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Language, Liberty, and George Orwell

Leah Beach

At the time of the founding, we as an American people acknowledged a connection between language and liberty. The first amendment in our Bill of Rights protects our freedom of language. George Orwell is one author and essayist who wrote extensively on the subjects of language and liberty. In the following essay, it will be my goal to explore the question of whether or not Orwell considered language and liberty to be related. I will attempt to describe Orwell’s perception of language and liberty by examining Orwell’s writings, and by examining the philosophical and political events of his life as well. Ultimately, I will argue that Orwell views language as a tool to encourage or discourage individual liberty. I will then proceed to evaluate his argument.

To begin, I will explain these two terms––language and liberty––through the lens of one of Orwell’s contemporaries, linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf. Throughout the late 1920’s, Whorf’s work introduced a new theory of language. Whorf was interested in the relationship between thought and language. He argues, “Language could take place without brain activity, but brain activity could be nothing more than what language made it.”1)1 In other words, language has the power to give shape to thoughts, but language is not the thought itself. A word is not itself an idea, but a symbol of an idea.

Orwell agrees with Whorf that language symbolizes thoughts and shapes world views. However, he does not agree that all words and languages equally represent reality. Instead, Orwell believes that words do have the ability to represent ideas, and some more truly than others. Thus, words are linked to the reality of whatever thing or idea they represent, and Orwell even suggests that words should sound like what they represent.2)3 But in order to understand and express this truth, one must have the appropriate words. And these words, he argues, ought to be as clear as possible in order to convey the truth about what they represent. Orwell writes the following:

Marxist writing. . . consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind. . . than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.3)4

As Roger Fowler notes, “the nature of language, in [Orwell’s] view, made it possible for those in control of the state to render truth inaccessible.”4)5 This explains why words are so important for Orwell. Language can be inherently better or worse, insofar as it can more or less accurately represent reality. Thus, language’s present state is not beyond human helping. There seems to be hope here for the truth to be accessed. Having words that more precisely and accurately signify their designated thing or idea will allow a person to think more in conformity to the reality of the world. In keeping with Whorf’s theory, Orwell understands language as a tool intimately linked to the thought processes.

There are several pivotal times throughout Orwell’s life in which he encounters the antithesis of liberty, and he seems to build an idea of what liberty is based on these encounters. I will look at three specific events in Orwell’s life in order to understand his idea of liberty.5)6 About each of these three events, Orwell wrote and published novels or essays based on his experience. It seems that he thought them important enough to record and share. I will hereafter explore Orwell’s “Shooting An Elephant”, Down and Out in London and Paris, and Nineteen Eighty-Four.

His essay “Shooting An Elephant” records a day in Lower Burma, the place Orwell was stationed as an English police officer early in his life. He writes:

“I was young and ill-educated and I had had to think out my problems in the utter silence that is imposed on every Englishman in the East…All I knew was that I was stuck between my hatred of the empire I served and my rage against the evil-spirited little beasts who tried to make my job impossible.”6)7

During the story an elephant kills a man, the town becomes agitated in the drama, and Orwell is pressured into shooting the elephant in order to appear superior to the townspeople and to this animal. There is no occupational reason for him to shoot it; the people are not in danger, and Orwell is the only one with any artillery power. What is more, he is socially superior to the Burmans. That is, he should have no need to impress the people he can easily suppress. Yet he shoots the beast in a muscle-flexing display. He ends his short story, “I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”7)8 Orwell perceives the pettiness and lies that empires and mob mentalities cultivate. He says later on that “genuine intellectual integrity only exists, only can exist, outside collective or institutional structures.”8)9 This is one of the political lessons he takes from his time in Burma.

Down and Out in London and Paris records Orwell’s daily life and observations in extreme poverty. “Poverty is what I am writing about, and I had my first contact with poverty in this slum.” He explains the secrecy one tries to keep concerning the direness of one’s situation.9)10. He explains how boring poverty can be.10)11 Interestingly, he details intimately the hierarchy and viewpoints of different members of a hotel kitchen staff for which he works.12 Orwell pulls readers into an economic situation most of them will never experience first-hand. Further, his entire book humanizes an economic class of people usually written off by the rest of society. Orwell relates what it is like to be an economically suppressed member of society in this book. He imparts lessons to the reader that he, too, had to learn. This perspective from poverty helps to form his understanding of liberty.

