The following essay is Copyright © 2000 Jem Berkes
Written February 27, 2000; Modified May 9, 2000
If you quote or paraphrase from my essay, please give me due credit.
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Language as the “Ultimate Weapon” in Nineteen Eighty-Four

   George Orwell, like many other literary scholars, is interested in the modern use of the English language and, in particular, the abuse and misuse of English. He realises that language has the power in politics to mask the truth and mislead the public, and he wishes to increase public awareness of this power. He accomplishes this by placing a great focus on Newspeak and the media in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Demonstrating the repeated abuse of language by the government and by the media in his novel, Orwell shows how language can be used politically to deceive and manipulate people, leading to a society in which the people unquestioningly obey their government and mindlessly accept all propaganda as reality. Language becomes a mind-control tool, with the ultimate goal being the destruction of will and imagination. As John Wain says in his essay, “[Orwell’s] vision of 1984 does not include extinction weapons . . . He is not interested in extinction weapons because, fundamentally, they do not frighten him as much as spiritual ones” (343).

   Paul Chilton suggests that the language theme in Orwell’s novel has its roots in the story of the Tower of Babel (2). When God destroys the Towel of Babel, the civilizations which have contributed to the construction of the Tower suffer ever-after from the Curse of Confusion. The Curse both makes languages “mutually unintelligible”, and alters their nature so that “they no longer lucidly [express] the nature of things, but rather [obscure] and [distort] them” (Chilton, 2). Orwell’s Newspeak, the ultra-political new language introduced in Nineteen Eighty-Four, does precisely that: it facilitates deception and manipulation, and its purpose is to restrict understanding of the real world. Chilton also suggests that a corollary to this is that “each post-Babel language [becomes] a closed system containing its own untranslatable view of the world” (2). Certainly, the ultimate aim of Newspeak is to enclose people in an orthodox pseudo-reality and isolate them from the real world.

   Whereas people generally strive to expand their lexicon, the government in Nineteen Eighty-Four actually aims to cut back the Newspeak vocabulary. One of the Newspeak engineers says, “[we’re] cutting the language down to the bone . . . Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year” (55). By manipulating the language, the government wishes to alter the public’s way of thinking. This can be done, psychologists theorise, because the words that are available for the purpose of communicating thought tend to influence the way people think. The linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf was a firm believer in this link between thought and language, and he theorised that “different languages impose different conceptions of reality” (Myers 352). So when words that describe a particular thought are completely absent from a language, that thought becomes more difficult to think of and communicate. For the Inner Party, the goal is to impose an orthodox reality and make heretical thought (‘thoughtcrime’) impossible. “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible,” explains the Newspeak engineer, “because there will be no words in which to express it” (55).

   By design, Newspeak narrows the range of thought and shortens people’s memories. It is therefore ideal for a totalitarian system, in which the government has to rely on a passive public which lacks independent thought and which has a great tolerance for mistakes, both past and present. “To expand language is to expand the ability to think,” says Myers (353). Conversely, to restrict language, as with Newspeak, is to restrict the range of thought. Chilton identifies the specific features of Newspeak that help restrict thought: “reduced complexity, few abstractions, and no self­reference” (37). Such narrowed public thought is what the Inner Party prefers, because a public that lacks the ability to think vividly poses less of a threat than one that can readily criticise the government and defend itself from harm.

   However, an interesting consequence of this narrowed thought is that the public’s memory is also effectively shortened. “The Inner Party [deprives] people of their own words and in so doing, deprives them of memory” (Lewis and Moss 51). After O’Brien forces Winston to embrace Ingsoc, for instance, Winston’s imagination decays and he “[can] no longer fix his mind on any one subject for more than a few moments at a time” (301). Winston, like the majority of the public, suffers when he is robbed of his words and thoughts. Consequently, “memory, with its attendant richness and variety, atrophies” since “memories die when they go unrehearsed in words” (Lewis and Moss 51).

   Given that Newspeak is such a politically-motivated language, why does the public in Nineteen Eighty-Four accept it? After all, the Party is undertaking a project of monumental proportions: they are trying to completely replace a common language (English, or “Oldspeak”), and one would expect great opposition to such a plan. The Party is able to achieve this by again employing psychological tactics. Instead of forcing the public to use Newspeak by law, the Party ensures that the public is immersed in the new language. Nobody is forced to read or write in Newspeak, but “its ubiquitous broadcast creates a pressure to employ it simply in order to communicate economically” (Chilton 37).

