LN Book Club! Currently about: 1984, (we can add more)

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Kizyr
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LN Book Club! Currently about: 1984, (we can add more)

Postby Kizyr » Fri Mar 10, 2017 6:13 am

I was thinking of starting a book discussion here. I don't want to do a typical book club (where we all read one thing and discuss -- partly because I'm a slow reader, and partly because I'm not sure we'd have enough people on-board). Rather, we can pick something that either (a) many folks have read, or (b) one of us would really like to spurge about. Also, there're no rules or order -- we can start another discussion going on whatever you find interesting whenever you want (in this thread or others).

To kick things off, I was thinking...

1984 (George Orwell)

Since this has been brought up in the news a little lately, and John Hurt (played Winston in the 1984 version of 1984) recently passed away. Plus, I figure many other folks have read it, even if it might've been a long time ago.

A few requests before we begin though:
  • Please let's avoid discussions of the type "man this [current thing happening] is just like in 1984 when they...". Not because the analogies aren't useful, but because that's been done so much since 1949 that it's become cliché now. (And there are more recent political theorists besides Orwell that can provide better explanation anyhow.)
  • This isn't a test, so don't worry about getting some of the details wrong, or having the "wrong" interpretation. ...it is ok to disagree with someone else's interpretation of events though.
  • No spoilers needed for 1984. Seriously, this came out 67 years ago. That ship sailed.
There are so many themes in this book, but there's two I wanted to go into in particular.

(1) The World Order

In the middle there's this entire explanation (in a book left for Winston by O'Brien) that describes how the world is organized into competing superpowers (Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia) all fighting one another over control of resources in another region of the world (the Equatorial Front). If you don't recall, this video goes into some detail on that:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQxOKXEff4I

Yeah, so, on the surface this is supposed to be an illustration for how easily the Party can switch off between getting people to one week hate Eurasia (as we were always at war with them and allied with Eastasia) and the next week hate Eastasia (as we were always at war with them and allied with Eurasia). That's what I figured when I read it back in high school, and that's the view the above video takes.

Buuuut..... more recently, my theory is that the above is completely bunk. For starters, O'Brien is one of the top elite and was intentionally setting Winston up (SPOILERS!). For another, there's no reason ever given why Oceania (and for that matter Eurasia and Eastasia) constantly switch allegiances, nor a reason to believe that they're fine with it. The more plausible explanation is that this was a deeper lie that O'Brien left behind for Winston to let him think that he stumbled upon some deeper secret or explanation; but it's just as much a lie as the one they tell the proles regarding who they're at war with this week. The only difference is that the level of sophistication in the lie is higher since it's designed for the party elite, rather than the proles.

To go beyond that, I think that the entire world outside of England / Airstrip One is likely just fine -- there is no Oceania, Eurasia, or Eastasia, no war, no global alliances, and no global war. It's only Airstrip One that believes the world is the way it is, because of how insular and closed off they are from the rest of the world (much like North Korean propaganda holding that they're the most advanced country on Earth). After all, why actually go into a world war when you can just tell everyone you're at war, when the purpose of the war is to control your own populace and not to do anything like gain territory or resources?

(2) The Language

Hm... I think I'll get into this one another day when it's not 1 in the morning.

...also I'd be curious if anyone else is up for this kind of discussion before going too far into it. KF

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Re: LN Book Club! Currently about: 1984, (we can add more)

Postby Alunissage » Fri Mar 10, 2017 7:01 am

I really should read 1984 for basic cultural literacy. We were given a choice between it and Brave New World, and I chose the latter.

I've certainly heard about it, including the language, so I'd be interested in reading what you say.

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Re: LN Book Club! Currently about: 1984, (we can add more)

Postby Kizyr » Sat Apr 01, 2017 4:58 am

Ah, yeah, reading 1984 is actually incredibly helpful for understanding, given how frequently it or its memes are referenced. (Much more than I've noticed for, say, Brave New World or The Handmaid's Tale... although admittedly I haven't read those, so maybe there're plenty of references people make to them but they're just going over my head.) What gets referenced the most are the ways that lies repeated in the "right" way end up forming a new version of the "truth", and how much manipulation of language and meaning can shape, willingly or unwillingly, people's thoughts.

On that note, let's get into the language!

(2) The Language

I've heard before that Orwell wrote 1984 primarily as a way to explore the type of society that would build a language such as Newspeak (much like how Tolkein built up Middle Earth as a place to apply and explore Quenya, Sindarin, and so on). It's... not entirely unreasonable, given how closely the language and the world of the book resemble one another.

First, for those who need a refresher or are unfamiliar, Newspeak is the "new" language being developed by the Oceanic government to replace English (and likely every other language, but going with my original theory that "Oceania" is literally just England). There're basically three goals: (1) simplify the language by reducing the number of words in existence, (2) introduce specific terms with narrow definitions approved by the party, and (3) use these points to not just limit language but limit people's thoughts to just what the language is capable of expressing.

