Illusory Follies Andrew Flanagan's Blog

29Dec/100

George Orwell on Language

Posted many other places but I've always enjoyed this:

I am going to 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 compels 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.  [...] It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence following the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations--race, battle, bread--dissolve into the vague phrase "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 its 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 no want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur 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 that to the one from Ecclesiastes.

From George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language", 1946 -- emphasis is mine.

Perhaps my brain is turning to mush a bit young, but I'm often quite baffled by modern writers who seem to intentionally be making language become liquid and amorphous. Even more troubling, I find that people often will point to something like the parody sentence above and be convinced that because of its technical use of language, it's probably superior, and even more concrete. Loss of metaphor, use of highly specialized language, and tacking of rote phrases and clauses together results in a meaningless jumble of confusion.

See also: George Orwell on Writing

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