Peter Jones

Language barriers

Peter Jones says that universities are becoming factories of jargon and illiteracy

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In his essay 'Politics and the English Language' (1946), George Orwell laments the corruption of the English language in postwar society. Everywhere he finds pompous phrases designed to sound weighty ('render inoperative', meaning 'break'); Latin- or Greek-based words where simpler words will do ('ameliorate' for 'improve', 'clandestine' for 'secret'); words which have lost their meaning ('fascism', meaning 'something not desirable'); padding to give an impression of depth ('this is a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind'); clichés ('ring the changes on', 'play into the hands of', 'toe the line', 'explore every avenue'). Words that give him particular grief include 'phenomenon', 'element', 'objective', 'categorical', 'virtual', 'basic', 'primary', 'promote', 'constitute', 'exhibit', 'exploit', 'utilise'.

Orwell continues, 'A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance to 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.' It is like 'having a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow'.

The result, he thinks, is that slovenly language and slovenly thinking begin to feed off and reinforce each other: '[English] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.' He pleads for a return to linguistic simplicity, letting 'the meaning choose the words and not the other way round'. Otherwise, he fears that the language of politics in particular will become an instrument not for expressing, but for concealing or preventing thought.

Politicians, of course, still resort to glib catch-phrases. As soon as you hear one saying, 'Our policy on this is quite clear,' or, 'Let me be quite clear on this,' you know that the fog is about to start rolling in. But politics these days is not the main offender. As everyone is aware, though still no one does anything about it, the infection that threatens our national language the length and breadth of the land is education-speak.

This special language had its origins in business-speak, and began to spread when Margaret Thatcher insisted that universities should see themselves as businesses, involving 'processes' and 'products'. Such language is fine for the business world, which deals with the definable and quantifiable. As long as the 'product' works and sells, they can use whatever language they like about it, however laughably inflated and self-important. But such language is entirely inappropriate to the world of education, for two reasons. First, if students can be processed, produced and packaged like Dairy Lea, their educational experience will be worthless. Second, the 'product' of university teaching and research is the articulation of ideas, an activity not best engaged in by downloading pre-packed phrases from the computer in your brain and regurgitating them in no particular order.

This practice has, of course, been going on in the worlds of contemporary literary criticism and social and cultural studies for years. 'Pseuds Corner' in Private Eye mocks it every fortnight. In 1996 an American academic, the physicist Alan Sokal, positively blew it apart when he stitched together an article from the most vacuous phrases he could find, entitled it 'Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity' and submitted it for publication. The editors of the academic journal Social Text duly obliged.

It made little odds. But since contemporary lit. crit. and social and cultural studies are of no importance, it does not matter. Their practitioners can talk to themselves in whatever language they like. No one else listens. The problem is that the language is now universal throughout the university world – which does matter. A quick run through the advertisements for jobs in universities makes the point with terrifying clarity.

Since advertising is expensive and universities are short of cash, one would have thought that clarity, crispness and economy would be the priority – quite apart from the fact that universities are supposed to be all about clear thinking, writing and speaking. How wrong one would be. Turgid, repetitive, pompous, pretentious bombast is the order of the day. One would not have thought, for example, that there was much of a problem with the word 'teach'. But it is not good enough for many universities, who prefer to 'deliver modules across a wide range of courses within the undergraduate programme'. Universities are always 'delivering'. Postmen will soon be out of a job.

Newcastle longs for 'Functional Specialist Directors' (as opposed to dysfunctional ones?) to play a 'pivotal' role in 'delivering on its vision' of 'enhanced customer focused service delivery' and 'substantial service delivery enhancement'. Birmingham wants a registrar to 'build upon the institution's strengths, while addressing key opportunities in today's challenging environment'. Surrey wants study skills tutors who will be 'devising and delivering a range of study skills programmes, and participating in learning and teaching development to support widening participation'. It sounds a juicy prospect.

University advertisements simply groan with this sort of stuff – you cannot move for 'development opportunities and provision', 'supporting and extending the capacity of the research function', and 'enhancing the research and practice development profile'. And this is precisely what Orwell was complaining about – not thinking about what is being said but reaching for the prepacked words and phrases and letting them choose the meaning.

Here, then, is the roll-call of contemporary clichés to replace Orwell's. Take any of the following nouns: aspect, role, development, challenge, context, stakeholder, opportunity, provision, resource, direction, investment, portfolio, policy, programme, skill, track-record, liaison, quality, function, end-user, process, commitment, profile, range, environment, skills, outcome, collaboration. Throw in any of the following adjectives: key, crucial, proven, wide, broad, emerging, expanding, international, ongoing, developing, innovative, pro-active, strong, strategic, organisational, or any of the above nouns used as adjectives ('policy relevance', 'information resource'). String together with verbs such as facilitate, deliver, develop, broaden, enhance, support, encourage, co-ordinate, champion, implement. That's it. You too can soon be talking about 'pro-active development opportunities facilitating and delivering an ongoing end-user collaboration process'.

Orwell characterises this sort of writing with a splendid image: 'words falling upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details'. Which raises the question: why are the guardians and transmitters of our culture presenting themselves to the outside world in this dreadful language? How on earth can anyone with the slightest respect for words write such vacuous drivel? What sort of education can people who promote such an image be trusted to offer? And what can be done?

By way of contrast, an old friend of mine, Peter Thornton, came round for lunch the other day bringing with him the original of a letter he owns, dated 9 April 1796, from George Humble, a rat-catcher living in Wooler, a village in north Northumberland. Humble is writing to William Robertson in nearby Ladykirk, explaining that he cannot come to kill his rats because he is short of ferrets and has found other work, thatching. Peter's transcription runs as follows:

W.m Robertson Esqu Ladikirk Sir This day I re.d yours by reson of not being at Home when hit Came to my hous, and your desire is to Come emmedeately, which is not of my Power to do, for this winter I hav e been unable to do any kind of wark, and this is the first job I have takin in hand which is some new houses to thach which must be amideatly done and my ferrets are all dead but one young one, so iff it is posable that you Can Let the Rats be unkiled till I be done with this present wark I am now with, I emmedetly will Come and Kill them Sir I am your most obedent Humble Servent George Humble Wooler April 1796

One could speculate endlessly about the education that George Humble had undergone in a tiny village in north Northumberland in 1796 to produce this wonderfully simple, eloquent, stylish letter. Whatever it was, it was vastly more effective than anything received by today's semi-educated composers of university advertisements and those who permit such illiterate rubbish to be published in their name. So the answer is simple. We need more Northumberland rat-catchers.

Dr Peter Jones founded Friends of Classics, and has recently revised E.V. Rieu's 1950 translation of Homer's Iliad for Penguin. His commentary (Homer's 'Iliad': a Commentary on Three Translations) has just been published by Duckworth/Bristol Classical Press.