Imre Kertész, Nobel Lecture.

I found Imre Kertész’s 2002 Nobel lecture a good and thought-provoking read, and I hope you will too. A couple of language-related bits:

Consider what happened to language in the twentieth century, what became of words. I daresay that the first and most shocking discovery made by writers in our time was that language, in the form it came down to us, a legacy of some primordial culture, had simply become unsuitable to convey concepts and processes that had once been unambiguous and real. Think of Kafka, think of Orwell, in whose hands the old language simply disintegrated. It was as if they were turning it round and round in an open fire, only to display its ashes afterward, in which new and previously unknown patterns emerged. […]

It makes me especially happy to be expressing these thoughts in my native language: Hungarian. I was born in Budapest, in a Jewish family, whose maternal branch hailed from the Transylvanian city of Kolozsvár (Cluj) and the paternal side from the southwestern corner of the Lake Balaton region. My grandparents still lit the Sabbath candles every Friday night, but they changed their name to a Hungarian one, and it was natural for them to consider Judaism their religion and Hungary their homeland. My maternal grandparents perished in the Holocaust; my paternal grandparents’ lives were destroyed by Mátyás Rákosi’s Communist rule, when Budapest’s Jewish old age home was relocated to the northern border region of the country. I think this brief family history encapsulates and symbolizes this country’s modern-day travails. What it teaches me, though, is that there is not only bitterness in grief, but also extraordinary moral potential.

Makes me want to read his work. The Nobel site has the speech in Swedish, French, and German, as well as Kertész’s native Hungarian (“Külön öröm számomra, hogy ezeket a gondolatokat az anyanyelvemen, magyarul mondhatom el…”); I got the link from the indispensable wood s lot.

Comments

  1. Ken Miner says:

    …think of Orwell, in whose hands the old language simply disintegrated.

    I haven’t the slightest idea what this means, but I’ll bite.

    It’s been said before: a person’s IQ is never so high that it cannot drop 20 points when writing about language. Chief among the many offenders is surely George Orwell, whose 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” is probably the worst combination of silliness and arrogance ever written on the subject. Not only that, it’s Whorfian (“the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”). But it serves a purpose: there are still many who praise this awful work as a “deathless masterpiece of political and literary insight” (as Geoffrey Pullum puts it), enabling us to sort them promptly into their proper category with no further waste of time. I am sorry to say that even Christopher Hitchens once called it “a wonderful essay” (during his C-SPAN “In Depth” interview). Surely one does not have to be a linguist to see why the work is bad? Even the Hitch nodded occasionally.

    And speaking of Orwell, Sam Leith writing in The Guardian, 7 February 2014, argues rather convincingly that most of the stuff he wrote about his prep school – St Cyprian’s – was made up. The question is why.

    Orwell also thought that George Gissing was the greatest writer in the English language. I rest my case.

  2. The first paragraph reminds me very much of George Steiner. I’m not entirely sure what he has in mind either, but one obvious interpretation in Orwell’s case would simply be the willingness to subordinate the English language itself to the fictional scenario, rather than leaving it as a fixed, transparent background through which the text is interpreted.

  3. Yes, I think Lameen has it. Of course Orwell’s essay is absurd, but I doubt it’s what Kertész had in mind. I mean, think of the number of people worldwide who have read 1984 versus the number who have read the essay — especially if we don’t count native English-speakers.

  4. Look, I understand why y’all hate the Orwell essay. It (along with 1984) seems to promote these Whorfian ideas, and on top of that, there’s the Strunkian “no passive voice” stuff.

    But I still think it’s basically right.

    Political speech really is diseased and some of the pathologies that Orwell discusses really do impede people from thinking clearly about political issues. Even “serious” political discussion often isn’t an exchange of reasoned arguments as much as an exchange of slogans, which are in fact devoid of arguments. I wouldn’t argue that language forces us to think in a certain way, or that it prevents us from considering any other arguments, but that language (i.e. these slogans) can provide us a kind of emotional satisfaction, which strongly discourages us from considering any alternate arguments. (Orwell provided a lot of examples of what he was talking about, I’m going to refrain from doing so, because I know Language Hat is a politics-free zone. If my theory is correct, politics is mostly content-free slogans, so if I point out that a certain content-free slogan is in fact a content-free slogan, it will naturally be interpreted as a political argument.)

