George Orwell (English 246: Fall 2011)

Entries categorized as ‘Language’

Orwell and Language PowerPoint

November 28, 2011 · Leave a Comment


Categories: Language

Politics, Propaganda, and War: the Debasement of Language in the 20th Century

November 22, 2011 · Leave a Comment

Both George Orwell and Stuart Chase agree that language is affected by the political atmosphere in which it is used. In the harsh times of ideological battle and violent warfare, language is especially vulnerable to manipulations and contortions that result from its misuse by the media, political parties, and propagandists. The two authors refer to this degeneration of meaning in language as “bad language,” mental miscommunication, mental vice, and many other names. In “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell projects that “when the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer” (Orwell 282). Chase reinforces this point in The Tyranny of Language, referring to the condition of American English: “from 1870 to 1914 in the United States this kind of thing did not make so much difference. Men were busy overrunning a continent, and words could not seriously deflect the course of hustling and impetuous action. But those of us who have lived through the Great War, the Great Boom, the Great Depression, and now observe the rise of the dictators abroad are not so easy in our minds as were our fathers…” (Chase 351). The actions which “our fathers” could carry out did not rely on political moralizing to justify its actions; justification seemed to exist as a given in the expansionist atmosphere of this pre-war, pre-20th century English-speaking world. During this time, America eagerly raced to tame its last frontiers as the British Empire continued to tighten its imperial tentacles over most of the world. Before the atomic bomb, the Russian Revolution, the rise of Fascism, the Spanish Civil War, and the atrocities of trench warfare during the Great War, life seemed stable, almost idyllic compared with the ravaged landscape of the 1930’s and 1940’s.

The heightening tensions of politics, however, soon changed everything. “In our age,” Orwell stated, “there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics’” (Orwell 282). With the advent of more destructive forms of warfare, including machine guns, tanks, missiles, poison gas, the right formulations of language were imperative in justifying such atrocious action. Orwell acknowledges this fact, revealing how “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. This political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness” (Orwell 281). In government authorities’ attempts to cover up the horrors of “necessary” political and military maneuvers throughout the various conflicts of the first half of the 1900’s, language had to be stretched to its extremes. Political leaders from Hitler to Stalin used this malleability to their advantage to such an extent that Chase came to believe that “Bad language [had become]…the mightiest weapon in the arsenal of despots and demagogues” (Chase 21). By the end of World War II, these categories had become so stretched out that no boundaries of referential meaning remained for words like democracy, fascism, totalitarianism, capitalism, socialism, and communism.

This total decay of language has its roots in political acts writings, but it manifests itself most clearly in more popular forms of news media, where the debasement of language trickles down into the everyday communications of the public. Chase details the all-encompassing effect of this “failure of mental communication…[It] is painfully in evidence nearly everywhere we choose to look. Pick up any magazine or newspaper and you will find many of the articles devoted to sound and fury from politicians, leaders of industry, and diplomats. You will find the text of the advertising sections devoted almost solidly to a skillful attempt to make words mean something different to the reader from what the facts warrant” (Chase 19). Even advertisement and consumer culture has been affected by the skewing of language that had arisen from the political complexities from civilizations at war. Even when it comes to the commonplace products one notes in a magazine or newspaper, what you see is not what you get. Society has proved itself, at last to be a “swindle,” to use Orwell’s beloved diction.

In this atmosphere of deception and unreliability, little hope of making progress is apparent. As Chase concludes in the last chapter of The Tyranny of Language, “we have no true picture of the world outside, and so cannot talk to one another about how to stop [confusions in communication]” (Chase 352). He does however, place faith in what he calls “the discipline of semantics,” which, if studied properly can bring about a “broadening of the base of agreement” that we humans collectively hold (360). How to begin undertaking such a massive endeavor is left to us as individuals to figure out. Chase and Orwell alike shift the responsibility of righting “bad language” to us.

Works Cited in this Blog Post:

Chase, Stuart. The Tyranny of Words. Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc. New York: 1938. Print.

Orwell, George. “Politics and The English Language.” All Art Is Propaganda. Comp. George Packer. Boston/New York: First Mariner, 2009. 270-86. Print.


Works Cited in Presentation:

Hodson, William Allan and John Carfora. “Stuart Chase: Brief Life of a Public Thinker.” Harvard Magazine. Harvard Magazine, Inc., Sep.-Oct. 2004. Web. 20 November 2011.

Kent, Roland G. Rev. of The Tyranny of Words, by Stuart Chase. The Classical Weekly, Vol. 32, No. 2. Oct. 1938: 15-17. JSTOR. Web. 20 November 2011.

Laswell, Harold D. Rev. of The Tyranny of Words, by Stuart Chase. American Sociological Review Aug. 1938: 579-80. JSTOR. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.

Westbrook, Robert B. “Tribune of the Technostructure: The Popular Economics of Stuart Chase.” JSTOR. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980: 387-408. Web. 20 Nov. 2011.


Some Visual Food For Thought…

We are all familiar with WWII propaganda posters. In light of our discussions on the skewing and stretching of meanings of words and language, it is interesting to see how words and slogans are used in these posters that advocate for bombs and increased violence. Bombs become “bundles” and the Soviet Union becomes a “freedom fighting friend.” If that isn’t a stretch of language, I don’t know what is!

Categories: Language

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