“Power Is Only a Word”: Language, Control, and the Orwellian Philosophy of Nineteen Eighty-Four

“Power Is Only a Word”: Language, Control, and the Orwellian Philosophy of Nineteen Eighty-Four

Eddie Campos Jr. (University of Texas at San Antonio, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2391-8.ch002


This chapter aims to define and examine the role of language and political power as they appear in two of George Orwell's most influential works: Nineteen Eighty-Four and the essay “Politics and the English Language.” These complimentary, though at times seemingly contradictory, works build a philosophy of language which sees the spoken and written word used as weapons for an authoritarian regime. By comparing Orwell's essay and novel, as well as explaining their connection to the Whorfian theory of Linguistic Relativity, the author hopes to track the development of Nineteen Eighty-Four's Newspeak as the ultimate language of control in a fictionalized world which seemed all too possible to its author.
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A search for “George Orwell” in scholarly databases will return an enormous number of articles, studies, and books on the life and works of the author. Indeed, many things have already been said about the two works which stand at the center of this chapter. Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Newspeak specifically, has fascinated linguistically minded scholars and spurred many attempts to classify the language, or at least make claims about the novel’s use of language: Paul Chilton (1984) categorized Newspeak as a sublanguage (p.135), Berel Lang (1989) likened Orwell’s use of language to the ultimate loss of humanity (p. 169), and Jean-Jacques Courtine (1986) insisted on Newspeak as a response to C.K. Ogden’s Basic English (p. 71). “Politics and the English Language” has largely seen itself discussed in the pages of pedagogical journals, its merit as an instructive tool in English Composition classrooms weighed and debated (Freedman 1981).

All of the works mentioned above examine, in one way or another, the impact of language on Orwell’s work. However, none truly attempt to define Orwell’s linguistic philosophy or place Nineteen Eighty-Four and “Politics and the English Language” in close conversation with one another as pillars of that philosophy. In addition, despite an open acknowledgment of Orwell’s beliefs on language and reality, Benjamin Whorf and Linguistic Relativity remain conspicuously absent from these articles as some authors seem determined to dismiss Orwell’s deeper linguistic philosophy as secondary to other factors in the text. When presented with O’brien’s explanation of authoritarianism in Nineteen Eighty-Four as the control of thought through language, Paul Chilton (1984) responds; “This does not commit Orwell himself to that metaphysics or to the equation of language and thought, since the presentation is satirical, and takes full account of the role of power (p. 137). This attitude seems emblematic of a trend away from study of Newspeak as a purposefully philosophical endeavor rooted in linguistic methodology which can only truly be appreciated by a joint study of “Politics and the English Language” and the Whorf’s theory.

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