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.’

It is this tradition that was revived and publicised by the critics of natural language in the inter-war years of this century, along with ideas on how designed intervention could make language a more adequate (as well as a safer) tool for human use. For although historians of linguistics, with their attentions elsewhere, in general ignore the craft of language engineering and design, this, too, has a long and distinguished history. In view of the philosophic scepticism we have mentioned, it would indeed have been astonishing if there had not been a comparable degree of thought given to how the shortcomings and dangers could be offset. In fact, the traditional assumption (presumably as ubiquitous as it is timeless) was that, just as folk were myth-led into believing that language had been finitely ‘created’, so they believed that it could be readily revised, recreated, or replaced. This latter corollary had been given learned and earnest consideration in Britain from the 16th century. One tradition of work was devoted to ‘improving’ the specific language English (especially for religious and nationalistic reasons), and this tradition, today institutionalised as ‘language planning’, has been enthusiastically applied to several European and Oriental languages, especially during and since the 19th century: German, Norwegian, Irish, Hebrew, Bahasa Indonesia, Chinese, to name but a few. Another tradition was to be more radical. The vision of regaining a pre-Babel state of universal linguistic grace was given a fillip in the West with the ‘discovery’ of Chinese, and the idea not only therefore of a charactery, but of a system of oral signs also, that might be firmly anchored in ‘matter’ (cf. the reference to Bacon above) and hence be universal: a linguistic base for international communication. John Wilkins’s Essay Towards a Real Character (1668) was a more fundamental proposal than most that have been made. But whether the design has been for an entirely new language (such as Esperanto) or for a modification of an existing one (such as Ogden’s Basic), the principle has been the same: rational design, formal control, objectivity, universality.

With these traditions of diagnosis, prophylaxis and prescription a small number of dedicated 20th-century scholars was deeply imbued. The perils of mankind at the mercy of propaganda were proclaimed (and enthusiastically exaggerated) by ‘General Semanticists’ such as Count Korzybski in America and their popularisers like Stuart Chase; in Britain, by C.K. Ogden and others associated with the ‘Orthological Institute’. Some of their most impressive examples were drawn from the warped language of extremist politics, especially the crude hate-instilling, fear-engendering, thought-inhibiting speeches of Hitler and other Nazi leaders, and to a lesser extent the patent inversions of truth emerging from the Moscow ‘show-trials’ of the period. Less blood-chilling in their warnings and more modest in their prescriptions were the dozens of ‘plain language’ advocates: the Fowler Brothers, A.P. Herbert, Eric Partridge, Ivor Brown, to name some in 1930s Britain alone (and though they were widely read in other English-speaking countries, they could of course be matched with an even longer list of writers in the United States).

Within the whole ferment of linguistic criticism, it was to this last type of ‘plain English’ advocacy that Orwell was drawn, rather than to the more radical thinking associated with Ogden. And in a quite simple-minded way at that. His essay ‘Propaganda and Demotic Speech’ reveals, according to Bernard Crick, ‘his belief that political liberty and simplicity of language are closely linked.’ As late as 1946, when the essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ appeared in Horizon, his thinking was only a shade less naive and no more adventurous, original or, indeed, unconventional. Despite the acclaim it had and continues to have (homage, no doubt, to one recognised in his own time as a great prose writer, praised in fact by many as the greatest living), it is at best ‘sensible’. It is wholly (though silently) derivative, and the entire piece is little more than an expansion of the five maxims set forth on the first page of the King’s English by the Fowler brothers in 1906. Ironically, the maxim ‘prefer the Saxon word to the Latin’ (one of the features which suggests verbatim adoption from the Fowlers) impinges upon the purity concept being implemented contemporaneously in Nazi Germany, and it is perhaps indicative of Orwell’s sociolinguistic naivety that he fails to note the ideological implications in English ‘Saxonism’. Yet a year before this essay, Animal Farm had already been published, implying a great deal more sophisticated insight into the way politics can infect language. Indeed the oft-quoted ‘some are more equal than others’ demonstrates that it is precisely the simple, familiar words that can be most easily twisted – in this case from absolute to gradable.

In the same year as the Horizon essay, it is fair to say that he rises above its stale stylistic ‘rules’ in a vigorous polemic directed at J.D. Bernal. Though apparently not able to formulate his insight with linguistic precision, he attacks Bernal’s English as ‘pompous and slovenly’, not on aesthetic grounds, but because of the connection he perceived ‘between totalitarian habits of thought and the corruption of language’. It is not clear whether Orwell would have glossed this last nominalisation as ‘the fact that language is corrupt’ or ‘by making language corrupt’. Nor is it clear whether Orwell realised that abstract deverbal nouns had precisely the propensity to neutralise and thus obfuscate such essential differences – though C.K. Ogden, of course, knew well enough (as did Bentham before him), and he had tried to instruct Orwell in the philosophy underlying Basic English four years earlier. (It is of some interest to note that the papers of both men are in the library of University College London, a few yards from where Ogden lived and Orwell died.)

