George Orwell Explains How “Newspeak” Works, the Official Language of His Totalitarian Dystopia in 1984

As we not­ed yes­ter­day, and you like­ly noticed else­where, George Orwell’s clas­sic dystopi­an nov­el 1984 shot to the top of the charts—or the Ama­zon best­seller list—in the wake of “alter­na­tive facts,” the lat­est Orwellian coinage for bald-faced lying. The ridicu­lous phrase imme­di­ate­ly pro­duced a bar­rage of par­o­dies, hash­tags, and memes; healthy ways of vent­ing rage and dis­be­lief. But maybe there is a dan­ger there too, let­ting such words sink into the dis­course, lest they become what Orwell called “Newspeak.”

It’s easy to hear “Newspeak,” the “offi­cial lan­guage of Ocea­nia,” as “news speak.” This is per­fect­ly rea­son­able, but it gives us the impres­sion that it relates strict­ly to its appear­ance in mass media. Orwell obvi­ous­ly intend­ed the ambiguity—it is the lan­guage of offi­cial pro­pa­gan­da after all—but the port­man­teau actu­al­ly comes from the words “new speak”—and it has been cre­at­ed to super­sede “Old­speak,” Orwell writes, “or Stan­dard Eng­lish, as we should call it.”

In oth­er words, Newspeak isn’t just a set of buzz­words, but the delib­er­ate replace­ment of one set of words in the lan­guage for anoth­er. The tran­si­tion is still in progress in the fic­tion­al 1984, but is expect­ed to be com­plet­ed “by about the year 2050.” Stu­dents of his­to­ry and lin­guis­tics will rec­og­nize that this is a ludi­crous­ly accel­er­at­ed pace for the com­plete replace­ment of one vocab­u­lary and syn­tax by anoth­er. (We might call Orwell’s Eng­lish Social­ists “accel­er­a­tionsts.”) Newspeak appears not through his­to­ry or social change but through the will of the Par­ty.

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’s entire­ly plau­si­ble that “alter­na­tive facts,” or “alt­facts,” would fit right into the “Ninth and Tenth Edi­tions of the Newspeak Dic­tio­nary,” though it might eas­i­ly fall out of favor and “be sup­pressed lat­er.” No telling if it would make the cut for “the final, per­fect­ed ver­sion” of Newspeak, “as embod­ied in the Eleventh Edi­tion of the Dic­tio­nary.”

These quo­ta­tions come not from the main text of 1984 but from an appen­dix called “The Prin­ci­ples of Newspeak,” which you can hear read at the top of the post. Here, Orwell dis­pas­sion­ate­ly dis­cuss­es the “per­fect­ed” form of Newspeak, includ­ing its gram­mat­i­cal “pecu­liar­i­ties,” such as “an almost com­plete inter­change­abil­i­ty between dif­fer­ent parts of speech” (an issue cur­rent trans­la­tors have encoun­tered). He then intro­duces its vocab­u­lary, divid­ed into “three dis­tinct class­es,” A, B, and C.

The A class con­tains “every­day life” words that have been mutat­ed with cum­ber­some pre­fix­es and inten­si­fiers: “uncold” for warm, “plus­cold and dou­ble­plus­cold” for “very cold” and “superla­tive­ly cold.” The B class con­tains the com­pound words: sin­is­ter dou­ble­think coinages like “joy­camp (forced-labor camp)” and “Mini­pax (Min­istry of Peace, i.e. Min­istry of War).” These, Orwell explains, are sim­i­lar to “the char­ac­ter­is­tic fea­tures of polit­i­cal lan­guage… in total­i­tar­i­an coun­tries” of the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry.

The cit­i­zen of Ocea­nia, Orwell tells us, must have “an out­look sim­i­lar to that of the ancient Hebrew who knew, with­out know­ing much else, that all nations oth­er than his own wor­shipped ‘false gods’.… His sex­u­al life, for exam­ple, was entire­ly reg­u­lat­ed by the two Newspeak words sex­crime (sex­u­al immoral­i­ty) and good­sex (chasti­ty).” The lat­ter includ­ed only “inter­course between man and wife, for the sole pur­pose of beget­ting chil­dren, and with­out phys­i­cal plea­sure on the part of he woman: all else was sex­crime.

The C class of words may be the most insid­i­ous of all. While it “con­sist­ed entire­ly of sci­en­tif­ic and tech­ni­cal terms” that “resem­bled the sci­en­tif­ic terms in use today,” the Par­ty took care “to define them rigid­ly and strip them of unde­sir­able mean­ings.” For exam­ple,

There was no vocab­u­lary express­ing the func­tion of Sci­ence as a habit of mind, or a method of thought irre­spec­tive of its par­tic­u­lar branch­es. There was, indeed, no word for ‘Sci­ence,’ any mean­ing that it could pos­si­bly bear being already suf­fi­cient­ly cov­ered by the word Ing­soc.

