Random Ramblings about Sarcasm

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As I was attempting to do my grad school homework and was diligently pondering the conceptual model of FRBR, an irrelevant thought occurred to me, and the thought was this: is sarcasm universal or cultural? Somehow, it seems like a specifically modern-American idea that you can communicate effectively by saying something you don’t mean in an unkind tone of voice.

Mark TwainBut that apparently isn’t really the case; sarcasm makes an appearance in plenty of older and non-American writings. Since Mark Twain was fairly renowned for his sarcasm, I feel that it is necessary to mention him here, even though he doesn’t help me make my point because he was American. To give a second example, even though it’s so obvious that it sadly demonstrates my laziness in writing this blog post, Shakespeare’s plays contain a good deal of sarcasm. And Shakespeare didn’t invent sarcasm either; it seems to have always been around. After remembering that even the ancient Hebrew people were sarcastic, (“Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” Exodus 14:11) I decided to find the first Biblical example of sarcasm. It appears to be Genesis 4:9, when Abel says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” I suppose one could debate whether or not that’s sarcasm, but I think it counts. Anyway, the relevant point here is that it’s fairly obvious that sarcasm has been around for a while and that it isn’t specific to a given culture or to a given worldview.

I suppose that the original question isn’t very specific, because the definition of sarcasm isn’t very straightforward. The most basic description of sarcasm is more or less what I said earlier: saying something you don’t mean in an unkind tone of voice. A fairly obvious example is saying, “Yeah, right” in response to a statement that you don’t believe. Sarcasm often is used to insult someone, by saying something that would otherwise be a compliment for the sake of pointing out that it isn’t accurate. An example would be to say, “Well, that was smart!” when somebody makes a mistake.

Doctor Horrible's Sing Along Blog sarcasmAccording to this definition, sarcasm is essentially a low form of irony. I would describe irony as a literary or rhetorical device that makes a point or conveys humor by expressing an implied meaning that is directly contrary to the literal surface meaning. (It is perhaps necessary to point out that the words “irony” and “ironic” are used in many different ways, and it is not necessarily the case that only one of these meanings is correct.) As a form of humor, it is generally fairly subtle. I would argue that this is connected to the difference between irony and sarcasm; irony is intelligent because it involves the artful balance of two conflicting meanings, the surface meaning and the intended meaning. When someone makes a sarcastic remark, though, they don’t intend for anyone to even notice that there is a surface meaning. The implied negativity is meant to be conveyed without the literal meaning being acknowledged, and the remark is therefore lacking in the clever little play on language and meaning that is characteristic of irony. Another distinction between sarcasm and irony, which is probably a little more valid because I didn’t just make it up myself, is that sarcasm is directed at a person, while irony addresses a situation. (This is the line drawn by researchers Melanie Glenwright and Penny Pexman, who performed research on children’s ability to distinguish between sarcasm and irony. The abstract can be found here) Basically, according to either of these distinctions, irony is okay and sarcasm is mean.

I defend this distinction based upon the etymology of the word “sarcasm.” It didn’t exist in English until the late 17th century, but it originates from the Greek σαρκασμος, which is the noun-ified version of a verb that literally means “strip off the flesh.” (This information comes from the Online Etymology Dictionary, but I would like to add the fact that the root word is σαρξ, which means flesh, just so that I can show off the fact that I do happen to know some useful information offhand without having to consult the internet for everything.) Evidentially, throughout the evolution of the Greek language and its influence on the Latin language, “sarcasmus” came to refer to sneering mockery. The word worked its way into the English language in the 1600s, and because of its origin, it necessarily carries the connotation of verbal cruelty.

In fact, many remarks can be classified as sarcasm that actually are literal rather than ironic-ish. I had a couple examples of literal sarcastic quotations at hand, but I took out that paragraph because I thought that the sarcasm of those remarks was debatable. (My favorite was “Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”- Mark Twain) I got them from internet lists of famous sarcastic quotes, so it would appear that, despite my degree of disagreement, they have been thus classified. In each case, they were actually pretty funny, which I guess replaces the ironic-ish nature that is characteristic of most sarcastic dialogue.

