Propaganda and Demotic Speech
George Orwell


When you examine Government leaflets and White Papers, or leading articles in the newspapers, or the speeches and broadcasts of politicians, or the pamphlets and manifestos of any political party whatever, the thing that nearly always strikes you is their remoteness from the average man. It is not merely that they assume non-existent knowledge: often it is right and necessary to do that. It is also that clear, popular, everyday language seems to be instinctively avoided. The bloodless dialect of government spokesmen (characteristic phrases are: in due course, no stone unturned, take the earliest opportunity, the answer is in the affirmative) is too well known to be worth dwelling on. Newspaper leaders are written either in this same dialect or in an inflated bombastic style with a tendency to fall back on archaic words (peril, valour, might, foe, succour, vengeance, dastardly, rampart, bulwark, bastion) which no normal person would ever think of using. Left-wing political parties specialize in a bastard vocabulary made up of Russian and German phrases translated with the maximum of clumsiness. And even posters, leaflets and broadcasts which are intended to give instructions, to tell people what to do in certain circumstances, often fail in their effect. For example, during the first air raids on London, it was found that innumerable people did not know which siren meant the Alert and which the All Clear. This was after months or years of gazing at A.R.P. posters. These posters had described the Alert as a ‘warbling note’: a phrase which made no impression, since air-raid sirens don’t warble, and few people attach any definite meaning to the word.

When Sir Richard Acland, in the early months of the war, was drawing up a manifesto to be presented to the Government, he engaged a squad of Mass Observers to find out what meaning, if any, the ordinary man attaches to the high-sounding abstract words which are flung to and fro in politics. The most fantastic misunderstandings came to light. It was found, for instance, that most people don’t know that ‘immorality’ means anything besides sexual immorality. One man thought that ‘movement’ had something to do with constipation. And it is a nightly experience in any pub to see broadcast speeches and news bulletins make no impression on the average listener, because they are uttered in stilted bookish language and, incidentally, in an upper-class accent. At the time of Dunkirk I watched a gang of navvies eating their bread and cheese in a pub while the one o’clock news came over. Nothing registered: they just went on stolidly eating. Then, just for an instant, reporting the words of some soldier who had been hauled aboard a boat, the announcer dropped into spoken English, with the phrase, ‘Well, I’ve learned to swim this trip, anyway!’ Promptly you could see ears being pricked up: it was ordinary language, and so it got across. A few weeks later, the day after Italy entered the war, Duff Cooper announced that Mussolini’s rash act would ‘add to the ruins for which Italy has been famous’. It was neat enough, and a true prophecy, but how much impression does that kind of language make on nine people out of ten? The colloquial version of it would have been: ‘Italy has always been famous for ruins. Well, there are going to be a damn’ sight more of them now.’ But that is not how Cabinet Ministers speak, at any rate in public.

Examples of futile slogans, obviously incapable of stirring strong feelings or being circulated by word of mouth, are: ‘Deserve Victory’, ‘Freedom is in Peril. Defend it with all your Might’, ‘Socialism the only Solution’, ‘Expropriate the Expropriators’, ‘Austerity’, ‘Evolution not Revolution’, ‘Peace is Indivisible’. Examples of slogans phrased in spoken English are: ‘Hands off Russia’, ‘Make Germany Pay’, ‘Stop Hitler’, ‘No Stomach Taxes’, ‘Buy a Spitfire’, ‘Votes for Women’. Examples about mid-way between these two classes are, ‘Go to it’, ‘Dig for Victory’, ‘It all depends on ME’, and some of Churchill’s phrases, such as ‘the end of the beginning’, ‘soft underbelly’, ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat’ and ‘never was so much owed by so many to so few’. (Significantly, in so far as this last saying has been repeated by word of mouth, the bookish phrase in the field of human conflict has dropped out of it.) One has to take into account the fact that nearly all English people dislike anything that sounds high-flown and boastful. Slogans like ‘They shall not pass’, or ‘Better to die on your feet than live on your knees’, which have thrilled continental nations, seem slightly embarrassing to an Englishman, especially a working man. But the main weakness of propagandists and popularizers is their failure to notice that spoken and written English are two different things.

