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Tag: German

Myles & More: April Fool’s Day

Monday, 1 April, 2019

The great Brian O’Nolan, aka Flann O’Brien, spent much of his life creating surreal humour and it was in keeping with his wry world view that he died on April Fool’s Day. “Evil is even, truth is an odd number and death is a full stop,” he said, wryly.

Along with novels and plays, he wrote a weekly column for The Irish Times titled “Cruiskeen Lawn” (from the Irish crúiscín lán, “full/brimming small-jug”) using the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen (“Myles of the Little Horses”). As a columnist, he deployed a mix of Irish and English, with occasional splashes of Latin, French and German, to pour scorn upon four major targets: the Dublin literary elite, the government of the day, the “Plain People of Ireland” and Gaelic language revivalists. The following Cruiskeen Lawn snippet is topical in that it makes reference to Germany, the Chancellor of which country will visit Dublin on Thursday.

Curse it, my mind races back to my Heidelberg days. Sonya and Lili. And Magda. And Ernst Schmutz, Georg Geier, Theodor Winkleman, Efrem Zimbalist, Otto Grün. And the accordion player Kurt Schachmann. And Doktor Oreille, descendant of Irish princes. Ich hab’ mein Herz / in Heidelberg verloren / in einer lauen / Sommernacht / Ich war verliebt / bis über beide / Ohren / und wie ein Röslein / hatt’ / Ihr Mund gelächt or something humpty tumpty tumpty tumpty tumpty mein Herz it schlägt am Neckarstrand.

A very beautiful student melody. Beer and music and midnight swims in the Neckar. Chats in erse with Kun O’Meyer and John Marquess… Alas, those chimes. Und als wir nahmen / Abschied vor den Toren / beim letzten Küss, da hab’ Ich Klar erkannt / dass Ich mein Herz / in Heidelberg verloren / MEIN HERZ / es schlägt am Neck-ar-strand! Tumpty tumpty tum.

  • The Plain People of Ireland: Isn’t the German very like the Irish? Very guttural and so on?
    Myself: Yes.
  • The Plain People of Ireland: People say that the German language and the Irish language is very guttural tongues.
    Myself: Yes.
  • The Plain People of Ireland: The sounds is all guttural do you understand.
    Myself. Yes.
  • The Plain People of Ireland: Very guttural languages the pair of them the Gaelic and the German.
    Myself. Yes.

Tumpty tumpty tum.


George Orwell: “Politics and the English Language”

Wednesday, 9 May, 2018 0 Comments

If Rainy Day has a manifesto, it is the great essay “Politics and the English Language”, which George Orwell wrote in 1946. The English language and politics are at the heart of this blog and while we cannot hope to match Orwell in any way, he is our style guide, mentor and patron saint. To celebrate the Rainy Day birthday, the essay has been embellished with some tastefully-chosen images.

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Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

George Orwell Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It 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. I will come back to this presently, and I hope that by that time the meaning of what I have said here will have become clearer. Meanwhile, here are five specimens of the English language as it is now habitually written.

These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad — I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen — but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative examples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:

1. I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien [sic] to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate. Professor Harold Laski (Essay in Freedom of Expression)

2. Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder. Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossa)

3. On the one side we have the free personality: by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity? Essay on psychology in Politics (New York)

4. All the “best people” from the gentlemen’s clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis. Communist pamphlet

5. If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is one thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is the humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will bespeak canker and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may be sound and of strong beat, for instance, but the British lion’s roar at present is like that of Bottom in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream — as gentle as any sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as “standard English.” When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o’clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated, inhibited, school-ma’amish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens! Letter in Tribune

Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The 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. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse. I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose construction is habitually dodged.

Dying metaphors. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. axe Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles’ heel, swan song, hotbed. Many of these are used without knowledge of their meaning (what is a “rift,” for instance?), and incompatible metaphors are frequently mixed, a sure sign that the writer is not interested in what he is saying. Some metaphors now current have been twisted out of their original meaning without those who use them even being aware of the fact. For example, toe the line is sometimes written as tow the line. Another example is the hammer and the anvil, now always used with the implication that the anvil gets the worst of it. In real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way about: a writer who stopped to think what he was saying would avoid perverting the original phrase.