Big Bang Theory sarcasm signThis relates to something else I have noticed, which is that sarcasm is very different in writing than in conversation. Because sarcasm can be used as a literary device, it’s more acceptable and less insulting when used in writing. I have noticed that I often post sarcastic things on this blog, and I am okay with that even though I dislike sarcasm in “real life” and try to avoid using it. There’s a big difference between using sarcasm to make a point that you’ve already thought about before you put it where people can see it, and using sarcasm to insult or criticize someone because sarcastic words sprang to your mind more quickly than anything else did. In written or online correspondence, which is the overlap between writing and talking, sarcasm can be very problematic because it is difficult for the reader to identify sarcasm. For this reason, sarcasm should be avoided in a letter or on the internet, unless the context makes the sarcasm extremely obvious. (I am in the habit of putting *sarcasm alert* in front of anything sarcastic that I say on facebook. That probably looks kind of silly to some people, but it’s my opinion that people shouldn’t ever be sarcastic online unless they make it blatantly obvious.)

Essentially, I think that what distinguishes sarcasm as a valid rhetorical tactic from sarcasm as a nasty and uncalled-for habit is whether or not the sarcastic statement was spontaneous. If someone says something sarcastic because they’re frustrated or angry, it’s just an automatic response to negative emotion, and is in no way thoughtful or thought-provoking. Its use is comparable to habitual impulsive cursing. But if someone says something sarcastic after having considered multiple ways of making the same point, they have made an intelligent choice about how best to communicate a certain thought. In that case, sarcasm is not just an empty insult meant to metaphorically tear someone’s flesh; it really is a form of irony that is being used to serve a purpose.

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Really Awesome Fun Things That I Would Do If I Had Time On My Hands

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I should probably start by acknowledging that, when I say “really awesome fun things,” I mean what other people mean when they say, “weird, pointless, and nerdy things.” In fact, people often respond to my “really awesome” ideas by giving me a strange look and saying, “But… why?” And the only answer I have for that is, “Because… awesomeness.” So keep that answer in your mind as you read this list and think, “But…why?” about everything on it.

Number One: Codify the language used on my imaginary planet

Here is the Cherokee syllabary.

Here is the Cherokee syllabary.

On my imaginary planet, they use a language that, unlike English and other Indo-European languages, has a syllabary rather than an alphabet. That means that each syllable is represented by a symbol. This system is not unique to the people of my planet; it is used in some Earth cultures, most notably Japanese and Cherokee. But it is much less widespread than a phonetic alphabet because it tends to be inefficient and more complex. That is, that’s the way it works on Earth. On my imaginary planet, they use a syllabaric language just because I personally think it would be more fun to make up. It actually won’t be too complex because there are only 100 different syllables in their language, and when I say 100, I mean 49, because they count in base seven. The 49 one-syllable words are one-digit integers, pronouns, articles, conjunctions, and prepositions. Two-syllable words are adjectives and adverbs.  Three-syllable words are verb roots, (with a fourth syllable suffix determining tense, mood, and aspect) and five-syllable words are nouns. That allows for a vocabulary of as many as 10,001,010,100 words counting in base 7, which is 282,595,348 in base 10. (I should perhaps acknowledge at this point that there is a significant possibility that my math is wrong, because that is a thing that does happen sometimes.) Considering that there are approximately a million words in the English language, (an exact count would be impossible due to the nature of linguistics) it is safe to say that my planet’s imaginary language would not exhaust its capacity for vocabulary. With the exception of verbs and nouns, this language would have a more limited number of words than most Earth languages, and it is my intention for the grammar to also be simpler and involve fewer exceptions to rules. That’s as far as I’ve gotten; I haven’t formed the syllabary or made up any vocabulary yet. Once I do that, the next step is to translate the entire Bible into my imaginary language. And of course, the translation has to be done from the original Hebrew and Greek, because it is vitally important that all of these imaginary people have a scripturally accurate Bible. (Note: This translation could take a while, because I currently do not know Biblical Hebrew at all and only sort of kind of know a little Biblical Greek.)

Number Two: Memorize lots of Pi

I am a little embarrassed to admit that all of Pi that I can remember is 3.1415. Actually, I thought I remembered a few more digits, but it turns out that I had the 9 and the 2 switched. I was right that the next digit after that was a 6, but that was as far as I could get. I used to know a lot more Pi; I think that at one point, I had about 40 digits memorized. Of course, that’s not extremely impressive because there are some extreme nerds out there who have Pi memorized to a bajillion places. But the point is that I want to be one of those extreme nerds because that seems like a fun skill to have.

