“Dystopia, language, and perception in The Handmaid’s Tale”
This week students have been identifying and analyzing neologisms and appropriated words in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Juniors in Mr. Connor’s English-3 class have been hard at work analyzing dystopian societies to consider how we ought to organize our communities. Dystopian literature features authoritarian governments and sci-fi elements to make readers consider their own societies. As an IB-aligned curriculum, students sharpen inquiry and critical thinking skills while reflecting on their own lives.
The Handmaid’s Tale follows a woman in the dystopian Republic of Gilead. The totalitarian government attempts to control its citizens through fear, military threat, and even language itself by coining new words and changing the definition of others.
To trace how the Republic of Gilead used language to maintain power, students learned the key vocabulary terms neologism and appropriation. Students began by analyzing the roots of both words and identifying similar words. A neologism is a newly created word. An appropriated word is one used by a group in a new way. Students identified slang terms as neologisms and taught them to the class. Then, students considered how the word “queer” was re-appropriated by LGBTQ communities as a term of strength.
Students then divided into groups and worked collaboratively to identify possible words in the text. Students quickly found that there were many words that they were unfamiliar with. Rather than become frustrated, students exemplified how IB students are knowledgabe by fluidly teaching each other vocabulary. After identifying a number of neologisms and appropriated words, students analyzed the implications as a class—recognizing the extent to which the government controls the perception of its citizens through strategic word choice. Students will put this knowledge into practice by making their own propaganda in the weeks to come.