Double-plus good!

August 5, 2010

During my vacation, I am taking an intensive class in beginning Spanish, so I have the language-thing on my mind a lot.  George Orwell spend a lot of time thinking about language too, and his essay, Politics and the English Language is a milestone in the desconstruction of deliberate mis-communication.   Along with many other things from his magnum opus, 1984, the word, Newspeak, has entered our English lexicon as a term for politically motivated distortion of the language.

Newspeak was the language of Ingsoc, the ruling party in the society of 1984.  In a candid moment, its developers state that the purpose of the new language is to make it impossible to think independently.  Language is reduced to a mechanical tool to convey information, with shades of meaning rubbed out.  Not good, better, best, wonderful, etc, but good, plus-good, double-plus good, and triple-plus good.   The instrument of this linguistic assault on truth and independent thought was the Ingsoc dictionary of Newspeak.   Ingsoc lexicographers looked forward to a day when Oldspeak would be forgotten, and children would grow up with Newspeak, knowing, and thinking, nothing else.  The power of Ingsoc would then be unshakeable.

I believe that Orwell had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote this.  Can’t you imagine him gleefully writing an entire appendix to his novel, spinning out all his ideas to their logical and absurd conclusion?  We forget that there are elements of deep, deep black humor in 1984, and that it is in some respects a satire. 

Steven Pinker, a linguist who studies and writes about language, dissected this idea and dismissed it.  He argued that thought precedes language, at least much of the time.  As a consequence, there would be no way for Newspeak to prevent new languages and words from developing, which could, in turn become subersive and intellectually critical slang, jargon, argot, etc. etc.  Just get a few 1985 kids together, and they’ll start inventing new words, if only for insults!

[An interesting aside on this theme is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s often cited phrase that the mark of genius is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.   This is from his novel The Crackup.  Did he mean it, or was he being ironic?  I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know, but people often cite it as though he was being straight.  And then we have Orwell’s O’Brien, who says that you must accept that 2+ 2 = 5  if you are told to, and that, of course, freedom is slavery.  Were they all geniuses?]

Language is simply amazing.  It grows like mushrooms after a rain wherever there are people.  Be you an Einstein or Joe Schmoe, your ability to use and play with language is a given, and not at all related to your education and social accomplishments:  Education simply teaches you a specialized use of it.  Language grows up around us just as the younger generation does.  Language pedants are fighting a losing and foolish battle.  As Sancho remarked to Don Quixote,

Once or twice, if I remember correctly, I ‘ve asked your grace not to correct my words if you understand what I mean by them, and when you don’t undertand, to say, ‘ Sancho, you devil, I don’t understand you,’ and if I can’t explain, then you can correct me.

Hear ye, hear ye!

December 1, 2005

Yo! Listen up! May I have your attention, please! Language changes, this is an obvious fact. What was considered ‘correct’ or acceptable English generations ago may be considered wrong today, and vice versa. In fact, if you go back enough generations, the concept of “correct English” doesn’t even exist.

I’ve known this for a long time. I have also long been aware of the simple fact that “rules” of English serve the function of providing delineations of class & status groups, as well as providing tools to keep newcomers out. This functions in all directions. One dialect of English is as good as another, and proper, or correct use, is determined by the community of users. It is fluid. There is no “correct” English in the sense that one way of speaking is right, while the others are wrong.

So, why do I find it so hard to refrain from correcting my childrens’ grammar? Lingering language snobbism, conformity, and the desire to have them be well aware of what is considered standard, educated English in today’s world. After all, you never know when you might find yourself at tea with the Queen of England, and then you would certainly want to know that one says, “Jenny and I,” rather than “Me and Jenny.” But, my concerns are probably ill placed. Any child that is educated and grows up in an educated household can probably detect the surrounding language shibboleths in an instant, and adjust accordingly.

It’s all about socialization, wanting to feel comfortable. People want to speak like their friends and family, which is why local dialects persist in the face of the mass-media onslaught. If people want to fit in linguistically, they can without much effort, provided they have the background. Same thing goes for teaching kids how to eat with a knife and fork. If a middle-class kid with a college education wants to be perceived by his or her peers as such, he says, “…and I.” If he doesn’t give a damn, she says whatever she wants to. It’s really all about class/status recognition and class anxiety.

Buuuttt…I still grit my teeth when I read or hear constructions such as “Give a copy to Bill and I…” So obviously wrong! Give a copy to Bill, give a copy to me, give a copy to Bill and me! Simple. Well…as Steven Pinker points out in his discussion of this construction under his denunciation of “language mavens” in his book, The Language Instinct, one could perceive the construction “Bill and I” as a unit, in which case, the grammar makes sense. Maybe in twenty years this way of speaking will have become so common that it will be “standard.” Only a few cranks will rail against the decay of the language, insisting that it is plain wrong, even though everybody understands exactly what is meant by the phrase. And fifty years on, the controversy will be dead, only a subject for erudite statiric remarks about close-minded curmudgeons.