “How Not to Write Bad, Pretentious or Overtly Politically Manipulative English,” and there is no need to read into it a desire to dictate how people should use language. Instead, it points out how dreadful English can be when misused. Who could argue with that?

I recognize that not everyone can tune in instantly to Orwell’s wavelength, and it may be that David Beaver is simply (deliberately?) listening in on a different frequency (I take his posting with the tags “Peeving” and “Prescriptivist Poppycock” to indicate that we should not take him entirely seriously). I once explained Orwell’s admiration for what he termed the “decency” of the working classes to my convent-school educated mother. Entirely missing the point, she said, in her plummiest voice and with not a trace of irony, “How very condescending of Mr Orwell.”

Tags: Language · Life · Writing

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 JohnRoss // Jan 14, 2009 at %I:%M %p

    I had deliberately overlooked David Beaver’s treatment of Orwell’s sixth rule, “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous,” which he considers “even more useless and peculiar than the others.” Mark Liberman (Mr Language Log himself) has clarified that the title “Orwell’s Liar” refers to “the famous “liar paradox”, in which certain kinds of statements about the truth of statements lead to logical paradoxes. His [David Beaver’s] point was that statements about breaking rules can in principle lead to similar problems, and that Orwell’s final writing rule arguably has this problem.” So that’s that sorted out, then.

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