Reflection 3: Politics and the English Language

The reading I chose was an essay written in 1946 by George Orwell, the novelist who wrote Animal Farm and 1984. The essay, Politics and the English Language, is Orwell’s thoughts and feelings about the state of the English language primarily in the written form. He laments the proliferation of bad habits from writers of all walks of life and educational backgrounds. One category of bad habits (he specified five categories) was what he termed dying metaphors. A dying metaphor is a metaphor that he determined wasn’t new, which he viewed as adding a vividness to an idea, or old, which he saw as having become so common that they never lose their vividness. Both new and old metaphors were beneficial to writers. However, a dying metaphor was to be avoided. He criticized this type of metaphor because he felt the writer either didn’t know what it meant therefore using it thoughtlessly or got it incorrect therefore perpetuating an incorrect phrase. An example of a dying metaphor to Orwell was toe the line which he felt was often misunderstood or used incorrectly when it was written tow the line.

The pedagogical use of this essay in a foreign language classroom is negligible because Orwell’s criticism is very esoteric and the specific examples he provides are not common to the average L1 speaker much less to the L2 learner. However, his general suggestions in order to avoid these errors when writing in English are beneficial if used in an appropriate manner and tailored to the context. His suggestions follow with my caveats. Orwell stated “never use a long word where a short one will do.” I would modify this to encourage students to use the best word and not to choose words specifically because they are long which might be an erroneous attempt to demonstrate  proficiency. Another suggestion was “if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.” This definitely applies to certain genres such as scientific and academic writing but not to all genres such as creative writing. The same caveat would apply to the suggestion “never use the passive where you can use the active.” There are clear situations that the use of the passive is appropriate and useful and the key is to ensure the student knows these situations. The suggestion “never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print” is probably intended to prevent a writer from merely copying a phrase that they do not understand. If a phrase is understood there is no reason not to use it as long as it is an acceptable device for the genre. And finally, the suggestion “never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent” is genre specific again. All of these suggestions are opinions of his and not pedagogical rules.

The connection of this essay to social justice is indirect. The errors he identified in English writing are particularly prevalent in political writing as this style of writing is meant to influence and not educate people. These errors obfuscate the message which is beneficial to a politicized message but often cause unintended consequences that have social justice implications (LGBTQ+, gender, race, etc.). Although I agree with his general thoughts about the nature of political writing (overly simplified while pushing an ideology), I am not as pessimistic about all political writing as he appears to be. The social justice lesson to be taught is to read critically and write precisely. Orwell’s six questions every writer should ask themselves are a good guide that have stood the test of time. What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

In a foreign language class, students could be asked to critique examples of political writing to analyze the text for its implied meaning. This analysis of the implied meaning could uncover both explicit and implicit bias, inequality, power structures, and disenfranchisement. This critical awareness raising activity could inform a student’s writing as they would have knowledge about how to avoid communicating these negative ideologies whether consciously or unconsciously.

Oliver Block

8 Responses to “Reflection 3: Politics and the English Language

  • Rebecca Jot
    5 months ago

    Orwell’s six questions are new to me and I appreciated discovering them here. The last question has me wondering what he means by ‘ugly’. Is he talking about an ugly turn of phrase or something offensive? I’m guessing the former. Also, your caveats to his other ‘rules’ seem right on target. Do you think this text could work and be of value to a class of advanced ESL learners in a university setting ?

    • Oliver Block
      5 months ago

      Rebecca, I think his meaning of ‘ugly’ covers both uses – he was upset by the choice of words themselves and their intent at subterfuge. He used examples of politized language that attempted to gloss over the real actions of despots, such as genocide and mass deportation of people (his reference point was WW II). Unfortunately, although I enjoyed his two famous novels (Animal Farm and 1984) a great deal in high school, this essay was not fun to read nor was it easy to digest. Orwell just came across as being a pedant. He really does appear to be prescriptive in his criticism which I don’t adhere to. Anyway, his six questions to ask yourself as a writer are worthy of use in a language classroom but the analysis of the essay itself isn’t, in my opinion.

  • Miranda Doremus- Reznor
    5 months ago

    Hi Oliver, What a great read! I really enjoy George Orwell’s work, but have never read this piece. I appreciate your take away of teaching students to read critically, and expanding that even further to listen and watch critically as well to the media they engage with in all the languages they use and are learning. Like Rebecca, I also generally like his tips for writing. I would be cautious though with some of his opinions lest they become too prescriptivist.

  • keyue Song
    5 months ago

    I did not sure if I understood Orwell’s opinions correctly. Is he trying to protect the correct use of language to avoid its wrong application for political purposes, or is he diminishing the use of obscure metaphors to avoid language to be used as privileges? Is he trying to keep the correctness or “purity” of language by dismissing the development of language use, or is he trying to avoid the abuse of metaphors, like many abused memes online today, which may make many serious topics entertaining?

    • Oliver Block
      5 months ago

      Keyue, all excellent questions that can probably be interpreted many different ways. He appears to want to protect language by preventing its misuse which comes in several forms. This aspect of his essay could be interpreted as an elitist who has self-anointed himself ownership of what is right and wrong language use. His criticism of metaphors seems especially bizarre but he obviously had strong thoughts on the subject. His criticism of the politicization of language comes when language is used for what today would be called ‘alternative viewpoints’ or ‘alternative facts’. Often this is a gross avoidance of the true facts and/or any analysis that has been grounded in sound analytical thought. For many/all of these reasons, this is not an essay that I would recommend for a language class much less an English Language Arts (ELA) class.

  • Deniz Ortactepe
    5 months ago

    Wow – interesting book and interesting discussion here! I would never imagine Orwell as a pedant. I also read 1984 and Animal Farm. You made good connections though between this book and our course Oliver. I think, in regards to how to integrate this book into language classrooms, one way to think about it, how our language, the language itself but also the way(s) we use it has power – to both protect the status quo but also to transform it. Does Orwell ever make that kind of connection or is it strictly prescriptive?

    • Oliver Block
      5 months ago

      Deniz, I agree that I like the discussion here and it is almost better than the book was! I think you are exactly correct in that one point of Orwell’s was that language and its use is a form of power. I think this should have been his main point but, unfortunately, it was such a small section of his paper that it was drowned out in comparison to his detailed explanations of the form misuses of the language which, I am sad to say, was very prescriptive.

  • Xinxin Liu
    4 months ago

    Hi Oliver, I really like your discussion here.
    ” I would modify this to encourage students to use the best word and not to choose words specifically because they are long which might be an erroneous attempt to demonstrate proficiency.” Exactly what I feel as an L2 learner and a language teacher. Especially in academic writing, I found it is hard to be clear by choosing accurate words. I think teachers need to tell the students the accurate meaning of a word in context so that L2 learners can use the words in their context.

    I also like your thought of “The social justice lesson to be taught is to read critically and write precisely. ” Sometimes, I tend to think about the content aspect of social justice in the classroom. However, from the methodology perspective, the use and read of words can also convey social justice issues.

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