    The reason I’m taking the time to defend the essay is because I think being able to think clearly about controversial issues is an important personal skill to have, and I think some of Orwell’s suggestions are actually good and I would recommend them to everyone in this thread. Specifically the idea of avoiding set phrases and thinking in concrete terms instead of generalities (this is specifically in reference to political speech: the set phrase “wine dark sea” is fine with me, the set phrase “[political slogan]” I think tends to shut down our critical thinking). The passive voice stuff I don’t really care about.

  5. Political speech really is diseased and some of the pathologies that Orwell discusses really do impede people from thinking clearly about political issues. … I think some of Orwell’s suggestions are actually good and I would recommend them to everyone in this thread.

    Sure, but the problem is that the good stuff is inextricably intertwined with a lot of pernicious nonsense. The same is true of Strunk & White — it’s not that the book is a complete waste, it has good suggestions, but why try to shovel the muck to find them when there are much better books with much less muck? (Not to mention that most people, thanks to the deplorable state of education in the area of language, don’t realize the muck is muck in the first place.) Orwell was a wonderful writer and an acute thinker; if only he’d taken Linguistics 101, think what an essay he could have written!

  6. Christoffer says:

    Based on what I’ve seen of your past readings, you’d very much like FATELESS. Though a Holocaust novel, it is unique from all other Holocaust novels.

  7. Thanks, I’ve added it to my Amazon wishlist!

  8. David Marjanović says:

    Even the Hitch nodded occasionally.

    He actually has a pretty bad record on topics outside his specialties. Biology? *facepalm*

  9. …language (i.e. these slogans) can provide us a kind of emotional satisfaction, which strongly discourages us from considering any alternate arguments.
    This is far from obvious. We first need to establish that it is the speaker’s or thinker’s intention to consider a novel idea, which is then being swamped by cliched language. In fact, I will pose that the vast majority of the uses of standard phrases (or slogans, if you wish) are employed because the speaker didn’t want to say anything novel and just wanted to repeat what she thought needs repeating. If someone says “I am proud to be American” it is not because the overuse of this phrase made a person to feel patriotic or narrow minded, but because someone feeling patriotic or dismissive of the rest of the world, or something in that vein, has a ready phrase to express that feeling. Say, someone asks “Why are you guys didn’t close Guantanamo yet?” and hears back “I am proud to be American”. The reply quite naturally is a semi-polite way to dismiss the question and not a missed attempt to engage in the dialog.

  10. D.O.: You’re right that the mechanism I proposed is purely speculative and shouldn’t be taken that seriously.

    But, after further thought, I still agree with Orwell’s statement “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”, that Ken Miner objected to. I don’t have any brilliant proof of this, it’s just based on my observations that in discussions with curious people, a discussion of a certain issue may be more or less illuminating depending on the phrasing of the question.

    Actually, now that I think about it, there is some proof for at least a weak form of this (that different phrasings can cause different thoughts, not necessarily that a certain phrasing will cause worse thoughts). It’s well known that pollsters surveying the population will get (statistically significant) different results asking the same question using different phrasings. Here’s the first example I found from Google:

    Similarly, it is important to consider whether certain words may be viewed as biased or potentially offensive to some respondents, as well as the emotional reaction that some words may provoke. For example, in a 2005 Pew Research survey, 51% of respondents said they favored “making it legal for doctors to give terminally ill patients the means to end their lives,” but only 44% said they favored “making it legal for doctors to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide.” Although both versions of the question are asking about the same thing, the reaction of respondents was different. In another example, respondents have reacted differently to questions using the word “welfare” as opposed to the more generic “assistance to the poor.” Several experiments have shown that there is much greater public support for expanding “assistance to the poor” than for expanding “welfare.”

    This even seems to support the emotional short-circuit theory, but whatever the mechanism, it seems to be a real effect.

  11. Yes, this is true observation. But doesn’t it prove that if a political concept is expressed in more interesting language it will have even larger emotional impact and get us even further from a reasoned debate. Americans have a certain politician this election season who is trying their (it is really inconvenient to have a female candidate!) damnest to check whether it is true.

  12. Bathrobe says:

    [Orwell’s piece] (along with 1984) seems to promote these Whorfian ideas, and on top of that, there’s the Strunkian “no passive voice” stuff.

    I’m not sure that this is an issue of pure ‘linguistics’, which is often identified with syntax. It seems to me to be more an issue of ‘expression’, although I’m not sure where ‘expression’ falls within linguistics — perhaps pragmatics or sociolinguistics, but it’s not totally clear. It is, however, an aspect of language and can be described linguistically, too. I don’t agree that it is Whorfian, which is the view that the structure of language (specifically syntax) directly shapes the way that people think. This is not a matter of syntax shaping the way that people think; rather it’s an aspect of the social use of language to achieve a certain end on the part of the speaker or writer.

