Wednesday, January 22, 2014

George Orwell on the English Language

In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell famously derides writers of modern English prose for their alleged bad habits. Words with Greek and Latin roots come under heavy fire. At best they are pretentious, Orwell argues, and at worst complicit with vagueness, propaganda, and the euphemisms of war: "Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics...".   

Orwell admired the apparent simplicity in the Saxon vernacular, as compared to the more abstract concepts smuggled into English by Greek and Latinate imports. Where the Saxons "ask" the Latins "inquire"; when "help" is wanted, the Latins "assist"; when Saxons "build" and "speak," Latins "construct" and "converse"; "old" things "rot" for the Saxons; in the Roman world, "ancient" things would "putrefy." To Orwell's mind, brevity, precision and sincerity were not only necessary for good prose style, but the essence of clear thinking.

Despite Orwell's distaste for Latinate polysyllables and foreign hand-me-downs, English speakers have generated thousands of new words and phrases by drawing on root words and borrowed terms from different languages. The roots "duc/duct" (meaning "to lead" or "to pull"), for example, have given us: produce, abduct, product, transducer, viaduct, aqueduct, induct, deduct, reduce, induce. A common pairing like "Man/manu" (signifying "hand," "make") generates a similar list of useful words: manual, manage, manufacture, manacle, manicure, manifest, maneuver, emancipate, management (see Resources).

The addition of thousands of such roots, borrowed words, neologisms, and foreign phrases has simultaneously deepened but encumbered a lexicon with well over half a million words in circulation.


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