Newspeak v Oldspeak

Novelist George Orwell and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein both had an abiding interest in the use and function of language and in the control it exerts over our lives :-

The limits of my language mean the limits to my world. 

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951)

Political prose is formed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

George Orwell (1903 – 1950)

As the power of governments and global bureaucracies increase, any thinking person casts an occasional thought in the direction of Orwell’s famously chilling and uncompromising novel, 1984.

Almost everyone knows Orwell invented a minimalist language he called Newspeak as a prominent feature of the book’s message. A viciously repressive, totalitarian government develops Newspeak as a way of making unapproved ideas literally unthinkable. Newspeak is a variant of English (Oldspeak) but severely restricted in its vocabulary and with shades of meaning replaced by basic dichotomies such as good/ungood and person/unperson. Newspeak is designed to render seditious ideas inexpressible and therefore unthinkable.

The idea behind this controlling view of language is sometimes known as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In his later philosophy, Wittgenstein had a similar take on the central importance of language. He and Orwell were near contemporaries, their births and deaths within a few years of each other. Two questions I want to raise here are

  • Were they right about language?
  • Is it happening now?

I think the answer to both questions is yes. If we don’t have the language to say something, we can’t say it or even think it. If you have any doubts on that score, think about forgetting. What you forget are frequently bits and pieces of language – often names, single words or titles. Until you remember the words, you can’t say or think what it is you’ve forgotten. Therein lies the power of Newspeak.

So if our language is drifting, whether through official policy nudges or other social changes, how would we know? How would we express the drift in a language that has already drifted?

Well that’s pretty obvious isn’t it? If you’ve reached a certain age, then you remember when language was used differently. Certain words were more common than they are now and other words less common or even entirely unused.

You become aware that certain words such as British, democracy, freedom, patriotic, decent, respect, service, foreign, charming, tasteful, willing, dependable, independent, impartial, news, reliable, prudent, nudge, charity, educate, represent, investment, banker, honour, duty, care, frank, promise, pledge, workshop, tool, nation, defend, censor, promote, work, career, choice, value, art, creative, fun, pleasure, decorum, talent, vulgar, science, climate, weather, experiment, spiritual, love, teach, learn, responsible, adult and thousands more are subjected to subtle and sometimes not so subtle changes.

Sometimes they are simply used less frequently; sometimes their meaning is changed or added to. Yet we may still think that many words are too valuable to be cast aside, too useful for their meaning to be twisted or their usage diminished.

For me, that’s partly what many bloggers are in their various multifarious ways attempting to resist – damaging changes to language. They are trying to preserve Oldspeak and resist Newspeak, defending a world where is still appropriate to label powerful people as stupid, to say climate scares are exaggerated, to label welfare as dependency and so on. The list is enormous.

If you doubt this, if you doubt the extraordinary power of language, then reflect for a moment on what is allowable within the BBC. Once the repository of standard English, the BBC has become a testing ground for a type of Newspeak, a furtive unacknowledged denial of free speech. Parliament is going the same way, as are the institutions of the EU and the UN. Many things we say while blogging cannot be said within any of these institutions. Big Brother would be pleased.

26 comments for “Newspeak v Oldspeak

  1. Patrick Harris
    November 22, 2011 at 10:34 am

    “Is it happening now?”, every day in every way.
    Perpetual war, now spoken of as Kenetic assistance, protecting civilians and bringing democracy.
    Famine, paying farmers to not grow food, genetically modifying food, radiating food to give longer shelf life.
    Finance, Debt is an asset and now everyone actually believes that debt IS an asset.
    House buying, buy your house now because if you can’t pay for it the government will jump in do it for you. no responsibility required.
    and on, and on and on.

    • November 22, 2011 at 7:40 pm

      Debt is an asset – that’s certainly a good one for the collection.

  2. November 22, 2011 at 10:35 am

    And of course some words and phrases are effectively banned altogether by race and discrimination laws.

    • November 22, 2011 at 5:26 pm

      They are – a minefield.

    • November 23, 2011 at 8:55 am

      This is the piece that has always fascinated me, particularly in the diversity arena. Do you notice how the permissable word or phrase to describe someones race or heritage changes.

      I have come to the conclusion that the reason for this is that it means we can never keep up. To a certain degree we will always be in the “wrong” or at very least constantly uncertain ergo we can never have a handle on the “problem”. That puts them firmly in control and we chase it around like a dog chasing it’s tail.

      Oh and it keeps the money rolling in

  3. Kevin
    November 22, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Here are just a few random examples.

    The Supreme court of the UK (i.e a court subject to the EU)
    The British Government ( i.e a government subject to the EU)
    Protected conversation ( i.e a conversation in which your employment rights are not protected)

    Community group ( A group that does not wish to be a part of the community and seeks exclusivity)

    Inappropriate ( Something the state disapproves of)

  4. November 22, 2011 at 10:53 am

    “For me, that’s partly what many bloggers are in their various multifarious ways attempting to resist – damaging changes to language. They are trying to preserve Oldspeak and resist Newspeak, defending a world where is still appropriate to label powerful people as stupid, to say climate scares are exaggerated, to label welfare as dependency and so on. The list is enormous.”

