“Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism. In the year 1984 there was not as yet anyone who used Newspeak as his sole means of communication, either in speech or writing. The leading articles in The Times were written in it, but this was a tour de force which could only be carried out by a specialist. It was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak (or Standard English, as we should call it) by about the year 2050.”
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
In 1975, Dr. W. A. Verloren Van Themaat (1931-1996), a Dutch mathematician, poet, linguist and Esperantist wrote to Bernard Crick about the possible influence of Esperanto on George Orwell’s great satirical novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four:
Dear Prof. Crick,
I have read, that you are writing a biography of Orwell. I have found a possible source of one detail in the works of Orwell.
In Newspeak, the artificial new official language of Oceania, the adjectives for many notions, for which English has separate stems, are formed by prefixing un to their opposites, e.g. ungood instead of bad, unwarm instead of cold etc. In this detail Newspeak has a striking structural similarity to the constructed language Esperanto, which also uses the prefix mal-, denoting the opposite of a notion, to form the words for many notions, for which most natural languages use separate stems. E.g.
bona = good, mal-bona = bad
granda = great, mal-granda = small
juna = young, mal-juna = old (as in the opposite of young)
nova = new, mal-nova = old (as in the opposite of old)
longa = long, mal-longa = short
varma = warm, mal-varma = cold
He went on to suggest Crick investigate whether Orwell knew Esperanto or if it was “a mere coincidence” that Newspeak shared some linguistic features:
Crick, a democratic socialist and political scientist with strongly held beliefs, published the first complete biography of Orwell in 1980, five years after receiving the letter from Verloren Van Themaat. Although he did take the time to interview officers of the British Esperanto Association, based in London, in June 1978, it appears Crick never really understood the significance of this artificial language on Orwell’s Newspeak.
He was not alone.
The many biographers who followed, with the possible exception of Gordon Bowker, neglected to analyse, ignored or rejected Esperanto as an influence, not just on Orwell’s construction of Newspeak but on his thinking about language, history and the zeal with which intellectuals use words to achieve their revolutionary, political goals. Recent, excellent books, such as Dorian Lynskey’s The Ministry of Truth and On Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Biography by DJ Taylor also give no credence whatsoever to Orwell’s knowledge of Esperanto and Esperantists in their analysis of Newspeak or the novel.
There is an understandably well-trodden path, exploring Orwell’s BBC experience as a propagandist, while Talks Producer for the Indian Section of the Eastern Service, which reveals the influence of Basic English on Newspeak. Taking another look at this familiar story is worthwhile as it leads to a reconsideration of the significance of Esperanto.
“Basic English is an attempt to give to everyone a second, or international, language which will take as little of the learner’s time as possible. It is a system in which everything may be said for all the purposes of everyday existence: the common interests of men and women, general talk, news, trade, and science.” C. K. Ogden
In August 1942, Orwell first mentioned Basic (British American Scientific International and Commercial) English in a letter written to a potential guest for a talk to be broadcast as part of the BBC’s Eastern Service series, ‘I’d Like It Explained’. Orwell explained that he wanted to “popularise the idea that Basic English will be particularly useful as between Indians, Chinese and other Orientals who don’t know one another’s languages, and that we have as an initial advantage the fact that between five and ten million Indians know a certain amount of standard English”.
Charles Kay Ogden was determined that Basic English would become the auxiliary world language. He eschewed artificial languages and had commenced a project in 1923, based on elaborate semiotic theory, to develop an easily mastered version of English. The book he co-authored, The Meaning of Meaning (1923), has insights into his thinking which would have interested Orwell (if he knew/read it):
“Symbolism is the study of the part played in human affairs by language and symbols of all kinds, and especially of their influence upon Thought. It singles out for special inquiry the ways in which symbols help us and hinder us in reflecting on things.”
By 1928, Ogden believed that 850 words could do the job of 20,000 and in 1930 published, Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar.
More than one hundred books in Basic English were published between 1931-1939 by the Orthological Institute, founded by Ogden in 1927 for linguistic research. Ezra Pound, Lawrence Durrell and H.G. Wells (in The Shape of Things to Come) were notable literary figures who championed the language which was being taught in more than 30 countries around the world by the start of World War II.
