6.4 – Does George Orwell Support Linguisitic Determinism?

…from George Orwell’s – Politics and the English Language      (1946)

“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.”

…language may “determine” our thoughts to some degree as in Sapir-Whorf “determinism”; however, there is a means of escape. Thought still precedes language.

But does language reflect our thoughts, as in Reflectionism? Not quite. At least, language can be a hindrance as much as a help. For Orwell, language is an issue; it can distort how we think, and sometimes even control our thought processes… this is verging on a form of determinism.

Staleness of Imagery – “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed”

Orwell contends that stale metaphors so weaken our language, our means of expressing ourselves, that they can dictate how we think as much as aid us in the expression of our thoughts.

“A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.”

…so whilst stale metaphors hamper our means of expressing ourselves, thus not affecting our reader or our listener with the full force that language can attain, there is also the matter of how such expressions misled us the speaker or writer – we say something that we don’t quite mean; language, or rather our “use of language” is overriding our thought processes.

Lack of Precision – “prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”

Orwell’s “prefabricated phrases”, such as act likes chunks of meaning which are too large and cumbersome for precise expression and as a result mislead the speaker into saying something other that they mean. It is not, for Orwell, the nature of language, which is the problem, as it is for Sapir-Whorf, but how we have come to use it, lazily relying on pre-prepared chunks of meaning rather than setting out to express oneself clearly and precisely – which the language system allows.

In the case of “words chosen for their meaning” – there is no problem; in this sense, Orwell is an adherent of Reflectionism – language need not determine our thoughts

Modern versions of these “prefabricated phrases” Orwell warns us against might be: “team-player”, “war on terror”, “middle-class values”, “rich and famous”, “as well as various stock phrases of management speak, journalese, or personal statements.

“…modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”

“…simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.

The person controlled by language – the speaker as “a machine”:

“When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine.”

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

…this taps into Orwell’s notion of Doublethink – as expounded in 1984 – but it is here expanded upon, such that it is language which allows us to fool others as well as our selves.

Though Orwell is often approaching the Reflectionism / Determinism debate from another angle, i.e. how the speaker “fools” his listener as opposed to himself, thus language heard rather than language used determines thought, the opposite is also implied, i.e. that the language we ourselves uses fools us ourselves as we use it… language can lead us on a merry dance, as in…

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow.”

However, unlike the determinist position, there is a way out of the prison of our (bad) language…

“…the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and constructions. So far as the general tone or spirit of a language goes, this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority.”

…so for Orwell, there is a good and a bad language.

Good Language allows us to precisely reflect our thoughts and facilitates clear communication, whereas…

Bad Language or “Silly words and expressions” overtake our thoughts and determine how we, the users of this “bad language”, think of the world and ourselves in it.

“The defence of the English language …has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a ‘standard English’ which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a ‘good prose style’. On the other hand, it is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.”

…the key thing for Orwell is that we can indeed let the meaning choose the word, so ultimately he is an adherent of Reflectionism; however, his thoughts on language are pretty much outside the debate on how much language in general determines how we think of the world; should he have been involved in this debate though he would probably have supported Sapir-Whorf’s deterministic outlook with some major caveats:

  1. Language is not an inescapable trap
  2. Only some language – “bad language” – misleads the speaker (as well as the listener/reader)
  3. Language which is working properly – “good language” – more or less follows the Reflectionist model: language reflects thought
  4. Certain areas of thought, such as politics, sociology, psychology and literary theory are more prone to language taking over and sense being left behind – islands of determinism as it were.
  5. One should never “surrender to words”

“…In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualising you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally.”

Language can determine our thoughts, but it doesn’t have to.

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