Belmont Club

United Nations English

George Orwell argued that the elements of language were important determinants of what we could think; that the capability of the tools determined what they could build.  In his fictional world of 1984 the language was deliberately impoverished to prevent the formation of unacceptable thoughts. Although Newspeak technically remains only a literary creation, actual examples of this dumbed-down language exist in the world, usually under the name officialese.

Officialese is characterized as being “obscure and pretentiously wordy”. Examples of this dialect are “federalese”, a language so impenetrable that it has generated the Plain Language Movement, in an effort to make Federalese comprehensible to English-speakers again.  The Plain Writing Act of 2010 was passed for this purpose, but it is being implemented, of course, in Federalese. Here’s the plan as taken from the White House website:

By July 13, 2011 (nine months after enactment), each agency must:

  1. designate one or more Senior Officials for Plain Writing who will be responsible for overseeing the agency’s implementation of the Act and this guidance;
  2. create a plain writing section of the agency website;
  3. communicate the Act’s requirements to agency employees and train agency employees in plain writing;
  4. establish a process by which the agency will oversee its ongoing compliance with the Act’s requirements; and
  5. publish an initial report, on the plain writing section of the agency’s website, that describes the agency’s plan for implementing the Act’s requirements.

Although everyone should wish the Plain Writing Movement every success, the guidelines themselves suggest that the effort may be doomed.  Note that point number 3 above aims to “train employees in plain writing”, that is to teach them to write in English again. This would not be necessary unless they had in the meantime acquired another language native to their profession, which would of course be Federalese.

It is interesting to consider whether bureaucracies simply engender their own languages; create vocabularies of special meanings and a tortured syntax all peculiar to themselves that mirror the actual workings of their agency.  After all, besides Federalese there is EU-speak. And worst of all there is United Nations jargon, a dialect so verbose yet so bereft of meaning that the text seems to be a joke. Yet any career bureaucrat worth his promotion will find a world of internal meaning in the document that conveys, in terms clear to him, what it really means — in terms of the proposals he must make, the funding opportunities he can avail of and the statements he may or may not utter, assuming he could utter anything but gibberish at all. Take the Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations. The first two paragraphs say:

1. Preventive action:

(a) The Panel endorses the recommendations of the Secretary-General with respect to conflict prevention contained in the Millennium Report and in his remarks before the Security Council’s second open meeting on conflict prevention in July 2000, in particular his appeal to “all who are engaged in conflict prevention and development — the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions, Governments and civil society organizations — [to] address these challenges in a more integrated fashion”;

(b) The Panel supports the Secretary-General’s more frequent use of fact-finding missions to areas of tension, and stresses Member States’ obligations, under Article 2(5) of the Charter, to give “every assistance” to such activities of the United Nations.

2. Peace-building strategy:

(a) A small percentage of a mission’s first-year budget should be made available to the representative or special representative of the Secretary-General leading the mission to fund quick impact projects in its area of operations, with the advice of the United Nations country team’s resident coordinator;

(b) The Panel recommends a doctrinal shift in the use of civilian police, other rule of law elements and human rights experts in complex peace operations to reflect an increased focus on strengthening rule of law institutions and improving respect for human rights in post-conflict environments;

(c) The Panel recommends that the legislative bodies consider bringing demobilization and reintegration programmes into the assessed budgets of complex peace operations for the first phase of an operation in order to facilitate the rapid disassembly of fighting factions and reduce the likelihood of resumed conflict;

(d) The Panel recommends that the Executive Committee on Peace and Security (ECPS) discuss and recommend to the Secretary-General a plan to strengthen the permanent capacity of the United Nations to develop peace-building strategies and to implement programmes in support of those strategies.

The sample of above showcases the strengths and weaknesses of United Nations English perfectly. It is designed to say nothing while give the impression that something very important is being done.  This is accomplished by the frequent use of mighty words: Member States, Bretton Woods, Charter, resident coordinator, Secretary General. It is further aided by a liberal sprinkling of “moral words” like conflict prevention, development, civil society, integrated, fact-finding, quick-impact, rule of law, peace operations, human rights experts, demobilization and strategies.

An uninitiated reader will have visions of power and solemn forces working tirelessly to promote world peace. But a close inspection reveals the second paragraph just says that some money is available for projects which you can hand out to to NGOs.   In the meantime, the plan is to shift the problem to the police and fund some universities professors to lecture the police on the legal niceties they must observe. Then some letters will be sent to national legislatures urging them to allocate money to buy off the rebels. Last, but most importantly, the panel recommends that the Secretary General increase the size of the peace-operation bureaucracy, so that they can issue more of the same kind of reports.

The sum total of these accomplishments would probably be exceeded by the achievements of an enterprising hotel manager in a Central African Country.  The real obstacle in the path of Plain Writing is the desire to avoid it. The main and unenviable job of official correspondents is to turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. Therefore clarity of expression must be avoided at all costs lest everyone see what boondoggle the whole thing is.

There is only one way to abolish United Nations English, and that is to abolish United Nations thinking.  One way to understand the shortcomings of the whole NGO/UN/EU value system through the process of reductio ad absurdum, is to understand the universal appeal of the ramen noodle, invented by Momofuku Ando. Wikipedia describes how he came to the idea of the instant noodle.

With Japan still suffering from a shortage of food in the post-war era, the Ministry of Health tried to encourage people to eat bread made from wheat flour that was supplied by the United States. Ando wondered why bread was recommended instead of noodles, which were more familiar to Japanese people. The Ministry’s response was that noodle companies were too small and unstable to satisfy supply needs, so Ando decided to develop the production of noodles by himself. The experience convinced him that “Peace will come to the world when the people have enough to eat.” …

Momofuku Ando Day was established January 2007 at a small hospital in Dallas, Texas. Recognizing the genius life of the man whose product has fed millions, a group of healthcare workers first celebrated the day on January 19, 2007. Each participating employee brought several packages of favorite ramen flavors to a banquet table from which employees could sample. …Understanding that ramen has been a staple food for victims of disaster and the poverty-stricken, as well as for college students and those wanting a quick meal, Momofuku Ando Day became an endeavor to help feed those in need by fundraising for charitable organizations, or simply calling attention to poverty or hunger through ramen or food donations to local food banks and free meal kitchens. The day has since been celebrated the second Friday of January to allow Mr. Ando due recognition.

Quite without anyone noticing it, the ramen noodle has become the cornerstone of humanitarian operations the world over. A refugee in Thailand said, “we need more, especially instant noodles and water”, according to a UNHCR report.  When Indonesia was ravaged by an earthquake,  instant noodles were airdropped to populations cut off by road.  Today’s headlines provide even more evidence. In Libya’s west, what should refugees in the town of Tataouine want but noodles? The reason is that ramen speaks the universal language of efficacy. It does a job;  while the UN English is completely artificial and comprehensible only to itself.

Chinese Peacekeepers Train for Liberia Mission With Instant Noodles

If humanity largely shares a common biology, it is indisputably divided into cultures, many of which are generated by bureaucracies.  It is ironic that idealists have reposed their greatest faith in overcoming the divisions among peoples by placing the task in the hands of the most impenetrable and unaccountable bureaucracy of all.  A saner, but less ideological world would have nominated the Ramen Noodle, not Yasser Arafat for the Nobel Peace Prize. But that would have required clear thinking, and clear writing.

[youtube 6WrkdTrrwew]

The Zen of Ramen, hat tip Itami Juzo


“No Way In” print edition at Amazon
Tip Jar or Subscribe for $5