3rd Prize in VSP 2022:
language corrupts thought.
“… if thought corrupts language, language corrupts thought.”
Third Prize in Vernon Smith Prize Contest 2022.
Language is one of the most fundamental achievements in human history. Language in all its manifestations, in the choice of words, the grammar, the style of its speakers, tells the story of a society. Language evolved in the course of man’s development of consciousness. For this reason, it is not possible for human beings to think without words, without language. This is precisely why attempts have always been made to influence language. Since time immemorial, language, as the supreme means of communication, has been the playing field of politics. The purpose of this has always been mental paternalism. Historically, attempts were often made to suppress opinions and thus also thoughts by means of censorship. In today’s modern societies, censorship is generally no longer used. The methods have become less brute, but more subtle and inconspicuous. Nowadays, attempts are made to influence citizens through neologisms, through euphemisms or through abbreviations. Moreover, the current political debate is riddled with empty buzzwords. In particular, “social justice” should be mentioned. All the attempts to steer language always aim at mentally patronising the citizens. Behind the often euphonious demands is mostly the expansion of state power at the expense of the individual.
Language reveals the historical heritage of a society
Language always reveals the character of a people or a community. Language holds up its historical mirror to societies. In the choice of words, in their emphasis and so on, the social and psychological heritage of a community is always expressed. The function of language goes beyond conveying information and having an effect on other individuals. Language is, as Johann Gottfried Herder called it, “the expression and organ of the intellect”. Herder rejected the divine origin of language. There was neither a specific stage nor an epoch in which language was invented or the ability to speak suddenly sprung from the baptism. Language has evolved in the course of the development of consciousness. For without words, without language, it is impossible for man to think.
Language reveals the spiritual heritage of human civilization. “It was not until 1771 that the world became truly round; now half the mental map was no longer blank,” wrote the French Orientalist Raymond Schwab in La Renaissance Orientale. What he meant was the decipherment of the “great wall of Asiatic languages”, especially Sanskrit and Hindi. He described this as one of the “greatest processes in the human mind. The decipherments made it possible for the first time to postulate something like a holistic human history. The rise of the Occident is closely linked to access to words and writing for the masses. Gutenberg’s invention of printing turned the whole of Europe upside down. The combination of capitalism and printing made printed matter commonplace in the 16th and 17th centuries. This set in motion a reading revolution.
Without the reading revolution, the emergence of a self-confident middle class would not have been possible. According to the political scientist Benedict Anderson, a sense of simultaneity imposes itself during the reading of such works. The reader realizes that other people are thinking the same thoughts and sharing the same feelings at the same time. When this stage of development is reached, societies of the “horizontal secular” and historical type” become possible.
Even vernacular translations of the Bible suddenly became accessible to the masses. People found that they were practicing numerous Christian traditions that were not mentioned at all in the Holy Scriptures. When it then turned out that the Old Testament was not written in Hebrew but in Aramaic, this finally challenged the beliefs of the Christians. Hebrew was considered the language of the chosen people and thus the first language. As a result, the Bible was subjected to historical-critical analysis for the first time. The reading revolution prepared the ground for the Reformation, triggered by Luther, established the loss of authority of the Pope and led to the rise of secular powers.
The eradication of writings is the eradication of thoughts and feelings. Language is man’s most important means of communication. It is always socially mediated and consequently as alive as society itself. Language is constantly changing; its only constant is change. Its use differs according to denomination, level of education, age and countless other criteria. The impact of language generally goes far beyond its measurable information content. Tone of voice, grammar, choice of words, style, background music or images. All this has complex effects on the addressee of what is said.
In times of upheaval, people’s need to communicate is particularly great. They want to put thoughts and feelings into words. In Germany alone, two million poems were written during the First World War. In the first month of the war, August 1914, 50,000 poems a day were written, 500 were sent to the daily newspapers and 100 were actually published. As the fighting progressed, the tradition of glorifying war was broken. Not even all the propaganda could prevent that. In the end, the thoughts that the citizens indulge in find their form of expression. The war depression finally culminated in Erich Maria Remarque’s work “All Quiet on the Western Front”. The film is suffused with desolation and sadness. A year after its publication, the book sold over a million copies and was translated into several languages. In America, the book was made into a film in 1930. Remarque left his mark on the zeitgeist and expressed a collectively felt emotion.
This was precisely what the National Socialists found bitter. Remarque destroyed the myth of the heroism of German soldiers. Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels himself was the commander in arms against Remarque’s work. The Nazis sabotaged cinema screenings of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. In May 1933 in Berlin, Remarque’s writings fell victim to the flames, and in 1938 he was deprived of his German citizenship. By this time Remarque had long since left Germany for America.
