Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Tocqueville on Language

Alexis de Tocqueville

 While reading more Tocqueville's Democracy in America (see my first article on him here), I came across a chapter which particularly piqued my interest: "How American Democracy Has Modified the English Language". I found this article so insightful I felt I had to share it. Here are two extended quotes that I found particularly revealing:

The most common expedient employed by democratic nations to make an innovation in language consists in giving an unwonted meaning to an expression already in use. ... When a democratic people double the meaning of a word in this way, they sometimes render the meaning which it retains as ambiguous as that which it acquires. An author begins by a slight deflection of a known expression from its primitive meaning, and he adapts it, thus modified, as well as he can to his subject. A second writer twists the sense of the expression in another way; a third takes possession of it for another purpose.... The consequence is that writers hardly ever appear to dwell upon a single thought, but they always seem to aim at a group of ideas, leaving the reader to judge which of them he has hit.

This is a deplorable consequence of democracy. I had rather that the language should be made hideous with words imported from the Chinese, the Tartars, or the Hurons than that the meaning of a word in our own language should become indeterminate. ...Without clear phraseology there is no good language.

Just as a side note, I'm sure Chinese and Huron are beautiful languages in their own right and I have nothing against them--but Tocqueville's point is clear. Words are not mere marks on paper; they represent ideas; and when one artificially twists or obscures the meaning of a word, the idea becomes twisted or obscure as well. Words are not things to be taken lightly.


Later in the article Tocqueville points out a tendency which I had long noticed in our culture, but had never found so well explained and expressed:
[The] abstract terms which abound in democratic languages, and which are used on every occasion without attaching them to any particular fact, enlarge and obscure the thoughts they are intended to convey; they render the mode of speech more succinct and idea contained in it less clear. ...
I do not know, indeed, whether this loose style has not some secret charm for those who speak and write among these nations. As the men who live there are frequently left to the effort of their individual powers of mind, they are almost always a prey to doubt; and as their situation in life is forever changing, they are never held fast to any of their opinions by the immobility of their fortunes. Men living in democratic countries, then, are apt to entertain unsettled ideas, and they require loose expressions to convey them. As they never know whether the idea they express today will be appropriate to the new position they may occupy tomorrow, they naturally acquire a liking for abstract terms.  An abstract term is a like a box with false bottom; you may put in it what ideas you please, and take them out again without being observed.
How well this applies to all the large, vague rhetoric we hear from our politicians and from our modern culture! At the public high school I attend part time, I'm constantly surrounded by this kind of foggy democratic language. Once the school's "Asset of the Month" was "Positive peer influence"--a sort of sterilized expression of, "Set an upright and virtuous example". Another time it was "Interpersonal competence". Interpersonal competence? What is that even supposed to mean?

It's a writer's rule of thumb to be clear and precise, and Tocqueville's observation brings that all the more home to me. I believe there was also another Person who addressed the importance of clear language:
"But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No.' For whatever is more than these is from the evil one." (Matthew 5:37)
Let us beware, then, of men who would, unobserved, slip evil meanings into the false-bottomed box of abstract language.