Plastic Words

In his book Deschooling Society (1971), Ivan Illich briefly alluded to a class of words "so flexible that they cease to be useful."  "Like an amoeba," he said, "they fit into almost any interstice of the language."  Two years later, in Tools for Conviviality, Illich wrote that language had come to "reflect the monopoly of the industrial mode of production over perception and motivation."   He urged " rediscovery of language" as a personal and poetic medium.  But Illich made no detailed analysis of how language had been industrialized.  Then, in 1981, he became one of the first group of fellows at the new Wissenschaftkolleg, or Institute for Advanced Studies in Berlin.  Among his colleagues was Uwe Pörksen, a professor of German literature from the University of Freiburg.  The two became friends, and one of the things they discussed was the empty word husks that Illich had first called amoebas.  Pörksen renamed them plastic words and undertook a detailed study of the phenomenon,  Seven years later in 1988, he published Plastikwörter: Die Sprache einer Internationalen Diktatur (The Language of an International Dictatorship.)

Pörksen argued that plastic words are not merely the clichés, slogans and hackneyed expressions against which commentators like George Orwell ("Politics and the English Language") or James Thurber ("The Psychosemanticist Will See You Now, Mr. Thurber") had railed.  They form a distinct class, numbering not many more than thirty or forty.  The list includes obviously puffed up words like communication, sexuality, and information, but also less obtrusive terms like problem, factor, and role.  Together, Pörksen says, they compose a Lego-like, modular lingo which bulldozes all the merely local and historical features of language and paves the way to the shining city of universal development.  

I learned of Pörksen's work from Illich, when I went to State College, Pennsylvania to record interviews with Illich in 1988.  At the time, it had briefly become the playful custom in his household to ostentatiously clear one's throat whenever one found it necessary to pronounce a plastic word.  I was intrigued and eager to present Pörksen's research to my Canadian radio audience, but there were several problems: his book wasn't translated, I didn't speak German, and Pörksen had only limited English.  My German-born wife, Jutta Mason, solved the first problem by making a rough translation of the German text, and, in time, as we got to know each other, Uwe agreed to attempt the interview.  It was recorded in Barbara Duden's house in Bremen in 1992.  Jutta joined us, to boost Uwe's confidence and help with translation as needed, but, in the event, the occasion seemed to inspire a rudimentary but powerful eloquence in Uwe, and no translation was needed.

The edited interview, which follows, was broadcast on Ideas early in 1993.  Jutta's translation also became the basis for an English edition, pictured above, of Plastic Words.  Uwe came and stayed with us for a week in Toronto, and he and Jutta and I together worked over the English text, until it was ready for publication by the Penn State Press in 1995.  Good reviews never led to much of a readership for a book that I think deserves to be better known, but it remains available.