More on (1): They basically eliminate nearly every adjective by replacing them with a root word and some suffixes. For example, you have the word "good", then you can add "plus"/"doubleplus" for emphasis, or "un" for negation. So now, good/plusgood/doubleplusgood replace every positive adjective, and ungood/plusungood/doubleplusungood replace every negative adjective. (Rinse and repeat with words like cold/uncold which now replace cold/hot and all their synonyms, etc.).

I mean this part is interesting enough, since it's performing the exact opposite function of a language. Instead of enabling people to express themselves, it drastically reduces the means of expression.

More on (2): This is the source of most of the 1984 influences that've entered our culture. There're basically three things the party did here:
  1. Restrict the meaning of existing words. The best example from the book was the word "free", which just means the absence of something ("the dog is free of lice"), not anything related to larger concepts of freedom.
  2. Changing the meaning of existing words. The best example here is with things like "Ministry of Truth" dealing with propaganda and manufacturing falsehoods, or "Ministry of Plenty" being in charge of rationing. ...yeah there're a lot of people who like to compare this to the "Department of Defense" dealing with war.
  3. Creating new words and assigning positive/negative meanings. This is where the word "doublethink" came from -- being capable of having two contradictory thoughts and believing them both with complete conviction ("blackwhite" is another similar concept but not as often used in our world). "Duckspeak" is another one, referring to how repetitive someone sounds when speaking fluent Newspeak (though, "duckspeak" and "duckspeaker" are positive things in thie universe). Also, coming up with a new name for organizations or philosophies allows you (or rather the Party) to ascribe whatever positive/negative associations they want (like "Ingsoc").
This goes along with the idea from earlier... It's not just about restricting thought now, but reshaping it.

On (3), this is where having some passing familiarity with the Sapir Whorf hypothesis helps, since it kind of brings home how pernicious and ingenious Newspeak is. (My quick summary... it's basically that language at least influences, if not outright determines, one's thoughts. So the language you speak can have a significant effect on what concepts are easier/harder for you to grasp, or which ideas you're more/less likely to adopt or resonate with.) If your language only enables you to express thoughts that are in line with the Party's philosophy, and no one else could even understand you if you deviated from that substantially, and this is how it's been since your birth, then would you even be capable of even holding any thoughts to the contrary?

Phew... So much of what I've said feels a little light on analysis, since at least half of it was basically stated in 1984 and the Newspeak Appendix itself. But I wanted to raise it considering its direct (albeit malicious) application of the idea that language influences, and can restrict as well as expand, thought. KF

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Re: LN Book Club! Currently about: 1984, (we can add more)

Postby Sonic# » Sat Apr 01, 2017 1:45 pm

Our society already does a lot of language policing, though it isn't as organized, nefarious, or debilitating as Orwell's version. (Summarily, I'd say it's institutionally-organized, discriminatory in some respects but empowering in others.) George Orwell knew the grip a standard privilege dialect like BRP (British Received Pronunciation) and its learned-dialect college varieties could have. These in-dialects are taught to people who end up in high stations and professional work like broadcasting and politics. Even more so than standard American English today, there's a strong connection between "speaking right" or "speaking well" and fitting into a particular, posh paradigm for it. "Grammar" or writing "properly" is often less about linguistically making sense than it is about fitting a social form: putting the punctuation in socially acceptable places, or using words that are appropriate for that social context. (For me, "I'm fixing to make a run for coffee" might not pass everyone's muster; strict SAE people might wince at using "fixing to" as a verb to mean "getting ready to".) The social anxiety around such faux pas is high enough that there are internet articles and advice columns all over the place where people ask about every inane word that could violate the imaginary bounds of proper Englishes. I also encounter it when I teach writing, and kids prepare writing that tries to sound overly formal ("proper English") but are merely mimicking it with big words and turgid syntax that limit the flow of their ideas.

All this is to say that the pressure towards formalized language is pervasive, and people get it from so many places, starting at school and from prestige groups.

And I think Orwell got that, and how easy it would be to manipulate this prestige system (which he observed working in British royalty and among the intelligentsia) to control them. I see 1984 as another kind of post-boarding school culture, where the mastery of doublethink and these other techniques affords a kind of poshness, or at least immediate safety from ridicule. In 1984 the Oceanic government only needed to develop the language and introduce it to the class. The threat of punishment is compelling, but I see the social element as the main driver, one that exists for any bureaucratic prestige dialect.
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"Than seyde Merlion, "Whethir lyke ye bettir the swerde othir the scawberde?" "I lyke bettir the swerde," seyde Arthure. "Ye ar the more unwyse, for the scawberde ys worth ten of the swerde; for whyles ye have the scawberde uppon you, ye shall lose no blood, be ye never so sore wounded. Therefore kepe well the scawberde allweyes with you." --- Le Morte Darthur, Sir Thomas Malory

"Just as you touch the energy of every life form you meet, so, too, will will their energy strengthen you. Fail to live up to your potential, and you will never win. " --- The Old Man at the End of Time

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Re: LN Book Club! Currently about: 1984, (we can add more)

Postby Kizyr » Fri Apr 21, 2017 4:14 am

Yeah I was curious to hear your take on the language element, Sonic#, especially given your background/expertise.