“All Quiet on the Western Front” shows the unvarnished reality of the First World War. War means destruction, grief and death. Under Hitler, the book was banned because it was diametrically opposed to the propagated enthusiasm for war. Society was not allowed to be influenced by Remarque’s “defeatism” and his “unpatriotic” portrayal of the war. So the author’s words and writing had to be stamped out so that unwelcome thoughts could be eradicated from the population.
The National Socialists took the pressure on language and opinion to the extreme. But as long as language has existed, attempts have been made to steer the addressee through it. Rulers in particular want to influence the opinions and views of the ruled. But attempts are still being made to influence the thinking of citizens by means of language. This is done much more subtly, without state censorship or even book burnings. All cases of censorship, renaming and neologisms are always aimed at controlling or at least influencing our thoughts. Of course, the methods used today are not comparable to those used during the rule of the National Socialists. The goal, however, remains the same.
The Magic Power of Words
Freud, for example, describes the important role that language plays in shaping the taboo. Freud shows how in many peoples taboo objects, facts and persons are always given new names, as if the undesirable, the negatively connoted could simply be erased. Wherever renaming or attempts at renaming take place, this always shows an ambivalence towards the corresponding term or the corresponding circumstance. Today, politicians like to use taboo words in the opposite sense. Thus, unpopular issues are often subsumed under a taboo term in order to prevent uncomfortable questions and conclusions from arising in the first place, or at least to present them in a morally questionable light. Thus, the “racism” accusation is regularly brought into the field. This is regularly used to prevent debates about group-related
differences and to put them on the moral sidelines. Angela Merkel used the same effect in 2010 when she declared: “If the euro fails, Europe fails. So anyone who did not rally behind the government’s goals, was opposed to the euro or even just did not want the euro bailouts had to be certified as having an anti-European attitude.
And here one encounters another possibility to mentally patronize the citizens by means of language control. The term “euro rescue umbrella” is a euphemistic neologism. The term suggests that a state is being rescued that has got into difficulties on the high seas through no fault of its own. However, the English term “bail-out”, which is much closer to reality, points in exactly the opposite direction. The term suggests that the state itself is responsible for its predicament and may even be criminal. With the help of these two linguistic tricks, Merkel was ultimately able to push through her euro policy.
In “Psychology of the Masses” Gustave Le Bon writes: “One could build a higher pyramid than that of ancient Cheops from the bones of the people who fell victim to the power of words alone”. And further: “The power of words is linked to the images they evoke and completely independent of their true meaning.” Words such as democracy, socialism, equality, freedom or even justice are particularly effective, he said. The interpretation of these buzzwords goes so far that they can be used to demand anything and also nothing. “And yet a truly magical power attaches itself to their short syllables, as if they contained the solution to all questions.” The images and expectations that people grasped with these catchwords are completely flexible. The words that make up a particular language change very slowly. However, the images and associations that citizens associate with the various terms are constantly changing.
According to Le Bon, it is not possible to translate texts in the strict sense, especially those that come from a completely different culture or go back a long way. People tried to imitate the Romans and ancient Greeks and conveyed a meaning to words that they had not originally had. By republic, the ancient Greeks understood an essentially aristocratic mass that ruled over broad classes. Fatherland for the Greeks meant the worship of Sparta or Athens, but not of the whole of Greece, which also consisted of various city states. Freedom must also have had a different meaning for the Greeks. For example, criticism of the gods was punished as “blasphemy”. Oswald Spengler’s remarks go in the same direction. He makes a clear distinction between language and speech. He writes: “We know the Egyptian language but not
Egyptian speech. We know from the Latin of the Augustan period approximately the phonetic value of the letters and the sense of the words, but we do not know how a speech of Cicero sounded from the rostra, and still less do we know how Hesoid and Sappho spoke their verses and what a conversation in the market of Athens sounded like.” The meaning of words is ephemeral, the images they evoke are subject to constant change.
Modern excesses of language control
Modern means of communication, first radio, later television and now the internet, have amplified the power of language and words. Concerns can now be accompanied by music and even moving images. Especially in the latter lies a magical power that can virtually stun the sine and diminish factual judgement. The difference between print and moving images was already wonderfully summed up by Goethe in the Tame Xenia.
“One can talk a lot of stupid stuff, Can also write it,
Will kill neither body nor soul, Everything will remain the same. But stupid things put before the eye, Has a magic right;
Because it keeps the senses bound, The mind remains a servant.”
A study of the German election campaign for the 1976 Bundestag elections by Mathias Kepplinger revealed that the opposition parties were consistently portrayed in a worse light than the representatives of the governing parties. The visual language chosen by the media, the images and sequences selected favored them, while the opposition politicians were filmed significantly more often from unfavorable angles, which ultimately made them appear more unsympathetic. In the end, Helmut Schmidt narrowly prevailed over challenger Helmut Kohl and the social-liberal coalition was able to continue. It is clear that the rise of modern means of communication has made language more powerful than ever before.
