The limits of my language mean the limits to my world.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951)
Political prose is formed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
George Orwell (1903 – 1950)
As the power of governments and global bureaucracies increase, any thinking person casts an occasional thought in the direction of Orwell’s famously chilling and uncompromising novel, 1984.
Almost everyone knows Orwell invented a minimalist language he called Newspeak as a prominent feature of the book’s message. A viciously repressive, totalitarian government develops Newspeak as a way of making unapproved ideas literally unthinkable. Newspeak is a variant of English (Oldspeak) but severely restricted in its vocabulary and with shades of meaning replaced by basic dichotomies such as good/ungood and person/unperson. Newspeak is designed to render seditious ideas inexpressible and therefore unthinkable.
The idea behind this controlling view of language is sometimes known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In his later philosophy, Wittgenstein had a similar take on the central importance of language. He and Orwell were near contemporaries, their births and deaths within a few years of each other. Two questions I want to raise here are
- Were they right about language?
- Is it happening now?
I think the answer to both questions is yes. If we don’t have the language to say something, we can’t say it or even think it. If you have any doubts on that score, think about forgetting. What you forget are frequently bits and pieces of language – often names, single words or titles. Until you remember the words, you can’t say or think what it is you’ve forgotten. Therein lies the power of Newspeak.
So if our language is drifting, whether through official policy nudges or other social changes, how would we know? How would we express the drift in a language that has already drifted?
Well that’s pretty obvious isn’t it? If you’ve reached a certain age, then you remember when language was used differently. Certain words were more common than they are now and other words less common or even entirely unused.
You become aware that certain words such as British, democracy, freedom, patriotic, decent, respect, service, foreign, charming, tasteful, willing, dependable, independent, impartial, news, reliable, prudent, nudge, charity, educate, represent, investment, banker, honour, duty, care, frank, promise, pledge, workshop, tool, nation, defend, censor, promote, work, career, choice, value, art, creative, fun, pleasure, decorum, talent, vulgar, science, climate, weather, experiment, spiritual, love, teach, learn, responsible, adult and thousands more are subjected to subtle and sometimes not so subtle changes.
Sometimes they are simply used less frequently; sometimes their meaning is changed or added to. Yet we may still think that many words are too valuable to be cast aside, too useful for their meaning to be twisted or their usage diminished.
For me, that’s partly what many bloggers are in their various multifarious ways attempting to resist – damaging changes to language. They are trying to preserve Oldspeak and resist Newspeak, defending a world where is still appropriate to label powerful people as stupid, to say climate scares are exaggerated, to label welfare as dependency and so on. The list is enormous.
If you doubt this, if you doubt the extraordinary power of language, then reflect for a moment on what is allowable within the BBC. Once the repository of standard English, the BBC has become a testing ground for a type of Newspeak, a furtive unacknowledged denial of free speech. Parliament is going the same way, as are the institutions of the EU and the UN. Many things we say while blogging cannot be said within any of these institutions. Big Brother would be pleased.