1984 and ‘1984’

Randolph Quirk

About thirty miles off the Turkish coast, and just south-east of Nikaria, in the Dodecanese, there is a Greek island locally known as Patmo. I begin with that geomorphic truth in order to demonstrate a non-trivial aspect of textual structure – namely, that while the last sentence of a discourse is measurably predictable, the first is not. Tradition has it that it was in or on Patmo or Patmos that St John the Divine saw the Apocalypse – a Greek word meaning the disclosure of long-term planning or the shape of things to come. Now there is much in St John’s Revelation that I would like to talk about, but I will confine myself to the emphasis upon the millennium; and the point that Satan would be let loose on the world when the thousand-year date was reached. This had an enormous impact upon the theology, the imagination and indeed the politics of the century (and more especially of the half-century) preceding the year 1000 AD. In this country, for example, the ill-starred reign of Ethelred was paralysed almost no less by the Viking incursions than by the oppressive warnings of the clergy (including Ethelred’s own Bishop of London, Wulfstan) that these things must be – so that the millennial apocalypse be fulfilled.

Somewhat analogous has been the impact of George Orwell’s most famous book. For the past thirty-five years, no one could so much as mention the date 1984 without triggering off, deliberately or involuntarily, a reference to the apocalyptic horrors of Airstrip One. That era is now at an end. Already, only a few weeks into 1984, the date is rapidly shedding its penumbra of sinister associations and is settling down to the same dull round as any other year. Soon the year 1984 will be encrusted with its own acquired values and connotations. So it’s not a bad idea to seize this moment to reflect not so much on George Orwell’s total achievement as on the notion of tampering with natural language, which is probably the single most frightening feature that people have associated with 1984. Not that I don’t believe the time isn’t ripe for a revaluation of Orwell’s work as a whole – especially in view of the undue respect he continues to be accorded as a serious thinker on social and linguistic matters. To me, indeed, it is not so much the quality, still less the originality, of his writing upon language that is to be admired, as the fact that the artist in him – perhaps rather the journalist in him – seized upon the tenor of the thought around him and articulated it in imaginatively arresting and memorable form.

The ‘thought around him’ was the cumulative effect upon a generation of philosophers, psychologists and linguists brought about by the new evidence that this century had produced of the power that could be exercised by propaganda. More broadly, of the risks people ran through a linguistic inadequacy which, on the one hand, disabled them from expressing themselves fully and accurately, and, on the other hand, disabled them from achieving a proper understanding of or critical response to what they heard or read. The 1920s and 1930s bore horrifying witness to the ease with which people could be misled by commercial advertisers and political demagogues alike.

Awareness of the dangers inherent in language, ‘the loaded weapon’, is not a modern revelation: indeed, it is probably universal. One of the chief impediments that Francis Bacon saw to the Advancement of Learning and hence of mankind itself was the too ready dislocation of words from meanings, the ‘Pygmalion’s frenzy’ in which people were ever liable to be moved by words themselves without thought to what ‘weight of matter’ they connoted. It became indeed commonplace in the 17th and 18th centuries to speak (as Locke did) of people supposing ‘Words to stand also for the reality of Things’. It is a theme which reaches an intellectual climax in Jeremy Bentham (Theory of Fictions), and the scepticism is made publicly indelible by Bentham’s contemporary Goethe, whose Mephistopheles says:

where concepts fail,
At the right time a word is thrust in there.
With words we fitly can our foes assail,
With words a system we prepare,
Words we quite fitly can believe.

Again, in our own time, we have Todorov, in The Poetics of Prose (1977): ‘In the beginning was the word ... words are more important than things ... words create things.’

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[1] There is an unacknowledged debt also to Lancelot Hogben. In ‘Politics and the English Language’, it happens that he takes Hogben as an outstanding example of one who uses English badly, but his illustrations of Hogben’s sloppiness are taken not from the well-known Mathematics for the Million but the very little known Interglossa of 1943. This is an exercise in linguistic engineering that seeks to out-basic Basic. The ingenious if ill-developed reductionism of Interglossa cannot but have contributed to the ideas underlying Newspeak.

[2] Though Orwell learnt a South-East Asian language while doing service, as in due course did Burgess.

[3] The satirical solemnity with which such trivialities are mentioned is in sharp contrast to the comparable trivialities in Newspeak: the replacement of shall by will is not trivial to Orwell, for whom this was part of the hieratic ‘correct’ and ‘pure English’ ethos he had imbibed and continued to preach in his non-fiction.