In the dark and grim world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell has depicted a negative Utopia or dystopia, life under a totalitarian government in the future. In his vision of this dark future, people’s lives, actions, thoughts, media, language, in short everything is under the absolute control of the government through deceit, lies, propaganda, fabrications, secrecy, and severe reprimand.
Language and media are two important facets depicting the advancement of every civilization. Thus, Orwell was well aware of the potential language has in masking or distorting the truth, manipulating people’s minds and emotions and resultantly misleading them. In the wrong hands, language is not a medium of expression but a mind-controlling weapon. Thus, the inner party of Oceania is the state police or watch dog which uses language to control the citizens. Misuse or abuse of language by the government as well as the media has been shown in the novel. Concepts and elements, like doublethink, war is peace, thoughtcrime, unperson, the Ministry of Plenty, the Ministry of Truth, depict the varied constituents of language control and distortion in the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In this fictional world, Newspeak is the official language and has replaced the original one i.e., English Language. One marked characteristic of the Newspeak vocabulary is its contraction i.e., the government’s attempts to cut back or shorten the language in order to restrict the range of thoughts. In the novel, a Newspeak maverick boasts, “[we’re] cutting the language down to the bone . . . Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year” (55).
The rationale behind this act is that if words describing certain feelings are absent, then the feeling would also become extinct or go away. This would be an ideal way to reduce ‘thoughtcrime’, as it would become increasingly difficult to think about or express a certain feeling. Hence, language has been controlled to the extent that besides speech and writing, one’s thoughts are being monitored in this dystopia. Winston, the central character of the novel, is afraid about getting caught for holding a rebellious thought and facing the repercussions.
He is rightly afraid, as the penalty of a ‘thoughtcrime’ is a severe one and may lead one to be punished through being brainwashed or vaporized, and thus become an ‘unperson’ in the latter case. Complete vaporization is reserved for those who have broken the laws of the government or challenged it in some way. Thus, an unperson is completely erased and annihilated from existence. All tangible records of his existence are removed, and all party members are expected to remove that person from their memory forever. On the contrary, a completely fictitious character called Ogilvy, a supposed war hero is brought to life through fabrications. Thus, in the world of 1984, history can be completely annihilated, fabricated, or rewritten to suit the purpose.
The party’s further attempts to control and manipulate the thoughts of the citizens of Oceania have lead them to practice ‘doublethink’, which is the ability to hold two contradictory truth or façade – one real and one assumed – in one’s mind. Thus, when the government switches sides or goes back on its words, the people are able to adjust to the new and completely opposite concept easily. This practice is particularly helpful in dealing with war and alliances, as yesterday’s enemies become today’s friends and vice versa. Thus, propaganda plays an important part in war.
The Ministry of Peace, along with other Ministries such as that of Love, Plenty, and Truth, are contradictory in nature. For instance, the Ministry of Peace ensures that the nation is perpetually engaged in war and is unable to focus on and question the government about the shortage of food. To augment its efforts, the Ministry of Plenty in turn forges dazzling economic figures to convince the people that everything is aplenty; the economy is stronger than ever. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Truth controls and manipulates information through spreading lies. Winston is employed at this place to help in rewriting and fabricating things. The extent of language and media manipulation can be gauged from the fact that The Ministry of Truth contained more than three thousand rooms above ground level.
The tele screens continuously blare out news and propaganda 24/7, and the audiences are satisfied by ‘good news’ of imaginary victories and are enraged by ‘bad news’. Slogans and Two Minutes Hate exercise control the mind of the public. Furthermore, the party propagates contradictory, oxymoronic slogans like War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; and Ignorance is Strength. These slogans are written on walls and beamed through broadcasts, and the public readily laps them up.
Conclusively, Orwell’s dystopia draws uncanny parallels between Oceania and the modern day society. Rai expounds: “Language is one of the key instruments of political dominations, the necessary and insidious means of the ‘totalitarian’ control of reality” (122). Hence, Orwell too has warned us that the power of language can be used and abused, when powers like the Big Brother use it to their own end and are able to conceal the truth, control the minds and thoughts of their nations, and manipulate history to their own advantages. We too share the fate of Wilson.
Rai, Alok. Orwell and the politics of despair: A critical study of the writings of George Orwell. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.