April 11, 2005

Orwell and Racism in Word Choice

One of the commentors on a recent post wrote the following in connection with Orwell's "Politics and the English Language":

I find it hard to take seriously a writer who prefers Anglo-Saxon words to those of Latin or Greek origin, a full 2000 years after the Roman occupation of Britain. Nothing Orwell says makes me believe this is anything but plain, old-fashioned racism.

Is Orwell's position on avoiding expressions with foreign origins racist?

Maybe. I like to think that Orwell would have wanted us to be on the look out for racism in his work, and to highlight it when we see it. (And I would want people to do that with mine - unpleasant though the accusations and realisation would undoubtedly be.) Here is what Orwell says about Greek and Latin words, so that you can judge for yourself:

Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate , are used to dress up a simple statement and give an aire of scientific impartiality to biased judgements. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion . Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien r&eacutgime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung , are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g. , and etc. , there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous , and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard , etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one's meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

And then later, in his summary, one of his six recommendations is:

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Though, of course, this is then tempered by recommendation 6 which reads:

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.


I want to suggest that we should count this as a form of racism if the ground for using an English word in place of a foreign word is merely that it is English in origin and the other is foreign in origin (henceforth I will just say foreign and English words.) Of course it might be tempting to point out that Orwell's grounds for rejecting foreign words is that they are pretentious, not merely that they are foreign. But "pretentious" is a normative expression, and if the sole reason they are felt to be pretentious is that they are foreign, then this is merely an evasion. The crucial question will be whether there is any other reason not to use them, or any other reason for calling them pretentious.

One reason suggests itself: they are, for the expected audience , harder to understand. Many writers have an obligation to write in such a way that they can be understood. Most serious non-fiction writers have an obligation to write in such a way that it is hard for them to be misunderstood. So perhaps we should avoid foreign words - not because they are foreign - but because we care about communicating something to our audience, and foreign words will make it harder to do that.

But this defence of Orwell runs into trouble when we look at Orwell's list of foreign words: phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate; cul de sac, ancien r&eacutgime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung; expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous. While we might make a case that someone who used "mutatis mutandis" - in the context of, say, a letter to the local paper - was being inconsiderate of his audience, I don't think we can claim that "element", "individual" or "basic" are hard for English speakers to understand. So that reason isn't good enough.

One trick of Orwell's that I think is very effective in convincing the reader that Orwell is on to something here, is his translation of a verse from the bible into what he calls "modern English." Here is the original:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here is the translation:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

First passage - kind of beautiful. Second passage - not. Is the second passage harder to understand? Well, the first is both poetic and archaic. "Happeneth"? "neither yet bread to the wise"? It requires a little interpretation. What it does have over the second is vivid imagery - it uses specific examples where the second passage is more general - and the first passage has a greater proportion of monosyllabic words.

Is generality and abstractness responsible for unclarity? Not on its own. The languages of mathematics and logic deal with unusually abstract and general issues and yet they are also unusually precise.

Is there any reason to link polysyllabic words with lack of clarity? At first blush this might seem ridiculous. Some languages - such as Latin and German - are much more apt to stick words and bits of words together than English is. (Patently I could do with some help from a friendly linguist here.) Does (or did) this tendency make sentences written in them less clear to their native speakers? That seems very unlikely. So it seems silly to favour mono- over polysyllabic words in general.

But could it be that when polysyllabic words are imported into English they encourage unclarity? Perhaps some of the information available - just by looking at the word - to someone who understands Latin affixes and morphology may not be available to someone who does not. But in many cases the original meaning of the word is now irrelevant to the meaning of the word in English anyway. Exciting new discoveries about what the Greeks really meant by "idea" should not change our views on the meaning of the English word "idea". And none of this threatens the fact that that "individual", "element" and "exploit" are all perfectly well understood by most native English speakers.

I see no good, non-xenaphobic justification of the claim that we should avoid foreign expressions in "Politics and the English Language". So why does Orwell say that we should not use them? Perhaps part of the explanation is some British jingoism, combined with a romantic attachment to the past of the kind that Orwell himself criticises in his own anti-racist essay "Notes on Nationalism". This is a kind of racism. But if that is part of the explanation, I suspect a full explanation would include i) Orwell's antipathy towards to British middle classes and the way they use language and iii) some careless over-generalisation from poor uses of foreign expressions.

I suppose this only goes to show that you can write essays against xenophobia, run off to Spain fight for POUM (the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification) in the civil war, and point out that the pigs can get away with saying things like "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others", and still fuck up it all up - in print, no less - yourself.

I think there's probably a lot more to be said here, so I might write up this up in more detail later on. Comments are very welcome on this one (and if you sign into Typepad, you can comment without waiting for the comment to be approved.)

Posted by logican at 2:30 PM | TrackBack