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Thoughts on a Language – Part 2: The Dead Hand of the Bureaucrats

December 17, 2011

In my last post, I published Anglo Saxon, a short story by Andrew Morton. I mentioned at the end of the post that there is something very unusual about his piece. One commenter thought that it was “…a beautifully, poetic story. I love the way the words flow, the mellifluous use of alliteration and the onomatopoeic words…”

I agree with her. What makes the piece unusual is that Andy wrote it to demonstrate the power of Old English. As he notes in his comment, there is only one word that derives from Latin or Greek roots, and that one slipped in by accident!

A few days ago I made a very short trip to the USA. These days, in order to travel to America on business or as a tourist, a British citizen has first to provide a large amount of information to the US Department of Homeland Security on a special area of its website. The process is called ETSA.

After spending many rapturous minutes filling out the online form and sending the princely sum of $14 by credit card for the privilege, I thought I would browse the other areas of the Homeland Security site.

Anyone who has had reason to visit websites of local and national governments in the English-speaking world will be familiar with the mangled, sanctimonious phrases beloved of civil servants. We read them expecting little else, despite the efforts of Plain English campaigns in recent years. But the Homeland Security website ranks pretty high in the fog count.

Reading its verbiage made me long for simpler ways of expression, and I thought of Andrew’s story. There could hardly be a greater contrast between this excerpt from Anglo Saxon and the paragraph from The Homeland Security website that follows it:

“Fifty yards out, at low tide, stumps of trees reared like rotten teeth. Five hundred years ago, the bells of Ingoldby rang among these ruined trees. Children played and farmers came to trade their wares. Folk said you could sometimes hear the bells calling forgotten flocks to church. He would wade out among the tar-black trunks, stick in hand and bag over shoulder. Taking off his boots, he strode through sea’s brim, filthy with mud and salt stew. Gold grit turned to mud beneath his feet and here he knew that he would find some little dab, flounder, or, if he were lucky, red-spotted plaice. The skill was to feel with your feet until a fish were found then spear him with your stick. Old knowledge taught doggedness in this work.”

And now the bureaucrats:

“The National Intellectual Property Rights Coordination Center (IPR Center) stands at the forefront of the U.S. government’sresponse to global intellectual property (IP) theft. As a task force, the IPR Center uses the expertise of its member agencies to share information, develop initiatives,coordinate enforcement actions, and conduct investigations related to IP theft. Through this strategic interagency partnership, the IPR Centerprotects the publics health and safety, the U.S. economy and the war fighters.”

In the last piece 29 of the 80 words in the paragraph – as italicised – have roots in Latin or Greek.

Yes, I know they are two totally different pieces of language with very different purposes. But this is an extreme example of the influence of those languages – or rather those parts that survived into the Christian Era – on the English language.

The literature of the classical world is as much a treasure as the great works of the English language – Homer, Euripides, Virgil and Ovid, when spoken in the original, have power and beauty. Many poetic phrases have turned into equally memorable English phrases – Homer’s “wine-dark sea” for example.

But the Greek and Latin words that have made it into Modern English have been those that survived in the tongues of the old western Roman territories – descendants of Latin now known as the Romance Languages. Norman French, the tongue imported by William the Conqueror in 1066, was one of them.

As the West started to re-discover classical literature in the Middle Ages, the scholarly and bureaucratic elite started re-introducing the “long words” of the ancient Roman elite into our language. Scientists used Latin words to define species of fauna and flora, lawyers to express legal principles. That process continues today, sometimes with the creation of hybrids from Latin and Greek, such as “television”.

But often enough, the polysyllabic verbiage of the elite has served as a means of confusing, confounding and frustrating speakers of English who do not have the education to understand them.

This is not to say that English would be a better language if it had stopped developing in 1066. Words from Greece, Rome, India and the Arab world have enriched my mother tongue. In the hands of great writers, the melange of influences has produced wondrous prose and poetry.

Consider, for example, this passage from Shakespeare’s Macbeth – again I have italicised the words that come from Latin and Greek:

Is this a dagger which I see before me,

“The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee.

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still.

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible

To feeling as to sight? or art thou but

A dagger of the mind, a false creation,

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?

I see thee yet, in form as palpable

As this which now I draw.

Thou marshall’st me the way that I was going;

And such an instrument I was to use.

