Totalitarian-style language is creeping westwardsby Edward Skidelsky / October 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
Totalitarian states are, without exception, bores. They express themselves at great length and with extreme monotony of diction. The Russian dissident Andrei Sinyavsky spoke of “the sacred language of the Soviet state… cleansed of everything but stock phrases and strictly established forms.” Such uniformity had, of course, a political purpose. Words in Soviet Russia did not so much describe as replace reality. Things that could not be expressed in the correct formulae did not exist.
But it was Maoist China that set the record for linguistic standardisation. “One single incorrect formulation, and the whole nation will decline,” wrote Mao. Choice of words was minutely scrutinised; the wrong one could spell dismissal or worse. Even an accidental similarity to the wording of a discredited politician might be fatal.
Language was a state affair in pre-communist China as well, where the literate class consisted largely of bureaucrats, aspiring bureaucrats and retired bureaucrats. Emperors interested themselves in the details of orthography and lexicography; they edited dictionaries and monitored poets. This tradition continues even today. Formulations such as “harmonious society” and “peaceful development” require approval at the highest level before being percolated down through the ranks.
Europe used to be free from such linguistic control. Here, ownership of the written word extended far beyond court and church to the large throng of diarists, letter-writers and pamphleteers. The great shapers of language were not officials but poets: Shakespeare in England, Goethe in Germany, Pushkin in Russia. Language, like the common law, was regarded as the creation and possession of the public, not as a product of administrative decree.
That, at least, was the old liberal vision. Today, we are approaching something like a Chinese condition, in which new formulations, devised in government departments, are thrust abruptly upon an unsuspecting public. Overnight, single mothers are “lone” mothers, backward children have “special needs,” and so forth. No enforcement is necessary; compliance with the new usage is automatic and universal. We are slipping, heedlessly, into the linguistic habits of totalitarianism. Outside my office window, a poster reads: “celebrating cultural diversity.” It might as well read: “all power to the Soviets.”