Number Three: Be an Artificially Artificial Intelligence

I'm pretty sure that's more or less how Cleverbot works.

I’m pretty sure that’s more or less how Cleverbot works.

This game would make use of an anonymous and random internet chat program, of which there are several in existence. Before beginning, I would make a short list of random phrases. In the first chat, I would enter each of these phrases and make a note of how the other person responded. From that point on, anytime someone uses one of my original phrases, I would respond in the same way that person #1 responded. When chatting with person #2, I would use the phrases that had been typed by person #1 in chat #1. Once again, I would keep track of the responses for use in any later situation where someone types those phrases to me. Over the course of hundreds or thousands of chats, I would build up an extensive list telling me how to respond to things that people say. The longer I do this, the more my chat messages would begin to resemble an actual conversation with an actual person.

Number Four: Organize my wardrobe

This is what I need to do. I need to make a list of every non-underwear article of clothing that I own and determine which of them “go with” which others, so that I have a specific list of every outfit I have available. For each outfit, I shall then determine rules for when and where it can be worn depending upon factors such as degree of formality and suitability in cold or hot temperatures. Finally, I shall make a complicated and convoluted chart that tells me when to wear what. The point of this is not to simplify the process of getting dressed or to save time; the point is to have the fun of consulting a chart. Because that’s a very entertaining thing to do.

Number Five: Finish the mancala algorithm

Mancala Board(I use the word “finish” because this is a project that I have started before. See this blog post from June 2012.) When a game of mancala begins, the first player has six choices, and only one of them makes any sense. It is fairly self-apparent that the number of possible moves increases exponentially for each additional move being considered in the calculation, and that the number of good moves also increases to such an extent that there is a very wide variety of possible outcomes. However, the game of mancala is a lot simpler than, for example, chess or scrabble, so it seems that it should be feasible, although ridiculously time-consuming, to create an algorithm determining what the best series of moves is. One goal of this algorithm is to develop a strategy that will always win; another goal is to determine how early in the game it is possible to predict beyond a doubt who will win. As far as I can tell, the best way to develop such an algorithm is to play lots and lots and lots of mancala and try out lots of possible combinations of moves.  It isn’t literally necessary to play out every possible game, but it will be necessary to try out a lot of them, to try out various ways of continuing the game after various sets of opening moves, and to take a mathematical approach to the outcomes.

Number Six: Learn how to talk in Iambic Pentameter

It seems to me that the ultimate test of quick thinking is the ability to maintain a poetic meter and rhyme scheme in conversational speech. One would have to count stressed and unstressed syllables and think of rhymes all while concentrating on communicating whatever it is that one wants to say in the context of the given conversation. I’m not sure if such a thing would be possible, but it would be so totally awesome if it was.

Number Seven: Continue my experiments on whether putting your hands on your face helps you think

Many people, myself included, will sometimes put their hands on their face while they are thinking, and I am curious about why. In the past, I have made up experiments to test the intellectual effects of this gesture. (See these two blog posts from Summer 2012) These tests have obviously been inadequate to answer this question for various reasons. For one thing, they were conducted in the same way, which measured intellectual activity by memorizing a string of random digits. But memorization isn’t the only kind of thought. It seems to me that a strategic game is a more thorough test of effective thought. Chess is the ideal game for this experiment because it has no element of luck and is more intellectually stimulating than certain other games like checkers. (In case anyone is interested, I dislike the game of checkers and am always glad for an opportunity to say so.) The next experiment would involve playing consecutive online chess games, all using the same time limit, for many hours on end. During some games, I would rest my face on my hands while I think, and during other games, I would make sure not to touch my face at all. This experiment would have to be repeated several times on different days in order to decrease the risk of confounding variables. I imagine that I would need to play a few hundred games before calculating the results. Even then, these results would be meaningless unless I came up with further experiments which would involve other people and other methods of measuring intellectual activity.

Number Eight: Memorize cool movies

Star WarsThis one is pretty self-explanatory. It also is quite obvious that the first couple movies that I would memorize would be Star Wars and The Princess Bride. Others that would be high on the list would be the other Star Wars movies, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Back to the Future trilogy, and The Matrix. You know, all those movies that cool people quote all the time.

