Orwell and the Malaysian Student





by Ellsee

I recently read George Orwell’s classic Politics and the English Language essay, in which he discusses the condition of the English language and the ways in which he believes it has seriously deteriorated.  While I’m not fully inclined to agree with his rather extreme position, nor do I have much to comment about his specific criticisms against political writing, I find that his general diagnosis of what ails modern English can be applied rather aptly to essay-writing in the context of Malaysian students.

Basically, Orwell accuses modern users of English of having become so lazy that we often fall back on using whole chunks of ready-made phrases when we speak or write, so that instead of letting “the meaning choose the word”, it is often the other way about.  He argues that this is a very serious fault because such phrases “will construct your sentences for you – even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself”.  I leave you to contemplate the implications of that last assertion.

What’re more important is to understand the gist of the message

Skimming through the examples he gives of convenient so-called arbitrary gap fillers like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose and a consideration which we would do well to bear in mind, I am reminded of how pervasive such lengthy turns of phrases are in the generic essays we often write at school.  They become literal padding in the sense that the added length they give to our essays impress our teachers and peers alike.

Yet the irony of it all is, due to the horrendous level of English that now plagues Malaysian education, a decreasing minority of students possess even the basic knowledge of the language to know when and how to use such things.  So much so that, to be able “to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think” has now become a thing sought after instead of scorned and avoided. It comes to the point where teachers actually teach and encourage their students in such usage as something that would help set their essays apart from the rest.

Language barrier can be a boon

When it comes to Malay essays, the illness takes on a slightly different form.  The glut of having to compose essay after essay with such generic and boring themes as pemanasan global, pembentukan modal insan, amalan membaca and semangat patriotisme drives many of us to the phenomenon Orwell describes as “the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together”.

Consider the following paragraph:

Sebagai kesimpulan, pemanasan global merupakan suatu masalah yang mampu mendatangkan impak yang amat serius kepada alam sekitar di samping mewujudkan kekangan terhadap kesejahteraan and ketamadunan manusia sedunia.  Oleh yang demikian, semua pihak harus berganding bahu dalam melaksanakan pelbagai usaha untuk membanteras masalah ini dan seterusnya memelihara dan memulihara alam sekitar agar generasi masa depan akan dapat terus menikmati sebuah dunia yang indah dan selamat.           


There you are, sixty words of thoughtless fluff (we all know that penanda wacana‘s count as one word), and absolutely nothing that we haven’t read dozens of times before.  I can understand the time constraints and the mental strain that we might experience during exams, but at this point the question arises as to whether we are really writing ‘original’ essays at all instead of constantly recycling age-old junk we’ve accumulated at the back of our minds from years of so much essay-drilling that we’ve become “almost unconscious of what [we are] saying”.  I wouldn’t blame teachers for feeling that they should be happy as long as the sentences are ‘logical’ and grammatically correct. After all, so-called ‘impression marks’ constitute only three or four marks at best.  From the average student’s point of view, why bother?

And then there’s that somewhat farcical issue of peribahasa.  For many of us, it has become more or less like a ritual.  Even as we slog through our essay, our mind is scanning through our (woefully limited) vocabulary of peribahasa, trying to find one that would fit.  (Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why that precious peribahasa typically appears in the concluding paragraph, but that’s just me being cynical.) Over time, we fall snugly into our preselected sets of peribahasa and thereafter refuse to budge, so much so that the peribahasa to be used often snaps to mind even while we’re still studying the question. Unless you’re one of those few competitive valedictorians at the very top of the classroom hierarchy, one peribahasa is as good as any other, and berat sama dipikul, ringan sama dijinjing serves just as well as something obscure like hendaklah seperti tembikar, pecah satu pecah semuanya.  Again, why bother?

Catching up 

In the end, there can be no simple cure to such a complex malady that has its roots in deeper social and cultural issues that I shall not discuss here.  However, it would do well to heed Orwell’s warning that “in prose, the worst thing one can do with words is to surrender to them”.  What’s more, things have most likely deteriorated even further since his time (he died way back in 1950).  The least we can do is to try our best and catch ourselves whenever we find ourselves simply mechanically doling out phrases that look and sound good together, or in Orwell’s terms, “one can choose – not simply accept – the phrases that will best cover [our] meaning”.


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