by Silvia Rota Sperti
It was 1948 when George Orwell began writing his most famous and widely discussed book. He titled it 1984, deliberately inverting the final two figures of the year he was writing in, as if to indicate that the world he described there was not very far from his current reality.
Orwell collects the pessimism of his time, harassed by two world wars and the ghosts of the atomic holocaust, and gives life to what is probably the most famous dystopian scenario in Western literature. In a hallucinatory future society, a supra-governmental and supra-human power called Big Brother controls the masses by dehumanizing them, depriving them of any faculty of autonomous thought and emotion. It is the triumph of the regime at the expense of individuality and love, a portrait – taken to the extreme – of the Soviet totalitarianism that Orwell would harshly criticize throughout his life, even though he called himself a socialist.
The Big Brother regime is a riot of despotism, torture, falsification, historical memory loss, mass control, psychological oppression and so on.
But, beyond these aspects, there is one that makes the scenario of 1984 peculiar and it is that concerning the manipulation of language. Orwell insists a lot on this point, describing it in detail within the novel and dedicating a special final appendix to it. The creation of a new official language (called ‘Newspeak’) intended to supplant the existing one is one of the cornerstones through which Big Brother implements his diabolical project. It is the structuralist concept of language as a creator of reality taken to extremes. Language is the main means by which one can change the way people think and, therefore, subdue them. Newspeak is developed explicitly for the ideological needs of the regime, i.e. to create a new worldview and new mental habits in the population. How?
First of all, Orwell tells us, through the invention of new words and the elimination of unwanted words that convey subversive concepts. As if to say: by eliminating the word, we also eliminate the thing itself. All the words related to the concepts of freedom and equality are removed and reunited in the single term of thoughtcrime. It is a slow but constant process, which sees a drastic reduction in the number of words in order to impoverish and limit thinking itself. Everything is simplified, stripped to the utmost of adjectival characterizations and regulated by a grammar as rigorous as it is aberrant. Nouns and verbs are combined into a single term, suffixes, prefixes and comparatives are reduced to the bone, the opposite of a term disappears and is created by adding the prefix s to its positive and so on.
The Newspeak lexicon is systematically redefined from year to year through the publication of more and more concise ‘Dictionaries of Newspeak’. Thus, the population finds it difficult to express dissent because, literally, they do not have the words to do so.
Touching on themes that are central to the philosophy of language, 1984 proposes an extreme and terrible scenario which, on the other hand, highlights the great potential of human language in creating thought and reality. At the same time, it opens up questions that are more relevant than ever even seventy years after its release.
Is social change possible without a change of language, and vice versa? And to what extent does one influence the other? Who are the actors called into question, or in other words: who is responsible for such a transformation? What are the risks and possible benefits?
Finally, looking at it from a positive angle: is it possible for language to become a tool and an opportunity for growth, openness and greater well-being for all humanity?