Intro to the English Language final project

For my final project I chose the ‘recommend new texts’ option.

April 21, 2007

Introduction to the English Language

Professor Uma Satyavolu Rau

Final Essay

New Texts Proposal

Over the course of the semester we have studied many separate facets of the English language from its history to the emergence of “new” types of English, like American English and Black English.  I am proposing a lesson in which we study how language can be used to manipulate listeners, influence thought to the point that it changes peoples entire viewpoints on certain subjects and also how it is being diminished by things like corporate “buzz-words” and general laziness on the part of the speaker. I have chosen three books from which this lesson can be centered: the dictionary of (bull-shit) by Nick Webb, Language in Thought and Action by S.I. Hayakawa and Alan R. Hayakawa and Death Sentences: How Cliches, Weasel Words and Management Speak are Strangling Public Language by Don Watson. Each text is presented differently and has its own particular area of study. I am not proposing that all three be used, only that one be picked and its thesis be discussed to how it relates to our own experiences in the same manner that we used Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

Nick Webb’s the dictionary of (bull – shit) is the most famous of the three, due somewhat to the profanity in the title but also because, like Eats, Shoots and Leaves, it has a straightforward approach making it a book than can be read for enjoyment as well as for nourishment. Webb’s definition of bullshit is a broad one, separating itself from other ways of not using simple to-the-point speech like lying and jargon. Lying requires that one first know the truth before then purposefully “dissembling” it (Webb xiii). Using bullshit in your speech is also an attempt to hide something’s true meaning but is different from lying because it has “percolated so deeply into our thought processes” that people do not even realize that they are using “bullshitty” language, as he puts it (Webb xiii). It has so “permeated our intellect”to speak this way that people do not know that they are doing it (Webb xiv). As an example Webb cites a real estate advertisement for an apartment that is described as “intimate” (Webb xiv) For some, intimate connotes a cozy setting, with a loving couple sitting around a warm fireplace drinking wine and talking about how much they love each other. But in realtor speak, intimate is a code word for small. Instead of saying small, because that is what the apartment is, they use words like “intimate” so as not to chase off potential renters. This type of bullshit Webb calls “harmless” because they are only rendered “bullshitty” by the context in which they are used (Webb xiv). The other type of bullshit is the malicious bullshit that is invented to mask the truth behind an action. The military is great at this says Webb, using phrases like “collateral damage” and “enhanced interrogation techniques” to describe the killing of innocent civilians, in the former, and the use of torture, in the latter (Webb xiv).

the dictionary of (bull – shit) is divided into eight parts: “Corporate Bullshit,” “Political Bullshit,” “Crapmatics” (the art of using bullshit in mathematics), “Sales and Marketing Bullshit,” “Professional Bullshit” (specific to certain jobs or industries), “New Age and Alternative Bullshit”, “A Brief Burble about Logical Bullshit” and “Fossil Words and Tired Old Images.” Each section begins with an overview of how that style of bullshit is defined and then provides an index (like a dictionary) of the most “bullshitty” words used in that area, how they are used improperly and what they really mean. For instance the section on Corporate Bullshit first distinguishes between the true nature of corporations then lists the “bullshit” terms they use to make themselves out to be “pillars” of their communities (Webb 2). For instance, corporations exploit workers, have employed mercenaries to “intimidate” employees and pay their executives salaries greatly disproportionate to the other people employed by the corporation (Webb 2). Then they will use terms like “outplacement” instead of just saying that they fired senior staff members. “Outsourcing” and “off shoring” mean nothing more than firing the lower members of staff, the workers, and replacing them with lower paid employees in other countries. In the corporate there are not “problems,” just “opportunities” and “challenges” (Webb 17).

