The Linguistics of Corrupted Language

The Linguistics of Corrupted Language

Why Orwell Doesn't Need Whorf

The political corruption of language is often called Orwellian, and indeed Orwell was deeply concerned with it, both his essay “Politics and the English Language”, and the role of Newspeak in his novel 1984. He has in mind a bidirectional process:

The decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes… But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

Taken at face value, the mechanism is Whorfian, the idea that the language you speak influences the thoughts you can think. In 1984, similarly,

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it…

Fortunately for the independent-minded, and unfortunately for a would-be thought police, Whorfism is mostly false. The language you speak does not in fact limit or shape perception or the thoughts you can think. Our ability to use and generate concepts depends more on the shared language faculty than on particular languages with particular words.

Orwell accuses this position of being Pollyanna-ish about the problem of politically corrupted language:

Those who deny [that the decadence of our language is curable] would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words and constructions.

What I hope to show here is that the political corruption of language is a real and worrying problem, but that Orwell, under the influence of both Whorfism and his own curmudgeonliness, has misdiagnosed the cause, and therefore offered a flaccid solution. In our own phase of accelerating corruption of language, excising both the defunct linguistics and the incidental stylistic preferences from the ‘Newspeak’ metaphor will be critical for figuring out how to reverse the corruption.

How Not To Thought-Police: The Euphemism Treadmill

If the language you speak has no influence on the thoughts you can think, is political correctness – the policing of vocabulary in service of inclusivity – just a pointless battle?

Steven Pinker seems to think so. It might be called a law of language is that if a concept is necessary, a word will be either created or coopted to fill the gap. Or more compactly: semantic gaps get filled as needed. As I wrote earlier, “it is not the lack of a word for ‘annular combustor’ that holds back the Afghan aerospace industry.” When those gaps are created deliberately by taboo, we get what Pinker calls the “euphemism treadmill”:

Retardation was first used in the psychiatric sense in 1895, and eventually replaced older terms – once neutral themselves – like moron, imbecile, idiot, feeble-minded and cretin. Each of these terms had a specific meaning as to severity and age of development (cretinism for example referred to severe congenital hypothyroidism) but these meanings often differed between countries… These new technical terms were no doubt welcomed by those affected, as the previous names were being used as derogatory insults (as indeed they still are).

By the 1960s when I was in grade school, the same process had occurred with retardation. “Retard” was a common playground insult… Since that time retardation has been gradually replaced by a variety of more acceptable (at least for now) terms including mentally handicapped, mentally impaired, mentally challenged, intellectually challenged, intellectually disabled, learning disabled, and developmentally disabled.

Another example would be the anthropological terms savagery and barbarism, which were technical terms for stages of social development, but have since been abandoned because of the inevitable accretion of insulting connotations. For better or for worse, you cannot prevent the expression of a concept – even one intended to insult – by eliminating the word for it. Semantic gaps get filled, and the treadmill turns once more.

We should not, however, be blithe about tabooing. Thoughts can be prevented from being thought, but this happens on the semantic level of meanings, not the linguistic level of grammar and vocabulary. And that difference matters for how to arrest the process.

How Taboos Close Off Concepts

New concepts are bootstrapped by metaphors to existing concepts. As Hayek argued in The Sensory Order, “An event of an entirely new kind which has never occurred before” – i.e. for which no associations to existing concepts could be constructed – “could not be perceived at all.”

Language can structure the process of concept-creation, but the ability to do this is not tied to any particular grammar or vocabulary. Instead, it flows directly from the same more basic faculty in which grammar and vocabulary themselves are rooted. If this is true, the euphemism treadmill is exactly what we should expect if we simply taboo vocabulary as such. Pulling levers on the linguistic level has little, if any, causal power over semantic structure: the former adapts to the latter, and simply routes around taboos.

But taboos do not operate solely on the linguistic level. They can indeed be dangerous, corrupt language, and inhibit thought, for reasons that have nothing at all to do with the language itself.

One notable thing about actual taboos is that they focus on associations – and particularly on valences (positive or negative evaluations) – rather than on concepts directly. The idea of “dogwhistles”, for example, is intended to key up hypervigilance to certain associations with a negative valence.

