Will Self isn’t my favourite author. But he does have some interesting things to say. Like the other week, when he described George Orwell’s acclaimed and influential 1946 essay Politics and the English Language as “plain wrong”.
Orwell’s rules for writing are the heart and soul of Plain English (and many a tone of voice project). They include: “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print”; “Never use a long word where a short one will do”; “If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out”; “Never use the passive where you can use the active”; and “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.”
But, in his controversial essay for the BBC (perhaps something to do with the launch of his new novel), Self writes about language changing and evolving, and that it’s a good thing (which it is!). “The trouble for the George Orwells of this world is that they don’t like the ways in which our tongue is being shaped,” he argues. “Orwell and his supporters may say they’re objecting to jargon and pretension, but underlying this are good old-fashioned prejudices against difference itself.”
To be fair to Will Self, he’s an author who never shies away from exercising his significantly-wider-than-average vocabulary. He says that he likes Orwell’s writing “as much as the next talented mediocrity”, and has read some of his books “many times over”, in particular the “quasi-reportage” of The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London. ”
“Orwell – it’s said by [his] disciples – established once and for all in this essay that anything worth saying in English can be set down with perfect clarity such that it’s comprehensible to all averagely intelligent English readers,” continues Self. “The only problem with this is that it’s not true – and furthermore, Orwell was plain wrong.”
Self also says that “if you want to expose the Orwellian language police for the old-fashioned authoritarian elitists they really are”, all that needs to be done is ask them whether Standard English or the dialect linguists call African American Vernacular English is more grammatically complex. “The answer is, of course, it’s the latter that offers its speakers more ways of saying more things – you feel me?” he concludes.
I think Will Self has a point. Nobody wants to live a dull world. But I don’t like having to dive for the dictionary when I read his work either.
So whether you’re a puritan Plain English kind of guy or a free-flowing, linguistically creative type, he’s certainly opened up a debate over modern English usage.
Is Plain English plain boring? Tell us what you think…