   Orwell’s novel paints a nightmarish picture of a totalitarian system gone to the absolute extreme, but it is a novel that is fundamentally about psychological control of the public. Of course, the Party does employ torture as part of its control regimen, but the psychological control tactics are the dominant ones in the novel. While physical punishment is difficult to administer, psychological tactics (manipulation of people through language) can be continuously applied to the general public without raising great public opposition or fear — and that is where its strength lies. It is for this reason that “Newspeak rather than torture is planned as the way to erase thoughtcrime” (Stansky 88). However, while Newspeak is a very significant method of mind control through language, it is just a part of a greater Inner Party scheme. It is, in fact, the Party-controlled media in the novel that expertly uses Newspeak as well as other linguistic trickery to spread its propaganda and brainwash the public.

   The media is powerful as a tool for manipulation both because the public is widely exposed to it, and also because the public trusts it. The telescreens continuously shout bursts of news and propaganda throughout the day, and the people listen intently and cheer at ‘good news’ (victories) and are driven to rage by ‘bad news’. The characters in Orwell’s novel are slaves of the media; they revere it as an oracle. When the telescreens initiate the Two Minutes Hate, for instance, the people are roused to a frenzy: “People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices . . . [a girl] had begun crying out ‘Swine! Swine! Swine!’” (16).

   Certainly, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, “[media information] does control some of the ways in which [people] think about and assess the world” (Lewis and Moss 47). The Party is interested in masking the truth, and so the media manipulates language to present a distorted reality. As Orwell says in his essay Politics and the English Language, “Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” (150). In the novel, these lies are quite obvious. For example, the media (controlled by the Party, of course) continually refers to the Ministries of Truth, Peace, Love, and Plenty. In reality, however, the Ministry of Truth is concerned with the falsification of records, and the Ministry of Peace deals with warfare. The Ministry of Love is “the really frightening one” (6) as it is essentially a place for the questioning and torturing of suspected criminals. The Ministry of Plenty makes up economic figures to convince the public that the economy is in good shape, even though there are great shortages of all commodities due to the war. Although the irony in the titles is blatantly obvious, Orwell is making a point about how the media can use language to mask the truth.

   The totalitarian state of Oceania is in a constant state of war, and part of the Party’s ongoing struggle is to keep the public satisfied with this warfare. If the public were dissatisfied, they would resent the shortage of food and other commodities and possibly rebel against the Party. The Party therefore has to distract the public’s attention away from the negative side of warfare, and they use the media to do this. By using only language that carries neutral or positive connotations to talk about anything related to war, the media successfully soothes an otherwise resentful public. For instance, the media never reports on the “twenty or thirty [rocket bombs] a week falling on London” (28), but rather inundates peoples’ lives with good news about victories. Winston’s telescreen announces, “Our forces in South India have won a glorious victory. I am authorised to say that the action we are now reporting may well bring the war within measurable distance of its end” (28). Similar reports follow throughout the entire novel, constantly celebrating the capture of enemies and the conquering of new territories, but never admitting any kind of defeat.

   In many ways, the media is relying on the principle that a piece of information that is repeated often enough becomes accepted as truth. Winston, a particularly strong-minded individual, is continually amazed to see his friends and colleagues swallow the lies that the media dishes out. For this form of brainwashing (‘Duckspeak’) to be effective, “you just say things frequently and people eventually understand and say it themselves” (Chilton 27). This brainwashing is done through the words of the telescreens, newspapers and magazines.

   The media is skilled at engineering ‘truth’ through language, and one of the most disturbing consequence of this developed in the novel is that the Party has ultimate control over history. After all, language is the link to history. Winston’s job in the Ministry of Truth is to modify news items and other documents that in one way or another make the Party look bad. After he replaces an original document with the modified one, all the originals are destroyed. Orwell describes the process:

This processes of continuous alteration was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets . . . Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. (42)

   Lewis and Moss believe that “the tactic is to obliterate history so that centres of opposition cannot grow” (51). Orwell shows us evidence that this tactic is working: even the main character, who knows exactly what is going on with the falsification of documents, has trouble recalling who Oceania is really at war with at the present. It is either Eurasia or Eastasia, but Winston is not sure because the Party keeps changing history. This nagging doubt eats away at Winston until he no longer knows what reality is; by the end of the novel, he is willing to accept the Party’s reality.