The largest section in the book is, not surprisingly, the section on political bullshit. Political language has been mostly the same since the times of Plato, who deemed it “manipulative and dishonest” (Webb 28). The threefold repetition and the double construction have been joined by sound bites and “hurrah” words (Webb 30). Hurrah words as those that “represent concepts so sacred that their mere presence is designed to put them beyond criticism” (Webb 30). Democracy, freedom, equality are three examples of hurrah words that Webb provides. The danger to using hurrah words, according to Webb, is that by using them you are “attaching a label” to that person, justifying your behavior towards them (Webb 30).

No one it seems is immune from using buzzwords. Even New Age thinking has its own set of “bullshit” terms used to give special status to the very simple things. Chief among them is alternative medicine. Webb believes that the very phrase “alternative medicine” is bullshit because it has some sort of allure attached to it because it is “non-Western” (Webb 136). It has no backing from scientific studies, says Webb, and its practitioners believe that the characteristics of the animal used to make the medicine is mistakenly believed to be passed onto the patient (Webb 136).

the dictionary of (bull – shit) is a short, practical, fun and easy to use guide allowing readers to quickly research if they are being “bullshitted” or not. I think this text will be a good addition to the course materials because while we are learning the proper way to speak and use the English language, we must also be able to recognize when it is being misused.

Author Don Watson states in the conclusion to Death Sentences. How Cliches, Weasel Words and Management Speak are Strangling Public Language that the reason he wrote this “essay” was because he wanted to raise “awareness” of the state of public language and the raise “indignation” on the part of his readers (Watson 147). He does not hold out “hope” because he knows that the “tides of history are against” (Watson 147). Watson’s principle thesis is that language “defines” ordinary existence, it is how we “know” each other (Watson xxi). There are two types of language according to Watson: the official formal public language spoken by civic leaders and the private language spoken by people in their everyday lives (Watson xxii). One of Watson’s worries is that public language will creep into everyday vernacular. People have begun to say that they need “closure” and that “at this point in time” in everyday usage whereas before those phrases would only be heard from public officials (Watson xxi). His chief worry, however, is clearly stated on page xxvii of his introduction: “There can be no respect for the truth without respect for the language. Only when language is alive will truth have a chance.” He cites the jargon, cliches, cants and dead languages used in public officials which is now starting to be copied by journalists to lazy to refute them as the biggest threat to the truth. In Watson’s opinion, these are the words that people read and hear everyday, and if it isn’t the truth people are reading and hearing then the truth will begin to disappear from everyday language as well. Like Webb, he cites military language, only he uses more specific examples of the ongoing Iraq War. (Though he states that the Iraq War “provided” a case in point, instead of provides, as if the war and the lies used to perpetuate it had ended.) President Bush’s phrase “shock and awe” is a “brand name” given to the military’s strategy to defeat the Iraqi defenses. Journalists immediately began using “shock and awe” in place of actually describing the technique itself (Watson xxviii). Also “degraded” is used instead of killed, as in “The Iraqi force was degraded by 70 percent” (Watson xxviii). “Killed” has too negative a connotation to it, people might be cause to opposed the action if they knew that people were actually being killed instead of forces merely being “degraded.”

Death Sentences is broken up into three separate essays: “The Dark and Impenetrable Thicket,” “Core Commitments Going Forward” and “The Post-Truth Environment.” In the essay “The Dark and Impenetrable Thicket” Watson says that in language people are like parrots, mimicking the other members of the flock. If parrots get separated from their flock they will join a new flock and mimic its members. When parrots join human flocks (pet owners) they will mimic their human counterparts, repeating the things that they hear repeatedly. People are no different than parrots, according to Watson. We also mimic language that we hear over and over by way of bringing this new language into our own vocabulary. The English language grows in the manner of absorbing new words or catchphrases brought in by different parts of the culture. The fashion industry has its own language, sports and music have their own, and all add to the total body of words comprising English. The language “grows, mutates and ossifies,” taking with it what “is useful” and discarding what is “colorless and vain” (Watson 7). Watson thinks it is a great thing, the evolution and expansion of the language, calling its adaption “wondrous” but he also believes that same evolution is killing it (Watson 7).

