12 July 2005

Pseudolanguage and its discontents

A lessthaninteresting /. thread recently discussed the banality of corporate speak--yeah, I know, it's like pointing out that Charlie Brown said "good grief" in today's strip--but the interesting part was a poster's link to a George Orwell essay titled "Politics and the English Language". Like Chomsky, Orwell is a linguist with a passion for its role in politics. The advice in "Politics" is, simply, to simplify your language and think about what you're saying. Fewer words are generally better and dead metaphors reveal a lack of thought. These rules are easy to understand but difficult to adhere to, so it's always good to re-read good writers as they tear apart bad language.

Or perhaps I enjoy re-reading their advice because I so often fall into some reallyreally awful writing. It's like my brain snaps and I just cannot put together a paragraph of any coherence. And when I read Orwell's rewrite of Ecclesiastes:

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.

I'm more interested that I can understand it than that it's long-winded and lacking in the artfulness of the original. If we're looking for brevity, I'd rewrite it as: "Mere chance often favors the less deserving." At what point is brevity too imprecise? I guess that, wrangling with project managers over specifications and intent, I've become fond of unpoetic and wordy writing (especially since I'm currently buried implementing features that got lost in unpoetic and brief writing). Always consider context.

And on a recent broadcast of KQED's Forum, Michael Krasny took listener's recommendations for summer reading. Along with Neat New Stuff, callers offered up several non-new books that had gripped them recently. If you haven't read it yet, it's new to you! Unfortunately for me, I listened more for readers who were reading what I had read and didn't retain the names of the possibly interesting books that were unknown. One listener found Daniel Boorstin's The Image [Amazon] in a pile of used books and gushed in words almost equal to my own, years ago in college, when I found it in a pile of equally used books. A stunning read, yet only 11 reviews on Amazon? Get to those used books stores, people, and snach this up!

The Image rails on the rise of appearance over content and the abuse of language that allows this reversal. Many celebrities are famous for simply being famous (as opposed to being famous for grand accomplishments), and many events are manufactured and controlled completely as marketing (as opposed to something just happening). Somewhat outdated in that it's been aggregated into postmodern thought, but still as relevant as, say, Amusing Ourselves to Death [Amazon].

[ posted by sstrader on 12 July 2005 at 12:16:17 PM in Language & Literature ]