Politics and the English Language by George Orwell (1946)

There are a few main points that George Orwell talks about throughout the essay, such as language being ‘an instrument for expressing thought’. Political language is another main focus for Orwell, he comments that political language mainly consists of ‘euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness’ this is one of the stronger points through the essay as he talks about what happens in political writing and speech and the effect it has on the audience. Throughout the whole essay George Orwell comments on how the English language is old but also becoming more simplistic perhaps due to our culture.

What examples does the author use?

George Orwell gives various examples of ways in which the English language is becoming weaker and lacking meaning. He puts them into categories such as: dying metaphors, operators or verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, meaningless words. He comments that ‘dying metaphors’ are old metaphors which have become more like everyday words and therefore do not create a visual image with the audience. People often use these without knowing the true meaning behind the metaphors, this may be due to how over time they have been used more frequently by people that they lost all true meaning and became vague. Even the spellings can be changed to fit a particular meaning more suited for the speaker for example ‘toe the line’ can become ‘tow the line’.

What other theorists does the author refer to (or could refer to)?

George Orwell could refer to Sapir-Whorf when he talks about how taking a moment to think about what we are going to say could change the language said, improving it. Or even stopping ourselves from falling into the trap of saying the everyday terms. Linking all of this with Sapir-Whorf would create an interesting theory as they believe that the language spoken and thought are interlinked however they believe more strongly in language controlling thought whereas Orwell thinks it could work well both ways.

Six important quotations:

 

The defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning’ the importance of this quotation is that because people are using words which contain more syllables and perhaps is used among those with a higher status. However the word ‘democracy’ has been used so much over the past that perhaps those using the word are not entirely sure of what they are saying which would result in the fear of being tied down. Various meanings that there may be a cultural confusion in what democracy is however as they are all debating over politics and the link to the word, each individual thinks they are correct. They cannot be proven wrong nor right because society has allowed various meanings to be invented to fit the needs of whoever is speaking because they did not have time or could not be bothered to create a word to fit how they actually felt.

The next quote I have chosen is very short because Orwell gets straight to the point with what he is trying to say and gives us the main focus immediately, the quote is ‘political writing is bad’. I have chosen this as an important quote because it expresses Orwell’s opinion on the matter of political writing and follows the his criticisms of how to get across meaning it just has to be simplistic rather than using larger words which lead to vagueness, which political writing is often guilty of. Saying this causes us the reader to want to understand how, as we often listen to political speeches and are told they are good due to many factors, such as metaphors. However Orwell informs us that in fact they are often vague and ‘is designed to make lies sound truthful’.

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought’ personally I found this thought similar to Sapir-Whorf where language effects thought. It is a statement which cannot truly have a stable correct answer because nobody knows which controls which. Having this at the start of a paragraph makes the reader begin to wonder which one is the stronger argument. Could changing thoughts improve our language? Or could changing the language mean we have more thoughts, more developed metaphors, verbs, and adjectives?

The mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose’ this ties in the idea that the English language is no longer precise and the use of ‘complex’ words is no longer true because they have been used so much that they are now part of everyday language and no longer have a creative impact, but as a society we are too lazy to stop and think of anything new because it is too convenient to use something that already exists.

Evaluation:

The argument made by Orwell was well constructed as he explained the reasons for his arguments and negative comments. However he does not include any true examples or data supporting his ideas about language being weaker and vaguer as it is due to his thoughts. Words with more syllables can be used in the wrong context therefore causing a sentence to become vague but often in political writing they are used with the correct terminology and create a greater image for the audience. If political writing was bad like Orwell said, politics would be less popular as people would not understand. Yet those who do take interest, do understand points made in politics which enables them to either disagree or agree with issues.

So…

Orwell slags off political writing because it seeks to confuse and be vague – to hide what is really happening. If Political correctness seeks to mask society’s racism, sexism, etc. – isn’t that a bad thing?

 

However, as Orwell concedes “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”  – therefore wouldn’t he agree that the PC project, if not advisable, is at least possible: to shape the way we see the world and undermine negative stereotyping and prejudiced thinking by controlling the language in general use?

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