Thursday, January 12, 2017

What we say (1984)

From the May 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Human beings have very complicated systems of communication; a facility for spoken and written language. What is language? One helpful analysis describes it as a code that we develop to organise, interpret and communicate our experiences to each other. Human languages have developed historically in a way which is related to what we have experienced. Although languages, including people's native language, are taught formally in schools, we always learn the first and most important aspects of our language by listening and experiential learning. Babies are generally not taught the basics of language with a grammar book.

Because language is rooted in experience, it usually makes little sense to describe particular accents or dialects as superior or inferior. They are simply different. We are traditionally taught that a particular variety of the English language is superior to all other varieties. The grammar must be the sort which is described as Standard English and the pronunciation should conform to a style known as Received Pronunciation. This is the sort of English used by newscasters. The reason this brand of English became elevated to the status it now occupies are historical and geographical, not linguistic. London became a key location because of the suitability of its ports for commercial and military purposes in relation to Western Europe. With the growing strategic importance of London from about the fifteenth century, various governmental, military, commercial and financial institutions settled in that city. These were the factors which endorsed the type of language which was used by the Establishment, although at that time a very different sort of language was used including a form of court French. If Liverpool or Newcastle-upon-Tyne had been a more advantageous base for the ruling class, then Standard English would have evolved in a different fashion.

Although we are taught otherwise, it is pointless to judge the inherent qualities of one grammar, accent or vocabulary. There are many examples in English which illustrate this point. The regional accents in English which stress the letter “r” when it comes after a vowel are by formal standards looked on as rural and inferior, for instance the way a person from the West country might pronounce the word “cart”. The same stressed “r”, however, in some North American dialects is regarded as refined. Linguistically, Standard English is no better or worse than Cockney or Geordie, no more so than French is better or worse than Italian. All languages and dialects are complicated, rule-governed systems whose rules are known to and used by their speakers.

The fact that languages arise from experience is significant. Many contemporary aboriginal communities live on the basis of sharing the work they need to do and then sharing the product of their work according to need. They have a word to express the idea of all that they have, common property (naolimba) but no vocabulary for “tax- man”, “UB40” or “neutron bomb”. Similarly with another contemporary group, the Panare Indians. The lifestyle of this group in Venezuela is characterised by the principle of cooperation and sharing. Apart from the enjoyment they find in their work they thrive on a great variety of songs, dances, drinks and festivals. They completely reject the principles of the commercial system and are free from all of the neuroses it produces in the people who suffer such a society. An American evangelical organisation, the New Tribes Mission, which recently attempted to convert the Panare and to make them become meek, fearful and obedient wage-slaves, met with some difficulty. There is no vocabulary in Panare to describe “guilt”, “sin”, “punishment" or “redemption". Nor, because these ideas are outside their social experience, was there any adequate way of paraphrasing these notions. Tragically, some of the Panare have been converted through some peculiar guile from the missionaries. The fables in the Bible were rewritten in Panare casting the ancestors of the Panare as the killers of Christ. The missionaries then said that unless the Panare were obedient to their every instruction they would be burnt alive in hell forever.

Today the social experience of most people takes place in capitalism—the social system in which the means of producing and distributing goods and services are in the hands of a minority. In capitalism goods are produced as commodities. Things are produced primarily to be sold on the market. In this system the abilities of the majority of people are commodities (or prospective commodities) because they are bought and sold on the jobs market. It follows that capitalism is a global system existing in state capitalist areas like the Russian Empire as much as in avowedly commercial places like the United States of America. Because capitalism puts the need for profits before human needs the system is constantly creating social problems. The lives of most of us are made unnecessarily miserable and difficult because of the social system which we live under.

Language is directly related to ideas and ideas to language. From the time when we are very young and begin to receive and develop ideas about the world in which we live, we are fed with words and ideas in a way which generally encourages us to make serious misjudgements about society. Two of these misjudgements, if we do not correct them, create a distorted view of society. The first is that we are encouraged not to see the organisation of society as a system. The state of society we are born into is just “the way things are". The fact that humankind has developed through a series of different social systems, like slave society and feudalism, is presented in such a way as to make it seem that our development has now stopped and that the basic principles of the profit system are correct forever. According to this fallacy it becomes acceptable to question the desirability of various aspects of capitalism but not to question the necessity of capitalism itself.

The other perversion we are encouraged to accept is dependence on leaders and employers and politicians to run society in a way that will be best for the majority. All the useful work in society—the design. manufacture, servicing and distribution of goods and services and all of the supplementary work needed to run society — is daily carried out by men and women who are not investors, financiers, politicians or economic experts. The process by which we are indoctrinated to lack confidence is a subtle one. The picture of the world we form from the words directed at us by parents, comics, schools, colleges, churches and the communications media all contribute to this process.

In his novel Nineteen Eighty Four, George Orwell described the Newspeak principle of “doublethink” as
the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously and accepting both of them . . . The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt.
In criticising some of the emergent contradictions Orwell saw in 1948 he chose to have the three Party slogans plastered everywhere in his 1984 society as:

WAR IS PEACE 
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY 
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH
 
We notice the type of contradictory thought signified by these slogans around us today. "Join the Peace Movement” the banner headline proclaims from a newspaper advertisement. The small print beneath the headline informs us that the Peace Movement referred to is. in fact, the Army (The Guardian, 25 November 1983).
What of Freedom?
We are all linked by a common belief in freedom and in Britain's greatness. (The Conservative Manifesto 1983)
We urge the British people to reject the Tory drift to catastrophe and to support our alternative strategy for peace, jobs and freedom (Labour’s Call to the People, NEC. 1980)
In these contexts the idea of freedom is bound up with wage-slavery. The freedom to be given employment and to be used to make a profit for a minority. It means freedom in a society of governments and armies and prisons and police forces. The idea of nationalism and of making sacrifices for “Britain" is first installed by the acceptance of a set of false assumptions about property. The vocabulary of possession is instrumental in the inculcation of this myth. We are bombarded with talk about "Our country . . . our need to stimulate trade ... our investment overseas ...” For most people this "our” business is quite inappropriate. It should be "their”. In Britain, according to the Inland Revenue Statistics, the top 2 per cent of the population own 64 per cent of all the land and the top 13 per cent of the population own 91 per cent of all housing.

The idea that ignorance is strength is again one which is repeatedly pul to us in the form of exhortations to trust leaders and politicians and bosses. The notion is that by harnessing your mind to that of a leader you will divest yourself of great responsibilities and, with many people transferring their power to the same leaders, those leaders will become very powerful and the better placed to run society efficiently. Minority power exists by consent because power is always, if only potentially, with the majority. We have only to get up off our knees.

Although language and ideas can influence the majority to be acquiescent in capitalism and to regard change as undesirable or impossible, the dynamic, changing nature of society can never be arrested by language. Socialism will entail a society without nations, armies, the rivalry which causes war, employment, money and all of the paraphernalia needed to support the profit system. The idea of socialism is thus born out of capitalism. When people’s experiences clash with the prejudices they have acquired, they can either reinterpret their experiences to conform with their prejudices or allow their experiences to refute their prejudices. Human history, including the development of the sciences, of technology and of language is evidence that experience is mightier than myth.
Gary Jay



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