What is clear from the attack on Bernal is that Orwell was on the way to conceiving of ‘Newspeak’. This obviously reflects the climate of opinion associated with the ‘General Semanticists’ discussed earlier, and reflects at least as obviously the devices (and even the criticisms) of Basic English. But we note that Orwell is as silent on his debt to Ogden as he was to the Fowlers in his ‘Politics and the English Language.[1] In fact, Newspeak can be seen as a satire on Basic almost as much as it is on totalitarian propaganda machinery, and it is likely that Orwell never appreciated Ogden’s claims (none too plausible, in all conscience) that the severely limited lexicon on which he insisted forced the user to liberate his mind from preconception and vagueness. Newspeak had the converse goal, just as Ogden’s critics said that Basic would have the converse effect.

The Orwell conception is savagely Swiftian in its brilliance, and its impact has been understandably devastating. The rapidity with which general currency was given to words like doublethink (and Newspeak itself) adequately demonstrates the way in which the public imagination was caught, the extent – one might say – to which the public were given the instant conviction that such linguistic engineering was both plausible and deeply sinister.

In fact, the intellectual framework displayed in the principles of Newspeak is very weak and damagingly inconsistent. For example, there is the paragraph which purports to explain why ‘euphony outweighed every consideration’ but goes on to describe ‘a gabbling style of speech, at once staccato and monotonous’, the words having ‘harsh sound and a certain wilful ugliness’. This is not untypical of the way Orwell is himself guilty of doublethink. To illustrate one aspect of linguistic oppression, he says that Newspeak exercises rigorous control over ‘exactitude of meaning’. But, in stressing another aspect, he says that words were systematically meaningless, having ‘the special function ... not so much to express meanings as to destroy them’.

What is more serious is that it is essential to the theory of Newspeak that limiting the number of permissible words automatically limits the number of possible thoughts. Without saying so, Orwell is thus making the claim that there is no such thing as metaphor: it is enough to say that rat refers only to the familiar rodent, and users of Newspeak are apparently ipso facto precluded from even the creative possibility of using rat to mean people who are as reprehensible as rats. In this, of course, we can accuse Orwell of no more than a naively inadequate understanding of language and the human mind. But a couple of pages later we are introduced to a whole series of words which turn out to be inherently euphemistic, ironical or metaphorical. Thus prolefeed is not what the workers literally eat but what is contemptuously and metaphorically ‘fed’ to them by way of ‘spurious news’.

He is, to be fair, more sophisticated in his observations on what linguists would now call ‘lexicalisation’. He argues that the telescoped compounds of Newspeak had the ‘conscious purpose’ of ‘cutting out most of the associations’ that would cling to the component parts, and he illustrates the point from outside Newspeak. Thus, in contrast to the full associations invited by ‘Communist’ and ‘International’, Comintern ‘suggests merely a tightly-knit organisation and a well-defined body of doctrine’. But the fact remains that neither the fears of the General Semanticists nor the proposals to engineer away the grounds for such fears are seriously tested by Orwell. For a later generation then, which has seen successfully proscribed a form like inflammable in case it be misunderstood as ‘no danger of burning’, and which is digesting such engineered forms as chairperson and Ms, let us now ask how much more (or less) intellectually plausible is Anthony Burgess’s explicit ‘reply’ to Orwell, 1985?

Orwell’s fictive world of 1984 was dominated by the immediate past: not only the potentiality of propaganda and thought-control that I have discussed, but everything from the sordid austerity and the Crippsian puritanism to the perverted slogans. ‘Ignorance is Strength’ is less a prediction of the future than a nightmare from the past: a Nazi death-camp proclaiming: ‘Arbeit macht uns frei.’ Burgess’s account is less a rejection of Orwell’s judgment than a revaluation based analogously upon the trends and dangers as they are perceived by someone writing thirty years later than Orwell. It is, in Burgess’s phrase, a different ‘extended metaphor of apprehension’, as had been Huxley’s Brave New World fifteen or sixteen years earlier than Orwell. And there are plenty of other examples.