Number Nine: Finish this list

This list is incomplete because there are a semi-infinite number of really awesome fun things that I would do if I had time on my hands. There are a bunch that I had intended to include in this partial list that have temporarily slipped my mind, and I’m going to go ahead and post this without them because what I have here is already sufficiently long. Then there are others that I thought of a long time ago and have completely forgotten, and many more that simply haven’t ever occurred to me yet. Just to finish the list would be an unachievable goal. But it would be entertaining to spend a lot of time working on it.

A Grammatical Note on the Usage of Certain Colloquial Words

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To summarize this blog post, here is a helpful diagram showing correct forms of direct address.

To summarize this blog post, here is a helpful diagram showing correct forms of direct address.

The colloquial English word “guy”, in its singular form, is always masculine. In English, the gender of a noun is not as much of an important principle as it is in other languages, because neither the definite nor indefinite article change forms depending upon the gender of the noun, and not even adjectives have gender. But the noun “guy” is singular in that it is exclusively used to refer to a male person. As is to be expected, the plural form “guys” is also masculine and refers to a group of male people. There is one interesting exception to this rule. When used as a direct address, “guys” is gender neutral. A person can start a statement with “Hey guys,” regardless of whether the addressees are male, female, or a group including members of both genders. (If you live in the Southern portion of the United States, the term “y’all” serves the same purpose. Unlike the word “guys”, it is actually a pronoun, since it is a contraction that contains the pronoun “you”.)

The word “dude” is a colloquial term similar to “guy” in usage, but the two are not interchangeable. For one thing, “dude” is used primarily as a form of direct address, and the plural form is significantly less common than the singular. Like the word “guy”, “dude” is technically masculine, but can be used as a gender-neutral form of address. This is handy, given the fact that, as previously mentioned, “guy” is only gender-neutral in the plural. If it wasn’t for the useful word “dude”, there would be an inconvenient gap in the English language, for there would not be a good gender-neutral colloquial term to be used to address just one person. (I am deliberately not counting any words that are fairly unusual or that could be considered profane or derogatory. I also am not counting “hey you”, for the word “you” is actually a pronoun, as previously noted. Additionally, I am not counting “person”, because it is unusual and a little awkward to address a person as “person”. I, of course, do it quite often, for I am unusual and awkward.)

In short, the word “dude”, when used to address someone, is the singular form of the word “guys”, despite the fact that this is grammatically absurd. This just goes to show that colloquial English is just as weird and confusing as the more formal form of this language.

Time Travel and Grammar and Pterodactyls and Stuff

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It has suddenly and randomly occurred to me that I know what would make a degree in English a more awesome thing to have. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying anything against the English degree I do have. I understand and appreciate the benefit of all the different literature classes I took. Of course, I did find some of these classes much more interesting than others, but I don’t at all regret choosing English as one of my two majors. It is a cool thing in which to major, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways it could have been even cooler.

Flaming PterodactylOne problem with majoring in English is that it is very difficult for an English major to be wildly successful, financially secure, and highly accomplished shortly after graduating. I mean, I had intended to become a time-traveling Viking ninja Vulcan pirate princess who rides through the sky on her valiant flaming pterodactyl, saving the world from alien invasions and other disasters. (Except I only just now made up the bit about the flaming pterodactyl, but I like it, so I think I’m keeping it in my official life plans.) But here I am, three weeks after graduation, and my current lot in life is applying for jobs while making plans to attend grad school for library science. Which is, of course, a cool thing to do, but somewhat lacking in time travel and epic interstellar warfare and pterodactyls and stuff, and I don’t even get my own awesome theme music.

Dear Albert Einstein, You really messed up my life with that whole not-traveling-faster-than-the-speed-of-light thing.

Dear Albert Einstein,
You really messed up my life with that whole not-traveling-faster-than-the-speed-of-light thing.

When I was a small child, I was told that America was the land of opportunity and that I could grow up to be whatever I wanted, but now they suddenly tell me that I can’t. Time travel isn’t possible, they tell me, and it probably won’t ever be possible because nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, and I can’t even have a pterodactyl because they’re extinct, and even if I did have one, I couldn’t set it on fire because then it would die. I tell you, my dreams are dead. Deal with it, people tell me. Life is tough, they helpfully add. And so now I’m left to live my ordinary non-time-traveling and pterodactyl-less life and to wonder if maybe things would have worked out better if I’d been a physics major or a biology major or something. I guess we’ll never know. Except that I haven’t ever heard of anyone else having time machines or flaming pterodactyls, so I suppose it’s not possible no matter what your major is. This is very sad and clearly means that the entire educational system is flawed and uncool.

