The idea that we are shackled by our language is by no means a modern one. I think it is safe to assume that all of us here speak a language, and all of us at this blog can read English. We use powerful symbols – letters which in turn form words, which in turn form sentences, which in turn form paragraphs, et cetera – which represent almost everything we can conceive.
Arguably George Orwell’s most famous work – and a remarkable impact on modern Western civilization, from futurology to linguistics to politics – Nineteen Eighty-Four carries many powerful themes that still resonate with us sixty years from its original writing. Some of the most celebrated themes are the effects of totalitarianism, nationalism and repressed sexuality. But there is one subject that carries the entire work, perhaps more than the idea of a complete totalitarian state.
Do we control language, or does language control us? Is it a natural, if invisible, force that lives within and through humanity? Some would posit that language is what separates humans from beasts. Some would argue that there is sufficient evidence to claim that the animals themselves have their own language.
In Nineteen Eighty-Four there is a new type of devolved English being created by the oppressive government. It is called Newspeak, and is designed to replace our own Oldspeak. The idea is that our thoughts are controlled by language; remove the shades of meaning that fill English and you have a perfect language for controlling the masses. Everyone truly understand what everyone else means, every single time someone speaks.
Is this a good thing? Imagine how much unnecessary conflict would be removed if everyone knew absolutely what was meant by a national leader or an angry lover. There’d still be a difference in thought, yes – while we may think in our language the argument could be placed that neurologically we simply perceive a translation of powerful ideas and thoughts – but it must surely cut out whatever conflicts we may have.
The late and great Robert Anton Wilson, author of The New Inquisition and Prometheus Rising, states that we shouldn’t remove the dichotomies that make English so versatile, but we should clean up the way we perceive language. For one, we should also speak as if something is assumed, and not an instant given: I believe the world is flat, or I believe that religion is the cause of all conflict in the world. All words are, as he agrees, metaphors; what is ‘the’, except as a tool of separation? The blacks, the socialists, the universe…
The universe is an interesting one. We are all, we know, part of the universe (or Multiverse or your alternative cosmic form)… that is the definition of ‘universe’. So why ‘the’? ‘The’ only serves to separate. That is its function as a word. Another good point is raised by Nietzche: could Descarte have said, “I think, therefore I am,” if he didn’t speak an Indo-European language? It is a convention of that language category that a verb needs a substantive noun before it. Why can’t we translate some Chinese words into English? If it’s just a matter of translating ideas, it should be easy. But it isn’t, really… it’s about translating thought-processes.
There is then the idea that all bastions of power and authority, especially those religious sources, create their own words – their own linguistic symbols – to control and to command. Name a religion that has not invented its own term, especially in a case where one is already available… or for that matter, any fascist or controlling cause. Look at Hitler’s regime, or at the socialist manner of naming words after people – anti-revisionism, for example, as Kim II Jungism. Why would they do that if ‘anti-revisionism’ would suffice? And it does suffice. Most people would be able to grasp the meaning of the word. It’s not a particularly difficult one.
Language, then, to the Nazis and the socialists and to, perhaps, us all, can be a vehicle for casting the blame. Language is a thing that forms naturally, organically, and often at a powerful speed… why, then, shouldn’t it be warped by the intentions of the very people it warps? Those who are controlled by language control language… it is an ancient, familiar cycle of power and deception.
Let’s look at the Bible, an ancient book of wisdom – and here I am only saying that it contains wisdom, not that it is infallible or that it doesn’t also contain a lack of knowledge and insight – that contains the story that concerns the well-known Tower of Babel story. In this story, all of humanity spoke one language before God cursed them with a thousand tongues… cursed them with language. Why would those primitive nomads and foragers consider language as a detriment to humanity, especially as in it’s time it would have been vital for the survival of the tribe?
The question I throw at you, then, is this: can we eliminate racism and sexism and all of those other –isms by modifying language? If we can, should we? How far is too far? Is language purely the thing that sets us apart from the ‘lesser’ species, or is it a disease that we have all caught?