The syndicalist chaos in Burgess’s Tucland the Brave is a more plausible Britain than the Airstrip One of 1984, with its Science Fiction efficiency. Bev corresponds to Winston (onomastically too: Beveridge? Bevan? Bevin? ‘Big names when I was born,’ says Bev), but he is faced with a predicament more familiar to us than was that of Winston to the post-war readers of Orwell. And while Worker’s English corresponds to Newspeak in having official status, this, too, is more familiar. As a man both extraordinarily proficient in foreign languages and not unacquainted with linguistic theory – he is quite unlike Orwell[2] in both respects – Burgess adjusts his vision of ‘WE’ to extrapolations of what his knowledge and observation tell him can actually happen to real languages in real societies. One might say that Worker’s English is to Black English as Newspeak is to Basic or one of the other carefully artificial languages engineered in the first half of this century.

WE is like Newspeak only in being grossly ‘simplified’, with a grammar and vocabulary reduced so as to ‘achieve the limitations appropriate to a non-humanistic highly industrialised society’. But the ‘economies’ correspond to the lowest common denominators already to be found in the loosest demotic speech: ain’t combining the role of isn’t and auxiliary hasn’t, for example: ‘He ain’t there and he ain’t been there.’[3] ‘WE is not concerned with the abstractions of philosophy or even science’, and so the lexicon can be comfortingly vague, with encouragement of items like wotsit, freely supplemented with four-letter intensifiers. Hamlet’s ‘take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them’ is paraphrased in WE as ‘get stuck into what’s getting you worried and get it out of the way and seen off.’

So far, in fact, from being a language deliberately engineered with sinisterly scientific care, WE is little more than an application of the principle communis error facit ius. It is less a design than an institutionalisation of what exists. And that is how Burgess specifically represents it: ‘The primary aim ... was less the imposition, under political or syndicalist pressure, of the language of the dominant social class on the rest of the community than the adaptation of an existing form of English to the fulfilment of a traditional language planner’s aspiration.’ The horror of Burgess’s vision is in fact its precise correspondence to the principles adopted by the least radical (but well attested) form of linguistic engineering: the principles that produced P’u T’ung Hua in China and Nynorsk in Norway.

It is noteworthy that most recent ‘possible worlds’ in fiction represent a similar implicit dismissal of the perils of wholly artificial language systems. Esmé Dodderidge’s The New Gulliver is typical in giving linguistic form only a minor and (as in Burgess) a reactive rather than an ergative role. In her Capovolta, language is not designed to keep men down: it merely reflects woman’s supremacy. The generic reference pronoun is feminine (‘Everyone must do her duty’); ‘bitchy’ behaviour is not recognised, but ‘doggy’ behaviour is. Language is a natural reflex and not contrived to produce the reflex. The scientist whose pompous word-processor produced the sentence ‘Man’s basic needs are food, warmth and access to females’ is reflecting, not asserting, male domination. The unconscious, unthinking acceptance of such language is thus seen as socially more serious than (to retain the feminist context) such documents as the 1978 Board of Education Report in Ontario recommending (i.e. deliberately engineering) ‘an inclusionary language policy’, formally proscribing such expressions as mankind, man in the street and man-made (to be replaced by humanity, the average person and synthetic).

In other words, conscious language engineering like this, or like the now well-established restricted form of English used internationally in air navigation, is no longer as threatening to the artistic imagination as uncontrolled drift, or (worse) the active encouragement of populist imprecision. It is the natural slide into an unthinking degradation through uncontrolled change and cynical irresponsibility that alarms Burgess – just as it is the easy drift into unthinking acceptance of male-supremacy presuppositions in language that angers the feminist Utopian novelists like Esmé Dodderidge, Ursula Le Guin or Marge Piercy. Significantly, on the very first page of 1985, the point is made that nobody can be held responsible: not even for the obstetric maltreatment which has resulted in Bev’s child being moronic: ‘ “Nobody’s fault,” Dr Zazibu had said. “Medicine must progress, man.” ’ Burgess remembers (as he hopes his reader will) that Nobody’s Fault was the original title of Little Dorrit, and he seeks to transport us back to the savage anger of Charles Dickens at the Circumlocution Office and the irresponsibility of uncontrolled change wrought by 19th-century capitalism – now being mirrored, as Burgess sees it, by the slide into late 20th-century socialist syndicalism. In short, the implication of 1985 is the exact opposite of 1984: it’s not that language engineering is dangerous but that its absence is; not that we must abjure language engineering but energetically encourage it; that we who have been trained to use the precision tools of language, and so construct thereby sharply-machined, well-formed sentences, have a responsibility for seeing that these skills are extended and transmitted; and that otherwise our thinking is locked into a downward spiral of vulgarisation, vagueness, superficiality, mindless cliché. In this, Burgess has less affinity with the Orwell of 1984 than with the Orwell of ‘Politics and the English Language’ and with the ‘plain English’ therapists for whom the austere T.S. Eliot had his own apocalyptic vision just before Orwell uttered his, seeing language as

shabby equipment always deteriorating In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, Undisciplined squads of emotion.

[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.