When words lead to doing nothing

George Orwell wrote an essay in 1946 in which he lamented the decline of the English Language. He put the blame on politicians, accusing them of insincerity, vagueness, incompetence and being non-commital. In the essay, “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell argued that the modern written language was “full of staleness of imagery and lack of precision. ... The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.” He lamented that one could not find a “fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech” and that the style was inflated.

George Orwell wrote an essay in 1946 in which he lamented the decline of the English Language. He put the blame on politicians, accusing them of insincerity, vagueness, incompetence and being non-commital.

In the essay, “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell argued that the modern written language was “full of staleness of imagery and lack of precision. ... The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.”

He lamented that one could not find a “fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech” and that the style was inflated.

Another person writing nearly twenty years later about writing for the United Nations said much the same thing, this time about international civil servants. He wrote that writing for the UN was the most frustrating thing because it did not permit creativity.

The language was so vague as to become almost meaningless. The language of UN documents was a study in compromise and was designed to meet the conflicting and divergent interests of member countries.

In the process of compromise, the language was watered down to staleness. It became a mass of lifeless words intended not to offend.

The two writers could well have been writing about Kinyarwanda used in official documents and, sadly, increasingly creeping into evryday conversation.
Kinyarwanda officialese is ugly and, in Orwell’s words, lacks fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech.

The words are unwieldy, pollysyllabic monsters whose only intention seems to be to inspire fear and inflict pain on the listener, and conversely, to give power and authority to the one who utters them.

In either case , one has to slow down to say them correctly so as not to stumble over them, just as a driver will slow as he approaches a hump on a road. The words are long, made up of additions of nouns, verbs and adjectives to form a one-word sentence.

Linguists call this process of word formation agglutination. Now that is an ugly word and it is not half as long as words in Kinyarwanda officialese.

Take for instance such words as “insanganyamatsiko” or “Imbanzirizamushinga”. Wags in Kigali recently coined another one, “imbanzirizagifungo”.

Bureaucrats and politicians love them. Perhaps it is to impress, or may be they are only too happy to find ready-made expressions that spares them the effort to be imaginative and creative. It also suits the fence-sitter or the one who does not want to reveal his hand.

Hearing many of these words in the same utterance, mixed with the characteristic vagueness and rambling of most speakers at official events, can be very demanding on the listener.

You get the impression that what is being spoken is not the living language of a people, but an artificial creation deliberately fashioned to remove feeling and passion from such utterances.

And that is what it is – artificial. Kinyarwanda officialese was created in academia, mainly as an attempt to translate foreign technical and commonly used administrative vocabulary.  Rather than get the Kinyarwanda equivalent they were able only to describe what the words meant and ended up with the agglutinated words.

Like most things made in the laboratory, most of these new-fangled words lack an organic connection to ordinary users of a language.

They are impersonal. Consequently the relationship between the speaker and listener is also impersonal, detached and aloof. That’s why it is rare to see any form of excitement at public rallies.

Yes, people will clap because they have been asked to or out of habit, because it is expexted, but they are not really involved. There is no enthusiasm because they are disconnected and the language is incomprehensible.

One of the most distressing things in language in official dealings, especially where decisions have to be made, is the use of words that lead to inaction.

Two words in particular are culprits here: amabwiriza (directives or instructions) and itegeko (law).

How often have you heard, “I can’t do that because the directives don’t say so”? Amabwiriza have become an excuse for doing nothing. People hide behind amabwiriza when they do not want to take responsibility for whatever action may be required.

They can only do what someone has decided for them and communicated in amabwiriza.

Strict adherence to amabwiriza and amategeko are also excuses for lack of initiative or pretexts for indecision. A government official will tell you, “sorry, I can’t deviate from the directives”, or “the law doesn’t say that”, even when what has to be done does not contradict the spirit or letter of any directive or law.

This leads to the question: do we need people in these positions? Surely robots, properly programmed, can carry out the same directives more efficiently and with understandable emotional detachment.

Respect for directives, which often borders on devotion, has been exploited by another group of people who do not want to take responsibility. Some of these give directives  but are very careful not to commit them to writing.

They are very vocal in giving instructions, even on controversial issues, threaten officials with the axe if they do not implement them and for good measure add that they have the blessing of the chief executive.

So the dutiful official will implement the directives. When things go wrong the person who gave the directives will deny ever doing such a thing. He cannot be held accountable. Where is it written? The poor official takes the rap.

Underlying the vagueness and incompetence and evasive action is a more serious problem than simply slavish adherence to rules and directives. The lack of initiative and unwillingness to take responsibility speak of a lack of empowerment.

People don’t have sufficient authority to make decisions perhaps because that authority still resides elsewhere. And so they do what writers for the UN do: tread on safe ground, use neutral language, avoid offending anyone, or do nothing and keep the job.

The amabwiriza and itegeko become the cause and effect of inaction, or more appropriately, caution.

jorwagatare@yahoo.co.uk

 

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