Controlled Languages — Newspeak

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is a remarkable novel in many ways, from setting the scene of perpetual war, illustrations of a totalitarian state with extensive government over-reach and surveillance, to the extreme restrictions on freedom of thought. Many real-world parallels have been drawn from this novel, and its relevance persists to this day. Personally, this is one of my most favourite books to read, and I even bought the Russian translation by Viktor Golyshev, to explore how real world experiences has shaped his perspective when he wrote his translation.

Big Brother, doublethink and thoughtcrime are probably the most prominent terms from the novel that have entered common use. But the significance of Nineteen Eighty-Four does not stop there. It has introduced a literary perspective of an important aspect of linguistics, from its use of a fictional language called Newspeak. It is a subset of the English language, or Oldspeak, but specially curated to meet the ideology of Oceanian Ingsoc (English Socialism), by simplifying grammar and restricting vocabulary. Its goal was to restrict freedom of thought, that is, self-expression, personal identity and free will. All these freedoms threatened the ideology of Big Brother and the Party, and such acts were considered to be thoughtcrime.

Newspeak sets the scene of linguistic determinism, where language is hypothesised to influence or control a people group’s thought processes. In popular terms, this has been referred to as part of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, or an aspect of linguistic relativity, where individuals perceive the world based on the structure of their habitually-used language. Through the curation of a controlled natural language, Newspeak’s primary objective was to make it impossible for individuals to speak, or even think of rebelling against the Party, or anything contrary to the ideology of the state. Everyone who habitually spoke Newspeak would develop thoughts that align with those of the Party and Big Brother. This lays out an interesting proposition for linguistic determinism, that since Newspeak lacks the means to express certain ideas, then the speakers will be unable to conceptualise these ideas.

β€œDon’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

Syme, explaining the political goals of Newspeak to Winston (1984 by George Orwell)

In the novel, which took place before the total implementation of Newspeak, the characters conversed in a combination of both Newspeak and Oldspeak, which was interpreted to allow for a degree of thoughts and actions unorthodox to the state. These features have lent themselves to aid the development of the plot in such an immaculate way.

Literature aside, let’s explore the linguistic features that make Newspeak interesting. Samples of sentences ran in strings of words like these:

times 3.12.83 reporting bb dayorder doubleplusungood refs unpersons rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling

Translated to Standard English, this means, that the reporting of Big Brother’s order of the day in the Times of 3rd December, 1983 is extremely unsatisfactory, making references to non-existent people. Rewrite it in full and submit the draft to higher authority before filing.

One would instantly notice how much so-called unnecessary words were cut out in Newspeak, or how prefixes and suffixes supplemented the degree and manner of some words. This is just one of the simplifications Newspeak has made to ensure communication on the most basic manner.

The simplification of grammar has several features. From the eradication of most irregular verbs to the expression of degrees and extents using prefixes, Newspeak aims to confine thoughts to simple meanings. The main prefixes in the controlled language include “un-“, “plus-“, “doubleplus-“, “ante-” and “post-“. The latter two denote before and after respectively, as in “antefiling” (before filing). “Un-” is a negative prefix, and can be used to form antonyms, like “ungood” (bad), or a negative imperative, such as “unenter” (do not enter). “Plus-” and “doubleplus-” are both intensifiers that replace words of different extremities, and the words very and extremely respectively. So words like great, excellent and horrible are rendered redundant in Newspeak, replaced by “plusgood”, “doubleplusgood” and “doubleplusungood” respectively. Note how “un-” has to follow the intensifier prefix.

Newspeak also has a set of suffixes, primarily to denote plurality, comparison, tense and adverbs. For instance, the suffixes “-s” and “-es” are used to give the plural form of every single noun, without irregularities. There would not be people but persons, no oxen but oxes and no mice but mouses. “-ed” is used to form the past tense of a verb with no irregularities as well. There would not be irregular forms like thought but thinked, no bought but buyed and no sang but singed.

When a Newspeak speaker makes comparisons using comparative and superlative forms of a word, they would use the suffixes “-er” and “-est”. There is not better but gooder, no worse but ungooder, and no more beautiful but beautifuler. In the formation of adverbs, the suffix “-wise” is used, such as speedwise instead of quickly, and fullwise instead of entirely. Similarly, the formation of adjectives involves the suffix “-ful”, such as goodthinkful to mean orthodox.

These features facilitate the interchangeability of words into different parts of speech, as words can be used as nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs albeit with some prefixes and suffixes attached.

Newspeak words are divided into three classes, A for words denoting functional concepts of everyday life like eating, and sleeping, preserving many Oldspeak words. Class B words contained more complex ideas, often expressed as compound words. This is where many political terms come in, none of which are neutral, but more rather, “euphemisms”. While words like goodthink convey the meaning of political orthodoxy as outlined by the Party, joycamp conveys the meaning of a hard labour camp, showing the differences between Newspeak and Oldspeak. The names of the ministries are also classified as Class B words, like Minipax (Ministry of Peace, which wages perpetual war for Oceania) and Miniplenty (Ministry of Plenty, which maintains perpetuation of economic hardship and rationing). Other words have very subtle meanings that a normal English speak would barely comprehend. The concept of bellyfeel, for instance, means the blind and enthusiastic acceptance of an idea. Blackwhite is interesting, for it conveys the meaning of being able to believe anything one is told, regardless of the facts. As mentioned, several Class B words have been popularised in recent times, such as doublethink, or the simultaneous acceptance of contrary opinions especially as a result of political indoctrination. The Party slogans are perhaps the most prominent example of doublethink.

Class C vocabulary is highly restricted, and was used to convey ideas of science or technical matters. This class of vocabulary is never used in everyday speech, not even within the political realm. Perhaps, any word in this Class may just be reduced to Ingsoc, and that there is no real need for the word science in Newspeak.

The concept of Newspeak draws a lot of attention not just because of the linguistic implications, but also how it functions to create the setting 1984 aimed to portray. As we try to understand the relationship between language and our perceived world or thoughts, perhaps this novel serves to show how the restriction of language may result in the restriction of thought. Linguistic determinism as a concept still draws much criticism and debate, but Newspeak contextualises this in a literary perspective.

Afterword

Dystopian novels are among my most favourite genres of literature, and seeing how these worlds and societies are constructed intrigues me greatly. Other works like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are among the most renown in the genre, each with their own take on a fictional society, powered by logic, restriction of thought, book burning or an extensive social hierarchy. These books are definitely strongly recommended to those who are new to the genre. Nevertheless, 1984 holds a special place in my heart as being the most favourite novel I have ever read.

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