I’m not sure if my cool idea would actually help matters much in that regard, but it would be cool anyway, which is all I’m really aiming to achieve right now. And, while it doesn’t actually facilitate time travel, it would in theory be quite useful in the event that science people manage to invent time travel despite the whole speed-of-light thing. My idea is this: English programs should, in addition to fostering writing skills and teaching literary analysis, involve linguistic studies such as etymology and grammatical development over history. It wouldn’t surprise me if some English programs already do so, but that certainly is not widely considered to be a standard element of college-level English education. I think it should be. Here is a list of reasons for this suggestion.

Pictured: Old English

Pictured: Old English

1. If you’re going to study literature, and you logically decide to include old literature because it’s awesome and educational, you ought to be able to read things that were written a long time ago. Granted, as it is, it’s not uncommon for English majors to learn some Middle English in order to read the Canterbury Tales. I did, and it was pretty awesome. (Note: Neither Middle English nor Old English is the correct term for the language of Shakespeare or the King James Bible or any other writing of that time period. That’s still modern English; it’s just old-fashioned compared to today’s colloquial English. Middle English is very different from modern English, and Old English is literally a different language.) But very few people bother to actually become proficient in versions of English any older than that of Chaucer’s time. It would be very interesting to read even older works, such as Beowulf, without modern translations.

2. It would solve various problems related to the issue of grammar. I admit that I am one of those people who gets annoyed every time I see someone else make a grammatical error. A misplaced apostrophe or a “me” when it should say “I” is enough to distract me, and frequent repetition of such mistakes cause me to question the intelligence of the writer. (I admit that such mistakes do indeed happen in my own writing occasionally, usually because of typing errors, and you can be sure that I am even annoyed with myself in such cases than I am with other people when they make mistakes.) Yet I don’t actually understand grammatical rules and terminology that well. I know when a word is wrong because it’s in the wrong tense or it’s singular when it should be plural or something like that, but I can’t explain things like why one preposition fits a certain context better than another or adequately define things like “pluperfect tense” or “subjunctive mood”. I learned grammar by following the example of people and books that used correct grammar, not by actually memorizing grammatical terms. The grammar that I learned through my schoolwork as a kid all went in one ear and out of the other, and it was neither obvious nor problematic because I was already capable of using correct grammar, even without actually understanding it. Even now that I’ve picked up a more detailed understanding of grammar, I still think it’s a confusing and horribly boring topic. But yet it annoys me greatly that there are so many people who aren’t capable of using correct grammar. I realize that the reason for this is that most people were exposed to more bad grammar as children than I was, but still, that shouldn’t have to mean that bad grammar is considered perfectly acceptable. Sometimes, the meaning is actually altered or at least obscured by grammatical errors, and even when it isn’t, they are a distraction. So clearly, grammar cannot be deemphasized in education, even though it’s boring and hard. But I think it would be both more interesting and less difficult if the rules made sense, and it seems to me that they would make more sense if there was historical context. English is basically a muddle of other languages, so our grammatical rules presumably have their origins in the grammar of these other languages.  There must be some interesting and informative stories behind the development of English grammar.

3. On a similar note, it would be an awful lot easier for an English speaker to learn a new language if he/she already had a good grasp of linguistics. There are relationships between languages, and these relationships are interesting and useful, and I can’t see more about them because I don’t really know much about them. But it would be very cool to be able to use knowledge of one language to more easily learn another language.

I helpfully have provided a picture of a cow. You're welcome.

I helpfully have provided a picture of a cow. You’re welcome.