Operators or verbal false limbs. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un– formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved by anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.

Pretentious diction. Words like phenomenon, element, individual (as noun), objective, categorical, effective, virtual, basic, primary, promote, constitute, exhibit, exploit, utilize, eliminate, liquidate, are used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements. Adjectives like epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant, age-old, inevitable, inexorable, veritable, are used to dignify the sordid process of international politics, while writing that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic color, its characteristic words being: realm, throne, chariot, mailed fist, trident, sword, shield, buckler, banner, jackboot, clarion. Foreign words and expressions such as cul de sac, ancien regime, deus ex machina, mutatis mutandis, status quo, gleichschaltung, weltanschauung, are used to give an air of culture and elegance. Except for the useful abbreviations i.e., e.g., and etc., there is no real need for any of the hundreds of foreign phrases now current in the English language. Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers.

Karl Marx Marxist writing. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.

Meaningless words. In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning. Words like romantic, plastic, values, human, dead, sentimental, natural, vitality, as used in art criticism, are strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader. When one critic writes, “The outstanding feature of Mr. X’s work is its living quality,” while another writes, “The immediately striking thing about Mr. X’s work is its peculiar deadness,” the reader accepts this as a simple difference of opinion. If words like black and white were involved, instead of the jargon words dead and living, he would see at once that language was being used in an improper way. Many political words are similarly abused. The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. Exhibit (3) above, for instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations — race, battle, bread — dissolve into the vague phrases “success or failure in competitive activities.” This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing — no one capable of using phrases like “objective considerations of contemporary phenomena” — would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (“time and chance”) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.

boot As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. Professor Laski (1) uses five negatives in fifty three words. One of these is superfluous, making nonsense of the whole passage, and in addition there is the slip — alien for akin — making further nonsense, and several avoidable pieces of clumsiness which increase the general vagueness. Professor Hogben (2) plays ducks and drakes with a battery which is able to write prescriptions, and, while disapproving of the everyday phrase put up with, is unwilling to look egregious up in the dictionary and see what it means; (3), if one takes an uncharitable attitude towards it, is simply meaningless: probably one could work out its intended meaning by reading the whole of the article in which it occurs. In (4), the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink. In (5), words and meaning have almost parted company. People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning — they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another — but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

gulag

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one’s elbow. Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against. By this morning’s post I have received a pamphlet dealing with conditions in Germany. The author tells me that he “felt impelled” to write it. I open it at random, and here is almost the first sentence I see: “[The Allies] have an opportunity not only of achieving a radical transformation of Germany’s social and political structure in such a way as to avoid a nationalistic reaction in Germany itself, but at the same time of laying the foundations of a co-operative and unified Europe.” You see, he “feels impelled” to write — feels, presumably, that he has something new to say — and yet his words, like cavalry horses answering the bugle, group themselves automatically into the familiar dreary pattern. This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.

I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and constructions. stones So far as the general tone or spirit of a language goes, this may be true, but it is not true in detail. Silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists. There is a long list of flyblown metaphors which could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job; and it should also be possible to laugh the not un– formation out of existence, to reduce the amount of Latin and Greek in the average sentence, to drive out foreign phrases and strayed scientific words, and, in general, to make pretentiousness unfashionable. But all these are minor points. The defense of the English language implies more than this, and perhaps it is best to start by saying what it does not imply.

To begin with it has nothing to do with archaism, with the salvaging of obsolete words and turns of speech, or with the setting up of a “standard English” which must never be departed from. On the contrary, it is especially concerned with the scrapping of every word or idiom which has outworn its usefulness. It has nothing to do with correct grammar and syntax, which are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear, or with the avoidance of Americanisms, or with having what is called a “good prose style.” On the other hand, it is not concerned with fake simplicity and the attempt to make written English colloquial. Nor does it even imply in every case preferring the Saxon word to the Latin one, though it does imply using the fewest and shortest words that will cover one’s meaning. What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them. When you think of a concrete object, you think wordlessly, and then, if you want to describe the thing you have been visualizing you probably hunt about until you find the exact words that seem to fit it. When you think of something abstract you are more inclined to use words from the start, and unless you make a conscious effort to prevent it, the existing dialect will come rushing in and do the job for you, at the expense of blurring or even changing your meaning. Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person. This last effort of the mind cuts out all stale or mixed images, all prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions, and humbug and vagueness generally. But one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article.

