Where Orwell Was Right

When contemplating similarities between our current western culture and George Orwell’s 1984, most discussions quickly turn toward debating the slow decline of personal privacy, the standards of government intervention, or a discussion of rat phobias. While all of these make for fascinating (if perhaps repetitive) conversation, it was not here that Orwell demonstrated his greatest precognitive genius. The true genius of Orwell’s most famous work lies in his understanding of the value and course of language.

We are all familiar with the term “doublespeak”, a phrase defined as language deliberately constructed to disguise or distort its actual meaning

Orwell did not invent the phrase, but he would instantly have understood its meaning. He did coin the term “Newspeak” to describe the systematic paring and control of language exerted by the government in his dystopia. Much of his writing is absorbed in contemplation of what happens to man when his ability to think is impaired by his inability to comprehend words effectively. He was a keen observer of the development of political rhetoric designed to deliberately placate and deceive by the misappropriation of words, a trend which has continued, and perhaps even reached new levels of art, in our time.

In western society, we have moved backward in time from the point at which Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster dreamed of a standardized, comprehensible English language. We play fast and loose with our vocabulary and grammar, ditching “ough” when spelling is inconvenient or “ight” when the silent letters seem inappropriate to our modern efficiency. We dangle our participles, substitute adjectives for adverbs, and occasionally don’t bother with sentence structure at all.

To some extent, this tendency is a reflection of the deformalization of language, a slow relaxation in our culture of the formal social dictates of the past. In this regard perhaps we should welcome the trend as it makes communication of our thoughts and feelings more readily accessible. The other aspect of this path, however, is that of a slowly creeping distrust of academia and education, a reverse elitism which is eating away at the progress of advanced thinking like maggots in a corpse.

As a result, we have lost all sense of history or meaning in the words we use. There is no method for determining the object to which “donut” refers, whereas “doughnought” is quite clear and picturesque. A large percentage of English words have their origins in other lands, and we would be well served by comprehending the culture revealed in their delicate construction, rather than bastardizing them with our commercialspeak into “lite” and “brite”. In cheapening the structural integrity of words, we slowly remove their weight and comprehensibility, and in doing so we lose the capacity to communicate on a profound level.

When we allow sentence structure to degenerate, we create confusion and increase the probability of misunderstandings. Standardized language structure exists in order to impose a reasonable logic on our communications, and when we ignore it, we undermine the purpose of our speech.

For example, the sentence:

“I never had no luck picking up a goth chick in flannel.”

seems to be a bit lacking in direction or focus, leaving the listener relying on their intuition to respond. The response might well be:

“Well, where I come from we don’t use no flannel.”

which, of course, leaves us in yet another quagmire of doubt and indecision. In such an exchange, it is a wonder that anything is ever effectively communicated at all.

If the purpose of language is to enable us to attempt to share our thoughts and feelings, we damage ourselves in creating endless structural variants. These only hinder communication, and while perhaps the language we have been given is rather confusing to learn, at the very least we should respect it enough to alter it only with full awareness of what we do and why.

The third, and most damaging, aspect of language corruption occurs when words are appropriated for completely unrelated purposes…leaving a gap in the language where the original meaning once lay, and putting an untoward emotional sway on the conversation.

“The night was filled with the tinkle of champagne glasses and gay conversation”

simply does not present the festive, uncomplicated picture it once did. As the word “gay” became appropriated as a euphemism for “homosexual”, we lost the ability to convey the meaning “light-hearted and cheerfully innocent” in a single word. Over time, we lose the notion that there ever was such a thing, and our capacity to comprehend is diminished.

When we hear political rhetoric such as:

“I am committed to the First Amendment principles of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity. Whether Mormon, Methodist, Jewish, or Muslim, Americans should be able to participate in their constitutional free exercise of religion. I do not think witchcraft is a religion, and I do not think it is in any way appropriate for the U.S. military to promote it.”

we should instantly be on alert as to the use and appropriation of our language. If this statement were repeated and accepted, eventually we come to narrow our definition of the word “religion” to encompass only a particular set of religions defined for us by an outside authority.

Language is degrading at an accelerated pace as we embrace the notion that education is a product to be marketed, rather than a path to be sought. Education has become, for many, a number on a score card, and anyone with notions of learning being a joyful experience to be pursued for its own sake has become a suspicious character. It is believed that those who speak well and intelligently are ivory tower elitists, without the faintest notion of what goes on in the “real world”. While this is sometimes the case, it is not a condition necessitated by a good vocabulary, or an expansive knowledge of many topics. Our governments and marketing agencies have played on this sentiment to its fullest, however, churning ever faster the fears of an “educated elite”, just as Orwell foresaw in Animal Farm when he wrote of the advantages to the potential dictators in our midst of keeping the masses unable to read. Hence, a list of Seven Commandments, originally structured to keep all animals on the farm safe and happy, is eventually pared down, under the uncomprehending gaze of the illiterate, to:

All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.

There is nothing to be feared in a constantly curious and open mind. There is nothing inherently dangerous in pursuing a limitless education, or the means to express the complicated thoughts which we all hold within us. There is, however, a great deal to be feared in a population which is unable to use or comprehend more than 20,000 words or which can so easily be convinced that the emotional context of a word is more important than its actual meaning. We cannot even look within ourselves and recognize the nature of our feelings, if we are lacking a construct in which to place them. If we find disgruntlement, and can only define it as anger, we act on the assumption that we must be angry (although we may think of it as “only a little angry”). If our beloved wants to tell us that she is feeling trepidatious about making love for the first time, but can only manage “I feel scared,” we miss the entire nature of the communication, and by the time we straighten out what is going on, she is ready to go home.

If we are not to wallow forever in a glut of confusion and external manipulation, we must steel ourselves to embrace our language. It may be one of the most complicated languages on earth, but its diversity and complexity give us the potential to build and comprehend ever more intricate ideas about who we are and how we fit into the world. In language we find one of our strongest tools for personal freedom, if only we are undaunted enough to use it.