Language, like the human race itself is ever changing and evolving to accomplish different things, or rather, the people who use language as a tool to achieve their goals are constantly adapting to appeal to their readers/ listeners.
Take for instance, the language used by journalists and the media to describe or depict war throughout history. Decades ago, before modern media outlets like television had developed war was seen by most people to be heroic and even romantic, thus the language of writers used to describe the events during war-time was very different.
For example, at the end of World War 1 in 1918, a writer for ‘Dunkirk Evening Observer’ (Robert J. Bender – 1918) wrote “At six o’clock this morning the greatest war in world’s history came to an end” with an image on the same page of Marshal Foch, the Commander-In-Chief of the Allied Forces in Europe at the time, and a caption above his picture saying “Commander-In-Chief of the Allied Forces, before whom the once great Kaiser kneels”.
In using dramatic words like “greatest war” and “ once great Kaiser kneels” it is clear that the writer is attempting to appeal to the mentality of the readers at the time, which at the time felt pride in their country during war.
After the events of the Vietnam War from 1959 – 1975 the true face of war had been, in effect, “brought to the peoples living rooms” for the first time in the western world. Despite the best efforts of the American government to galvanize its people in supporting the war by using language like “I want YOU for the U.S Army” (James Montgomery – 1917 –Used extensively during the Vietnam War), the old notion that war was some sort of noble act that ‘turned boys into men’ or ‘bred heroes’ was replaced with clear and vivid images of the suffering and destruction it brought.
After this change in the general public’s understanding of war and the continuing spread of television in the common home, people no longer wanted to hear about the nobility and romanticism of war, and in fact, many people had begun to openly oppose the idea of it. World leaders became painfully aware that the ignorance of their citizens alone would no longer be enough to support them in their agenda’s. Thus the language used by governments through the media to spread and enforce their idea’s had to change.
The current, ‘War on Terrorism is known as a ‘living-room war’ (similar to Vietnam) for its use of propaganda fuelled language and use of the media on both sides. In this ‘living-room war’, pretentious and dramatic sounding language is used to inspire support in the ideas of the leaders in this war. For example, George Bush’s speech in 2001, shortly after the “911” attacks on the world trade centre, he was quoted saying “Tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution.” (George Bush-The White House-2001). In using words like “we” and “our” he is placing himself symbolically amongst his people, which, coupled with the use of words like “defend freedom” is hoping to inspire a strong emotional response in the readers/listeners.
Misdirecting and deliberately confusing technical jargon is also common, such as the American Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld’s response to the media, when he was famously quoted saying “As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” This method of using language to one’s advantage is very useful in confusing and even undermining one’s opponent. In repeating the same words and carefully forming them into what appears at first glance to be a sentence with a point, one could pretty much say anything, so long as the words have at least, something to do with the subject matter. This, in effect, confuses the opponent to the point where they may be unable to even come up with a response and in the end looks like the one ‘in the wrong’, as it were.
The power of language is contiguous with the power of the words used. In George Orwell’s writing on ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946), he refers to what he calls “pretentious diction”, putting forth the point that adjectives like “epoch-making, epic, historic, unforgettable, triumphant” etc, are used by politicians to dignify their idea’s or that similarly, military leaders wanting to justify or glorify actions taken in war use many words with a certain “archaic colour”, like, “realm, throne, chariot” etc.
In his writing, Orwell attempts to discourage the use of this “pretentious diction” in favor of more plain and unbiased English, to avoid slovenliness and vagueness. However, he does not deny the ability of these words, used in conjunction with some sort of credible idea, to influence and change opinions. For example, he also brings up the point that many scientific, political and sociological writers find Latin and Greek words to be far “grander” than Saxon-based words. Generally speaking the average person feels the same way.
In knowing this, it is interesting to note that for centuries, Latin has been the official language of the Catholic Church. Their assimilation of this grandiose and important-sounding language even going as far as claiming that the language was “given” to them by their “Eternal Father”, despite the fact in had been used by the Romans several thousand years before. Veronica Lueken otherwise known as ‘Our Lady of the Roses’ claimed this as well in her 1976 speech when she was quoted saying “This universal language, Latin, befit and was chosen by the Eternal Father as a universal language for the universal Church”(1976).
In assimilating this respected and awe-inspiring language, and adopting phrases like, “In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti”, (Catholic prayer- “In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit”), which most people can’t understand, but still find that it sounds mysterious and important, the church had secured itself a psychological high-ground over its followers by associating themselves with the success of the language itself. A historic example of the influence of language.
