The evolutionary aspect of the human race which sets it apart, in knowledge and complexity, from the rest of the animal kingdom, is its ability to express ideas through language. Arguably, our ability to manipulate language in order to negotiate, disseminate and create ideas, has allowed the human race to survive and prosper more than any other. And while it is often asserted that language is merely a tool to express our thoughts, language itself help conceptualize ideas. In addition to setting humans apart from the rest of the kingdom, it creates distinctions within classes of human society. George Orwell, an English novelist during the 20th century, discusses the importance of language in the social hierarchy of a society across his many eminent works. He posits that language factors into a society’s social hierarchy, an idea that manifests itself in two sub-arguments: that ruling powers can manipulate language to restrict thought, and that those without a strong understanding of language can easily be oppressed.
Orwell argues that language is a key component of thought; therefore, if language is manipulated in any way, will be compromised. In the novel 1984, one of Orwell’s key ideas is that language is a vital component of thought, as language defines the limits and structure of human ideas. The novel features a centralized ruling power, the Party, which attempts to rid English of words that could be used to conceive dissentful ideas by controlling the structure of the language. Specifically, these sentiments manifest themselves in the creation of Newspeak, a language of limited words to express a limited range of thoughts. The main character, Winston, is secretly opposed to the blind support for the party, or “bellyfeel,” and as a result does not approve of Newspeak. A devoted Party member, Syme, recognizes his distaste for the new language and attempts to explain the purpose of the language to Winston, asking “[d]on’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it” (51). The ultimate goal of the party is to create a language through which no conflicting ideas can ever be conceptualized, keeping it in power indefinitely. However, Orwell’s creation of hypothetical societies to highlight subliminal socio-political truths is not limited to 1984. In 1945, Orwell published Animal Farm, a novel that told the story of farm animals who rose up against their human masters to only soon be subservient to the pigs of the farm ? an allegory to the notorious Russian Revolution. Prior to and shortly after the rebellion, the pigs use the song “Beasts of England” to express their zealous revolutionary sentiment. Upon the creation of their new society, the leading pig, Napoleon, bans the song from the farm, as the rebellious language in the song could inform the animals of their situation and promote rebellion against the domineering pigs. Restricting the pigs from the language in the song guarantees that the pigs cannot think of revolution against Napoleon. As made clear in 1984 and Animal Farm, ruling parties can easily manipulate language to limit their population’s ability to form certain concepts or ideas.
While Orwell implies these ideas in different hypothetical societies, he specifically addresses his concerns regarding the English language in the essay “Politics and the English Language.” He points out that the relationship between language and thought is mutualistic, that as the English language becomes more decadent, “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts” (“Politics” 21). Furthermore, he asserts that the languages of countries that have fallen victim to dictatorial rule – he cites German, Russian and Italian as examples – “have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years.” In doing so, Orwell implies that in order to initially gain the support of a population, dictators must twist the way they use language, which in turn robs the language of its richness and truth. As insincere thought corrupts language, the thought which language expresses corrupts as well, resulting in an on-going cycle of linguistic and ideological decadence. By explaining the interdependency between thought and language, he explicates the ease with which language can be manipulated in order to corrupt and effectively restrict thought.
His works also underscore that those lacking a strong understanding of language are easily subordinated with no way of acknowledging or challenging their situation. In Animal Farm, many of the animals are illiterate and are able to comprehend neither the conditions to which they are subjected on the farm nor the social structure of the farm. Through the cunning use of language, the pigs are able to convince the other animals to stay subservient to them without the animals recognizing it as such. Namely, the pigs intelligently alter the farm’s rules to take advantage of the others; while the commandments of farm life are initially intuitive and serve to protect the rights of all the animals, the pigs secretly alter the commandments to their liking when opportunities arise to elevate themselves to more rights. If the animals were able to comprehend the meaning of the original written commandments, they would realize that the new ones differed logically. This is specifically clear in the case of the final commandment, which initially reads “ [a]ll animals are equal,” (Animal Farm 8) but is changed to “[a]ll animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others” (Animal Farm 80). While the altered commandment is a logical fallacy, and hence has no meaning, the animals’ illiteracy makes them unable to comprehend it as such; this is also true for the alterations of most of the other commandments. The pigs also distort language to justify the difference in food rations between the pigs and the others, asserting that “[a] too rigid equality in rations … would have been contrary to the principles of Animalism (Animal Farm 97).” Since Old Major’s ideas of Animalism called for an equal distribution of goods, the first clause of the sentence is nonsensical because equality has no shades of intensity: it cannot be “too rigid.” However, the animals’ illiteracy prevents them from realizing this, so they comply with the pigs. Of course, if they understood the true meaning of the circumlocutory and distorted language that the pigs used, they would have been able to acknowledge and resist their oppression. The pigs also successfully simplify their language to better control the farm animals. Early on, Snowball attempts to establish a true Marxist society as proposed by Old Major, one in which all animals are treated equally and justly. He gives impassioned speeches about his plans for the farm which, if the farm animals could comprehend, would benefit all the animals. However, Napoleon, another pig, has more selfish intentions; and in order to gain the support of the farm, introduces short, popular catchphrases such as “Four legs good, two legs bad” (Animal Farm 37). These simple phrases resonate with the unknowing animals and Napoleon is able to edge Snowball out of political influence by convincing the animals that Snowball is working against the goals of the farm. The animals’ inability to comprehend Snowball’s genuine yet complex language results in their support for a leader whose only hopes are the escalation of his own power and luxury. Orwell furthers these ideas in “Politics and the English Language,” in which he laments the overuse of certain words – such as “Fascism” and “Democracy” – that have lost meaning in contemporary writing, asking “[s]ince you don’t know what Fascism is, how can you struggle against Fascism?” (“Politics” 29). Throughout his writing Orwell makes evident that those without a strong understanding of language can easily be politically dominated.
Across his works, Orwell presents the idea that language is a prime tool of oppression, an idea shown by the manipulation of language to restrict thought and the easy subjugation of those who are linguistically deficient. His discussion of the relationship between language and oppression is concentrated in his works 1984, Animal Farm, and “Politics and the English Language.” The consequences of the decadence of language that he discusses in the final of these is illustrated in the fictional storylines of the previous two, highlighting the importance of language in resisting oppression. In the same way language has long given man dominion over the rest of the animal kingdom, the optimal use of language has allowed man to rule over others of his kind. In instances of social and political oppression today, individualistic and revolutionary thought is one of the only powers which the oppressed hold over their oppressors; and language is often the vessel by which these thoughts are formed and spread. In that sense, therefore, the most effective way to fight back against social and political oppression today is to make sure that those being oppressed hold on to their unadulterated language and pass it down to those who will follow.