When recently I protested in print against the Marxist dialect which makes use of phrases like ‘objectively counter-revolutionary left-deviationism’ or ‘drastic liquidation of petty-bourgeois elements’, I received indignant letters from lifelong Socialists who told me that I was ‘insulting the language of the proletariat’. In rather the same spirit, Professor Harold Laski devotes a long passage in his last book, Faith, Reason and Civilisation, to an attack on Mr T. S. Eliot, whom he accuses of ‘writing only for the few’. Now Eliot, as it happens, is one of the few writers of our time who have tried seriously to write English as it is spoken. Lines like:

And nobody came, and nobody Went,

But he took in the milk and be paid the rent

are about as near to spoken English as print can come. On the other hand, here is an entirely typical sentence from Laski’s own writing:

As a whole, our system was a compromise between democracy in the political realm — itself a very recent development in our history — and an economic power oligarchically organized which was in its turn related to a certain aristocratic vestigia still able to influence profoundly the habits of our society.

This sentence, incidentally, comes from a reprinted lecture; so one must assume that Professor Laski actually stood up on a platform and spouted it forth, parenthesis and all. It is clear that people capable of speaking or writing in such a way have simply forgotten what everyday language is like. But this is nothing to some of the other passages I could dig out of Professor Laski’s writings, or better still, from Communist literature, or best of all, from Trotskyist pamphlets. Indeed, from reading the left-wing press you get the impression that the louder people yap about the proletariat, the more they despise its language.

I have said already that spoken English and written English are two different things. This variation exists in all languages, but is probably greater in English than in most. Spoken English is full of slang, it is abbreviated wherever possible, and people of all social classes treat its grammar and syntax in a slovenly way. Extremely few English people ever button up a sentence if they are speaking extempore. Above all, the vast English vocabulary contain, thousands of words which everyone uses when writing, but which have no real currency in speech: and it also contain, thousands more which are really obsolete but which are dragged forth by anyone who wants to sound clever or uplifting. If one keeps this in mind, one can think of ways of ensuring that propaganda, spoken or written, shall reach the audience it is aimed at.

So far as writing goes, all one can attempt is a process of simplification. The first step — and any social survey organization could do this for a few hundreds or thousands of pounds — is to find out which of the abstract words habitually used by politicians are really understood by large numbers of people. If phrases like ‘unprincipled violation of declared pledges’ or ‘insidious threat to the basic principles of democracy’ don’t mean anything to the average man, then it is stupid to use them, Secondly, in writing one can keep the spoken word constantly in mind. To get genuine spoken English on to paper is a complicated matter, as I shall show in a moment. But if you habitually say to yourself, ‘Could I simplify this? Could I make it more like speech?’ you are not likely to produce sentences like the one quoted from Professor Laski above: nor are you likely to say ‘eliminate’ when you mean kill, or ‘static water’ when you mean fire tank.

Spoken propaganda, however, offers greater possibilities of improvement. It is here that the problem of writing in spoken English really arises.

Speeches, broadcasts, lectures and even sermons are normally written down beforehand. The most effective orators, like Hitler or Lloyd George, usually speak extempore, but they are very great rarities. As a rule — you can test this by listening at Hyde Park Corner — the so-called extempore speaker only keeps going by endlessly tacking one cliché on to another. In any case, he is probably delivering a speech which he has delivered dozens of times before. Only a few exceptionally gifted speakers can achieve the simplicity and intelligibility which even the most tongue-tied person achieves in ordinary conversation. On the air extempore speaking is seldom even attempted. Except for a few programmes like the Brains Trust, which in any case are carefully rehearsed beforehand, every word that comes from the B.B.C. has been written down, and is delivered exactly as written. This is not only for censorship reasons: it is also because many speakers are liable to dry up at the microphone if they have no script to follow. The result is the heavy, dull, bookish lingo which causes most radio users to switch off as soon as a talk is announced. It might be thought that one could get nearer to colloquial speech by dictating than by writing; but actually, it is the other way about. Dictating, at any rate to a human being, is always slightly embarrassing. One’s impulse is to avoid the long pauses, and one necessarily does so by clutching at the ready-made phrases and the dead and stinking metaphors (ring the changes on, ride rough-shod over, cross swords with, take up the cudgels for) with which the English language is littered. A dictated script is usually less life-like than a written one. What is wanted, evidently, is some way of getting ordinary, slipshod, colloquial English on to paper.

