Big Brother is Watching Your Language, Literally: How 1984s Big Brother and Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale uses Language as a Tool of Power


‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.’ Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher of language amongst many others, described the power of language along these lines. Dystopia is ‘‘an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives’’. A fundamental characteristic aspect of dystopian worlds is control over others, whether it is technological or torture, the restraints are always in the hands of others. This control is accomplished by many things; the Bokanovsky Process that is used in of Brave New World for instance. 1984 and the Handmaid’s Tale on the other hand, instead of making use of an intricate scientific-technological development, they use language to gain and maintain their political power. According to language scholar, Henry Sweet, “Language is the expression of ideas by means of speech-sounds combined into words.” (Crystal and Robins) Provided that, language by definition is a way to convey ideas, it is no wonder it can be utilized to establish and assert ideologies as well. Moreover, considering that dystopias are usually written as an exaggerated cautionary tale of what could happen, naturally, the power of language and misuse of that power for control over others is going to be a common theme. George Orwell’s 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood are great illustrations on how the power of language can be used to oppress and control people as well as be a weapon of defiance.

Gilead does not make up an entirely new language, rather the country just like its general views retracts into a more conservative, religious expression. Although some words like abortion, are criminalized, most are changed and renamed. This renaming extends to most things from calling soldiers angels for them to be viewed in a better light or referring to Black people as “Children of Ham” to ostracize them. Atwood demonstrates the restriction and gaslighting towards women, with the naming of ‘The Ceremony’. They chose a word with positive and religious connotations, something that could be seen as holy. Gilead was able to make state-sanctioned rape normal, even sacred in people’s eyes with the help of language’s influence. Additionally, erasing women’s identities with the classifications of their limited positions in society is one of the most noticeable oppression against women through language in the book. As exemplified by the names of handmaids, all women are defined by is who they belong to and whether they can get pregnant or not. Names of women that being their identities do not matter in Gilead; all women are always inferior, second-class citizens to men. Serena Joy is also a substantial figure in the use of language in The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred remembers seeing Serena Joy on television ‘Her speeches were about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay home. Serena Joy did not do this herself, she made speeches instead, but she presented this failure of hers as a sacrifice she was limiting for the good of all.’’(Atwood 41) Serena Joy’s speeches, her use of language helped made Gilead what it is. She was one of the people that nurtured this religious society’s basic ideals. Through Serena Joy, Atwood illustrates what can happen when carefully chosen words are exploited efficiently. 

Thought police and ‘Rats eat your face’ torture was not the only means of oppression and control that Big Brother used in people of Oceania. They also built their own language named Newspeak and considering it was probably done by a group of old white men, it is worse than anyone could imagine. Newspeak is a version of English that has been reduced to its bare minimum. There are no synonyms no comparative superlatives, if you want to say that something better, then you use goodplus, for best goodplusplus and this goes on. According to the Sapir and Whorf Hypothesis, language can influence the way we think and even possibly determine thought. Newspeak is developed with this exact aim, to ‘not only to provide a medium of expression for the worldview and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.’ (Orwell, 174). Therefore, Big Brother controls you and what you think not just with good old-fashioned propaganda but also by putting their words into your mouth. For instance, it is explained in the Appendix that, by removing words like ‘free’ from the official dictionary, and from people’s mental dictionary they get rid of their concept and actual meanings as well. Free is still used with its other connotations but not with the meanings that the Big Brother does not classify suitable. Along with mashing up words and erasing ‘unnecessary’ ones, the slogans of Big Brother like ‘War is Peace’ are examples of how they use language for their advantage. Newspeak has a word called ‘doublethink’; it is an act of accepting two contradictory things at once. Doublethink in itself is contradiction needs the practise of doublethink, in addition to the slogans. Hence, it is a great demonstration of Big Brother’s power and control over its subjects. If people do not question those in charge, even when faced with such nonsense, then that authority holds the ultimate power over the people.

(Illustration by Kell Kitsch, Deakin University)

However, just like Winston’s rebellions with his diary and imagination, Offred, the main character and the narrator of the book, has her own too.  Atwood’s examples of defiance through language are simple yet, monumental. For instance, she deliberately holds onto her name, even if it is just in her mind. She also uses ‘lie’ and refuses to use the more passive spelling ‘lay’. Another example of defiance happens at the red centre between the handmaids, ‘‘In this way we exchanged names, from bed to bed: Alma. Janine. Dolores. Moira. June.’’ (Atwood, 2). This shows solidarity between the women and a silent rebellion against their oppressors. The ‘ Nolite te bastardes carborun-dorum.’ quote that was left by the previous Offred gives our Offred determination to live maybe secretly under the covers or in a small corner of the wardrobe but push through, do not let them crush who you are. After all, that is why Winston loses, when he lost his identity, he lost to Big Brother. Atwood shows many times how much influence words can hold. When Offred and the commander play Scrabble for example, ”Offred grows more confident as she regains control over her words.”(Zivic, 35). In a power play with words, she wins. The rebellions name against Gilead, mayday, for example, it used to be a distress signal for planes that meant imminent danger. Contrarily in Offred’s world, it means that if no one comes to our aid, be your own lifeline.

In conclusion language has immense power over the people and that power can be exploited by anyone to establish and maintain control. Dystopian novels being drawn from real life, they illustrate the abuse of this power in their themes. 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale show the influence of language and how it can be used to serve totalitarian regimes. While Atwood’s Gilead makes use of more archaic religious vocabulary to manipulate its citizens, Oceania of 1984 restricts the perspective of the people by shrinking the vocabulary. Both The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 present their readers how the influence of language can be utilized to limit and control people graphically, to them of a possible future.

Works Cited

Addis, Richard. “1984 at 70: Still Relevant Says Orwell’s Son.” The Day, 9 June 2019, Accessed 4 Feb. 2021.

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: Anchor Books, 1998.

“Dictionary.”, 2020, Accessed 3 Dec. 2020.

Orwell, George. 1984. London: Secker and Warburg, 1949.

Robins, Robert Henry, and David Crystal. “Language.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 29 Oct. 2020,

Zivic, Jelena. “A Dystopian Society in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.” Graduation thesis, Josip Juraj Strossmayer University of Osijek, Faculty of Philosophy, 2014.

One thought on “Big Brother is Watching Your Language, Literally: How 1984s Big Brother and Gilead of The Handmaid’s Tale uses Language as a Tool of Power

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  1. As you might guess, I really really enjoyed reading your article, Başak 🙂 I love the topic! Great analysis!
    Hope we’ll see & read more from you:))


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