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The Problem with Language
A Response to Orwell
Language, like everything else in the world, evolves with the people who speak and write it. As communications develop, new ways to use language come along with them. In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell discusses the general decline of the English language.
He wrote this essay sixty years ago in 1946, but his points are still as valid, if not more so, in today’s world (Orwell would no doubt be outraged to see the way people communicate via the internet). He identifies the driving force of our language problems as political writings, loaded with euphemisms, inexactness, and roundabout points, but he only briefly mentions convenience as a possible side contributor.
While Orwell’s frustrations with the degeneration of the English language are understandable and largely accurate, the specific arguments that he presents against certain writing problems and the remedies he suggests do not address directly enough the true cause of the issues in the first place: necessity.
Towards the end of his essay, Orwell only momentarily touches on the factor of convenience in the matter of modern problems with English. “The debased language that I have been discussing,” he admits, “is in some ways very convenient.” While this is only one sentence in his essay, it is essentially the most important point: the problems with modern writing now stem from necessity. Of course, Orwell wrote this essay and experienced these problems in a very different time – a time without cell phones, the internet, or text messaging. Even so, to make this essay relevant to today, there would need to be a serious expounding on the matter of how we are taught (or possibly how we are forced) to communicate.
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Beginning around the time we are told to write our first essay or story in elementary school, we associate writing with quantity. Assignments are conveyed to students in terms of numbers of pages or of words. Convenience, of course, necessitates this kind of designation because how else would the students have a framework in which to put their ideas? In this way, quantity of writing is put ahead of quality of thought.
This is obviously inadvertent; teachers want their students to be good writers and good thinkers, but legislating amount of text is much more sensible than legislating level of thought. From this comes what Orwell calls “operators or verbal false limbs.” Here, complication robs the sentence of simple verbs. “Instead of being a single word… a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb.” This results in sentences such as, “The actions of the dog played a large part in the subjection of the house to inspection,” as opposed to, “The house needed to be inspected because of the dog’s actions.”
As students get older, they are encouraged, at least subconsciously, to “sound smarter.” This results in another major problem that Orwell identifies: pretentious diction. How many high-level scholars use words or phrases that sound much more complicated than they are in an effort to sound more scholarly?
This is further encouraged in school by the simple (and not inherently wrong) act of vocabulary assignments and tests. Of course students are expected to use the vocabulary that they are being taught, but the usage is often premature and nonsensical. This effort to be a better writer ironically has the opposite effect on the students.
Orwell needs to acknowledge in this essay that the major cause of the type of deterioration that he cites is necessity and convenience instead of the political influences on how we write and think.