George Orwell probably took one of the best stabs at what could happen to language (and consequently, thought) should those in power attempt to actively take control of its development and shape it in such as a way as to use language as an instrument of maintaining their power over the wider population.
How we think and view the world around us is largely determined by our use of language. In Orwell’s “1984” The Party knows that if it can control how language is used, it will then be better able to control how people think. In other words, people will only be able to think in the way that the Party wants them to think.
In the 1954 BBC filmed adaptation of Orwell’s novel, there is a canteen scene in which this idea is taken up by Syme in discussion about his work on the Eleventh Edition dictionary and “Newspeak.”
“We're not only inventing words, we're destroying them - scores of them, thousands every day. It's beautiful………. The simplicity of it, of course. For one example, just take the word 'good.' If you have that, what need is there for the word 'bad'? 'Ungood' does just as well. Then, instead of a string of vague extra words like 'excellent' and 'splendid', you have 'plusgood', or stronger still 'doubleplusgood'. In Newspeak, the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by six words. In reality, by only one word. Don't you see the beauty of that, Winston?........By the year 2050, the whole literature of the past will have gone. Milton, Byron, Chaucer - they'll exist only in Newspeak forms……….The whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end, we make Thought Crime literally impossible because there'll be no words to express it………….. Have you even thought, in seventy years or so, there'll be nobody alive who could possibly understand this conversation we're having?”
Very chilling! There are some people who believe in the existence of powerful cabals secretly plotting away and conspiring to dominate the rest of us in such a ‘Big Brother’ manner. Others point to China’s or North Korea’s government as prime examples of an already existing Orwellian nightmare. More often than not, I feel that it is the case that incompetence and stupidity tends to reign supreme and that processes often take on a life of their own and evolve in an opportunistic way because most of us are too ignorant, too distracted, too busy, too apathetic or too gullible to imagine what if? What if I install this new app on my phone? What if I hand over this bit of information about myself? What if I allow every aspect of my life to be captured, monitored and stored? What if I jump on every woke bandwagon and cause?
There’s consequences for all of our actions, in-actions and decisions. Unfortunately convenience, time-poor lifestyles and social pressure often takes over, while actively taking time out to consider future implications of our decisions on us as individuals and for our society and to act on such considerations is deemed to be just too hard.
With the future course of say, the English language, we can assume that it will continue to evolve by borrowing from other languages, by its vocabulary being supplemented by developments in technology and by the occurrence of crises, disasters and global upheavals. New generations also add their own forms of language use and world views reflected by such new words and concepts. Thus far, this has been a major part of the source of strength of the English language, apart from what has arisen from the wielding of power and the history of colonialism, of course.
What is also certain about the development of language is just how quickly we jump at the chance of working a new term we’ve read or heard used into a conversation without even thinking. There’s no thought given to what if I use this word, how will it affect the way I view whatever it is I’m referring to? Am I being specific enough? Is there another more accurate way of referring to the subject of my words? Do my words convey not only accuracy but also originality of thought? Am I just becoming another inarticulate lemming about to tumble off a mindless verbal cliff into a swirling sea of newspeak?
Often we’ll hear people say when asked their thoughts about some matter, “I have no words to describe….” Of course, if the matter in question is highly emotional in its impact, that is perfectly understandable. However, I suspect that more often than not, such a sentiment is quite accurate: the speaker in fact literally does not have the words with which to express his or her (oops, can’t use those gender specific words any more!) thoughts and feelings. It is the existence of those very thoughts and feelings that will often depend on the availability of, access to and use of those very words. So, what has happened to the words? Did someone steal them from us or did we just turn our backs on them?
Firstly, we have the modern-day phenomenon of the Cancel-Culture who when its disciples are not running around trying to topple statues, re-write history and consign Dr Seuss to Farenheit 451 flames, they try to dictate what terms and words people are to use and those which they deem to be unacceptable. Of course, businesses, bureaucracies, educational institutions and the media and entertainment industries happily jump in and swim with the new current, taking the rest of us with them. As we sink below the raging waters of political correctness, we may discover to our astonishment that we no longer have a gender, but at least we can all drown together feeling positively included!
Secondly, there’s the political hip wokeful brigade who giveth us such words as “pivot,” “agile” and “nimble,” but who taketh away such words as “adaptable,” “flexible,” “vary.” And so we find ourselves, “going forward” rather than “progressing,” or “advancing.” With “going forward” you can be sure it’s a euphemism for a major cock-up that needs to be quickly forgotten about.
The point being, is that the English language has a rich source of vocabulary which seems to be more and more under-utilized as time goes by. As the range of vocabulary being used in written and spoken communication is restricted, so does our capacity to express ourselves accurately and meaningfully. Thinking becomes more superficial and perhaps less critical. Who does that benefit?
Thirdly, technology offers so many possibilities in terms of improving people’s communication skills from simple word processing through to a plethora of apps and programs, not to mention the provision of and access to an all-important audience. And yet the finger has more than once been pointed at technology as being one of the root causes of the decline in literacy standards.
The wide use of acronyms, emojis, tweets, social media comments and the like seems to have encouraged a decline in people’s ability to communicate thoughts in more complex, analytical, abstract and reflective ways. For many people, the necessary words are just not there for them to make effective use of those forms of communication. In its place, we tend to have more abbreviated, emotive, transactional, personal and superficial forms of communication devoid of the accepted conventions of spelling, syntax, grammar and punctuation.
Worryingly, we’ve stood idly by and watched the slow extinction of the adverb. It has been replaced by an introduced species called the “Super!” With the disappearance of adverbs, comes the demise of precision, accuracy and viewing things in varying degrees and expressing different shades of meaning. Once, we might have felt “very excited” or “extremely elated,” whereas now we simply feel “super happy.” It may not be long before we wind up feeling just “doubleplusgood.”
Over the last few years I have noticed a couple of developments in the manner in which many people speak. This might serve as a useful basis of speculation for sci-fi authors as to the direction our language might take in the future.
The first development concerns the way people’s voices sound when they’re speaking. I’ve noticed that many people have adopted or acquired an almost rasping quality to their voices which I have referred to as “crackle-voice.” It is as if the vocal chords have relocated themselves to the nasal passages and the voice sounds as if it is emanating from the nose and the front of the mouth, as well as taking on a crackling quality. For example: “eeeerrrrrr” creaking sound throughout speech.
The overall effect of this is that it conveys the impression that the speaker is unsure of what they are saying and that they are even reluctant to be vocalizing at all. Both genders display this but it is more noticeable among females for reasons unknown to me. This trend appears to be present in the US, Australia and the UK as far as I can judge. There is an absence of modulation in the voice and is devoid of a sense of richness of quality. In short – bloody annoying!
The second development concerns the way in which words are strung together in rapid succession in any spoken utterance. It sounds like a form of stream of consciousness devoid of any pause for reflection, deliberation or consideration of what is to be said. It is as if some thought has popped into the speaker’s head and a valve has opened to allow the contents to gush forth unfiltered in a torrent of babble.
Any thought given to enunciation is chucked out the window along with any consideration for one’s audience. Trying to decipher a character’s dialogue in a film these days or a call centre voice over the phone is next to impossible in many cases.
Compare spoken dialogue in vintage films with what passes as spoken dialogue in many modern films and you’ll see what I mean.
Any predictions about the future course of our language will of course have to take into account the influence of diverse ethnic groups in our communities. These have been and will continue to shape the evolution of the English language in very interesting ways.