    You’re right. Bloggers can’t be controlled like the MSM. And it’s why I wouldn’t rather write a blog than write a book.

    • November 22, 2011 at 1:13 pm

      “would” rather

    • November 22, 2011 at 5:27 pm

      Yes, I’ve given up on the MSM.

  5. Jeremy Poynton
    November 22, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Such abuse of language should be a capital offence. That would sort the bastards out.

  6. November 22, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    A few more bastardisations for the mix..

    A person = citizen
    The General Public = civil society
    Groups that have taken rule making powers i.e. Unions, NGOs = Organised Civil society
    Political & righteous fake charities = experts
    Politically motivated science groups = experts
    Government approved mouthpieces = Community leaders
    Busy bodies = Community Groups
    Suppliers = Partners
    Suppliers sub contractors = Partner groups
    Taxpayer = ‘must not be mentioned’
    Taxpayers money = using Government money
    Tax spending groups = Stakeholders
    more Taxes = Government initiatives
    even more Taxes = Government bailouts
    Bailout/Subsidy = Socialised Debt Structure
    To Ban = War on ****
    North Africa = Southern Mediterranean
    World Wars 1 & 2 = European Civil Wars

    • November 22, 2011 at 5:28 pm

      It goes on and on doesn’t it?

      • November 22, 2011 at 6:27 pm

        You have no idea how I have longed for the days when one could just have a normal conversation, read a newspaper article, examine a report, in plain old English without all this PC mumbo jumbo.

        To speak as I find, not as I’m told, to use our dictionary rather than the ‘progressives’ crib sheet.

        • Furor Teutonicus
          December 9, 2011 at 3:07 pm

          XX I have longed for the days when one could just have a normal conversation, read a newspaper article, examine a report, in plain old English without all this PC mumbo jumbo. XX

          So why don’t you?

          A law is only as enforcable as the people it is designed to control, are willing to be “enforced”.

  7. November 22, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    I’ve linked to this in the 15:00 post.

  8. November 22, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    It is reported from Ireland today that this same tendency has been used to subvert the Constitution and effectively overthrow democracy. I have a post in the line for OoL with the link and quotes, but find Fintan O’Toole’s column in the Irish Times of today and you will be there. Note the following quote:

    The evidence is overwhelming: binding fiscal decisions have been made and communicated to the EU before the Cabinet has met to discuss or approve them.

    We have, then, three clear instances in which the system of government laid down by the Constitution – collective decision-making by the Government acting as a whole – has been set aside.

    This raises interesting legal questions. The Offences Against the State Act outlaws anyone “taking part in any way in a body of persons purporting to be a government . . . but not authorised in that behalf by or under the Constitution.”

  9. November 22, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    Excellent points. I do my damnedest to resist Newspeak wherever I can.

    • November 22, 2011 at 7:39 pm

      So do I and I suspect many, many others think the same way.

      • Maaarrghk!
        November 23, 2011 at 10:11 am

        I find a well placed “double plus ungood” often works quite well to get a point across when discussing anything remotely big brotherish.

  10. November 23, 2011 at 5:57 am

    “For me, that’s partly what many bloggers are in their various multifarious ways attempting to resist – damaging changes to language. “

    I’ve been following the US blog ‘protein wisdom’ for a long time. He has some excellent posts on this, and it’s a recurring theme.

    • November 23, 2011 at 6:40 am

      Thanks Julia – I’ll look him up.

  11. Kurt Peters
    November 24, 2011 at 4:52 am

    This is the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, some of the words are archaic but the meaning is still clear. Shakespeare is the same way. It is much harder to change the poetic as a one for one equivalent is almost impossible to find.

    • November 24, 2011 at 11:14 am

      I agree – Newspeak has no poetry and no soul.

  12. Junican
    November 24, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    What I hate most is the way special interest groups high-jack words.
    The classic, of course, is homosexuals calling themselves ‘gay’.

    There are lots, but another of my pet hates is the change in the use of the word ‘disease’. It does not seem very long ago that we all knew what the word ‘disease’ meant. My own understanding was (roughly) ‘an illness resulting from an external influence generally transmitted from one person to another, or from an insect to a person, of a bacterial or viral nature’. It seems odd to me to hear genetic problems or old age problems described as ‘diseases’. Of course, this ‘abuse’ of the word leads to ‘smoking related diseases’, and, ultimately, to smoking itself being defined as ‘a disease’. An unintended consequence is that the word eventually loses all significant meaning so that real diseases are not properly investigated.
    I think that the clever wheeze of changing ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ has seriously backfired. Damn it! Everyone knows that the climate is always changing. A terrible ‘faux pas’.

    Etc, etc.

    • November 25, 2011 at 10:00 am

      Good points. “Disease” has lost its specificity and when that happens to a useful word, we lose a little of our ability to be precise. That’s fine for the PR people, but not so fine for us.

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