Podcast Episode: Orwell's Newspeak

“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” That is the premise behind the prescribing language proposed in a cautionary tale about the politics of power. It is considered one of the most influential dystopian novels of the 20th century. I’m talking about Newspeak, the language proposed in the novel 1984, by George Orwell.

Let’s get this book undone.

Hello everyone, and welcome to Books Undone. I’m your host, Livia J. Elliot, and today we will discuss a very specific theme within a particular novel. George Orwell’s 1984 is so packed with meaning, that I doubt we could analyse everything in a single episode. Thus, and given that we already touched on language when discussing Babel-17, this episode will only focus on Newspeak, the fictional language spoken by the party called INGSOC from 1984.

However, why language again? As I mentioned, I’m releasing a fantasy novelette discussing language quite soon, and I wanted to share some of the books that made me think of the topic in the first place!

That said, let’s start with the usual disclaimers. First, there are spoilers in this podcast, and although it can be understood without having read 1984, it would certainly be easier if you know the story. Second, what you will hear is my personal interpretation of this book; you are entitled and allowed to disagree and differ.

Now, let’s dive into some trivia! This book was written in 1948 under the pen name of George Orwell. He drew inspiration from his own experiences during World War II, and particularly from his time working for the BBC’s Eastern Service as a propagandist.There, he became aware of the power of propaganda, which also informed his understanding of how language can be used to manipulate and control people.

Ironically, Orwell himself was under surveillance! The Cold War Exhibition of the UK’s National Archive featured a file revealing that Eric Arthur Blair (Orwell’s real name) first came to the attention of Special Branch and MI5 in early 1936, when he was ‘on location’, researching for ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, for which he investigated the harsh living conditions among the working class in Lancashire and Yorkshire1. I’ll leave a link in the description, but I’m guessing that you can see that 1984, and the ideas within it, are inherently political… which is why it is one of the most frequently banned books around the world.

When I discussed Delaney’s Babel-17 on the previous episode, the discussion centred on the effects of language in society and in the interaction between people–for example, misunderstandings, lacking the correct words, or crafting lengthy descriptions to explain concepts not-yet-named.

Orwell’s 1984 leads the topic in another direction by reflecting on how language can be wielded as part of political power to bias people’s opinions, and remove that ability of using other words to express complex ideas. As a result, Newspeak toes the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in its strong version, also known as linguistic determinism.

To summarise, linguistic determinism is a theory suggesting that the language one speaks has a significant influence on the way one thinks and perceives the world. Linguistic determinism argues that language is prescriptive–namely, its limits and determine human knowledge or thought, as well as thought processes such as categorisation, memory, and perception. Therefore, in this theory, language is viewed as a complete barrier, and a person is stuck with the perspective that the language enforces.

I won’t go into detail, but several researchers discredited the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, instead proposing the weaker version of linguisting relativity, which states that our thinking may be influenced rather than unavoidably determined by language. If you want to hear more about these hypotheses, you can listen to my previous episode on Babel-17.

Let’s move into Orwell’s 1984. Newspeak is intrinsically tied to the book’s setting, so let me first summarise some key points.

The protagonist is Winston Smith, a member of the INGSOC party, which rules the superstate of Oceania. Winston works on the propaganda section of INGSOC, where they have this mechanically-complex system to literally reissue documents with quote-on-quote “corrected” events; one day, while correcting documents at work, Winston thinks: “The past was alterable. The past had never been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”

That comment from Winston clarifies what the propaganda department did: they altered past records (whatever they were, from articles to advertisement) to match the current narrative of the state, and then they argued that nothing had been changed. Manually altering records (and thus having complete control of the narrative) was possible because the in-book world of 1984 had no advanced tech nor internet–every record was kept in paper and physical libraries.

Regardless of the tech, that alteration of the narrative (in other words, history) needed two key elements:

  • On the one hand, that rewriting apparatus that Winston worked for.
  • On the other hand, the pervasive manipulation of language to limit and determine the types of reasoning the people can achieve–which is where Newspeak comes in.

You may be wondering, why language? The answer to that question is the main theme underlying this episode–namely, because language is fundamental for us, humans. We need language to talk to our peers, to read news, to express ideas, to push forward and be curious. Without language, we can’t think complex thoughts, because to think we speak to ourselves in words.

