Sofia, Bulgaria

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 has now become a “businessman”; the English word is used, as it is in so many other spheres of life. Even the newspapers are peppered with references to “correctives,” to taking “soundings,” “marketing,” “shock therapy,” etc., all borrowed from Western languages. Is this the way to “Europe”?

Reality once again is being obscured by anti-language. That is why I listen carefully to the speech of young people, especially students, in the streets, on trolley-buses, or in lecture halls at universities. It is from them that I expect and sometimes find genuine human expression, without hyperbole or sentimentality, but with self-irony and derisive laughter, which can give a sense of how things really are.

Confucius, when asked how he would bring order to the world if he had the power to do so, answered: “First I would straighten out the language.” If Confucius is right, we will first have to attend to our language, dismantling the patterns of totalitarian thinking that have become deeply embedded in the very mentality of the people. But that will take time.

Meanwhile, the danger, in my view, is that we may create a new totalitarian speech. Writers now face an almost insuperable difficulty: How can a different language, a human one, be created and cultivated without lies, without fanaticism, without false promises of the future as a heavenly kingdom for the righteous, without hate—a normal language reflecting human nature as it is?

This Issue

March 5, 1992