As part of the Legatum Institute's 'Roads to Freedom' series, author and columnist Simon Heffer delivered a lecture on 'The Nationalisation of Language', arguing that the expansion of state control in the years after 1945 also witnessed an insidious subversion of English usage.
Complaints about the banality of political correctness (so often deemed to have "gone mad") are now commonplace and the distress of the middle-aged when considering 'the state of the language' is a recurring feature of English literary history.
Threatened by tidal waves of sloppy thought, vulgarising idioms and imprecise expression the English language has always been about to go under. But the idea of a 'golden age' when English was perfect because everybody obeyed the objective and universal linguistic rules is an illusion. The rules change because a living language needs to reflect the truth about the world as it is—not as it might be.
This, however, is not an argument in favour of 'anything goes'. Without a measure of agreement about what words mean and how standards work we will succumb to Humpty-Dumpty's perversity: 'When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean’. In his lecture, Simon Heffer argued that English confronts a uniquely noxious threat to its very basis as a vehicle of thought and a means of expression.
From the impact of Norman French in the eleventh century to the mid-twentieth century embrace of Americanisation, the story of English is one of adaptability and evolution. But from the late twentieth century onwards a constant encroachment of state power and bureaucratic speech has been stripping the language of its freshness and vitality. Individual freedom is therefore on the wane since an inarticulate person—one who uses language drably—is an unconvincing defender of liberty. This then is the threat to English today and the situation is now one of extreme danger. Political and legal opinions are determined to impose a heavy regulatory burden on the British press and its ability to ‘cock a snook’ at power would thereby be diminished.
'The Nationalisation of Language' was the first lecture in the 'Roads to Freedom', a series that look at some of the more significant obstacles that have arisen on those highways in recent decades. Major industries were brought under state control from the late 1940s onwards and Simon Heffer contends that the infectious spread of jargon and contamination by acronym was a linguistic reflection of the nationalisation policy. But if this is so, another urgent question arises. The industrial policy could be reversed and privatisation was a flagship policy for middle-period Thatcherism. But can the English language be de-nationalised? The bureaucratic state's sway over British life and thought—over what can and cannot be said or written—grows by steady degrees and the abstruse jargon deployed by the professional classes in order to protect themselves from criticism is an equally significant threat to free thought and significant speech.
When it comes to self-defence in these matters it is the daily battle for precision of thought that provides an answer to the prevailing linguistic discontent. Freedom's allies should therefore sound the trumpet and lead the charge—as happened on the occasion of this distinguished inaugural lecture.
Download Transcript 'The Nationalisation of Language' - By Simon Heffer [PDF]
About the Speaker
In the course of an extensive Fleet Street career, Simon Heffer has held editorial positions at the Daily Telegraph, Spectator and Daily Mail. His commentaries have expressed with characteristic gusto and style the need to conserve England’s democratic independence and cultural continuities. Biographies such as those of Thomas Carlyle (1995) and Enoch Powell (1998) have pursued these themes with a wealth of historical research. High Minds: the Victorians and the Birth of Modern Britain (2013) is Heffer’s tribute to the epoch when the British intellect was at its most expansive and the salvoes recorded in Strictly English (2010) are wittily subversive of leftist pomposity and sloppy language.
About Roads to Freedom
As part of the Legatum Institute's 'The Culture of Prosperity' programme, this series offers a progress report on the idea of freedom. The history of the developed west has been shaped by the increased degree of freedom exercised by individuals who have been able to escape the constraints that prevailed in the past. By the 1990s, and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, many considered that the advance of an agenda which recognised the legitimacy of free markets and the morality of individual liberty was well-nigh inevitable. But in the past two generations advocates of freedom have also been confronted by significant obstacles. The lecturers in this series will draw conclusions by studying the past while also seeking to find ways of removing the obstacles to freedom’s progress. Further information here.