Transformations of Language in Modern Dystopias

By David W. Sisk | Go to book overview

8
Claiming Mastery Over the Word

While each of the dystopian writers considered here foregrounds language as the central conflict in their novels, they rarely inform their fictions with accurate linguistic information. This is surprising, given the extraordinary linguistic talents of the polyglot Anthony Burgess, George Orwell's lifelong concern with the English language, and the fact that Suzette Haden Elgin is a professional linguistics scholar. Despite their knowledge of how language actually functions, these dystopian writers tend to recast real-world language practices to fit their own didactic, cautionary tales, to whatever degree seems most effective. Brave New World and, especially, Riddley Walker are set hundreds of years in the future, and yet we find in them languages that are really no different from our own contemporary English. Huxley's dystopia has successfully stopped the cycle of history, and therefore it might be argued that language in the World State has not advanced because nothing has been permitted to advance. No such logical argument can be put forward to explain how Riddley Walker, set more than two thousand years from now, presents us with an English that varies from ours only in its surface details. Orwell's Newspeak defies the rules of actual language development: even supporters of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis would hesitate to assert that an artificial language of limited (and declining) expressive power could actually be legislated into common use, let alone supplant organic languages. Burgess's Nadsat is not truly a language, merely a small vocabulary of twisted Russian words fitted into the structures of English. On the other hand, Elgin's Láadan is perfectly constructed as a workable language--but it makes only a few

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