Sunday, February 12, 2006

"Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic..."

Two good articles in yesterday's Guardian address issues of politics and English Language. In the first, Ian Samson takes issue with language-god David Crystal's claim in his new book, How Language Works, that "language change is inevitable, continuous, universal and multidirectional. Languages do not get better or worse when they change. They just - change."

Citing the rise of nazism as a counter-argument, and quoting Jewish writer Victor Klemperer, he argues that languages can get worse: they can in fact "coarsen" to the point where groups of people can be labelled, subjugated and slaughtered because words have convinced the general population that genocide is a necessary and justified action.

There's no doubting that we can abuse language in this way, but it all seems a bit dramatic to invoke the atrocities of the holocaust in an attempt to attack descriptivist linguistics. Have a read and make up your own minds...

In the second article, Alistair Campbell - Tony Blair's sultan of spin - lays into a book on the language of politics, Unspeak by Stephen Poole, arguing that it glibly criticises politicians' language use and provides no sensible alternatives of its own. It's a decent article, if only for the ironic spectacle of Campbell - a master of weasel words - savaging an opponent for being economical with the truth. But then, that's exactly the kind of wooly-minded lefty outlook that Campbell loves to attack.

Elsewhere, in a Times article from a couple of weeks ago, Vaclav Havel's play The Memorandum is discussed and its focus on politcal language explored. As the reviewer explains:

Set in an anonymous communist-era office, the play follows the torments of the managing director, Josef Gross (played by Gerry Mulgrew), as he tries to get to grips with a new language, introduced in an effort to bring order to workplace communications.

Known as Ptydepe — pronounced in Stevenson’s production as “pet-id-ipy” — the language has been mathematically constructed to avoid sound-alike words, thereby ensuring maximum precision.

Free from ambiguity though it is, Ptydepe is also impossible to learn. That doesn’t stop its zealous advocates snatching power from Gross and forcing the gobbledygook onto their colleagues.

All three articles provide good subject matter for topics around language change and attitudes to it, or language and representation, so happy reading...

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
ENA5 - Language Change

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