thinking depends upon language, then controlling people’s language is a way of
controlling their thoughts. This is the logic behind the banning of
discriminatory terms such as Paki and chairman;
if you don’t know the nasty words, you can’t think the nasty thoughts and so
racism and sexism will be wiped out. No-one can object to removing language that
deliberately insults people for no just cause.
example has been the changes in English over thirty years in the use of
pronouns. English pronouns are marked for gender; female objects are referred to
as she etc, male objects as he
etc and sexless objects as it. This
leaves English people in a quandary when they need to use a singular pronoun
without knowing the gender of the person. The solution used to be that the
masculine he was used to refer to both sexes.
a passenger needs an extra blanket, he should ask the flight attendant.
people objected that this implied a precedence for males over females; women
seemed to an afterthought. One alternative was to make it clearer by
substituting he or she:
If a passenger needs an extra blanket, he or she should ask the flight
the unpleasant written form still beloved by students s/he.
alternative is to break the number barrier by using the neutral they
in the singular:
a passenger needs an extra blanket, they should ask the flight attendant.
1970s books deliberately used he and she
in alternate chapters, a self-conscious and intrusive way of writing.
Nevertheless studies of English newspapers have shown a decline of generic he
over the last decades. Between 1960 and the present the number of shes
in Time Magazine almost doubled while the number of hes
went down by 14%. English is less prone to include women in the male he than it was before.
the process of deliberate change to the language can be used for evil ends. If
we ban the word freedom, how can we
have the concept of being free? The most famous fictional example of language
control is Newspeak in George
Orwell’s 1984. This is specially
designed by Big Brother ‘not only to provide a medium of expression for the
world-view and mental habits proper
to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism] but to make all other forms of
works by simplifying the vocabulary in three groups of words:
A. words for everyday life
for everyday things remain the same except for three factors:
rather than a word having many possible meanings,
say the range of meanings associated with table
like ‘water table’, ‘to table a motion’ etc, a Newspeak word has a
single meaning: table
means ‘a flat-topped piece of furniture’ – and nothing else. The A group
vocabulary thus expresses only ‘simple, purposive thoughts’.
one word can belong to many parts of speech. Why should a word be either a noun
or a verb or an adjective when it can be all of them? So a
think is a noun; to think a verb; thinkful
an adjective; thinkwise an adverb.
why have two words for good and bad when you can say good
and ungood? Black and white when you
can say black and unblack?
If you want to intensify the meaning, you can
say plusgood or even doubleplusungood.
This cuts down the number of words in the language and so, Big Brother hopes,
the number of concepts available to its speakers.
words ‘deliberately constructed for political purposes’
aims to provide a limited range of ideas biased in one direction, achieved by
making up new compound words, as in goodthink,
crimethink (thought crime) and think
pol (thought police). These have only a single meaning;
goodsex only means ‘married sex for
reproduction’; any other sex is
sexcrime. Words can be forced to have contrary meanings:
a joycamp is forced labour. The sting can be taken out of words by
combining their initial parts; the ministries in Oceania are Minitrue
(Ministry of Truth, i.e. propaganda), Minipax
(Ministry of Peace, i.e. war), and Miniluv
(Ministry of Love, i.e. law and order). The simplified vocabulary systematically
distorts the world by forcing its users into a single channel of thinking.
C. scientific and technical terms
technical jobs do need additional vocabulary, such as spanner or voltage. But
these are restricted to a particular technical skill rather than having more
widespread use – there is no word for ‘science’ in Newspeak. And, like
lists A and B, the words only have a single meaning.
together, these amount to thought control via language so that ‘the expression
of unorthodox opinions, above a very low level, was well-nigh impossible’.
some ways George Orwell was mirroring the views of his time about how language
affects thinking. His simplification of English into Newspeak is clearly based
on the Basic English put forward by Ogden and Richards. His idea of language
affecting thinking is related to the ideas of General Semantics suggested by
Count Korzybski and to linguistic relativity. But Richards created Basic English
as an aid to communication; Korzybski thought better language led to better
thinking. They regarded language as a tool to improve people’s lives. It is
Orwell who saw the dark side of a government controlling its people through
language. If they never hear alternative views, they don’t know that they
exist, essentially Chomsky’s view of the American media.
science fiction novels have explored how people can be controlled through
language. In The Languages of Pao,
Jack Vance creates a world where each language only allows certain ways of
thinking: Valiant is the language for solders,
Technicant for technicians and Cogitant for scientists. In Babel
17, Samuel Delaney imagines an intergalactic terrorist controlled by a
perfectly logical language.
Newspeak just fiction? George Orwell had an amazing feel for English and was
reporting tendencies that were already present in the language. For example he
poured scorn on the fashion for not un-
rather than positive statements – A
not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field
– a habit still not uncommon among a not-inconsiderable number of
not unimportant people.
often seems that the UK government takes its English from Newspeak. Take the
names of actual government organisations such as Ofwat (Office of Water Services), Ofcom (Office of Communication), Ofgen (Office of the Gas and Electric Markets), Ofgas
(Office of Gas Supply), Ofqual
(Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator) and Ofsted
(Office for Standards in Education). These compounds use the rules of Newspeak.
frequent changes in ministry names almost invariably make the meaning vaguer and
more abstract. Natural
we are told, ‘brings together English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the
Rural Development Service’. Well, nature, countryside and rural development
are all reasonably easy to grasp but Natural
England sounds like an organisation
for nudists or organic farmers. The Commission
for Racial Equality (CRE) is now the
Equality and Human Rights Commission. At least one knew something of its
aims when it had racial in the title. Equality
is nowadays little more than a buzz word.
most mysterious changes of title are in the department of education: the Department of Education and Science (DES) became the Department
for Education and Skills (DfES) and is now
the Department for Children, Schools and
Families (DSCF). The DES was clearly about education while the DCSF is not
obviously about anything in particular and might well be concerned with
healthcare, welfare, public transport, or anything else that a child, a school
or a family might need.
of our everyday life is expressed through words that might well have been
created in Newspeak. Friendly fire is
modelled on joycamp; political correctness is thoughtcrime,
except that it hasn’t made it to
polcor yet. The peace process is a
vague metaphor that forces us into a way of thinking, getting us used to the
idea that peace is never achievable and the UK is always at war. It gets even
obscurer in the extended versions from media presenters, this sends
an arrow into the heart of the peace process or bolstering
the faltering peace process.
expression seem to show a similar disconnection between words and reality; what
could Sebastian Coe mean when he said the Olympics kicked
off a catalyst for regeneration? Excellence
no longer means ‘the best’ but ‘the standard’, as in NICE (The National Institute for Clinical Excellence). Looking at
countries refereed to as democratic
around the word, democracy now means
little more than ‘people I approve of’. Even if the media are not
deliberately implementing Newspeak control over our thoughts, it certainly feels