By Yuliya Komska, David Gramling, and Michelle Moyd
A language doesn’t go crazy, as Hannah Arendt observed about German under and after the Nazi rule. Its speakers do. And yet, the nightmare of being ambushed by language—punishing, manipulative, confounding—is at least as old as the biblical story of Babel. Silent defiance might appear to be the only reliable antidote.
Only it’s never quite the same nightmare, and recipes for defiance aren’t foolproof across history. Today, regrouping for the changing circumstances is essential for those of us who feel compelled to protect language from its abuse on so many political and social fronts.
“Newspeak” was the 20th century’s literary archetype of linguistic terror. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell gave it a straightforward plotline: power usurps language and imposes thought-reducing norms. The result was a kind of intellectual imprisonment, a cheapening of communication. Social and political interactions atrophy, and their participants become inert, apathetic, empty. Numbing, restrictive and repetitive, Newspeak bends thought to fit the single totalitarian mold.
But totalitarianism is never total, and Orwell’s linear plotline of Newspeak gave his readers hope and clarity about how to resist it. To disobey, one had to recognize the new norms and reject them. By devising an oppositional “counterlanguage.” By appropriating the idiom of power subversively. By unleashing irony or sarcasm. By practicing “extreme individualism,” as the Soviet dissident Joseph Brodsky suggested. The 20th-century model of linguistic disobedience wasn’t easy to practice. But, with its canon of protocols to wield against a single and obvious adversary—a centralized authoritarian or colonial regime, for instance—it was at least easy to understand.
In the 21st century, those familiar patterns of disobedience still call out to us. And some of them may still be relevant, as we argue in our book, Linguistic Disobedience: Restoring Power to Civic Language. By and large, however, the puzzle of public language in our age is terrifyingly new and unpredictable. Few of the tools we know from the literature, philosophy, or activism of earlier ages seem reliably effective.
For one, the volte-face in the language of the powerful is unmistakable. No longer is power a purveyor of class-coded norms, recruiting grammarians to preen national tongues by pruning away dialects, or dispatching missionaries to evangelize by codifying (and thus colonizing) indigenous languages overseas. Instead of enforcing order, as before, power now sows linguistic chaos and cognitive frenzy. Donald Trump’s idiolectic presidency—his high-pitched “unmonitored speech,” written in all-caps—is unparalleled in modern political history. Vladimir Putin’s raunchy, Rablesian Russian comes in a close second.
Nor are the tried-and-true techniques of opposition and resistance what they used to be. Bucking grammar rules and rejecting pat slogans no longer amounts to active dissent. Irony is now a beloved rhetorical device of neo-Nazis. Charges of ideological manipulation are the right-wing politicians’ rebuke to historians who insist on confronting violent pasts. And flashy individualism, as Peter Pomerantsev notes, is increasingly demanded of us by automated social media prompts.
What’s the way out of this linguistic fever?
First, we need an entirely new awareness about language and power in public life. Newspeak’s single-adversary model is outdated. What we face today is more far-reaching than governments warping language by banning words, abusing voice analysis software to vet refugees, spewing euphemisms like “transit center,” or keeping the language of constitutions exclusionary. As the overlaps between technology and politics become ever more inscrutable, befitting a James Bond villain, we must question our own willingness to ingest corporate proxy languages handed to us on latter-day tablets—the electronic kind.
This summer, for instance, thousands reached for Google Translate during the Men’s Football World Cup in Russia, gushing about its “heroic” role in dismantling borders between people. Fewer paused to register that Google’s extensive AI (artificial intelligence) experiments have been rewiring language in ways that machines will understand but humans won’t. What happens when technology breeds a language politics of its own—in an idiom even the cleverest critics can’t fathom? What if the price of AI linguistic “reality effects” is unbridled manipulability, to an infinite number of political ends? Think here of “deepfakes,” which alter facial expressions to synchronize with translated speech to make the result more “authentic.” What are the costs if AI continues to perpetuate pre-existing racial, sexist, nationalist, and linguistic biases in hyper-accelerated form? How hopeless will this language ambush be, if we surrender our agency thoughtlessly or rely on 20th-century strategies of resistance alone?
Today’s relationship between power and language is actually a relationship between languages. Finding it harder to market traditional industrial products and services alone, corporations since the 1990s quickly learned how to sell words, phrases, and meanings in many languages at once—by some accounts, in between 60 and 170. Speakers of these languages are, to these corporate interests, not quite speakers but “end-users” whose markets need to be saturated.
Meanwhile, with its bold vision of multilingualism, Europe has since the 1990s championed a new kind of citizenship, beyond monolingualism. It is a glorious and far-sighted vision. But with corporate-funded translation technologies on a meteoric rise, speaking many languages does not, by itself, solve any problems. If you speak five languages, but you propagate the same dominant ideology in all of them, what’s the point? Europe’s grand experiment in linguistic diversity must become an exploration of meaning and difference, not just mastering the obedient codes of ruling elites.
Truth and insight themselves, we ought to learn, come by way of many kinds of articulacy, some difficult to recognize and understand at first. Asylum-seekers’ stories may not be told in the storyforms—or with the kind of character development and descriptions—we find familiar and credible. Neighbors may combine and move in and out of languages, dialects, and slangs we might have a tough time even identifying. This experience of partial comprehension is not a sign of incompetence, but rather an omen that we are on the right track toward acknowledging the world as it actually speaks, through our fellows. To close ourselves off to them, to prefer cleansed and transparent meaning that translation algorithms will generate on our screens, is to render ourselves obedient to power and its expedient, engineered versions of truth. Arundhati Roy recently evoked a culinary metaphor with regard to caring for language, which “can never be a given. It has to be made. It has to be cooked. Slow-cooked.”
Not falling victim to Trump and Putin’s new Newspeak—or to the language of any other power-addict—means developing new tools and stances. We need a new generation of public intellectuals and activists who take languages-in-the-plural as central to achieving justice and rendering the planet—and our neighborhoods upon it—habitable in the long term. We need new modes of critique, correction, and care for language that embrace the kinds of tongues that human beings actually speak, rather than yoking them to the nationalist and imperialist visions of the past. We need to recognize in the voices, accents, vocabularies, and styles of friends and strangers the key to a humane and far-reaching linguistic disobedience. And we need to out the genocidal language in our midst each time it masquerades as free or innocent speech, reinforces hateful actions, obfuscates ugly histories. Our survival, and certainly our potential for happiness and sanity, depend upon it.
Yuliya Komska is Associate Professor of German Studies at Dartmouth College, David Gramling is Associate Professor of German Studies and Second Language Acquisition and Teaching at the University of Arizona, and Michelle Moyd is Associate Professor of History at Indiana University Bloomington.