Regrettably, obscure language is the new normal

In Text Messages this week, as modern-day politicians, corporates and academics resort to inaccessible language, Ecclesiastes remains a text for our times as the Covid-19 pandemic continues.

Never intended as a writing manual, the Book of Ecclesiastes has nonetheless become so, in large part because of George Orwell. As an example of the decline in English prose from the concrete and the comprehensible to the abstract and the absurd, Orwell went to a text composed about 2 300 years ago.

In his essay, Politics and the English Language, Orwell writes, “I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known 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 favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

“Here it is in modern English:

“Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels 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 goes on to say, “This is a parody, but not a very gross one… The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness… The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (‘time and chance’) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase… This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page.”

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Sadly, this type of writing is now seen everywhere. It is the favoured mode of bureaucrats, it is the language of business, consultancies and many non-governmental organisations, and it is the high-flown style of academia. A few examples of the last:

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.” – A 94-word sentence by Judith Butler in ‘Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time’, a 1997 article in scholarly journal Diacritics.

“If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to ‘normalize’ formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.” – Homi K Bhabha, one of the high priests of postcolonial studies, from his book The Location of Culture (Routledge, 1994).

Obscure and baffle

While bureaucrats and governments are wilfully obscure, and businesses and consultancies wish to baffle and bemuse potential clients into signing up for their services, it is regrettable that academics make it so difficult for their students and all those who wish to learn and to know more. Butler is regularly cited as one of the 10 cleverest people on the planet, but it’s not an accessible genius, sadly.  

In contrast, those lines of Ecclesiastes from the King James Version of the Bible, published in 1611, are still readily understood, powerful and memorable. Ecclesiastes has much other writing counsel, as one would expect from a text that takes its name from the Greek for preacher. Here is a sampling, translations from The Jerusalem Bible (1966; the work of the School of Biblical Studies in Jerusalem, which first produced a French translation and then an English version).

“For every dream, a vanity to match;
too many words, a chasing of the wind.”

“The more words, the greater the vanity of it all; and what does man get from it?”

“One last thing, my son, be warned that writing books involves endless hard work, and that much study wearies the body.”

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Writing is not, of course, the primary interest of the preacher. Rather, it is the pitilessness of human existence, in which it seems clear that the good and the bad dissolve equally to dust. In its sense of weariness and resignation, plunging to futility, Ecclesiastes is very much a text for our times: it gives us thoughts and aphorisms for the pandemic. A last sample, also from The Jerusalem Bible:

“All things are wearisome. No man can say that eyes have not had enough of seeing, ears their fill of hearing. What was will be again; what has been done will be done again; and there is nothing new under the sun. Take anything of which it may be said, ‘Look now, this is new’. Already, long before our time, it existed. Only no memory remains of earlier times, just as in times to come next year itself will not be remembered.”

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