Ogden wrote to Orwell in October 1942, after hearing the BBC broadcast, enquiring about the response to the program. Orwell explained that:
“When we did Miss Lockhart’s talk my idea was, if possible, to follow this up sometime later by a series of talks giving lessons in Basic English which could perhaps afterwards be printed in India in pamphlet form. I still have not given up this project but I must tell you that it has come up against a great deal of discouragement and opposition, some of which I understand and some not. You, no doubt, know the inner workings of this controversy better than I do. If, at any time, it seems possible to do something about Basic English on the air again I will of course get in touch with you.”
In 1943, Churchill expressed his enthusiasm for the project and established a War Cabinet Committee to study its further implementation. Franklin Roosevelt was also positive at first but in a draft of a letter to Churchill during mid-1944 skeptically wondered “what the course of history would have been if in May 1940 you had been able to offer the British people only blood, work, eye-water, and face-water, which is, I understand, the best that Basic can do with the famous words”.
In June 1946, Ogden assigned his copyright to the Crown for £23,000 and a Basic English Foundation was established by the Ministry of Education in 1947. Orwell must have known of the advocacy from Churchill and Roosevelt for this simplified form of English and one assumes he knew of the financial support from the state.
There is no debate about the centrality of Orwell’s experiences at the BBC and interest in Basic English as crucially important influences on Orwell’s development of Newspeak. D.J. Taylor suggests one of Orwell’s closest colleagues at the BBC, William Empson, was particularly enthusiastic about the “techniques pioneered by Professor C.K. Ogden and, as such, a more than plausible candidate for the original of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Newspeak-obsessed Syme”.
Dorian Lynskey makes the point that “the idea of a purer, clearer English didn’t strike Orwell as necessarily malign. In fact, he thought that it might be beneficial”. Orwell never really condemned Basic, viewing it as a “very simple pidgin dialect”. Orwell understood Basic English was not at all conducive to “doublethink” and wrote in a Tribune column during 1944 that:
“…you cannot make a meaningless statement without its being apparent that it is meaningless—which is quite enough to explain why so many schoolmasters, editors, politicians and literary critics object to it.”
Orwell understood that Basic English was intended as a stepping stone to full English, not a replacement for it.
Orwell’s and the other Artificial Languages
“There have, it seems, been over 300 artificial languages already, and five or six of them (apart from Basic English) are still more or less in the field.”
George Orwell, Manchester Evening News, 1943
Orwell’s letters and choice of books to review reveal his interest in universal languages. He was taken to task by one correspondent who read his review of Interglossa by Lancelot Hogben in the Manchester Evening News (1943):
“I would like, however, to point out what appeared to me to be a misstatement. Orwell said, “Professor Hogben’s chief foe, of course, is Basic.” Rather would I suggest that the chief foe is Esperanto.
I have never met anyone who could speak Basic, and believe there are very few such people. Neither has Basic ever been tried at an international conference.
Esperanto, though, can be found all over the world. Large international Esperanto congresses have been held with complete success. This language has stood the test of over 50 years’ usage by people of all nations, and before the war it could be heard over as many as 48 European broadcasting stations.”
Orwell was antagonistic towards Esperanto and Esperantists and in another newspaper column stated that he wished he “had read Basic English versus the Artificial Languages before and not after reviewing the interesting little book in which Professor Lancelot Hogben sets forth his own artificial language, Interglossa”. Orwell made the aside that the “sheer dirtiness of fighting the feuds between the inventors of various of the international languages would take a lot of beating”.
The book, admired by Orwell in his Tribune column (28th January, 1944) is worth examining in more detail as it criticises Esperanto at some length. Not only is there a contribution from “Miss Lockhart” who Orwell knew from her guest appearance on the BBC but also the British Esperantist, Paul D. Hugon, “formerly Esperanto Instructor to the City of London College, and the London County Council” makes a significant contribution detailing the difficulties English speakers have with this artificial language.
On the 1st March 1944, Orwell wrote again to Ogden:
Dear Mr. Ogden,
Very many thanks for the booklet. I was aware, of course, that you have much to put up with from the Esperanto people, and that that was why you drew attention to their very unfortunate choice for the verb “to be” or whatever it is. We have had them on to us since mentioning Basic, but I have choked them off. Also the Ido people.