If INGSOC wanted to alter a narrative in a permanent way, they would need to also coerce thought. As I see it, that link is what 1984 leverages through Newspeak, the fictitious variant of English developed by INGSOC. On one chapter, Winston talks to another party-member named Syme, who is fine-tuning Newspeak; Syme explains to Winston that: “Orthodoxy means not thinking–not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “an orthodox belief is handed down by the leaders” and “conforming to established doctrine”. In the case of 1984, Syme’s statement means that if someone were to follow INGSOC’s narrative they shouldn’t need to actively reason through what they read or saw, but instead blindly accept what they were told… even if they knew it was a lie.

How the INGSOC party aimed to achieve that is what loop us back to the topic of this episode. Newspeak.

As I gathered from the book, there are two key elements to the development of Newspeak, and its link to linguistic determinism:

  • First, the purposeful removal of ambiguity and nuance as a mean to narrow the range of thought.
  • Second, the use of vocabulary as a mean to destroy other words, by blending explicit meaning (what you find in the dictionary) with the societal connotations of a word.

Throughout this episode, we will tie these two elements into Newspeak’s “A and B” Vocabularies.

Let’s start with the removal of ambiguity.

When Winston talks to Syme, the party-member refining Newspeak, Syme explains the following: “What justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good’, for instance. If you have a word like ‘good’, what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well—better, because it’s the exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good’, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ’excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still.”

Let me elaborate on that very same example. If you have the word good as a descriptor, and use bad (which is a different word) to refer to things that are not good you are implicitly allowing for vagueness, because something can be ’not good’ and ’not bad’ at the same time. For example, actions of a historical figure, choices we make in our life that requires us to list pros and cons, and everything that we booklovers call grey-morality. Many of those concepts exist on an in-between that is neither good nor bad, but instead linked to subjective interpretations and outright philosophy of the implications. Such concepts are blurry, nuanced, and akin to ‘grey areas’.

Going back to Newspeak and its first element (to narrow the range of thought), Syme’s explanation takes another dimension. If you keep the word good and simply negate it to create ungood, you are fabricating a clear-cut opposite. It’s good or ungood, without any middle-ground… and because there is no middle ground, there is no nuance, no room to debate or pose “what ifs” because it is either one or the other–the words themselves are creating that sharp definition. Fast-forward a few in-book generations talking only on this language, and INGSOC could effectively prevent ambiguity… which is that first key element of Newspeak.

Newspeak was so fundamental to Orwell’s 1984, that the book (and even the audiobooks!) include an Appendix titled “The Principles of Newspeak”. There is a link in the description2, since I’ll use it to continue our discussion. In particular, this appendix describes Syme’s clear-cut opposites as being part of Newspeak’s “A Vocabulary”. Let me read an excerpt:

“A Newspeak word of this class was simply a staccato sound expressing one clearly understood concept. It would have been quite impossible to use the A vocabulary for literary purposes or for political or philosophical discussion. It was intended only to express simple, purposive thoughts, usually involving concrete objects or physical actions.”

Let’s make a pause here, and revisit linguistic relativity. That hypothesis poses that concepts do exist even when you don’t have the right word for them; thus, if you lack the word for it, you have to explain it with other words. It probably happened to you that you see a thing (like a car or clothing) of a peculiar colour, and describe it to your friend as being petroleum blue. If your friend knows the colour by name, perfect! Otherwise, you’ll likely spend a decent amount of time trying to use metaphors and many other words to describe how petroleum blue looks like. That happens more often with abstract topics such as feelings, when we end up dancing around descriptions to help our points come across.

However, Newspeak’s “A Vocabulary” aims to prevent just that. Remember, Newspeak was designed to have clear-cut ideas (good or ungood), not to use adverbs or complex adjectives (plusgood instead of amazing), and many other limitations. Thus, the fewer words available, the less capable the speaker is to actually use other words to explain the missing ones. There was an in-book purpose for this quality of Newspeak, which Syme explains to Winston by saying, “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?”

This leads us to the second element of Newspeak–connotation and implied meaning as a strategy to destroy quote-on-quote “undesirable” words. This was enacted through the “B Vocabulary.” The book’s appendix describes the “B Vocabulary” as words “which not only had in every case a political implication, but were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them. […] In some cases they could be translated into Oldspeak, […] but this usually demanded a long paraphrase and always involved the loss of certain overtones.”

Even in real life, words have two meanings. One is the meaning found in the dictionary, the second one is the connotation associated with that word given the social context of a society. For example, black and white are colours, but used in a different context, they can imply something completely different. Both types of meanings contribute to how a sentence is interpreted; language is more than just words; it mutates with the social weight put into the words, the intonation, the gestures accompanying them.

