Orwell's Problem

Topics: Nineteen Eighty-Four, Linguistics, George Orwell Pages: 15 (4530 words) Published: January 20, 2013
The Reading Matrix
Vol. 6, No. 1, April 2006

Pedro Luis Luchini
Adolfo Martín García
Drawing on the works of groundbreaking linguists and sociolinguists of the likes of Noam Chomsky, Ferdinand de Saussure and Benjamin Lee Whorf, this paper traces the origins of Orwell’s Problem by depicting the fictional sociolinguistic scenario presented in the classic Nineteen Eightyfour. A syntactic, morphological and semantic description of Orwell’s fictitious language, ‘Newspeak’ (which is here addressed from a deterministic perspective), is followed by an analysis of the main social institutions found in the novel. Thereupon, Orwell’s novel is depicted as a symbolic model for understanding how Orwell’s Problem functions in real life. ___________________

The idea of ‘manufacturing consent’ had been looming over popular intuition since long before Walter Lippman coined such term in 1921. Nonetheless, it was not until Chomsky formally reintroduced Orwell’s Problem that the issue of sociolinguistic oppression began to receive serious, mainstream attention. Put succinctly, Orwell’s Problem poses the question of how it is that individuals have such a limited knowledge of the immediate world in the face of unlimited evidence. When attempting to answer that question, most scholars and specialists look into reality in order to analyze and reflect on instances of Orwell’s Problem in particular societies. Unfortunately, despite the valuable contributions that such procedures have resulted in, no study has as of yet been able to address the matter in its full dimension. Although trying to find a comprehensive, progressive explanation of Orwell’s Problem in the very novel which presented it to popular opinion may be deemed an oversimplistic or clumsily paradoxical task, the systematic abstraction of real-life scenarios and institutions carried out by Orwell in 1984 provides a perfect scaffold for exposing the links among the main sociolinguistic factors which cater for ‘consent to be manufactured.’ Consequently, Orwell’s Problem can be better understood –and its real-life instances more thoroughly analyzed– if the very 1984 is used as a model whose fictional, symbolic ‘slots’ can be replaced by specific real-life characters, institutions and scenarios.

Over the last two centuries, few were the governments around the world which have not tried to either gain or impose popular support by molding the masses’ language and cultural conventions through powerful speeches, constant propaganda and witty euphemisms. Although such

sociolinguistic resources have proven immensely useful to rulers of all kinds, dictators and autocrats have capitalized on the aforementioned mechanisms like no one else. In fact, no tool has ever served the despotic ambitions of a totalitarian government as efficiently as lexical and semantic manipulation combined with an oppressive cultural environment. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, Oceania’s citizens were under the ruling of a socialist governmental organization known as the Party. Embodied in the image of an all-powerful leader known as Big Brother, the Party relied on carefully devised means of sociolinguistic oppression to establish the ultimate totalitarian system. In Oceania, there was no linguistic or cultural institution which had not been specifically designed to inculcate orthodoxy, i.e. total subjugation and worship of Big Brother. Of all those institutions, Newspeak (the country’s official language) was arguably the most outstanding one.

The purpose of this paper is to depict the foundations of Orwell’s Problem by providing a sequenced analysis of the sociolinguistic mechanisms which allowed the Party to shape the mental disposition and behavioral patterns of its subjects. The findings of such an analysis should allow...
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