Orwell then goes on to dis­cuss the dif­fi­cul­ty of trans­lat­ing the work of the past into Newspeak. He uses as an exam­ple the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence: “All mans are equal was a pos­si­ble Newspeak sen­tence,” but only in that “it expressed a pal­pa­ble untruth—i.e. that all men are of equal size, weight, or strength.” As for the rest of Thomas Jefferson’s rous­ing pre­am­ble, “it would have been quite impos­si­ble to ren­der this into Newspeak,” writes Orwell. “The near­est one could come to doing so would be to swal­low the whole pas­sage up in the sin­gle word crime­think.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:  

George Orwell’s 1984 Is Now the #1 Best­selling Book on Ama­zon

Han­nah Arendt Explains How Pro­pa­gan­da Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Moral­i­ty: Insights from The Ori­gins of Total­i­tar­i­an­ism

Hux­ley to Orwell: My Hell­ish Vision of the Future is Bet­ter Than Yours (1949)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (18)
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  • bruce says:

    i have been feel­ing this cloud for a few months about 1984
    it was a school where we read it
    to this day i fear it

  • Bill W. says:

    He’d be amused by the ‘fake news’ com­ing from BOTH sides of today’s cul­ture-wars…

  • Brian says:

    “Polit­i­cal lan­guage… is designed to make lies sound truth­ful and mur­der respectable, and to give an appear­ance of solid­i­ty to pure wind.” George Orwell

  • Randy says:

    SocJus has been doing this for years.

  • Hux­ley remark inter­est­ing- but I see both not either/or.

  • Whats up says:

    Help I am stuck in a Chi­nese for­tune cook­ie fac­to­ry

  • John Raven says:

    Inter­est­ing as 1984 Newspeak is, of course, a lan­guage, for exam­ple Eng­lish, is not a per­ma­nent unchang­ing thing. We can only just com­pre­hend Anglo-Sax­on or Medieval Eng­lish and Shake­speare is hard to inter­pret at times. Lan­guage is a tool of cul­ture and cul­ture is nev­er sta­t­ic. Words are being added and changed in mean­ing all the time. So I doubt any rul­ing class can con­trol its words and mean­ings though it may con­trol what it allows in media, eg gay is no longer the gay, mean­ing hap­py and care­free that I grew up with.

  • Ibby says:

    Yeah this is the one fact that I kept bump­ing back into as I tried to swal­low the con­cept. But in Ocea­nia it seems more fea­si­ble if you account for gen­er­a­tions of con­sis­tent con­trol of ALL media as well as a very effi­cient thinkpol.

    How­ev­er… It would­n’t be long before the pro­les came up with their own street dialects of Newspeak that express their unortho­dox feel­ings most effi­cient­ly, and would even­tu­al­ly threat­en to ‘infect’ the lin­guis­tics of the Out­er par­ty much as the street slang of Amer­i­ca’s urban under­class­es has today deeply seeped through to the lan­guage of us, the blog­ging-yup­pie class (Amer­i­ca’s ‘Out­er Par­ty’).

    You feel me John Raven?

  • Tony says:

    The term “alter­na­tive facts” is a legal term that attor­neys use in ref­er­ence to argu­ing a posi­tion and Con­way is an attor­ney. The author of this piece knows, or should have known, this. This is an exam­ple of pur­pose­ful mis­un­der­stand­ing of a term in order to vil­i­fy some­one with whom you have an ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ence of opin­ion. Iron­i­cal­ly, your asser­tion that “alter­na­tive facts” being Orwellian is actu­al­ly more Orwellian than the term itself.

  • Dave says:

    “It’s entire­ly plau­si­ble that ‘alter­na­tive facts,’ or ‘alt­facts,’ would fit right into the ‘Ninth and Tenth Edi­tions of the Newspeak Dic­tio­nary,’ though it might eas­i­ly fall out of favor and ‘be sup­pressed lat­er.’ ”

    Not only might it be sup­pressed lat­er, this would be essen­tial. The word’s very exis­tence in the lan­guage would acknowl­edge that there were by con­trast “real facts” out there.

  • Phil says:

    Lat­inx, cis­gen­der, white fragili­ty, homo­pho­bia, safe space, vio­lent speech, undoc­u­ment­ed Amer­i­cans…

  • Alan Egusa says:

    This arti­cle basi­cal­ly says that the “Newspeak” (word from Orwell’s nov­el) of the BLM riot­ers is impos­si­ble to use ratio­nal­ly. Newspeak = new speak, not news speak. It is a total­ly new lan­guage. This lan­guage is based on irra­tional whims (emo­tions), and you are auto­mat­i­cal­ly sup­posed to know what these words mean (you are sup­posed to be a “mind-read­er”). As an exam­ple, a “racist” is any­one who dis­agrees with the BLM riot­ers, what­ev­er that means. It is not sup­posed to be spe­cif­ic. Being spe­cif­ic implies that it is ratio­nal. It is not.