   Orwell’s novel asks the philosophical question: if all available evidence shows something to be true, is it not true? Winston struggles with this idea of “Reality control” (37) as he works at the Ministry of Truth. “The frightening thing,” Winston thinks to himself, “[is] that it might all be true. If the Party [can] thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened – that, surely, [is] more terrifying than mere torture and death” (36). One of Winston’s assignments is to invent a biography of a fictional soldier named Ogilvy, so that he can be honoured by Big Brother in a public address. After writing the description of Ogilvy’s life, Winston marvels at how “once the act of forgery [is] forgotten, [Ogilvy will] exist just as authentically, and upon the same evidence, as Charlemagne or Julius Caesar” (50).

   As well as altering the past by manipulating written language, the Party has an ingenious plan to break the link with the real past by introducing a language barrier. When “all real knowledge of Oldspeak [disappears] . . . the whole literature of the past will have been destroyed” (56). After a few generations, when people are no longer capable of decoding information from the past, there will no longer even be a need to censor the history that has the potential for breeding unorthodox ideas — it will be completely out of the public’s reach. Thus, the manipulation of language and text not only effects the present, but also the past and future in more than one way. A Party slogan in the novel reads, “Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present controls the past” (37).

   Orwell’s novel is extreme, but it is not necessarily a prediction of the future. Rahv believes that the book’s “importance is mainly in its powerful engagement with the present” (183). Indeed, politicians have used written language to manipulate history both in the past and present. There was much distortion of history during the Stalinist era, “when such standard works of misinformation as the Soviet Encyclopaedia changed constantly with the party line, so that in successive editions Trotsky was first the hero of the Civil War, then an agent of the Mensheviks, and the western powers” (Woodcock 177). Patrick Wright suggests that the issue is still very much alive in the late twentieth century, citing as an example “[the British Secretary for Education, who] refused a number of proposed syllabus systems for the teaching of history in schools, finding them insufficiently assiduous in their promotion of the mythical, rather than simply historical, values of national unity and pride” (111).

   Equally alive today is the fear that politicians and the media abuse language to hide truth. Orwell gives examples of how politicians can twist words to deceive people in his essay Politics and the English Language: “Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside . . . this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers” (148). Woodcock refers to the modern jargon-filled English used by “newspaper editors, bureaucrats, radio announcers, and parliamentary speakers” who have, just as Orwell feared, a heavy “reliance on ready-made phrases” (92). Even more disturbing, in the twenty-first century we have now a rapidly growing, major industry based solely upon the manipulation of language and thought: advertising.

   Orwell’s novel carries a well-founded warning about the powers of language. It shows how language can shape people’s sense of reality, how it can be used to conceal truths, and even how it can be used to manipulate history. “Language is one of the key instruments of political dominations, the necessary and insidious means of the ‘totalitarian’ control of reality” (Rai, 122). While language in the traditional sense can expand horizons and improve our understanding of the world, Orwell’s novel demonstrates that language, when used in a maliciously political way, can just as easily become “a plot against human consciousness” (Rahv, 182).

Works Cited

Chilton, Paul. Orwellian Language and the Media. London: Pluto Press, 1988.

Lewis, Florence and Peter Moss. The Tyranny of Language in Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984. Aubrey, Crispin and Paul Chilton, eds. London: Comedia Publishing Group, 1983. 45-57.

Myers, David G. Psychology. 4th ed. Holland: Worth Publishers, 1986.

Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. London: Penguin Books, 1990.

- - - . Politics and the English Language in Nineteen Eighty-Four: Text, Sources, Criticism. Ed. Irving Howe. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1963. 143-50.

Rahv, Philip. The Unfuture of Utopia in Nineteen Eighty-Four: Text, Sources, Criticism. 181-5.

Rai, Alok. Orwell and the politics of despair: A critical study of the writings of George Orwell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Stansky, Peter, ed. On Nineteen Eighty-Four. New York: W. H. Freeman and Company, 1983.

Wain, John. Essays on Literature and Ideas - George Orwell (1) in Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism Vol. 6. 343-4.

Woodcock, George. Orwell’s Message: 1984 and the Present. Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing Co. Ltd, 1984.

Wright, Patrick. The Conscription of History in Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984. 105-14.