A look at Orwell’s Newspeak
George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four astounded the literary world when it first was published in 1949, and its significance and cultural impact have only grown stronger in the years since. Orwell’s warnings against totalitarian authority and omnipresent surveillance are as relevant as ever. Beyond the familiar message that “Big Brother is always watching you,” what many readers of Orwell’s dystopian novel may remember most is the fictional language he created, called Newspeak. Newspeak is a fascinating fictional language; rather than being an entirely new language like those of many science-fiction or fantasy works, Newspeak is an altered form of regular English designed and controlled by the state in order to suppress free thought, individualism, and happiness. Orwell’s language is a study in where linguistics and psychology meet, despite Orwell having expert knowledge in neither field. A quick analysis of Newspeak reveals the ways in which Orwell’s fictional language can subtly take control of characters’ actions, their moods, and even their minds.
The rules of Newspeak
The primary aim of Newspeak is to reduce the meaning of language as well as the number of words possible. To this end, Newspeak removes all synonyms and antonyms. Bad instead becomes ungood, warm becomes uncold, and so on. Notably, ungood or uncold are used and yet unbad or unhot are not; the fictional “Party” controls which antonym of a word is used (e.g. warm and hot are both antonyms of cold). By choosing which words the populace can use, The Party can choose to shift thought in a more positive or negative direction to suit their needs; ungood, for example, makes the populace feel less negative than bad would, and conversely, most associate more negative emotions with the word cold (and therefore, uncold, which actually means hot) than with the word warm. Synonyms do not exist; words like satisfying, great, or excellent, for example, would all revert merely to some form of the word good.
Comparative and superlative adjectives are dispatched in a similar manner: for example, there is no word for better or best in Newspeak. Instead, the prefix plus- or doubleplus- is added to intensify words; better becomes plusgood and best would become doubleplusgood. By reducing the number of words available, as well as reducing the intensity and emotion behind the words that people in Nineteen Eighty-Four can use, The Party is able to further suppress their population’s thought and emotions.
Newspeak also has different rules when it comes to forming adverbs and certain adjectives. To create an adjective one would add the suffix –ful to a noun; for example, instead of rapid, quick, or fast, one would say speedful, and instead of sick, ill, or diseased one would say diseaseful. Similar rules create adverbs with the suffix –wise, as quickly or rapidly would become speedwise and sickly would become diseasewise. As with any language, there are some exceptions to this rule, as certain adjectives like good, soft, and strong remain in Newspeak, but this is uncommon. In this fashion, a single base word can convey any part of speech. In the same vein, tenses require a smaller number of words; in Newspeak the suffix –ed is the only way to change a word to the past tense. For example, the irregular past tenses drank or ran would no longer exist, and in their place drinked and runned would be used. By limiting the number of ways to describe the world, The Party is able to limit the population’s very perception of the world.
Newspeak goals and real-world ramifications
Newspeak intended not only to force the populace to conform their thoughts and ideologies towards those of The Party, but to make it impossible to even conceive of any other point of view. For example, one character in the novel mentions that one of The Party’s most chiefly known slogans, “Freedom is Slavery,” will eventually change; for when Newspeak has reached its goals, the very idea of Freedom as defined in this fashion would be impossible for the populace even to imagine. Other Newspeak words illustrate such attempts to control thought and even the populace’s ideas about reality itself: doublethink, for example, means to hold two contradictory beliefs to be true, but without any cognitive dissonance, allowing one to be unaware of actual contradictions. The slogans of The Party, “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength,” are perfect examples of this phenomenon. Doublethink as a concept is what allows the totalitarian party to thrive without collapsing in on itself: for example, members of The Party can commit acts they know to be immoral while accepting the idea that no act they commit could possibly be immoral.
Since the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, some of Orwell’s Newspeak words (and other terms from the novel) have entered general use. The term big brother is synonymous with any sort of figure or organization with heavy surveillance, and has become a very common phrase in the English language. The word doublethink has also enjoyed some measure of popularity, with its definition matching its meaning from the book, a case of life imitating art when you consider that the English language (called Oldspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four) previously had few if any words that matched the meaning of doublethink.
Another Newspeak term from Nineteen Eighty-Four that has gone on to enter the popular vernacular is thoughtcrime, a word used in the novel to describe the act of thinking socially unacceptable thoughts or holding opinions that are ideologically distinct from The Party’s. This word has its origins in a Japanese term ; however, Orwell’s novel popularized the term. Thought police, the term for the group in Nineteen Eighty-Four that monitored the populace for any signs of unorthodox thought or action, has also become popular to signify any organization that attempts to suppress freedom of thought. Like thoughtcrime, thought police has its origins in the Japanese language; the thought police (known officially as the “Special Higher Police”) were a force in pre-war Japan that suppressed ideologies inconsistent with that of the government.
The familiarity of Newspeak words and concepts in English is a testament to the effectiveness and ingenuity of Orwell’s fictional language, and demonstrates that it is more than a mere experiment in linguistics and psychology.