I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought. Stuart Chase and others have come near to claiming that all abstract words are meaningless, and have used this as a pretext for advocating a kind of political quietism. Since you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism? One need not swallow such absurdities as this, but one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. dustbin If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin, where it belongs.


Insh-AI: WOTF on Ash Wednesday

Wednesday, 14 February, 2018 0 Comments

Back in November last year, Wired ran an article titled Inside The First Church of Artificial Intelligence. The writer, Mark Harris, introduced readers to Anthony Levandowski, the “unlikely prophet” of a new religion of artificial intelligence called Way of the Future (WOTF). Levandowski’s church, we learn, will focus on “the realization, acceptance, and worship of a Godhead based on Artificial Intelligence (AI) developed through computer hardware and software.”

Last Sunday in the Sunday Times, Niall Ferguson, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, asked “Shall we begin to worship the machines — to propitiate them with prayers, or even sacrifices?” And, provocatively proposed: “Perhaps we shall need to devise an AI equivalent of “Inshallah” — Insh-AI, perhaps.” Ferguson’s syndicated column has the oddly banal title, The machines ate my homework, but it offers food for serious thought, especially today, Ash Wednesday. Ashes to ashes AI, he says, is all about “getting computers to think like a species that had evolved brains much bigger than humans — in other words, not like humans at all.” One consequence of this might be to “return humanity to the old world of mystery and magic. As machine learning steadily replaces human judgment, we shall find ourselves as baffled by events as our pre-modern forefathers were.”

What will become of us then? Will we, in despair, in hope, follow WOFT? Ferguson quotes the German sociologist Max Weber who argued that modernity replaced mystery with rationalism and as a result people “said goodbye to magic and entered an ‘iron cage’ of rationality and bureaucracy.” If AI leads to a re-mystification of the world and a revival of magical thinking, Ferguson knows what he’s going to do: “I’m staying put in Weber’s iron cage,” he says.

But you can’t put ashes on an AI and not everyone aspires to being caged.


New Year’s reading: CRISPR

Wednesday, 3 January, 2018 0 Comments

We’re devoting time this week to the books that were the presents of Christmas past. On Monday, it was The Best of A.A. Gill, a gift from Noel Donnelly, yesterday it was Five Escape Brexit Island, put in the Rainy Day Xmas stocking by Ian McMaster, and today it’s Change Agent by Daniel Suarez, a gift to this blogger from himself.

At the end of March last year, The Hollywood Reporter posted an “Exclusive” story titled “Netflix Options Upcoming Sci-Fi Novel ‘Change Agent’.” So, before the publisher had stocked up on ink to print the novel, its author was laughing all the way to bank. Nice one! What’s all the excitement about, then? Well, Change Agent is thriller about genetic engineering that combines CRISPR with non-stop action in Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar. At the centre of the story is Kenneth Durand, an Interpol agent who’s given the face and body of a scary villain, thanks to some deft in vivo gene editing that threatens to eliminate the very notion of individual identity. In telling the yarn, Suarez creates a near-future world of cryptocurrencies, drones, surveillance, AR glasses, trade and terror. Snippet:

Early evening and Durand sat in the conditioned air of a private autonomous comcar as it merged into the close coordination of rush hour. His daughter’s wrapped birthday gift sat on the seat beside him. He leaned back and felt the stress of the day leave him.

In the distance he could see the glowing logos of synbio firms on the Singapore skyline. Licensed AR video ads played across the surfaces of several skyscrapers — although they were really only being beamed into Durand’s retinas by his own LFP glasses. The contract for his LFP glasses required exposure to specific layers of public advertising. At least he’d opted out of the low-end ads, but opting out of all AR advertising was prohibitively expensive.

