Language as a Tool to Oppress a Population

It was Jamaica Kincaid, in her essay A Small Place, who considered the problem of language and how it has the ability to control a society. She says the problem is that, “the language of the criminal can explain and express the deed only from the criminal’s point of view” (32). Changing one’s language can have the effect of removing one’s identity as a culture, giving false meaning to certain words, and ultimately leading to oppression. I plan on looking at Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and how the only language he knows is that of his oppressor, Prospero. Caliban is treated like a slave by Prospero and often uses foul language to express his unhappiness for his situation. He realizes that the only language he knows comes from Prospero; as a result Caliban becomes stubborn to improve his level of knowledge and does not progress intellectually.  The main character in Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, faces oppression in almost everything she does. She is taught to consider her situation as a “freedom.” Also, Offred loses her real name; this last connection to her previous life vanishes as she is referred to as “of Fred,” the man whom she is sexually associated with.

To further investigate:

  1. What is the reasoning behind oppressing people? In the case of The Tempest and The Handmaid’s Tale, why are Caliban and Offred controlled in such a way?
  2. What are the psychological implications of the word control Caliban and Offred face? How do they react?
  3. Are there any instances in the novels where there are positive outcomes of a controlled language?

I chose this topic because the idea that the society one lives on can influence or even have complete control over the language of the people interests me. I never really considered it as a problem until I read A Small Place.




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14 responses to “Language as a Tool to Oppress a Population

  1. aeernst

    I think that this topic is interesting in the fact that we have not really discussed it much this semester, and drawing that parallel between these works is going to be really good. I would try to also take consider:
    4) Is the diction of the people oppressed by language significant in any way significant or similar?

  2. siegvald

    One of the first ways to remove somebody’s identity is to take away their language. As Sun Tzu says in “Art of War:” “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” This could be another topic 5. From a militaristic viewpoint, how is the use of language a means to conquer and subdue a people?

  3. smboehm

    I love the idea of your topic. It’s fascinating to think that these characters are being controlled through language– essentially taking away their free will by limiting their expressiveness. I think it would be great for you to look into the characters who taught Offred and Caliban their language.

    6) Are there any similarities between the oppressors? Are there similarities in what they taught to Offred or Caliban?

  4. Kincaid also points out how the only language she or the people of Antigua know is that of their oppressor as well, perhaps you could tie that aspect of her memoir into your paper as well. I like your question #1 however, I believe it is much too large of a topic to address and you need to narrow it down more.

    #7 I think it would of interest to mention the time frame each of these works was written in and their effect on the novel and style of writing. Does the differing time periods make a difference in the form of the oppression expressed through language? Or is language oppression more of a constant characteristic with little change?

  5. stperry1

    Language is obviously a very important tool in this course and the the style of language is very important in regards to the effect these novels have on their readers. I think your topic if very interesting, and it seems that you are willing to delve into the deep meanings and affects language can have on an individual. In regards to the controlling nature of language, the question I would add is:
    #8) Is there a difference in the psychological effects language had in the two different novels?

  6. Samantha Cooke

    I agree with Alyssa in that the first question is broad, though you appear to have narrowed it down with the question immediately following it.

    Offred is telling us her story at a time we can only presume she is free of Gilead, so the narrative in her story is not necessarily controlled by the society’s rules. However, the dialogue she does give us would be.

    9. How does Offred’s diction change, if at all, when she is talking to someone in an official context (as when shopping) versus when she is talking to someone when she is doing something illegal (i.e. Jezebels) versus when she narrates? Also, is there any difference in Caliban’s speech when he is talking to Prospero vs to other characters?

  7. vrosengrant20

    You will have to be careful when analyzing three texts, but it should come out well due to your specific topic. The use of an oppressor’s language is an excellent topic, especially when implemented in your second question in regards to Offred. With Offred you will be able to analyze her behavior before and after she had to change her name and how we never learn her real name though the novel is in the first person narration. This can be taken further with:
    10.) Does the use of a certain name, such as the one given to them by their oppressor, affect the mental status of the characters?

  8. This is a good topic and it seems that you have a good handle on what you will be writing about. One thing that could be interesting and could expand your paper is if you did some research on different languages and their differing diction and how this word choice affects the mentality of the people. You could use this to make corollaries between the diction in the novels you are discussing.
    11. How does the diction amongst characters of different social status’s differ and how does their resulting change in mentality resemble those of people who speak different languages today?

  9. autumncassidy

    I would like to throw a little curveball into your topic. Is not language, or at least the majority of spoken languages, in itself oppressive? Not only are many languages by definition sexist due to their emphasis on the “machismo”, but language is just another area to create conformity.

    Question: Do you think that it would be beneficial to your paper to add some historical anecdotes where language has been used as a weapon of oppression to instill some real-world applicability?

  10. Sophi

    This is a great observation to write about. Language has definitely been used in novels and throughout history as a tool to oppress, but I think you could also consider the extent of oppression of each character. Perhaps you can think about:
    13.) How different is the extent to which language has been used to oppress Offred and Caliban? What, initially, was meant to be oppressed (mentally, physically, etc.) through language, and how well was it accomplished?

  11. This topic is true and has an interesting viewpoint on any society. It’s something we may not look at as an oppression. When I was reading your post about your topic, I immediately thought of what it would be like personally to have someone change my language. Your topic brings forth a good argument, especially by using the texts you chose. Another question to consider is:

    14.) By changing one’s language to something other than their native, is there any way for the person to benefit from it? If so, how?

  12. I found question 10 to be interesting, because even though it is only a small piece of language, it still manages to alter the identity of the oppressed. I think it would be good to examine how much worse off they would be if they did not even speak the language of their oppressors.
    15. What if Caliban and the Antiguans did not even have the same language as their oppressors?

  13. ashleighbarraca

    My short paper focused on oppressive language in The Handmaid’s Tale, so I may be biased, but I think this is a very interesting topic! At first I wasn’t sure how a comparison of Caliban and Offred would work, but all the points you brought up above have convinced me that they are definitely comparable, since your topic is so specific.

    Another thing to think about is: 16) What difference does it make that Offred has her prior English to compare with her current Gileadan English? Can Caliban make comparisons with his native language?

  14. I really like your topic. Language can and usually does take such a huge role in a persons life, especially if a person is in a foreign country. I especially like your second question, it is fascinating (not necessarily in a good way) of how much of a psychological toll taking someone’s native language away can happen.

    17) Why is language so important to a person and their identity? What happens to a person when this “part of them” is taken away?

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