Aesopian language is communications that convey an innocent meaning to outsiders but hold a concealed meaning to informed members of a conspiracy or underground movement. For instance, if Person X is known for exposing secrets in an organization, the organization leaders announce that "any members who have dirty talking habits will be dealt with" to warn Person X. It refers to the ancient Greek fabulist Aesop.
The term "Aesopian language" was first used by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Mikhail Saltykov-Schedrin to describe the writing technique he began using late in his career, which he compared to Aesop's Fables. His purpose was to satirize the social ills of the time but evade the harsh censorship of late Tsarist Russia of which he was a particular target.
The Soviet-era writer Lev Loseff noted that the use of Aesopian language remained a favorite technique of writers (including himself) under Soviet censorship. Maliheh Tyrell defines the term in the Soviet context and observes that the use of Aesopian language extended to other national literatures under Soviet rule:
- "In short, this form of literature, like Aesop's animal fables, veils itself in allegorical suggestions, hints, and euphemisms so as to elude political censorship. 'Aesopian language' or literature is a technical term used by Sovietologists to define allegorical language used by Russian or nationality nonconformist publicists to conceal antiregime sentiments. Under Soviet rule, this 'Aesopian' literature intended to confuse the Soviet authorities, yet illuminate the truth for native readers."
According to one critic, "Censorship... had a positive, formative impact upon the Aesopian writers' style by obliging them to sharpen their thoughts."
The German-American philosopher Herbert Marcuse uses the term in his book One-Dimensional Man somewhat interchangeably with Orwellian language. In that context, "Aesopian Language" refers to the idea that certain usages of language work to 'suppress certain concepts or keep them out of the general discourse within society'. An example of such a technique is the use of abbreviations to possibly prevent undesirable questions from arising: "AFL-CIO entombs the radical political differences which once separated the two organizations."
Within the context of politics, a term with a very similar meaning is called dog-whistle politics, which describes the use of coded language to address voters' interests. Certain sections of the electorate will react strongly to controversial content if spoken of overtly but may not be so attuned that they notice statements that appear neutral to outsiders.
Dog-whistle politics uses phrases that speak to a sub-group without alarming the general population. For example, a politician may signal race or immigration views by using the phrase illegal arrivals to describe refugee-claimants.
- Prozorov, V.V. (1990). "М.Е.Saltykov-Shchedrin". Russian Writers. Biobibliographical Dictionary. Vol 2. Ed. P.A.Nikolayev. Мoscow, "Prosveshcheniye" Publishers.
- Lev Loseff, On the Beneficence of Censorship: Aesopian Language in Modern Russian Literature, Munich: Otto Sagner, 1984.
- Maliheh S. Tyrrell, Aesopian Literary Dimensions of Azerbaijani Literature of the Soviet Period, 1920-1990, Lanham MD: Lexington Books, 2000, pp. 3-4.
- Harry B. Weber, ed., The Modern Encyclopedia of Russian and Soviet Literature, Gulf Breeze, FL: Academic International Press, 1977.
- see H. Marcuse, "One-Dimensional Man". Beacon Press, Boston. 1991 (1964) p. 98
- H. Marcuse, p. 96
- H. Marcuse, p. 94
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