Just the same, Durand frowned at the shoddy data management employed by the advertisers. He was clearly not in the target demographic for an ad gliding across the neighboring buildings, alive with images of Jedis, Starfleet officers, and steampunk characters: “Singapore’s premier Star Wars, Star Trek, and steampunk cosliving communities…”

Cossetted young professionals at the big synbio firms were a more likely demo for their product — single people with a couple million to blow on living in a theme park.

But by then the ad had shifted to CRISPR Critters. Gigantic, adorable neotenic cats cavorted from building to building, pursuing a virtual ball of yarn.

Durand decided to close his eyes.

He clicked off and followed other commuters down a narrow lane between old brick buildings. This MRT crowd skewed young — twenties and early thirties. Lots of expats. Well dressed and all talking to people who weren’t there. Snatches of conversation floated past him in Hokkien, Mandarin, Malay, Tamil, English, Russian, Swahili, German, Korean — and more he didn’t recognize. They’d no doubt come to Singapore to make their killing. To work threads in a blockchain corporation or license their own cellular machinery. XNA programmers. Genetic engineers. Entrepreneurs. And they all had to have impressive CVs to get a work visa in the city.

Change Agent


The map is not the language

Tuesday, 21 November, 2017 0 Comments

In this particular case, Fummy, the mapmaker, says: “The map is not most difficult language for an English speaker to learn in Europe. Just most difficult language for an English speaker to learn (Europe) its a zoomed in section of a larger map that I didn’t have the time to make.”

Note: The Foreign Service Institute is the United States government’s primary training institution for employees of the foreign affairs community.

FSI

The MapPorn discussion of Fummy’s map on reddit is entertaining, informative and, at times, very reddit:

Cabes86: “Dude I’ve been doing a mixture of Rosetta Stone and DuoLingo since May in Brazilian Portuguese and I’m basically done with both. All you need to do is about 10-20 minutes a day”

TerrMys: “I actually found French grammar a bit less challenging than Italian and especially Spanish, at least when you get to more advanced levels. The fact that French uses the subjunctive much more sparingly is one big reason why. In spoken French, all of the homophonic verb forms lessen the cognitive burden somewhat too IMO. The most challenging aspects of French compared to the other Romance languages I think are 1) the larger phonetic inventory and 2) the much more complex relationship between spelling and pronunciation. That said, compared to English, French orthography is incredibly regular. Just takes a little while to learn.”

meusnomenestiesus: “Oy mate no a feckin’ shade o’ Gaelic, Scots, nor Welsh they some sorta language ain’t no one can learn eh? Edit: nor Breton nor Basque, eh? Bollocks”


The Deutschmark and the Diesel

Thursday, 3 August, 2017 0 Comments

Until it was replaced by the euro in 2002, the D-Mark (Deutsche Mark) was one of the world’s most stable currencies. In its short but eventful 54-year history, it was the official currency of West Germany and later the unified Germany. And then it was gone.

Is this the destiny of diesel? German. Stable. Gone.

Deutsche Mark Sure, history will note that Rudolf Diesel’s invention had a longer run. He filed a patent for an “internal-combustion engine” in 1895 in the US but it’s a safe bet that it is headed for the same fate as the D-Mark. Going, going…

Along with diesel fumes, fear was in the air yesterday in Berlin when German car executives and political leaders met to rescue Rudolf Diesel’s legacy. Their over-hyped meeting — dramatically described as a “diesel summit” — resulted in a plan to update the software in five million cars to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxides, the diesel by-product most harmful to human health. But it’s too little, too late. There’s a crisis of confidence in Germany’s most important industry. Volkswagen, Daimler and BMW are facing growing public anger at home and abroad for downplaying the health effects of diesel fumes and, in some cases, misleading customers about how much nitrogen oxides their cars produce.

The impact of all this on Germany cannot be overstated because vehicles are its single most important export product. They are also the most visible symbol of German engineering. Those arrays of BMWs, Mercedes-Benzes and Porsches are a source of national pride and (like the D-Mark once) a vital part of post-war German self-image. News that Volkswagen agreed to pay more than $22 billion in the United States in fines after admitting that it had programmed diesel cars to cheat on emissions tests rattled the country, and recent reports that Volkswagen, BMW and Daimler may have secretly agreed to cut corners on emissions hardware has created a feeling of betrayal.

