November 22, 2016 by John Bruce Leonard
On the Modern Tongue
TOWARD THE COMMENCEMENT of the last century, a silent revolution overtook the use of our English language, a fundamental alteration of our writing and our speech, which quickly became so widespread and so arrant that we of today almost universally wear its costumes. Indeed, it has become the very style of our time, regardless of what style we may more personally cultivate. We are writers of this day by virtue of this common style, and any future readers, looking back at our works, correspondences, books, and journals, will recognize us by this imprint, as the very signature of our age.
Our style is characterized—if one may grossly generalize in a complex situation—by deliberate limitation of the vocabulary we employ, extreme simplification of our syntax, and insistence on the immediate intelligibility of our structure. Put simply, it is characterized by a will to say everything and to conceal nothing; or, negatively, by a certain most visible (when it is not vocal) aversion to ambiguity, complexity, subtlety, “confounding of sense,” and intricacy. It melds well, this new style, with our thoroughgoing democratic attitude; it is, indeed, democracy’s literary concomitant. It should be no wonder, then, that it now seeks to tyrannize the pens of all living writers, with the full authority invested in the spirit of the times. Such an outcome is the inevitable consequences of that most curious of modern contradictions, which begins with uninhibited acceptance of diversity, and ends with the most striking imposition of homogeneity.
We wordsmiths and pensmen would do well to consider our antecedents, if for no other reason than that a little self-knowledge becomes us. Even beyond that, we might also profit from comprehending the limits of our tradition, and the ways in which it might be overhauled to the greater glory of our art.
THE FOUNTS OF MODERN LITERATURE in English, from a stylist’s point of view, come largely of two very different, almost discordant veins: that which, with writers like Hemingway and George Orwell, deliberately sought the radical simplification and clarification of our language, and that which, with such figureheads as James Joyce and William Faulkner and other Modernists, reveled atimes in its sophistication and even obscurity. This last school—if “school” it may be called—tended to toy with and often to culminate in the most unapologetic subjectivity, that extraordinarily modern force which has so utterly infiltrated both music and the plastic arts in our day. Only that literature, by reason of its nature as a linguistic-rational art, as well as for certain peculiarities of its system of patronage, could not unabashedly embrace the way of subjectivism. Thus the more radical and extreme works of the Modernists represented the end of an old tradition, rather than the beginning of a new one. It was in consequence of this fact that the other, competing strand of modern literature emerged at last triumphant.
I have already alluded to what in this new style appeals most strongly to modern sensibilities. It was considered a style appropriate for a technological and futuristic age (it is no accident that so much of so-called “science fiction” takes its bearings by these lights), in which the base of literate readers was to be greatly expanded, and literature itself was to become in consequence a democratic art. And particularly to this burgeoning class of readers, the new style contrasted itself favorably with the late productions of an effete aristocracy, and the onerous obligation of careful interpretation that attends to the reading of writers like Ezra Pound or Joseph Conrad. It must be said to its favor that it has in some ways had a salubrious effect on our language, insofar as it cut from our tongue a weight of dross and stripped a host of needless frills from the fabric of our speech. Yet I maintain that it has been on the whole ill for the English language, and has resulted in a gross diminution of our language’s unparalleled potential.
Though the works of Hemingway were undoubtedly the means by which these changes were most widely inaugurated, and though various of his quotations might be profitably analyzed to understand the style which he is so largely responsible for binding onto the pens of countless authors, it was George Orwell who put the matter most succinctly in words, in a very (and quite appropriately) brief essay by the name of “Politics and the English Language.” I divert myself in the occasional reading of this tract, for I am piqued and amused to find so clear a defense of points of style which I so little agree with. I find there in plain English—indeed, the plainest—a summary list of six fundamental rules of good style, fully half of which run counter both to my instincts and to my taste.
I here reproduce the six rules he lays forth, as he himself indites them. Anyone interested in consulting the tract in full may find a link to it at the end of this essay.
i. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
iii. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
iv. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
On the face of it, there appears to be little to object to in any of these rules (save, it might be argued, the fourth)—supposing they are taken in the right spirit. However, it is not the rules themselves, but rather the explanations with which Orwell surrounds his rules, that I am inclined to regard as unnecessarily and even injuriously restrictive to the use of our language.
Let us take the central example of this. Orwell in his second rule recommends that one always use a short rather than a long word where one may, echoing the common opinion that words of multiple syllables are or tend to be merely pretentious. Hemingway evidently agreed with this position; for once, when Faulkner chided him for never sending his readers to the dictionary, he replied,
Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.
