What are we without language? Without words we cannot express ourselves, think for ourselves or do virtually anything. Everything you read, watch, listen to or even think about every second of every day is made up completely of language. Words define exactly who we are and make up the boundaries of our capabilities.
There are currently more than 6,000 languages spoken in the world, some by only a handful of people. The richness of these languages directly corresponds with how people go through life and what they can do. A tiny tribe living in the middle of the Amazon Rainforest, for example, would be without words as simple as “phone” or “computer”. Without knowing that these words exist, their capability to improve their standard of life or to educate themselves is non-existent.
In George Orwell’s 1984 we see how important language is and how its manipulation can define how people think and limit what they are capable of. Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’ cuts down language, simplifies it and uses it in a way that means the government cannot be threatened. The language prevented people from thinking on their own, meaning that people were unable to think outside of the boundaries and were therefore incapable of rebelling against the system.
This is not only because words such as ‘free’ and ‘democracy’ would not exist anymore (free would only exist in sentences as ‘that house is free of filth’), but also because the destruction of the old words would mean society would dumb down, because there would simply be less words and less grammar, so society wouldn’t be intelligent enough to break the rules.
To look at an example of how language defines our capabilities, we need to compare English and modern-day Chinese. The Chinese language is one that has been simplified, but in a different way to ‘Newspeak’. The simplification of the Chinese language means that there is no dyslexia in China. The spelling of words has gradually been made more phonetic and there are only a simple few language rules.
In contrast the English language contains several hundred rules, many of which contradict each other and is not phonetic in any way. Look at the word “phonetic” as an example – why can’t it simply be spelled “fonetik”?
Rules such as “i before e, except after c” are completely redundant in today’s English. There are more exceptions to that rule than there are concessions to the rule. While these examples do not limit free thought to the same level as ‘Newspeak’, they certainly make it more difficult for the wider population.
The power of language really is mind-blowing; it dictates absolutely everything for us. To sum it up as well as it can be, let’s take into account the words of Stephen Fry, a champion of the English language.
“Language is the breath of God, the dew on a fresh apple; it’s the soft rain of dust that falls into a shaft of morning sun when you pull from an old bookshelf a forgotten volume of erotic diaries. Language is the faint scent of urine on a pair of boxer short; it’s a half-remembered childhood birthday party, a creak on the stair, a spluttering match held to a frosted pane.”
Language is what awakens our senses and make our imaginations tick.
By Ruaidhrí Croke