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Writing

Googled

I, like all self-obsessed persons, enjoy searching for myself on Google. (Right now I’m pleased to report that this journal is the number two result for searches for “Heather Meadows”. Go me and my bad self.) I searched for “Heather Aubrey” again, just for fun, and once again came across the “Utopia Bibliography” wherein the following horrendous sentence is quoted:

Heather Aubrey’s George Orwell and the English Language

Orwell’s “predictions of what problems the dangerous capabilities of language might cause are coming true today.”

Yes, I did write that. And yes, I am so sorry. Please forgive me.

(You could pretend that the sentence was intended as an example of language going bad, but I don’t think it’s bad in the way Orwell was predicting, and anyway I wasn’t that smart when I was a senior in high school.)

[Update 9/13 3:30 pm:] OMGWTFBBQ, here is the essay in its entirety. I have got to archive this puppy.

[Update 8/14/2011:] I’ve decided to archive the essay here, just in case. The text is copyright 1996 Heather Aubrey (Meadows), so if you’d like to reproduce this thrilling high school essay elsewhere (why?), please include my credit.

George Orwell and the English Language

George Orwell. The very mention of the name brings to mind terms like totalitarianism, fascism, dictatorship, Newspeak, doublethink. The man who discarded the given name Eric Arthur Blair had an enormous impact on today’s world. His vivid and often horrifying descriptions of what the world was and what it was turning into have become legendary.

Many people have read Orwell, have criticized his ideas or agreed with them, have made conjectures as to what Orwell believed about a wide variety of subjects. One of these oft-discussed topics, though not touched upon quite as frequently as the others, is Orwell’s opinion about English itself.

George Orwell loved the English language and wanted to see it used to the fullest extent internationally. He was dismayed by the apparent degeneration of the language and sought to preserve it in a simpler, yet meaningful, form. He was aware of the many powers of language and wanted to show the world how these powers could be abused by the fascist and totalitarian powers he feared. His predictions of what problems the dangerous capabilities of language might cause are coming true today.

Orwell believe to be “good” writing? What were his standards, his techniques, and how were they developed?

Very few authors actually developed essays explaining the motivation behind their writing. Orwell was among this minority. As he explains in his essay “Why I Write,” writing, for him, was not something necessarily enjoyable. Rather, it was a compulsion that could not be ignored. He wrote

1) to be remembered after death,

2) because of “aesthetic enthusiasm,”

3) to record historical facts, and

4) for a political purpose. Orwell stated that these four reasons for writing are true for every writer, but are manifested in different proportions for each. (Orwell, 1946) For Orwell, it can be assumed that the most important of these four reasons was political purpose. Orwell wrote primarily to make a point about the situation the world was in. Animal Farm was a brilliant satire of the totalitarian powers in Russia before and after Czar Nicholas II. 1984 was not only a look at what the future might bring, but a reflection of Orwell’s own time period and the conditions in World War II era London, as suggested by Anthony Burgess (Burgess, 18).

Orwell has been described as a writer who utilized “firmness, colloquial vigor, unpretentious vividness, and limpid clarity.” He believed that the writer’s personality, the ideas the writer expresses, and the language the writer uses are all closely linked. He also believed that purpose determines how a piece should be written, but it is not necessarily the most important factor. For Orwell, the impulse to put his own experiences into some kind of meaningful form outweighed his desire to create original stories and situations. (Woodcock, 292-3) In fact, it has been suggested that 1984 was not a book written about the future but rather about the year 1948; clearly, the social conditions are similar. (Burgess, 11-34) Besides simply describing the social conditions of the world he lived in, Orwell also poured over all his old essays and journals, often quoting exactly from himself in order to put 1984 together. George Orwell was the master of “self-plagiarism.” Despite the fact that the novel’s separate pieces were not entirely original, Orwell managed to create a book with a completely original story and prediction based on his own observations. (Huber, 1994)