As I told you when I was in the B.B.C. (I have left there now) there was great resistance against doing anything over the air about Basic, at any rate for India. I rather gathered that its chief enemies were the writers of English textbooks, but that all Indians whose English is good are hostile to the idea, for obvious reasons. At any rate it was with great difficulty that I got Miss Lockhart on to the air.”
Orwell had another source for his knowledge of Esperanto and Esperantists that he did not let on to Ogden. In the edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) Crick annotated four years after the publication of the biography, he acknowledged that “Orwell’s favourite aunt, Nellie Limouzin, lived with a Frenchman who was a fanatic for Esperanto: an international language designed to bring an end to the tower of Babel and to war. In Orwell’s pamphlet collection there are both texts written in Basic English and Esperanto items.”
The booklet Ogden gifted Orwell does not appear to have survived but it is worth noting an Esperanto text in his collection, Budao, by P.L. Narasu, the Indian social reformer and Buddhist philosopher who believed the caste system to be a crippling disease.
Unlike Dr Verloren Van Themaat, we know that Orwell’s aunt, Nellie Limouzin, one of the most significant relatives in his life, devoted decades to studying and teaching Esperanto, as well as writing and editing the work of others in this language. Her husband, Eugène Adam (better known by his pseudonymous name, Lanti) was a towering intellectual figure in the movement and had founded Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda (SAT) in 1921.
Lanti was a proponent of anationalism (non-nationalism). He wished to eliminate the very concept of the nation state for social organisation and it is worth quoting at some length from an important 1931 manifesto outlining his aims, Manifesto de la Sennaciistoj:
“We feel certain, that the practical application of Esperanto for several years on the part of class conscious workers must inevitably lead them, first, to the beginnings of a non-nationalist state of mind, and later, to a clear presentation of problems from a non-nationalist point of view. We have no doubt that many comrades will find in the following pages the explanation and the confirmation of what they have more or less vaguely felt and thought for a considerable time.
They will no doubt agree with us that a real revolutionary must be capable of thinking ahead. Otherwise he is only narrowly conservative. Worker Esperantists must therefore draw all the logical conclusions which would follow from the general application of an artificial universal language.
The fact remains that the most authoritative men in the working class movement esteem and revere their national culture and advocate its perpetuation. And are we to wonder at the above mentioned facts? Not at all. Generally speaking political parties are out to secure power in their respective countries. Every party therefore, must utilise in its propaganda the human material to which it directs its appeal. Since this material has been made what it is by centuries of education given in a national language through a national literature, art and so forth, it is quite natural that political agitators have no inclination to confront the prejudices of the masses, and to recommend the pursuit of the class struggle by methods which ignore national characteristics. Usually they only follow, or at best, keep abreast of progress. Their task is to bring existing conditions into order, to adapt themselves to existing circumstances and to discover some sort of equilibrium among many diverse social forces, but in no way, to perform pioneer work. The above assertion is well substantiated by the nationalist policy of Soviet Russia. There, those in power are not trying to abolish national differences; on the contrary, they are helping small peoples to acquire a separate national culture. That is a purely internationalist policy.
Non-nationalists would introduce the teaching of Esperanto into all schools, and so promote a universal non-nationalist culture. Further, since a common language is necessary to the intercourse of all the nations which are contained within the vast territory of the Soviets, it is the Russian language which is becoming, more and more, the official auxiliary language. We do not, of course criticise this linguistic imperialism. On the contrary, we prefer to see one language supreme over a huge territory rather than the awakening of patriotic sentiment in the Ukraine, White Russia and elsewhere.”
Lanti believed that Esperanto could be used for political education and the reorganisation of the world.
Orwell was close to his aunt (known to other Esperantists by her initials, E.K.L.) who tirelessly encouraged and supported her nephew’s endeavours to become a writer. Orwell’s note to his agent in 1934 suggests (and the one surviving letter from Nellie also indicates) ongoing communication about intellectual, political and literary matters:
“Do you think any publishing firm would undertake the translation of a French book named “Esquisse d’une Philosophie de la dignité humaine”, by Paul Gille? I think I could get the author to let me translate it if any firm would do it. The author writes to my aunt’s husband, who is translating the book into Esperanto.”