France and Britain want to end the sale of diesel cars. Athens and Madrid are banning them entirely, but Germany is hanging on for dear life to its preferred fuel. It’s a risky strategy because hansom cab drivers didn’t see the automobile coming and the makers of the internal combustion engine might not hear the approaching electric car.

Tomorrow, here: Tesla moves up a gear.


In Flanders Fields

Friday, 11 November, 2016 0 Comments

During the Second Battle of Ypres, a young Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed on 2 May 1915 by a German artillery shell that landed near his position. The Canadian military doctor and artillery commander Major John McCrae conducted the burial service and it is believed that he began to write the poem In Flanders Fields later that evening.

poppy Remembrance Day is observed on 11 November in many countries to recall the end of hostilities of World War I on that date in 1918. Fighting formally ended “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month”. Inspired by Major McCrae’s poem, the custom of wearing a remembrance poppy at the “eleventh hour” to commemorate military personnel who have died in all wars began. It continues to this day.

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Major John McCrae (1872 – 1918)

Losses during the Second Battle of Ypres are estimated at 69,000 Allied troops, against 35,000 German, the difference in numbers being explained by the Germans’ innovative use of chlorine gas.


Glossolalia: Euro English

Wednesday, 18 May, 2016 2 Comments

It’s the week of Pentecost, which is associated (Biblically) with “speaking in tongues,” a phenomenon linguists call glossolalia. So, in honour of all things philological, we’re devoting this week’s posts to language. We began with Singlish, followed up with Valley vocabulary and we’re continuing with Euro English.

On Saturday night in Stockholm, 18-year-old Jamie-Lee Kriewitz became a footnote in the history of the Eurovision Song Contest by achieving last place for Germany with Ghost. This indignity has prompted Die Gesellschaft für deutsche Sprache (the Association for the German Language) to demand that Germany be represented next year in Kiev by a song in German. Making the case, the association’s managing director, Andrea Ewels, said that the Eurovision Song Contest does not reflect the linguistic diversity of Europe and that there are lots of fine German singers of German songs.

Note: The last year a German-language song represented the country was 2007, when the late Roger Cicero sang Frauen regier’n die Welt. It ended up in 19th place from a list of 24 entries. Germany last won in 2010, when Lena sang Satellite, in English.

Only three of the 42 entries in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest were not in English. Back in 1956, when the event began, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), which runs the contest, didn’t specify which language singers could use as it was expected that each nation would use its own. And everyone did until 1965, when Ingvar Wixell represented Sweden with Absent Friend. France protested. Charles de Gaulle, the French President, who had vetoed Britain’s application for EEC membership in 1963, argued that English “hegemony” would damage the cultural variety of the contest and the EBU was forced to stipulate that each country’s entry to be in an official language of that land.

The turbulent Swedes struck back in 1973 and persuaded the EBU to drop the “official language” rule, which resulted in a run of English-language winners, including ABBA’s Waterloo in 1974. The Élysée Palace was not pleased and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing used his power to compel the EBU to restore the language restriction in 1978 and it remained in place until 1999. Since then, only one non-English song has won the contest: Serbia’s Molitva in 2006. To show how far the wheel has turned, the French and Italian entrants this year had choruses in English and the Spanish song was totalmente in English.

In Paris, Rome, Madrid and Moscow, the reality that English is the language of global music has finally sunk in. International audiences want to listen to songs they can understand and they’re used to hearing songs in English, not in Russian or Ukrainian.

With an audience of some 200 million, the Eurovision Song Contest is the goose that lays golden eggs annually for the EBU. It’s now the most-watched non-sports live television event in the world, and Asia and America are knocking on the door. The idea that participating countries would compete with songs that cannot win, to satisfy a linguistic policy, is ludicrous. It’s an international song contest, sung increasingly in the language of popular culture. Competing nations are not being made to sing in English; they want to because they know the fate of songs that are not in English.

