Less is more

“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past,” writes George Orwell in “1984.” This omnipresent sense of control, where even the past becomes malleable, forms the foundation of the dystopic novel.

The most potent way of controlling the past, present, and future, however, is through language. As a generation with an alternate dialect on social media— last year’s Oxford Word of the Year was rizz—our influence on language feels increasingly relevant. I especially started questioning our relationship with language after reading “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Margaret Atwood’s novel is essentially a pseudo-dystopia; there is nothing in it that has not already occurred in history. Her narrative and consequent approach to language especially contrasts with that of “1984,” which is fabricated more futuristically. So how is language, or rather its absence, used to disarm people in these two dystopias, and are the examples they set a looming possibility for us?

Most dystopias, like “1984,” take place in a completely imagined future. The world of “1984” is ruled by three superstates in a perpetual state of warfare against one another: Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia. Life in Oceania is governed by a war that might be a fabricated reality used to keep its people permanently unified, mobilized, and scrutinized.

In Oceania, citizens use “Newspeak,” a fictional language classified into three vocabularies: a) for the functions of daily life, b) for political purposes, and c) for technical and scientific terms. Newspeak is the only language that destroys words instead of creating new ones. Words like “democracy,” “freedom,” “lie,” and “thought” have been removed altogether. The alleged “political” words are instead expressions like “goodthink,” meaning orthodoxy, or “bellyfeel,” meaning blind acceptance. Negative words are created with a simple prefix, like substituting “ungood” for “bad,” and all words are interchangeable, like using “knifed” as a verb instead of “cut.”

I was recently reminded of Newspeak after seeing pending Threads friend requests in my Instagram notifications. Threads, a new social media platform under Meta, functions similarly to Twitter. The app allows users to share short pieces of text, photos, videos, or links. Yet the word “short” now carries a much more relative and ambiguous meaning: is it a novella? An essay? A paragraph? A word? Even 20-minute YouTube videos have been replaced by 15-second TikTok ones, which also feel tedious to watch all the way through. Is our increasing need for brevity because we have less language to express ourselves like a minor version of Newspeak realized, or because we are holding back?

In the world of “1984,” “holding back” is impossible to begin with. The Party uses Newspeak as a power tool, limiting people’s ability to articulate abstract concepts or think critically altogether.

Although a different type of dystopia, this state of limitation is better represented in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Holding up a mirror to the Puritan societies of the past, the novel takes place in the Republic of Gilead. The state is ruled by a new restrictive theocratic dictatorship where women are stripped of their freedoms and assigned rigid roles in society. This hierarchy among women is not meant to be subtle, as each role is displayed publicly through the color of their clothing: green for Marthas, blue for Wives, striped for Econowives, brown for Aunts, and red for Handmaids. Off red, the narrator, belongs to the diminishing group of fertile women turned into Handmaids, whose task is to procreate with male government officials and give up their children to their wives.

In “The Handmaid’s Tale,” there is a lack of language. Off red uses glaringly ordinary English in her internal monologue and thinks like any one of us would in her situation. Despite the complexity of her thoughts, however, she never actually speaks her mind. Off red and her fellow Handmaids remain silent for most of the novel, desperately attempting to decipher others but making no communicative effort to do so. Unlike “1984,” there is a stark contrast between the words she thinks and those she says.

In our generation, we are steadily moving away from the Off red characterization. Being outspoken, verbal, and expressive is now an expectation rather than a liability. Our classes are gathered around oval tables instead of lined-up desks, where class participation is encouraged.

On today’s social media, most users are also unafraid to argue against opinions or post their own opinions, reaching millions around the globe with a single click. We are not facing a shortage of opinions or a fear of expressing them but a lack of words. Like the evolution of Newspeak, the media we consume is constantly getting shorter and more succinct. On platforms like Twitter and Threads, a single word is enough for a post, and on TikTok, creators need only 15 seconds worth of words for a video. When it comes to language, “The Handmaid’s Tale” and “1984” are two parallels of this dichotomy where we have more opinions to express but remarkably fewer words to do so.

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