The “B Vocabulary” was trying to force the implied meaning into the speakers, as a mean to bias their perception of specific topics or situations. For example, 1984’s Appendix presents the following Newspeak sentence: “oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc”. If we try to translate that to Oldspeak (so, traditional English), we need to know that oldthinkers are those who were born before the INGSOC revolution, but the in-book word implies wickedness and decadence; staleness–thus, a group of undesirable people with quote-on-quote “antiquated” ideas. Furthermore, unbellyfeel negates bellyfeel which in-book implied a blind enthusiastic acceptance without any questioning. Thus, the Newspeak sentence (“oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc”) meant that a group of unwanted people did not fully embrace the specific principles of INGSOC and, (gasp!) challenged them… all while having the speaker be aware of the uncomfortable situation and how nasty it would be to be near those oldthinkers.

Therefore, in Newspeak there was a literal meaning, but the overtones were more important. Why? Remember the second key element, vocabulary as a means to destroy other words. The Appendix is quite explicit on this goal; let me read an excerpt:

“But the special function of certain Newspeak words […] was not so much to express meanings as to destroy them. These words, necessarily few in number, had had their meanings extended until they contained within themselves whole batteries of words which, as they were sufficiently covered by a single comprehensive term, could now be scrapped and forgotten. The greatest difficulty facing the compilers of the Newspeak Dictionary was not to invent new words, but, having invented them, to make sure what they meant: to make sure, that is to say, what ranges of words they cancelled by their existence.”

Further down the plotline of 1984 (and yes, this may spoil the ending), Winston is captured by the thoughtpolice and put through a re-education process. During this ordeal, a re-educator called O’Brien, tells Winston that “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else”. As per the strong Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, if you can’t word it, can’t name it, then you can’t really think of it.

This sentence is very relevant, as it ties up the two elements we have been discussing into what INGSOC wanted to do with Newspeak. Namely, that by removing ambiguity through narrowing down the language, and adding more implied meaning that explicit, INGSOC could truly condition (bias or prejudice) people’s opinion.

When O’Brien says, “Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else”… the policeman is also referencing how uniquely each human perceives the world, and that the main way of sharing such perceptions is through words–and (at the same time!) having people able to understand what you are saying or writing.

If you can’t express the idea (because the language is so restrictive or because the other people don’t understand you) you can’t socialise it, and thus you can’t get support or empathy. The speaker will feel alone, ostracised, and as not belonging. We are not talking only about having our feelings understood, but sharing any type of idea. Given that Orwell’s 1984 is a dystopia about an authoritative, over-vigilant state… you can imagine that Newspeak was particularly targeting in-book dissenting political ideas.

Angela D. Friederici, in her book titled “Language in Our Brain”3 wrote that “Language makes us human. It is an intrinsic part of us, although we seldom think about it.” Language is fundamental to humankind; without it, I couldn’t convey this podcast episode, and you couldn’t understand it. Without language, how could someone say “I love you” or “please help me” or “I feel alone” or “I’m afraid of change”?

Let me tell you something–there are other ways to communicate. We, humans, are creative, so if you lack language and words, you can express it through art. Art has always been a medium to convey things that go beyond words. How many instrumental songs (without lyrics) had made you cry, or bumped up your mood? How many paintings kept you staring at them, full of feelings you couldn’t put into words? How many sculptures got you thinking of the shapes, sparkling your imagination?

Language and art are not only a medium to express ourselves and the world as how we experience it, but they are also part of humanity. However, the INGSOC party of 1984 knew this. During Winston’s re-education, O’Brien explained that: “There will be no art, no literature, no science. […] There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life.” Art is fundamental for us; we humans need to share our opinions, our knowledge, our ideas, and our feelings–which led to art being banned in the dystopia of 1984.

But beyond that, do you know why art is so important to humans? During his arrest, Winston actually arrives to the conclusion, thinking that: “Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood.”

Ultimately, language is the best medium we, humans, have to try to understand each other. So the next time you see someone struggling with words, be kind to them. Listen to them, help them, but most of all, know that they are seeking the same thing as you–to share thoughts and feelings, to explain ideas and plans.

That was quite an episode! 1984 is an incredible novel, but I really couldn’t fit it within one episode; thi s would do for now. Other topics within Orwell’s 1984 are, of course, the politics of power and the abuse of power, specific types of government, the manipulation of society through media, the infamous throughtcrime and doublethink (both related to this episode), and so much more. Both audiobook and book (physical or ebook) are excellent, but this story is so deep that I recommend you to read it at least twice.

With that said, I hope you have enjoyed this episode! Remember, this is just my opinion, and you are entitled and allowed to interpret Orwell’s 1984, differently. So, what are your thoughts on Newspeak?

Thanks for listening, and happy reading.