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  • Writer's pictureEvelyn Chen

Controlling Words, Controlling Thoughts: Language in "1984"

In the dystopian novel 1984, Orwell creates frightening visions of the future to warn readers about the dangerous elements of society they inhabit. Orwell depicts a society that uses language to control the thoughts of its citizens.

In 1984, Orwell writes about the state creating Newspeak in order to make ‘plain representation in the verbal mode impossible’ according to the critic Harris, so that opposition to the social and political structure of 1984’s society is ‘literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.’ This is fitting as Orwell wrote ‘1984’ a year after the end of World War II ended to warn readers about the dangers of totalitarian governments censoring language; this was a period of history that saw the rise of the authoritarian states such as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany as well as increased state control under the Labour government in the United Kingdom, Orwell’s home country.

The strong focus on politics throughout 1984 is also reflected by the names of the main institutions in the novel’s society. Readers are first introduced to ‘The Ministry of Truth’, described as an ‘enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air’. The immense size of this building is emphasised by the tricolon ‘soaring up, terrace after terrace, 300 metres into the air’, which in turn highlights the power of the Party. This technique can be seen again in the torture scene, in which Winston observes that O’Brien’s face ‘was strong and fleshy and brutal... before which he felt himself helpless’ and ‘O’Brien leaned over him, deliberately bringing the worn face nearer’.

Moreover, the Party uses slogans such as ‘War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength’. The goal of those paradoxes is to make people think in ‘doublethink’, an act meaning to hold two contradictory beliefs to be true without any cognitive dissonance, thereby allowing one to be unaware of actual contradictions. The power of doublethink to corrupt thought and control minds is highlighted in the end when O’ Brien forces Winston to say that two add two does not equal four and ‘in all honesty [he doesn’t] know [the answer].’ Orwell was inspired to create doublethink by the fascist states of his time such as the USSR, presuming that ‘When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer’. Orwell believed that totalitarian systems control language in order to prevent their citizens from expressing or thinking rebellious thoughts, writing ‘If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought’.

To emphasise the corruption of language and thoughts by authoritarian states, Orwell created Newspeak, the official language of Oceania. The aim of Newspeak is again to promote ‘doublethink’, itself a neologism. Newspeak, itself a neologism, partially

achieves this through neologisms, compound words. Neologisms such as ‘Mintrue’ are designed to suppress the populace’s critical thinking skills so they would not realise that the Party is deceiving them, for example the ‘Ministry of Truth’ replaces the truth with lies.

Another characteristic of Newspeak is that it ‘is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year’. Newspeak achieves this by removing all synonyms, antonyms, comparative and superlative adjectives and creating singular ways to form adverbs and certain adjectives. In doing this, the Party hopes to prevent the populace from thinking any thoughts which challenge the Party’s power and thus stop any rebellion from materialising. However, the critic Roy Harris believes that Orwell was wrong in presuming that language could be controlled by a singular authority since ‘calling a spade a spade is not something language can do: only language users’. Therefore, Newspeak would ultimately fail as language users who cannot make words mean what they want to will make another ‘with or without government intervention’. Nevertheless, given the relentless surveillance of the populace in 1984 via telescreens and clandestine microphones, Oceanians would be coerced into adopting Newspeak, thus giving Newspeak a bigger impact on Oceanians than the people living in Britain, Harris’s frame of reference.

To conclude, 1984 offers a future in which language is diminished and abused by the people in power as a way to preserve the status quo. Edward Sapir, the founder of ethnolinguistics, which considers the relationship of culture to language, stated that “Human beings ... are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society.” For this reason, readers must take the degradation of language seriously as it could lead to the oppression, destruction and death of the members of society.

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