Essay: Language Comparison

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¶ … Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" and George Orwell's

Politics and the English Language"

Language is more than words. Language is a tool that can be used in a variety of ways to achieve a variety of purposes. In his essay, "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell focuses on the function of language, emphasizing that it is a tool by which we can wield much power. He observes that language has been used as a creative tool and a manipulative tool. One of the first premises of Orwell's essay is that language and thought are connected. He writes that an "effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely" (Orwell 317). This influence works both ways. "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought" (324). This premise is powerful in that it not only suggests that thought can influence language but it emphasizes what we already know - that individuals can be influenced by language.

Orwell maintains, "language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes" (317). For him, modern language is overflowing with bad habits and we perpetuate these habits "by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble" (314). Orwell is emphatic in his belief that we should avoid these bad habits that have crept into our language so we can "think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration" (Orwell). We should take responsibility for what we say and try to speak with truth because language is an "instrument for expressing and not concealing or preventing thought" (Orwell). Orwell understands that language is a powerful and valuable tool for mankind and it should be respected not abused.

Orwell points the finger at politicians because they somehow seem to attract power. Swift's projector might very well be a politician considering his flair for language. Politics is important to Orwell's argument because "the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear" (323). Orwell maintains that his statement is true and if we simply pay attention to any politician, we will become painfully aware that we are "some kind of dummy" (323). It is true that politicians often repeat facts until they look ridiculous and their speak is often filled with "question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness" (323). Clearly, Orwell illustrates how truth can be manipulated to prove almost anything to be true. For instance, the act of robbing peasants of their land and this is called a "transfer of population" (323). This is a perfect example of how language is manipulated to suit an individual's need. Politicians and others use this type of manipulation everyday in order to convey a specific message. Politicians find this method particularly useful when they want to erase a negative image and replace it with a positive one. Orwell explains how politicians must work around a phrase like "killing an enemy" and turn it into a more positive one like "protecting one's life." Orwell effectively proves, "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity" (324). Here, Orwell pinpoints the need for such an abuse of language and that is man's need to appear better than he actually is - in a word, he is referring to ego. Men need to manipulate words in order to get what they want and it is far too easy to find a group of "believers" to support one's cause. American politics provides perfect examples of this almost every day. Orwell proves that thoughts can corrupt language and very easily at that. Under the same assumption, then, we must conclude that thoughts can be corrupted in the same way. The process is subtle and often taught through generations. Part of the reason why this occurs is because it is easy - meaning that we are easily manipulated. In short, with language, we have the power to manipulate the truth into what we want it to be. Our words, if we choose them carefully, can make us look like something totally different than what we really are.

In turning this thinking to Jonathon Swift's "A Modest Proposal," we can see just how powerful language can actually be. The language of the projector in Swift's proposal is dangerous because it is logical, it is productive, and it is flawless in its presentation. We learn how language can be used in such a way that it serves any agenda. Swift's projector would achieve success as a politician in that his arguments are clear and concise. He begins his process of winning us over by petitioning our sense of logic. He does this by bringing the negative aspects of poverty to the forefront of his argument. He is presenting the ugly first so that the image remains in our minds. The poor are not just people - they are a serious problem from which the country be ridded. They are "beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags, and importuning every passenger for an alms" (Swift Modest Proposal 518). They are also " melancholy" (518) sights for anyone that is forced to look upon them. Furthermore, they have children, which only compounds the problem. These babies will grow up to be like their mothers and be nothing more than an "additional grievance" (518) to everyone else. By forcing us to confront the ugly problem of poverty and presenting the poor in a negative light, we can see the power of language. Here the influence of words upon individuals is negative.

However, Swift's projector has not intention of stopping there. To remedy the problem of the poor on the street, Swift's projector presents in a clear and concise manner that the solution to the problem is killing the poor's children and selling their bodies for food. Swift's projector must mention killing children while at the same time declare how beneficial to everyone this act will be. He twists language in such a way that even selling children sounds good. He does this by presenting the government as irresponsible and tactless. In short, the government has failed because there are hungry people on the streets. In fact, no one has been able to solve the problem of poverty, claiming that "under the present situation of affairs" (519), caring for the poor "is utterly impossible by all the methods hitherto proposed" (519). Here we see how he has taken a negative image and used it to his own advantage, just as Orwell said people would do.

His argument moves in the direction of financial benefits, adding that the poor will be able to pay their bills with the money they receive from their children and, additionally, the economy will experience a boom from their extra expenditures. Swift's projector maintains that the:

Propagation of swine's flesh, and improvement in the art of making good bacon, so much wanted among us by the great destruction of pigs, too frequent at our tables; which are no way comparable in taste or magnificence to a well grown, fat yearly child, which roasted whole will make a considerable figure at a Lord Mayor's feast, or any other publick entertainment. (522-3)

This passage confirms Orwell's estimation that we can surely manipulate language in almost any way to sell practically any idea we want.

Swift's projector adds salt to the wound by allowing himself to be open to any suggestions that might be better than his own. Again, he is using language to influence thought. Any suggestions must be "equally innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual" (2180) to be considered. If he can convince the public that he is right simply because no one else has been able to come up with a better idea, then he wins the argument and has successfully corrupted language with thought. Orwell and Swift successfully demonstrate how easily language can be abused.

Swift also expresses his views about how language can be manipulated in his essay in "The Examiner No. 14," in which he discusses the political liar. These individuals are very successful in what they do and part of their ability to be successful liars relies in the fact that they possess short memories. It should be noted, however, that in order for politicians to be successful liars, they must have a believing audience. Swift claims in this essay that it is the "natural disposition in many men to lie, and in multitudes to believe" (Swift the Examiner 405), and thus creates a terrible conflict when it comes to the truth. Again, we see the significance of truth and how it seems to lag behind the art of lying. It takes special people to tell special lies and while Swift believes that the truth will prevail, he wonders if it will be late upon arriving.

Orwell is correct when he declares that we should remove the bad habits that have crept into… [END OF PREVIEW]

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