Take my word for it, the English language is facing destruction
The long, slow decline of our primary method of communication shouldn’t concern only linguistic pedants. We are allowing a perversion of meaning to creep into our language, where words are used for control, rather than persuasion. That’s how dictators operate, says Robert Fisk
Three days after I delivered the First World War Armistice memorial lecture at the Cloth Hall in Ypres almost a decade ago, I received a letter from Margi Blunden, the daughter of that great poet Edmund Blunden – who spent more time under fire than Wilfred Owen or Robert Graves or Siegfried Sassoon. She had long been concerned, she wrote from her Norfolk home, “that due to the digital age, the meaning of language used by the First World War writers may well become lost to the modern generation”.
She had recently given a talk in Oxford to a group of teachers about her father’s fearful, occasionally humorous, but translucent book about the 1914-1918 conflict, Undertones of War. “Not many had read my father’s book,” Blunden lamented to me, “and some confessed to giving up reading it because it was too difficult to understand. My task that day was to help them with some of these difficulties and show them a way into reading his prose. I feel it is very important to encourage the modern reader to persevere and perhaps in this world of instant gratification this is a technique which will have to be taught.”
I was shocked. Did these British teachers, holding in their hands the words of one of our greatest and bravest writers, really find them too difficult to understand? Readers, a test. This is Blunden writing 90 years ago, about his arrival at the front in Ypres. Do you find it hard to comprehend?
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“One morning, dark and liquid and wild, Colonel Harrison and a number of us went off in a lorry to reconnoitre in Ypres proper, and to visit the trenches we were to hold. The sad salient lay under a heavy silence, broken here and there by the ponderous muffled thump of trench mortar shells round the line. We passed big houses, one or two, glimmering whitely, life in death; we found light come by the time that we passed the famous asylum, a red ruin with some buildings and ornaments still surviving over its doorway… There was in the town itself the same strange silence, and the staring pallor of the streets in that daybreak was unlike anything I had known. The Middle Ages had here contrived to lurk, and this was their torture at last. We all felt this, as the tattered picture swung by like accidents of vision; and when we got out of the lorry by the Menin Gate (that unlovely hiatus) we scarcely seemed awake and aware.”
Are you, readers, not filled with awe at this literary evocation? I quoted this passage in the cavernous Cloth Hall, scarcely a hundred metres from the pavé streets and the “strange silence” through which Blunden had been driven with Colonel Harrison all those years ago. I can imagine an examination paper for children: “What do you think Blunden meant by ‘accidents of vision’? Why did Blunden say that the Menin Gate was ‘that unlovely hiatus’? Compare and contrast Blunden’s description of Ypres with the Middle Ages ‘torture’ of which he wrote.” But teachers? How on earth could these men and women to whom Blunden’s daughter spoke – who educate the children who should read these words – find them “too difficult to understand”?
Fourteen years earlier, amid the nighttime shellfire of Sarajevo, trying to get to sleep – yes, in the gaunt and seriously disabled Holiday Inn – I was reading that wonderful Irish travel writer and novelist Kate O’Brien. She was, with ghastly prescience, writing from civil war Spain in 1937 about the way in which technology would change the way we think about the world. “Science, having paid the piper, calls the tune,” she wrote in her book Farewell Spain.
“There will be no point in going out to look for a reed shaken in the wind. The woes and beauties wrought hitherto upon the map by difference of language, faith and climate will no longer be worth consideration for… they will be controlled, patrolled by science, the international dictator which in any case, by air travel, radio and television will have made all possible novelties into boring fireside matters-of-fact. The world will be flat and narrow, with the Golden Horn a stone’s throw from the Golden Gate and nothing unknown beyond any hill… Our descendants…will marvel at our naive interest in our neighbours, smiling to discover that once an Arab differed somewhat in his habits from a Dutchman.”
In her concern, Margi Blunden had talked about the world of “instant gratification”. Kate O’Brien spoke of “science” calling the tune, of how the “woes and beauties of life” will be “controlled, patrolled by science, the international dictator”. It’s not difficult, 80 years after O’Brien and a mere decade after Margi Blunden, to see their fears refracted in the woeful semantic collapse which we now experience in almost every form of written or spoken communication. Technology – the internet/Facebook/Twitter/Instagram existence in which we live and the “instant gratification” which it is supposed to provide – is not solely to blame for this deterioration in meaning, although it increases the velocity of our linguistic decline. Wikipedia is a valuable aid to instant information – or an important “tool”, as we must call it in an age of imposed language – but it has become a substitute for serious research, a way of avoiding the discipline of academic discovery.
Driving me back to Dublin a couple of years ago, a lecturer at Limerick University told me that he didn’t mind his students using Wikipedia as a last resort before essay deadlines, or to save time – “yes, I know they want to go to parties and have a social life” – but that he had to mark his students down when they wrote the same words in the same order on the same subject, often with Wikipedia’s own footnote references. Their essays had thus also fallen in standard, along with their ability to express themselves in fresh language. “I have to mark them down – they must read books!” my lecturer exclaimed.
