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The English of Politics - The Language of Barack Obama and John McCain

According to Orwell, the most striking example of bad habits in the English language is political writing. It is artificial, pompous, filled with Latin words falling “upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details” (Orwell, 1946, p.166), never fresh, vivid, sincere. Political language consists largely of euphemism, question-begging and, above all, vagueness.

Orwell stated that “political speech and writing are the defence of the indefensible”, in that they address certain events without suggesting mental pictures of them. And so defenceless villages, for instance, are bombarded from the air and the inhabitants are cleared out into the countryside: this is called pacification. People are imprisoned for years without a regular trial: this is referred to as elimination of unreliable elements. These are examples of what Orwell described as calling up things without using their real names.

In the modern age, there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics”. “All issues are political issues”, Orwell said, since it is impossible to separate political aspects from our everyday life and use of language. He viewed politics and the way it permeates the English language, but also other languages such as Russian, German and Italian, greatly influenced by the dictatorships ruling these countries, negatively, and in particular as “a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia”.
When the general atmosphere is corrupted, language suffers, too.

Notwithstanding this, Orwell saw some solutions to the decadence of language and he said that it is curable, although this has nothing to do with the setting up of a new Standard English, with the attempt to make written English colloquial, or with the use of a correct grammar and syntax, which can be of secondary importance if one expresses a meaning clearly enough. On the contrary, it deals with the setting aside of every word or idiom which has become stale, with the need “to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around” (Orwell, 1946, p. 168), and with the abolition of every foreign, scientific or jargon word if one thinks of an everyday English equivalent.

Orwell’s negative view on politics has been prophetic: during the last decades words like “politics”, “politician”, “politicise”, and “political” have been classified among the English words carrying the most negative connotations. Generally, connotation refers to the level of meaning based on associations we attach to words, whereas denotation deals with their barest meaning. Denotative definitions of “politician” might be, for instance, “a person who is practically engaged in running a country, a district or a town” (Beard, 2000, p. 3) or, as the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary says, even “a person whose job is concerned with politics, especially as an elected member of parliament”, but its connotations are nearly always negative. This is because politicians are frequently despised: they are seen as sinister, devious figures who try to manipulate people’s mind and thoughts in order to obtain power and popular consent, and to reach their objectives, which are frequently unnecessary or even negative for the good of society, but of primary importance for themselves.

Because “politician” carries such negative connotations, another word is required to describe those politicians achieving almost universal popularity, such as Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela: the word “statesman” seems to be quite a positive option, in that it carries connotations of wisdom and dignity. In the 1960s, the French President Georges Pompidou made a careful distinction between the connotations of the words “politician” and “statesman”.

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1. ENGLISH LANGUAGE IN POLITICS: INTRODUCTION Nowadays, everywhere in the world the concept of language as a dynamic set of visual, auditory or tactile symbols, allowing people to communicate with each other and to live together within a society, is recognized and even taught in schools. English speakers, for instance, generally take for granted that everyone knows what the English language is, in which countries it is spoken and whether a particular utterance is “proper” English or not. They tend to talk about their language as though it were a thing, something that has existed for many hundreds of years and that is still characterized by a certain unity despite all the changes it has undergone. This is not completely true. “A language is not a thing, but a practice of diversity ” (Joseph, 2006, p. 7), and it is hard to imagine one English language evolving over many centuries, rather than different English languages existing at different stages. Although everyone knows the meaning of Standard English and in what kind of context it should be used, it is far from true that speakers, even the most educated, use English in a standard way, since they do not necessarily recognize the authority of a British or American standard over their particular English, and they claim to have an English of their own, as well as the right to follow a standard of their own. English language has been transformed over time: it has assumed new features and peculiarities, and its grammatical and lexical structures have evolved, thus reflecting the changes society itself has undergone and the way people’s behaviour and thoughts have changed with it. Modern English, that is

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Facoltà: Lingue e Letterature Straniere

Autore: Fabrizia Ianieri Contatta »

Composta da 61 pagine.


Questa tesi ha raggiunto 237 click dal 21/10/2011.


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