The Agonist Journal

Throw away the lights, the definitions,
And say of what you see in the dark

That it is this or that it is that,
But do not use the rotted names.

Every few years, the British press debate whether the hymn Jerusalem should be the English national anthem. The English are one of the few nations without an official anthem of their own. William Blake’s original words are commonly mistaken as originating in his complex and sprawling poem, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion. But this collection of 100 etched and illustrated plates would not serve well in providing material for a national anthem. Plate 25, for example, features the giant Albion, an allegory of England itself, as a victim of Druid sacrifice. Hands tied, his head falls back as one of his daughters disembowels him, lifting his intestines triumphally above his chest.

"Somewhere, a poet sighs for the English that is being lost, and longs for the time when a vital, instinctual, and spontaneous fluency was a feature of daily life."

The grotesque scene is thought to symbolise the circumstances of the time. The Druidic religion is interpreted as an allegory for what caused England’s suffering in the early 19th Century, the Napoleonic Wars. This can be taken a step further, insofar as the origin of these conflicts in the French Revolution had negative associations for Blake. His views on the cult of Enlightenment reason are portrayed most famously in his portrait of Newton. There, the enlightening is presented as incurring a great loss. The triumph of reason entailed the forgetting of large swathes of human experience. For Blake, the Enlightenment was also an endarkening.

In his sophisticated scepticism, Blake is akin to the Edmund Burke of the Reflections on the Revolution in France. For Burke, our faculty to engage in abstract reasoning—the gift of discerning things lucidly as universal truth—was something to be tempered and incorporated into a richer tapestry of experience. This tapestry was tradition, or what would eventually be termed “national culture.” According to Burke, although we all have the faculty of reason, the “private stock of reason” is “small,” so individuals should “avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.” Liberté, égalité, fraternité—however noble in themselves—need to be situated in the density and richness of life, or they will become totalizing and inhumane.

It is curious that Blake uses Druidic religion as the allegory for the revolutionary impulses ravaging the continental mainland. Druidism is a cult of Ancient Britain, native to the land which Albion represents. The implication would seem to be that, for all the grand claims about imminent human redemption and utopia, these revolutionary forces unleash some primitive urge for bloodshed. Burke’s “general bank and capital” of the ages is lost. That which considers itself progressive and utopian results in realities which are regressive and dystopian. The unquestionable promise of a bright and universal future has triggered the re-emergence of once buried impulses, things previously restrained by the accumulated wisdom of tradition. For if the horizon of human capability broadens too far, people lose sight of the very place on which they stand. The effect is a giddying loss of orientation; the richness of concrete contexts give way to the insipid, empty space of abstract truth. The vitality of concrete life is thinned down, and tradition is eviscerated. As in Blake’s image, the culture’s guts are torn out. Of course, Blake himself was deeply sympathetic to certain aspects of the new, radical thinking of these times. Indeed, much of his work is inseparable from it. But, like Wordsworth and Coleridge, he affords an example of one who also drew out the limits and consequences of that radicalism from his being personally invested in it, and reorientated its initial hopes on bases which today can be considered broadly conservative.

The 19th century wars between the English and French are now long-forgotten. Still, there are occasional flashpoints of tension. One of these flashpoints is language. Napoleonic expansion established the French language over territories far beyond France itself, and by then it had already become the normative language of diplomatic relations. This tongue had evinced elite associations in Britain since the Norman conquest, and was traditionally considered the appropriate tongue for polite conversations at the dinner table by the Prussian nobility. The expansion of French declined from at least the time of the drafting of the Treaty of Versailles, one of the first major treaties written in English as well as en français. With the growing influence of the United States, English was arguably established as the default language of diplomacy, and before long, the most widespread language on earth.

