The personal blog of an applied linguist, writer, & educator

Add Sapir-Whorf to Post-Modernism and You Get an Orwellian Ministry of Truth

One of the deterrents of regular exercise is the time it consumes from my daily budget of productive hours, so I’ve developed a habit of catching up on podcasts at the gym to fill more of my day with literature and quality language. It so happened that tonight’s listening regimen struck a serendipitous chord on the topic of censorship and the abuse of language.

I started off with Lexicon Valley with John McWhorter — a language podcast I started listening to this year. John’s topic tonight was “performative” outrage over words, in which he addresses the phenomenon of people censoring specific words because at one time said words were associated with actions that have become odious. The specific word John takes up is the word “master,” as in a “master bedroom.” He argues that word police who set out to strike words they deem associative with problematic history would rather stage public displays of outrage in lieu of addressing real social problems. He illustrates this point with the recent trend to drop the word “homeless” and replace it with “unhoused” (he doesn’t mention “unhoused” per se, but I’m pretty sure that’s what he had in mind).

So, great. This argument preaches to the choir on my Spotify playlist. Lexicon Valley concluded, and I switched over to an older episode of The Writer’s Voice. I haven’t listened to this show in a while, but yesterday, I saw someone post an older episode on Twitter that featured a short story by Salman Rushdie. Since Rushdie had given his first interview since the attack he suffered in New York roughly 6 months ago, he was on my mind. You can listen to the episode here:

I love short stories, and I particularly enjoy short stories by authors whose style interests me. The short story affords the reader (or listener in this case) a glimpse into the artistry of an author in a manageable context without all of the bloat that comes with a full-length novel. You can hold the structure of a short story in the mind to consider its introduction, characterization, complicating events, and conclusion much better than a novel. But I digress. I saw the tweet and saved the episode for later.

So later arrived, and it so happened that Rushdie’s story concerned the abuse of language — not just the abuse of language — the abuse of controlling, and then neglecting, language.

Bear in mind, few people on Earth have a better claim to opine on the subject of censorship than Salman Rushdie — a man who is still recovering from a terrorist attack on account of a book he wrote 30 years ago titled The Satanic Verses.

First, the story itself is sublime. It depicts a hypothetical piazza (that’s not in Italy; Rushdie is emphatic on this point as the narrator of the story) that represents a microcosm of the conversational sphere of society. A woman personifies language, and she appears at the piazza. There’s also an old man, who seems to represent people who reduce language to black and white. In the story, society has emerged from an era that banned the word “no,” only to discover that they have found ways to abuse their language in worse ways.

I don’t want to give away more than that; you should listen to the story. I didn’t mention that The Writer’s Voice bestows the added bonus that Rushdie tells the story himself in his delightfully resonant English baritone.

More on Orwellian Thought-Policing …

After I began writing this post, it occurred to me that Bill Maher also touched on this subject last Friday in his “New Rule” segment. This must have been the week for pushing back against the “Red Guard” leg (Maher’s analogy, not mine) of the Democratic party. Maybe, they coordinated; they are friends, after all. You can watch that segment here:

It’s after 1 AM though, and I teach tomorrow, so I need to get some sleep.








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