Oral history

How did we get here? How did we reach the point where we have one language for work and another for the rest of our lives?

In one we tend to engage with all the unique characteristics and faculties that make us the individuals we are. In the other – only really half a language – we leave a large part of our personalities behind. Cipher is a frightening and demeaning word, but to some extent it’s what modern business-speak makes us.

Fear, of course, has a lot to answer for. Fear of looking stupid or out of touch, fear of being called to account, fear of losing control or authority. The less of ourselves we reveal the more we distance ourselves from the possible consequences of what we say or write.

But how did it come to this? I believe modern business language has been brewing for at least 250 years. It comes to us via the age of reason and early scientific enquiry; the subsequent industrial revolution when new technical processes were the dominant force; the expansion of trade and empire, from which a new vocabulary of commerce emerged; Victorian paternalism and love of litigation, which saw the full flowering of legalese; the periods of austerity following two world wars, and the language of twentieth century military command (in particular from Vietnam, the first televised war) with its talk of campaigns and strategic objectives; the IT revolution with a whole new almost mandatory technological dialect; and the explosive growth of management consultancy and the MBA culture – quasi-academic, pseudo-scientific. Add to all that the most recent and baneful influence, the culture of measure-ment, and the resulting cocktail is scarcely a language at all since it fails to communicate on almost any human level.

A couple of days ago my train came to a halt in the middle of the countryside. After a wait of several minutes a cheery guard came on the tannoy to apologise for the delay, explaining that it was caused by children playing on the line. (‘Of course they are,’ said the elderly woman sitting opposite me, ‘they’ve been cooped up inside all winter.’) Twenty minutes later we stopped at a big station. Apologising for the delay to passengers who had just boarded, a different voice explained that it had been caused by ‘trespassers on railway property’.

Twenty minutes. That’s how long it takes for children to become trespassers, and (to borrow again from Jurgen Habermas) for system world to overtake life world. This is the steady creep of something alarmingly like Orwell’s Newspeak. We may have ideas about how we got here, but do we have any idea where we’re heading?

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About Jamie Jauncey

Author, writer, blogger, facilitator, musician, co-founder of Dark Angels and The Stories We Tell
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4 Responses to Oral history

  1. Me says:

    Great stuff Jamie. When I present on this stuff I always talk about the 1970s when we first got a phone installed at home. When it would ring, my parents would answer in a voice alien to me and I'd say: "Why are you talking like that?" A lot of organisations still have a 'telephone voice' and don't realise how odd and inhuman it sounds. Thankfully though, my parents have grown out of it. The in-laws though… that's another story 🙂

  2. Jonathan says:

    Hi Jamie. What a lovely and real contrast this elderly woman's remark is compared to the android hollowness of modern Business-speak. Though I fear if I had been there I might have muttered something just as real but much less generous.Furthermore, this blog post would make a great introduction to a book about the evolution of language. Just a thought.

  3. It does sound like a good preface! Start writing. I'll keep reading. It reminds me very much (apart from being far easier to read) of Michel Foucalt's 'The Birth of the Clinic'. He traces the modern over-medicalization of illness and reduction of people to their disease processes back across just about the same time period. I thought about this all day, after reading your post, and was almost incandescent with rage when I heard a doc call a group of patients in a ward 'the 6 dementias'. I narrowly suppressed the urge to ask who the one (insert bad word of your choice here) was; I had a student with me. We talked about dehumanization a lot. She is a convert to your cause.

  4. Tim Coates says:

    I think that a big change came with the invention of printing. If you read Martin Luther and Thomas More they were still in the habit of writing as they spoke- often using foul language and being totally direct. It was only when they realised that their words, when printed, were being seen by thousands of people whom they had never met, that they realised the impact on these distant readers was quite different to what they had intended. In the Crimean war (and later wars, too) the letters home written by soldiers were almost identical in the use of English to that we would find now in the street or pub. But the formal written language of Government officials or representatives is quite different to that of nowadays. Formal language was much clearer than it is now. A lot of it is also very fine and beautiful, which one would hardly say of most official publications now. So my observation is that spoken and intimate language has evolved much more slowly than written language and in different ways for different reasons.

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