Language, thought, and manipulation

You might be familiar with the concept that language and thought are intertwined. The idea goes back to the time of Ancient Greece. The Greek philosopher Plato believed that we cannot experience the world but through language, and Prussian philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt thought it to be the fabric of thought, an idea that was popularised by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The hypothesis states that the structure of a language determines the way its speakers think. For instance, the number of basic colour words of a language influences the way the speaker of that particular language perceives colours. Today, linguists are more inclined to accept the weaker version of the hypothesis—the idea of linguistic relativity, which states that language influences our thoughts but doesn’t determine them. Language certainly plays an important role in human cognition. Let’s find out how exactly.

You must have heard of George Orwell’s famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dystopian novel set in a fictional world called Oceania in which language (in this case ‘Newspeak’) plays a crucial role in establishing the new system of life in the novel. Through the example of Nineteen Eighty-Four to describe how language manipulates thought, I will show what contemporary evidence exists of the autocracy of government language. It’s not just fiction; it’s reality.

The creators of the new governmental system in Nineteen Eighty-Four, called Ingsoc, devise this language to control thoughts. They influence people by making them perceive only certain matters and by deliberately making people forget everything deemed inappropriate. If something cannot be named, it does not exist—that is the principle that functions in the society of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Newspeak words are divided into three distinct classes, namely the A, B, and C vocabularies.

A vocabulary: Language and thought

The A vocabulary is used to describe daily activities, mainly with a limited set of words already used in ‘Oldspeak’ (the normative language the people spoke before the government invented Newspeak). A limited pool of words points out the fact that life is a simple routine. With the vocabulary so tightly policed, people cannot develop their own idiolect (an individual’s unique way of using a language) and, as language and identity are closely connected, the expression of one’s individuality becomes more challenging.

When languages such as Basic English (devised by Charles Kay Ogden not for the purpose of control but to aid second language learners in grasping the English language), with some 850 words, are created, it deliberately limits the range of words that people can use to express themselves, thus limiting linguistic creativity. Imagine someone placing limits on what you can put into words. Any new, original thought or plan you had in mind would be lost, or more accurately, would not even have existed in the first place. Consequently, your individuality, would disappear.

So, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, instead of expanding over time to account for new concepts, developments, or inventions, vocabulary is constrained by design: the Party limits it, and adults cannot reach a satisfactory level of cognition, as they have no words with which to utter their thoughts and reach conclusions on different topics. Also, words are very simply formed by adding certain affixes and language exhibits complete regularity, which makes the production of language almost automatic.

That is exactly what the leaders of the regime want: everything is to be simple and straightforward, so that people talk about a controlled set of topics and don’t dwell too much on them. For example, in Newspeak, adjectives are formed by adding the suffix -ful to a noun-verb, and adverbs by adding -wise. So, speedful means ‘rapid’, and speedwise means ‘quickly’. There are no irregular verb conjugations, plural forms, or comparative or superlative forms of adjectives. The preterite of think is thinked, the plural of man is mans, and the comparative form of good is gooder. There is also no need for words such as bad, as the antonym of good is simply ungood.

But now, don’t think English would be one such simplified language compared to, for instance, my mother tongue, Croatian, which is highly morphological, or Mandarin Chinese with its complex script. Do complex morphology or script imply that Croatian or Mandarin Chinese speakers are more intelligent? Of course not. Every language is a highly complex system, and that complexity manifests itself in different forms. If you’re not convinced, think of all the English language spelling bee contests around the world that simply wouldn’t make sense in languages like Spanish that have few to no irregular spellings.

B vocabulary: Language and ideology

The B vocabulary consists of words devised for the ideology of the Party. Umbrella terms are coined through compounds, such as the word sexcrime, which narrows all possible meanings in just one word and marks out the action of ‘sex’ as a crime. What is especially interesting in B vocabulary are the euphemisms and metaphors used. Orwell wrote, in a separate essay:

“Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.”

