The War of the Wor(l)ds – III

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“A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the […] language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Mural of the painting “Guernica” in the eponymous city, Copy of the painting by Pablo Picasso

Our Linguistic “Vicious Circle”

Welcome back to the third part of this series of writings. Today we will analyze what we could define the cardinal principle of this little pamphlet:

  • How language and thought influence each other, creating an “organic” system and not a simple communication system;

The last time we left with a post that wanted to explain how the “linguistic question” is not just a problem related to academics and professors, but is part of a social and political struggle that we carry on our own every day. This concept was put forward as a premise given the highly academic nature of the debate, which we do not intend to enter, but to involve you and make you reflect on the issue from an “everyday” point of view.

For clarity, I will introduce the concept known as Linguistic Relativity or “Sapir – Whorf Hypothesis”, which states that the structure of language influences the knowledge and vision of the world of the speaker / writer, and that, therefore, the perception of the world that people have is relative to the language they speak.

It was formulated at the beginning of the twentieth century by the two scientists from which it takes its name: Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf (although the two have never actually written anything together) and is usually presented according to two different principles:

  • The strong version says that language determines thought and that linguistic categories limit and determine cognitive categories (and for this Is also known as “Linguistic Determinism”)
  • The weak version says that linguistic categories and usage only influence thought and decisions.

While the first hypothesis was already considered wrong in the early 1920s, as a legacy of 19th century theories, the second has proved, with ups and downs, to be of some empirical validity.

In short, what the studies focused on was the comparison between the SAE (Standard Average European, a synthesis of the characteristics of Western languages) and completely foreign languages, such as the language of the Hopi Indians or the Inuit, trying to understand whether, and how the presence (or absence) of certain words or expressions could affect, and to what extent, an individual’s world view. The debate was very heated at first, and in some ways it still is today, after Cognitivism has “rediscovered” the studies on the subject, in particular those of Whorf. As already said, it is not my intention to go into this debate, but only to expose and explain the point of view of Orwell, who in his writing focuses only on the English language and compares several writings.

In his paper Orwell hypothesizes that the key factor through which the language we use affects our thinking is the lack of clarity in the act of expressing what one wants to say. In his own words:

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.” (Politics and the English Language)

So, while over the years scientific hypotheses have focused above all on the absence or presence of certain words or expressions within this or that language, which would therefore lead to a change in behavior and way of thinking, Orwell focuses instead on the use (conscious or not) that is made of certain terms, word or expression.

Both in “Politics and the English Language” and later, in “1984”, Orwell focuses strongly on this aspect: “[…] if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. ” (Ibid.)

The decline he notice in the English language and society (but also within others) is perceived through the continuous use of “dying metaphors”, false verbal forms (ie the use of complex periphrases instead of simple verbs that could indicate the same meaning), a pretentious diction, a wide use of rhetoric and terms (often technical or scientific) completely out of context.

The first italian edition of 1984, whit a prefaction by Umberto Eco (Mondadori)

According to Orwell, therefore, not only is it possible that language influences thought, but also that this can be done (and is effectively implemented, especially when it comes to a political discourse) in a deliberate way, in the beginning by the professional writers. From there then, the bad attitude spreads until it becomes an integral part of current language, which, with its “Ugliness” (intended as the sum of the previously listed problems) ends up influencing our way of thinking and seeing the world, and consequently also our political action as Citizens (in the highest sense of the term).

Not surprisingly, when three years after “Politics and the English Language”, the novel “1984” is published for the first time, this discourse will be found once again, proposed to us in a metaphorical form, as the most powerful tool in the hands of the ruling class of the totalitarian state of Oceania. Orwell called this fictional language “Newspeak”, and imagined how the dominant party, the IngSoc (short for English Socialist Party), used this construct, consisting of a restricted vocabulary and a simplified grammar (in the idea, as we shall see , which “simple” is not synonymous with “clear”) in order to limit freedom of thought, self-expression and finally free will, considered as the greatest threats to the survival of the regime, and which were prosecuted as “Thougtcrimes”.

As I have already stated previously, the criticism that the writer makes to the decay of language has nothing to do with a criterion of “Aesthetics”: it is problematic as it goes hand in hand with the decay of thought and subsequently with the greater possibility that people can be manipulated, losing their freedom in a subtle, and essentially unconscious, way.

In the novel, the “Newspeak” is created in such a way to eliminate any kind of nuance of thought (under the pretext, paradoxically, of eliminating the ambiguities of the “Oldspeak”) and has a vocabulary in which single words have several functions. Speech itself has a “staccato” rhythm, with words short and easy to pronounce: all this with the pourpouse to make verbal communication a sort of automatism for which there is no need to think.

The division of the world imagined in “1984” obviously reflects the feelings of a writer who lived the dawn of the Cold War, with the world divided into enormous “super-states” (Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia) which have just one thing in common: the use of language as an instrument of control (but it would be more correct to speak of elimination) of thought.

And it is indeed curious to note how today, the adjective “Orwellian” never evokes this image or a reflection of this kind, but a terror directed towards technological control instruments or supranational entities. Not so strange anyway, if we accept the fact that this degenerative mechanism of Language continues to plague us even today, and that even Orwell’s work also ended up macerating itself within this perverse process.

Despite the (fortunate) absence of dystopian regimes, the main problem exposed by Orwell in his works continues to persist and grow larger, aided by the development of ever faster and more interconnected means of communication. Many small “dystopias” (which we have given the name of “echo chambers”) can develop within them, created by a fraudulent use of language.

Each of us has his own personal IngSoc, his own Newspeak and his own “Thougtcrimes” for which he will have to answer if violates Orthodoxy. Our personal “Big Brother” watches us and often prevents us from seeing things as they are, because it prevents us from thinking clearly, binding us through the complex web of language we use, no matter with whom or in what situation, and it is only our own task “to shake it off”.

If only we wanted to.

[The next article will be closely related to the present, and will further develop the theme, so stay whit us]

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