Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is a classic dystopian novel by English author George Orwell. Akin to the latter’s earlier work, Animal Farm (1945), Nineteen Eighty-Four is a cautionary tale about the dangers of totalitarianism. The novel’s main character, Winston Smith, is a civil servant tasked with disseminating government propaganda through the forging of records and political literature. Disillusioned with such a mechanistic existence, Smith begins an uprising against the regime – a move which later resulted in his incarceration and torture.
The esteem of Nineteen Eighty-Four can be attributed mainly to its frank and vivid portrayal of the perpetuation of the status quo at the expense of individual rights (Gearon 65).
Many of the novel’s terminologies and ideas, such as “doublethink,” “Orwellian,” “Newspeak” and “Big Brother,” eventually acquired secure places in the English language (Trahair 289). At present, some thinkers even use these expressions and concepts to criticize repressive government policies.
The term “Orwellian,” for instance, is currently an idiom that refers to any form of normalcy that closely resembles the Party (Cameron 151).
One of Orwell’s major arguments in the novel is that language is the totalitarian government’s most powerful weapon of mind control. Through the usage of deceptive language and propaganda, as well as the modification of language, the Party was able to manipulate the thoughts and beliefs of the citizens of Oceania. Newspeak was the Party’s primary means of misleading the citizens of Oceania (Thomas, Singh, Peccei, Jones and Wareing 39).
It was a corrupted form of Standard English (known in the novel as Oldspeak) that reflected the principles of Ingsoc. “Undesirable” words were eliminated from the lingua franca, while those that were retained were stripped of “unorthodox” denotations (Ji 1). Consequently, it became impossible to develop other modes of thought in Newspeak (Orwell 144). Newspeak was more than just a language – it was the “(embodiment) of the totalitarian (mindset) of the Party members” (Gerovitch 12).
To accommodate alternate views would increase the possibility of encountering “heretical” thoughts (Gerovitch 13). It is no longer surprising, therefore, if the Party required all inhabitants of Oceania to use Newspeak – doing so was a very convenient way of indoctrinating them with Ingsoc beliefs. The immense power of language to control the mind is not a fictional phenomenon. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis (n. d. ) argued that language determined how human beings perceived their environment (Thomas, Singh, Peccei, Jones and Wareing 39).
This assumption is composed of two parts – linguistic relativity and linguistic determinism. Linguistic relativity theorized that the languages of different cultures do not necessarily have equivalent systems of representation. Linguistic determinism, meanwhile, asserted that a language not only reflected certain aspects of reality but also influenced the speaker’s thought process (Thomas, Singh, Peccei, Jones and Wareing 25). It would be fair to say that the premise behind the development and usage of Newspeak was based on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.
In the novel’s appendix, it is revealed that Ingsoc was originally known as English Socialism (Orwell 143). But during the time of English Socialism, people spoke Standard English. Consequently, they were exposed to radical ideas that inspired them to turn against the Party (Ji 1). In retaliation, the Party silenced them through punishment and terror (Ji 1). The Party eventually viewed the period of English Socialism as one that was characterized with violence and lawlessness. Standard English, meanwhile, was regarded as a relic of an anarchic past that must be discarded at all costs.
The Party even set a year in which they expected Standard English to be already nonexistent – 2050 (Orwell 143). In the appendix of the novel, Orwell wrote the Party’s ultimate dream – a society wherein everyone accepted the official ideology even without the threat of punishment and terror (Ji 1). This was only possible, however, if they had no access to subversive ideas. It must be noted that in the context of the novel, Standard English was regarded as the source of dissident concepts.
The Party therefore realized that Standard English must be replaced with a singular and specially contrived language – Newspeak. When people spoke, heard, read and wrote only in Newspeak, they could be kept under control even without outright state persecution (Ji 1). Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism. In the year 1984 there was not as yet anyone who used Newspeak as his sole means of communication, either in speech or writing.
The leading articles in The Times were written in it, but this was a tour de force which could only be carried out by a specialist. It was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak (or Standard English, as we should call it) by about the year 2050. (143) The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the (worldview) and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.
It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought – that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc – should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new
words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as “This dog is free from lice” or “This field is free from weeds. ” It could not be used in its old sense of “politically free” or “intellectually free” since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless.
(144) A person growing up with Newspeak as his sole language would no more know that equal had once had the secondary meaning of “politically equal,” or that free had once meant “intellectually free,” than for instance, a person who had never heard of chess would be aware of the secondary meanings attaching to queen and rook. There would be many crimes and errors which it would be beyond his power to commit, simply because they were nameless and therefore unimaginable. (148-149)
This ambition, however, was not without serious consequences. The individual rights of the people of Oceania were severely violated. They constantly lived in fear of government reprisal – landscapes across London were bombarded with posters of “Big Brother” with the caption “Big Brother is Watching You” (Orwell 1). Two-way television sets – telescreens – were installed in all homes and public establishments in order to monitor the populace for any sign of subversive activity (thoughtcrime). Worse, the Party encouraged everyone to spy on one another.
Even children were ordered to report their parents to the authorities (Thought Police) if they caught them committing a thoughtcrime. Winston Smith was among those who paid the ultimate price. Upon his arrest, he was taken to the Ministry of Love, where he was subjected to electroshock torture. Winston was afterwards taken to the infamous Room 101, where a prisoner was tortured by being exposed to his or her greatest fear. Winston’s primal fear was rats – he was therefore tortured by having a wire cage full of starving rats brought near to his face.
Petrified, Winston finally accepts Party ideology and was later released as a brainwashed individual. Sadly, it is obvious that Orwell’s warning in Nineteen Eighty-Four went unheeded. At present, there are still so many societies wherein people are stripped of their basic rights and liberties. What is more saddening is that some of the parties who are guilty of this wrongdoing are actually claiming that they are staunch advocates of freedom, justice and equality. They use elaborate propaganda to proclaim their “advocacy” while acting in a completely opposite manner.
The Party used language in order to keep the people of Oceania silent, ignorant and oppressed. In doing so, the former proved that evil prospers where good is silent. Orwell, on the other hand, used words in order to expose and fight this atrocity. In doing so, he proved that the pen is mightier than the sword.
Cameron, Deborah. Verbal Hygiene. New York: Routledge, 1995. Gearon, Liam. Freedom of Expression and Human Rights: Historical, Literary and Political Contexts. Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2006. Gerovitch, Slava.
From Newspeak to Cyberspeak: A History of Soviet Cybernetics. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. Ji, Fengyuan. Linguistic Engineering: Language and Politics in Mao’s China. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004. Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. n. p. : n. d. Thomas, Linda, Ishtla Singh, Jean Stilwell Peccei, Jason Jones, and Shan Wareing. Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2004. Trahair, R. C. S. Utopia and Utopians: A Historical Dictionary. Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999.