That is exactly what is used in Nineteen Eighty-Four…and today. When you come to think of it, we often hear about the pacification scheme for Syria, whereas it’s really a war scheme. In corporate lingo, downsizing, really means firing people. The Australian government uses the term illegal maritime arrivals to describe asylum seekers. In this way, framing can change people’s perception of something. Generally speaking, framing is a powerful tool, especially in marketing, such as when you see “95% fat-free” labels on food products, instead of “only 5% fat”, because then you subconsciously focus on the positive part.

By using particular words, you evoke a specific mental picture in the reader or listener’s mind. For instance, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, forced-labour camps are called joycamps, which completely obscures the torture taking place in the camps. That is used as a powerful tool of control. When you hear the word joy, you would immediately think of something pleasant and positive, and not of the upsetting and agonizing reality of the joycamps.

The Party members devise these metaphors because they are powerful enough to manipulate the masses. Figures of speech can shape people’s inferences on something. The names of the ministries clearly demonstrate this, with names that indicate something different from what they are really in charge of. The Ministry of Love deals with law, order, and punishment; the Ministry of Peace with war; the Ministry of Plenty oversees curtailing supplies; and the Ministry of Truth is in charge of the alternative truth, rewriting the facts to suit the needs of the Party (does that ring a bell?). However, when people hear the names of those ministries, they have the surface-level interpretation in mind and believe the ministries to be in charge of what their names suggest. As a result, nobody questions what these ministries are really doing.

The same applies to Big Brother, a name for the ultimate leader in the fictional world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which implies a nurturant leader, not an authoritarian one, so people in the novel accept his supervision and autocracy willingly. Interestingly, this term is now a snide remark against any authoritarian entities like governments or even closed-circuit security cameras.

The word “victory” is used constantly, such as in the names of products like Victory Gin, which makes people believe that they in the victorious nation they belong to, otherwise why would they have so many Victory products? As a result, they do not have a reason to question the Party. Slogans of the Party, such as“War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery”, and “Ignorance is Strength”, are ways of establishing the so-called doublethink, harboring concepts which are self-contradictory. The slogans appear all the time on screens and can be heard through loudspeakers by all and sundry.

As linguist George Lakoff explains in his blog,

“Words are neurally linked to the circuits that determine their meaning. The more a word is heard, the more a circuit is activated and the stronger it gets, and so the easier it is to fire again.”

By repeating those slogans constantly, people start believing them and become desensitised to it. People see them as intuitive, and not in the way they are supposed to be—the exact opposite, i.e. counter-intuitive. Hence, the concept of doublethink is very easily accepted by everyone. That is the key of the system: people accepting new values and systems of control without feeling like they were imposed. (If you want to learn more about this, I suggest you read Lakoff’s book Don’t Think of an Elephant!)

“[U]ltimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the high brain centers at all”, Orwell writes in the appendix. People merely generate words as a sort of formal symbols that they have been introduced to by the Regime without really understanding them. That is what the so-called duckspeak, encouraged by the Party, is all about. People just utter random phonemes without considering their meanings, doing it automatically without involving their brains in the process. It reminds me of John Searle’s thought experiment, the Chinese room, in which the computer in it doesn’t really understand the words it generates; it is not conscious. (Now that’s a matter that deserves an article of its own considering the complexity of automatic speech production.)

The usage of abbreviations is also curious in Nineteen Eighty-Four. When abbreviations are used, people do not give it much, if any, thought. As a result, they do not associate those words with their intended meanings. In his paper “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell explains that that is the practice that was widely used by totalitarian systems:

Comintern is a word that can be uttered almost without taking thought, whereas Communist International is a phrase over which one is obliged to linger at least momentarily.

The same goes for many large organizations of today, from Oxfam to FAO and the like. People have general ideas about those, not really knowing what their names stand for. Very few people consider the meaning of the abbreviations that are presented to them. So, the citizens of Oceania would have a picture in their head of what Minitrue, as the Ministry of Truth is often called, represents, but it would not occur to them to analyze what it really means. They see everything only superficially.

