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Public language, that is, the language uttered by politicians and the media is often shop-worn, stale, occasionally idiotic or just cliché. This is true in many places around the world, especially with the 24 hour news cycle and spin that the public have had to live with.

It’s a bargain that is accepted because there is no alternative and besides it’s not very important because action speaks louder than mere words. It’s easy to adopt the same trick and avoid an argument – just insert a cliché.

The idea that words serve ideas and that poor articulation simply demonstrates bad thinking is rarely accepted. We see through that connection as simply “rhetoric”; a word that is applied as facilely as any other cliché, because – again – actions speak louder than words.

What this perspective permits between the public speaker and public is a choice between banal ordinary speech and management jargon, which has somehow been adopted as the linguistic form that exemplifies action and leadership. How that is possible, when verbs are almost always absent from such speech, shows how bad things really are.

If Nietzsche were alive today he would feel vindicated in his views on the
dispiriting nature of public life as viewed through the words of its practitioners, anti-democrat, that he was. He could reach that view simply parsing the state of discourse. In some nations they do quite well, at least they keep up appearances, though there are lapses. The capacity of “the human being to coexist with fish peacefully”, for instance, has been disproved, though it was valiant to advocate it.

In the land down under the last week has been especially dismal. In a continent known for its dryness, public speech is profoundly arid. This quirk of natural selection is perceived with some relish as a unique quality and to be exalted as a characteristic of the nation. The same thing can be said of any sub-idiom; that its limitations can be celebrated.

Likewise hippies managed to convey quite a semantic range through ‘man’; as no doubt gangstas do with their homies. The essential restrictions on what can be said and in what form however act to inhibit thinking. On this nexus Wittgenstein was right. Thinking and language are intrinsically connected.

Exploring words and thoughts show how. James I of England’s translation of the bible was a significant political act. At the time religion was a means of social and political control. The new translation was critical to James’s project of a Great Britain. There is one facet of that bible translation that is relevant to public speech. Every sentence was read aloud to committees to ensure that, it was not only accurate with the ancient languages from which it was derived, but that it also sounded perfect to the ear. From that one book hundreds of sentences, metaphors, and similes have entered the language. It has nurtured thought and extended the horizon of what can be uttered.

By comparison it would be almost impossible to find any instances today of public language, especially political speech, that would provide the same inspiration.

In Manchester in 1906, Winston Churchill (his speeches were somewhat mocked, even in his own day, for being old-fashioned) observed with typical patrician arrogance:”Fancy living in one of these streets,” he mused, “never seeing anything beautiful, never eating anything savory… never saying anything clever!”
Turning it away from the masses that last clause could be reflected on many politicians today.

Guy Cranswick
16th June 2013