  • paulypower says:

    MTV con­vert peo­ple to newspeak. “Mans is bad innit”. is a per­fect exam­ple mean­ing “Do you think that man there is good” Orwell specif­i­cal­ly used ungood mean­ing the oppo­site of good but we are talk­ing of dou­ble­think and newspeak as it is today.

  • Like says:

    In times of Coro­na rad­i­cal con­struc­tivists or post­mod­ernists still do not acknowl­edge that there are real facts out there… they just wait for a vac­cine and do not talk about it^^.

  • Debra Butler says:

    As a senior and avid devo­tee to all things his­tor­i­cal, I don’t find this top­ic of News Speak any­thing new real­ly. In Roman times the rul­ing elite cajoled their poor by let­ting them watch gladiators,another word for kid­napped for­eign­ers, kill and mame with a free roast­ed kill of beau­ti­ful ani­mals after­wards. Cit­i­zen manip­u­la­tion is not new. Hence, us mass­es need to keep our­selves informed.

  • Itajara Epinephelus says:

    Orwell was an extreme­ly self-con­tra­dict­ing and self-iden­ti­ty loathing man. It was his sig­na­ture men­tal dish- he explained the dark­ness in oth­ers by reach­ing into him­self and find­ing a sim­i­lar dark­ness. The prob­lem is we aren’t used to that sort of hon­esty- so many folks take his crit­i­cism of a thing to mean he did­n’t sup­port it. Ing­soc is a good exam­ple; most peo­ple on the right con­sid­er Orwell an ene­my of social­ism as a result- they only read his fic­tion, it seems. Yet (full text at ):

    “Every line of seri­ous work that I have writ­ten since 1936 has been writ­ten, direct­ly or indi­rect­ly, against total­i­tar­i­an­ism and for demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ism… And the more one is con­scious of one’s polit­i­cal bias, the more chance one has of act­ing polit­i­cal­ly with­out sac­ri­fic­ing one’s aes­thet­ic and intel­lec­tu­al integri­ty…

    When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to pro­duce a work of art’. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw atten­tion, and my ini­tial con­cern is to get a hear­ing.”

    Yes, Orwell hat­ed Com­mu­nism. Why? This is from the pref­ace to the Ukrain­ian edi­tion of Ani­mal Farm:

    “In my opin­ion, noth­ing has con­tributed so much to the cor­rup­tion of the orig­i­nal idea of social­ism as the belief that Rus­sia is a social­ist coun­try and that every act of its rulers must be excused, if not imi­tat­ed. And so for the last ten years, I have been con­vinced that the destruc­tion of the Sovi­et myth was essen­tial if we want­ed a revival of the social­ist move­ment.”

    Usu­al­ly, when I men­tion this, or that Orwell vol­un­teered to fight for a Marx­ist (anar­chist) antifa group, where his expe­ri­ence with social­ism made him a life­long devo­tee- they balk. It isn’t just that they dis­agree- it is that they dis­agree yet are some­how to busy to ver­i­fy quotes I bring that would show this to be true. Its cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance.

    They would­n’t like his view of Amer­i­ca, for instance:

    “Most of the employ­ees were the hard-boiled, Amer­i­can­ized, go-get­ting type to whom noth­ing in the world is sacred, except mon­ey. They had their cyn­i­cal code worked out. The pub­lic are swine; adver­tis­ing is the rat­tling of a stick inside a swill-buck­et. And yet beneath their cyn­i­cism there was the final naivete, the blind wor­ship of the mon­ey-god.”
    ‑Orwell, Keep the Aspidis­tra Fly­ing (1936)

    Regard­ing the Nazism / social­ism thing:
    “the idea under­ly­ing Fas­cism is irrec­on­cil­ably dif­fer­ent from that which under­lies Social­ism. Social­ism aims, ulti­mate­ly, at a world-state of free and equal human beings. It takes the equal­i­ty of human rights for grant­ed. Nazism assumes just the oppo­site. The dri­ving force behind the Nazi move­ment is the belief in human inequal­i­ty, the supe­ri­or­i­ty of Ger­mans to all oth­er races, the right of Ger­many to rule the world. Out­side the Ger­man Reich it does not rec­og­nize any oblig­a­tions.”
    ‑Orwell, The Lion and the Uni­corn (1941), Part II

  • Melanie Lee says:


    We think it good­think that all mens are the same, that they have always had life, choice, and good­seek. To keep good­think, the Par­ty has always lived, tak­ing their pow­er with the good­think of mens. When the Par­ty is ungood to its pur­pose, the pro­les and the mens can unhave the Par­ty and have a new Par­ty…

    (Note: I saw this as a chal­lenge a few years ago, and I took it on.)

  • paulg says:

    The author is actu­al­ly quite gift­ed in newspeak, for he instinc­tive­ly choos­es an issue of rea­son­able debate on a cer­tain top­ic as being a off lim­its and unac­cept­able. The regime is always in newspeak mode, even when dis­cussing Orwell 1984. They cant help them­selves, its what they do.

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