Friday, March 21, 2014

Language is Power

Creative Commons License 2.0 / Horia Varlan
Here's a question or two for all you English/linguistic enthusiasts/normal people who speak some sort of language:

To what extent do you think that language actually controls thought? Does this bother you?

This is what my paper is about, and I want to know how relevant and interesting this subject is. I've written out an introduction and a little bit of sample analysis. It's still super rough and I haven't really revised it yet, but here's a sample of my basic ideas:

Language is the medium through which thoughts are formulated, and thought is often limited by the limitations of the language. This idea has been explored through literature throughout history; notably, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four comes to mind, in which the Party actively eradicates all excess words to make the vocabulary of the people smaller in order to reduce the chance of “thoughtcrime” (citation needed). But before Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in the year 1949, Ayn Rand’s Anthem (published in 1938) and Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (published in 1871) both explored the effects of language on someone’s thoughts, actions, or perception of reality. Anthem is a dystopia, with obvious social commentary about language, whereas Through the Looking Glass has a much more whimsical tone and uses language less oppressively, but despite their different genres and tones, each novel demonstrates how language can literally control people, and limitations in the language lead to limitations of thought.
In Anthem, for example, everyone's thoughts appear to be controlled by their language. In part one, Equality 7-2521 states the following: “We are alone here under the earth. It is a fearful word, alone. The laws say that none among men may be alone, ever and at any time, for this is the great transgression and the root of all evil” (Rand 4-5). In these three sentences alone, we can see the extent to which the language controls Equality 7-2521’s thoughts. He uses a plural personal pronoun to describe himself—“we” instead of “I”—which reveals that he cannot conceptualize the idea of the individual because the individual does not exist within the language. He describes the word “alone” as “fearful,” because the law forbids it; it is clear that he has been told that solitude is evil many times throughout his life, and that he believes it. He states that being alone is “the great transgression and the root of all evil,” as a fact, without expressing any doubt as to whether this statement may be false. This is what he has been told, and this is what he believes, which he thinks using the same language.
The idea of language controlling thought is much more prevalent in Anthem than it is in Through the Looking Glass, but the idea is still present, although less directly. One example of the language controlling the characters is when Alice experiences a linguistic impasse with the White Queen when they discuss the conditions that Alice would experience under her hire: "Two pence a week, and jam every other day” (Chapter 5). Alice tells the Queen that she doesn't want any jam that day, and the Queen tells her that she couldn't have any jam anyway, because the rule is "jam every other day: to-day isn't any other day, you know." The language controls them: it will never be possible to eat jam, because it will always be “to-day,” and therefore never a jam day. Carroll manipulates logic using the language, and the characters are strictly controlled by this linguistic logic.

These are just two examples from the texts, but there are plenty more where they came from. What do you guys think? Any questions/comments/concerns/suggestions?


  1. I think you have definitely chosen a topic that is both interesting and thought provoking. And I think your two questions at the beginning are good at drawing people into your topic. It's interesting to ask "does it bother you." It really draws your critic in on a personal level. I'm sure you will be able to get some good feedback from an enthusiast with those questions.

  2. I think this is a really interesting topic, although I might argue that language only controls the expression of thought. I know someone else in the class is researching this right now as well. I remember she talked about the difference in languages and how the English language does not have enough words to accurately express our thoughts. Have you ever had a thought, or even better and emotion, that you could not describe because the language you speak was limited? I think it would be interesting to explore the idea that language limits the expression of our thoughts, although I'm not sure I would agree with the idea that it CONTROLS our thoughts necessarily.