The author discusses George Orwell and his essay “Politics and the English Language”.
In pop culture, George Orwell is known for the creation of the concept of Big Brother, which many people now relate to the reality TV show. While Orwell is best known for his books 1984 and Animal Farm, his essays have had an equally strong impact on the world of writing, literature, and journalism.
Funnily enough, for how famous Orwell seems to be, 1984, published in 1949, is number one on the list of books that people claim to have read but actually have not. It doesn’t shock me; 1984 is a difficult read, and the world of newspeak, thought crime, and telescreens seem very distant to us, even now. Despite this, the book has had such a big impact that people can pretend to have read it just because they already know so much about it. Just that much of the culture in the book has seeped into our everyday language.
Orwell wrote quite a lot about our everyday language. One of his most popular essays Politics and the English Language is a detailed description of the flaws in the everyday lingo (of that time, which was the 1940’s), and how that harms our society. Orwell was obsessed with politics; so much of what he wrote always had something to do with it. The essay highlights the decay of the proper usage of the English language in speech and especially in writing. He gives examples of bad writing, of writing that lacks creativity and imagination, and accuses several writers of using ready-made phrases to make it sound like they are saying something intelligible, but actually are not saying anything meaningful. He ends it with something to help us fight this decay and not succumb to it:
“(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”
For any reader who has read even half of what Orwell has written, these are very confusing, mostly because Orwell’s own writing is filled with examples of things he wants us to avoid. In fact, even the essay itself (Politics and the English Language) presents examples of the use of passive voice, long words, and “foreign phrases”.
Of course, in literary language, all of these rules seem ridiculous, and he admits that this is only for political language. Language that is meant to convey a very specific meaning, not an effect, feeling, or emotion.
But that confines language so severely, and handicaps our ability to express so much, not only because it would take away words from our vocabulary, but also because it would change the way we express. If you tell people that every writing piece that is not literature can only express one meaning, that means there is only one way of looking at that writing, and that limits everything that makes language and writing fascinating.
When I read Orwell’s writings, I find myself relating to some of what he writes, and disagreeing with a lot. But you must remember that no writer with a collection of writing as Orwell would have all his opinions continuously consistent with each other. Just like painters, a writer’s style, techniques, perspectives, and opinions change over the years, and to be honest any who might not change may not be the best thinkers. And Orwell is no exception to that. But what he has never failed to offer is ideas, ideas to argue and think about and sleep over at night, wondering whether you are also one of the writers that just uses ready-made phrases from a selection of textbooks that you read. And you wonder if the evolution of language is really that bad of a thing, or if the usage of language should have rules put on it at all.
Orwell will never fail to offer you something to think about. This is why writers like him invent words that are used so popularly, because they make words for things and ideas that we did not even know existed.
As part of the 8th Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature, in the video below David Crystal examines Orwell’s views about language and how he refers explicitly to linguistic topics in developing characters and plot, with narrations of different Orwell texts by Hilary Crystal and Ben Crystal.
Deenah Rashid (@Deena_Rashid_)
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