The Giver Questions and Answers
by Lois Lowry

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How do the rules of language affect the characters in The Giver?

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Lois Lowry’s The Giver is about a dystopian totalitarian society. As such, there are strict rules guiding everyday life for the characters, including rules governing language. School children must learn and memorize the "Book of Rules" in addition to learning their academic lessons. There is also a stringent need to adhere to them to avoid the punishment for infractions.

The rules dictate how one person interacts with others, both in public and within the family unit. The “rules governing rudeness” and other rules around language are extremely strict. An infraction or use of the incorrect word is considered a “lie.” Moreover, “precision of language was one of the most important tasks of small children.”

For example, Jonas:

had been trained since earliest childhood, since his earliest learning of language, never to lie. It was an integral part of the learning of precise speech. Once, when he had been a Four, he had said, just prior to the midday meal at school, "I'm starving."

Immediately he had been taken aside for a brief private lesson in language precision. He was not starving, it was pointed out. He was hungry. No one in the community was starving, had ever been starving, would ever be starving. To say "starving" was to speak a lie. (emphasis added)

The author notes that, “the reason for precision of language was to ensure that unintentional lies were never uttered.” This is extremely different from the society in which we live. To say "starving" to convey extreme hunger does not mean that the person speaking was intentionally misleading their speaker—it is understood that the person speaking was just exaggerating.

Moreover, the punishments for breaking the rules are strict and varied, including a humiliating public announcement over the loudspeaker. For saying that they are "starving," a child must apologize in front of the class. Jonas thinks about the consequences of breaking the rules—that “the announcement or the necessary apology…were standard procedures," meaning that Jonas doesn't question the severity of this punishment as something that seems particularly harsh or unnecessary (at least initially). These punishments only seem harsh and unnecessary to an audience who hasn't been conditioned to expect them.

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