intellectual self-defence quotes

The Principles of Newspeak

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods.

From the foregoing account it will be seen that in Newspeak the expression of unorthodox opinions, above a very low level, was well-nigh impossible. It was of course possible to utter heresies of a very crude kind, a species of blasphemy. It would have been possible, for example, to say Big Brother is ungood. But this statement, which to an orthodox ear merely conveyed a self-evident absurdity, could not have been sustained by reasoned argument, because the necessary words were not available. Ideas inimical to Ingsoc could only be entertained in a vague wordless form, and could only be named in very broad terms which lumped together and condemned whole groups of heresies without defining them in doing so.

George Orwell, ‘The Principles of Newspeak’, the appendix to his ‘1984’ (1949)

3 replies on “The Principles of Newspeak”

I’ve always wondered what the scientific validity of this would be. Can you really control language (i.e. more precisely what others speak) ? Would it really be impossible to express a concept that does not (yet ?) exist in the language or would someone just invent it ? Or, if you change your assumptions, Is it impossible to form a concept if you don’t have the words for it ? I think this is the right place to ask! 🙂

Good question! If you can come to my lectures on thursday and friday I will have the answer for you 🙂

Academic opinion has swung between extremes on this debate, but the current state of knowledge is 1. Yes, the language you use can be shown to have demonstrable effects on how you perceive and think about the world (e.g. having a name for a particular colour giving you a significant advantage in recognising that colour), BUT 2. These effects, in most circumstances, aren’t absolute or large (e.g. whether or not your native language has different words for “light blue” and “dark blue” doesn’t stop you recognising that there is a difference between dark blue and light blue. People who don’t know the word “Schadenfreude” still feel pleasure at another’s suffering (to take an example from Steven Pinker).

Note, however, the “most circumstances” qualification. There are, demonstrably, subtle effects of language, and it is obvious that all specialist fields invent their own terms to assist talking about concepts. It’s unlikely that you could stop people feeling injustice, or whatever, by controlling the language, but – if you could control the language – you could certainly stop them talking about it as easily

Is it really language that influences the way you think or is it culture in general, of which language is of course a part? In other words, does one think differently when speaking different languages or isn’t that sufficient as you haven’t necessarily absorbed the culture from which the language grew? I should be well placed to give an anecdotal answer to that question, but I really have no idea.

As for controlling language by pruning it, isn’t that conceptually impossible? First, the controllers would need a metalanguage to understand and articulate what needs to be pruned (including regrowths). Second, if you really could zap a word out of existence, I have no doubt that people would spontaneously come up with an alternative, provided of course the concept is still relevant. I can imagine that modern English would not find a replacement for a word that had been “terminated” and applied to a medieval social concept without modern relevance, say “vassalage”. However, as the history of euphemisms and PC shows, even if people feel unease about certain concepts and the words that express them, if they are still felt to be relevant they will just morph. A good example is “negro – black – African American”. So I doubt a totalitarian regime would be able to control people’s thoughts with Newspeak. But then of course, the nature of totalitarism is to ignore human nature, so it would probably try anyway.

In fact, if the idea is to control how people think, probably it’s not pruning that works best: it’s inventing new concepts and linking concepts which do not in fact have any logical relationship to each other, what Gramsci called “meta-politics”. Think about this: why has it become so difficult _not_ to talk about crime when discussing immigration, even if you are convinced there is no correlation between them ?

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