    Use of language is (in most circumstances) a social act. It conforms with social standards, which can be manipulated, and can change over time. Euphemism is one aspect of the social use of language — use of certain vocabulary or certain forms of language in order to avoid being direct. This can range from avoiding direct reference to scatological or sexual matters to the deliberate obfuscation of moral or humanitarian issues.

    Putting language into an acceptable form to show respectability or attachment to an ingroup (‘walking the walk, talking the talk’) is another aspect of language use. To some extent it can be described syntactically, but it covers much more, from the correct deployment of vocabulary and phrasing to the correct manipulation of concepts.

    Which brings us to passive voice. The main objection to passive voice is that it now tends to be used as a stylistic device to remove reference to agency. The classic locus is scientific texts (‘The beaker was heated with a Bunsen burner’) but it’s also found in many other prose styles (‘The suspect was interrogated at length’). It’s this particular use of the passive — as a mannerism to make prose sound more respectable or impersonal — that has aroused objections from stylists, including Orwell.

    The recommendation that passive voice should be avoided is a valid one. Unfortunately, it tends to be completely misconstrued by non-linguists, who are frequently clueless what the passive voice actually is and vaguely regard any kind of evasive language as ‘passive’. When Pullum fulminates against stylists’ blind prohibition on the passive, he isn’t necessarily objecting to the advice itself. What arouses his ire is the fact that many people who peddle this advice are totally ignorant of grammar, causing them to spout pure nonsense.

    As for the passage cited:

    the first and most shocking discovery made by writers in our time was that language, in the form it came down to us, a legacy of some primordial culture, had simply become unsuitable to convey concepts and processes that had once been unambiguous and real.

    This seems to me to be arrant nonsense. People have been forcing language into ideological moulds of some kind or other for thousands of years. The idea that language that has come down to us is a legacy of some primordial culture is rather breathtaking in its naivety. Language has been forced into many and diverse straitjackets of thought, whether Christian, Buddhist, Confucianist, or something else again. The early Christian attempts to define the godhead are a good example of the way in which language has gone well beyond any kind of primordial culture. It’s a tough sell proving that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are both the same and different. I therefore find it hard to take seriously the claim that language in the form in which it has come down to us somehow conveyed concepts and processes that had once been ‘unambiguous and real’. It’s wonderful as intellectual handwringing but doesn’t stand up to any kind of objective scrutiny.

  13. How could anyone know whether “language had once conveyed concepts and processes that had been unambiguous and real” ? That would involve

    1) identifying concepts and processes “as is”, without any language as intermediary

    2) evalutating those concepts and processes as to their unambiguousness and reality – still without any language as intermediary

    3) assessing the extent to which any language conveys the unambiguous and real aspects of those concepts and processes

    4) doing all of this for any language spoken thousands of years ago, of which there is no record but only indirect evidence

    That’s a pretty tall order. It’s based, of course, on the vague idea that things used to be simple and are now complicated.

  14. Ken Miner says:

    the vague idea that things used to be simple and are now complicated.

    I think that’s right, and that careless use of extrapolation is one of the important fallacies of our time. You can extrapolate forward or backward. Twain’s parody of forward extrapolation in Life on the Mississippi (1884) is well-known, but it’s been ridiculed in other ways too. Demographer Ansley Coale of Princeton pointed out that if the global population continues indefinitely to grow at the present rate, there must come a time when the earth will present a sphere of human flesh expanding outward at the speed of light. Etc. All this may seem obvious and silly, but we continue to see “analyses” that turn out to consist in nothing much more than extrapolation. Joseph Nye has called attention to this in connection with the Kissinger-Nixon thesis of American decline.

    Anyway, apparently people extrapolate backwards with regard to language & culture: since language & culture have throughout history become more complex (this is supposed to be obvious), they must have started out infinitely simple. (It must be good reasoning; after all, isn’t that how we got the Big Bang?) But it always created problems. Back when people thought that ancient languages were superior to modern ones, and that there had been a steady decline, it followed that “the first languages” were the best. But this conflicted with the natural idea that “the first languages” would have to be primitive. I think the same problem inheres in the Kertész quote: a conflict or confusion between the simple and the primitive.

