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).