The purpose of language is to communicate and convey information. This is precisely what politicians want to make more difficult and hinder. The German finance minister recently
referred to taking on debts at a high level as “special assets”. But despite Lindner’s language transformation skills, the loan remains nothing more than debt. The language commandments that have been set have long since taken over the whole of everyday political life. The perception of reality is supposed to be changed with this – possibly one even believes one can change the facts by means of language regulations.
For example, the term “Gypsy” has been eradicated from language usage. This was the classical term for ethnic groups that left India about 1000 years ago and have lived in Europe ever since. The Gypsy term was replaced by “Sinti and Roma”. A term that is inaccurate, since Sinti and Roma describe only two of the numerous Gypsy families. After the fall of the Eastern Bloc and the opening of Eastern Europe, there was increased immigration of these ethnic groups to Central and Western Europe. This also brought increased problems with illegal prostitution, theft and begging. By erasing the word Gypsy, it was hoped that the negative image of these peoples could be erased. But the fundamental problems were not solved.
After a short period of confusion, the same negative associations once associated with Gypsies became established with the Sinti and Roma. In this context, it is also interesting that there was never any effort to call the Jews anything else. And this despite the fact that they were the most discriminated group of the 20th century. There is a simple principle behind this. Every group-related term that has negative connotations is banned from language use. And the moment the new term evokes the same associations, it too is eradicated. That is why it is only a matter of time before a new term is invented for “Sinti and Roma” – after all, the problems have not disappeared.
Another example is the designation of all those who immigrated to Germany in 2015 as “refugees”. The term “economic migrant” would be more appropriate – after all, most of the immigrants are known not to have had a reason to flee in the narrower sense, but to have emigrated for financial reasons. We should not take a moral high ground over these immigrants, since the economic opportunities in this country far exceed those in their home country. From the point of view of German interests, however, this immigration should be stopped. Of course, you can also want the German welfare state to support all immigrants from all over the world, but then you should call it that. Otherwise, facts are suggested that do not correspond to the facts.
Particularly oblivious to history is the politically correct rewriting of children’s books. For example, Ottfried Preußler’s “The Little Witch” was largely changed. Terms like “Chinese women”, “Negroes” or Turks” were to be eradicated. The publisher Klaus Willberg explained that he only wanted to banish “outdated and politically no longer correct terminology”. But there is no logical limit that would then prohibit painting over paintings by Rembrandt or Picasso. The debate about the remake of Winnetou goes in the same direction. It is not allowed to make films in which Native Americans even appear. This is group-related misanthropy, according to the critics. Such interventions are de facto interventions in the intellectual property of the artists. The purpose can only be the re-molding of children who are not supposed to see the world as it is, was or at least as the artist saw it.
All those who want to establish gender language in society also want to simply deny reality. They deny two facts: Firstly, that human beings are born predominantly as men and women; secondly, they ignore the grammar and historical development of our language. In almost all languages, words are assigned to a gender (he, she or it). Whether the gender-equitable re- polarisation of the language will succeed remains an open question. On the one hand, a clear majority is against it. On the other hand, a clear minority is pushing gender language very decisively – especially at universities. This is also where the development of High German began. But this definitely did not change anything about the realities of life for women or transsexuals. The Turkish language only knows the neuter. Nevertheless, the legal position of women and transsexuals is much more pronounced in the West than in Turkey. It is true that European languages reflect a past male dominance. But this will find its linguistic expression all by itself, without having to be administered by the state.
Thus, the word “Fräulein” disappeared in German and the word “Miss” in English. The logical consequence of the decoupling of sexual intercourse and marriage. Language grows and develops organically from below. This simply has to do with the fact that language adapts to the facts and the current situation and not reality being created by language. Whenever attempts are made to influence language, to banish words and establish new ones, the aim is to control the thoughts of the dominated. Because only what can be expressed can be thought.
Welcome to Orwell
Attempts to influence the direction of language are always reminiscent of George Orwell’s classic 1984, where the protagonist Winston Smith works in the “Ministry of Truth”. His task is to rewrite texts from the past so that they fit into the present world view. But he has to chop up the texts not only in terms of content, but also grammatically. In Oceania, the country where the novel is set, a new way of speaking has been developed called “neusprech”. New-speak is derived from old English but has nothing to do with it in the strict sense. The purpose of this new language is to influence people’s thoughts.
In the opening quotation, Orwell remarked that “if thought can corrupt language, language can corrupt thought. This is exactly what “neo-speak” was designed to do. “Heretical” thoughts were to be stamped out and “literally unthinkable”. Thought that deviated from the principles of EngSoz (the English socialist party that ruled in the novel) was to be impossible to grasp.