I sympathised with him. Like most journalists, I used to receive a mailbag of readers’ letters – eloquent, sometimes tendentious, often verbose, occasionally mildly if unfairly insulting, but always grammatical, well-punctuated, utterly comprehensible and usually polite – to which I always scrupulously replied. But the hard copy messages that are now forwarded to me – they are now largely anonymous, of course – are frequently misspelled, ungrammatical, filled with cliches and cruel words and with a strong injection of hatred.
It’s not the venom I object to so much as the way in which it is expressed; the frightful inability of these wretched people – and let us finally abandon the infantile use of “trolls” – to use language with original, thought-provoking accuracy and imagination. They lack what we would once have called the ability to write. They sound – however pompous this sounds, perhaps because it is accurate – as if they are “uneducated”, as if they had sat in school before the same pitiful teachers whom Margi Blunden addressed. They lack what we must now refer to as “writing skills”, however scientifically magical their “tools” may be. No matter, of course, that for Blunden, a “tool” would be the spade he used to dig trenches – for which depth, rather than speed, would be the “skill” required. The “meaning of language” of which Margi Blunden wrote – O’Brien’s “reed shaken in the wind” – has been lost.
Since comedy is an essential part of tragedy, it’s well worth looking at the language which now imprisons us – the “international dictator” – as farce; worthy of scorn, but with its own rip-roaring, maniacal, highfalutin but totally unintended humour. Those who wish to be part of this world – a place of climbing, preferential treatment for those who learn the correct argot, especially if they embrace or encourage “centres of excellence” – have created a special box of words, a “platform” needless to say, which has now been embraced not just by public relations experts but also, alas, by academics, even bishops.
My favourite is “space”. I belong to a generation in which space usually related to Outer Space, in which my British comic hero Dan Dare forever battled the Mekon, the over-brained monster who sought world dictatorship over all science from a levitating chair. More mundanely, “space” was the rather dull word my mum and dad used in furnishing a room. Is there enough “space” for the wardrobe in the upstairs bedroom? But no more.
Here, from my personal collection of clippings over 15 years – all can be referenced to the culprits if readers desire – are new uses for “space”:
“A spectacular space in which exploration in depth can take place” (Tony Blair describing a London house in which “interfaith interaction” can occur); “a socially relevant space” (film director Katherine Bigelow talking of her movie work environment); the “spaces created by imperial rule” (Edinburgh University Press on British rule in Aden); “to create a space for alternative thinking and writing” (Denis MacShane on Polish leader Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s cooperation with communist rule); “a functioning commercial space”, “bar-restaurant space”, “non-commercial space”, “public house space”, “two-storey space” and lots of other “spaces” (an English-language Lebanese paper reviewing a cafe in a 19th century Beirut building); “air exhibition space”, “performance space”, and “well-curated space” (all from a Vancouver art gallery brochure); “a reclaiming of space” (an FT reviewer on women in Paris); “a space for different arguments” (an Irish Times feature on a Northern Ireland human rights festival); “to retain a space” (Cambridge historian Hugh Drocon on Nietzsche); and “a radical step change in our development of leaders who can shape and articulate a compelling vision and who are skilled and robust enough to create spaces of safe uncertainty [sic] in which the Kingdom grows” (the Church of England on training bishops).
This very last bit of clerical befuddlement was hoovered up by the Financial Times’ indefatigable Lucy Kellaway, who actually awards gongs for this flannel. She has also discovered “to action forward” and “actioning forward” – business guff which is clearly a cousin of “moving forward”, “moving on”, “seeking closure” and other advice given to traumatised war veterans, mourning relatives or divorce victims. She has awarded prizes for “Nerbs” – nouns pretending to be verbs: “to effort”, “to potentiate”, “to future”, “to language” and “to town hall”. This is addictive. I have only to look at my own archives, in which an IT expert, anxious to ensure that the internet offers “factually accurate content above the ersatz”, informs me that “new internet business models have been … trialled”. We now “rewild” the countryside, while I notice that a women’s equal pay campaigner, asked by The Irish Times last month what she liked to do in her spare time, responded: “I journal every day.” Well, sure. I keep a diary too.
Reviewing a book on the 1845-51 Great Irish Famine, a university scholar at Nijmegen criticises a contributor’s belief that “the primary modality of Famine memory has been silence” on the grounds that he – the scholar – and others, had “problematised this notion”. There’s a form of snobbery, as well as laziness, in all this, which does more than debase language; we practice something similar in punctuation, when we leave out the semicolon – “the agent of reflection and meditation”, according to The Times in 1943, the semicolon’s imminent death predicted even then.
