Orwell and language, by Henry Hitchings

George Orwell and language by Henry Hitchings

George Orwell begins one of his best-known essays with the claim that ‘Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way’.

Most people who bother with the matter at all will not go far without coming across the writings of George Orwell – and without coming across devotees who see him as both a profound thinker about language and a master of its creative and argumentative use.

Any discussion of Orwell and language must surely begin with Newspeak. He invented this degraded language for his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and many of his coinages have become part of our vocabulary. They include sexcrime, the disquietingly Soviet unperson, and doublethink (though not, as is sometimes imagined, doublespeak).

In the novel, Newspeak is the official language of Oceania and is intended to replace Oldspeak (i.e. common English) by 2050. Newspeak does away with nuance; the subtleties and complexities of thought are repressed. It is thus a tool for maintaining ideological purity, enabling the ruling party to eliminate undesirable words and ‘unorthodox meanings’ from everyday life. It makes ‘heretical thought … literally unthinkable’. At one point an expert delights in envisaging the progress of this ‘reality control’: ‘Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.’

Understandably, Orwell is often credited with great prescience on this count. Yet Newspeak was directly influenced by contemporary events and by Orwell’s exposure to the political rhetoric of both Communism and Fascism. His conception of Newspeak was also informed by his experience of Basic English, an international ‘auxiliary language’ of 850 words which had been promoted for the previous twenty years by the entrepreneurial philosopher C. K. Ogden.

Nevertheless, in the 21st century Newspeak remains a pertinent concept. The word is overused by journalists, but is still a valuable one in a world where freedom of expression is frequently undermined – a world jam-packed with prefabricated statements and the stifling pieties of orthodoxy, all of them scarcely disturbed by thought or truth.

Orwell lambastes this kind of lifeless, costive utterance in his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, which I referenced at the outset. Published in the magazine Horizon in 1946, it is a much parroted piece, and, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four aside, it may well be the most quoted of all his writings.

Near the beginning of the essay Orwell presents five quotations from other writers, each of which exhibits a slovenly ugliness. He goes on to identify the main faults afflicting the written English of the day. Among these are jargon, decaying metaphors, ready-made phrases and pretentious diction.

More than sixty years later, none of these problems has gone away. It is common today for writers to enlist Orwell as an eloquent ally in their attempts to censure shoddy, cliché-ridden prose – or indeed the flatulent speechifying of politicians and the crummy pabulum served up by business experts and lifestyle gurus.

‘Politics and the English Language’ is often cited as a masterpiece of reasonableness. It shows Orwell in characteristically crisp, assertive, pragmatic mode. He lays down six rules that are widely reproduced. It is worth quoting them in full:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

It is useful here to remind oneself of the (whole) opening sentence of Orwell’s essay: ‘Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it.’

Orwell in this sentence violates his own rules. ‘Ah,’ you may say, ‘but he does so because of the sixth rule.’ Does he, though? The choice of the passive – ‘it is generally assumed’ rather than ‘we generally assume’ or ‘people generally assume’ – hardly feels like an evasion of the barbarous. I’d also argue that the words ‘by conscious action’ could be cut, to some advantage.

While this may seem churlish nit-picking, it highlights the dangers of prescriptiveness. There are, in any case, occasions when a short word will do but a longer word will do more. Equally, there are times when it is apt to use the passive voice rather than the active. Active sentences may often feel punchier and more concrete than passive constructions, and they may give a clearer or more decisive sense of agency (compare ‘I cut down the tree’ and ‘The tree was cut down by me’). But the passive will sometimes serve our purposes better. Note, for instance, Orwell’s (seemingly unironic) passive-voiced statement that in stale modern prose ‘the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active’.

Some of what Orwell says here is questionable, and some of it is unoriginal. He recycled ideas from his own essays, and derived others from Arthur Quiller-Couch’s book On the Art of Writing (which had itself borrowed from The King’s English by brothers H. W. and F. G. Fowler).

This does not invalidate the essay’s critique of bad writing, and the unoriginal parts are rejuvenated by appearing in the service of a strong political argument.

Orwell usefully draws attention to some of the sleazy habits of arrogant authors and the warped practices of inept ones, and he is right to make the link between political oppression and obscure, contrived, verbose language.

In the end, though, Orwell stimulates us most not as a writer about language, but as someone who uses it felicitously. He claimed that ‘Good prose is like a window pane’, and, even if we feel a little uncomfortable with the implication that words are glass, few would deny that Orwell’s own prose is a model of clarity.

Lucid, generous, direct, confident and morally forceful, the style Orwell developed is seen best in his essays. My personal favourite is probably ‘Such, Such Were The Joys’; when I was younger, it was his essay about Charles Dickens. The experience of reading him can be bracing, for he likes to take risks, spring surprises on us and coax our feelings with carefully chosen detail.

It is not unusual to find Orwell portrayed as a satisfyingly guileless writer – someone uninterested in rhetorical strategies or aesthetic refinement. His style is described as conversational or journalistic. Yet part of his skill lies in masking his artfulness: the language that looks so unaffected is actually the product of a great deal of craft.

In his essay ‘Why I Write’, published in 1946, Orwell says that ‘In a peaceful age I might have written ornate or merely descriptive books.’ The fluctuating circumstances of his age caused him to become a different sort of writer. In discussing this, he delivers one of his baldest statements of creative intent: ‘What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.’ He succeeded, and most people who bother with the matter at all will want to heed his example.

Henry Hitchings is the author of three books directly concerned with the English language: Dr Johnson’s Dictionary (2005), The Secret Life of Words (2008), and The Language Wars (2011). He has won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and a Somerset Maugham Award, and in 2009 was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award. He is theatre critic of the London Evening Standard.

  

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