But is this possible? I think it is, and by a quite simple method which so far as I know has never been tried. It is this: Set a fairly ready speaker down at the microphone and let him just talk, either continuously or intermittently, on any subject he chooses. Do this with a dozen different speakers, recording it every time. Vary it with a few dialogues or conversations between three or four people. Then play your recordings back and let a stenographer reduce them to writing: not in the shortened, rationalized version that stenographers usually produce, but word for word, with such punctuation as seems appropriate. You would then — for the first time, I believe — have on paper some authentic specimens of spoken English. Probably they would not be readable as a book or a newspaper article is readable, but then spoken English is not meant to be read, it is meant to be listened to. From these specimens you could, I believe, formulate the rules of spoken English and find out how it differs from the written language. And when writing in spoken English had become practicable, the average speaker or lecturer who has to write his material down beforehand could bring it far closer to his natural dictation, make it more essentially speakable, than he can at present.

Of course, demotic speech is not solely a matter of being colloquial and avoiding ill-understood words. There is also the question of accent. It seems certain that in modem England the ‘educated’, upper-class accent is deadly to any speaker who is aiming at a large audience. All effective speakers in recent times have had either cockney or provincial accents. The success of Priestley’s broadcasts in 1940 was largely due to his Yorkshire accent, which he probably broadened a little for the occasion. Churchill is only a seeming exception to this rule. Too old to have acquired the modern ‘educated’ accent he speaks with the Edwardian upper-class twang which to the average man’s ear sounds like cockney. The ‘educated’ accent, of which the accent of the B.B.C. announcers is a sort of parody, has no asset except its intelligibility to English-speaking foreigners. In England the minority to whom it is natural don’t particularly like it, while in the other three quarters of the population it arouses an immediate class antagonism. It is also noticeable that where there is doubt about the pronunciation of a name, successful speakers will stick to the working-class pronunciation even if they know it to be wrong. Churchill, for instance, mispronounced ‘Nazi’ and ‘Gestapo’ as long as the common people continued to do so, Lloyd George during the last war rendered ‘Kaiser’ as Kayser’, which was the popular version of the word.

In the early days of the war the Government had the greatest difficulty in inducing people to bother to collect their ration books. At parliamentary elections, even when there is an up-to-date register, it often happens that less than half of the electorate use their votes. Things like these are symptoms of the intellectual gulf between the rulers and the ruled. But the same gulf lies always between the intelligentsia and the common man. Journalists, as we can see by their election forecasts, never know what the public is thinking. Revolutionary propaganda is incredibly ineffective. Churches are empty all over the country. The whole idea of trying to find out what the average man thinks, instead of assuming that he thinks what he ought to think, is novel and unwelcome. Social surveys are viciously attacked from Left and Right alike. Yet some mechanism for testing public opinion is an obvious necessity of modern government, and more so in a democratic country than in a totalitarian one. Its complement is the ability to speak to the ordinary man in words that he will understand and respond to.

At present propaganda only seems to succeed when it coincides with what people are inclined to do in any case. During the present war, for instance, the Government has done extraordinarily little to preserve morale: it has merely drawn on the existing reserves of goodwill. And all political parties alike have failed to interest the public in vitally important questions — it in the problem of India, to name only one. But some day we may have a genuinely democratic government, a government which will want to tell people what is happening, and what must be done next, and what sacrifices are necessary, and why. It will need the mechanisms for doing so, of which the first are the right words, the right tone of voice. The fact that when you suggest finding out what the common man is like, and approaching him accordingly, you are either accused of being an intellectual snob who was to ‘talk down to’ the masses, or else suspected of plotting to establish an English Gestapo, shows how sluggishly nineteenth-century our notion of democracy has remained.


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