You’d think that universities, anxious to maintain the standards of language and meaning, would eschew this sort of addiction. Alas, here are a few choice verbal snobberies from the 2016 Queen’s University Belfast graduate magazine, which talks of a “translational strategic goal”, “core skills of literary and numeracy”, “outreach activity days”, “outreach activities to engage future generations” and – yes, here we go again – “project spaces”. A father is advised in The Irish Times that his daughter will be able to choose her second-year university courses because in her first year she will have “… experienced the relevant subject modules”. A law lecturer informs me in a worthy thesis that “the territorial ambit of the so-called ‘Middle East’ is both contested and dynamic … It is not a fixed, immovable space” – again! – “but one … that has been continually transformed”. Well, you could fool me.
In 2010, I find Michael Fairhurst, professor of engineering and digital arts at Kent University, explaining how the institution’s “DocExplore” project can read Canterbury Cathedral’s ancient handwritten documents. DocExplore, he says, allows archivists or historians “to interact with the document” and “to input metadata”. The system “will provide a wide range of interactive tools for document processing”. In its 2010 annual report, The Open University waffled on about its “core mission”, “a unique learning experience” and boasted of its involvement in the first “International Perspectives on the Development of Distance Learning Colloquium”. The university’s Faculty of Health and Care “took a critical look at older people’s alleged fear of technology and inability to ‘get it’”. There was no suggestion, of course, that “older people” – far from fearing technology – might have “got it” all rather too well, and still preferred to read books rather than waste their time staring at laptops.
That, after all, would be a serious “issue” – “issue” now being the all-purpose word for a “problem” (or “challenge”), as in “mental health issues” or “complex technical issues” – the latter explanation offered to users of Barack Obama’s healthcare website after Americans failed to obtain insurance cover in 2013. Talking of Obama, I still treasure his article on “America’s economic challenges”, written for The Economist in 2016, which – so said this learned magazine – had been “lightly edited to be consistent with this (British) newspaper’s house style”. My god, how twee! Imagine for a moment if The Wall Street Journal had published a contribution by Winston Churchill, “lightly edited” to be consistent with American English.
There is, you see, an element of coercion, of correctness – not political but semantic – in this ocean of verbal porn. Who dares question lecture titles like “Contextualising Iranian Accented Cinema – Exilic, Diasporic, Ethnic” at the British Museum? Or suggest that the title of an article in America’s most prominent philosophical journal in 2012 – “On the Supposed Inconceivability of Absent Qualia Functional Duplicates” – might just be a bit over the top. Noam Chomsky, the plain-speaking philosopher and cognitive scientist par excellence, complained to a French newspaper last year that “when I hear words like ‘dialectic’ or ‘hermeneutic’ and other pseudo-profundities, then, like Goering, I reach for my gun”… But if, for example, I read Russell or analytical philosophy, or even Wittgenstein, it seems to me that I can understand what they are saying… On the other hand, when I read Derrida… I do not understand. It’s as if the words were marching past under my eyes. Chomsky called this “charlatanism”.
These clusters of verbiage have a gaunt beauty all their own; like the petals of a flower or the wings of a butterfly, so fragile that they must be copied and pasted and preserved as quickly as possible into my files before they are forgotten. How could anyone take out an advertisement in The Wall Street Journal, urging readers to “start a national conversation” about the sales of the American food production industry? A conversation? A discussion, surely, even a debate. But a conversation? Then I recall that Labour Party leaders once demanded “the Big Conversation with the British people”. Then there’s the Bahraini embassy first secretary in London this year, claiming that his country “has been able to reshape its human rights landscape”. Who wrote this twaddle for Mr Fahad Binali? What grows in this mysterious “landscape”? Perhaps it is only the size of a small garden, defined in one paper’s features pages last month as “a nature friendly space”.
The list is both inexhaustible and eternal. I find now that a religious argument has become “a theological counter-narrative”, while an Arab website offers me a “counter-discourse to the mainstream conversation” about the Arab world. We all now have our “comfort zone” but I for one have no such refuge in modern English. Yet how could it be possible for me to hear in July two years ago – and this is truly and hysterically awful – David Brown, the Dallas police chief, using just such a phrase about the murder of five of his cops. In front of the television in my Beirut apartment, I seized my notebook to take down his imperishable reply to a reporter’s question. “We do not have a comfort level that we have all the suspects,” he proclaimed. Poor Chief Brown, he’d picked up a few of our ripe cliches in the course of his duties, but chose the wrong one at the wrong time.
