Saturday, September 17, 2011

The English language is under attack

(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, September 14).

The English language is one of the most precious gifts of our culture. Used properly, it is a precision instrument. There are virtually no ideas or situations for which apposite, accurate words or phrases cannot be found.

On the few occasions when such words are not available in English, we’re free to raid other languages for terms such as “schadenfreude” or “coup de grace”, for which no exact English equivalent exists.

But this fantastic gift, refined and enriched over hundreds of years as the English lexicon has expanded, is under constant attack by people who seek to debase and degrade it – people who use words to obscure rather than clarify; to disguise rather than reveal.

It goes without saying that politicians are among the worst offenders. Certain words and expressions are now so debased by misuse that they are bound to arouse suspicion.

Consider how the word “inappropriate” has been distorted out of all recognition. Once a term of mild rebuke for socially gauche behaviour, such as turning up at a formal dinner wearing jeans, it now serves as a euphemism for all manner of disgraceful and improper conduct, from sexual indiscretions through to fraud and bribery.

Words that describe such behaviour honestly and unambiguously – such as immoral, crooked, corrupt or just plain bad – have fallen into disuse. It’s only a matter of time before the perpetrators of war crimes stand accused of inappropriate behaviour.

Other words have been robbed of their force through overuse. Derogatory terms such as sexist, racist and fascist – words that might once have shamed or intimidated the people at whom they were directed – are now bandied about so promiscuously that they have become meaningless.

George Orwell was wise to all this. In his famous essay Politics and the English Language, written in 1946, he condemned the deliberate use of vague and misleading words.
He explained how euphemistic language could be used to make appalling things seem almost respectable (I wonder what he would have made of the phrase “collateral damage”, from the Vietnam War), and he pointed out the fondness of totalitarian regimes for language that disguised their inhuman oppressiveness.

Orwell also recognised that sloppy language and sloppy thinking go hand in hand. Dumb down the language and the intellect soon gets lazy too. After all, if you don’t have to express yourself clearly, why bother making the effort to think clearly? It’s easier to resort to a grab-bag of meaningless, empty slogans. Clear speech facilitates clear thinking and vice-versa.

If anything has changed since Orwell’s time, it’s that politicians no longer have a monopoly on the abuse of English. Several other occupational groups now compete to rob the language of its precision, nuance and beauty.

Some of the most egregious crimes against English are perpetrated by three of the most powerful forces in the modern corporate environment: human resources, marketing and IT people.

Human resources departments (the very phrase is Orwellian) are notorious serial abusers of the language. Pick up the executive recruitment section of any newspaper and you’ll sink in a morass of HR-speak. Study the ads and it soon becomes apparent that the phraseology is interchangeable, regardless of the job being offered. The same hollow jargon – key outcomes, customer-focused solutions and suchlike – is endlessly recycled and re-arranged in slightly different combinations. The common factor is a disregard for the integrity of the language.

HR departments may have to try harder, however, because their challengers in marketing are taking non-language to new extremes of flatulence. Consider the following, posted as a testimonial by a wine company marketing manager on the website of a research firm:

"[The research consultants] were a delight to work with,” it read. “Their commanding knowledge of the wine industry across geographies ensured we were able to quickly drill down to the key issues and deliver compelling consumer insights for our core target. They managed key stakeholders from different businesses effectively and collaboratively to deliver clear recommendations to move our business forward.”

This is not writing. It’s the equivalent of painting by numbers, whereby a limited stock of glib clich├ęs is recycled in varying permutations, as in executive recruitment ads. It treats English as just another corporate tool, rather like a cellphone or calculator: simply a matter of pushing the right buttons in the correct sequence.

But blame for the most damaging and sustained assault on the language rests with the computer industry. Computer-speak has no relationship with any other form of English. In fact you could make a compelling case that it was created by aliens with no previous knowledge of the language.

On one level, it is either infantile (for example, “Twitter” and the internet term “cookies”) or plain ugly (as in “blog” – a word that no one with an ear for the euphony of the English language could have invented).

Computer-speak, or geek-speak, is also notable for the way it spurns logical terms in favour of silly neologisms. When I’m transferring CDs onto my MP3 player, for example, the software can’t bring itself to use plain-English words like “copy” or “transfer”. No, it uses nonsensical terms like “rip”, “burn” and “sync”.

The worst examples of cyber language are those that are incomprehensible to anyone other than geeks, and perhaps Daleks. Herewith, a few examples that have popped up on my computer screen:

“Your browser’s cookie functionality is disabled. Please enable Java Script and cookies in order to use Blogger.” This might mean something to a young man with greasy hair, body odour and bad skin, but not to me.

“Please do not power off or unplug your machine.” Understandable enough, perhaps, but "power off"? "Power" wasn’t a verb last time I looked. What’s wrong with “switch”?

“Changes have been made that affect the global template, Do you want to save those changes?” Well, I might, if I knew what it meant.

“A buffer overrun has been detected which has corrupted the program’s internal state. The program cannot safely continue execution and must now be terminated.” Gulp; sounds serious.

The geeks who perpetrated these atrocities are on a mission to re-invent the English language. If we value our heritage, we must ensure they don’t succeed.


Anonymous said...

Love it, Mr du Fresne!

On this subject, how do you pronounce your surname? Is it, 'doo frain', perhaps?

I really like the series, available on DVD, called, 'The Adventure of English'. It was researched and presented by Melvyn Bragg.

Santiago said...

Karl, I think you can safely add lawyers to the list of language abusers. Legalisms are the old-fashioned equivalent of geek-speak. Eg, "the rule against perpetuities disallows equitable interests that do not fully vest within a life in being plus twenty-one years."

Vaughan said...

I hope you can share more examples moving forward.

Karl du Fresne said...

Yes, it's pronounced doo frain, though I've answered to innumerable variants.
Incidentally, I think I'm right in saying "The Adventure of English" is also available in book form. It was a fantastic series - the history of language is the history of civilisation.