The same applies to Ingsoc. It is a rather vague word when you come to think of it. It may imply socialism, but English socialism, which makes it different from the idea of socialism tied to the Soviet Union that people usually have. It may be a political system, but it may also be an economic one or an ideological one. The result is pure vagueness.

This is the case with the names of many political parties today. What does Germany’s SPD imply, or France’s LREM, or Britain’s Labour Party, which, though not an abbreviation, exhibits the same kind of vagueness? We have a general idea, but more often than not they turn out to be very different from what their names suggest. The Labour Party is supposed to take the side of the working class, as its name implies, but throughout the history of their governance in Britain, they have taken some measures going against workers, such as that of introducing high university fees. No wonder people are confused, and that there are many swing voters and those who don’t take any interest in politics and decide not to vote.

C vocabulary: Control

The C vocabulary consists of technical and scientific terms. As there is no word for science in Newspeak, what it means cannot be grasped by the citizens of Oceania, so the Party’s goal of perpetuating its citizens’ ignorance of science and higher-learning is accomplished. Just think of the Trump administration’s recent attempt at censorship of scientific vocabulary at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The directive allegedly stated that terms like ‘science-based’ and ‘fetus’ are supposed to be avoided, which gives ideology a chance to creep into science. The meaning of words is narrowed down by the Party, who only want very specific meanings of potentially abstract words. As an example, in Newspeak, the word equal can only mean that people are “equal in their appearance”, and never that they have equal rights. The Party erases meanings of entire words, so that new generations, when learning the language, grasp only the meanings that the Party wants them to grasp.

In organic languages, the context in which a word is found contributes to its meaning. So, one word can have multiple meanings, as we are able to understand the intended meaning thanks to the surrounding words. When the Party enforces the use of a word in a single context in Newspeak, it is eventually associated with only the particular context that is aligned with the restrictive goals of the Party. That is why in real life, translation is a difficult business, as translation is not just about changing a word in a source language to another word in a target language but rather transferring the sense which is established in context from one language to another.

As a result, in Oceania, people have nothing to compare themselves to and thus can live only in the present moment, without much room for nostalgia and retroflection. They cannot know that anything different existed before or that there is an alternative to their world, and they can hardly imagine their future. When books, of which the medium is language, disappear, people are deprived of many different ideas and concepts they wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to. Linguistic creativity is all around us, present in our everyday lives and it lets our minds conceive anything and as a result can enable us to achieve anything. When that access is removed from us, so too are many of our mental capacities and freedoms.

Such is the way the Party achieves its goal of absolute control—by controlling language. With such limited vocabulary, with a language devised for the sole purpose of exerting control over citizens, people become obedient citizens who never question their government. Those who don’t obey, disappear: taken away and punished by the Party. Such a repressive government cannot let anyone understand what they are doing and how it is that they do it.

The way people communicate with each other, elaborate on different topics and express their thoughts and feelings freely is through language. Depriving people of that means establishing a significant amount control over them. Orwell’s creation of a language devised specifically for controlling people perfectly demonstrates the way that language influences the human mind, thus enabling manipulation, be it benign or sinister. That way people become simple cogs of a system, which is exactly what a repressive government, as is the one in Nineteen Eighty-Four, wants.

Now you know what to watch for, don’t say you haven’t been warned!

This post originally appeared on UNRAVEL

Language: ‘untranslatable’ words tell us more about English speakers than other cultures