During the late 1920s, Orwell met Esperantists who were deeply involved in the writing and editing of radical periodicals, pamphlets and dictionaries who resided with Nellie and Lanti, such as Lucien Bannier and Norbert Barthelmess.
Émile Grosjean-Maupin, the French directeur of the Plena Vortaro de Esperanto (1930), the first truly comprehensive dictionary written entirely in Esperanto, thanked Lanti in his foreword, acknowledging that it was his persistent support, advice, shrewdness and tact that led to the dictionary being published:
“Fine ni citu la nomon de S-ro Lanti, kiu seninterrompe bonvolis al ni helpadi kaj konsiladi, kaj nur dank’ al kies aktiveco, ĉiam sagaca sinteno kaj takto efektiviĝis la entrepreno.“
Barthelmess and Bannier would have also been involved in the project.
Orwell, after departing Paris in December 1929, continued to have close contact with Esperantists and their ideas. He worked in a bookshop during the mid-1930s owned by Francis and Myfanwy Westrope, committed Esperantists and close friends with Nellie. Many members of the Independent Labour Party, which Orwell joined briefly were also British Esperantists, like the Westropes and Mark Starr, who knew Nellie through her long connection to both movements.
In 1945, Nellie organised for Orwell, who was working as a war correspondent, to bring canned food and other supplies to Lucien Bannier, in Paris. Letters in the SAT archive up until Nellie’s death (in the same year as her nephew) reveal Bannier was loyal to her after she was deserted by Lanti in 1936, endeavouring to facilitate the state pension that was legally hers to claim.
Esperantists, across generations since the novel was first published, have noted that characters in Nineteen Eighty-Four, like Syme and Ampleforth, appeared to be amalgams of Lanti and Barthelmess (a German writer obsessed with revolutionary change and poetry).
Crick and Esperanto
“The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought – that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc – should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.”
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
Dr Verloren Van Themaat wrote to Bernard Crick as he had a special academic interest in Esperanto literature and its reception outside the Esperanto movement. It is possible that Crick responded but we do know the Dutch Esperantist’s letter was stored in a folder of ‘unused’ materials for Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Scholars writing in Dutch, Esperanto, French, German and Japanese, employing sources not found in English language biographies, have long pointed out that Crick made many factual errors and some believed he held prejudicial attitudes (Borsboom; Bartelmess; de Wit; Lins; Michéa; Okuyama; Tsubota). It is very important to understand that Crick’s biography posited that the “suppression” (by Orwell) of Aunt Nellie and Eugène Adam from his accounts of Paris was because “they were, if not full-blown cranks, certainly crankish”. This observation has always seemed unfair to Esperantists who feel Crick employed caricature, rather than providing an historically accurate account, noting basic and more serious errors such as:
– incorrect dates for the founding of SAT (1921 not 1928)
– Lanti was born in Normandy not Brittany
– the claim that Lanti would only speak in Esperanto (which has been debunked by pointing out that he published books in French, naming the probable source of the myth and providing corroborating correspondence from Barthelmess who said this was untrue)
– Lanti’s politics
– mis-characterising the apartment where Lanti and Nellie lived for ten years as ‘a small top flat in a poor building’ rather than a newly-built house with a lift, two bedrooms, one study, an entrance hall, kitchen and a bathroom
– the frequency of Orwell’s visits to his aunt’s apartment
In fairness, Crick, quite reasonably, argued that:
“… when George Orwell emerged from Eric Blair, he wore the clothes of common sense. By 1936 he came to believe that the main business of political writing and practical politics was to catch the ear of the lower middle classes whom he believed should be the natural leaders of the people, and who were equally victims of capitalist exploitation and illusion. So in The Road to Wigan Pier there is the magnificently comic and violent tirade against the pollution of Socialism by “cranks” (as good as anything in the early novels of H. G. Wells); but all this earlier time, indeed all the early years before his great fame, he had mixed a lot with such people, liking their individuality and tolerant eccentricity. He was then more than a little bohemian himself, despite his moral earnestness. Later he made no mention of such people, even though he was exposed to their ideas (without fully sharing them) earlier than is usually thought and than he would ever admit; precisely the ideas, in this case, if the speculation is correct of a Left-wing anti-Communism, posing hopefully as the nucleus of a popular mass movement, but in fact small if vastly intellectual, and with a dash of anarchism. The bookshop proprietors in Hampstead that he was later to work for were also Esperantists of the same political persuasion as their friends, Nellie Limouzin and Eugène Adam . And Orwell was to have a passing phase of interest in Basic English, seen as a rival to Esperanto but to serve the same great pacific purpose.”
