The Destruction of Language in George Orwell’s “1984”

 

Overview of 1984

In George Orwell’s, 1984, we meet a man named Winston Smith who lives in the nation of Oceania. Here Winston is dictated by the ruling part in London who watches him. The party not only controls everything that happens in the city, but they also watch everyone by means of television screen strategically placed throughout homes, people who are called “thought police,” and giant posters of Big Brother who seem to watch Winston’s every move at every corner. After years of service as an editor at the Ministry of Truth, Winston has become very frustrated with the oppression and control of the Party. In a direct violation to the law, one day Winston stops by a little poor prole (the working class also called proletariat) shop to buy a diary that he saw in the window. In this diary, Winston writes about how much he hates Big Brother and the events of his days that he is able to remember (despite the victory juice).

The Ministry of Truth prohibits free thought, sex, and any kind of self-expression. This building is riddled with thought police, and every day the workers attend was is called the two-minute hate, a two-minute presentation on the crimes of Emmanuel Goldstein – leader of a resistance party called the Brotherhood. It is here that Winston sees a dark-haired woman named Julia whom he has intense lustful feelings for. He also sees a man who is a part of the inner Party (a very powerful party member) named O’Brian. At first sight, Winston is terrified of the woman named Julia because he thinks she may be a thought police, but really he’s just angry at her because she wears a chastity belt. But when he sees O’Brian, he is instantly calmed. Winston believes that O’Brienis a secret member of the Brotherhood (mostly because they just made eye contact during the two-minute hate, and Winston felt something).

One day, Winston receives a note from Julia that simply read “I love you.” This is the beginning of their love affair. They rent a room in the prole district where Winston had bought the diary and start meeting regularly. Throughout their relationship, Winston believes that they are going to get caught and die for their crimes against the party. But all along, Julia is more practical and optimistic about their situation. The longer their affair lasts, and the more he grows to love Julia, Winston’s hatred for the party and Big Brother only grows more intense.

After wanting and waiting to have a conversation with him for so long, O’Brienfinally reaches out to Winston and invites him to come to his house to talk. Since O’Brienis a member of the inner party, the wealthier more powerful members of the part, he lives in a luxurious apartment in the better part of the town. Winston brings Julia along to meet with O’Briensince he is sure of his being a member of the Brotherhood. When they finally meet with O’Brian, he does tell them that he is a member of the Brotherhood. O’Brieninitiates both Winston and Julia into the Brotherhood and give them the book (a book of all Goldstein’s beliefs). One night, Winston was reading the book to Julia in their rented room about a little store house, when soldiers from the party burst in to take them away. Apparently, the store owner who rented the apartment out to them was a member of the thought police all along. O’Brian

Winston and Julia were immediately separated and taken to the Ministry of Love where Winston meets O’Brien. O’Brien had been undercover for the party, acting as a member of the Brotherhood in order to catch Winston in the act of rebellion against Big Brother. Winston spends the next few months being tortured by O’Brien, but he consistently resists confessing to his crimes. Finally, O’Brien takes him to the dreaded Room 101, the final destination for traders, where Winston is forced to face his worst fear – rats. O’Brien plans to stick Winston’s head in a cage full of rats so that they can eat his face off. However, at the last minute, Winston begs O’Brien to torture Julia instead of him. Having broken Winston down completely, O’Brien releases him back into the city. Winston is a broken man who has given up on love and succumbed to the power of Big Brother, whom he now obeyed and loved for the rest of his life.

The Destruction of Language

            In the nation of Oceania, the language that they speak is called Newspeak (as opposed to Old speak). As an editor for the Ministry of Truth, who alters historical records to fit the needs of the part, Winston is charged with rewriting and editing a lot of these records in Newspeak, and often gets in trouble for sneaking in Oldspeak into his work. However, not everyone dislikes this new language as much as Winston does. In fact, his friend Syme, who works as a philologist (a specialist on Newspeak) is radically for the destruction of the language. Syme describes the workings of Newspeak in the following passage:

“It’s a beautiful thing, the Destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word, which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good,’ for instance. If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.’s idea originally, of course,” he added as an afterthought” (Orwell 51).