The previous two examples are from non-fiction pieces. Nineteen Eighty-Four is more of satire than a non-fiction vision, but its foundations stem from reality. The historian W. J. West explains this point:

The object of the Inner Party is thought control, the prevention of unorthodox thoughts both by coercion and by the curtailed form of English ‘Newspeak’…Many of the practices of censorship and information control were commonplace in wartime Britain and were directly experienced by Orwell in his work for the BBC, and through his wife’s work for the Censorship Department.11)13

The censorship of his own age again leads Orwell to an acute awareness of the dangers of an oppressive government. The institutional structure prohibits certain words and phrases from appearing in papers and radio broadcasts. Orwell perceives the intellectual constrictions imposed by extreme government censorship.

It is through life experiences such as these that Orwell forms an understanding of what liberty is. He writes, “Freedom of the intellect means freedom to report what one has seen, heard, and felt, and not to be obliged to fabricate imaginary facts and feelings.”12)14 He experienced restrictions on language in Britain, and he thought that this censorship kept people from knowing the reality of events. He experienced other evils of a powerful government and class system, which gave the elite classes the power to lie and oppress, and rendered their victims unheard and misunderstood. To allow all to speak freely would allow all to speak the truth. This is Orwell’s notion of liberty: it is the ability of the individual to access truth.

The language available to a person directly affects how much freedom of thought he has. If, for example, one cannot use words to express the idea of an imagination, imagination will cease to be. “And in any totalitarian society that survives for more than a couple of generations, it is probable that prose literature, of a kind that existed during the past four hundred years, must actually come to an end.”13)15 Nineteen Eighty-Four addresses this fear, but it is also addressed in many of his essays such as “Politics and the English Language”, “The Prevention of Literature”, and “Good Bad Books.” If we remember Orwell’s theory of language, we understand his fear in the increasing disconnect between reality and the words assigned to it. Words need to be grounded in truth, and to allow truth to speak. Critic R. Fowler writes, “His simple realism— words fail the truth of facts, and thus corrupt thought—makes his presentation of Newspeak [in Nineteen Eighty-Four] less ambiguous but no less dramatic: Newspeak is an absurdly projected nominalism… the nature of language, in his view, made it possible for those in control of the state to render truth inaccessible.”14)16 Thus, in a context in which language was being controlled and censored, Orwell argued for linguistic liberty. He believed this ‘freedom of the intellect’15)17 was to be found in originality and authenticity (as mentioned earlier). Orwell writes, “Political writing in our time consists almost entirely of prefabricated phrases bolted together like the pieces of a child’s Meccano set. It is the unavoidable result of self-censorship. To write in plain, rigorous language one has to think fearlessly, and if one thinks fearlessly one cannot be politically orthodox.”16)18 This indicates an extremely important part of Orwell’s theory of language and liberty. It is clear from the quotation that he thinks differently about this “plain, rigorous language” than the “bolted phrases.”

In his essay “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell lays out rules for writing. He lists six stylistic checks a writer can do to ensure her work is good. “Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.”17)19 According to the critic B. Crick, “This apparently mundane advice…takes on an urgency of a higher level in the context of Orwell’s ethical argument.”18)20 An attack on language is actually an attack on the accessibility to truth.

For example, Nineteen Eighty-Four explains the positive correlation between restricting language and constricting freedom. Newspeak and its acronyms lead people to DoubleThink and a numerical and conceptual loss of words to describe anything outside the totalitarian government. One of the characters of the novel named Syme says, “The Revolution will be perfect when the language is perfect.”19)21 Thus, danger is real when the layman is apathetic towards the power of language.

The solution is in active truth-writing, done in such a way that everyone from the layman to the intellectual can understand. Orwell’s ideal person describes himself and the world truthfully, instead of prescribing––through linguistic coercion––what another can believe. “Shooting An Elephant” and Down and Out in London and Paris are both such truth descriptions. Their importance is in their authenticity and clarity.

