a blog so you can keep with him

Orwell’s Britain – Language and World

” He wondered, as he had many times wondered before, whether he himself was a lunatic. Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one. At one time it had been a sign of madness to believe that the earth goes round the sun; today, to believe the past is unalterable. He might be alone in holding that belief, and if alone, then a lunatic. But the thought of being a lunatic did not greatly trouble him; the horror was that he might also be wrong. ” – 1984 (I, vii, 82) George Orwell

Orwell’s final treatise on control and power in the realm of politics is certainly a powerful and intellectually (at some times viscerally) terrifying. The story is set in a dystopian future (supposedly the 1984 of the title) in which the world is segmented into three blocs of power, each of which maintains their status as a superpower through a bureacratized police state with “oligarchial collectivization” at the top. The story focuses on a bureacrat in Oceania (England and North America, the book suggests) named Winston Smith, a records department office worker who seeks to revolt against the system around him before ultimately being subsumed by it.

This was spring break reading for my upcoming course “Language and Power”, a sociolinguistics course that is interested in how “power” is given and maintained through our uses of language. In the interests of the course (and my own preparation for it), I’m trying to orient this discussion more towards what about Oceania’s totalitarian system is maintained through language. Fortunately, many of the topics discussed in the book fall under my umbrella! Let’s begin.

The clearest example of language as a means of control in the novel is the invention of Newspeak:

” Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism [an inversion of socialist theory]… The purpose of Newspeak… [excepting Ingsoc, was] to make all other modes of thought impossible. ” – Principles of Newspeak, Orwell

Newspeak is an intentional compression and distortion of Oldspeak, or Standard English. It’s a comprehensive assault on all ambiguity in the English language; Orwell infers that this (ambiguity) is what gives language the tools of expression. With a forced limit on vocabulary, use, and definition, Newspeak aims to make it impossible to express oneself as an Oceanian citizen except through the proper channels of Ingsoc.

Newspeak makes use of abbreviations, conjunctions, standardizations of grammar, and a supposedly “logical” syntax to create a more concise and quick language that has little thought behind it. It’s suggested during the book, in fact, that the paradigm of Newspeak would be the term “duckspeak”, in which a speaker is quick enough to sound like a loyal Ingsoc duck quacking, and thinking about as much. The language seems garbled in comparison with English. An example sentence follows from the book:

” Oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc “

” [Orwell’s translation:] Those whose ideas were formed before the Revolution cannot have a full emotional understanding of the principles of English Socialism. “

Newspeak is the death of art, of expression, and this, for the Oceanian police state is exceptionally good. Because only through expression can dissent emerge. Oceania has only one true crime in our sense of it (articulated and enforced by law), but it is all-inclusive, “thoughtcrime”. Exactly as it sounds, thoughtcrime is the conception of a dissenting activity, view, or belief, and the Thought Police use every means they can to end all thoughtcrime. Along with constant monitoring through two way “telescreens” and microphones, Newspeak is the strongest tool that Oceania can bring to the fore in this. By creating a language in which it is illogical, absurd, and syntactically impossible to dissent or disagree with Ingsoc, Oceania (as manifested in Big Brother, the ideological paradigm of Ingsoc) strives to guarantee its own success. As voiced by Orwell and others, what I cannot say I cannot think. This stretches into the studies in cybernetics I did last quarter; I’m certain that Orwell was aware of linguistic relativism, and the political power it could bring with it. What Orwell and other political thinkers and rhetoriticians have done with the “my language, my world” concept is to apply it more directly to how I use language on others. What occurs when I dictate someone else’s “world”?


“A bomb won’t go off here because weeks before a shopper reported someone studying the CCTV cameras. – Don’t rely on others. If you suspect it, report it.”

This is taken from a new campaign by the Metropolitan Police in London.

The intent behind this is clear. The poster aims to encourage awareness of suspicious activity in your area, in order to help avert the threat of attacks. Where I feel that it fails is in its framing of a discussion: “Unless YOU welcome a sense of distrust into your life, you, your loved ones, and their peace and safety will be placed in mortal danger.” or “Trust us when we say trust no one.”

It’s one thing to suggest a statistically impossible and ideal situation to defend a service in which one is to remain paranoid of anyone with any different behaviors than your own (and remember, Newspeak gives only one mode of thought, so in Oceania the goal is for this to be impossible). It’s another to assume that the common incidents involved in this sort of endeavor will resemble anything remotely like this. This poster gives a message and a supposed means for defense, but also pretends to be the final word in the discussion it began. Why is it that we need to be distrustful? How does that build a society in which one would possibly want to be seen in a public square amongst others?

Orwell’s assertion that people can be told what and how to think comes true in pieces such as this, with irresponsible and unforeseen outcomes. Fortunately, we live in a society that has means of expression:


“A bomb won’t go off here because people tend to be quite nice really. – Fear everything. Then tell us about it.”

Parody is still relevant dissent, and participation in discussion is still part of a democratic society. My criticism of this is that it mimics the style too much, and takes the failings of the original with it. What I’m hoping is that instead of this authoritative message on trust and statistics, somebody could create a poster that encourages what I find could allow for real progress on this – a forum for discussion about what creates a safe environment, and how we can achieve it. Here’s my caption for the photo:

“This scene of respect and camraderie in Britain is important to us. How do you suggest we uphold its ideals of commonality, communication, and family? Please act upon and give us your suggestions. –

Dialogue is democracy                                                                                      and disagreement is a virtue.

Open Discussion

Write to 10 Downing Street,
SW1A 2AA “

Along  similar lines, Orwell’s book shouldn’t be the end of discussions on totalitarian government, and its manipulation of language. Fortunately, and in many ways unfortunately, it isn’t. Examples like the surveillance state Britain is moving towards show how we’re reliving a development of a fictional dystopian future. The more we talk, the more we can dissent.

Thanks to George Orwell, Peter Mahoney, the London police, and Cory Doctorow for their indirect help with this.


Filed under: Books, Evergreen

2 Responses

  1. Mom says:

    Well obviously you have completed not only your reading assignment for the break but also the first draft (or more) of your first assignment!
    Love, Mom

  2. plexreticle says:

    Great book and so relevant to our era of homeland insecurity

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