The Language of Decline
November 01, 2016
Now I guess old people are always banging on about how things were better once; about how things are in decline and standards are deteriorating; it goes with the territory of being past one’s sell-by date.
One of my admired authors George Orwell, whose own prose was marvellously clear and free from blemishes, had a weather eye for the English language; and many of his finest essays discuss its progress and usage.
Orwell was writing in the 1930s and 1940s for the most part; during the Second World War and its preambles; and so was writing at a time very different to today; a time when most people in Europe felt under threat and anxious for peace. Our lives and lifestyles today Orwell would have found difficult to imagine and probably shocking to be contemplated.
Language and its progress in the course of time has been noted many times by many observers to hold a handle on the state of the nation, and on the relative social soundness of the people.
William Blake wrote that: ‘A dog starved at his master’s gate Predicts the ruin of the state’ And his words carry some truth. When one neglects one’s obligations to one’s dependent charges; and one’s forgetfulness of them is apparent; when one loses all affection and care for them; and when one allows them to starve publicly at one’s gate; then indeed that person should not be a ruler or have a say in governing men and women. Such a person is not fit.
Now language has no appetites and as such is not able to ‘starve at the gate of its masters’; and by the way who might be those masters anyway? But language does reflect in its changes and progress the minds of those who use it, and shows how these are changing, have changed, and upon study of these metamorphoses of language some judgments might be made on whether for better or for worse. Such judgements will never be final; not as judgements per se nor as judgements pertaining at a certain time and place.
Opinions will differ and diverge, although evidence which supports any judgements is able to sway those people who find the topic their concern this way or that.
Once again I resort to BBC News bulletins for my opening remarks.
Yesterday 30 September, evening bulletin at 18.30 Radio 4 announced as lead story that ‘A technician at the European Space Agency has crashed the XXX space probe into an asteroid it had been orbiting for over two years’
Interestingly and oddly enough there was no information offered in the headline saying whether the Technician had lost his mind or had made a dreadful mistake; or whether the crash into the surface of the asteroid was a planned move by the ESA.
(Given the other and more astonishing events of yesterday which took place in the world; to have heard this relative non-story as top of the bill was it seemed to me to have heard a badly misjudged announcement)
Later in the daily magazine programme which follows on the radio news and which elaborates on the main stories in it; the story was opened up and indeed the crash into the surface had been pre-arranged and scheduled by the ESA.
However it had seemed to me that there had been some hidden assumptions at work here; perhaps that scientists are in control and do not ‘go off the rails’; no Dr Strangeloves then. It seemed to me that the BBC took it as given that listeners would accept this as a given for themselves; that our news listening public would accept and place trust in scientists to ‘get it right’ without doubt.
Had the crash into the surface not been AOK and a scheduled one; then it might have been worthy of ‘top of the bill’ mention.
The lack of imagination also struck me in the announcement as spoken. The information offered in the announcement concentrated on the ‘big bang’ of the collision, like we news listeners were yet avid fans of Thomas the Tank Engine adventures, and are not careful when letting off fireworks in our yards.
A few words added could have altered the complexion of the announcement utterly. ‘A controlled collision at the surface of xxxxxx……today…..’ or else ‘A climactic ending to a two year space probe today at …..etc’; but this seemed to be too accurate and dull - I am guessing?
For a few years now, having become a bit of a connoisseur of BBC News announcements, I have noted a trend which increasingly eschews a use of ‘hard’ words’; and which in addition has tended towards greater use of colloquialisms, certain of which used to be considered by society ‘with it top button fixed’ unfit because it was ‘street’ language.
These trends have of course been accompanied by an informalising of society and of media approaches in the UK in general. Led some years ago by our tabloid press, which produces little better than adult comic books as the daily reading of those sections of the UK public not afraid to hone their prejudices and who are unconcerned about a balanced view of affairs; led by the tabloids then, say 40 years back now, the media, the English language as used, and with these society in general, have all trended towards a loose and easy informality. They have also opted to embrace what I call The LCD factor as their favourite sauce.
The LCD factor is of course the Lowest Common Denominator factor; the approach which aims at that reader, the person, the expression, which sits at the bottom of the barrel; and whose narrow and crabbed ambience is able to taint the whole barrelful of items. Hence we have had Brexit; QED.
An interesting question arises: this informality, it having arrived, is it necessarily responsible for, or else tied in some way, to what has accompanied it historically, and which has been stigmatised by the phrase ‘a dumbing-down’? In other words; is it possible one can have informality and also retain good standards of language and of behaviour; or is it always ‘familiarity breeds contempt’?