I am far from denying the misuse that may be made of obfuscating language, nor the dangers inherent in euphemism (we are seeing a rebirth of this issue today in the muddled, sordid business, that so euphemistically calls itself “political correctness”); and it is evident from Orwell’s very title that his overriding concern is a social one, rather than a “merely” literary one. Orwell lived and breathed, after all, in a newly-fledged and hard-menaced democracy, and was among the keenest observers of all threats to the democratic order, and more importantly to that democratic mindset which he sought everywhere to preserve and everywhere to entrench. Yet I must object to his supposition: for as easily as “big” words may confound the tongue, so “short” ones may impoverish it; and I do not see that the latter is necessarily more favorable to liberalism than the latter.
Perhaps it will be objected that I do not do justice to Orwell’s, or Hemingway’s, point—that they are not concerned with the mere length of words, but rather with the most fundamental question of what is superfluous in any language. Indeed, in his more detailed exposition on this point, Orwell recommends that one restrict oneself as much as possible to those words of Anglo-Saxon derivation current in our language, avoiding those constituted of Latin or Greek roots. Orwell’s prescription would seem to have us strike out a goodly portion of our dictionaries, merely because the entries do not bear an appropriate etymology. True, Orwell himself says, “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around”—a principle which I doubt any stylist will object to. Yet I wonder, what would it mean precisely for the “word to choose the meaning”? Is this even possible? Wherein precisely is Orwell’s concern here? If he objects merely to those who use words without understanding their definitions, then I and everyone else ought to stand with him. Yet he seems to press the matter quite beyond this truism with his encouragement toward the use of particularly Ango-Saxon language. What is his purpose?
He states he would not necessarily have us proscribe words of Latin or Greek—he himself uses many words of such origin—but at the same time he seems to view something inherently suspicious in any word which does not trace its antecedents back to good Old English. Yet I aver it is precisely the virtue of much of our vocabulary, that it does not. Etymology is another term for a word’s destiny; each word shows forth threads of its original meaning, even if in attenuated or occult form; it wears indeed even vestiges of that culture which first gave it birth. Our language is for its lexical array the most marvelously diverse and versatile in all the world. The restriction, even the favoring, of a single of its many wellsprings over all others, is like to spitting in the face of the vast generosity of the English dictionary.
Orwell would have us choose Anglo-Saxon equivalents, where possible, for words of Latin or Greek origin, and in this desire he seems to propose a very loose notion of what is or could be an “equivalent.” His position is tenable only given very definite presuppositions, foremost of which is this: that all synonyms are strictly inter-changeable, or that there are no nice differences between the meanings of various words of the same family, or that one can simple substitute a “short” Anglo-Saxon word for a similar “long” Latinate or Grecian one without loss. Yet I hold that this, so far from being true, represents even nothing but the exceptional case. The better part of the time, words which are generally considered, for practical purposes, to be “synonyms,” are stamped in fact with subtle shades of difference, such that mechanical manipulation of them on the basis of their origin or their length would itself be a kind of unpardonable stylistic default and dereliction.
English is blessed with the largest dictionary in the world. Precisely if it is true that “the meaning chooses the word,” then we must admit that her incredible cornucopia of vocabulary grants to English the possibility of an inimitable precision and nuance of expression. If we are not merely to assume that, for example, the words “king,” “monarch,” and “sovereign” are like the interchangeable parts of some car, each identical to the next, but are instead perfectly individual and unique and replete with essential, if subtle, differences, then it would be simple folly to automatically prefer the word “king” in place of the others, merely because it has got good German blood in its veins, and has not been compromised by ties to Old Rome or Ancient Greece. Indeed, I think it needful that we emend Orwell: it is not the meaning which must choose the word, but rather it is the context in which the word must appear; and there are questions here of inflection, of implication, of connotation—aye, even of musicality, of sonority and discordance—which demand of us that we keep an open mind, and, above all, an open lexicon. Precisely what is most English in our language, begs this of us.
I HAVE ALREADY REFERENCED the fact that Orwell, in the writing of his rules, had in mind, not the literary situation of his day, but the political situation; and I am aware that his rules, if followed rigorously by the better part of, say, journalists, correspondents, or the writers of essays and popular books, would without doubt issue in a finer and cleaner language even today, when almost all of what Orwell says about language is taken for granted. I do not doubt him either, when he states that “if one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.” I believe that his first preoccupation with his essay is, as he himself declares in its title, a political one. I would be content to call his a fine bit of pedagogical writing, were it not for the fact that the sort of writing he proposes has become the dominant form of literary expression. I suspect that this consequence was not unforeseen by Orwell, nor would have alarmed him.