The French have not taken these changes lightly. A 1970 Commission on Terminology was followed by a law for “the Maintenance of the Purity of the French Language” in 1975. Encroachments of English terms into French then became punishable by fines, as “illegal anglicisms.” The battle continued in the 1980s, with the formation of a Commissariat Général de la Langue Française in 1984. Eventually Francois Mitterand evoked Blake’s own time: “France is engaged in a war with Anglo-Saxon.”

By comparison, interferences with the development of the English language have worked in the opposite direction. A range of initiatives have deliberately sought to thin it out, to water it down, to lower its range and compact its multi-layered frequencies. In 1930 Professor C. K. Ogden of Cambridge devised a language he called “Basic English,” which reduced English to just 850 essential words, including only 18 verbs. Ogden claimed that this made for optimum universality and limitless expansion, so non-native speakers could learn to communicate in a mere 30-hours of tuition. Around the same time, Professor R. E. Zachrisson, a Swedish philologist, devised a version of English called “Anglic,” which used phonetic spellings to regularize the language and make it more accessible to all.

Rather than seeking to ensure English’s specificity, then, these initiatives aimed to eradicate the language’s rootedness in the accumulated traditions of history. The most successful of such attempts is called “Seaspeak.” It is a purely functional tongue, devised for use at sea by maritime authorities. It thus belongs to no land, as such, and has no drawn-out, organic trajectory of development behind it, only functionality. It was designed to reduce misunderstandings at sea in the radio wave encounters between people from across the globe. It works by flattening out possibilities, by abolishing synonyms, stripping out any of the potential misunderstandings which might be caused by differing emphases or nuances. The frequencies are compacted to only one baseline level on the dial. In Seaspeak, if you mishear, you cannot ask, “What did you say,” “I beg your pardon,” or “Could you repeat that, please,” let alone “Huh?” or “What?” or “I didn’t catch that.”  The only permitted phrase is “Say again.” When things have gone wrong at sea, you are not permitted to speak of an “error,” “blunder,” “problem,” or “disaster.” The only mandated word is “mistake.”

Seaspeak is an artificial language, but it nevertheless symbolizes certain tendencies in the morphing of English itself. It shows us that grasping at universality comes at a price, that the expansion of our horizons reduces our ability to stand fast in the place from which we view the sky. Global communication necessitates a flattening out of richness, of vitality, of density. A language not only functions to communicate the bare essentials of subject and object, but provides a delicate web of opportunities for interweaving, situational ornamentation. Conversational speech between those who share a mother-tongue is lavishly interlaced with thousands of intricacies: instinctually opting for one synonym over another, spontaneously switching the syntax round for effect, and countless other nuances in structure and vocabulary. All this is to say nothing of a range of things that are exceedingly difficult or, in some cases, impossible to capture in writing, such as inflections, tonal changes, and variations in volume. Then there are all the invisible emphases of non-verbal communication, the coding of which is as complex and variable from one place to another as the verbal language itself.

It is the spontaneity and instinctive reflexes of language which are lost when it is reduced to base communication about bare essentials. Then language is eviscerated. The tongue is no longer the surface signifier of the hidden, interior realms deep in the belly and the bowels. A language rendered fit for global communication has to be gutted and stripped of its innate vitality. The result is indeed a Seaspeak, a language without moorings, a language without an inextricable rootedness in a particular place, a mode of communicating which lives only in the vast, oceanic gaps between specific places, where the horizon always looks the same, and orientation comes only by the abstract, bloodless image of the compass’s crosshairs.

Seaspeak versions of a language reduce ambiguity for the sake of functionality. But at its most sophisticated, language navigates ambiguity and thereby functions through its own intrinsic darkness. Take a notoriously obscure poem, Blake’s “The Sick Rose.” It alludes, intimates, and suggests something, a something that somehow rings true. It resonates with its readers in different ways, each way being inextricable from each reader’s own distinct context. The “howling storm,” the “crimson joy,” and the “dark secret love” tap into different life-trajectories, into different passions, hopes, and despairs. The fullness of language is intrinsically idiosyncratic; it undoes itself in the impartation of meaning. The same is true of the conversational idiom, which comes from the same Greek root word as idiosyncrasy, for making something one’s own.

