A Farewell to Language

“An image is worth a thousand words.” What nonsense. Social networks are the proof that these words we’ve heard millions of times are utterly false. Most of the selfies we see every day are worth nothing, or next to nothing. They’re images that become out of date almost instantly and show, as George Orwell anticipated in 1984, that the most characteristic thing in modern life is “not its cruelty and insecurity, but simply its emptiness, its absolute lack of content.” What is there behind all those self-portraits with details of the lives of millions of people that expose themselves on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat or Twitter? There is, at the most, a reflection of how we want others to perceive us, a drawing of our idealised selves. The use of a selfie is, thus, sending a hidden message for people to interpret, to read. However, no one uses language to send that message.

And why is that? Well, simply, because in this age of ours, images have beaten words to a K.O. Each day, eighty million pictures are posted on Instagram. Every second, more than eight thousand photographs are uploaded to Snapchat and more than four thousand to Facebook. Yes, every second! And not only that, on instant messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Messenger or Telegram, contact apps such as Tinder or Grindr, forums and even e-mails we’re getting used to accompanying our messages with emojis (icons expressing emotions), GIFs (animated loop images), memes (altered or accompanied by a word or sentence photographs) and other visual paraphernalia. They’re the replacements of non-verbal communication, good old gestures, but also of the hues and richness of language. Write a simple sentence and add an image for the intention you want to express to become clearer.

A language evolves while the needs of the people using it do too. And in this century, the Internet is causing an alarming simplification of language, because the use of images allows us to communicate quickly and to express our thoughts and emotions with very few words. At the end of the day, an image can express an idea for it to be immediately understood. GIFs, for instance, explain little stories, they’re almost like silent films. They’re easy to watch, understand and share. And even if it sounds obvious, we should remember that the 319 millions of people using Twitter cannot go beyond the 140 characters. Facebook hasn’t got that restriction, but most of its states don’t usually exceed the two or three lines should the message lose impact and miss the sought-after “like”. It’s all about saying a lot with little or, most of the time, with less. The consequence: millennials (those born from 1980 onwards) and not so millennials have a language that is becoming poorer and more limited every time.

The most important thing in communication is not only what we say, but also how we say it, its form, its intention. Being frequent readers of books or of the press and knowing the rules of syntax helps to express what we have in our minds with all its possible nuances. And that’s what is being lost due to the use of social networks (fifteen million users in Spain in 2016) and instant messaging apps (two thirds of the Spanish population use them daily: we’re the leaders in Europe). Some linguists consider that these innovations allow us to have a more fluid communication and also that they will eventually enrich the language. But I, even if I sound like an old fag who doesn’t adapt to the new times, only see a simplification of language and thought that will lead us to become a more mediocre and much more ignorant society.

One detail: in destructive cults, mental control or brainwashing techniques always, always include a simplification of language. Since language gives us the symbols we use in order to think, controlling words helps controlling thought. Many cults synthesise complex situations, label them and turn them into catch phrases for the faithful. These labels are what dictate their way of thinking. Or, to put it better, they’re what manage to get the members of the cult used to not thinking at all. There’s always a motto or slogan as an answer to the most difficult questions.

Critical thinking is incompatible with simplification. Complex situations require a rich and nuanced language, and that implies the effort of reading and writing. Reducing it all down to a mere cliché, a stereotype is the more efficient way of impeding the capacity of an individual to analyse reality. “The fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly,” George Orwell said in a 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language.

Orwell again… The British writer was a visionary, and some of his works prodigiously anticipated what was to come. In his capital 1984 (the origin of the “Big Brother” concept, let’s not forget), he came up with the term newspeak, a simplified version of English used to dominate the mind of the members of the governing party and to make impossible other ways of thinking (what in the novel are referred to as thoughtcrimes). Politics and the English Language was born to criticise the political language of his time, but today it can be useful to analyse how we express ourselves on the Internet. “When we write we have to let meaning choose the word and not the other way around,” advised the genius who rejected “dying metaphors,” those that people use in excess, clichés, let’s say. In general lines, the author of Animal Farm considered that the problem of many texts was a lack of precision. “We have to make an effort and think before we write. That way we will avoid wasted and confused images, pre-manufactured sentences, unnecessary repetitions, tricks and vague remarks.”

These are the six rules that Orwell considered basic to write better. And if Orwell said so, neither you nor I should have anything to object to them. We should only note them down and start expressing our emotions and points of view in the most clear, direct and detailed way possible:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

By Oscar del Pozo
Illustration by Conxita Herrero