The degradation of our language

The Commons in 1808

Over the years I have become increasingly weary of what I hear from our elected representatives, the media, and almost everybody on the television. The dull soundbites, the overused metaphors, the phony outrage and halo polishing; it is tedious enough at election time, but for those of us who keep an eye politics it’s mind-numbing.

We expect the slogans in election and referenda campaigns, but the phenomena of television, and, lately, social media, has had a demonstrably negative impact on the breadth and depth of language used in the public forum. Part of the problem is the democratisation of public debate. Social media has allowed anyone with a few bars of wi-fi to air their dirty laundry on the world wide web. Although one would expect that crow-barring open this part of society would sacrifice quality for quantity the fury of dull, unpoetic rhetoric is remarkable. Add to that the growing acceptance of expletives, no longer considered to foul the air, but to add a zingy, clever twist, the language which we see and hear in the public forum has decayed.

I’m sure readers will remember the “keep your cards close to your chest” metaphor used to justify Theresa May’s bargaining position. I actually like the metaphor because it aptly described her strategy and is easily understood. The great quality of simple metaphors is their ability to be digested by the multitude without too much discomfort. But I assure you, discomfort comes like an English train: with time. I found myself quietly fuming, in that distinctly British manner, by the overuse of this metaphor in the papers, news programmes and, of course, Question Time, the pulpit of political discourse. During the early talks with Brussels, panellists defending the government’s position would jostle in line to use the metaphor and audience members chimed with the dull echoes of unoriginal, boring language.

If, like me, you watch the national treasure which is David Dimbleby every week, you will know how frustratingly little is said by guest speakers and audience members. Week in, week out, at least a third of the programme is repeating the same issues with the same words and same arguments. It reflects a number of things.

First is the cynical but probably correct analysis by professional politicians and their aides that repetition of short, punchy, Anglo-Saxon words penetrates our minds more directly and more permanently than complex sentences derived from Latin or Norman words. Think of all the speeches you can, all the famous soundbites from history, and I guarantee the bulk of the phrasing is constituted of the beautifully simplistic language of our Teutonic ancestors. Churchill, Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Thatcher, Reagan, even Trump – famous speeches or one-liners are remembered because of their simplicity. Nobody understands, let alone remembers, words from the high priest of piffle, Michel Foucault.

Miliband at PMQs

The second, and related point, is the broadcasting of parliamentary business – whether that be the Commons or the committees. Reading over old debates in Hansard in the early twentieth century and beyond, you would be hard pressed to not come away with awe for the command of the English language which Members of Parliament possessed. The fluency, breadth, and manners of past debates is night and day compared to the twenty-first century. Part of that is down to the opportunity for self-advertisement which televised debates allow. Parties are on stage more than they were before, and, like actors, come prepared with scripts to appeal to their audience. However, this is over-egging the case as it largely Prime Minister’s Questions that encourages a superficial barrage of party-political propaganda. Less watched debates still draw out the kind of intellectual and reasoned debate we expect from our MPs. Regardless, the point stands that publicity has encouraged linguistic decay.

As ever, Orwell’s essays are a well of wisdom from which to draw, and on this topic of Politics and the English Language, he pre-empts my complaints. The following snippet is him mulling over these issues.

“As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract…prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases racked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen house.”

After hearing “strong and stable”, “for the many, not the few” shovelled into our eardrums, along with the countless party-lines around Brexit, Scottish independence, the 2015 election and beyond, I do feel Orwell’s criticism of his own time persists to a greater extent in our own. The “prefabricated” phrases reverberate through the country in a matter of minutes thanks to the internet. More than that, whereas Orwell was largely indicting prose, my ire is reserved for speech. Weekly, politicians grace our screens and, confronted with a tricky question, fall back on a “prefabricated” party line and repeat it endlessly until both the questioner and audience realise they’ve found a cure for insomnia.

The final point I will make is on laziness. The current generation no longer believes in reading, we’d rather zap our minds with fast moving electronic images, allowing our imaginative capacity to wane and the diversity of our childhood experiences to narrow to the global world of the web. An apparent paradox, it is nevertheless true that the internet is as confining as it is enabling to the exploration of ideas. As a result, we are more limited in the expression of our thoughts and yet more free than ever to voice them. The dumping ground that is social media seems to me the direct consequence of all three of the above factors.

Alas, I do not expect much to change as the hold social media has over our lives seems to move with all the unstoppable force of a glacier but at an alarmingly quicker pace. Broadcasting parliamentary business appears similarly immovable, although I am not sure I would want to get rid of it as openness in the political process is important. I just wish the negative impact on the English language was not so. The eclipse of the book as a consumer item has long been observed and in that I also see no glee. What then can we do then about the declining state of our language and ability to express ourselves? Better education? Awareness? I don’t actually know, answers on postcard please.

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