George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Orwell & Language

November 21, 2011 · Leave a Comment

– Charles K Ogden (1889-1957), Orwell (1903-1950)
– Defined as linguistic psychologist and inventor of Basic English, first published in 1929, just before Orwell’s writing career really started.
– Basic English is English made simple by limiting the number of its words to 850, and by cutting down the rules for using them to the smallest number necessary for the clear statement of ideas. It is limited in its words and its rules, but it keeps to the regular forms of English.
– Basic English is minimal language, language with a massive reduction of its lexical stock.
– It is cut down into 600 names of things, 150 names of qualities, or adjectives, and it boasts that it has no verbs, but instead 100 “operators” as Ogden calls them: words that put the others into significant relationship with the other.
– It is possible to say in Basic English anything needed for general purpose of everyday existence.
– It also can give the senses of 20,000 other words, making it a framework in which words needed for special purposes take their place and from and through which they take their senses.
– However, if you were just to write in basic and not includes its senses, words would of course reappear frequently. A book using Basic English would probably not be very good.
– Ogden makes the point that if a language is to be easy to learn we must not only cut its words down to a minimum and regularize its grammar; we must also study very carefully the meanings of every one of its words and decide upon the central, pivotal key meaning of each one of them.
– The use of these words, in place of more learned-looking words, has for centuries been increasing for simple, colloquial, informal, speech and writing. Students of the history of english knew, of course, that words like make, take, put, get, and give had been extending their spheres of influence in the language, but no one before Ogden’s demonstration realized how vast a domain these unobtrusive little words had won.
– Example: people now “inserted” and “extracted” less and less, and “put in”, and “took out” more and more.
– Example: Today we see that “put” has overtaken “set”
– Example: “run” is now the most complex word in the English dictionary

Orwell and Ogden
– Orwell has always had a fascination with words and phrases. He kept tons of notes.
– He wanted to preserve the English language. He saw that the current period and political climate had a decay on the English language.
– Ogden, lived during the same time period as Orwell and naturally was very interested in Ogden’s Basic English project.
– Orwell wanted desperately to preserve the English language and make it available for world use. It was because of this that he embraced the idea of Basic English
– From 1942 to 1944, Orwell broadcasts to India were written in Basic English. He was trying to use its programmed simplicity as a corrective to political language and senseless metaphors.
– In classic Orwell fashion, he was originally very amused and curious about the use of Basic English before becoming critical of it.
– Only during the last year of the war did he write “Politics and the English Language,” insisting that the defense of English language has nothing to do with the setting up of a Standard English.
– Therefore, many say that Basic English is where Orwell got the idea of Newspeak.

Orwell, Ogden and Newspeak
– Newspeak is generally presented as a satire of both “cablese” and basic English. Cablese is a sort of verbal shorthand, used by journalists to dispatch their messages, which operates on the principle of systematic truncation and condensation of words.
– Politics and the English Language shows you how Orwell might not like Basic English. He understood the power of language. In Newspeak, you see what Orwell is talking about in the reusing of metaphors, lets words be used with no thought, words losing their definition, etc.
– Orwell’s concern is in the obsessive regularity of it, that Basic English “could be visible at a single glance,” that it may be printed “on one side of a single sheet of paper.”
– Panoptic English
– There are many parallels between Newspeak and Basic English i.e. both have three categories of words. However Newspeak is suppose to be a self-contained linguistic system replacing, not grafted on, the English language. And Basic is designed as a supplementary language existing alongside English whereas Newspeak is intended to replace English.
– Orwell is not attacking Basic, after all Newspeak is the destruction of language while Orwell sought to preserve language.
– Orwell uses Newspeak to show the power of language, or what would happen if we communicated in a restrictive language. What meanings and ways of thinking would be lost?
– Orwell did like the fact that Basic English could deflate some of the political messages and high sounding phrases used.
– According to Steinhoff, “Newspeak itself wasn’t just a code-like language Orwell invented for pleasure, although he was interested in that sort of thing. It was a statement of Orwell’s belief in the power of language. Used the wrong way, even a good idea like Basic English (in Orwell’s opinion) could be turned to evil purposes. Orwell made Newspeak a projection of the existing tendencies toward destroying English in politics”. (Steinhoff, 167-9)
– Newspeak was a way to maintain totalitarian rule

Rubin’s Outside The Whale
– Why does Orwell bring attention to the problem of the decay of language?
– Why does he raise so many questions about the power of language?
– What questions do Newspeak and, Politics and the English Language raise?
– Sixty-five years after Orwell wrote “Politics of the English Language,” Orwell’s argument about the state of the English language has more relevance than when it was first published. The world has undergone monumental technological changes, many of which Orwell foresaw.
– He raises the question: How has language transformed our capacity for critical thought, just as we should be equally concerned with the ways in which dominant modes of thinking have reshaped the very language that we use.
– Orwell claims that the English language is in a state of decay. Undermined by the indiscriminate use of worn-out phrases, useless and meaningless words, and lazy, prefabricated constructions, modern English, Orwell argued, was in the grip of a dialectics that had ensured the widespread use of empty abstractions that had masked the realities of human experience and had generally distorted political reality.
– He had sort of an obsession with these mundane phrases. He kept long and extensive lists of dead and dying metaphors, meaningless and hackneyed phrases that had entered the English language from French, Latin, and German.
– According to Orwell, a general tendency had arisen within international politics of the 1940s that had come to heavily rely on abstract prose. The predominance of a particular style and structure of political thought had, he observed, fostered the spread of prefabricated phrases that distorted, concealed and obfuscated reality because of their imprecision, vagueness, and abstractness. The whole tendency of modern prose entailed a movement away from the concrete and the objective.
– “Democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, and justice”
– Rubin says that Orwell would have no doubt observed that events like the military invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the U.S.’s detention of enemy combatants in Guantanamo are actions that can only be defended by a language and rhetoric
– Otherwise, who possesses the malice to justify the mass displacement of civilians, airstrikes on impoverished villages, and other cruel acts?
– That’s why we call it an air strike, or a drone strike, and not a relentless bombing campaign.
– Hence, the injured are the disavowed “by-products of war”
– Another example would be Fox News using the same phrases over and over. “Class Warfare”.
– This could be considered military newspeak
– More so such words as “totalitarianism”, “Islam”, “the West” can be considered abstract generalizations that possess their own vocabularies and have little reference to the actual human consequences.

Categories: Language

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