My critique is based, then, on a division between the literary and the political, and might be stated more clearly as follows: though the literary may treat of the political, it is not circumscribed, and must never be subject, to the political, but remains, not only above it, but fundamentally sovereign. The political and the literary inhabit two different spheres; that of the political is contained within the literary. To confound the political with the literary, is to perform an injustice against the natural hierarchy of things. It is, more, to abolish the best flowering of our human language—and with it, of our human thought and experience.
Orwell, I believe, would disagree profoundly with this position. As he puts it, “In our age, there can be no ‘keeping out of politics.’” Notwithstanding the qualification with which this statement begins, I much doubt that his position would change appreciably, were he alive in our time. The disgrace of fascism and the fall of communism, and the evident and thusfar total victory of democracy in the face of totalitarianism, might somewhat alleviate the urgency of Orwell’s claim, but I do not believe it would make him reconsider its basic justice. And I think I do not err when I suppose that the stylistic affinities between Orwell’s writing and that of Hemingway or other writers of their journalistic proclivities, are owed precisely to a peculiar notion of the political, insofar as they are bound up inevitably with a view toward the promulgation of their work and ideas. They wrote for the public, in a way that Faulkner and Joyce did not; they were keenly interested, then, in how the public should take them. This is very democratic, whether or not any of these writers have aught to say of the laws of their nations or the work of the Parliament or of the Senate. It is political, in the sense of being concerned with the way that the mass of one’s readers will respond to one’s words—with what these readers will “take away” from one’s books.
Now, it is surely true that every writer must confront the question of his possible readership, and to that extent, it is true that no writer can “keep out of politics.” This is the old literary conundrum that Plato with such mastery of irony puts into the mouth of his Socrates in the Phaedrus: the writer cannot choose his reader, and so it seems he cannot choose to speak some things and keep others silent, depending on the audience. He cannot, in other words, craft his writing to the peculiar set of eyes that read it. Writing thus appears to be inherently, even tragically flawed, and vastly inferior to dialectics and conversation. Yet Plato himself was a writer, and one of the greatest. He found a way of overcoming the tragic flaw of writing. For the more fundamental question here is not whether one writes for the public, but how one writes for the public, and what status the public has in one’s mind. It is in the end ever and always a question of priorities: to whom does one finally intend one’s words, and what relation must one keep with those who are but incidental readers of one’s words?
After asserting that no one today can keep out of politics, Orwell continues by affirming, quite dramatically, that “all issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.” Given its prequel, this is alarming. It may well be that these strange opinings are nothing other than the reaction of a morally fastidious man to the extremities of his time, who has a genuine, most sincere hope that in reclaiming language, the sullied politics of his day, too, might be reclaimed. Orwell wrote to the public, because he wished to redeem it. Hemingway’s case was surely more complicated, insofar as he was much more the artist, and was moreover far too infatuated with a certain kind of freedom to serve any cause at all, even that of the public good. Nonetheless, Hemingway, too, was a democratic man, for he never “painted ‘No Admittance’ on his gate,” nor wrote anything that might be difficult for a reader to seize with both hands.
There are intriguing parallels, to be sure, in the literary summons to clarity, simplification of diction, and lucidity of vocabulary, and the political goals of transparency, simplification of bureaucracy, and the education to democracy. But if we artists are not merely political, if we are also and above all literary, then the question must be posed if these demands result, not so much in more democratic politics, but rather in greater literature.
Orwell’s masterpiece is certainly 1984, and I do not hesitate, despite my genuine liking for that work, to censure it as being a book of some inherent limitations. I lay aside the question of its prescience (though I might comment in passing that I find Brave New World in the end to be the more compelling dystopia). I say rather that 1984 is from a strictly literary standpoint a work of the second rank, though to be sure it occupies the highest echelons of that rank. It lacks profundity; it lacks greatness of soul; it lacks those layers of ambiguity and inner rich self-contradictory vitality which Orwell himself might have considered to be naught more than vagueness and lack of clear meaning. It wears its message on its face. It can do so, for its message is such a pleasantly edifying one, so very conducive to the social sobriety of it readers and their care for the commonweal. Orwell’s work is strictly political; and insofar as Hemingway’s does not altogether follow suit, but sometimes is given to socially questionable excesses, that is merely because Hemingway’s character was less sober than Orwell’s. Both of them wrote, however, in crystalline diction and bare-boned vocabulary, with a view to the “common reader,” and the critique that one may make of Orwell is no less applicable to Hemingway, with certain due caveats.
