Warning: Words can Damage your Health: Newspeak

Vivian Cook  
Online Writings 
SLA Topics

If thinking depends upon language, then controlling people’s language is a way of controlling their thoughts. This is the logic behind the banning of discriminatory terms such as Paki and chairman; if you don’t know the nasty words, you can’t think the nasty thoughts and so racism and sexism will be wiped out. No-one can object to removing language that deliberately insults people for no just cause.

One example has been the changes in English over thirty years in the use of pronouns. English pronouns are marked for gender; female objects are referred to as she etc, male objects as he etc and sexless objects as it. This leaves English people in a quandary when they need to use a singular pronoun without knowing the gender of the person. The solution used to be that the masculine he was used to refer to both sexes.

If a passenger needs an extra blanket, he should ask the flight attendant.

But people objected that this implied a precedence for males over females; women seemed to an afterthought. One alternative was to make it clearer by substituting he or she:

         If a passenger needs an extra blanket, he or she should ask the flight attendant.

or the unpleasant written form still beloved by students s/he.

An alternative is to break the number barrier by using the neutral they in the singular:

If a passenger needs an extra blanket, they should ask the flight attendant.

Some 1970s books deliberately used he and she in alternate chapters, a self-conscious and intrusive way of writing. Nevertheless studies of English newspapers have shown a decline of generic he over the last decades. Between 1960 and the present the number of shes in Time Magazine almost doubled while the number of hes went down by 14%. English is less prone to include women in the male he than it was before.

But the process of deliberate change to the language can be used for evil ends. If we ban the word freedom, how can we have the concept of being free? The most famous fictional example of language control is Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984. This is specially designed by Big Brother ‘not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits  proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [English Socialism] but to make all other forms of thought impossible’.

Newspeak works by simplifying the vocabulary in three groups of words:

A. words for everyday life

Words for everyday things remain the same except for three factors:

-  rather than a word having many possible meanings, say the range of meanings associated with table like ‘water table’, ‘to table a motion’ etc, a Newspeak word has a single meaning: table means ‘a flat-topped piece of furniture’ – and nothing else. The A group vocabulary thus expresses only ‘simple, purposive thoughts’.

- one word can belong to many parts of speech. Why should a word be either a noun or a verb or an adjective when it can be all of them? So a think is a noun; to think a verb; thinkful an adjective; thinkwise an adverb.

- why have two words for good and bad when you can say good and ungood? Black and white when you can say black and unblack? If you want to intensify the meaning, you can say plusgood or even doubleplusungood. This cuts down the number of words in the language and so, Big Brother hopes, the number of concepts available to its speakers.

B. words ‘deliberately constructed for political purposes’

Newspeak aims to provide a limited range of ideas biased in one direction, achieved by making up new compound words, as in goodthink, crimethink (thought crime) and think pol (thought police). These have only a single meaning; goodsex only means ‘married sex for reproduction’; any other sex is sexcrime. Words can be forced to have contrary meanings: a joycamp is forced labour. The sting can be taken out of words by combining their initial parts; the ministries in Oceania are Minitrue (Ministry of Truth, i.e. propaganda), Minipax (Ministry of Peace, i.e. war), and Miniluv (Ministry of Love, i.e. law and order). The simplified vocabulary systematically distorts the world by forcing its users into a single channel of thinking.

C. scientific and technical terms

Obviously technical jobs do need additional vocabulary, such as spanner or voltage. But these are restricted to a particular technical skill rather than having more widespread use – there is no word for ‘science’ in Newspeak. And, like lists A and B, the words only have a single meaning.

Put together, these amount to thought control via language so that ‘the expression of unorthodox opinions, above a very low level, was well-nigh impossible’.

In some ways George Orwell was mirroring the views of his time about how language affects thinking. His simplification of English into Newspeak is clearly based on the Basic English put forward by Ogden and Richards. His idea of language affecting thinking is related to the ideas of General Semantics suggested by Count Korzybski and to linguistic relativity. But Richards created Basic English as an aid to communication; Korzybski thought better language led to better thinking. They regarded language as a tool to improve people’s lives. It is Orwell who saw the dark side of a government controlling its people through language. If they never hear alternative views, they don’t know that they exist, essentially Chomsky’s view of the American media.

Several science fiction novels have explored how people can be controlled through language. In The Languages of Pao, Jack Vance creates a world where each language only allows certain ways of thinking: Valiant is the language for solders, Technicant for technicians and Cogitant for scientists. In Babel 17, Samuel Delaney imagines an intergalactic terrorist controlled by a perfectly logical language.

Is Newspeak just fiction? George Orwell had an amazing feel for English and was reporting tendencies that were already present in the language. For example he poured scorn on the fashion for not un- rather than positive statements – A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field – a habit still not uncommon among a not-inconsiderable number of not unimportant people.

It often seems that the UK government takes its English from Newspeak. Take the names of actual government organisations such as Ofwat (Office of Water Services), Ofcom (Office of Communication), Ofgen (Office of the Gas and Electric Markets), Ofgas (Office of Gas Supply), Ofqual (Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator) and Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education). These compounds use the rules of Newspeak.

The frequent changes in ministry names almost invariably make the meaning vaguer and more abstract. Natural England, we are told, ‘brings together English Nature, the Countryside Agency and the Rural Development Service’. Well, nature, countryside and rural development are all reasonably easy to grasp but Natural England sounds like an organisation for nudists or organic farmers. The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) is now the Equality and Human Rights Commission. At least one knew something of its aims when it had racial in the title. Equality is nowadays little more than a buzz word.

The most mysterious changes of title are in the department of education: the Department of Education and Science (DES) became the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and is now the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DSCF). The DES was clearly about education while the DCSF is not obviously about anything in particular and might well be concerned with healthcare, welfare, public transport, or anything else that a child, a school or a family might need.

Much of our everyday life is expressed through words that might well have been created in Newspeak. Friendly fire is modelled on joycamp; political correctness is thoughtcrime, except that it hasn’t made it to polcor yet. The peace process is a vague metaphor that forces us into a way of thinking, getting us used to the idea that peace is never achievable and the UK is always at war. It gets even obscurer in the extended versions from media presenters, this sends an arrow into the heart of the peace process or bolstering the faltering peace process.

Other expression seem to show a similar disconnection between words and reality; what could Sebastian Coe mean when he said the Olympics kicked off a catalyst for regeneration? Excellence no longer means ‘the best’ but ‘the standard’, as in NICE (The National Institute for Clinical Excellence). Looking at countries refereed to as democratic around the word, democracy now means little more than ‘people I approve of’. Even if the media are not deliberately implementing Newspeak control over our thoughts, it certainly feels like it.