In the face of the misleading regime, there is hope. Orwell believes “good prose” is possible—he himself tries to write this way and seems to be at least satisfied with some of his work.20)22 He also notes in “Politics and the English Language” that, “silly words and expressions have often disappeared, not through any evolutionary process but owing to the conscious action of a minority. Two recent examples were explore every avenue and leave no stone unturned, which were killed by the jeers of a few journalists.”21)23 George Orwell implores his readers to be “scrupulous writers,” and to use language to fit as closely to truth itself as possible. Here is the

link between language and liberty for Orwell. Language is the tool which can help each person grasp at truth.

George Orwell’s work expresses a disapproval of the relative and the unreal. While I agree that relativistic ideology ought to be fought, I do not agree that language is as powerful as he thinks it is to hold the truth within it. T.S. Eliot writes, “Words strain,/ Crack and sometimes even break,/ under the burden,/ Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,/ Decay with imprecision.”22)24 Words are relational, and do not have meaning in and of themselves. They are merely symbols, and this is why they can change so easily over time and culture. At the same time, other symbols such as paintings or music can now and again express ideas and truth just as well, if not better, than words. Orwell never acknowledges the goodness of these symbols, but I think he ought to in order to have a fuller conception of truth and its creative symbolism. With these considerations in mind, the reader is still able to appreciate Orwell’s project. Language is a tool that can help each person grasp at the truth. And the tool and truth itself are available to us across time and space. This we can learn from Orwell’s great works.



1 The Language of 1984, W.F. Bolton, Blackwell (Oxford: 1984), 26.
2 ‘The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis’ from the Stanford Encyclodedia of Philosophy3 Ibid.
4 “Politics and the English Language” from Shooting an Elephant, George Orwell, Penguin Books (London: 2009), 363-364.
His theory, known today as linguistic relativism, states that “large
differences in language lead to large differences in experience and thought. [It] holds that each
language embodies a worldview, with quite different languages embodying quite different views,
so that speakers of different languages think about the world in quite different ways.”2 Whorf
claims that these symbols are not inherently better or worse than others, only that they are
different. Swoyer, Chris, “Relativism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = Accessed 9/24/12.5 The Language of George Orwell, R. Fowler, St. Martin’s Press (London: 1995), 33.
6 I could have used several other pieces of Orwell’s biographical writing to explain the formation of his political views. These include “Such, Such Were the Joys” and The Road to Wigan Pier, both of which are chosen by Simon Shama in his television series ‘Britannia incorporated’, History of Britain (2000-02) [television series] to explain a similar point to the one I make here.
7 “Shooting An Elephant” from Shooting An Elephant and Other Essays, George Orwell, Penguin Books (England: 2009), 32.
8 Ibid., 40.
9 Absent Minds, S. Collins, Oxford University Press (Oxford: 2006), 368.
10 Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell, Penguin Books (England: 2001), 14.

 11 Ibid., 16. 12 Ibid., 78. 13 The Large Evils: ‘Nineteen Eight-Four’, The Truth Behind The Satire, W.J. West (Edinburgh: Canongate Press, 1992) cited in George Orwell: A Life, B. Crick, Little Brown and Co. (England, 1982), 183. 14 “The Prevention of Literature” from Shooting An Elephant and Other Essays, George Orwell, Penguin Books(England: 2009), 211. 15 Ibid., 216.

16 ibid., 33.
17 “The Prevention of Literature”, from Shooting An Elephant and Other Essays, George Orwell, Penguin Books (England: 2009), 211.
18 ibid., 217.
19 “Politics and the English Language” from Shooting an Elephant, George Orwell, Penguin Books (London: 2009), 359.
20 George Orwell: A Life, B. Crick, Little Brown and Co. (England: 1982), 34.
21 Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, New American Library (New York: 1984), 46-47.
22 The Language of George Orwell, R. Fowler, St Martin’s Press (London: 1995), 43.
23 “Politics and the English Language” from Shooting an Elephant, George Orwell, Penguin Books (London: 2009), 372.

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