Enduring perpetual jeremiads

Les gardiens de la Langue commencent sérieusement à me gonfler.

  • 2004-11-24

Or maybe the title of this post ought to read “Pertannual insubdurience”. Why? You’ll see.

I am dismayed. I care about language as much as the next blogger, probably a lot more. And I enjoy reading a good rant, too. But there is an entire cottage industry dedicated to bewailing the decline, decrepitude, dissolution, and impending death of language, and it is starting to get my hackles up. For “language” read English, French, German, Spanish, whatever the writer’s native tongue happens to be. They are all doomed, it appears.

It is not that the guardians of the various linguistic temples didn’t (sometimes) put their fingers or pen on (or close to) a valid point. What students ought to learn about language, which devices of linguistic expression every member of society should have the occasion to learn to wield, what standards of clearness and correctness we should require of politicians and other participants in public discourse and debate — all of these are interesting and pertinent questions I have a stake in (if just a small one).

No, my problem is that those laments are far too often shoddily written, badly researched or unclear about what precisely their argument consists in.#[1]

Until now, I have just shrugged them off. This has been getting harder, though, because an increasing number of my acquaintances seem to be infected with the language-pessimism bug. I’d hate to call them pretentious elitists. Maybe it’s just in the air. In this case, however, people need to start speaking up against the annoying whingeing.

The article that has triggered this post (a hat-tip to the excellent Language Feed) is entitled Corruption of the English language through “management speak”, by Kate Kelland. Reading “management speak” in the context of politicians’ speech (as it happens to be the case here), I’d expect something about buzz words, jargon, sound-bites and what the French call langue de bois, ie those tricks politicians use when they want to avoid communicating anything definite and clear, or when they need to at least seem to answer a question, but do so without actually addresssing the question at all.

Sadly, however, the article is only loosely related to the worthy goal of pointing out examples of deplorable evasiveness. It can also be found on the web under the much less promising, yet so much more melodramatic title Bush And Blair Are Mangling The English Language. This doesn’t bode well for readers who expect analysis and examples. It is apparently based on an interview or statements of John Humphrys, a political journalist with BBC Radio and author of yet another book “about the demise of the language”. (A cynical voice tells me that the entire point of the article is to promote the new opus.)

So do we get a list of occurrences of “management speak” by Bush and Blair, the “meaningless phrases and hackneyed mantras” that “political leaders” are “being sucked into”? No, of course, at least nothing that doesn’t contain more claim than evidence. This doesn’t mean that it would have been impossible to find any. I do happen to think that the way politicians in general and Mr Bush and Mr Blair in particular construct their discourse (or have it constructed for them) bears investigation and should be subjected to criticism. But this is not what I’d call Mr Humphrys’ or Ms Kelland’s diatribe.

Let’s look at some of their statements.

“The whole essence of a good lively democracy is that one has good lively argument,” he told Reuters in an interview. “But this kind of language kills real debate.”

“The whole essence” is certainly a mouthful, but, well, good argument is a precious thing indeed. So, what kind of language is “this kind of language”?

Humphrys picks on Bush – who once famously used the word “misunderestimate” – and pokes fun at him as someone who “often speaks as though English were his second language.”

My position towards Mr Bush is about as opposed as I can get when it comes to democratically (according to the standards in place in modern democracies) elected leaders. But this criticism misses the point on several counts:

  • While I have often been taken aback (and sometimes amused) by Mr Bush’s linguistic contortions, I believe that not all of them are equally objectionable in a political leader. What I find problematic or embarrassing are “Bushisms” that betray cultural insenstivity, ignorance in areas a politician ought to be knowledgeable, or a lack of awareness about the meaning and connotations of the words he uses. Had Mr Humphrys criticised “Africa is a country that …” or “the horror of terror”, I’d have tended to accord him a point.
  • “Misunderestimate” isn’t “management speak” that I know of. It’s a blend of misunderstand and underestimate, a lapsus that can happen to about anyone in unprepared speech. This particular lapsus isn’t more of a mark against Bush than his hair colour is.
  • I kindof like “misunderestimate”. It’s expressive and I’m even tempted to, like, use it sometimes — to the horror of my friends, I should say. I do understand them, but I just wish a politician I’m more in tune with had coined this word.
  • The quip about English as a second language isn’t the most sensitive one ever made. English is my second language (third, technically). Does that mean I’m incapable of ever becoming involved with politics in an English-speaking environment? (If you think so, I hope you’ve already quit reading this article when you came to footnote #[1].) At least, I seem to be disquailfied from “good argument” with politically aware native speakers. Dammit.

The rest on Mr Bush is sorely lacking cogency. Calling him a “master of the language of political manipulation” sounds a bit contradictory after the claim that Mr Bush’s grasp on language is so abysmal. And political manipulation is a much too serious topic to confine it to a sound-bite. Humphrys is no Lakoff, it seems. (Oh, I had to look up “dum-dum bullets”. At least I got to expand my vocabulary.)

For Mr Blair, the main fault lies with the verbless sentences New Labour style speech has been accused of for a long time. I’ve read brilliant satire about it. But now I’d like some analysis, facts — who said what when? how often? is this a new phenomenon? This sort of thing. Well, we do get a stab at analysis, actually:

“The point about verbs is that they commit the speaker,” he writes. “Verbs cement sentences to their meaning so it’s not surprising that politicians tend to mistrust them.”

