Language & Politics

Since I seem to be talking about language & politics quite a bit, here are some works I’ve found useful.
George Lakoff has been writing for over twenty years on metaphors and their use in the framing of questions. Naturally he has something to say about political discourse:
Bonnie Azab Powell, “Linguistics professor George Lakoff dissects the "war on terror" and other conservative catchphrases”, UC Berkeley NewsCenter, 26 August 2004
Now some books. Those with ISBN numbers are still in print.
George Orwell. “Politics and the English language”, in A Collection of Essays (Harcourt, 1970). ISBN: 0156186004
A classic. “This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse”. Newt Gingrich’s “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control” is pure Orwell—except that Gingrich wants “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”.
Jean-Pierre Faye. Introduction aux langages totalitaires : Théorie et Transformations du récit. Hermann, 2003. (Collection cultures). ISBN : 2705664505
Jean-Pierre Faye. La raison narrative : langages totalitaires : critique de l'économie narrative, II. Paris : Éditions Balland, 1990.
Jean-Pierre Faye. La critique du langage et son économie. Galilée, 1975. (Collection Langue) ISBN : 2718600128
Jean-Pierre Faye. Langages totalitaires; critique de la raison narrative. Paris : Hermann, 1972.
Jean-Pierre Faye, Anne-Marie de Vilaine. La déraison antisémite et son langage. Actes Sud, 1993. (Essais Sciences). ISBN : 2742700943
Jean-Pierre Faye. Le Piège. La Philosophie heideggerienne et le nazisme. Balland, 1994. (Le Mouvement change) ISBN : 2715810598
Faye began his career during the heyday of structuralism in France. His first works are on linguistics. Langages totalitaires is a very detailed study of the vocabulary of German politics in the 1920s and 1930s, the aim of which is to understand the language of National Socialism. Anyone who wants tools for understanding the conjunction of vocabularies—religious & political—that characterizes the public discourse of Bush & co. will find them here. Le piège, Faye’s contribution to the discussion of the Heidegger case in France, analyzes Heidegger’s “Rectorate Address” and other documents from the period of Heidegger’s assocation with the Nazi government. La déraison antisémitique is a conversation with his co-author about the history of antisemitism and its language—a passionate and touching work. Unfortunately Faye’s works have not been translated into English.
Victor Klemperer. LTI (Lingua Tertii Imperii). Notizbuch eines Philologen. Reclam, 2001. (Orig. publ. 1949.) ISBN: 3379001252.
Victor Klemperer. The Language of the Third Reich: LTI—Lingua Tertii Imperii : A Philologist’s Notebook. Trans. Martin Brady. Continuum, 2002. ISBN: 0826457770
Klemperer is best known for his diaries, and especially those written during the Nazi period in Germany, when, as a Jew married to an Aryan, he recorded in terrible detail the increasing restrictions and humiliations imposed upon the Jews. LTI, published not long after the fall of the Third Reich, is a study of the vocabulary of Nazism.
Kenneth Burke. A grammar of motives. University of California, 1969. (Orig. publ. 1945.) ISBN: 0520015444
Kenneth Burke. A rhetoric of motives. University of California, 1969. (Orig. publ. 1950.) ISBN: 0520015460
Burke is, along with William Empson (and in particular his Structure of complex words), one of the best rhetorical analysts I know of. The Grammar and Rhetoric I read perhaps thirty-five years ago. Phrases and turns of thought from them still occur to me now, even though I’ve only seldom looked at them since. Neither Burke nor Empson deals with political language in particular. But from them you can learn how to read, that is, how to take a text apart like a watch and see how its rhetorical gears mesh.
Raymond Williams. Keywords: A vocabulary of culture and society. Oxford, 1985. ISBN: 0195204697
If you want to understand why ‘citizen’ is a positive word, and ‘welfare’ a negative (Gingrich), this is a good place to start. Williams’s orientation is Marxist (see Culture and society and Marxism and literature). You don’t need to share it to learn from his work. One way to think of “complex words” is as bundles of potential significations awaiting actualization in a specific context. Those potencies are accumulated in the course of time, as a word passes in and out of active discourse. Sedimentation is a useful metaphor, especially if you keep in mind that linguistic sediments, like geological, can be brought to the surface and that changes deeper down can re-order them. Williams charts the layers in ‘nature’, ‘culture’, and ‘civilization’, words of such potency that wars are fought in their name.

LinkAugust 18, 2004 in Language · Society