The opposite tendency to the idiosyncratic is sameness. Children’s textbooks on poetry have to opt for monovisional interpretations, before young minds can be exposed to the intimidating darkness of meaning. Today’s textbooks will tell you exactly what Blake’s “dark secret love” is, catatonically unaware of how today’s shallow presuppositions are draining the life from his words. The second word of the revolutionary clarion call—égalité—not being situated in the rich tapestry of tradition, lapses into an inexorable sameness. Why else is language the frontline of the culture wars? The 21st century is not the era of the bayonet or atomic bomb, but is being fought out by the proper use of pronouns and umbrella term acronyms. The effect is the reduction of ambiguity, the stripping out of context, the triumph of the singular interpretation. There is no “dark secret love” here, because the blinding light of permitted terminology must always tell you exactly what that love is, and then it is neither dark nor secret.


Language is one of the greatest mysteries of human existence. No one has been able to explain why, at some moment in prehistory, people in disconnected places all over the globe developed the linguistic faculty around the same time. It does not seem to have been a matter of contagion. People on every continent shared in this simultaneous expansion into some hitherto untapped region of the brain. Dravidian languages of southern India appeared when Luorawetlan languages of eastern Siberia did; the Aino language appeared on the Japanese island of Hokkaido around the time the people of Europe began to speak. The capacity for language is hardwired neurologically; our reasoning provides us with many pedagogical techniques for language learning: and yet language’s mysteriousness defies understanding. For instance, no technique for language learning has ever come close to matching childhood linguistic acquisition. Young children in multilingual contexts have astounding capacities. They can simultaneously learn as many languages as they are consistently exposed to, without any apparent strain or difficulty.

Language’s mysteriousness is shown by the frequency with which legends of its origins crop-up in religious and in spiritual traditions. The most well-known, perhaps, is the legend of the Tower of Babel. This tale speaks of universal language as something which can pertain only to a “divine eye view,” something which, if grasped at by human beings, will lead to hubris and inevitable disaster. To render language universal is a Promethean impulse, and Prometheus was condemned to lie captive, like Albion slain, with an eagle gnawing at his liver. In his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, the Venerable Bede lists the presence of the English, British, Pictish, Irish, and Latin languages, which function, he says, like the Pentateuch of the Old Testament: “written in five books, all devoted to seeking out and setting forth one and the same wisdom.” The implication is that the unity and homogeneity of the languages is not for humanity to claim; it belongs to some transcendent beyond.

The universality of language is documented in the prehistory of the human race, and language is an almost universal human capacity. The contextual specificity of language—the finessing of a particular tongue in all its fullness—comes only with maturity and development, with the accumulation of experience. The question here is the degree to which this rooting constitutes a loss or gain. The five-year old who can switch from German to Chinese to Swahili with ease will not be speaking the richly ornamented conversation of two native speakers at a bus-stop or cafe. To discourse with non-native speakers usually requires much simpler versions of the language. Language’s universality requires a Seaspeak-version, a way of communicating flattened out so it is open to all. Linguists will tell you that it is the idiosyncrasies of a language—he peculiarities, the subtle, intricate inflections—that are always learned last, and continue to be learned well into adulthood. In whatever tongue, children tend to learn the basic things in the same order: no before yes, and an equivalent to the English gone or all gone as the first verb.

Language’s universal characteristics are more primitive than its particularities. The density of complex linguistic communication comes with development. For any language to develop a global provenance, must mean that its richness and sophistication is somehow debased. As with Blake’s Albion, the promise of a universal utopia ruins the wisdom of the ages, and atavistic forces are unwittingly unleashed. English having been established as a supposed lingua franca, much of what passes as English communication today is close to Seaspeak. The crude and simplified English of global communication is Mp3 language, compacted and compressed to make it easily transferable. The conversation between sharers of a mother-tongue has, by comparison, the warmth and fullness of the sound frequencies provided by vinyl records. Two citizens from the same locality speak like a deep-pressed old ’78, compared to the tinny, superficial chatter of the globally streamable tune.

