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It is fascinating that someone could predict so precisely what would be occurring sixty-four years in the future. In 1946, Orwell believed that the English language was in bad shape, and it soon became obvious that it was only the beginning (1). He foresaw that the degradation of language was self perpetuating and would continue to progress exponentially with increased levels of technology, and that the English language would evolve (devolve) into a nearly unrecognizable form mainly due to laziness and inattention (a theory in which he later wrote about in his book Nineteen Eighty-Four). In his essay, "Politics and the English Language," Orwell argued it was possible to correct all of this, but it would have to be an undertaking shared by all (1). It would not be easy, and it would require the majority of people to take the time to try. Unfortunately, his arguments were difficult for most people because they required actual thought and effort. As the years progressed, and technology increased giving rise to the World Wide Web, Orwell's arguments become useless. What he believed possible in the 1940's could never occur in the 2000's because of the advances that he did not predict. The outcome of these advances has been the ever-growing bastardization of the English language.
Orwell opened his argument with the fact that, although many people believed that our language was in decline in the 1940's, it was speculated that there was very little that could be done (1). Anyone struggling against the changing face of the English language was labeled as old fashioned, because the general belief was that "â€¦language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we can shape for our own purposes" (Orwell 1). Orwell believed that one of the main reasons the degradation was occurring, was also one of the ways in which the decline could be reversed. He knew that the negative influence on the language was not just the fault of bad writers; it was that "â€¦an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified formâ€¦" (Orwell 1). Essentially, improper (i.e. bad or bastardized) language is self-perpetuating. People hear a novel word or phrase, begin to repeat it, and eventually, through repetition, it becomes habit, and that word or phrase enters into common usage. Orwell knew this is and realized that it could be stopped, or even reversed, if people would take the time and effort. He felt that if people who had developed these bad habits could rid themselves of them, they would find that it would become easier to change and speak better English (Orwell 1).
Orwell provided five examples of learned people utilizing poor English. He noted that, they were classic examples of the current problems that were faced, but not the worst examples of improper English that he could have used (1). Orwell explained that the primary issues were three in number, "[t]he writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not" (1). We see examples of this, especially in political language. The third type is the most prevalent, as seen in former President Clinton's conclusion to his speech, in which he admitted to having a relationship with Miss. Lewinsky, "[a]nd so tonight, I ask you to turn away from the spectacle of the past seven months, to repair the fabric of our national discourse, and to return our attention to all the challenges and all the promise of the next American century" (cnn.com/allpolitics). In this example, it seems that the speaker does not care what his words are truly saying; they are simply intended to soothe and appease, rather than inform or assert a premise. As far as the second issue, that of inadvertently saying something other than the writer intended, that tends to occur when writers become lazy in their writing. Orwell uses the example of the metaphor, toe the line (2). You often see it misspelled today as; tow the line, which has an entirely different meaning. What Orwell is arguing here is that the majority of language problems arise due to laziness and inattention, because "[i]f you use ready-made phrases, you [â€¦] don't have to hunt for wordsâ€¦" (3). What he is saying is straightforward; people use phrases that have already been in use for a long time, so that they do not have to think of a new way to express their ideas. Similar issues arise when an author chooses to use extremely long words or foreign words in expressing ideas. The words may be misused due to insufficient attention to correct, exact meaning of the words, and proper usage of the word to convey the meaning intended. Normally these types of problems occur because someone does not want to take the time and effort to come up with something original, or conversely, they are purposely trying to obscure their meaning.
Orwell stated several times that he felt that the downward trend in our language was not only fixable, but reversible (4). He argued that point even while a great number more people opposed his theory. It was largely believed that nothing could be done because "â€¦language merely reflects existing social conditionsâ€¦" (Orwell 4). Orwell explained that the general consensus in the world was that the ongoing trend in language was natural and irrevocable. He believed that things could be done to correct the problems, and all it would take was for people to exert some effort to change their behavior. Orwell believed that "[w]hat is above all needed, is to let the meaning choose the wordâ€¦" (4). In other words, he promoted using words that accurately described what was being discussed. He knew that if people would be clear in what they were thinking, they would be clear in how they spoke or wrote. In an effort to help people become more clear, and to help simplify how they wrote, Orwell came up with six rules that could cover almost all instances in which someone might be tempted to use improper English. Orwell believed that it was impossible to change all that had been done to our language at one time. He knew that change would occur, starting with one person at a time and as one person complied, there would be a second, and a third. It would have taken years, but it would have been possible for people to speak correct English again.
As brilliant as he was, Orwell could not predict the effect of the worldwide internet. He foresaw many things in his life, and many were very accurate, but this one thing, that so many people today take for granted, he never foresaw. For hundreds of years, the changes in language occurred slowly. The reason for this was very simple, the population was smaller; mail only went so fast, radio was invented only a century ago, and television less than eighty years ago. Basically, change was a constant, but at a manageable level. The World Wide Web was created in 1992, but in 1993 a group of students from University of Illinois were working on a project that changed the world. They were utilizing computer code on the internet but "[l]ittle did they realize that their pet project, a modest application named Mosaic, would essentially change everyday life" (velocityguide.com). What they had invented was the world's first browser. Since that time, the internet has become (ignoring one of Orwell's rules) a snowball rolling down a hill that was millions of miles high. Now there existed the ability for people to talk to one another from anywhere in the world. There was instant communication in the form of electronic letters and immediate exchange of pictures. Sending videos was commonplace, and what all this did was allow for the spread of improper language to increase exponentially.
In the eighteen years since that event, language has changed more than Orwell ever dreamed. It started out small at first; there were a number of slang words that became popular. Those first few changes occurred mainly because the modified words were convenient: shorter, easier to type, and above all else, faster. However, it continued to grow; not only was this improper English limited to the internet, it started being used outside the net. People began conversing with these same improper English words. Then, the next explosion of technology occurred; the cell phone and texting took the morphing of language to the next level. Now the changes were occurring even faster, because people wanted to type their messages faster. What was, just a few years ago, dubbed as short-speak has changed again, and is now known as 1337 speak. Most people do not realize that "1337 speak origins from leet which origins from elite. Leet was just short for elite at that time. People consider being "l33t" is an internet way of being "cool"" (urbandictionary.com).
Orwell was right in 1946 when he stated that he believed that the degradation of English was reversible. However, he did not know that the same improper English words would be included in an online dictionary available for millions of people to read. These things are just (to break another Orwellian rule), the straws that broke the camel's back, and are leading to the latest bastardization of the English language. This in turn has earned, the English language the Bend Sinister.
23 February 2010
Clinton, Bill. "Clinton Admits To 'Wrong' Relationship With Lewinsky." CNN.com. Aug. 17, 1998. Web. 24 February 2010
Orwell, George. "Politics and the English Language." The New York Times.com. July 24, 2004. Class webpage. 24 February 2010
"First Graphical Web Browser." Velocity Guide.com Web. 24 February 2010
"The Urban Dictionary" urbandictionary.com. Web. 24 February 2010