The observation about committing to something is not without merit. Yet, once Mr Blair has said “for our young people, a brighter future”, isn’t it clear that he is from this moment on entrusted with bringing about this “brighter future”, that he has acknowledged it as something between a promise and a goal? And in either case, can’t his policies be measured against this goal, verb or not? Yes, I don’t like this style either, but I fail to see how it harms either politics or language, taken by itself. Which brings up another point: At best, Mr Humphrys criticises how politicians go about their business. What kind an degree of harm does “the language” come to, and how precisely would this happen?

Verbs, by the way, are a complicated matter. I’m not sure I’d want sentences that are “cemented to their meaning”. Fossilisation doesn’t appeal more than dissolution. Still, among all the points in the article, I find this one the most pertinent. No de-verbing of political speech!#[3]

But now we come to passage that made me come out of my torpor and take to the keyboard:

Humphrys also blames institutions like the European Union and the world’s media for the decline in standards of English.

He laments the inclusion of such words as “pertannually” in the proposed EU constitution – and despairs that when concerns were raised, the word was replaced with “insubdurience”.

It’s all the EU’s fault, sure. I am going to blog on the EU constitutional treaty soon, so I may, I hope, be excused for not commenting on it here. Just have a look at the second paragraph. My first thought was that I had never heard of either “pertannually” (a misspelling for “pentannually”, maybe, I wondered) or “insubdurience”. My second intuition was that what he’s saying is very likely not true. Whatever those words might mean, the first is an adverb and the second a noun. Sentences that allow for substitution of one for the other and still remain grammatical are very rare indeed.

Then I became suspicious. I downloaded the entire English version of the constitutional treaty (all 265 pages — the multi-document copies are even more voluminous), converted it into a single huge html file, and used a comandline function called grep to find lines that use either of these words:

 $ cat cv*.html | grep insubdurience
 $ cat cv*.html | grep pertannually

Result: nothing. Not a single occurence in the entire document. The dictionaries I tried came up blank as well. So on to Google. Strangely, all the hits point either to copies of this article, or blogs talking about it. With one exception: this Guardian piece by Simon Hoggart from last June. In it he writes about the EU constitutional treaty (emphasis mine):

So nobody has read that, or any other EU treaty! Nobody has and nobody ever will. These documents are entirely incomprehensible, containing lines such as “in clause 82, paragraph 17, subsection (b) of the original treaty, delete the word “pertanually” and replace with the word “insubdurience”.

Or some similar nonsense.

You are getting my drift, don’t you? Simon Hoggart is a brilliant writer (in my humble view), and his satirical or ironical overstatements give quite a bit of pep to his texts. This one appears under the header “Sketch”. (Note that Hoggart’s spelling is “pertanually”. Which isn’t in the treaty either.) Oh, and the EU constitution has parts, titles, sections, subsections and articles, but no clauses or paragraphs. The subsections are numbered with digits, not letters.

In short, I rather distrust Mr Humphrys’ reading comprehension skills — since he didn’t seem to have grasped which genre of journalistic writing Mr Hoggart’s article belongs to — and both his and Ms Kelland’s research.

[1]: You are entirely free to think that I am an ignorant, half-educated moron for writing this. My texts come equipped with a generous dose of spelling errors, questionable phrasing and, for those in French, a saddening number of adjective and past participle agreement errors (not to mention anglicisms). If you think this disqualifies me from having an opinion, so be it.#[2]

[2]: This blog, by the way, has footnotes now, thanks to a wonderful plugin called .

[3]: Some more notes on verbs. In school, I learnt that verbs are the words that describe actions, states or processes, and that they indicate the tense of the sentence. This was a particularly unsatisfying bit of school knowledge. Any one of the three can be expressed by other syntactic categories, and so can the time when the stuff in the sentence takes place (which is about as much as a high school student understands about “tense”). In addition, I knew a verb before I wondered about states vs processes, and one of the exercises I kept failing at was to sort verbs into one of the three pidgeonholes. Was “seem” an action or a process? A state maybe? What about “feel”? It is, of course, possible to take the purist-syntactician’s view that all languages have noun phrases and verb phrases (plus other gunk, like conjunctions, various modifiers and particles that can be inside or outside those), and that the verb is the thing in the center of a verb phrase that takes a number of arguments. Unfortunately, this approach (which to me still sounds kindof circular, but well…) doesn’t tell us anything about what verbs are good for, what function they fill. The best explanation I’ve found of what verbs do is in Eric Orsenna’s Les Chevaliers du Subjonctif (a children’s book). The protagonist, Jeanne, is flying in a glider over an island inhabited by verbs, which oddly enough look like motors or pieces of machinery. The pilot explains: Ces moteurs sont des verbes, tous les verbes possibles et imaginables. On ne t’a jamais appris que ce sont les verbes qui font avancer la phrase, qui lui donnent vie et mouvement? « Jeanne un garçon blond. » Rien ne se passe. « Jeanne drague un garçon blond. » Tout commence. (My translation: Those motors are verbs, all possible and imaginable verbs. Haven’t you been taught that it’s the job of the verbs to drive the sentence along, to give it life and movement? “Jeanne a blond boy.” Nothing is happening. “Jeanne is hitting on a blond boy.” Everything is starting from there.) Whatever its weaknesses, I prefer this analogy to solidified sentence cement.

2 comment(s) for 'Enduring perpetual jeremiads'

  1. (Comment, 2004-12-17 02:23 )

    Nice little bit of detective work :)

  2. (Comment, 2005-02-07 01:57 )

    Actually I was the first to do this particular piece of detective work. :-) (Check the URL.) The comment doesn’t appear to come from Humphrys’ book, so maybe it’s something he mentioned when speaking to Ms Kelland.