The following post is the second of two installments by department work study Rachel Bauman. Part One can be viewed here.
Orwell clearly ties his thoughts on current political discourse to the state of language itself in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” and these opinions are an integral part of Orwell’s commentary on the totalitarian state in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He begins the essay by asserting that “the English language is in a bad way,” a situation whose origins, he believes, stem from problems in the political sphere (“Politics” 143). Orwell posits a vicious cycle of language degradation, a kind of reciprocity in which “foolish thoughts” lead to sloppy language, and imprecision of language contributes to foolish thoughts (“Politics” 143). It is thus a linguistic renewal which must occur in order to improve the level of political discourse, and Orwell argues that such a change is possible if prose writers, and particularly political writers, would turn away from the “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision” which belie a “mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence” (“Politics” 143-5). It is on this basis that he constructs Newspeak as one of the Party’s main methods of controlling minds in Nineteen Eighty-Four (Bolton 154).
Newspeak is a tool of the Party; according to Orwell’s appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four, the language was created “to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism” (Nineteen 312). Winston, the novel’s protagonist, receives an explanation of the principles of Newspeak from Syme, a Party philologist. Syme clarifies that, in his belief, “Newspeak is Ingsoc and Ingsoc is Newspeak” (Nineteen 55). They depend on the existence of one another, and both wield power over the individual, subsuming their identity into the mentality of the collective. Newspeak’s aim, according to Syme, who is working on the eleventh edition of the Newspeak Dictionary, is to “narrow the range of thought” by systematically narrowing the vocabulary, an idea that corresponds with Orwell’s linguistic determinism— that is, the theory that the structure and content of a given language dictates its speakers’ range of thought (Nineteen 55). By limiting language, then, the Party can control minds, ensuring that “a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc… should be literally unthinkable” (Nineteen 312). With this loss of language comes a loss of liberty—for example, words associated with political freedom, such as “liberty” and “equality,” are subsumed into crimethink and become independent of any meaning other than being associated with thoughts against the Party; other words which could be used to express anti-Party sentiments are deleted entirely from the lexicon (Nineteen 318). Essentially, Newspeak is a combination of Oldspeak words for everyday things and activities, purged of any meanings other than innocuous ones; words created by the Party “to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them,” and specialized scientific jargon (Nineteen 313, 316, 322). It is with this power of limiting language that the Party aspires to perpetuate its social structure, subjugate its citizens, and create its own truth in order to have complete power over its people.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell makes a potent case against totalitarianism by satirizing the elements of the ideology he saw in his own society. Orwell sees politics and language as intricately linked, and the consequences of this relationship play out on a grand scale in Ingsoc. Language is the currency of the Party— it gives the Party the ability to control society as a whole, individuals, and history. With these three elements combined, the Party has the ultimate power to define reality as it sees fit. Orwell calls for a return to awareness: he “wishes us to be attentive to our use of English because he wants us to be alive to our beliefs”—mere passivity will not do (Bailey 43). As Winston writes in his diary, “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows” (Nineteen 84). Where a reflective, unfettered spirit of language is preserved, so too is liberty.
Orwell’s commentary on the state of the English language in political discourse is strikingly relevant today in our media-bombarded society. From the twisted words of campaign ads to the squawking of partisan pundits, current political discourse brings with it an unsettling sense that we’ve heard it all before. Perhaps, as Orwell feared, the language we use to talk about politics has narrowed—whether by simple attrition or by the limitations, even implied, imposed on it by government and society as a whole. We would do well to heed Orwell’s call to use language carefully and critically, with an appreciation for nuance. Language is too valuable, too integral to our reasoning, to be squandered on trite talking points.
Works Cited and Further Reading
Bailey, Richard W. “George Orwell and the English Language.” The Future of Nineteen Eighty-four. Ed. Ejner J. Jensen. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1984. 23-46. Print.
Bolton, W. F. The Language of 1984: Orwell’s English and Ours. Oxford: Blackwell, 1984. Print.
Newsinger, John. Orwell’s Politics. New York: St. Martin’s, 1999. Print.
Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-four. London: Secker & Warburg, 1997. Print.
Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language.” Inside the Whale and Other Essays. London: Penguin in Association with Secker & Warburg, 1957. 143-57. Print.
Orwell, George. “The Prevention of Literature.” Inside the Whale and Other Essays. London: Penguin in Association with Secker & Warburg, 1957. 159-74. Print.