In the novel, the transformation of language has already progressed so far that language no longer expresses anything. It is impossible for people to speak of freedom, for example. Every term that expresses this has been eradicated. “Free” can only be used in the sense of “this dog is free of fleas, or this field is free of weeds”. However, it cannot be used in the sense of political or spiritual freedom. Words like “justice”, “religion”, “morality”, “democracy” and so on had simply ceased to exist. Many abbreviations were also used, because it was understood that this would not expand the possibility of expressing oneself, but rather narrow it down. “War is peace”, “freedom is slavery” and “ignorance is strength”, are the slogans of the ruling party.
The “weasleword” social justice
In political debate, hardly any term is repeatedly called for with such passion as “social justice”. In the 2017 federal election campaign, the SPD’s top candidate Martin Schulz paraded the term before him like a monstrance. However, it is unclear what is meant by the term in detail. Cultures, civilizations and philosophers have been racking their brains over justice alone since time immemorial.
The word justice is open to a wide range of interpretations. In the Anglo-Saxon sense, justice is primarily understood as equality before the law. Every human being is “born equal”, as stated in the American Declaration of Independence. Plato, who wrote what is probably the most famous work on justice with his Politeia, interprets it in a completely different sense, however. According to Popper, Plato considered justice to be “that which is in the interest of the best state”. This ideal state must be kept static. Citizens are assigned to different classes. Ascending or descending to another class is not possible.
Friedrich August von Hayek dealt with the concept of “social justice” in depth. He writes: “For 10 years I have been intensively engaged in trying to find out the meaning of the term social justice. The attempt failed”. The meaning behind the term could not be fathomed for him. This is exactly what makes the term so magical and appealing. “Social justice” is a pleonasm. The term suggests that there is a justice that is not social. The word “social” completely blurs the overall concept. Hayek explains that “social “is probably the most confusing word in our entire moral and political vocabulary. “Not only social justice, but also social democracy, social market economy or social constitutional state are expressions which, by adding the adjective “social” to the expression’s justice, democracy, market economy or constitutional state, which are in themselves perfectly clear, can be given almost any meaning. Hayek calls “social justice a weasleword”. “For him, social justice is a buzzword empty of content with which one can demand everything and nothing.
For modern societies, measures in the sense of “social justice” usually result in one thing: the intervention of the state in the concerns of the individual. Tocqueville writes: “It is the state that appoints itself almost the sole helper in all needs”. Whenever more “social justice” is demanded or the welfare state is to be expanded, this means a de facto increase in the power of the state at the expense of the individual.
It was Ludwig Wittgenstein who noticed that language has its limits. Language always summarizes and generalizes facts. These generalizations do not correspond to the “pictures of the facts”. If you want to understand the world, you have to proceed partially. You have to limit your view and talk about what can be described on the basis of individual facts that make up reality. One can never go beyond that. In the Tractatus, Wittgenstein declared: “What one cannot speak of, one must remain silent”. Wherever politicians speak of “Weaslewords” such as social justice, one must assume that they want to corrupt citizens’ thoughts by language.
Language is one of the most fundamental achievements in human history. Language in all its manifestations, in the choice of words, the grammar, the style of its speakers, tells the story of a society. Language evolved in the course of man’s development of consciousness. For this reason, it is not possible for human beings to think without words, without language. This is precisely why attempts have always been made to influence language. Since time immemorial, language, as the supreme means of communication, has been the playing field of politics. The purpose of this has always been mental paternalism. Historically, attempts were often made to suppress opinions and thus also thoughts by means of censorship. In today’s modern societies, censorship is generally no longer used. The methods have become less brute, but more subtle and inconspicuous. Nowadays, attempts are made to influence citizens through neologisms, through euphemisms or through abbreviations. Moreover, the current political debate is riddled with empty buzzwords. In particular, “social justice” should be mentioned. All the attempts to steer language always aim at mentally patronizing the citizens. Behind the often euphonious demands is mostly the expansion of state power at the expense of the individual.
Jonas Trappe (D)
Graduated from Phillip-Melanchthon-Gymnasium Schmalkalden in 2019. Since 2019 student of law in Jena
Since 2022 Erasmus stay in Lleida, Spain, near Barcelona
Since 2022 Editor at the youth magazine Apollo News
From December 2021-July 2022 author at Tichys Einblick
Since August 2022 Editor at rome-medien GmbH (“Achtung Reichelt”)
Sigmund Freud – Totem und Tabu
Erich Maria Remarque – All Quiet on the Western Front
Friedrich August von Hayek – The Road to Serfdom
Popper – The Open Society and Its Enemies
Johann Gottfried Herder – Ideen zur Philosophie zur Geschichte der Menschheit
Oswald Spengler – Der Untergang des Abendlandes
Tocqueville – Democracy in America
Platon – Politeia
Gustave Le Bon – Psychology of the mass
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – The tame Xenia
Raymond Schwab – La Renaissance Orientale
Ludwig Wittgenstein – Tractus