  15. The recommendation that passive voice should be avoided is a valid one. Unfortunately, it tends to be completely misconstrued by non-linguists, who are frequently clueless what the passive voice actually is and vaguely regard any kind of evasive language as ‘passive’.

    I’m not sure I understand where you’re coming from. What’s wrong with the sentence ‘The beaker was heated with a Bunsen burner’? Who cares which lab member turned on the Bunsen burner? I always thought the reason behind the “no passive voice” rule was to prohibit evasive sentences, but that it’s flaw was that it didn’t actually do that. So that a sentence like “Mistakes happened” will get off on a technicality, but a sentence like “The beaker was heated to 50 degrees” will be convicted even though it’s innocent.

  16. Sir JCass says:

    The passive is always bad. I never say “Rome wasn’t built in a day” (passive), but “The people who other people would call Romans after they had built Rome didn’t build Rome in a day” (active).

  17. J.W. Brewer says:

    1. That different poll-question wordings of supposedly equivalent meaning yield different answers is interesting, but what does it tell us? Surely it’s naïve to treat one of the wordings as the obviously “correct” or “neutral” baseline formulation and ascribe 100% (or any specific percentage) of the difference in reaction to something untoward and manipulative about the other one. The other point is that there may perhaps be something defective with the implicit theory of meaning. It is common for people coming from a logic/analytical-philosophy background to say that two different sentences mean exactly the same thing if e.g. they have the same Tarskian truth conditions. When asked to explain how the sentences differ, such people tend to give unsatisfactory answers like “um, they mean exactly the same thing, but express it in different ways,” as if expression were mere incidental ornament and meaning a thing that can be cleanly abstracted away from it.

    2. And thus it is with anti-passive taboos. There is no a priori reason whatsoever to prefer X Y’d Z to Z was Y’d [by X] independent of the specific context in which one is communicating and what one is trying to communicate. The sentences have different focuses and emphases, with any number of contingent circumstances affecting a speaker’s sense of which might be more useful in a given context. The notion that the identity of X is always or even most of the time the most important thing to emphasize, such that any shift of emphasis or focus to a different element of the situation is at least presumptively slippery or dishonest or otherwise morally questionable seems so silly that it is difficult to understand how a well-informed person could hold it in good faith.

  18. “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard” —Will Strunk

  19. Squiffy-Marie von Bladet says:

    It’s based, of course, on the vague idea that things used to be simple and are now complicated.

    An old-fashioned idea; we now know, of course, that it’s much more complicated than that.

  20. No no, it really is that simple ! Or was …

  21. Surely it’s naïve to treat one of the wordings as the obviously “correct” or “neutral” baseline formulation

    We can’t assume that one of the wordings is neutral, but we can try to establish it by other means. Suppose we observe that, when shopping in a store in which both green ketchup and red ketchup are sold (the green and red ketchups are identical in terms of price, volume, packaging, etc.), 60% of shoppers buy the red ketchup and 40% buy the green ketchup. We then conduct a poll which asks ‘Do you prefer red or green ketchup?’, and the results are 60% red, 40% green. But then we conduct another poll which asks ‘Do you prefer ketchup that is green, or ketchup that is similar to the color of blood?’. If the results of the second poll are different, it seems fair to conclude that this is a less neutral phrasing.

  22. I don’t understand why people hate Orwell’s PatEL so much. Sure, he’s being a prescriptivist, and like all prescriptivists (and unlike scientists) he has to be 100% right, which no one ever is, and thus sets himself up to ridicule. All the same, the basic points which I remember are not bad guidelines: be concise, and don’t use high-register Latinate words when commoner, shorter ones will do. Unlike most prescriptivists, he goes further to explain how prolix language is used on purpose to obscure horrible things; that, I think, is straightforward. Again, I am judging the article not by its own rigid standards but by my own more forgiving ones. Besides, I think it’s clearly written. I first encountered it when I was nowhere near fluent in English, and found it then to be easy and pleasant to read.

  23. Tolkien included a dig at Orwell’s ideas in one of the appendices to The Lord of the Rings. Of course, he does not mention Orwell by name, but to an informed reader it is almost as obvious as the oblique reference to military tanks in The Hobbit. In his discussion of the languages of Middle-Earth, Tolkien explains that the Black Speech was created by Sauron according to Orwell’s model of Newspeak. But as a way of restricting what the dark lord’s thralls could think, it was a failure.

