Newspeak and George Orwell's 1984


Newspeak is a fictional language in George Orwell's famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell included an essay about it in the form of an Appendix after the end of the novel, in which the basic principles of the language are explained. Newspeak is closely based on English but has a greatly reduced and simplified vocabulary and grammar. This suited the totalitarian regime of the Party, whose aim was to make subversive thought ("thoughtcrime") and speech impossible.

The Newspeak term for the existing English language was Oldspeak. Oldspeak was supposed to have been completely eclipsed by Newspeak by 2050.

The genesis of Orwell's Newspeak can be seen in his earlier essay, Politics and the English Language, where he laments the quality of the English of his day, citing examples of dying metaphors, pretentious diction or rhetoric, and meaningless words all of which contribute to fuzzy ideas and a lack of logical thinking. Towards the end of this essay, having argued his case, Orwell muses:

I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words or constructions.

Thus Newspeak is possibly an attempt by Orwell to describe a deliberate intent to exploit this decadence with the aim of oppressing its speakers.



Basic principles of Newspeak

The basic idea behind Newspeak was to remove all shades of meaning from language, leaving simple dichotomies (pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness, good thoughts and thoughtcrimes) which reinforce the total dominance of the State. A staccato rhythm of short syllables was also a goal, further reducing the need for deep thinking about language.

In addition, words with opposite meanings were removed as redundant, so "bad" became "ungood." Words with similar meanings were also removed, so "best" became "doubleplusgood." In this manner, as many words as possible were removed from the language. The ultimate aim of Newspeak was to reduce even the dichotomies to a single word that was a "yes" of some sort: an obedient word with which everyone answered affirmatively to what was asked of them.

Orwell reveals a certain ethnocentrism in his ideas, in that the characteristics of Newspeak that he derides as controlling changes in English are common in perfectly functional agglutinative languages. His distaste for the replacement of "bad" with "ungood" seems to be largely due to the fact that the practice is foreign to his native language of English. It serves speakers of agglutinative languages quite well for everyday communication, poetry, etc. It is clear that Orwell was an English speaker addressing other English speakers.

The underlying theory of Newspeak is that if something can't be said, then it can't be thought. One question raised by this is whether we are defined by our language, or whether we actively define it. For instance, can we communicate the need for freedom, or organize an uprising, if we don't have the words for either? This is related to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, and Ludwig Wittgenstein's proposition, "The limits of my language mean the limits to my world."

Examples of Newspeak, from the novel, include: "crimethink"; "doubleplusungood"; and "Ingsoc." They mean, respectively: "thought-crime"; "extremely bad"; and "English Socialism," the political philosophy of the Party. The word "Newspeak" itself also comes from the language.

Generically, newspeak has come to mean any attempt to restrict disapproved language by a government or other powerful entity.



Real-life examples of Newspeak

A comparison to Newspeak may arguably be seen in political rhetoric, where two opposing sides string together phrases so empty of meaning that they may be compared to the taunts young children toss back and forth. The arguments of either side ultimately reduce to "I'm good; he's bad."

Charges of Newspeak are sometimes advanced when a group tries to replace a word/phrase that is politically unsuitable (e.g. "civilian casualties") or offensive (e.g. "murder") with a politically correct or inoffensive one (e.g. "collateral damage"). Some maintain that to make certain words or phrases 'unspeakable' (thoughtcrime), restricts what ideas may be held (Newspeak) and is therefore tantamount to censorship. Others believe that expunging terms that have fallen out of favour or become insulting will make people less likely to hold outdated or offensive views. The intent to alter the minds of the public through changes made to language illustrates Newspeak perfectly.

Either way, there is a resemblance between political correctness and Newspeak, although some may feel that they differ in their intentions: in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Newspeak is instituted to enhance the power of the state over the individual; politically correct language, on the other hand, is said by supporters to free individuals from stereotypical preconceptions caused by the use of prejudicial terminology. It is this attempt to change thought through changing (or eliminating) words that earns political correctness the connection to Newspeak. The main distinction is that politically correct language is often inspired only by politeness, while Newspeak has a more explicit limiting political motivation.

However, there exist striking instances where Orwell's speculation have matched with reality. Orwell suggested that all philosophies prior to Ingsoc (English Socialism) would be covered under the term 'oldthink,' bearing with it none of the nuances of these ideologies, but simply a connotation of badness. Since the Cold War, a similar effect has been wrought on the word 'communism,' where it no longer bears with it, to most people, the doctrines of Marx, Engels, or Lenin, but rather a general bad connotation. (Much the same could be said about 'fascism,' perhaps with even more accuracy.)

Two examples unrelated to political correctness are Basic English, a language which prides itself on reducing the number of English words, and E-Prime another simplifed version of English.

Political groups often avail themselves of the principles behind Newspeak to frame their views in a positive way. Thus the term "estate tax" was replaced by the "death tax." A similar effect may be observed in the abortion debates where those advocating restrictions on abortion label themselves "pro-life," leaving their opponents presumably "anti-life." Conversely, those advocating greater availability of abortion call themselves "pro-choice," and the opposition "anti-choice," to engender similarly positive emotions.



Abbreviations and Acronyms

Another common use of Newspeak today is the overuse of abbreviations. To quote from the 1984 Appendix "It was perceived that in thus abbreviating a name one narrowed and subtly altered its meaning, by cutting out most of the associations that would otherwise cling to it." Attention is also drawn to the use of such abbreviations by totalitarian regimes prior to World War II.

Even more powerful are acronyms like "Ofcom," "AIDS," "OPEC" and "NAFTA," which can be pronounced as if they were proper words. This is most vividly seen in an acronym like "laser," which today is nearly always written in lowercase. Acronyms contain less information than the full term and tend not to trigger spontaneous associations; this also makes them ambiguous and therefore vulnerable to misuse.



Newspeak words

* Crimestop
* Doublethink
* Doubleplusgood
* Doubleplusungood
* Duckspeak
* Blackwhite
* Ingsoc
* Oldspeak
* Thoughtcrime (The actual Newspeak word is Crimethink).
* Miniluv, Minipax: "Ministry of Love" (secret police) and "Ministry of Peace" (Ministry of War). Compare to abbreviations in real life such as "Nazi" and "Gestapo."
* Bellyfeel
* Oldthink
* Goodthink
* Goodsex (chastity) In Oceania the only purpose of sex is the creation of new party members.
* Sexcrime (sex that does not lead to the creation of new party members)
* Free (only in statements like "This dog is free from lice.") The concepts of "political freedom" and "intellectual freedom" do not exist in Newspeak.
* Equal (a statement such as "All men are equal." would only mean "All men are of equal size.") "Political Equality" doesn't even exist as a concept in Newspeak.
* Unperson A person who had been vaporized, and all records of him/her had been wiped out. All other party members must forget that the unperson ever existed, and mentioning his/her name is thoughtcrime. (The concept that the person may have existed at one time, and has disappeared, cannot be expressed in Newspeak.) Compare to the Stalinist use of erasing people from photographs after their death.
* Facecrime (an indication that a person is guilty of thoughtcrime based on their facial expression)
* Vaporize (the same as liquidate) When people disappear, they are vaporized.

The word doublespeak was coined in the early 1950s and it is often incorrectly attributed to George Orwell and his novel. However the word never actually appears in that novel.





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