The consequences of language abuse

Warnings about the consequences of language abuse have been issued before. George Orwell in 1946 and George Steiner in 1959 lamented the way that language, co-opted and twisted to serve corporate, commercial, and political agendas, could lose its resiliency, utility, and beauty. Their arguments are still widely cited. Orwell, for instance, makes this claim:

[The English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits, one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. 

This description, like Orwell’s ominous vision of “newspeak” in 1984, may have an unsettling ring of familiarity. In a similar vein, but rather more bleakly, George Steiner reflects on what actually happened to the German language under the Third Reich:

The language was infected not only with….great bestialities. It was called upon to enforce innumerable falsehoods, to persuade the Germans that the war was just and everywhere victorious. As defeat closed in….the lines thickened to a constant snowdrift….

He goes on to comment,

Languages have great reserves of life. They can absorb masses of hysteria, illiteracy, and cheapness… But there comes a breaking point. Use a language to conceive, organize, and justify Belsen: use it to make our specifications for gas ovens; use it to dehumanize man during twelve years of calculated bestiality.  Something will happen to it…..Something of the lies and sadism will settle in the marrow of the language. Imperceptibly at first, like the poisons of radiation sifting silently into the bone. But the cancer will begin, and the deep-set destruction. The language will no longer grow and freshen. It will no longer perform, quite as well as it used to, its two principal functions: the conveyance of humane order which we call law, and the communication of the quick of the human spirit which we call grace. 

Steiner makes two other points worth mentioning about the consequences of language abuse: as usable words are lost, experience becomes cruder and less communicable. And with the loss of the subtlety, clarity, and reliability of language, we become more vulnerable to crude exercises of power. 

From “Caring for Words In A Culture of Lies” by Marilyn McEntyre