Orwell and Newspeak

It’s not just professors and snobs who deplore the decline of English. The great essayist and novelist George Orwell (1903-50) had much to say about the corruption of language—and how it enables tyranny. The warning was clear: a distracted populace with diminished reading, writing, and speaking skills is vulnerable.

Orwell’s 1984, published in 1949, is a demoralizing post-World War II vision of global totalitarianism. It is set in London—the British Isles are now part of a superstate called Oceania, which also includes the Americas. Oceania is always at war with either of the world’s other two superstates, Eurasia and Eastasia.

In Oceania, “the Party,” a cadre of megalomaniacal despots, wields absolute power. This regime has destroyed society as we know it, setting children against parents and wives against husbands, enforcing unwavering loyalty to “Big Brother,” the potentate whose Stalin-like countenance stares out balefully from posters no one can avoid.

One of the Party’s acknowledged goals is the end of independent thought, which it hopes to bring about by instituting one of its pet projects: a language called “Newspeak.” Orwell worked Newspeak out in exhaustive detail and added an appendix at the end of 1984 titled “The Principles of Newspeak.” The brief essay describes how the Party dumbed down standard English, or “Oldspeak,” and mangled and perverted it into a streamlined, regimented version of English in which complexity and nuance were impossible.

Newspeak was designed to make a heretical thought “literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words.” The Party abolished all but the most mundane, unequivocal, easy-to-say words. Its aim was to render speech “as nearly as possible independent of consciousness” so that communication might become “a gabbling style of speech, at once staccato and monotonous,” allowing speakers to “spray forth the correct opinions as automatically as a machine gun spraying forth bullets.” And “the texture of the words, with their harsh sound and a certain willful ugliness … assisted the process still further.”

Newspeak encapsulates Orwell’s loathing for systems that manipulate language to cover their tracks as they consolidate their power. Newspeak is English disfigured to do its masters’ bidding. It’s so radical that in 1984 the Party is implementing it in stages, targeting the year 2050 for the transition to be complete. When Newspeak takes over, anything imaginative or unconventional, let alone remotely subversive, will be impossible to convey in words.

The main character in 1984 is a hapless everyman named Winston Smith. He works in the Ministry of Truth, where his job is rewriting history, expunging recorded facts that the Party finds inconvenient. One day, Winston receives an assignment (always in Newspeak): “times 3.12.83 reporting bb dayorder doubleplusungood refs unpersons rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling.” Orwell translates: “The reporting for Big Brother’s Order for the Day in the Times of December 3rd 1983 is extremely unsatisfactory and makes references to nonexistent persons. Rewrite it in full and submit your draft to higher authority before filing.”

Note Newspeak’s militant minimalism: the telescoping of “Order for the Day” into “dayorder,” plus “bb,” “refs,” “unpersons,” “upsub” and “antefiling.” “Fullwise” replaces “in full” because all Newspeak adverbs end in wise. “Doubleplusungood,” for “extremely unsatisfactory,” is one of the new tongue’s inspired achievements in sheer hideousness. Because Newspeak is shrinking the vocabulary, it uses “ungood” to replace bad, awful, wrong, etc. As for “plus” and “doubleplus,” they’re the only words available in Newspeak for adding emphasis.

The passage in the Declaration of Independence that starts, “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” with its references to equality, liberty, and happiness, is literally impossible to translate into Newspeak. “The nearest one could come to doing so,” Orwell wrote, “would be to swallow the whole passage up in the single word crimethink.”

Tom Stern

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