By controlling the language, Big Brother controls the way that the people think. With a limited vocabulary, the people are limited in how much they can think, as well as, what they think about. In another passage, Syme says to Winston, “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.” (Orwell 52). With the people’s inability to commit thoughtcrime, the hope of the party is that, the people will no longer act out in disruptive or subversive behavior. Big Brother will have complete control of the people in every way, right down to their thoughts, and the people will become, essentially, mindless zombies who are willing to worship and do what they are told with no questions asked. They are able to achieve this by also destroying literature and controlling what the people are able to read. Syme also describe the destruction of literature in the following passage:

“By 2050, earlier, probably – all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron – they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like ‘freedom is slavery’ when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking – not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness” (Orwell 53).

In order to dictate and control a whole nation of people, one must first limit their thinking by taking away all of their literature. This has been a strategy used by Hitler during World War II, China today with their restrictions on people having Bibles, and it has been written about in novels like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.  If it were not for Winston’s diary, he would have continued on his path to becoming another mindless worker.

“Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell: Society in 1948

In the year 1948, when George Orwell wrote his well-known book 1984, the world seemed to be in a rough patch. World War II had just ended in 1945, so this event was obviously still fresh on the people’s minds when Orwell was writing. This event and the rise of people like Stalin and Anglo-American millionaires to power, is what inspired Owell to write 1984. In a letter written by Orwell in 1944 to a Noel Willmett reads: “Everywhere the world movement seems to be in the direction of centralised economies which can be made to ‘work’ in an economic sense but which are not democratically organised and which tend to establish a caste system. With this go the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible fuhrer” (Marshall, Colin). Orwell’s main fear for the world he lived in was the destruction of truth, and with that inevitably comes the destruction of language. In another short essay Orwell wrote entitled, “Politics and the English Language,” he discusses this destruction of truth and language. To begin, he writes that, “Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse” (Dag, O.). Orwell argues that if politics and civilization fails, so too does the language of the people. One does not exist without the other, and one does not rise or fall without the other. He continues on to write, “Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely.” Which reinforces the “one cannot exist without the other” idea. Then Orwell does something that may come as a surprise to some (me). In this essay, Orwell offers rules to purifying language (and here I thought he was strictly about preserving language). He cautions people against: using a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that one sees in print, using a long word where a short one will do, using to many words, using the passive where the active will do, and using foreign phrases, scientific words, or jargon. According to Orwell, these rules will aid in purifying the language so that there is nothing but truth to our language. Orwell wrote a whole book about the government controlling language and destroying language, then he writes these sets of rules that limit expression and language. His intentions in limiting the language is directly affected by the time period. He writes, “. . . one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy” (Dag, O.)  One could argue that Orwell is preserving language by setting these limitations, but in doing so, it seems to me that he is encouraging limiting self-expression, which was the biggest evil in his book 1984. Then Orwell writes that, “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration: so that the fight against bad English is not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers.” So, basically, the governments English is bad, but so is ours; so in order to fix political English, we must first get our bad habits for English under control – hence the rule and limitations.

After reading Orwell’s, 1984, along with his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” and lastly a letter written from Orwell to Willmett discussing his fear of the government taking over; I have come to the conclusion that Orwell was just really paranoid and afraid of the government. This is understandable considering the time period that he endured. Orwell’s book is a representation of what could happen to society if we allow our government lie and control our language for any extended amount of time. With the destruction of language comes (basically) the destruction of humanity. Unless we are able to express ourselves with our language, we cannot be creative, thinking people. When society limits our language, they limit our thoughts, as well as our actions. In today’s society, language has shifted to text-language and pictures. In this generation of student’s writing, teachers are seeing more and more that the language is suffering. Students do not have as wide of a vocabulary because all they are reading is shortened English and pictures. Although as teachers, we try to instill in our students an appreciation for language, it is hard to get students interested when society is telling them that it’s “old” or “dated.” Language is in danger now, just as Orwell felt that it was back then. But this time, it’s not politics and the government that people need to be afraid of; society, tabloids, magazines, the internet, social media, etc. is causing the destruction of language among the younger generations.

 

Works Cited

Marshall, Colin. “George Orwell Explains In A Revealing 1944 Letter Why He’D Write 1984“. Open Culture, 2017, http://www.openculture.com/2014/01/george-orwell-explains-in-a-revealing-1944-letter-why-hed-write-1984.html.

Dag, O. “George Orwell: Politics And The English Language”. Orwell.Ru, 2017, http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/politics/english/e_polit/.

Orwell, George, and Erich Fromm. 1984. 1st ed., New York, Signet Classic, 1961,.

 

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