Writer Will Self grabbed headlines earlier this week by referring to George Orwell as the “Supreme Mediocrity”.
The curious thing is that while during the post-war period we’ve had many political leaders, we’ve got by with just a single Supreme Mediocrity – George Orwell.
Yet, a closer look at Self’s writing shows it to be more a broadside against linguistic prescriptivism, that is, fixed rules of usage, and the polemic and slippery arguments of the public prescriptivist.
Self engages in the same polemic, slippery rhetoric in denouncing the public prescriptivist. However, we live in an age when permatanned, rich white males shout over one another on television and this counts as public debate.
Orwell warned us about this. I certainly unbellyfeel it. Things are getting a little gishy around here. And, no, gishy isn’t a misspelling.
Language, click-baiting and muddled public discourse
The pattern of prescriptivist/ linguist public discourse is repetitive and predictable. A self-appointed guardian of our precious English language publicly bemoans declining standards, the limitations of non-standard language and moral decadence.
These claims tend to be alarmist, attention-grabbing and often entail arbitrarily flagging particular usages as the “most barbarous”. You might say this approach is not unlike one of the 20th/21st-century’s OK-ist writers (say, for instance, Will Self) flagging one of the 20th century’s greatest writers as a “talented mediocrity”.
In both cases, we have instant click-bait on our hands.
Prescriptivists’ alarmist cries of barbarism stretch back at least to the time of Ancient Greece. One etymology links “barbarism” to Greeks’ views that non-Greeks seemed to produce the animal-like “bar bar” sounds rather than human language when they spoke.
From Ancient Greece to Orwell’s England to modern Australia, public prescriptivists’ claims are rarely scientifically-informed and generally don’t pan out.
For instance, rather than being decadent and intellectually limiting, sociolinguists have shown African American English to be at least as, if not more, grammatically and stylistically rich as Standard English.
Consequently, returning to our discussion of predictable patterns, any public prescriptivist rant is met with a collective sigh from linguists. They subsequently pen public, empirically-informed rebuttals, most typically along the lines of slippery semantic meaning, social variation and language change.
This is where the debate goes wonky – if we’re to be kind and presume the debate wasn’t wonky from the start.
Prescriptivist defences are often set out in something resembling a Gish Gallop. The Gish Gallop as a rhetorical strategy entails rapidly overwhelming your opponent with multiple arguments often comprised of half-true, misunderstood or slippery “facts”.
Will Self’s essay contains the odd Gishy statement. Yet, to be fair, Self is staring at a pretty kettle of Gish indeed.
Nuggets of truth amidst rhetorical turd nuggets
Prescriptivists engage in click-baiting and slippery rhetoric but there is a nugget of truth in what they are proposing. Perhaps then, it is worth making a distinction between a prescriptivist and prescriptigish.
Most folks, including linguists, are at one time or the other prescriptivists. I prescribe Standard English in my university classrooms and certainly elevate its relevance for students’ future employability.
I also don’t think power companies should be able to use tricky language to slip their coal-dusted fingers into my pocketbook. As Socrates wrote, “False words are not only evil in themselves but they infect the soul with evil”.
Oh yeah, and while we’re at it, I hate the words “solutions”, “stakeholders” and “synergy”.
Yet, as a language professional, I also hate the synergy created by public prescriptivists’ marriage to slippery rhetoric and half-truths. It provides crap solutions for stakeholders.
First of all, the prescriptigish would select any of the facts above (my Standard English classrooms, my disdain for unclear language and solutions) to negate the value of non-standard language and variation. Where I see natural and healthy variation (save the energy companies), the prescriptigish sees incomprehensible evil and decline.
Linguists propose tangible and empirically-informed solutions for disadvantaged language learners (e.g. Indigenous Australians entering the Standard English classroom). Where these solutions involve use of local languages or non-standard varieties, prescriptigishes are quick to knock these back with huffs of “barbarisms”.
This is because the prescriptigish often ignores, doesn’t understand or is dismissive of empirical research. For instance, prescriptigish darling John Honey dismisses sociolinguist William Labov’s work on African American English as “a travesty of scientific method” and “purely subjective”.
However, linguist Tony Crowley points out that Honey doesn’t present an active or scientific critique of Labov’s method. This makes Honey’s observations, well, purely subjective turd nuggets.
Stemming the flow of rhetorical turd nuggets
Will Self’s critique of Orwell and his essay Politics and the English Language shows flashes of prescriptigish tendencies.
At one point, Self cites Chomsky and Universal Grammar (UG) as proof that:
language is the natural outgrowth of the human brain, which is hardwired for its acquisition and youth.
Most language professionals would put some critical distance between themselves and UG these days.
Furthermore, Self’s argument is built around Orwell’s “mediocrity” as a writer and his elevation as a model. Along these lines, it would probably be appropriate for Self to acknowledge that Orwell isn’t “considering the literary use of language” in his essay.
With this essay, Will Self is arguably slipping into a similar kind of click-baiting and slippery rhetoric typical of prescriptivists. However, as with prescriptivist arguments, there is an element of truth to what he is proposing.
We are all prescriptivists but prescriptigishes dumb down the language debate. To draw on Newspeak, there’s a whole lot of duckspeak afoot.
Will Self shows that we can be guilty of duckspeak at the pro-variation side of the aisle. We can all do better for the sake of stakeholders.