Friday, April 01, 2005


Virtually every literate person, at least in the English-speaking parts of the world, is familiar with George Orwell's influential book, Nineteen Eighty Four. In this book, Orwell described a totalitarian society, Oceania, that employed a variety of measures to control the behavior of its citizens, including wide-spread surveilance, controlling what its citizens could read, measures to encourage citizens to report on prohibited actions by others, and using language as an instrument of repression.

Interest in Orwell was heightened by the creation of the Homeland Security Act. Googling "Blog Orwell Homeland Security" will bring up a number of blogs, including one by Steve Gilliard, another by W. David Stephenson, among others. The Stephenson blog brings up a memo by the Democrat's best friend, Newt Gingrich, which advised those running for office on the language they should and shouldn't use.

Newt Gingrich seems to be an Orwellian camp follower. He wrote

"As you know, one of the key points in the GOPAC tapes is that "language matters." In the video "We are a Majority," Language is listed as a key mechanism of control used by a majority party, along with Agenda, Rules, Attitude and Learning. As the tapes have been used in training sessions across the country and mailed to candidates we have heard a plaintive plea: "I wish I could speak like Newt."

Gingrich provides two lists of words, one positive set, to be used by the Republican candidate in speaking of himself or his policies, and another negative set, to be used by the candidate in speaking of his opponent or his policies.

The tyrants of Oceania took the line that only those thoughts that can be formulated in language are thinkable and, therefore, it should be possible to restrict the range of things that are thinkable by restricting the range of things that are sayable. In an attempt to restrict the citizenry's capacity to think politically heretical thoughts, Oceania's tyrants tried, then, to restrict the English language so as to make such thoughts unexpressible.

There is every reason not to believe that language can be used as Orwell suggested to control thought if we take the word "control" literally. Simply restricting the vocabulary by taking out words that convey heretical thoughts and redefining others just won't get the job done. Just yesterday, in repsonse to an email to a friend in which I used the German word "schadenfreude," he asked what the English equivalent would be. We don't, of course, have an equivalent word but we can express the concept with "taking joy at the suffering of others." And this is the problem with Orwell's theory as to how language could be used to restrict what people can think. It isn't enough to get rid of a politically heretical word like "justice" or to restrict the use of "free" to such things as "free from worry" or "free from lice" so that people can't talk about being politically free. The tyrants would also have to get rid of all of the words that can be used to paraphrase such heretical concepts. By the time the tyrants were done, there would be little language left.

However, there is good reason to belive that a weaker form of Orwell's thesis is true, namely that language can influence thought, just as Gingrich said. Take the words that we use in connection with poverty. Such words as "poor," "economically deprived", "poor," "indigent," "needy," "impoverished", "poverty-stricken", and "destitute" vary in two ways. The first respect in which these words differ is that some of them presuppose theories as to why the poor are poor. To say that certain people are "economically deprived" suggests that they lack certain advantages or opportunities others have through no fault of their own. Similarly, saying that certain people are "poverty stricken" suggests that poverty is something that has happened to them. The second respect in which these words differ is in the degree of urgency of the problem of poverty that is suggested. The word "poor" suggests no reason why the poor are poor and invokes no sense of urgency in helping them. Obviously, "poverty stricken" both suggests a reason for the poor being poor and invokes a strong sense of urgency.

There seems to be no word for the poor that suggests that the poor are poor because of what they have or have not done, rather than because of what has happened to them. We see no terms like "economically ignorant" or "economically lazy" or other similar phrases. To conjure up such expressions would be mean- spirited.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cannot read more, this link is useless:


10:10 AM

Blogger The Language Guy said...

Thanks. I thought I had fixed all of these. I will check back tomorrow to see if it is actually okay.

4:33 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Language Guy said:

"There seems to be no word for the poor that suggests that the poor are poor because of what they have or have not done, rather than because of what has happened to them."

How about: "Bum"? (connotes a male who will not work - is their a similar term for a female?)

And, terms beginning with "Welfare".

I once thought the term "welfare mother" as connoting fault with the mother, though, now, I understand that it often happens when a man leaves his wife a children and will not pay a dime of child support.

(And, therein is another kind of "bum")

I suspect there are other terms.

2:52 PM


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