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Loyal to language

On ‘desiring to tell the truth’

Interviewed on BBC Radio 4 this morning, a celebrated writer was asked “What do you think makes a great author?”. He said this:

The writer’s job – and I always think that one must be very careful not to assign too much of a role to this sort of thing – is first of all and principally to be loyal to language. And I think if you interpret that properly, you’ll find that other loyalties derive from it or arise from it. I think you can’t really be loyal to language without some sense of desiring to tell the truth.

I suppose that being “loyal to language” must mean more than just a promise to use speech instead of belching in one’s opponent’s face, or punching him. It seems to imply a commitment to use words as carefully and precisely as possible, so as to arrive as close as possible to an accurate representation of things. We are offered a kind of ethics of writing, if a rather crude and inflexible one. What might it have to say about neologism, or surrealist poetry, or science fiction? Might it not even be possible, in some cases, that “loyalty” to language for its own sake will take a writer further from the truth? Or is the argument that the truth about language is coterminous with the truth about the world?

Anyway, the passage does state a kind of moral principle, as far as it goes. So who was proposing it? Why, it was none other than Christopher Hitchens, who in recent times has exploited subtle contortions of language so as to insinuate the desirability of torture, ((Unspeak, pp180-2.)) and to avoid telling, or actually to misrepresent, truths he finds unpalatable. ((See previous posts Sheltered, Some percentage, A proper account, and Slower to get it.)) Isn’t it ironic?

One might equably object that Unspeak is language too, so why can’t you be “loyal” to it? That is certainly possible, but it’s somewhat less compatible with “desiring to tell the truth”, a volitional habit that Hitchens has long since cast off. Or perhaps Hitchens is cleverly implying that desiring to tell the truth is no guarantee that one will actually tell it: there might be overriding reasons, of whatever nature, to prefer misdirection and noble lies.

Hitchens’s co-interviewee was Martin Amis, fellow scourge of Islam. There is a Realplayer stream but no transcript – you will miss nothing essential, however, if you read instead this near-clairvoyant post from last week by Dennis Perrin.

  1. 1  sw  February 27, 2007, 6:35 pm 

    Without reading or listening to any more of the transcript than you’ve posted, one might wonder if there is, in this loyalty to language, the echo of religious faith in the Word.

  2. 2  Steven  February 27, 2007, 9:04 pm 


  3. 3  Jeff Strabone  February 27, 2007, 9:11 pm 

    I would very much like to comment on the quotation from Hitchens, but its opaqueness prevents me from doing so. Steve, could you possibly provide a bit more of the transcript? Perhaps that would help.

  4. 4  sw  February 27, 2007, 9:25 pm 

    That’s the problem with loyalty to language – there are always more language to be loyal to!

    In Hitchens’ humourlessness, how loyal can he be to the true meaning of the word ‘santorum’, now that we have found the desirable truth it contains?

  5. 5  Steven  February 27, 2007, 9:48 pm 

    Jeff, that is the entirety of what he said in answer to the question (apart from some prefatory waffle about how he went to Martin’s first book party). The interviewer then changed the subject to whether book sales matter.

  6. 6  sw  February 27, 2007, 9:50 pm 

    And I think we can all agree – they don’t. Right?

  7. 7  Steven  February 27, 2007, 9:51 pm 

    Well, it all depends on what the meaning of “matter” is.

  8. 8  Alex  February 28, 2007, 12:14 pm 

    I think that actually means “I want to quote George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language at this point but I can’t remember the bit I wanted to use”.

  9. 9  Steven  February 28, 2007, 12:38 pm 

    Ah, that strikes me as very plausible. Perhaps he was thinking of this bit, which begins with a piquant analogy:

    A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.

    Orwell also talks about “the defence of the English language”, but then says:

    What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.

    So we need to “defend” language, but not “surrender” to it. Apparently it’s our ally but also our enemy. I’m not quite sure how that all fits with the idea of “loyalty” to language.

  10. 10  Lee Ward  March 7, 2007, 7:40 am 

    I’m not sure you’re covering yourself in rhetorical glory here, Steven. It seems to be relatively uncontroversial remark, as applied to journalism. You are loyal to language if you pay forensic attention to its abuses; this is the thrust of your book, no? Hitchens, in his latest Slate piece, points out the lexical inexactitude (and outright insult) in describing Ayaan Hirsi Ali, for instance, as a “bombthrower”, as she is in the latest issue of Newsweek. He’s pointed out the shortcomings of the useless nonceword ‘Islamophobia’.

    As for the post by Dennis Perrin, what was its point? It’s calling Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens racist and sexist. On what evidence precisely?

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