Possibly Crick’s analysis was awry and that Orwell, who rarely wrote about his family or even mentioned them to friends, was simply not going to talk about Nellie or her husband, especially considering Lanti left Paris in 1936 never to return to the country or his wife.
It seems unlikely Crick (or others for that matter) had read any Esperanto documents, knew of Lanti’s support for the 1930 Esperanto dictionary or the content of the 1931 manifesto. There is no evidence that Orwell knew of these documents either but his close relationship with his aunt suggests he was more than familiar with the politics and ideology of Esperanto. Bannier, interviewed in 1983, too late to influence Crick’s research, claimed that Orwell had no respect for Esperanto and quarrelled with Lanti about politics.
As a measure of the challenges in Orwell scholarship employing non-English language evidence, the story behind one oral source for this period is worth recounting. Stephen Wadhams interviewed friends, family and acquaintances of Orwell for a Canadian radio programme broadcast in January, 1984. One of his producers conducted a phone interview in French with Lucien Bannier, a significant Esperantist who knew Orwell. Somehow, the name was recorded as “Louis” Bannier and every Orwell scholar since has made the same error for the best part of four decades.
A core tenet of Esperanto has always been about uniting people by showing mutual respect. During the 1930s and 1940s Esperantists were persecuted by totalitarian governments who prohibited their language. In the early 1920s, Lanti travelled to Moscow hoping that Esperanto could be taught in the curriculum of post-revolutionary Russia (see Masha Karp’s excellent article). This failed and by 1937 there were terrible purges of Esperanto intellectuals. We see this pattern in Nineteen Eighty-Four:
“The great purges involving thousands of people, with public trials of traitors and thought-criminals who made abject confession of their crimes and were afterwards executed, were special show-pieces not occurring oftener than once in a couple of years. More commonly, people who had incurred the displeasure of the Party simply disappeared and were never heard of again. One never had the smallest clue as to what had happened to them. In some cases they might not even be dead.”
Orwell was obsessively interested in how language can be distorted to manipulate minds by limiting thought. Basic English, Esperanto and the myriad other artificial languages were not intended for malign purposes. The founders had utopian goals, seeing shared language as a tool for achieving world peace. Lanti believed the political uses politicians made of nationalism would be countered once the whole world was able to communicate in a shared language. Ogden had similar ambitions.
Newspeak is a kind of anti-Esperanto when one considers how Zamenhof’s artificial language is infinitely subtle, permits nuanced thought and expression (which is one of the reasons, I am reliably informed, that it can be challenging to translate). In the hands of a skilful linguist, it is a useful bridge to translate the works of one language into another. Unlike Newspeak, it expands the potential for thought rather than limiting it.
Understanding Orwell’s connection to Esperanto and Esperantists has been neglected by those considering the antecedents and influences on the mind that wrote one of the most important novels of the twentieth century.
There is no dispute from Esperantists that a close linguistic comparison of Basic English and Esperanto with Newspeak reveals the former to be more closely aligned with Orwell’s parodic language. Ironically, neither Esperanto or Basic English are languages of oppression. Orwell creatively drew on his knowledge of both systems and their proponents as well as a myriad of other personal experiences – from school, Burma, Paris, at the BBC, his admiration for Jonathan Swift, Cablese and his wide-reading – to develop Newspeak for his satirical novel.
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*Special thanks to my Japanese, French and Esperantist friends for their ongoing and patient intellectual generosity (especially David Lilley for his translations and Vinko Markovo for answering my questions about Esperanto language and history).
This post is a draft of an academic paper I am working on. Comment and criticism, however warm or cool, is welcomed.
NB The detail/page nos for the sources/quotes in this post is available on request.