Wednesday Language Feature: Orwell and Newspeak

This morning I received the weekly GrammarBook.com email, and it was a dandy. The title is “Orwell and Newspeak,” and takes off on George Orwell’s famous novel 1984. The author (Tom Stern) uses Orwell’s concept of “Newspeak” to address the decline of English and the corruption of the meaning of words in our own day, a reality Orwell’s novel prophesied.

Below is the beginning of the GrammarBook article; find the rest at the link at the end. And be reminded that language has power and words have meaning. Use them carefully!

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.”

Source: Orwell and Newspeak – Grammar and Punctuation