The Broadview Reader
The Broadview Reader is a collection of selective essays on a variety of themes that intrigue ones mind. One such theme in the compilation is ‘Language and Communication’ which pulls on the reader’s rationality while emphasizing the outcome of language manipulation. In particular two essays stand out, George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language and Russell Baker’s ‘Little Red Riding Hood Revisited.’ In essence both pieces demonstrate how language can be contorted and distorted to twist the meaning of the simplest of things.
While Orwell takes a direct style in listing down the number of problems with the use of language in modern times, Baker uses a subliminal method. Even with the given differences in the approach to the topic, their work still demonstrates the same basic theme. Orwell’s critique of the use of the English language goes hand in hand with Bakers satire on the same subject. There are several points of arguments made by Orwell that are reflected in the writing style of Baker.
Use of Language
Both writers through their essays show us that the use of language can change the meaning, perception and reception of a piece. Language has the power to inform the reader or confuse him. There are two ways in which a modern writer can completely make a mess out of a piece of writing. He can either use extremely complicated terminology in hopes of giving his piece depth and value but only end up confusing his reader, or he can purposely play with his words to ‘slant’ the meaning of the text to influence the reader.
The confused writer
Both writers show that at times when composing an essay or an article, the author in trying to sound sophisticated and intelligent actually ends up with the opposite effect; instead of being impressed the reader is often left confused about the subject matter of the piece. Baker demonstrates this fact by giving us his version of the children’s story by making use of modern jargon to revise the tale. For example “Little Red decided a retrograde movement was in order and hung a left, resulting in a bay window where once there had been bare wall. Shedding granny’s flannels, the wolf gave chase and was closing when a heretofore unnoted third party came upon the scene…” (Baker, cybersonique.org) here a simple scene is turned into a jumble of words which seemed to make no real sense, in order to understand the lines, some may even have to consult a dictionary or a thesaurus at frequent intervals. The otherwise simple language of the story is set aside for the ‘sophisticated version’ which not only confuses the reader but may also bore him.
In his essay Orwell outlines the same problem of overcomplicating a simple thought by giving us two different translations of a verse from Ecclesiastes:
“I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11,12)
Here it is in modern English:
“Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.” (Orwell 91) The two shows a distinct variation where easy words would have sufficed but were not used because they were too simple. Modern writing, according to Orwell, is consistent in putting together a piece which makes use of works that have been chosen “for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer.” (Orwell 247) At the end of the day the reader ends up with not the writer’s actual thoughts but reproductions and recycled material that the writer mechanically put together.
The Manipulated Audience
In ‘Little Red Riding hood Revisited’ Baker indirectly criticizes the modern day language user who indulges wholeheartedly in terminology and euphemisms used by people from white collar professions such as lawyers, doctors, professors etcetera. An example of this would be the medical terms that he has used in the essay such as ‘digestive track’ and ‘duodenum.’ “Baker slants his revision to ridicule the preoccupation with overstated verbiage and the fear of addressing sensitive issues directly.” (thor.clark.edu) Through his work Baker is simply provoking the reader to look deeper into the meaning of the information he is being fed. He deliberately uses evasive language so the meaning of the passage would elude the reader. Baker was a firm believer in the fact that language could be used to influence its audience very effectively. “Therefore, the receiver must be a responsible and objective listener lest he or she be duped into forming an erroneous opinion due to lack of unbiased facts.” (thor.clark.edu)
Orwell also criticizes this by defining the different elements that make a cliché out of language itself. The use of ‘pretentious diction,’ ‘dying metaphors,’ ‘meaningless words’ and ‘operators or verbal false limbs’ is inexcusable for Orwell. He gives the same idea a political flavor but bears testament to the same fact. He is dead set against the use of clichéd metaphors and euphemisms. In the essay he writes, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” (Orwell 142) For Orwell the manipulation of language began at the thinking process. Bad usage of language can be caused by “tradition and imitation,” and even people who have an idea of the concept can succumb to the problem. Orwell talks about the political language that makes lies seem like the truth and generally influences a persons perception of reality.
In summation, the two essays show us how language can be misused and misinterpreted. And at the same time shows how mistakes can be made with the choice of writing style. The best way to use language is to keep things simple. The entire purpose and idea of communication is defeated if the writer ends up using extremely difficult words that the reader cannot understand. As Orwell questions, “How will you fight against fascism if you don’t know what it is?” Truly one cannot hope to process information that comes in words one has never heard of. Baker’s work also shows us the same idea; a simple story can be twisted to make up an excruciatingly difficult prose to read or understand. The reader can only process the information he can understand and accepts everything else at face value without giving it a second thought. This makes language both a powerful and dangerous tool.
Analysis of “Little Red Riding Hood Revisited, Available at: http://thor.clark.edu/smitgm/102/Syn1samp.htm
Baker, Russell. “Little Red Riding Hood Revisited.” New York Times Magazine. 13 January 1980, Available at: http://www.cybersonique.org/page/Little-Red-Riding-Hood-Revisited.aspx
Native American Holocaust Museum (thor.clark.edu)
Orwell, George. ‘Politics and the English Language’ First published: Horizon. — GB, London. — April 1946.
Rosengarten, Herbert, ed. The Broadview Anthology of Poetry. The Broadview Reader