illustrated portrait of English author George Orwell

George Orwell

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Consider the essays, "Why I Write" by George Orwell and  "Don't You Think it's Time to Start Thinking" by Northrop Frye". What are the similarities and differences between Frye and Orwell's points of view regarding the impact of language on the progress or decline of our society?

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Both Frye and Orwell and think that language has a fundamental impact on the the development of society. They both regard the use of language as being inseparable from larger political and social implications, and Frye explicitly invokes Orwell’s exploration of language as a political tool. ‘Why I Write’ is more biographical and personal than Frye’s essay and some of Orwell’s own other essays on language, but the political dimension of language use still remains an overriding concern.

Frye complains that in modern times people are really taught no more than the basics of reading and writing: 

 A society like ours doesn't have very much interest in literacy. It is compulso­ry to read and write because society must have docile and obedient citizens. We are taught to read so that we can obey the traffic signs and to cipher so that we can make out our income tax, but development of verbal competency is very much left to the individual.

Frye thus comments on the manipulation of language as a political tool to keep the masses in control, to prevent them from becoming too bright and articulate and thereby to start questioning the way that society is run. This is the same argument that Orwell uses elsewhere, that a society’s rulers deliberately dumbs down language use in order to shrink the intellectual capacity of people and prevent them from challenging the system, as exemplified by the use of Newspeak in 1984.

The political and intellectual dimension of language use, then, is seen by both Frye and Orwell as being overwhelmingly important, especially in modern times. However, there is a difference of emphasis between the two writers here. Orwell sees the issue as being particularly urgent in the context of the 1930s and 40s, the time of totalitarian regimes like Stalinism and Nazism, a situation which he says, simply leaves no room for non-political discussion; he talks of the 'essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us'.  Therefore, in his view, language must be employed by the writer as a weapon against political oppression, as he has chosen largely to do, moving away from the more purely aesthetic considerations of his earlier writing career. Writing after Orwell, Frye doesn’t link the issue to a specific era of political urgency, but rather sees the manipulation of language as a worrying trend in modern society as a whole.

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