Archaeology and the English Language

George Orwell and friend lo res

My copy of The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell: Volume IV, In Front of Your Nose 1945-1950. Edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Secker and Warburg, London, 1968).

Sloppy writing leads to sloppy thinking. And that’s why every archaeologist needs to read George Orwell’s timeless essay ‘Politics and the English Language’.

About three weeks ago I was walking across Soho Square, thinking about the possibility of getting seriously involved with a bowl of Udon noodles, when a familiar figure stepped – I won’t say strode, as he had stumbled rather unsteadily – out of a pub. It was Alan Cadbury. Being a very disciplined sort of person, I mentioned what was on my mind, viz., noodles. And Alan gave me the blankest of blank stares. It was the sort of look you give people who casually mention noodles when you’re both standing in the middle of a dark peat Fen field that once formed the bed of Whittlesey Mere.

Anyhow, and to cut what is developing into an extended tale short, it would appear that Alan had spent the first part of the day with Maiya at DigVentures’ HQ in Bethnal Green Road. It would seem they’d been talking about badly-written archaeology and hit upon the idea of a blog taking George Orwell’s wonderful 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ as its starting point. Being Alan, he had of course agreed. And with exuberant enthusiasm. Which made Maiya smile hugely. Smiles all round.

Then, and for reasons neither of us fully understood, he decided to walk to King’s Cross for his train back to Lincolnshire. Somehow his footsteps led him to that pub off Soho Square and now, several pints of London Pride worse for wear, he was telling me about his problem.

In essence, and as I knew only too well myself, Alan didn’t enjoy writing the English language (which is why, of course, I take it upon myself to recount his exploits in the world of crime for him). More to the point, he knew Orwell had written 1994 (as he believed), but he’d never actually read it. In fact he’d never read anything he’d written. Had I?

Yes, I admitted, I’d read almost everything. As a student, when I should have been reading the likes of Vere Gordon Childe, my nose was stuck firmly into The Road to Wigan Pier or ‘Shooting an Elephant’, not to mention Animal Farm. No, to me, Orwell is something of a god. And had I read ‘Politics and the English Language’? he asked. Is the Pope a Catholic? I almost knew it off by heart. So that’s why it’s me, and not Alan, writing this blog.

My version of Orwell’s essay is taken from the definitive four volume collection of his letters and essays edited by his wife Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. It’s even got its original, if rather moth-eaten, dust-jacket (see picture). This was published in 1968 and I bought my copies in 1969. In essence, Orwell believed, and quite rightly in my opinion, that sloppy writing leads to sloppy thinking, because you never really have to address real issues head-on. As he put it:

‘A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. …Rather the same thing… 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.’

Then he goes on to lambaste contemporary politicians, of all parties. It’s a cracking good read, and still applies 100% to the slick-looking management-speaking automata who consider themselves the Westminster elite.

Sadly, archaeology has been heading in the same direction, too. Of course there are exceptions (and I’m thinking here of people like Mike Parker Pearson, Josh Pollard and Vince Gaffney, to name but a few), but regrettably they are the exceptions that prove the rule. I’m afraid things started to go wrong badly in 1968, the same year that Orwell collection was published, when David Clarke produced Analytical Archaeology. Have a taste of its delights:

(iii) The fluctuations and oscillations in the quantitative ontogeny of numbers and combinations of artefact-types and assemblages may be viewed as only part of the qualitative change and oscillation of the system of intercorrelated types as a structured constellation changing with time.

Quite. But David was no fool, and his work was translated into excellent English by Bob Chapman for the 2nd edition, ten years later. Unfortunately for us, Analytical had set a trend that is still alive and yawning.

Indeed, in some academic institutions it’s the sort of punctuation-free English you’re expected to produce. The past ten years have seen many contract archaeologists churning out formulaic prose, that in its own lacklustre way, is just as bad. What worries me profoundly is what Orwell feared: our work becomes as redundant as the language used to report it.

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Francis Pryor

Written by Francis Pryor

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