Thursday, February 7, 2013

Politics and Orwell’s language advice

Steven Poole has a recent column in The Guardian offering his contribution to a spate of publications and broadcasts intended to mark 110 years since George Orwell’s birth. While making some nods to his famous critique of the vague wickedness of much political language, Poole also says Orwell’s “more general attacks on what he perceives to be bad style are often outright ridiculous, parading a comically arbitrary concoction of intolerances.” Poole accuses the famed writer of linguistic xenophobia and of inadvertently launching what later became “a philistine and joyless campaign in favor of that shibboleth of dull pedants ‘plain English.’” With the risk of revealing myself as a dull pedant, I am tempted to suggest that Orwell might have had a point.

To give some flesh to his accusations, Poole points to words like “extraneous” which, once newly “minted from the classical will very rapidly seem entirely normal.” This may, in fact, be the problem. Maybe abstractions which are not existentially evocative - because they are far removed from the “metaphors we live by” - should not constitute such a major part of learned vocabulary? I am reminded of an obscure German philosopher, Johann Gottlieb  Fichte, who over two centuries ago perhaps offered caution against adopting a language which is, well, extraneous to lived experience. In his view, the German tribes which had settled on the other side of the Rhein had once made a terrible mistake by abandoning their mother tongue; and adopting instead a foreign language detached from their vibrant folk culture. As a result, they had lost their soul, and succumbed to existential vapidity.

Fichte was, by current standards, a rabid German nationalist who had come to despise not only Napoleon, but also his home base of willing universalists. Yet, he may have hit upon a parsimonious explanation for all that French pretentiousness in any area you can think of; and for the rationalist hubris of the French Enlihghtenment. As German history demonstrates, faithfulness to an existentially evocative language does not preclude other kinds of intellectual, social and economic pathologies. But the more relevant point here is that once you have truly adopted a lifeless idiom, it will feel entirely normal. And anyone questioning your linguistic self-perception is bound to come across as an other-fearing bigot.