When the word “hygge” became popular outside Denmark a few years ago, it seemed the perfect way to express the feeling of wrapping yourself up in a crocheted blanket with a cosy jumper, a cup of tea and back-to-back episodes of The Bridge. But is it really only the Danes, with their cold Scandinavian evenings, who could have come up with a word for such a specific concept? And is it only the Swedes who could have needed the verb “fika” to describe chatting over a coffee?
The internet abounds with words that lack a single-word English equivalent. In order to be really lacking an English equivalent, it must be a single, indivisible unit of meaning, as phrases are infinitely productive and can be created on demand by combining different words. Take, for example, the claim by Adam Jacot de Boinod in I Never Knew There Was A Word For It, that Malay has a word for the gap between the teeth that English lacks: “gigi rongak”. Well, this appears to be a phrase, and it translates literally as the perfectly cromulent English phrase “tooth gap”.
In fact, English even has a single-word technical term for a gap between the teeth: “diastema”. Okay, that’s actually a Greek word, but it’s in use in English, so it’s also an English word. Does that matter?
Where we get our words from tells us something about our history. Take, for instance, Quechua – the language spoken by people indigenous to the Andes and the South American highlands. The Quechuan word for “book” is “liwru”, which comes from the Spanish word “libro”, because Spanish colonisers introduced written forms of language to the people they conquered. In fact, English does now have a word for “hygge” – it’s “hygge”.

Cultures in language

It is often said that Eskimos have 50 words for snow, but it’s a myth that has been comprehensively dismantled, probably first of all by Laura Martin in 1986. “Eskimo” is a somewhat meaningless term anyway, but the structure of the languages spoken by peoples such as the Inuit or Aleut in the Arctic Circle are very synthetic, meaning that each “word” may comprise many parts or “morphemes”.
Entire phrases can be contained within words in these languages – a single “word” may literally mean “fallen snow”. For that reason, “having 50 words for snow” in these languages is about as remarkable as having 50 sentences to talk about snow in English.

The ‘50 words for snow’ fallacy is a perfect example of misreading a culture. Shutterstock

And yet the myth and others like it snowball, because we are fascinated by the idea that language reveals something about our psyche – or perhaps even determines it. The economist Keith Chen has devoted some considerable effort to demonstrating that speakers of languages that grammatically encode the future and the present separately behave more recklessly with respect to their health and money. He argues that it shows that overt future tense marking makes a speaker more aware of the future as a separate time from the present and thus more distant, which has a corresponding effect on behaviour.
Many linguists have some reservations about his conclusions, but the main claim hit the news and people were intrigued by the idea.

False cultural judgements

While careful experimentation has shown that having words for concepts makes them easier or faster to name, it is not true that lacking a concept means you cannot conceive of it, and vice versa. For instance, many languages have gender-neutral pronouns (the same word is used for he and she) but are spoken in cultures with very poor levels of gender equality.
This might seem obvious – it’s Orwell’s Newspeak (from 1984) in action. In Orwell’s dystopia, the word “free” was stripped of all meaning of individual freedoms and could be used only in the sense of a dog being free from lice, which in turn was supposed to remove the ability of the citizens of Oceania to conceive of such freedom. But it is not just science fiction. There is an important note of caution that linguists are always aware of: making claims about other cultures risks “exoticising” them.

A mural depicting indigenous people in Arizona. Shutterstock

At worst, this results in racism. The Hopi people of Arizona, who are sometimes claimed to have no way to express time based on a misunderstanding of Benjamin Lee Whorf’s work on their language, were assumed by some to be incapable of following bus timetables or arriving at work on schedule, a mistaken belief that led to obvious problems.
But even an apparently benign conclusion about how some Australian languages encode space with compass directions (“north”) rather than ego-relative position (“my left-hand side”) suggests English speakers often miss out on knowledge about language and cognition because they are busy measuring things against an arbitrary English-centric benchmark. Different language conventions are usually not exotic or unusual; it’s just that English speakers come from a position of very great privilege because their language is the default. People who speak other languages are seen as different, as outsiders.
I’m not a total killjoy. I still delight in “untranslatable” words. It’s something special to learn a word and along with it make concrete a nebulous but recognisable concept like hygge, or indeed its wonderfully chilling opposite, uhygge. I just suggest a position of healthy scepticism when you meet claims that a language has “no word for X” or “50 words for Y”, or, as the internet recently got excited about, that “tag” stands for “touch and go” (sorry folks, it doesn’t).
This post originally appeared on THE CONVERSATIONS