Meanwhile, it is rarely acknowledged that, for many English speakers, English cannot strictly speaking function as a lingua franca. While the term lingua franca is commonly used to mean any widespread transnational means of communication, older dictionary definitions consider the term to refer to a language which is not a mother-tongue for any of its speakers. This suggests that for an English speaker to adopt his language as the lingua franca, means by definition that he must be untethered from his native tongue. This is not to say that English speakers won’t find themselves adopting a two-tier fluency, lapsing into a more primitive version of their language when necessary, and employing the full richness of communicative interaction wherever possible. But an implication is presented by the older ideal of the lingua franca, namely, that there is a sense in which these tiers of fluency are somehow mutually exclusive, that universality attacks the particular, that atavistic forces cannot be contained, and that native fluency will be vilified or even slain by those who lead us blindly into the darkness of their brighter future.

The more basic, decontextualized English, which is stripped of the fruits of its accumulated history, is, in this way, atavistic. It is like something long-buried in prehistory, like the Druids were for Blake, from a time when the language was only sufficiently developed to enable simple communication. This is why the Latin of the High Middle Ages is the quintessential lingua franca. By the medieval period Latin was no longer the native tongue of anywhere. It served only to fill the gaps between the lands, not to supplant the lands themselves. Even when Latin was more widely spoken, its development into a transnational and transcultural tongue meant it had to regress into a more primitive version. When the Bible was translated into Latin, it took shape with a basic and less sophisticated version of the language than its classical variants. Hence it is called the Vulgate translation, after the “vulgar tongue” in which it is written. This meant it could be understood more easily by people in differing contexts, but was a far cry indeed from the high-flown beauty of the language of Cicero or Virgil.

English as a lingua franca is closely related to mass immigration, particularly to English-speaking countries. Familiarity with the English tongue is always listed as one reason why England is such a popular destination for immigrants. The immigration debate is deadlocked between those who advocate for the needs of the immigrants and those who stress the negative consequences of immigration for the people already settled in the country. In England, at least, a rare example of concurrence between the two sides has arisen, and this surrounds the issue of immigrants learning to speak English. Once the appearance of homegrown jihadis in the United Kingdom caused profound angst, and led people to take seriously the lack of social cohesion, an expectation that immigrants learn English became the norm. Those who advocate for the needs of the immigrants argue that English language skills are needed to make full use of society’s benefits. The other side points to the necessity of a shared tongue for proper assimilation and for society’s wellbeing. But what neither side seems to appreciate is the third-party in this debate, the precious inheritance that is the English language itself.

With English functioning as a lingua franca in its own land, native speakers must adopt its eviscerated Seaspeak. In order to serve as a means of communication with a great many people for whom it is a second language, English has to truncate the full range of its frequencies. The globalized tongue gets untethered from its specific roots. In some ways, this mirrors a triumph of abstract reason over Burke’s “general bank of capital of the ages.” To communicate in English as a lingua franca abruptly inserts rational thought into the play of speech. It is to stand back from the moment and think how best, and most simply, to achieve the ends for which the communication is embarked upon. Thus the more creative dimensions of language are suppressed, and only that which is currently functional is allowed.

The default English of globalized communication is increasingly indistinguishable from English proper, the language as spoken by those for whom it is a mother-tongue, with all the fecund richness of history and tradition. The idiomatic English of a specific place, with its idiosyncrasies and multi-layered dimensions of recognition, is different from the bland, anaemic version of transcultural understanding. To deny this, and to flatten out our speech so it can always function in any globalized context, is to tie Albion’s hands behind his back and tighten the knot. Somewhere, a poet sighs for the English that is being lost, and longs for the time when a vital, instinctual, and spontaneous fluency was a feature of daily life.