4. Language and history are just as interrelated as literature and history are. I’m making a distinction between language and literature here in that literature refers to specific works while language refers to the vocabulary and grammatical traditions by which that literature was written. This point obviously relates very closely to the second one. Etymology is interesting and historically relevant. For example, there’s a very good reason why the English words for “cow” and cow meat (also known as “beef”) are different, while the English word for “chicken” and chicken meat (also known as “chicken”) are the same. I first heard this story from my father when I was a young child, but I looked it up to make sure I was getting the facts right. The facts are that the word “cow” has always been in the English language because it comes from the very old Germanic word for the animal, but the word “beef” has only been in the English language since the 1300s and comes from the Old French word “buef”. The word “chicken”, like “cow”, comes from an Old English word which came from an ancient Germanic word. You see, the pre-Norman dwellers of England were Germanic, and they had cows and chickens, but then the Normans came and became the important people in England and continued to speak French for a long time after that. The Germanic English people still had cows and chickens, and they still ate chickens, but dead cow was a food for the richer people, and thus, it was their name for dead cow meat that remained in usage. We hereby see that an event in English history determined the course of the English vocabulary. I would presume that practically every word in the English language has some story behind it that likewise relates the history of that word’s usage.

5. If we ever do invent time travel, we need to be able to communicate with the people of olden times. I seriously doubt that they would be able to decipher our strange modern dialect. Of course, this issue could be avoided if we had a babel fish like in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or if we used TARDISes, which automatically translate for you. But seriously, let’s be realistic here. What are the chances that we’re going to get both flaming pterodactyls and magical translation technology? Not to sound like a broken record, but that pterodactyl is really important to me.

PterodactylSpeaking of which, I shall end this blog post by announcing that I am in the market for a pterodactyl (not a toy one, a real, live, full-size, flying pterodactyl) and I would appreciate it if you would all promise to let me know if you find out where I can get one at an affordable price. Thanks.

There’s this book I’m reading, episode 4

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1984I started reading 1984 by George Orwell a while ago, and I had intended all along to write a blog post about it. Now I’ve finished the book and am reading other things, but I decided to write about it now anyway. 1984 is considered a quintessential Cold War- inspired dystopian novel. That may sound oddly specific, but it really isn’t, because dystopian novels are particularly associated with the Cold War era. As I read the book, I could definitely see why it was such an influential book. My senior seminar paper last semester required me to have a working knowledge of the ideas and motifs inherent in dystopian literature, and 1984 exemplifies them all.

When it was published in 1949, the Cold War was a new development in world politics, World War II was a recent event, and there wasn’t the kind of technological optimism that characterized 1960s science fiction such as Star Trek. In fact, the novel portrays a world that the author describes as being more primitive than the earlier decades of the twentieth century. The only advanced technology shown in the book are the telescreens, which are basically webcams in the walls. That may have been beyond the scope of 1949 technology, but Orwell was being realistic in his assumption that it was technologically feasible in the near future.  This future society that Orwell imagines has degenerated because it has fallen prey to an enforced communism, which he evidently intends for readers to equate with Nazism and Russian socialism. (Not that the Nazis were communists; the parallel there is the military rule and brutality.)

I find Orwell’s predictions to be impressively accurate. Of course, the world had not degenerated into a communist dystopia by 1984, but I think it probably would have if, as Orwell imagines, the countries of the world had merged into just three nations. That idea is, in my opinion, the only non-feasible element of Orwell’s imagined future. I don’t think there’s any way that such a major change could take place in the space of just a couple decades, but if it did, and especially if such a thing had happened in the early years of the Cold War, things probably would have turned out the way they are in 1984.

The world described in the novel is characterized by inescapable government surveillance, a systematic dumbing down of culture in order to make everything politically correct, and a less-than-luxurious lifestyle enforced by government rationing and regulation. These are all things that many people would argue actually are happening. In many cases, there’s some validity to those arguments, although I personally find it silly that anyone could blame the government for their lack of financial prosperity when we live in a country where the average citizen is ridiculously rich by international standards. I mean, seriously, I don’t have money to spare and am very concerned about it, and my family is poor by the standards of most people who go to my college, but I’ve never had to worry about literally starving to death, which is something that really does happen in the real world. And I own so much clothing that I actually need furniture in my room to keep the stuff I’m not wearing at any given time. Compared to the lifestyles of truly impoverished people, that’s some extreme opulence. But that’s really beside the point. The point is that there’s some truth to the argument that 1984 is just an extreme version of the real world, and the extreme government system in the book is just an exaggeration of the way government inherently works anyway.