(I bring in standards of behaviour here alongside standards of language because I want later to make an argument which looks at whether growing informality in speech and writing is a reflection of the same trends in behaviour across society. There can be little doubt that within my lifetime the loosening of language from stricter rules and formal delivery has been accompanied since the 1950s with a great rolling back of the frontiers of a very late Victorianism, of staid stiff-upper lips and starched collars and all that – now all vanished.
Those olden times were overly-constrained; TV closed on Sunday evenings; there were very few ;entertainments’ available Sundays; no shopping or pubs or shows; there was for children a parental policy of ‘seen but not heard’; and one as a child might be dressed-down by a stranger in the street when one dropped litter or (mildly) swore. Adults too were buttoned-up and very ‘uptight’ about everything when we compare them with adults today.)
But we have no ‘happy medium’ no ‘Golden Mean’ of temperance; we have gone from the devil to the deep blue sea.
Because so frequently BBC News is unable to make itself clear in its announcements – for I have written elsewhere about this and given recent instances of its current lack of care in this regard - and because so few prompts of correction or advice come from the listening UK public to the BBC about its remiss; I guess this means either that the public does not care or else the public does not notice; does not connect with the fact of ambiguity or else of omission or else of confusion or else of being wholly mistaken. And these days one has to ask oneself the question with all seriousness; why ought the public to care or to attend?
That we have to ask ourselves this question seriously is perhaps the whole thrust of this article summed up in a few words. The very idea of ‘caring’ for abstractions, for far away places and events (unless it is a vacation destination) and for the welfare generally of the state and the people en bloc; all these are tired and dull concerns which we hoped were ditched when the pubs opened Sundays and the Bookies and Casinos were thrown open 24/7.
But these dusty old concerns are like God, whom so few of us here in UK attempt to give a least part of his due; but yet even though all should not believe, God remains, and it is a loving who God remains.
What do our immigrants make of us; the many young couples setting up home here and having children who attend local primary schools and whom I see daily pouring out onto pavements in a river of glee and delight at 3pm?
Most of these people coming here are trying to learn English. Most are earnest and committed to a new life and to Britain – at least they were a few months back before our vote aimed a weapon at them that gave their aspirations a body blow. When these persons hear on their radios and TVs English spoken, which a clear-headed English person cannot make adequate sense of, what might they do; how might they themselves learn to think clear-headedly in English?
‘The Prime Minister has led a call for a tax on immigrants’ !!!!! (Say it over to yourself.) This is the wretched kind of thing one is able to hear spoken by those whose self-proclaimed, self-esteemed work and place is to keep the British public adequately informed.
Is it Freudian wish-fulfilment in the writers of the script for Newsreaders? I would of course understand that when politicians and spokespersons are ’on the spot’ and ‘in the heat’; sometimes words come out wrongly; yet though, these headlines are scripted; premeditated; maybe only within a space of a few minutes, but nonetheless, with having all the time in the world when they are set beside a guy being driven into a verbal corner during a heated live interview.
I fear that nobody, relatively–speaking, cares; and also that relatively-speaking, nobody picks up much of this nonsense going-on. I fear that the Tabloid comics have had their effects on the broadside newspapers likewise over course of the years. Here is an illustration taken live from my experience yesterday whist having my eyes tested routinely at my opticians.
The waiting area of my opticians was wall-to-wall spectacle frames; Ray-Ban, Oakley, there are tens of high-end brands, all vying for customer-space. The frames were expensive – why? – they are little bits of moulded plastics – but their styles were expensive. The walls of the opticians must have been worth retail above £20K alone. Some frames bore tinted or darkened lenses, or even light-sensitive. There was a range of frames (for men?) labelled with names like ‘golf’ ‘clubhouse’ ‘cycling’ ‘pool’ ‘casino’ and so on – you get the idea?. I wondered – I really did – because I am so out of touch with this arena of life – whether customers were being encouraged to buy a set of frames for each activity they might be pursuing in their lives? I asked myself – are people so vain – so gullible – so narcissistic?
There were two or three card stand-up ads with strap-lines encouraging buyers. The Oakley card showed a young man in immaculately smart spotless sports clothing behind the wheel of a fairly cool car and he was wearing a pair of dark tinted spectacles. The ad proclaimed: ‘Be in Front’. This was a clear pitch at ambitious customers; who have or hanker for the cool car, and who want to, or are, or think they are, ‘out in front’ – leaders. It is as if the ad was saying to the considering customer: ‘Buy me, and you’ll be the guy in the car, your dreams will be fulfilled; get the specs and you’ve arrived.’
