The Political Vernacular

An examination of the relationship between thought and language

Recently, The Guardian publication updated its style guide to introduce terms that more accurately represent the environmental crises we are now facing. The original terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming,’ are now less preferable to the terms ‘climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’ or  ‘global heating.’ The categorisation of opinion has also changed.  A ‘climate sceptic’ is now a ‘climate science denier.’

These developments tends to raise broader questions about language and opinion. Would our thoughts change if we had more variations of the language we use to express it? Our thought decides what language we use, but how many of our thoughts have been shaped simply by the structures and rigours of language?

Changes in thought influence a change in language, while language has the power to change and create new ideas. Hyperbole for example is useful when adding emphasis, painting vivid imagery or keeping someone’s attention: but unchecked exaggeration can become confused with reality.

Editor-in-chief of The Guardian Katharine Viner said that these recent linguistic changes ensure the publication remains scientifically precise in its reportage, while also communicating clearly with its readers. “The phrase ‘climate change,’ for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity,” she said.

This change in language, brought about in global publications such as The Guardian, follows the recent addition of daily global carbon dioxide levels to online weather pages. “People need reminding that the climate crisis is no longer a future problem — we need to tackle it now,” Viner said in April.

The language of politics in media is particularly malleable and prone to sensationalism and distortion. A specific selection of words can control an audience’s response to the overarching messages of a party or candidate. Reporting on the election fallout, Guardian Australia’s political editor Katharine Murphy wrote about how both parties campaigns were certainly shaped by the ‘climate emergency.’ She noted that Opposition Leader Bill Shorten referred to the process as a ‘climate crisis’ in his concession speech, whilst Prime Minister Scott Morrison used the terms ‘climate action’ and ‘climate change.’ Sky News host Chris Kenny deemed The Guardian’s style change as ‘insidious’ and ‘alarmist,’ and stated that the changes were imposing a kind of groupthink.

The idea that thought can corrupt language and that language can corrupt thought, is the premise of George Orwell’s 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language. A seminal work, Orwell discusses at large the profound effect of language on thought, especially when it is used unconsciously.

“A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.” A reduced rate of consciousness developed through the framing of language is, as he says, particularly favourable to political conformity. This is widespread and not limited to any one particular tumultuous time in history, as Orwell notes. It is also not limited to politics as a whole. Worrying compromises of language and thought exist in the everyday vernacular:

“Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy… By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.”

Writing is a direct manifest of thought, which is why Orwell pushes for a clearer everyday use of language, urging that the meaning chooses the word and not the other way around. Language should express thought, not alter or prevent it. He ends his essay with a list of rules that he believed would clarify the language used, and demands an attitude change from the people accustomed to superfluous ‘political’ language.

At this point, it would normally follow that a reference be made to the control of language during the Nazi regime in Germany, and the later attempt to purge the language. One could go into great depth about this and quote several historical events and facts. One could also make many a grand statement about authoritarian control and supervised manipulation. But this would be a hyperbolic attempt to justify the argument for clearer, more conscious language, and it is quite beside the point. It would be surrendering to the unconscious exaggeration that endangers political discourse to begin with. Above any substantial parallels, fascist comparisons are all too common simply because they are easy to make.

The attempt to purge language of its falsities and un-truths can also go too far as to exaggerate what is seemingly anti-fascist. Obsession with purity is the hallmark of a fascist mind, and it is easy to revert to non-thinking or compulsively motivated language. The best option is to recognise that language is not as fleeting and cerebral as we might think    rather, it is malleable and has tactile consequences. In this way, we can monitor not just our own use of language, but also the language voiced by authoritative figures in the hopes of keeping language close to our own minds and thoughts.