Quotable: Tony Judt on language

“Cultural insecurity begets its linguistic doppelgänger. The same is true of technical advance. In a world of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter (not to mention texting), pithy allusion substitutes for exposition. Where once the Internet seemed an opportunity for unrestricted communication, the increasingly commercial bias of the medium–‘I am what I buy’–brings impoverishment of its own. My children observe of their own generation that the communicative shorthand of their hardware has begun to seep into communication itself: ‘people talk like texts.’

“This ought to worry us. When words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express. If we privilege personal expression over formal convention, then we are privatizing language no less than we have privatized so much else. ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less.’ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ Alice was right: the outcome is anarchy.

“In ‘Politics and the English Language,’ Orwell castigated contemporaries for using language to mystify rather than inform. His critique was directed at bad faith: people wrote poorly because they were trying to say something unclear or else deliberately prevaricating. Our problem, it seems to me, is different. Shoddy prose today bespeaks intellectual insecurity: we speak and write badly because we don’t feel confident in what we think and are reluctant to assert it unambiguously (‘It’s only my opinion…’). Rather than suffering from the onset of ‘newspeak,’ we risk the rise of ‘nospeak.'”

Tony Judt, “Words”, in The New York Review of Books

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