The Eurovision Song Contest is a success and its linguistic issue has been settled, but the debate about the role of English in Europe is far from sorted. On Thursday, 23 June, a referendum will be held on whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union. If “Brexit” were to happen, the 450 million citizens of the EU would find themselves using a lingua franca spoken officially only in the Republic of Ireland (population 4.6 million) and co-officially in Malta (population 450,000). How will this affect Euro English? More on this during our Brexit week in June.


Very late in the evening in Bern

Wednesday, 23 April, 2014 0 Comments

In Bern, the capital of Switzerland, the official language is the Swiss variation of Standard German, but the lingua franca is a dialect called Berndeutsch (Bernese German), and it’s tricky. Here, for example, is a Standard German sentence: “Als ich hereinkam, hatten sie bereits gegessen.” (English: “By the time I came in, they had already eaten.”) And here’s the Berndeutsch version: “Won i bi inecho, hei si scho ggässe gha.” Q.E.D.

If you’re interested, My Bärndütschi Syte offers a comprehensive introduction to the dialect, and includes a very useful dictionary and a grammar.


Journalist of the day: Vera Brittain

Wednesday, 9 April, 2014 0 Comments

To understand the pacifism of Vera Brittain it is imperative to know that her brother Edward, her fiancé Roland Leighton, and her two dearest friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow, were all killed during World War I. Thirty years later, she was vilified for speaking out against the saturation bombing of German cities during World War II, Vera Brittain but her position was seen in a different light when, in 1945, the Nazis’ Sonderfahndungsliste G.B. (Special Search List G.B) of 2,820 people to be immediately arrested in Britain after a German invasion was shown to include her name.

9 April 1942: “At tea-time went to Mayfair Hotel to see demonstration of ‘Liberty cut’ sponsored by the Ministry of Health as an anti-typhus measure. New line of country for me; place crowded with hairdressers; representatives of the Press (mostly hard-working women plainly dressed), and fashionable ladies in mink coats looking as if they’d never heard of the war. Several leading hairdressers talked on the importance of shorter hair for women in present crisis. Demonstrations of ‘Liberty cut’ on different girls followed, including a showing of the ‘cut’ itself. The number of men present interested me; it showed how much money there is to be made out of women’s hair.” Vera Brittain (1893 — 1970)

Tomorrow, here, Mme. de Gaulle mispronounces “happiness” and Kenneth Williams gleefully pounces upon the double entendre.


Giovanni Trapattoni kicks off our Italian week

Monday, 18 February, 2013 0 Comments

Italy is very much in the news these days. For instance, there’s a critical general election next weekend and that will be followed by the papal conclave in Rome as a result of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. True to form, these major events have been preceded by the arrest of the former head of the country’s third largest bank for alleged fraud and bribery, and the arrest of the chairman of the air defense group Finmeccanica over his alleged involvement in a corruption scandal.

Life goes on, however, and that symbol of a kinder, gentler Italy, Giovanni Trapattoni, will today preside over the opening a new shopping mall in Munich. Trap, as fans call him, managed local team Bayern Munich for two seasons and he remains very popular in the Bavarian capital because of his style, charm and cryptic use of German. The expression “Ich habe fertig!” (“I’m done!”) is a legendary Trapattonism that owes its linguistic fame to his usage of the verb habe (have) instead of bin (am) during an emotional press conference and has since become part of spoken German.

Fertig!

Beneath the jolly exterior, beats a canny heart and Trapattoni struck a one of the century’s best deals in 2008 when he convinced the Football Association of Ireland to appoint him as manager of the national squad on a munificent salary of €2 million a year, plus €750,000 a year for his backroom team. It was this kind of profligacy that saw Ireland seek an EU bailout in 2010 and in a selfless gesture of burden-sharing a year later, Trapattoni agreed to have his pay cut to €1 million per annum. Odd jobs like opening a shopping mall in prosperous Munich helps Trap to cope with that sharp drop in income.

Whilst in Munich, the devout Catholic Giovanni Trapattoni will, no doubt, find time to pray for the Bavarian Pope, Benedetto, who is the subject of tomorrow’s post here.