Wednesday, April 16, 2008

On the Proper Use of Language

Language shapes an individual's view of reality because without it, there is no ability to communicate what that person's view may be. At the same time, the way any given language is constructed skews the interpretation of reality the individual will have because of the form the language takes. In tech, Kanji, the Chinese characters used in Japanese writing, became the driving engine for Japan to design high resolution displays due to the fact Kanji has from 50,000 to 80,000 characters (depending on who's doing the counting), thus requiring a new approach to designing hardware to enable the Japanese to participate in the world wide digital revolution that was taking off in the mid 1970's.

At the same time this was going on, modular western languages like English, Russian and French took precedence in software development as complex algabraic expressions could be easily codified into the machine language of 0s & 1s used in telling what a computer should do with data, sound and images. (Modular Alphabet/Assembler = 0s & 1s. High level programming languages like Fortran, Cobol, Java and others work on top of Assembler to enable humans to build apps like Word, Photoshop and Excel.)

The reason for the foray into language was instigated by Dick Cavett's insightful Memo to Petraeus & Crocker: More Laughs, Please

To whit: (As speakers, both Petraeus and Crocker are guilty of unbearable sesquipedalianism, a word wickedly inflicted on me by my English-teaching mother. It’s one of those words that is what it says. From the Latin, literally “using foot-and-a-half-long words.” We all learned the word for words that sound like what they say — like “click” or “pop” or “boom” or “hiss” — but I’m sure the mercifully defunct Famous Writers School surely forbade using the “sesqui” word and “onomatopoeia” in the same paragraph. (You can have fun with both of them at your next cocktail party.)

But back to our story. Never in this breathing world have I seen a person clog up and erode his speaking — as distinct from his reading — with more “uhs,” “ers” and “ums” than poor Crocker. Surely he has never seen himself talking: “Uh, that is uh, a, uh, matter that we, er, um, uh are carefully, uh, considering.” (Not a parody, an actual Crocker sentence. And not even the worst.)


Here is where it gets serious: "Petraeus commits a different assault on the listener. And on the language. In addition to his own pedantic delivery, there is his turgid vocabulary. It reminds you of Copspeak, a language spoken nowhere on earth except by cops and firemen when talking to “Eyewitness News.” Its rule: never use a short word where a longer one will do. It must be meant to convey some misguided sense of “learnedness” and “scholasticism” — possibly even that dread thing, “intellectualism” — to their talk. Sorry, I mean their “articulation.”

No crook ever gets out of the car. A “perpetrator exits the vehicle.” (Does any cop say to his wife at dinner, “Honey, I stubbed my toe today as I exited our
vehicle”?) No “man” or “woman” is present in Copspeak. They are replaced by that five-syllable, leaden ingot, the “individual.” The other day, there issued from a fire chief’s mouth, “It contributed to the obfuscation of what eventually eventuated.” This from a guy who looked like he talked, in real life, like Rocky Balboa. And there’s nothing wrong with that."

While reading this, I remember George Orwell's great essay Politics and the English Language whereby he discusses the literary techniques politicians (and others) use in stating policy or soliciting support for some god forsaken initiative (Iraq etc., etc.)

DYING METAPHORS. 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) Examples are: RING THE CHANGES ON, TAKE UP THE CUDGELS FOR, TOE THE LINE, RIDE ROUGHSHOD OVER, STAND SHOULDER TO SHOULDER WITH, PLAY INTO THE HANDS OF, AN AXE TO GRIND, GRIST TO THE MILL, FISHING IN TROUBLED WATERS, ON THE ORDER OF THE DAY, ACHILLES' HEEL, SWAN SONG, HOTBED.

OPERATORS, or VERBAL FALSE LIMBS. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are: RENDER INOPERATIVE, MILITATE AGAINST, PROVE UNACCEPTABLE, MAKE CONTACT WITH, BE SUBJECTED TO, GIVE RISE TO...


The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as BREAK, STOP, SPOIL, MEND, KILL, a verb becomes a PHRASE, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purposes verb as PROVE,
SERVE, FORM, PLAY, RENDER...The passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (BY EXAMINATION OF instead of BY EXAMINING). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -IZE' AND 'DE-' formations, and banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the NOT 'UN-' formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as WITH RESPECT TO, HAVING REGARD TO, THE FACT THAT, BY DINT OF, IN VIEW OF, IN THE INTERESTS OF, ON THE HYPOTHESIS THAT; and the ends of sentences are saved from anti-climax by such resounding commonplaces as GREATLY TO BE DESIRED, CANNOT BE LEFT OUT OF ACCOUNT, A DEVELOPMENT TO BE EXPECTED IN THE NEAR FUTURE, DESERVING OF SERIOUS CONSIDERATION, BROUGHT TO A SATISFACTORY CONCLUSION, and so on and so forth.

PRETENTIOUS DICTION. Words like PHENOMENON, ELEMENT, INDIVIDUAL (as noun), OBJECTIVE, CATEGORICAL, EFFECTIVE, VIRTUAL, BASIS, PRIMARY, PROMOTE, CONSTITUTE, EXHIBIT, EXPLOIT, UTILIZE, ELIMINATE, LIQUIDATE, are used to dress up simple statements and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgment.


Sounds familiar doesn't it especially when anyone in power uses language like this. When combined with the fact this biased information is constantly pumped out 24/7 by the multinationals that own the media, one stops to consider if Orwell's vision of 1984 is possible. Click on the chart to see just how concentrated the media really is. Note: The chart is somewhat out of date.)

Who knows, 1984 may already be here.



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