Sonic# wrote:(For me, "I'm fixing to make a run for coffee" might not pass everyone's muster; strict SAE people might wince at using "fixing to" as a verb to mean "getting ready to".)

Oh come on now. You know the proper term is "finna", as in "I'm finna get some coffee". =D

Nah but really, the parallel between the doors opened by having the "right" dialect or how dialect is socially enforced depending on class is a fantastic parallel to how Newspeak works. To support that further, it's heavily implied that Big Brother doesn't care much about policing the thoughts of the proles (lower-class); anyone who could pose a threat would be in the intelligentsia or inner circle, where language and hence thought are rigidly policed, and having the right manner of speech is already a barrier to entry.

The parallel is probably clearer in Britain, since there are more apparent signs of aristocracy and class differences that are reflected by dialect (the connotation of someone with a Cockney or Liverpool accent vs. RP). It's harder to see in the US -- not because we don't have it, but because (a) we don't have the same historical nobility system, and (b) we have a cultural trend that likes to pretend that class doesn't exist. But, we absolutely have dialect supremacy going on: AAVE is seen as unprofessional and people who speak in it need to speak SAE to get into a different class (or at least code switch); I intentionally lost my Southern accent when I moved to DC 'cause I was tired of people saying I always mumbled (which is one way to force someone to change a dialect); etc. etc. In fact, though, this myth we like to believe that there's no class makes it harder, because I find people have a hard time recognizing or admitting when they're engaging in dialect supremacy, instead preferring to believe that it's all about "just being understood" or something more innocuous-sounding.

Say, Sonic#... When you speak in Middle or Old English, what kind of accent do you adopt? I hear the most accurate is something like what we'd consider a Scottish Highland accent. KF

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Re: LN Book Club! Currently about: 1984, (we can add more)

Postby Sonic# » Fri Apr 21, 2017 3:20 pm

In fact, though, this myth we like to believe that there's no class makes it harder, because I find people have a hard time recognizing or admitting when they're engaging in dialect supremacy, instead preferring to believe that it's all about "just being understood" or something more innocuous-sounding.


Yes, this. I taught a course on the history of the English language this fall, and I spent a unit on this. One of the articles we looked at was this one by Vershawn Ashanti Young, a composition and rhetoric scholar who chose to write in AAVE (or as he prefers, Black English) to respond to an argument by Stanley Fish that employed several more "innocuous-sounding" responses to addressing dialect in the composition classroom. The discussion in class was amazing. Several students did speak about the need to "just be understood" or to "get a job." My victory was pushing people critical of and receptive of Young's argument and approach to consider the other side, which included everyone acknowledging that the debate may be about race, class, and power as much as "clarity."

Similarly, as we're both getting at, the proles are allowed to have their own dialect (Oldspeak as the working class has spoken it), but that's actively being rooted out of the intelligentsia. The prestige dialect is a trap; it effaces the cultural origins, the individuality, and the freedom of thought of anyone who enters it. I can see Orwell exaggerating what happens to people when they enter a prestige-school system, like the one he went through as a child at St. Cyprian's. All the jargon, the not-quite-fitting-in for people outside the social class, the need to adapt his speech to it. I don't know if you miss your Southern accent, but despite my deep ambivalence about the South I'd miss some of my dialect markers (y'all, some turns of phrase) if I had to abandon them.

Say, Sonic#... When you speak in Middle or Old English, what kind of accent do you adopt? I hear the most accurate is something like what we'd consider a Scottish Highland accent. KF


I most often read in Middle English. My accent is the result of (a) shifting the vowels to their pre-Vowel Shift configuration [so like long continental European vowels - /a/ tends to be a deep "a" like in father, /e/ tends to be like the "a" like in "cape," /i/ tends to be like the "ee" in "fleece," and a couple of other changes], (b) more glottal stops or ch/gh depending on region [Monty Python's "k-n-ig-it" is in the ballpark for words like "thought," "rough," and "knight"; basically if the consonant is in the word, I pronounce it], (c) depending on the time period, final /e/ might be pronounced or not [imagine saying "doo-kuh" for "duke"; around 1400 this was disappearing and one might say "dook"; pronouncing the "e" makes me lilt more], and (d) other specific changes based on dialect or spelling [ex. Middle Scots spelling wrote "wh" as "qu," with a corresponding shift in pronunciation to roughly the "ch" in "loch."]. Cumulatively, my resulting accent is hard to pin down, but it''s definitely in the range of Scottish/Highlands/Northern England. I've also had it called Irish, though I don't think I'm quite there. But the accent isn't conscious: I'm not trying to affect a particular modern accent.
Sonic#

"Than seyde Merlion, "Whethir lyke ye bettir the swerde othir the scawberde?" "I lyke bettir the swerde," seyde Arthure. "Ye ar the more unwyse, for the scawberde ys worth ten of the swerde; for whyles ye have the scawberde uppon you, ye shall lose no blood, be ye never so sore wounded. Therefore kepe well the scawberde allweyes with you." --- Le Morte Darthur, Sir Thomas Malory

"Just as you touch the energy of every life form you meet, so, too, will will their energy strengthen you. Fail to live up to your potential, and you will never win. " --- The Old Man at the End of Time


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