No Comment, Quotation — August 23, 2007, 12:00 am

Klemperer on Language as Poison

But it’s not simply that language composes poetry and thinks for me, it also drives my feelings, it directs my entire spiritual being, the more self-evidently, the more unconsciously I give myself up to it. So what happens when the language of the educated is composed of poisonous elements, or bears poisons? Words may be little doses of arsenic: they are consumed without being noticed; they seem at first to have no effect, but after a while, indeed, the effect is there.

After a while when one uses the word “fanatical” for “heroic” or “virtuous,” he actually comes to believe that a fanatic is a virtuous hero; that without fanaticism one can not be heroic. The words “fanatical” and “fanaticism” were not created by the Third Reich, but it did transform the essential meaning of these words and it made more frequent use of them in a single day than in other times they would have been used in a course of years…

It is more than just the stuff of a schoolhouse pedant to expose the poison of the language of the Third Reich and to warn about it. When a believing Jew believes that a piece of tableware has been used in a ritually impure way, then he will bury it in the earth in order to purify it. In the same way the many words which were placed in common linguistic usage by the Nazis must be placed in a mass grave for a long time, and some of them forever.

Victor Klemperer, Lingua tertii imperii ch. 1 (1947)(S.H. transl.)

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