Mine eyes are made the fools o’ the other senses,

Or else worth all the rest; I see thee still,

And on thy blade and dudgeon gouts of blood,

Which was not so before. There’s no such thing:

It is the bloody business which informs

Thus to mine eyes. Now o’er the one halfworld

Nature seems dead, and wicked dreams abuse

The curtain’d sleep; witchcraft celebrates

Pale Hecate’s offerings, and wither’d murder,

Alarum’d by his sentinel, the wolf,

Whose howl’s his watch, thus with his stealthy pace.

With Tarquin’s ravishing strides, towards his design

Moves like a ghost. Thou sure and firm-set earth,

Hear not my steps, which way they walk, for fear

Thy very stones prate of my whereabout,

And take the present horror from the time,

Which now suits with it. Whiles I threat, he lives:

Words to the heat of deeds too cold breath gives.”

And Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

When it comes to those who govern us, few match up to Abraham Lincoln’s powers of expression, although Barack Obama has had his moments. But by and large, in the written word we still suffer under the dead hand of Department of Homeland Security wordsmiths and their like. Generations of native English speakers seem to have convinced themselves that a piece of English writing lacks gravitas unless it takes the form of a stream of loosely connected polysyllabic phrases.

This is not a literary essay. I am not a linguist, nor an academic of any sort. I have written these two posts because I love my mother tongue, and I fear for its future as a means of expression.

I spend much time in the Middle East. Wherever I go, I am able to communicate with people in my tongue. But if English continues in its role as the international second language, and if teachers never encourage non-native students to explore beyond its obvious uses – sufficient to do business, to transact and to survive in a foreign land – native speakers might also come to forget what a rich inheritance they have. We may all end up speaking either business and technical English – the language of airports, politics, government websites, shopping malls and user guides – or street English that is only a notch or two up from the language of SMS and Twitter.

A slight exaggeration perhaps. But it seems to me that the more English is spoken, read and published across the world, the less it is enjoyed at leisure. In other words, for most of us it is becoming a utility.

I am as capable of producing strangled language as anyone else. So for me, Andrew’s story serves as a reminder that we do not need to clog up our communications with verbal complexity, just as water lilies are slowly draining the life out of the great lakes of Africa. It reminds me that English at its best is a simple language.

  1. For one reason and another I haven’t come back to this two-part post of yours. You are so right about the impression that stringing polysyllabic verbiage together suggests a more enlightened mind. It reminds me of an expression we had in school, which we used to tease anyone who insisted on using newly learnt pompous-sounding words: “You are intoxicated by the exuberance of your own verbosity”. That usually shut them up. I now know what those kids did when they grew up – they became civil servants adept at obfuscation.

    • Yes, but there is always hope, at the risk of sounding smug. My father was a lawyer, and he wrote without punctuation, as lawyers tended to do in those days. Long, dense paragraphs, not much different from his monologues over Sunday lunch. I was clearly influenced by his style, because one school report (when I was 12) described me as pompous. So my language was also pretty polysyllable-rich until I started writing as part of my first job in Saudi Arabia. Then a hard-bitten old American engineer pointed me towards Gunning’s Fog Index, and lent me a book produced by an US government environmental agency – I can’t remember what it was called I’m afraid – which was a diatribe against bureaucratic bullshit. I saw the light. I can’t say I fully reformed, but I still run most things I write through the Microsoft readability utility – Flesch Kincaid et al. And I still like the sound of my own voice!!!

      • After a certain age, I think we all do – like the sound of our own voices, I mean. I am dreadfully guilty of what I sometimes think of as “motor-mouth” syndrome. I have to learn, sometimes to let the little things pass, or as they say today, ‘don’t sweat the small stuff’. Insha Allah, soon.

  2. Andrew Morton permalink

    Wittegnestein once defined philosophy as a” struggle against the enchantment of language” or something to that effect. It seems to me that your bureaucrats have totally succumbed to this enchantment, believing in some way that the words they use create a reality which conforms to their own fantasies. Sane people constantly test the validity of the language they are using against common sense reality but many who should know better, particularly in the political and business spheres, use language to dominate and distort whatever is clearly the case in the world about us.

    Steve quotes Shakepeare in his post and The Bard was clearly right on top of the question of language abuse. I’m just reading “Love’s Labours Lost” in the excellent new RSC edition (I highly recommend this). It’s perhaps one of the lesser known plays, mainly because little happens apart from frightful Shakespeareain jokes, but any speech by Don Armado or Holofernes picked at random will show an incisive critique of various kinds of language pretensions current in Shakespeare’s day.

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