Language and Thought

Have you read 1984? Previously published in 1949, I cannot believe that I have only just read George Orwell’s chilling satirical novel. What insight into the predicted power of the spoken and written word! Language can be dangerous – as well as good and uplifting. 

Let’s first consider what Orwell defined as ‘Newspeak’ – the reinvented language of his imagined communist state. ‘Newspeak’ replaces ‘Oldspeak’ as a rewritten dictionary of words, intended to limit freedom of thought: thus A vocabulary contains only words of everyday life – cup, bed, hit, tree. B vocabulary contains words used only for political purposes, intended to impose desired mental attitudes upon the people by the Party: for example, all words grouped around ‘liberty’ and ‘equality’ are replaced by ‘crimethink’. Get the idea? C vocabulary contains only scientific and technical terms, previously stripped of any undesirable meanings. Only the newly listed A, B and C vocabularies are included in Newspeak. Orwell’s imagined government restricted words in order to restrict thought, in the belief that language and thinking are interlinked, the purpose of the Party being to impose strict control: thus no opinions and no independent thought. In Newspeak, words such as honour, justice, morality, democracy and religion – cease to exist. Any words grouped around objectivity and rationalism were deleted as ‘Oldthink’. Sounds familiar? The novel, with its descriptions of Telescreens, Thought Police, Big Brother and the infamous Room 101, turned out to be a frightening futuristic prediction of the post war era. 

Follett’s epic novel, ‘Edge of Eternity’, featuring the Cold War emulated Orwell’s restricted society: ‘Those whose ideas were formed before the Revolution (Russian) cannot have a full understanding of the principles of English socialism.’ This awesome work, highlights the fears and restrictions of families living under old-style communism, reminding us that Orwell’s predictions of ‘Big Brother’ did indeed materialise. How grateful I am to be British! 

Back to language. Psychologists such as Chomsky, Vygotsky and others, generally agree that language and thought are interlinked. Vygotsky’s view was that culture and behaviour are only understood through language: ‘a word is a microcosm of human consciousness.’ Without words our thoughts are restricted to immediate, sensory experience. The saying, ‘Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me,’ is so untrue: words have immense power to cause offence and inflict hurt, with plenty of evidence showing the negative effects of media technology on the emotional well-being of today’s young people. Yet, words also have the power to heal, instil confidence and bring people together. 

Orwell’s satirical regime had attempted to delete the past: ‘who controls the past, controls the future’. Follett’s work highlighted the communist issue of dissidence to inflame rebellion. Orwell also reflected (in Politics) that ‘if thought corrupts language – language can also corrupt thought’. But, if we wish to improve society, should we be deleting the past – or learning from it? Does deleting words from past publications (eg. Roald Dahl) do anything to change the present? Follett’s book includes the word ‘negro’ because it was commonly used during the US civil right conflicts of the sixties. I have used the word ‘mongol’ (to describe Down Syndrome) in my novel because this word remains true to the historical dialogue of my characters. What is history, if not to represent its era? 

Having spent forty years of my life focusing on the power of language, the message has been – read, read, read and think, think, think, about how we can change society for the better. Language has immense power to heal our troubled world – if we could only use it to advantage. Ironically, Orwell’s dictionary of ‘Newspeak’ is meant to be completed by 2050. Will our world have learned its lessons by then? 

Sylvia Edwards has written numerous books, mainly on education (Routledge), focused on improving outcomes for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities: her third edition of ‘The SENCO Survival Guide’ was published in 2022. She has also self-published ‘Time of the Virus’ (2021), a reflective, thought-provoking book about humanity. Her first novel ‘A Lie Never Dies’ was self-published in 2023. 

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