The question of what are the shortcoming of this modern writing, can only be answered, to my mind, through a critique of the audience toward which this writing is directed: for it is in large part the audience of any given work which determines its style. Style has even been defined by one of the greatest German stylists of this or any time, and not inaccurately to my mind, as a means of prohibiting entry. All higher style aims precisely at this: to put forth a mask, behind which only the initiated may peek; to lay veils on veils; to speak “with a forked tongue,” so that one evades the much greater risk of confounding one’s true audience with one’s incidental. And I would supplant all the rules of George Orwell, with but a single one: namely, that style be a function of substance, such that one’s given subject matter, and its right relation to one’s intended audience, govern all the author’s choices regarding the arrangement of the part to the whole. We as stylists should seek to reflect the very language in which we write: we should be as chameleon-like as English herself, at home wherever we land for our ability to wear costume appropriate to every situation.
Hemingway has quite betrayed himself in his response to Faulkner, cited above, when he suggests that “big emotions do not come from big words.” He has, indeed, denuded himself altogether. Hemingway wrote with an eye toward effect; he was ever the showman, too much in love with histrionics and bull-fighting to be anything else. Although his best work at times transcends this, his grossest limitation, nonetheless almost everywhere he sets his pen, he reveals himself as one who would manipulate his reader’s emotions. His kind of honor is in doing this without any of what he scornfully calls “tricks.” (He once accused Faulkner of employing just such “tricks”; it was one of the worst insults he could have leveled against his great rival.) Most forthrightly, in all honesty and manly candor, he wanted to disturb the souls of his readers. And it is most certainly true that “big words” are not necessary to this aim; it may well be true that they are often enough indeed detrimental to it. But one may still ask—nay, at this historical juncture, it is imperative that we begin to ask—if this is really the highest aim to which literature may aspire, to agitate the heart and to make the river of its readers’ souls the more turbid and torrential? Hemingway’s silence as regards the mind and the thoughts of the mind is telling—very telling indeed. For as much as big emotions can come of the simplest language, yet it may well be that the mind, without the “big words,” is crippled.
Orwell deserves full credit for setting the question of the relation of language and politics plainly before our eyes. It is a question of prime importance, and the literary soul must take it very seriously. But Orwell’s answer to that question is, to my mind, radically inadequate. It is an inadequacy which can be perceived, not only in the work of Orwell, but also in that of Hemingway, Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, and all contemporary or subsequent author-journalists. There is a parting of ways here, between the writer who is content to flatter, influence, or improve the public, to have his moment of fame, to be adored an hour in the limelight, and the writer who instead seeks higher heights than that. And when the writer who looks down on the mess of politics and the rabble of “events” meets the writer who thrives in them, here he must say, as Socrates to Callicles, “It is the love of the people in your heart, O Callicles, which stands against me.”
I will go so far as to claim that the great literary soul, at the root of the root of him, is never foremost actuated by love of the people.
ENGLISH is voracious. It is so due to its history, for it is the bastard child of a dozen parents, and so has never been constrained to trouble itself over certain kinds of purity. (There is good reason for the fact that there has never been an official association or college responsible for standardizing the English language, as there are and have been in so many other countries.) This grants to English a most marvelous resourcefulness, a wild and hybrid vigor, that no other tongue in the world may boast. English is mendacious and mercurial; she is wonderfully multifaceted; she is as at home in the basest as in in the noblest of expressions. She is musical and unmusical, as the need shall have it. She owns an ultra-fluent tongue, and speaks all the world’s languages to suit her need and her pleasure. And this nature of hers should be celebrated by all masters and lovers of the tongue, not suppressed and checked in some inexplicable, very un-English urge to stricture her violent vivacity or to curb her protean will.
No, I am very far from being convinced that the journalization of English has in any way exalted the qualities or tapped the hidden riches of our tongue. And I say—’tis shame it has not! For she has so much still to say, does this gorgeous shape-shifter and wide-famed daughter of Babble. And in closing, if I might be permitted to express a hope as to the future of our shared and modern tongue, then I would do so, even at the risk of offending certain delicate sensibilities, of which there are so many these days. If English nowadays has simply become too American, and must but must make herself “journalistic,” then I say, let it be, at least, in the spirit of that most boisterous and rambunctious journalist of them all, H. L. Mencken, who once wrote, with his characteristic cheer and high insouciance, “Thousands of excellent nouns, verbs and adjectives that have stood in every decent dictionary for years are still unfamiliar to ignoramuses, and I do not solicit their patronage.”
1. George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”.
2. Plato’s Phaedrus, one of the primary Platonic dialogues dedicated to rhetoric and to questions of style.
3. Leo Strauss’ Persecution and the Art of Writing, certainly one of the profoundest books written on the question of style in writing.
4. An interesting article on the rivalry between Faulkner and Hemingway.
5. Further information on the brilliant and irrepressible H.L. Mencken; and here one will find an article from The New Criterion which includes a section on Mencken. The New Criterion has published a number of articles on Mencken, all of them up to that journal’s usual standard, and all well worth the reading. The one cited here is however the most pertinent to the purposes of the present essay.