  24. Ken Miner says:

    Y: I can’t add anything to what Geoffrey Pullum had to say:

    http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2013/04/04/elimination-of-the-fittest/

    It’s not that the article is all bad. Had it not been by Orwell and had it not been praised so ardently through the years, it would not be a big deal. And you’re right, Orwell is one of the clearest writers I have encountered. Reading him is sheer pleasure.

  25. J.W. Brewer says:

    I don’t mean this to sound completely cynical, but is it possible that since Orwell lacked any real marketable skills or talents other than those of a propagandist and/or journalist, he was biased (perhaps unconsciously) toward significantly overestimating the actual degree of importance of propaganda and/or journalism in the grand scheme of things?

    And this obviously generalizes – people who comment here will tend to have an unusually high degree of interest in various fine points of language and will probably tend to find it harder to consider the possibility that none of it matters very much. A perhaps admirable exception to that tendency is the series of posts on language log focusing on how often people screw up complicated sentences by way of overnegation or misnegation but also how often listeners/readers unconsciously skip past the surface syntactic screw-up because they can figure out the intended meaning and proceed to do so without undue discomfort. We are, it would seem, constructed so as to be able to function with imperfect linguistic skills while living amidst fellow hominids with likewise imperfect linguistic skills.

  26. And this obviously generalizes – people who comment here will tend to have an unusually high degree of interest in various fine points of language and will probably tend to find it harder to consider the possibility that none of it matters very much.

    The whole point of being a descriptivist is that “none of it matters very much.” It’s the prescriptivists who think it’s all desperately important and if we don’t adopt their particular peeve we’re heading straight to hell.

  27. Bathrobe says:

    I always thought the reason behind the “no passive voice” rule was to prohibit evasive sentences

    To be honest, I think that is a simplification of what happened, to the point of distortion. My own interpretation is as follows:

    1. There has long been a stylistic prohibition on the intrusion of first person into expository prose in English. It is fine in narratives like novels, but good expository prose of a more technical or academic nature has tended to resort to devices like the passive to avoid explicitly mentioning first (or even second) person. The third-person viewpoint was regarded as the ideal.

    This particular stricture was most completely formalised in the description of scientific experiments, which mandated the use of the passive at all times, but it spread to all kinds of expository writing.

    2. Once the use of the passive became de rigueur in respectable or authoritative prose, it was transformed into a stylistic mannerism. Rather than writing simply and directly using the active voice, writers became inured to substituting passive voice at every turn in order to sound formal and authoritative. It had the effect of producing leaden prose.

    3. Stylists then invoked an injunction against use of the passive in order to counter and hopefully banish this mannerism from prose. The campaign against the passive voice was thus well intentioned. It forced writers to reappraise their writing sentence-by-sentence and consider whether a plain active sentence would not suit their purpose better than the automatic and unthinking use of the passive.

    4. Unfortunately, the injunction against the passive was not fully understood or properly presented by many stylists, whose understanding of grammar was perhaps less developed than their appreciation of style. The passive was presented as ‘bad’ because it allowed people to be ‘evasive’. While the overuse of the passive in writing authoritative prose was motivated by a desire to avoid injecting a first-person viewpoint and thus sound authoritative, which can indeed be used for evasive ends, I believe that this characterisation is incorrect. As Pullum and other linguists have pointed out, (1) there are legitimate uses for passive voice in English that have nothing to do with ‘evasion’, and (2) any kind of prose that is felt to be ‘evasive’ ended up being identified as passive voice, even where no passive voice was involved. Pullum has written a paper in which he is scathing about the grammatical illiteracy of style guide writers when discussing the passive.

    The smear campaign against the passive based on the equation ‘passive’ = ‘evasive’ is a simplistic and distorted presentation of the issue.

  28. Makes sense to me.

  29. David Marjanović says:

    1. There has long been a stylistic prohibition on the intrusion of first person into expository prose in English. It is fine in narratives like novels, but good expository prose of a more technical or academic nature has tended to resort to devices like the passive to avoid explicitly mentioning first (or even second) person. The third-person viewpoint was regarded as the ideal.

    More or less the same happened in German. French, interestingly, settled on the first person plural instead to spread the blame – but only for the pronoun and the verbs; all adjectives and participles are kept in the singular (Nous sommes étonnée…).

  30. So in effect they used nous to mean on; could this be why they now use on to mean nous?

  31. On and nous derive from the English “onus”, which is what they are to him who learns French.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    So in effect they used nous to mean on; could this be why they now use on to mean nous?

    *lightbulb moment* I wonder if it’s the opposite: a hypercorrectivism.

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