Examining Orwell’s work with the English language and noting his concern for its welfare, it can be assumed that Orwell wrote not only to make a statement, but because he loved the English language and wanted to see it used to the fullest extent. Orwell was very interested in English and its changes. He was very concerned with how changes in the English language would affect the world. The biographies of Orwell have recorded evidence of this love affair with the language; Orwell was known to try and understand and describe a relationship between thought and language that wasn’t simply a matter of writing formulas. He also thought that English would make a good international language, due to its large vocabulary and relatively simple grammar and syntax. However, Orwell was deeply concerned for the welfare of the language. He feared that English was being destroyed by both its American version, which was full of too many interchangeable parts of speech and useless prepositions, and the government, which tended to twist the language for its own gain. (Steinhoff, 167-9)

It was Orwell’s concern for the English language that caused him to create Newspeak, the new version of English presented in 1984 as a way of “perfecting” thought. In the novel, the purpose of this change in the language was to narrow the range of human thought and put an end to “traitorous” thoughts. (Orwell, 1949) Orwell’s concern about the dangers of language was not unfounded. Today, we have our own version of Newspeak. To employ Newspeak nowadays is to deliberately use words that are ambiguous or deceptive so that public opinion can be controlled. It has been suggested that the term “affirmative action” is actually a Newspeak word, since nothing that is “affirmative” can be bad. By making the action seem good simply by calling it affirmative, politicians have subtly swayed the opinions of voters. (Folmsbee, 1996) Orwell believed in the intimate connection between words and thought, and he believed that clear expression was necessary for political integrity. He thought that clichés and the like only led to confusion and propaganda. His beliefs have been proven to be sound in today’s world. (Calder, 1990)

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,” a system of language first proposed by C. K. Ogden in his book The System of Basic English in 1934. Some say that this system is the basis of Newspeak, which is an interesting paradox, since Newspeak was the result of the destruction of language, and Orwell sought to preserve language.

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 the foundation of doublethink. It was what gave the Inner Party the power to control other people’s minds and effectively maintain totalitarian rule. (Orwell, 1949)

Orwell’s chilling predictions in 1984 of what might happen to mankind in the future still concern the people of the world, but many fail to notice that Orwell’s predictions of what could happen to the English language are already coming true in America. (Fleming, 1995) Today’s version of Newspeak is used to reduce the power of the people, just as in 1984. (Folmsbee, 1996) What people do not realize is that many times they are the willing vessels of Newspeak. Newspeak today is a subtle form of mind control in which ideologues and demagogues employ euphemism, misinformation, and other methods of distortion to mislead and sometimes divide citizens and to sway public opinion, according to one reporter. Because of the extensive use of this method of mind control in politics today, many people have become cynical and uncaring when it comes to the welfare of this country. This cynicism and lack of action is a fatal danger to everything the United States of America stand for. This same reporter cries out to us that it is our duty as citizens to hold our elected officials responsible for their actions and to put the power back where it belongs, in the hands of the people. (Fleming, 1995)

To see how far this craze has gone, one need only check the headlines. Daily, words are being changed or destroyed so that “better,” “less offensive” words can be used. The manifestation of this in the United States is political correctness. (Folmsbee, 1996) An example: a tobacco company is trying to do away with the word “cancer” and replace it with a code name, so that people won’t be afraid to buy cigarettes. They made this decision based on the “negative connotation” of the word cancer, and they wish to replace the word with the code name Zephyr, a non-threatening word meaning “a slight breeze.” By taking away consumers’ fears by changing the name of a product, salespeople are effectively using Newspeak to control people’s minds. (Grytting, 1996)

George Orwell was indeed a brilliant man. He foresaw the damage language abuse could cause. People ignorant of the power politicians and advertisers now hold over America are only aiding the spread of Newspeak. Orwell wrote the way he did to warn us. He did not mean for us to discard language completely; he felt quite the opposite. He believed that language was a thing to be nurtured, cared for, that it was beautiful. However, he wanted to make sure that people realized that language is also powerful, dangerous, and in danger itself. Orwell’s final message to us is this: Language is sacred. Take care of it. Do not abuse it. Remember that it is amendable, flexible, yet intangible. Because of language, “He who controls the future controls the present. He who controls the present controls the past.” (Orwell, 1949)