George Orwell on linguistic innovation & Esperanto

Here is the conclusion of an essay by Orwell:

The solution I suggest is to invent new words as deliberately as we would invent new parts for a motor-car engine. Suppose that a vocabulary existed which would accurately express the life of the mind, or a great part of it. Suppose that there need be no stultifying feeling that life is inexpressible, no jiggery-pokery with artistic tricks; expressing one’s meaning simply [being] a matter of taking the right words and putting them in place, like working out an equation in algebra. I think the advantages of this would be obvious. It is less obvious, though, that to sit down and deliberately coin words is a common-sense proceeding. Before indicating a way in which satisfactory words might be coined, I had better deal with the objections which are bound to arise.

If you say to any thinking person “Let us form a society for the invention of new and subtler words”, he will first of all object that it is the idea of a crank, and then probably say that our present words, properly handled, will meet all difficulties. (This last, of course, is only a theoretical objection. In practice everyone recognizes the inadequacy of language — consider such expressions as “Words fail”, “It wasn’t what he said, it was the way he said it”, etc.) But finally he will give you an answer something like this: ‘Things cannot be done in that pedantic way. Languages can only grow slowly, like flowers; you can’t patch them up like pieces of machinery. Any made-up language must be characterless and lifeless — look at Esperanto, etc. The whole meaning of a word is in its slowly-acquired associations”, etc.

In the first place, this argument, like most of the arguments produced when one suggests changing anything, is a long-winded way of saying that what is must be. Hitherto we have never set ourselves to the deliberate creation of words, and all living languages have grown slowly and haphazard; therefore language cannot grow otherwise. At present, when we want to say anything above the level of a geometrical definition, we are obliged to do conjuring tricks with sounds, associations, etc.; therefore this necessity is inherent in the nature of words. The non sequitur is obvious. And notice that when I suggest abstract words I am only suggesting an extension of our present practice. For we do now coin concrete words. Aeroplanes and bicycles are invented, and we invent names for them, which is the natural thing to do. It is only a step to coining names for the now unnamed things that exist in the mind. You say to me “Why do you dislike Mr Smith?” and I say “Because he is a liar, coward, etc.,” and I am almost certainly giving the wrong reason. In my own mind the answer runs “Because he is a ______ kind of man”, ______ standing for something which I understand, and you would understand if I could tell it you. Why not find a name for ______? The only difficulty is to agree about what we are naming. But long before this difficulty arises, the reading, thinking type of man will have recoiled from such an idea as the invention of words. He will produce arguments like the one I indicated above, or others of a more or less sneering, question-begging kind. In reality all these arguments are humbug. The recoil comes from a deep unreasoned instinct, superstitious in origin. It is the feeling that any direct rational approach to one’s difficulties, any attempt to solve the problems of life as one would solve an equation, can lead nowhere — more, is definitely unsafe. One can see this idea expressed everywhere in a roundabout way. All the bosh that is talked about our national genius for “muddling through”, and all the squashy godless mysticism that is urged against any hardness and soundness of intellect, mean au fond that it is safer not to think. This feeling starts, I am certain, in the common belief of children that the air is full of avenging demons waiting to punish presumption.2 In adults the belief survives as a fear of too rational thinking. I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, pride comes before a fall, etc. — and the most dangerous pride is the false pride of the intellect. David was punished because he numbered the people — i.e. because he used his intellect scientifically. Thus such an idea as, for instance, ectogenesis, apart from its possible effects upon the health of the race, family life, etc., is felt to be in itself blasphemous. Similarly any attack on such a fundamental thing as language, an attack as it were on the very structure of our own minds, is blasphemy and therefore dangerous. To reform language is practically an interference with the work of God — though I don’t say that anyone would put it quite in these words. This objection is important, because it would prevent most people from even considering such an idea as the reform of language. And of course the idea is useless unless undertaken by large numbers. For one man, or a clique, to try and make up a language, as I believe James Joyce is now doing, is as absurd as one man trying to play football alone. What is wanted is several thousands of gifted but normal people who would give themselves to word-invention as seriously as people now give themselves to Shakespearean research. Given these, I believe we could work wonders with language.

SOURCE: Orwell, George. "New Words" (1940), in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell. Volume II: My Country Right or Left 1940-1943, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (1968). Individual essay 1. New Words available as PDF file.

George Orwell is not thought of as a friend to Esperanto, partly because of the ominous Newspeak featured in his novel 1984. Here he mentions Esperanto in passing, neither favorably nor unfavorably, but as an example cited by others in unconvincing arguments against the reform and rationalization of language.


Esperanto and George Orwell (preface)

"Konsideroj pri Gandhi" de George Orwell, tradukis William Simcock

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