Part 2 of 2 of the Dystopian novel languages is Newspeak, the language of arguably the greatest dystopian novel, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The debate over governmental mass surveillance has gathered in momentum in recent years (see: Snowden versus NSA), but news reporters would struggle to describe much of the political unrest that regularly occurs without borrowing from some of this novel’s vocabulary, often inadvertently. Like novels, invented languages only last over time if they can be eternally relevant. Herein lies the beauty of Newspeak: 64 years later, it is as pertinent as ever, if not more so.
As with any fictional language, Newspeak was created for a specific purpose (in the previous instalment of this two-parter, Nadsat was shown to have been made to serve as a criminal code). Similar to the introduction of a new animal species to eradicate the existing species, Newspeak was made to overthrow “Oldspeak” (regular English) and to render it useless, removing heretical terms such as “free” and “equal” (both in the political and social sense). The concepts behind them will also be removed, and spreading regime-approved terms such as “misprints,” which are portrayals of the regime that are “false,” as they show weaknesses of “Big Brother“[i] or “bb,” the leader of the totalitarian ruling party in the novel. To put it simply, Newspeak reduces freedom of expression by reducing the amount of words available to use to express oneself.
Given its purpose as a linguistics silencer, Newspeak can actually seem quite boring to those of us who still dare to ‘crimethink’(‘to commit thoughtcrime’; to say things unapproved by the Party), as it removes the complexities and redundancies of English. For example, ‘doubleplusgood’ means ‘excellent’, used instead of one of the reams of positive adjectives of the English language. Moreover, Newspeak includes the removal of antonyms and synonyms (words with opposite or similar meanings; ‘bad’ is the antonym of ‘good’, ‘nice’ is a synonym of ‘good’) to make language more clear-cut and black-and-white. Fittingly, ‘blackwhite’ is a Newspeak term with two meanings (how appropriate): either an opponent to the regime who doesn’t believe plain facts, or alternatively someone who would believe that black is white if the government told them so[ii]. More examples of the ‘blanding’ of language in the novel are the uses of prefixes and suffixes in the place of new words, like the prefix ‘un-’ to create words such as ‘ungood’ for ‘bad’, which shows control over when citizens are allowed to think positively, or ironing out any irregularities in English by forming all past tense verbs with the suffix ‘-ed’: ‘hitted’, ‘rised’, ‘beated’.
The remaining two aspects of Newspeak are the most totalitarian, and the most noteworthy linguistically: euphemisms and word grouping. Firstly, euphemisms are used to hide the crimes of the state and to lure the general public into a false sense of peace and security. Chilling examples include‘unperson’ (somebody who has been erased from both by democide[iii] and by the destruction of any records, photographs, or memories of them), ‘facecrime’(being able to tell that somebody is thinking thoughts that go against the ruling party), ‘miniluv’ (the ‘Ministry of Love, a government department responsible for torture and brainwashing), and ‘ownlife’ (acts of individualism, viewed with suspicion by the government). Secondly, vocabulary is categorised into groups A, B, and C. ‘A’ words are everyday words, used by all in their daily life. ‘B’ words are compounds that have political purposes, and ‘C’ words is scientific vocabulary hidden from the masses, as the wealth of knowledge that comes with science is restricted by the Party.
Albeit that Newspeak appears not to be a language of new words and grammar structures, its new uses of English terms are as rigid as the regime the words are in place to uphold. Not only has Orwell’s language spawned a programming language[iv], it is now used by all who have witnessed such totalitarian brutality as there is in the novel. Dystopia is a literary genre, but nobody can hide the truth that societies such as that in Nineteen Eighty-Four still exist and always have existed, the most prominent today being the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This is a harrowing fact, but those of us who live free and equal should be reminded by Newspeak of how lucky we are.
See here: http://orwell.ru/library/novels/1984/english/en_app for the appendix of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ that explains Newspeak in more depth.
[i] For you low-brow TV junkies, the ‘Big Brother’ reality game show was named after the ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ dictator, which gives a programme about watching people every second of the day a chilling edge.
[ii]Totalitarian linguistics is not entirely fictional; Just as the government in this novel calls criticisms of the regime ‘misprints’, a real-life example would be the motto of North Korea, ‘Powerful and Prosperous Nation’, as North Korea’s actual power and prosperity is debatable in the eyes of the rest of the world even to include official reports of mass malnourishment, a harrowing similarity to the oppression in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.
[iii]Democide is the killing of a person by the government.