The degeneration of written language

3 August, 2021

Degeneration of written language

A statistical study conducted at Princeton University that uses the contents of 14 million books in English, German and Spanish as its source material has just been published. The study spotted verbal patterns typical of each language which indicated “cognitive distortions” associated with depression, anxiety and pathological pessimism. The researchers’ hypothesis is that this degeneration of written language reflects how “entire societies may become more or less depressed over time.” They are not misguided.”

Table of Contents

Cognitive dissonances and degeneration of written language

Cognitive distortions in millions of books in English, German and Spanish since 1850. The degeneration of written language reflects the inability of the system to provide human development.

These patterns ranging from self-deprecations to catastrophism via the sheer emotional affirmation of negative judgments have a little history of their own in every language.

We can see, for instance, how catastrophism (figure A) emerges strongly with the First World Imperialist War, but also that it does so to a greater extent in Spanish than in English or German – where a strict military censorship on publications prevailed. The opposite happened in the 1940s, when, with the dictatorship in Spain and the PRI in Mexico, business and political filters went hand in hand. But, in spite of everything, the tendency is a sustained increase in prevalence until the eighties, when it takes off and skyrockets until today.

We also see that the statement of exclusionary dichotomies (Figure B) reflects well in German and Spanish the clash between revolution and counter-revolution between 1917 and 1937… but not in English. And that the expression of things that “should” be done without pointing out who should or could do them (figure L) is completely different in the three linguistic spheres. And in fact, it is the only set of markers that does not spike simultaneously in all three languages with the turn of the century.

An important caveat is in order: books are not a sample of social language, but of published language. The nuance is important because it implies a class bias, as with all cultural products. Moreover, the publishing industry is part of the opinion industry, a fundamental mechanism of the state capitalism under which we live. But even so, when we aggregate all the markers for the set of languages, the result is inescapable: there is a real degeneration of written language underway and growing apace.

The synchronization of the great meat grinder

Cognitive distortions in millions of books in English, German and Spanish since 1850. The degeneration of written language reflects the inability of the system to provide human development.
Degeneration of written language summarized in a graph

In the aggregate graph of all patterns by language we clearly see the effect of the crisis of the 1890s, which affected English-speaking countries but also Spain, Argentina and Mexico more strongly than Germany. It is the crisis which hastened the passage to the imperialist phase of global capitalism, but which also gave rise to the colonial partition of Africa and the economic bonanza in the great powers which would last until the world war.

We see also in Spanish how sharply the degeneration of written language drops off during the Spanish revolution and in German and English how it rises during WWII and the immediate postwar period.

And most strikingly, the great wave of struggles that breaks out in the early 1960s (Asturian mining strike), intensifies and spreads at the end of the decade (mass strike in France) and lasts (Poland, Russia, Argentina…) until the mid-1980s (defeat of the British mining strike), seems to “de-depress” society or at least significantly palliate the general tendency to the degeneration of written language.

But from the 1980s onwards, the social distress reflected in the degeneration of written language first skyrocketed in the Spanish and English-speaking countries and, from the 2008 crisis onwards, in the German-speaking countries. The convergence between the three languages in 11 out of 12 markers is strikingly strong.

The language of a society whose human development is denied by capitalism

GDP evolution of Spain, Italy and France, stagnant since 2009
GDP evolution of Spain, Italy and France, stagnant since 2009

Capitalism entered its stage of historical decline with the world wars. Thereafter, its capacity to generate human development is increasingly clashing with its own reproduction, i.e., with the requirements of accumulation.

The crisis of capitalist civilization has been around for a century. In the 20th century it resulted in two world wars, the universalization of militarism, the totalitarian and monstrous development of the state, industrially organized genocides, the weaponization of science and so on…

And in this 21st century in which the years of crisis have already outnumbered those of successful accumulation, the anti-historical and anti-human character of the system is no less clearly felt in each and every aspect of social life, from the (mis)management of Covid to the paths of technological development via interpersonal relationships, climate change and its false antithesis, the “Green Deal” or the disappearance of Art as a way of understanding the world.

In reality, the degeneration of written (published= language reflects, with some delay, the same as the upward trend in suicides, the proliferation of heinous crimes, violence on partners and ex-partners, the abundance of crimes against children perpetrated by the institutions themselves or the extension of conspiracist , anti-scientific and reactionary thinking.

Capitalism survived its first global confrontation against its fundamental contradiction: the global working class. But it could not do so and ignore the historical necessity the appearance of the proletariat had imposed, it could not stop time. It could only maintain itself at the expense of universal human needs and the class that represented them as its own interests. And in doing so it could only become an ever more runaway great meat grinder.

What this study teaches us about the proliferation of all these pathological speech patterns, about the degeneration of written language really, is that even the published language, the language of the ruling class, becomes corrupted in a society to which capitalism is denying any human development.

But it also points out something especially important: when workers’ struggles assert themselves with sufficient global scale and breadth, the mood of society as a whole shifts, a future appears into view even by those with ability and access to publishers and even the linguistic register, which is nothing other than the moral register of society, begins to regenerate.