The world-shaking events of the last two years have given us ample material for observing what has happened to language in the East European countries and, as always, the reality is more surprising than anyone had at first thought. The euphoria of the early days when we first gained the freedom to say aloud what had been forbidden has by now largely faded away.
Now, in a turbulent time, we are witnessing a new, comic performance by that old joker, our own language. The old totalitarian attitudes and stereotypes are being thrown away and are being replaced, by what? By the same attitudes and stereotypes, only now turned in the opposite direction: Newspeak, version two, one might say.
Emotional exaggeration, Truth handed down from the highest authority. Aggressiveness. Disdain for unconventional opinion. Black and white judgments without nuance or shading. Demagogy. Ceaseless repetition. Clichés. Only a sense of humor, even a coarse one, can bring something fresh and revitalizing into our lives.
We are trapped in a bewitched linguistic circle. Instead of being a means of communication, of understanding and trust, language is being used as an instrument of hate and divisiveness. The successors of Bolshevism wave their arms and scream and threaten. The opposition screams even louder to drown them out. The Communists cannot do without enemies, whom they label “extremists,” “neofascists,” “nihilists,” “terrorists,” etc. For its part the opposition calls the old Communists “revenge seekers,” “neo-Stalinists,” “demagogues,” and so on.
The superlative “most” is now conjoined with negative adjectives to describe yesterday’s overpraised system: it was the “most inhumane,” the “most cruel,” the “most criminal,” the “most gloomy,” etc. In the city squares you hear epithets that are not logically suited to superlatives: the “most unparalleled tyranny in history,” the “most pernicious methods,” the “most unfathomable depths,” the “lowest depth of morale,” the “most optimal decision,” etc.
The conditional mode is in any case out of fashion. Instead, there is the resort to the drastic imperative: “No way back!” “No more doubts!” “An end to communism!” “Total dismantling!” While the old mechanisms of power still remain largely untouched, we have a new language for giving orders…and people here are used to directives.
Much as before, the population is now being buried under avalanches of foreign words: “consensus,” “rating,” “sponsor,” “manager,” “convergence,” “indexation,” “briefing,” “prerogatives”—all taken this time from the West. We hear a great deal of highflown talk intended to show off extensive reading and superior knowledge but in fact recalling the old totalitarian schemes for pseudoscientific reforms. Self-promotion is now associated with “reorganizing.” (A current Sofia anecdote: A little boy is asked, “What is your father’s profession?” To which the boy replies: “My father works in a reorganization.”)
Sweeping expressions have been let loose: “unconditionally,” “no alternative,” “irreversible,” “only solution,” “inevitable.” The Bulgarian word for leadership, rukovodstvo, is replaced by the word “liderstvo,” which sounds more universal. The same careerist who yesterday said he had made a “breakthrough” in the bureaucracy…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.