Reader Beware: The Controlling Power of Language

Have you ever thought about the way in which you think? Thinking about thinking is enough to scramble anyone’s brain, but I suggest you give it a try, if only to discover how you function, learn, and remember. I, personally, think in words, and I believe the majority of people think in this same way. I also think through the senses — through images and smells and sounds — but my primary mode of thinking is in words. Everything else stems from there.

Let me explain.

Take a memory. The first memory. A child can only remember something when he or she has begun to grasp concepts and understand words. Even if a child cannot read or write, if he or she can understand that a chair is a chair and that is what a chair is, he or she can probably remember the image of “chair” in his or her mind. Without this word “chair,” a chair is just a mess of wooden arms and backs and legs, hardly distinguishable from a stool, a stand, or a table. Take my first memory, for example: it is of my brother and I riding tricycles in circles on the cement patio in the backyard of our old house, and me continually clipping my heel off the peddle when my foot slipped. I see this memory in images, but strangely, the images change. My tricycle warps from an up-right tricycle to a big-wheeler, which I ride with my back reclined and my feet forward. My heels change from fat, floppy baby heels to the more firm and defined kind of five-year-olds (the age during which this memory occurred). Even the image of my brother isn’t stagnant — he switches from my older to my younger brother in my mind’s eye. The consistencies, always, are the words: “tricycle,” “heel,” and “brother.” The images are connected and hidden behind these words, and without more words lodged in my memory to define them, like “big-wheeler” or “older/younger,” I have no way of solidifying these images in my mind.

It is amazing, and more than a little scary, to realize the way in which language dominates our minds. Without language we are lost. If you don’t believe me, try thinking of something that you don’t have a word for. You can’t, can you? Most everything in our lives is labelled with words, whether it is names or descriptions. Anything new a person comes across will be instantly smothered in adjectives, or else related to another image that is carefully categorized under words in one’s mind. The question is, without language, can we even think and remember?

First, let me clarify that I am speaking of higher order and complex memory and thinking. A dog does not have language, but it has memory. The extent to which a dog’s memory can stretch is unknown, of course, but we can assume that a dog can’t recount the events of five years ago in diverse and extravagant detail like a human can, because the dog doesn’t have a vocabulary with which to do so.

Perhaps, then, language allows us to expand our thoughts and memories, and therefore our experiences. Maybe it is only our ability to describe and articulate, and remember in detail, that separates us from dogs. My favourite example of this concept is the existence of the taste “umami.” Umami is a taste as basic as sweetness, sourness, saltiness, or bitterness. It is found in cheese, soy sauce, many fermented foods, grains, and some vegetables, like tomatoes and beans. I had never heard of it until recently, because it is generally ignored in Western culture and is more important in Eastern cuisines, and so I had never tasted it. I mean, of course I had tasted it, because I had eaten all of the foods listed above which contain umami, but I had never had a word for it, so it had literally not existed in my mind, or my tongue. How strange, that I didn’t have an awareness of something that was there, that I was physically experiencing, simply because I didn’t have a word for it.

This expansion of the mind through language can be reversed, of course. It could probably not be done to a person with a previously established vocabulary, but to a future generation it most definitely could. This is the danger of a lack of language. I may be sounding a tad bit fanatic, and perhaps I am, but I believe it is essential to realize the function of language in the brain, and the way in which it can be used to control a person. George Orwell explores this topic in his book 1984 so perfectly, and so concisely, that it can almost slip by the reader’s attention. In the boo1984-book-coverk, the development of “Newspeak,” a condensed language, is a way in which to control the thoughts of individuals.

“It’s a beautiful thing, the Destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word, which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good,’ for instance. If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word” (George Orwell, 1984).

In the totalitarianism-based society in which 1984 takes place, “thoughtcrime” is one of the scariest offenses, to the government as well as the citizens, because it is so uncontrollable. Throughtcrime is difficult for the government to catch, but it is more difficult for the citizens to reject or suppress. Any deviating or unique mind cannot help but question and critique. The idea proposed by Orwell is that in order to eliminate thoughtcrime, or to at least make it more difficult to commit, one must break down language into its basic form — language meant only for communication and not for ideas.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten” (George Orwell, 1984).

What a horror. Imagine not being able to express new ideas because you didn’t have the words to do so. Imagine being trapped in the vault of your own mind, robotically moving from one pre-determined thought to another. Imagine… I can’t. Can you? Can you really imagine thought being narrowed by the simple task of eliminating parts of language? The worst part about the whole thing is that you wouldn’t realize it was happening, or had happened, because you wouldn’t have the words necessary to even let it enter your mind.

I know this may all seem a little far fetched, but I do think it is very important to recognize the power language has over one’s thinking and memory. It is also essential to note in the midst of this discussion of language the importance of creation in the mind, and thinking in new ways. Creating is to me a front line defense against the possibility of language control. If you are at all concerned, all you must do is read and learn critically as much as you can, and, most importantly, expand your vocabulary. The more words you know, the more expansive your thinking capacity will be, and, as a result, the more intricate your experiences.

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2 thoughts on “Reader Beware: The Controlling Power of Language

  1. I see words as a nice way to package ideas. I remember the feeling of relief as a kid when I found out there was a word for something I had been trying to wrap my head around.
    The word ‘nostalgia’ for example: instead of thinking ‘past+childhood+desire+yearning+sentimental’ all at once, you can just bundle all those ideas up into one word: nostalgia. That’s efficient!
    Although they are important, I think a good writer would stay away from using convenient words like that. Orwell also talked about the use of simple vocabulary and imagery in writing. It helps you shape a concept and give it specific meaning rather than tie it down to a single word. But that’s really hard to do.
    Reminds me of my HS english teacher: ‘put down the damn thesaurus!’

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    • There is definitely a fine balance in writing between keeping it simple and staying away from cliche phrases that encapsulate too much. Absolutely no one wants to be loaded down with adjectives and large words when reading a piece of work, but on the other hand, no one wants to read something so narrow and uncomplicated that it ceases to be new or interesting. The expansion of one’s vocabulary doesn’t mean clouding a piece of work with unnecessary words, it means having the ability to express one’s thoughts with the correct and most suitable words!

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