Yesterday I commented in passing on the English Spelling Society’s initiative to vandalise spelling, making it not so much easy as unnecessary to learn.
They used Hamlet’s soliloquy by way of illustration, offering various possibilities that wouldn’t tax our comprehensively educated masses too much (caption on the left is one such). That’s appalling by itself – but it’s not by itself.
Changes in the language provide perhaps the most reliable clue to a society’s social, cultural and intellectual dynamics. After all, since language is intricately linked with thought, whoever controls one also controls the other.
That’s why revolutionaries, who by definition seek to control the populace, have always chosen language as one of their first targets. For revolutions don’t just aim to change the existing government, creating a new political dispensation. They aim to change the existing society, creating a new man.
Revolutionaries thus seek godlike powers, but these are hard to come by. However, the power to eliminate the old man, with his anachronistic notions, manners, culture and allegiances is an easier task, one within revolutionaries’ reach.
All revolutionaries are populist in reality or at least in pretence. They need to be seen as acting in the name of the people and in their best interests, with ‘people’ typically defined as common people.
Cultural mobility in revolutionary societies is invariably vectored downwards, and this doesn’t depend on the nature of a revolution or the degree of violence required to perpetrate it. The common man becomes the new king, if only putatively.
Language is one characteristic of the educated classes that sets them apart from the revolutionaries’ desired constituencies. That’s why, when the sniping starts, language is the first target in the crosshairs.
The differences among various revolutions are well known and universally taught. Yet I’ve always maintained that they all have much in common too, and the similarities both outnumber and outweigh the distinctions.
Staying within today’s topic, it’s profitable to look at such apparently dissimilar revolutions as those in America (1776), Russia (1917), Turkey (1922) and China (1949). What do they all have in common?
I’ve pointed out a number of similarities elsewhere, but one that interests me here is that they all simplified spelling shortly after taking over. In Russia that upheaval involved significant changes to the alphabet and in Turkey a shift to a whole new alphabet, which also happened in many ethnic areas of the Soviet Union.
The usual argument in favour of such sweeping changes is based on the need to make mass literacy more accessible. That’s a tell-tale sign of the revolutionary mindset: the incoming lot wish the whole population to be able to follow their propaganda.
That’s why I’ve always dismissed Castro’s fans who proudly declare that under his tutelage all Cubans learned how to read. “Quite,” I agree. “So what do they read? Santayana? Borges? Ortega y Gasset? Or speeches by Che Guevara and the Castro brothers?”
The cultural revolution under way in Britain hasn’t so far produced a violent overthrow of the existing order. But that doesn’t make it any less revolutionary, and certainly no less committed to lording it over language.
The blatantly fascistic aspects of this drive involve the imposition of PC vocabulary, with variously severe punishments in store for the recalcitrant holdouts. Yet the attempts to vandalise grammar, orthography and phonetics are no less pernicious for being more subtle.
Language is a living organism and, like all such organisms, it can only survive if it benefits from both static and dynamic elements, both homo- and heterogeneity.
Local, dialectal and class varieties enrich standard English, while at the same time emphasising its vital importance. The interchange between the general and the particular has to proceed at a measured pace and in the right volume. Too little leads to calcification and ultimately linguistic despotism. Too much produces anarchy – and also ultimately linguistic despotism.
Language has a capacity for self-regulation, controlling the amount and rate of change (including that in spelling) judiciously and organically. The problem with change by diktat is that it disrupts this natural process – and anything that disrupts also usually destroys.
Standard English, with its rules of grammar, spelling and pronunciation, is based on educated speech as it now is, which has traditionally provided an aspirational standard for all. It also has an essential unifying role to play: whatever patois a Geordie, Brummie or Cockney speaks at home, he ought to be able to use standard English to communicate smoothly with all Englishmen.
At the same time, he can subtly change standard English by drip-feeding his linguistic idiosyncrasies into it over time. We’ve never had an equivalent of the French Academy, with its noble but ultimately ill-conceived effort to protect standard language from change.
Rather than protecting, this effort would be more likely to result in stultifying if it succeeded. But it can’t succeed: only dead languages will stand still.
In addition to its socially unifying role, standard English also acts as a yardstick of culture and education. Abolishing it would be thus tantamount to abolishing any hierarchy of culture and education, which is the target most revolutionaries see in their sights.
Our current ones actually go further than their typological equivalents in different places and at different times. For, rather than replacing one uniform standard with another, they seek to eliminate a uniform standard altogether.
If you look, say, at the caption above, practically every word there could be spelled in any number of ways. English offers unlimited possibilities along those lines, as was first shown by an anonymous 19th century reformer (and later by GB Shaw) on the example of the word ghoti, as a spelling variant of fish.
There, the gh is an f, as in enough; the o is an i, as in women; and the ti is a sh, as in revolution. If everyone spells every word in the Hamlet soliloquy in similar ways as he sees fit, without recognising any universal standard, the resulting Babel will make communication first difficult and then impossible.
But those English Spelling Society vandals are like all revolutionaries: they want to destroy first and worry about creating later – if at all. All educated people must join forces to fight this linguistic anarchy, thereby keeping all anarchy at bay.
For the ultimate fruit of anarchy isn’t liberty. It’s tyranny.