In this essay Watson touches the idea the language is learned more through literature than it is through the use of grammar books. He talks of his rural upbringing in Australia where language was a “forcing tool” like a crowbar or a hammer and only the basic tenets of grammar were taught–subjects and predicates. Upon being introduced to Shakespeare and his “beautiful arrangement of words” did he and his classmates take an interest in language (Watson 25).

“Core Commitments and Going Forward” is, of course, a section about business language. (Where else would one hear “going forward?” I remember an accounting instructor who always ended a lesson or lecture by saying “going forward.” In fact this is the only thing I remember about the class or the instructor.) Unlike Webb, Watson does not give a glossary of business terms and what they mean but presents his ideas in prose form. He provides examples of confusing business writing, some of which is purposely misleading. On page 75 he cites the mission statement of CACI, a private contractor hired to help guard the Abu Ghraib prison. In their statement CACI states that they are “committed to providing the best service to their clients” (Watson 75). Their clients being of course, the prisoners. One who read this statement would believe that CACI was an outstanding company. Until they read of the lawsuits filed by prisoners alleging torture and abuse.

“The Post-Truth Environment” plays on a now commonly used phrase “post 9/11″ and centers on political language particularly in the time since September 11, 2001. Watson says that political language is mostly lies and propaganda and quotes Philip Roth who says that politicians are like ventriloquist’s dummies, saying what ever the voice of the ventriloquist tells them to say (Watson 91). And that they are also prone to using cliches and myths to get their agenda across. He points Americans saying that we had “lost our innocence” on September 11, 2001 as a big myth that has been perpetuated in the post-truth environment (Watson 115). Watson wonders how a nation with a history of slavery could consider itself to be innocent.

Like the Webb book, Watson’s Death Sentences, is a fascinating read and very useful to the study of language. It does not have the humor that Webb’s provides but it does use examples from history and literature and compares them to what is being said and heard today to show bad the public language used to today looks like when compared to the great writing of Shakespear and the great speeches of people like Abraham Lincoln. 

The final book that I am recommending is the Hayakawa’s Language in Thoughts and Actions. It is the most dated of the three, first copy written in 1939 (now in its fifth edition in 1990) and the most academic in structure. It also has more chapters, sixteen, than the other two do combined, and within each chapter are multiple sub-sections. This book is loaded with ideas and covers almost every way in which language impacts perceptions and behavior. One such sub-section is called “Words with Built-in Judgements” found in chapter five on page forty-eight. S.I. Hayakawa recalls working as a writer for the Chicago Defender in the 1940’s. This was a militant black published newspaper whose mission was to try to make black people proud to be called a “Negro” (Hayakawa 50). At the time the word “Negro” was used to signify pride, so the paper used it in print as often as it could. Today “Negro” has a different meaning surrounding it. The term is now considered to be condescending and racist. S.I. Hayakawa recounts this episode to illustrate the power of words and the images they create in one’s mind. Every word has a meaning and sometimes this meaning differs from people to people, but the words also effect the opinions and behavior of those who hear them.

Of the three books I have analyzed in this exercise, one overriding theme I found within them is that in words are the truth, and in words are the lies. People hide or expose the true nature of what they are saying, what they are trying to accomplish, by the words that they use. S.I. Hayakawa writes on page 110 of Language in Thought and Action: “Society, in short, regards as ‘true’ those systems of classification that produce the desired result.” All three authors feel that as the language degrades then so does the truth. If only cliches and catchphrases are used people will begin to forget that they are actually referring to.

Any one of these books would be a useful addition to the course texts. They are all relatively short and easy to read and would provide a good contrast to the Crystal texts, which concentrate more on the history, development and spread of the English language. To paraphrase Webb, one must first know the truth before they can lie. These three texts will teach us how to spot the lies, misuses and manipulations of the language at the same time we are learning to use it properly.

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