OrwellThat’s a pretty superficial reading of the book; Orwell makes it very clear that the novel is a critique of powerful governments and of the motives that lie behind politics. Besides, as my dystopian research from last semester indicated, dystopian literature is almost always a political statement. These kinds of stories complain about the government of the author’s time and place by portraying a future version of that time and place that show what the author imagines will happen if the political situation doesn’t improve. Whether the specific issues being addressed are about the environment, about social issues, about the degree of power the government has, or about war, it’s axiomatically true that a dystopian story will be a commentary on something specific.  You can call that a slippery slope fallacy or you can call it a clever literary device, but it’s definitely the way the genre works. It’s very unlikely that anyone would ever write a good book with the premise, “The world is a really great place now, but in the future, it’s going to be terrible.”

Aside from the dystopian predictions about government, another characteristically postmodern element of 1984, which I found to be an interestingly accurate prediction on Orwell’s part, is the idea that truth is relative. This relates to the political aspects of the government because it is the government who sets these truths. The main character, Winston Smith, works at a job that involves altering records in order to hide the fact that the government changes their mind about things. At one point, Winston and his coworkers have an especially big job because their country has started fighting against the country that was previously their ally, and everyone is required to think that the war has always been against the country that is the current enemy. All references to the war in every speech, piece of propaganda, or news story must therefore be altered. This fact control is so prevalent and so successful that even the people doing the alterations don’t see it as lying or covering up the truth. Everyone believes exactly what the government tells them to believe, no matter how directly it contradicts what they know to be true. Winston Smith is unusual in that he has memories that disagree with the official “truth” and that he believes the government to be capable of and responsible for falsehood.  This is considered to be thoughtcrime and insanity, which leads to my favorite quotation from the book: “Perhaps a lunatic [is] simply a minority of one.”

Another thing in particular that really struck me about this book was the concept of “newspeak”. (It took me a few chapters to realize that the phrase is new-speak, not news-speak) Newspeak is basically a simplified version of English. The language is systematically being made less and less expressive by decreasing the vocabulary. Each edition of the dictionary has fewer words than the previous, and this is generally regarded as being a good thing. Words with synonyms are considered to be superfluous and unnecessary. For example, words such as “great”, “excellent” and “fantastic” can be eliminated because they mean the same thing as “good”, and words such as “bad”, “terrible” and “horrible” can be replaced with “ungood”. The people in charge of editing the dictionary are well aware that they are cutting away at subtle shades of meaning when they make certain words obsolete, but they consider this to be a positive thing because of the resulting simplicity. Their ultimate goal is to cut the entire language down to a single word that has such a generic and widespread meaning that it can be used for absolutely everything. Of course, the government is in charge of all this. The result is that, by simplifying language and controlling people’s ability to communicate, the government is controlling people’s thoughts and preventing them from being intelligent, logical, and capable of understanding anything beyond their monotonous everyday work.

As an English major, I’m very fascinated by the power of language. In fact, “the power of language” is a phrase that comes up very frequently in just about every English class I’ve ever taken. If 1984 is ever studied in any English classes at my college, I’m sure that “the power of language” is one of the main points that the professors expect students to take away from this book. It’s an idea that appeals to English professors and English majors alike because, not only is it a fun motif to look for, but it explains why one would want to study English and literature anyway. Nobody would really deny that words are linked to ideas, but the point being made in books like 1984 is that words are ideas; that freedom and knowledge and capability come through the power of vocabulary. If we spoke a language that only had one word, we could only think one thought. Even though the newspeak of 1984 is a long ways away from its one-word goal, it’s still simplified enough that people’s lives and their minds are simplified and they can be controlled like livestock. But, by speaking a language with a large vocabulary and a variety of different options for ways to express any idea, we have much more control over our own world and our ability think logically and capably.

I don’t think this was the primary point of the book, and in fact I think it contradicts Orwell a little bit because it’s a bit too optimistic, but I definitely think that 1984 could be used to make this point. The fate of humanity doesn’t just rest in the actions of the government and the degree of power that it has. Thought control isn’t an inevitable result of a strong government, and people won’t necessarily fall for the deceit of their leaders just because those leaders are overwhelmingly powerful.   It’s not a small detail that one of the mottos of the government equates themselves with newspeak, and it’s not a coincidence that the book begins with Winston starting to keep a diary in oldspeak. The ability to articulate ideas (whether you say them out loud or write them or just think them in words) is the ability to think ideas and to do things; language is the most powerful tool in existence. In 1984, humanity is defeated because their tool of language is being taken away from them. In real life, we can avoid a dystopian future by hanging on to the tool of language.