Banks don’t lag behind when it comes to sheer verbal effrontery. Urging customers to “book your free 20 minute Financial Health Check”, the Ulster Bank promises account holders: “We’ll help you get financially fitter.” “Richer” might be more to the point, although the Ulster Bank is owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland, of which the less said the better. However, I particularly enjoyed the grovelling statement BNP Paribas sent to its clients in July 2014 to tell customers why it had just paid an $8.97bn (£6.8bn) fine to the Americans for breaching US banking rules. A letter from chief executive officer Jean-Laurent Bonnafé stated that “failings and practices in breach of the bank’s ethics took place…”
I loved that amorphous “took place” – as if no one actually caused it to take place. Similarly, Air France – my own airline of choice where I clock up my airmiles – sent me an even more risible letter not long ago, apologising for misinformation in its frequent flyer brochure. “Despite the great care we take in preparing all our communications,” director of Flying Blue Frédéric Kahane announced, “an error managed to appear in this document”. How bizarre. How quixotic. No one committed the “error”, you understand. It just “appeared” – because the cause was the “error” itself. It was like all those British rail apologies after train cancellations in which spokespersons say sorry “to any passengers who may have been inconvenienced”. “Any” and “may” are the legal get-out words. If the railway official had referred to “those passengers who have been inconvenienced”, there would be quite a demand for refunds.
But such excuses have a far darker side. Back in 2009, when the enormous scale of child abuse in Ireland had not yet been fully investigated, the auxiliary bishop of Dublin, Raymond Field, gave an interview to The Irish Times’s religious affairs correspondent, Patsy McGarry, in which he expressed his horror at the affair. He began with these words: “Firstly, let me apologise wholeheartedly and unreservedly to the victims of child abuse for any hurt they might have suffered as a result of what priests have done to them.” There was the same expression, “for any hurt they might have suffered”. Why this extraordinary legalese about the suffering of those who clearly were hurt most grievously at the hands of Catholic priests? What did “any” and “might” mean? Surely the adjective “any” should have been the definite article “the” and the auxiliary verb “might” should have been deleted.
What had happened here was that the apology-cum-disclaimer of the railway announcer had been transformed into the apology-cum-disclaimer of the bishop. Field offered his resignation after an Irish government report criticised him for giving to fellow priests information about a paedophile priest – whom Field believed to be merely an alcoholic – which, according to the report, “was certainly not complete or sufficiently specific”. Pope Benedict XVI refused Field’s resignation. But the following year Benedict himself wrote a letter to Catholics in which he expressed “shame and remorse” for sexual crimes against children. As Canadian columnist Robert Fulford pointed out at once, the English version of the letter “demonstrates the way language often reveals more than a writer intends” by the persistent use of passive verbs – when the best writers prefer transitive verbs. “Grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred,” the Pope wrote, referring later to “the problem of abuse that has occurred” and “the serious sins committed against defenceless children”. To victims, Benedict said: “Your trust has been betrayed.” But once he turned to the historic achievements of Irish Catholics, he moved to active verbs.
This was the businessman’s way out – in which ethical failings “took place” and in which “an error managed to appear”. A ghost of this same language of avoidance even crept into the present Pope Francis’s “letter to the People of God” before his visit to Ireland this summer. He condemned “with sorrow and shame” the atrocities “perpetrated by consecrated persons” – but then referred to “the wounds caused in the past” and “the desolation caused by these ecclesial wounds”. Again, it seemed, “an error managed to occur”.
When I spoke at Ypres almost a decade ago, I expressed my fear that our language had deteriorated and that our generation – those of us who lived in the age of handwriting and typewriters – might be the last to maintain the semantics of those who lived a hundred years ago. Edmund Blunden and his fellow writers of the First World War, as I put it, “still speak to us as we might speak”. We understand them instinctively. Those soldiers might have mistranslated Ypres as “Wipers”, but that was surely out of weird affection rather than error.
What has happened is that words must now struggle for their place in a world where libraries have been replaced by “language tools” and where “surfing” has replaced deep reading. In many brief messages I now receive, verbs have been left out altogether. And this has allowed a perversion of meaning to creep into our language – in which words are used for control rather than persuasion, to confine our thinking, by their falsity or misuse or self-importance, rather than to encourage our imagination. I notice that fascist speakers of the 1930s had a habit of leaving out verbs.
Will we one day – quite soon – need to carry a glossary beneath the poetry and prose of Blunden and Sassoon as we do today when we read the much older work of Chaucer or Shakespeare? Are we essentially losing their voice, their “message”?
Today, we are encouraged to believe that our language is being transformed; by technology, by apps, by every new “tool”. By reducing our critical judgement, they have permitted the creation of a new and unchallenged form of communication, however banal, captured by charlatans, in which the fake becomes inscrutable, and the old language, to quote Blunden’s daughter, “difficult to understand”. The very nature of verbs has become an escape path for those in peril of their bank accounts, their airline sales or their soul.
Words are being deployed not for their meaning but for their political usefulness. Our language is not being transformed. It is being de-formed. And soon, I fear, “there will be no point in going out to look for a reed shaken in the wind”.