English peculiarly capitalistic? 1.5 million English language books can’t be wrong.

Posted: August 21, 2013 in Books in general
Tags: , , , ,

English has become a peculiarly capitalist language, according to The Guardian columnist Owen Hatherley, author of Militant Modernism.

In a recent article in The Guardian, Hatherley says researchers at the University of California Los Angeles proved there has been an ever-increasing use of particularly acquisitive words in the English language.

Picture of Owen Hatherley

Owen Hatherley

Here’s some excerpts from Hatherley’s article:

They (the researchers) used the somewhat blunt instrument of feeding 1.5m English-language books into Ngram Viewer, a tool that catalogues phrase usage, in order to count the frequency that words were used. The results proved that over the last 200 years there has been an ever-increasing use of particularly acquisitive words: “get”, “unique”, “individual”, “self”, “choose”; while over the same period “give” and “obliged” decreased.

The pattern was only broken briefly in the relatively egalitarian years between the 40s and 70s. For the researchers, this shows the results of the English-speaking countries moving from “a predominantly rural, low-tech society to a predominantly urban, hi-tech society…

…What has happened over those 200 years was the rise to dominance of capitalism, which obviously changed, and changes, our language and thinking. The researchers discovered a more algorithmic and superficial version of something that the Welsh socialist writer Raymond Williams had already tried to uncover – the way that English had become a class language, where loaded words (and, as he often pointed out, pronunciations) were accepted as “standard”.

books

In Culture and Society (1958) Williams forced the reader to think about certain keywords whose meaning was usually assumed: “class”, “democracy”, “art” and “industry” were old terms which had acquired almost entirely new meanings. Over the same 200 years studied by the LA researchers, “artist”, for instance, had gone from meaning “a skilled person” to signifying “a special kind of person”, working in the “imaginative” or “creative” arts.

In The Long Revolution (1961), Williams left literature behind to find the roots of class discourse in the English language itself, where French and Anglo-Saxon words were always weighted differently: “we can trace the minor relics of class prejudice in the lasting equation of moral qualities with class names: base, villain, boor and churl for the poor” – mostly terms suggesting “low” birth – while “gentle”, “proud” and “rich” were aristocratic terms of French origin (from gentil, prud and riche)…

…Even a word as central to the current debate as “austerity” comes with its own bias: originally from the Old French austerite meaning “harshness or cruelty”, it carries in Britain also a positive meaning, being associated with the self-restraint at the expense of the public good which was required by the wartime economy, when nowadays it is used to justify policies that effect the exact opposite. But to reveal the pernicious assumptions behind these professedly innocuous words will take more than a sophisticated search engine.

 

For the full article go to: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/aug/11/capitalism-language-raymond-williams

 

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