‘The General Discouragement of the Generation’: Orwell and the Politics of Language

As is well known, decisive among the weapons deployed in the panoptical dystopia portrayed in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is the conscious engineering of language itself, such that ‘modes of thought’ contrary to those willed by the regime would be, because of being linguistically inexpressible, literally unthinkable. The idea is a suggestive one, so much so that some of its related vocabulary – ‘doublethink’, ‘thought crime’, ‘unperson’, ‘memory hole’ – have passed into everyday, ‘normal’ English. The phenomenon of ‘Newspeak’ of course comes to us as rather more than a mere narrative caprice: not only does Orwell’s projection continue to fascinate and horrify, its theoretical premise, that language and its limits, once set, condition and delimit thought, is one that has enjoyed a significant pedigree. The question that I address here is as to how seriously Orwell himself took the proposition. Was Orwell the writer really a partisan of this form of linguistic determinism; and, if he was, to what degree did this belief inform his practice as a writer?

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