By Dennis Baron
Despite the claims of mass murderers and freepers, the government does not control your grammar. The government has no desire to control your grammar, and even if it did, it has no mechanism for exerting control: the schools, which are an arm of government, have proved singularly ineffective in shaping students’ grammar. Plus every time he opened his mouth, Pres. George W. Bush proved that the government can’t even control its own grammar.
Nonetheless, grammar conspiracy theories abound. In a YouTube video, Jared Lee Loughner, arrested for the Tucson assassinations that so shocked the nation, warns, “The government is implying mind control and brainwash on the people by controlling your grammar.” As further evidence that Loughner’s own grasp both of grammar and of reality is tenuous, he is reported to have asked Rep. Gabrielle Giffords the truly bizarre question, “What is government if words have no meaning?” three years before he put a bullet through the left side of her brain, the part that controls language.
But wresting control of grammar away from the government the same way other revolutionaries might take over the newspapers and the radio stations is the underlying theme of another denier of government authority, the right-wing loony-toon David Wynn Miller, a former pipe-fitter who made up his own language in order to challenge the government’s legitimacy and avoid paying taxes. News accounts detail attempts by Miller’s followers, after attending his expensive how-to seminars, to bring the courts to a standstill by filing stacks of incomprehensible legal motions written in what Miller calls “Quantum Language,” or sometimes, “communication-syntax-language,” but is literally psychobabble.
The idea that government controls language, which appeals to conspiracy theorists, is just a subset of the more-commonly-held view that language controls thought. George Orwell used Newspeak to illustrate this kind of linguistic mind control in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and in his essay “Politics and the English Language (1946), where he decried the connection between “politics and the debasement of language.” In the essay, Orwell presents a “catalogue of swindles and perversions” of words like “class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality“–together with syntactic forms like the passive voice. Orwell claimed that all of these were used in political writing “in most cases more or less dishonestly,” and, using the passive voice, he added that “political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
Orwell champions this strong form of linguistic determinism, often called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis after the linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, who contend that language controls and even limits thought: unless we have a word for something, it is invisible to us. Speakers of a language with no word for blue don’t see that color. The mnemonic for their visible spectrum is ROYGIV , not ROYGBIV. Similarly, if their language had no future tense they would have no concept of futurity.
But while language does predispose us to think in certain ways, the connection between language and thought is much looser than the paranoids and pseudonymous essayists would have us believe: we are free to think outside the language box whenever we’ve a mind to. Speakers can still distinguish a color’s wavelength when contrasted with another, even without a word for that color. So far as time goes, speakers of English, a language with no distinct future tense, use the present tense instead when they want to talk about things that haven’t happened yet, as Macbeth does when he says, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time.” Or we use the present progressive—Birnam Wood is going to come to Dunsinane in Act V—or the present tense of auxiliary verbs like will—Birnam Wood will come to Dunsinane in Act V (interestingly, the past tense of the verb will is would, which doesn’t summon up remembrances of all our yesterdays lighting fools the way to dusty death, but instead refers to what might be but isn’t, like Birnam Wood pulling up roots and coming to Dunsinane).
Linguistic determinism also undergirds the 19th century notion that language expresses the spirit of a nation. This is another favorite of conspiracy theorists convinced that English was losing out to German in the 18th and 19th centuries, and that it’s losing out to Spanish today. That’s why the extreme right wing wants the government to stop controlling our grammar but still require everyone to speak English. And why they insist that the documents embodying America’s ideals, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Star-Spangled Banner, can’t be translated into any other language without losing their meaning. Interestingly, those who insist that American ideals can only be expressed in English have no problem reading their sacred religious texts not in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, or Sanskrit, but in English translation.
If language really were an escape-proof prison, not only would translation be impossible, but we’d also never be able to make up new words like Newspeak or even communication-syntax-language. Even worse, we’d never crack jokes, because jokes require us to push language in unexpected directions: as George Carlin once put it, some see the glass as half empty, others as half full, but I see a glass that’s twice as big as it needs to be.
And because American legal principles derive from British common law, we’d be reading the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution not in English but in Latin, the language of Magna Carta, or even French, the language of the political philosophers who so influenced the Constitution’s framers. Or if we insisted on speaking authentic American, we’d speak Wampanoag, the language of the Natick Indians who greeted the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
Well perhaps not Wampanoag, because in an act which demonstrates the only effective way that government can ever control the people’s grammar, the British killed off as many Wampanoag speakers as they could during King Philip’s War (1675-76), and then they banned Wampanoag. That was long before America’s political ideals could be expressed in any language, and long before paranoids, troglodytes, and xenophobes decided it was imperative to take both the language and the law into their own hands.
Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language, where this article originally appeared.