Newspeak: Orwell and the Politics of Language

March 22, 2009 at 8:18 pm (Uncategorized)

George Orwell is best known for two novels: Animal Farm, a cautionary fable about the Russian Revolution, and 1984, a vision of a totalitarian world order based on extrapolation of the trends Orwell saw in his time.

Animal Farmis a political satire containing some classic lines (All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others). However, given the distance of the Russian Revolution, the immediacy of the satire has faded. 1984 became a cold war classic, although Orwell’s target was broader than the Soviet Union (it didn’t help that Orwell supplied lists of those he considered Communists to British military intelligence). While the book once  seemed an accurate predictor of the world to come, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World seems like a better bet.  As  a result of the continued popularity of these novels, Orwell’s other gifts have sometimes been overshadowed. In my opinion, Orwell’s greatest contributions were as a journalist and social observer.

For my money, Orwell’s greatest book is Homage to Catalonia, an account  of his time in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell describes the camaraderie, the tedium, the horror and the politics of the conflict. He describes both the war, and the revolutionary struggles in it; how the Communists undermined the struggle, how he nearly came to be executed by them, and how he nearly lost his life to a fascist bullet. It’s a tremendous accomplishment in social reporting (Ken Loach’s film Land and Freedomborrows heavily from Orwell’s account).  What makes Orwell’s work so readable and moving is his journalistic eye for detail and his use of language. Similarly keen social observations appear in Down and Out in London and Paris and The Road to Wigan Pier.

In  line with his journalistic concerns, Orwell also wrote about the use and abuse of language. In 1946, Orwell published an essay called Politics and the English Language. In it, Orwell sought to flay certain tendencies in the English language toward unclear or messy writing.  Orwell reproduced samples of dreadful, unclear writing by, among others,  Harold Laski, to demonstrate just how people fail to communicate. Among his concerns were dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. 

Unfortunately, a casual glance through business or academic writing shows that people have not taken Orwell’s advice. Business writing is filled with buzz words and phrases (paradigm shift! service you better! actualize your dreams!); while the language of the academy leans toward, excuse me, the wilfully obscure.

At the beginning of the essay, Orwell, suggested six rules for good writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

 I agree with all of these, but especially the last one. Yet, if too lax an understanding of language was a danger, Orwell keenly understood the other side.

Orwell’s 1984 introduced many familiar terms into the English language: Big Brother,  doublethink, hate week, thought crime, and of course Newspeak. Ironically, Newspeak is often used to describe a word where the meaning of a word is divorced from its actual meaning (f0r example, the Republicans use of socialism as a a swear word for Obama’s economic plans; language means what we want it to mean); however, Newspeak in Orwell’s novel had a far different use. Newspeak was introduced by the party, not to change meaning, but to restrict it.  The language was simplified to the point that no  interpretation could be formulated except for the one the party wanted.  Indeed, since language is so much a part of how we think, it was thought that by controlling language, thought too would be controlled.

The initial steps would be to reduce and eradicate words that made no sense. It was pointed out, that there is little need for cold if we insist on retaining hot. Cold would be replaced by a new antonym, unhot. A series of  prefixes and suffixes could easily simplify language.  Verbs and nouns would be combined. (Knife as a noun and a verb would replace cut). All verbs would be regular (as would past participles), and so on.  I brought up this idea in an English grammar class, and people mystified by English grammar were initially receptive to the principles. Orwell borrowed heavily from Esperanto in devising his language, and there is a certain intellectual appeal to it. 

But this would not be the end. The political meaning would be restricted too, so that some words would lose their meaning then disappeared. As the concept of political freedom disappeared, the word free in a political sense would be meaningless too (Free would be retained, but only in the sense that a dog is free of lice).  

 The appendix to 1984 Principles of Newspeak gives the following example for the famous affirmation from the Declaration of Independence:  

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of those ends, it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government…

Principles of Newspeak suggests that this passage would be impossible under Newspeak, since it contains so many foreign ideas – perhaps the passage could be replaced by a single word – crimethink.

Language is one of the most creative aspects of our species. Everyday, we utter sentences which have never been uttered. Language is not simply grammar. The dangers with any language is to abandon all rules (variant spelling anyone?) or to try to restrict it so tightly that all of the joy is lost.

Better than a much longer post is to read what Orwell wrote. The Penguin essays of George Orwell is available at most new bookstores, and probably most of the used ones as well. For those who prefer, the on-line version, the Orwell Project contains most everything he’s written. Well worth investigating.

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3 Comments

  1. Gerardo Ty Veloso said,

    Like Stephen Hawking using massive words to convince himself and his blindered fans that God is not needed for the universe to begin to exist.

    Let him put his thought into mathematical language, and face his peer mathematicians.

    Yrger

    • fischerzed said,

      Be that as it may (I’m not entirely sure what the reference to Hawking means in this thread), Orwell wasn’t a mathematician. So, I don’t quite see the point of your post.

  2. The Power of Words | Notes from Underground said,

    […] refer readers to something I wrote in 2009 on Orwell and language, but reading Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language is also […]

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