In Jarrod Diamond’s, ‘Speaking with a Single Tongue’ (1995) which concentrates on the gradual replacement of obsolete languages and the supposed importance of preventing it, he uses a wide array of dramatic and unnecessary words like, “moribund”, “eradicate” and “extinction” as well as emotion provoking phrases like, “…the language world of the Eyak people had reached its final silence” or “..overwhelming forces tending to eradicate all but a few big languages”. In using these words and phrases and repeatedly referring to how languages are becoming “extinct” aswell as bringing up the subject of genocide in several of his points, he as created a subconscious link in the readers mind between the two.
Diamond also takes a religious high-ground in proclaiming what a supernatural ‘devil’ characters opinion would be on the subject, with sentences like, “The devil’s second objection is that…”, which appeals, sub-consciously, to the psychology of the average monotheistic person.
A similar way of using language to appeal to the reader and potentially change his or her opinion on a subject can be seen in Chris Goddard’s article in ‘The Age’, titled ‘Can you imagine…?’ (2001) Goddard’s contention was to form a rebuttal, of sorts to Prime Minister, John Howard’s justification of denying illegal refugees passage into Australian territory.
He appeals to the reader to sympathize with the refugees by imagining what it would be like if their situations were reversed. As opposed to Jarrod Diamond’s attempt at persuasion, Goddard uses language to appeal to the conscious mind of the reader, by having them visualize being in the position he is describing. He uses sentences like, “Imagine if you can…just imagine” to reassure the reader that he is unthreatening and reasonable.
He also takes advantage of the selfish nature of people by first establishing a potential setting that would involve the reader in some way, when he describes the readers imagined world, “Sydney and Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane, are little more than rubble”. This not only secures the attention of the reader, but allows Goddard to take the reader anywhere in this imagined world while still relating to any reader without discrimination.
Language is an infinitely useful tool for influencing or convincing people of one’s opinions or idea’s and there are so many different methods of doing so. In Helen Garner’s ‘At the Morgue’ (1996) a combination of intricate details and thought provoking descriptions such as, “The pathologist and the technician moved as swiftly and as lightly as dancers” is very effective in keeping the reader interested throughout the reading and in turn, open to her contention.
In Martin Flanagan’s, ‘Thinking big – and little – Peter Singer profile’ (2006) he uses both inspiring and daunting words and sentences like, “he tragically misjudged the full murderous intent of the Nazis” , to do the same thing.
Despite the intent and good or bad nature of writers and world leaders, it will always be the language they choose to use that will determine their success. As Edward George Bulwer Lytton (1803-1873) wrote, “The pen is mightier than the sword!”
• Actiw, LLC. (2004-2006) ‘Selling the U.S. Army – $2 Billion Price Tag’
• Bush, George W.; Bill Adler (2004). The Quotable George W. Bush: A Portrait in His Own Words. Andrews McMeel Publishing.
• Diamond, Jarrod, ‘Speaking with a single tongue’ (1995). Faculty of Arts. ALW 117 / 217 Writing for Professional Practice, Study guide and readings (2007) pg 89 -96
• Flanagan, Martin, ‘Thinking big – and little – Peter Singer profile’ (2006) Faculty of Arts. ALW 117 / 217 Writing for Professional Practice, Study guide and readings (2007) pg 114 – 116
• Frontline. WGBH Educational Foundation. (1995-2007) ‘The Life and Times of Donald Rumsfeld’
• Garner, Helen, ‘At the Morgue’ (1996) Faculty of Arts. ALW 117 / 217 Writing for Professional Practice, Study guide and readings (2007) pg 103 -108
• George C. Herring. America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950-1975. Boston, Mass. McGraw Hill, (1986), pg. 103
• Goddard, Chris, ‘Can you Imagine…?’ (2001). Faculty of Arts. ALW 117 / 217 Writing for Professional Practice, Study guide and readings (2007) pg 101 -102
• Heritage Microfilm Inc. (2007) ‘Front Page Newspaper Archive’
• Hammond, J.R. (1982). ‘A George Orwell Companion’. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 217.
• Keegan, John. ‘The First World War’. (1998). pg82-83
• Office of the Press Secretary, (2001). ‘Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People’
– Orwell, George, ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946). Faculty of Arts. ALW 117 / 217 Writing for Professional Practice, Study guide and readings (2007) pg 79 -88
• Seely, Hart. ‘The Poetry of D.H Rumsfeld’ (2003). Washington Post Newsweek Interactive Co. LLC.
– Lueken, Veronica, ‘Latin: the universal language of the Catholic Church’ (1976) These Last Days Ministries, Inc. (1996 – 2006)