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George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language vs. Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal: Essay

George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” and Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” are essays from two different times; the former written in 1946, and the latter in the 18th century. Both essays aim to spark people’s attention and address important national issues of their countries.

“Politics and the English Language” basically presents Orwell’s opinion about the then-current state of the English Language—that it was decaying, just like what was happening to civilization at that time. He attributed the decay of the English Language to politics and economics, arguing that it is not just the fault of the writer that his words lack precision and has stale imagery, but it is rooted from political and economic causes, saying “…an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form.”

On the other hand, “A Modest Proposal For Preventing The Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being Aburden to Their Parents or Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to The Public” presents Swift’s satirical critique of the English and Irish government, wherein he sarcastically suggested that in order for the Irish government to solve the national issues of poverty and overpopulation, they must sell the children of the poor, specifically one-year old babies, as food for the wealthy Irish and English people.

He presented staggering calculations and economic strategies on how to achieve necessary solutions to end their national problems. He argued that the use of poor children as food for the wealthy will reduce the country’s population and improve the condition and living state of the poor Irish people because of the increased income they will get from selling their children.

The points in which these two essays try to impose on their readers are much influenced by what was going on in their respective countries at the time the famous literary pieces were written. In Swift’s time, which was the early 18th century, several astounding issues were present in Ireland that struck Swift and led him to write his famous essay. One of these is the oppressive treatment of the Catholic peasants of Ireland by the English, which resulted in the peasants of Ireland to be experience extreme poverty. Swift published his essay as a pamphlet.

On the other hand, Orwell’s essay was written in 1946, a time when Britain was in a hazy after-war state. Therefore political speeches were prevalent at that time; writers and speakers, as observed by Orwell, lack precision in their words and has a stale imagery in their messages.

The way the two authors attacked their respective adversaries (in Swift’s case, the Irish government, and in Orwell’s, political writers and all writers in English in general) are completely different in a variety of ways. There is significant amount of  diversity of their style of writing even though they have the same goal in general, which is, in a shallow point of view, to spark, take hold—grope people’s attention through their essays to get them to read intently what the message of their essays bring.

In terms of the persona of the essay, Orwell attacked writers as a linguist, analyzing what was faulty behind the use of language of writers in his time. The essay even has a persona of an English language instructor, as Orwell pointed out rules that he proposed everyone must use when writing:

“(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

 (ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.”

Meanwhile, Swift attacked the Irish government in the persona of an economist, calculating how much percentage of the population will be decreased in case his proposal is applied, and other economic statistics in his time. A part of his essay presents then-current statistics of the kingdom of Ireland:

“… The number of souls in this kingdom being usually reckoned one million and a half, of these I calculate there may be about two hundred thousand couple whose wives are breeders; from which number I subtract thirty thousand couples who are able to maintain their own children, although I apprehend there cannot be so many, under the present distresses of the kingdom; but this being granted, there will remain an hundred and seventy thousand breeders. I again subtract fifty thousand for those women who miscarry, or whose children die by accident or disease within the year. There only remains one hundred and twenty thousand children of poor parents annually born…”

The essays also differed in the type of language their authors used. Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” used literal language. He said his points straight and direct, with no figurative speech whatsoever. Neither did he used euphemisms in criticizing the words and sentences and essays of the writers who, according to him, are faulty in their use of the English language:

“These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad — I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen — but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative examples. I number them so that i can refer back to them when necessary:

1. I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien [sic] to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate.

Professor Harold Laski (Essay in Freedom of Expression)…”

On the other hand, the language of Swift’s essay, “A Modest Proposal”, is entirely figurative. The essay is classified as a political satire, incorporated with much sarcasm and irony. His irrational argument, which is to use the babies of poor families in Ireland as food for the wealthy English and Irish people, intensified by exaggeration, is actually a metaphor to attack the policies of the Irish government at that time.

“…and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation…

…a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.”


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