This kind of taboo, more than a simple lexical taboo, has the power to short-circuit the process of generating concepts. If words cannot be spoken, concepts can still be expressed with other words. If associations cannot be made, if metaphors are blocked, then it becomes impossible to think certain thoughts.

The power of a taboo is to link certain associations either to social status or to the impulse toward the sacred (and one leads naturally enough to the other). To utter negatively valenced words associated with sacred classes, to even depict such classes in negatively valenced situations, is at best low-status and risible; at worst dangerous and blasphemous.

The impulse behind such taboos is understandable: to rectify past wrongs and current disparities by an unconditional grant of status. To step back and let others lead. The result, however, is that not one person in a hundred has any chance of addressing the problems honestly. If we taboo not only insulting words for the mentally disabled, but also any negative associations with disability – as indeed some disability rights activists are trying to do – there will be no possibility of successful treatment, integration, or amelioration. To pretend the problem does not exist, or that the only problem is the fact that society treats it like a problem, is not advocacy; it is a cruel misdirection. The necessary inferential leaps are blocked off, redirected elsewhere, and the path to understanding – much less to a constructive solution – closed. Instead, the mind auto-completes from the premise to an acceptable answer.

As I argued in my piece on GPT-3, this kind of mechanical thinking can persist because it walls itself off from feedback from the physical and social worlds and becomes, at its worst, purely self-referential. An effective taboo should therefore be thought of not merely as a proscription, but as a ready-made and self-contained mental model whose connections to the forbidden thought are cut, cauterized by the sense of the sacred to prevent their re-formation. And like Hayek argued of events earlier, a thought to which no connection can be made, away from which all ledges within inferential distance have been withdrawn, cannot be considered.

Mixed up though it is with Whorfism and his own preference for Saxon style, In substance, Orwell’s essay was indeed focused less on lexical taboos as such than on this kind of self-contained and corrupted mental model. He even identified it with mechanical thinking:

A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.

What Is To Be Done?

The euphemism treadmill, ultimately, has no causal effect on its own. But the taboo of associations drives the taboo of words; a renewable energy source with the sense of the sacred at its core, powering the treadmill. Indeed, the runner now seems to be outrunning the accretion of negative connotations. It is these taboos of association that corrupt language; the lexical taboos are merely symptoms.

Why is it politics that corrupts language then, rather than any sacredness at all? Surely the power to corrupt language lies latent in any sacred tenet. But it is in the realm of political competition, especially unconstrained political competition, where the restraints on sacred values are cleared away; an arms race where survival demands the winnowing of sacred values in the service of ever-more fanatical devotion. Politics is a Moloch, a perverse selection process, that demands an Orwellian corruption of language in order to increase the internal cohesion of the ideological faction.

Orwell’s own solution, therefore – that certain patterns of the output of such corrupted mental models “could similarly be got rid of if enough people would interest themselves in the job” – is thus doubly ineffective. In the first place it targets the grammatical level; the symptom rather than the root cause. It is not enough simply to insist on using tabooed words, or to clean up our prose. An effective solution cannot make headway fighting a battle on linguistic forms; it must dirty its hands with semantic content. It must insist on the right to make tabooed associations, and this is a rather riskier proposition socially speaking.

Ultimately, however, mere exertion and insisting will be a losing battle unless the Moloch is slain, unless the conditions favoring the selection of more fervent ideological factions are changed. That, of course, is also an uphill battle in the long term. But in the medium term, we have a good sense of what works (emphasis added):

Economic behavior is not sufficient [by itself] to ensure social welfare … without a set of political institutions to suppress maladaptive behavior [like the corruption of language]. This suppression, of course, is exactly the point of constitutional prohibitions on broad swaths of state action! … [T]he more a government involves itself with the ordering of particular elements rather than general rules, the more strongly the political process selects for ruthless leaders [as well as corrupted language].

I can do no better here than to reiterate that the whole problem of political philosophy is the legitimacy of hard constraints on state action; taking possibilities for rent-seeking and destructive competition between political factions off the table. If this project can succeed – and it has only succeeded for a brief moment within one political tradition – only then do we have a chance to reverse the corruption of language that Orwell cried out against.


LinguisticsF.A. HayekGeorge OrwellSteven Pinker


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