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.”