The Ray-Ban ad said something a little different; it said ‘Never Hide’. The pitch on this angle was at vulnerability and at customers’ senses of vulnerability. The accompanying images on two ‘Never Hide’ ad cards were 1. a snappily dressed young guy with Ray-bans mixing with other like snappily-dressed young men in a grand hotel lobby – business guys. Image 2 was a young woman presenting a slideshow to a judicious-looking business group in a plush suite of rooms. Both ‘Never Hide’ ad cards were offering, free with every pair of Ray-bans bought an immunity and impunity from lack of confidence – especially when one is standing before or alongside persons whom you are under pressure to impress or to hold your own against.
The models in the ad cards were every one young adults and were of the class of person which some disaffected persons derisorily might call ‘suits’. They were portrayed as being absorbed, caught up in the vortex of the cutthroat business world of ‘first past the post’ and ‘dog eat dog’. I was not angry; it might sound like I am being condescending but I felt pity for the people who are moved by these ads as these ads are intended to move them.
In the corner of my optician’s waiting area was a card bin – one of those things you buy flat-packed and put together in a few seconds – for kids parties and such. It was imprinted with a charitable appeal for old used pairs of spectacles. Two images of young children, seven or eight years old, one boy one girl, African negro children, smiling brilliantly and wearing wholly unsuitable and stand-out-a-mile spectacles too, too big for them. Cast off adult spectacles I think.
Here then was an epitome in little of so much which is utterly wrong with things in our lives. John Donne wrote of his bedroom, where his mistress was with him, that the sun shining through its curtains had done its job merely by ‘shining upon us’ because his mistress’s presence made for him ‘this little room an everywhere’. In the same way the lessons to be taken to heart from viewing this little opticians waiting area were manifold, almost a small world of reflections.
The fact that ad cards showing high-flying young hopefuls standing alongside appeals on cheap card for destitute African youngsters; dependants upon the charitable donations of our ex-colonial nation; and looking grateful for our castoffs, and warming our hearts with thoughts of how generous we are (going to be) to them; and hereabouts also a roomful of overly-costly pieces of extruded plastics; the whole silly sad and very fragile set-up up into which so many of us invest our souls (These fragments I have shored against my ruin’).
A sudden crash, like Deutsche Bank, or Barings, or God forbid!, Wells Fargo, and ‘like this insubstantial pageant faded, all is melted into thin air’ and off go our tinsel hopes and our cherished dreams. (Maybe I am sublimating wish-fulfilment here – I hope not – yet I do feel that ‘sweet are the uses of adversity’ and that without ‘hard-wining’ we may ’make the prize light’.
Now I have strayed off the path somewhat of language and BBC News and so on; but I hope you’ll forgive me for having extended my range here. Those preconceptions in the optician’s Branded card ads and on the flat-pack charitable card bin, I hope go some way to connecting the former part of this article with the latter part of it. John Cleese (not one of my favourite people) in the movie Time Bandits plays a Robin Hood character who is a very high-class swell and well-spoken; one who talks down to people from a great height of self-estimation and slick condescension. He speaks of the benefactors of his robberies as being ‘The Poor’ – and this is said with a tone of ‘wouldn’t touch them with a long stick’ and ‘aren’t they so sad’. Were I to be uncharitable myself I would draw from the Ray-bans and the Oakleys juxtaposed against the African children that there is a tendency here to cultivate this same kind of attitude
The punctilious and minute care with which so many of us dress; with the careful and precise attention to every detail of our appearance; so that like gods ‘every hair on our heads seems to have been counted’ and by our solicitude accounted for; all this is so very studied by us and felt so, so, very important by us, and for us to keep it up costs us ridiculously in liquors an perfumes and powders and so forth; and so how do we really feel about the little negro Africans whose images adorn the sides of that flat-pack bin in my optician’s waiting area? Can we honestly put our hands on our hearts, and stand before God naked of all fineries and refinements, and look towards his throne and remain authentically unchallenged? I mean me too.
‘Here, have my old spectacles; I don’t use them anymore, I have a nice new pair which show off my status; and these old ones will do for you. Better than throwing them in the tip – and aren’t I considerate’!
This article may hurt your feelings when you read it, especially this closing part; and you might feel it is hitting you ‘below the belt’; but yet the fact as stated stands: "If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.’
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