This article is reposted from Le Monde Diplomatique.
Ask Edward St. Aubyn, the author of the highly acclaimed Melrose novels, and he will tell you that words are a hindrance more than a means of expression: “In a way things were more perfect when you couldn’t describe anything ... Once you locked into language, all you could do was shuffle the greasy pack of a few thousand words that millions of people had used before.”
For St. Aubyn, the paradoxical nature of language becomes apparent in the post-birth consciousness of a child, suddenly confronted by a litany of imperfect words. For Shakespeare, though, it is death that makes apparent the tyranny of words:
“O, but they say the tongues of dying men
Enforce attention like deep harmony:
Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.
He that no more must say is listen’d more
Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose;”
Whether in birth or in death, the human condition is fundamentally one of perpetual translation — of thoughts and ideas into words — for the sole purpose of sharing our un-reified abstractions with others. All writing, all language, is therefore a process of translation — one that is always imperfect, lacking — of our perceptions of the world, of images floating inside of our heads, of our desires and our fears, into words and then again, in turn, from words into perceptions and fears and desires of others, ad infinitum, a never ending cycle of translation. Between our ideas and our audience, we ourselves, impaired by a greasy pack of a few thousand words, become an obstruction.
All this is to say that for any serious writer who has given some thought to the idea of writing, a writer’s block is not like an empty pit but rather an ocean of words so vast that the abundance of linguistic means becomes paralyzing. In our quest for the perfect language, less is better, or as George Orwell would say, “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out”.
Now think of the purest human feelings. The purer the feeling, the less words you need to describe it. “I love you”, “I hate you”. You begin explaining yourself, and you will start tempering the purity of your thought. To this end, every writer strives to find that magical word which would perfectly translate their thoughts into language, only to end up writing page after page of roundabout sentences that only tangentially do the job.
Think of unadulterated thoughts, and then of politics. Perhaps the most tangential of language finds its home in political discourse. And within that, you have international politics — and big intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, multilaterals, international aid and development agencies, and the post-war international order in general.
In international politics there is a “speak” which relies heavily on commodified wordage. It is fashionable to use words that obfuscate pure linguistic expression with readymade and formulaic linguistic aids: Monitoring and Evaluation, Innovation, Impact Evaluation, Governance, Reform, Sustainable, Public-private partnership, Capacity building, and so on.
Such a practice has its use though; there is a matter of ease and the human tendency to manufacture words for the sake of convenience, or to invent a mutually understood coded language within groups, as in nicknames, or to take a more extreme example, as in lovers communicating through their eyes, skipping words to keep their communication pure and simple. But in international affairs, the downside of such practice is too damning for our collective wellbeing.
International speak is a problem of the international elite — I must disclaim at the outset — and may sound too snobbish and unreal to many. But for those who take language seriously, it is critical.
George Orwell protested against linguistic decadence in several of his essays including “Propaganda and Demotic Speech” and “Principles of Newspeak” in 1984. To describe the degeneration of language, he carefully curated a linguistic dystopia where functionality trumps humanness and aesthetics — his Newspeak may well be too realistic to pass as fiction:
“The name of every organization, or body of people, or doctrine, or country, or institution, or public building, was invariably cut down into the familiar shape; that is, a single easily pronounced word with the smallest number of syllables that would preserve the original derivation. In the Ministry of Truth, for example, the Records Department, in which Winston Smith worked, was called Recdep, the Fiction Department was called Ficdep, the Teleprogrammes Department was called Teledep, and so on.”
In 1984, in the fictional state of Oceania, where by the year 2050, Newspeak has been fully standardized and adopted into practice, there is an eerie echo of contemporary language as taught and used in international political circles.
Take the example of initialisms — an indispensable tool of contemporary international speak. There exists a fixation of sorts amongst international bureaucracies to fashion initialisms from a familiar set of words, and then to replicate them until they become standard practice: WASH, SGBV, MDGs, QIPs, CSOs, etc.
This obsession with esoteric acronyms has turned the multilateral sector, and other international affairs arenas into an inaccessible industry — transparency and information sharing are hindered not because of lack of means, but rather a pretentious, scientific-sounding jargon. Moreover, initialisms with political and cultural underpinnings have taken to promoting simplistic caricatures of peoples and issues of global importance, undercutting the impact of development policies. To this end, bad international politics is rooted in bad language.
Recently the World Bank issued a policy paper titled “Which World Bank Reports Are Widely Read” (PDF). The research findings give an astounding account of resources wasted on the production of reports that are known as “knowledge products” in World Bank jargon. According to this paper, more than 31 percent of World Bank reports are never downloaded, and nearly 87 percent of its policy reports are never cited.
All this, in spite of the fact that the World Bank invests nearly one-quarter of its budget for country services in the production of policy reports. According to the current fiscal year’s budget (PDF), the World Bank’s total annual spending on its “core knowledge products” stood at $715.6 million in the third quarter of 2013. This is in addition to the non-core or secondary knowledge products that absorb nearly $300 million annually. That’s a billion dollars’ worth of words.
But does more wordage correspond to more knowledge, and by extension, as conventional wisdom goes, more development? The answer should be rhetorical — a point that the policy paper misses completely in its conclusion, which bases its findings on all sorts of econometric analysis and numbers and so forth. Simply put, to make knowledge more accessible, before all else, one must fix one’s language.
Those who practice international affairs are a small, elite minority, who can make an effort to speak and write more accessible English for the greater good of the many. “One ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy”, wrote Orwell in his 1946 essay. If we so choose, we can make pretentious wordage and readymade initialisms unfashionable. Our small inconvenience can go a long way to curtailing linguistic decadence and making sure that knowledge — and by extension, the global elite — is more accessible to the people that we all strive to serve.
(Photo Credit: webtipblog.com)