Saint Socrates, Pray for Us
On the dangers of the slogan “Nothing in mere words”


A recent issue (January 22) of the Parisian daily Le Figaro contains no fewer than six articles about the French Left’s program to reform France by reforming its language, including Yves de Kerdrel’s witty “Les mots pour le dire et les maux pour le faire” (“Words to say it and evils to do it”) and a glossary of proposed changes under the title Parlez-vous la novlangue socialiste?” (“Do you speak the Socialist newspeak?” with an allusion to Orwell’s English Socialist Newspeak in 1984). François Hollande and his Socialist government have driven France into a deep economic pit, building on the legacy of the previous Socialist government of Lionel Jospin, who in 2002 introduced the wonderful idea of that prudent Socialist statesman Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the 35-hour work week. Thus we have Hollande’s strategy of appeasing the Socialists’ left wing socially and culturally as he inevitably tacks right economically to try to stanch the continuing economic hemorrhaging. (We will not speak of the derisory, decadent private lives of these libertine Socialist statesmen Hollande and Strauss-Kahn, whom one American tabloid crudely but aptly called “a horny frog.” Instead of “marriage for all” [mariage pour tous] perhaps it should be “libertinage for us” [libertinage pour nous]? At least it rhymes.)

The Socialist “novlangue” is illuminated by Le Figaro in a list of 14 verbal changes to be found in new legislation, in speeches of prominent Socialists, or in the 2013 Socialist action plan “Refonder la politique d’intégration” (“Rebuild a program of integration”). Euphemism and verbal inflation are attractive to politicians and salesmen in all languages, but the verbally fastidious French have been rightly proud of their long history of satirical deflation of linguistic pretense, often from the Left (Voltaire, Renan, Anatole France). Thus the Figaro journalists Stéphane Kovacs and Etienne de Montety work in a noble tradition, as William Cobbett and George Orwell did in England (see the latter’s “Politics and the English Language,” 1946) and Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan did in the U.S. (“Defining Deviancy Down,” 1993).

Kovacs and Montety give us a list of paired Socialist linguistic changes and commands: “Ne plus dire” (“Don’t say any more”) and “Dire” (“Say now”). Don’t talk any longer about the French pre-schools, probably the best in the world, as “mother schools” (“écoles maternelles”), but call them “premières écoles” (“first schools”). Why? “To neutralize the affective motherly charge of the word ‘maternal’” (Socialist Deputy Sandrine Mazetier, February 1, 2013). Heaven forbid! Don’t speak any longer of “working for the country,” but instead say “making France” (“faire France”). Don’t mention “building a harmonious society,” but instead talk about “making the ‘in-common’” (“comment construire un ‘en commun’”). Do not refer to homosexual couples as being unable to procreate, but say they are “couples confronted by social infertility” (“l’infertilité sociale”). Don’t talk about “building up French society,” but instead refer to creating “the inclusive and communal Us” (“Le Nous inclusif et solidaire”).

The proposed linguistic changes oscillate on a spectrum between silly and sinister, seemingly innocent of knowledge of those great satires on linguistic redefinition, Swift’s 1726 Gulliver’s Travels (book 3), Zamyatin’s We (1924), Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and Orwell’s 1984 (1949), not to speak of Molière. As one of our finest living literary critics, Sir Christopher Ricks of Boston University, has written: “Every user of language, whatever his or her politics, is engaged not only in conversation but in conservation.” “A language is not a mere device,” the great Franco-American historian Jacques Barzun wrote, “it is a fund of embodied ideas. . . . Hence changes brought about by new forms and sounds in the web of its inner relations are as debatable as a piece of foreign policy or a bronze nude in a public square.” Himself one of our best modern prose stylists, Barzun argued that “it is possible to reason out matters of language [and it] is also important, because words point to ideas and suggest feelings, which together constitute ‘style’ in the sense of moral and intellectual fitness” (A Word or Two Before You Go . . . , 1988).

Commenting on Senator Moynihan’s classic essay “Defining Deviancy Down,” William F. Buckley Jr. wrote in 1993: “Mr. Moynihan’s sophisticated treatment of the normalization of deviancy is nothing less than a cry from the heart.” But where does “the normalization of deviancy” come from? Moynihan was talking about illegitimacy rates in the United States, which exploded in the 1960s, but he documented how social-science jargon, euphemism, and sheer avoidance kept social-policy specialists and most politicians from really, prudently addressing the issues raised by those increasing rates. They constitute the greatest malady of the American republic today. (Buckley himself waged a noble campaign against the creeping and creepy soft-pornography advertising of the American clothing industry.)

One root of the problem has been the ascendant academic view that might be called “descriptivism”: No group of native speakers can be criticized against any inherited linguistic or logical norm; the only constant in language is change (sic). Of course, this view is in direct conflict with the whole civilized tradition of teaching reading and writing, grammar, spelling, correct usage, and rhetoric or “composition,” which public schools attempt to recommence doing every autumn. The prescriptive assumption of K–12 public schooling (at which attendance is mandatory and which is tax-supported) is so obvious and deep that it can escape notice; it is the way that whatever civilization a given linguistic community has acquired can be saved from oblivion and conveyed into the future. Learn to read early and well, so that you can read to learn for the rest of your life. Literacy is the prescriptive gift of responsible adults to every new generation. As a Roman writer put it, only the stupid learn only from their own experience.

Confronting jury duty as a citizen of Boston, the late Roger Shattuck (1923–2005) meditated on the distance and disjunction between the reigning, growing intellectual skepticism and relativism about knowledge, truth, and objectivity in the academy, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the governing assumptions and needs of a decent res publica to inculcate in its citizens ideas of respect for law, fairness, and objectivity, the disinterested search for facts and truths. Shattuck’s short but powerful 1992 essay “Radical Skepticism and How We Got Here” (reprinted in his Candor and Perversion: Literature, Education, and the Arts, 1999) is an excellent resource. “Insofar as principles of establishing evidence and fact in our courts are categorically opposed by theories of knowledge and truth advanced in our undergraduate curricula, we approach a serious parting of the ways, a form of social schizophrenia.”