Newspeak is the fictional language in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, written by George Orwell. It is a controlled language created by the totalitarian state Oceania as a tool to limit freedom of thought, and concepts that pose a threat to the regime such as freedom, self-expression, individuality, and peace. Any form of thought alternative to the party’s construct is classified as “thoughtcrime“.
Newspeak is explained in chapters 4 and 5 of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and in an appendix to the book. The language follows, for the most part, the same grammatical rules as English, but has a much more limiting, and constantly shifting vocabulary. Any synonyms or antonyms, along with undesirable concepts are eradicated. The goal is for everyone to be speaking this language by the year 2050 (the story is set in the year 1984 — hence the title). In the meantime, Oldspeak (current English) is still spoken among the Proles — the working-class citizens of Oceania.
Orwell was inspired to invent Newspeak by the constructed language Basic English, which he promoted from 1942 to 1944 before emphatically rejecting it in his essay “Politics and the English Language.” In this paper he deplores the bad English of his day, citing dying metaphors, pretentious diction or rhetoric, and meaningless words, which he saw as encouraging unclear thought and reasoning. Towards the end of the essay, Orwell states: “I said earlier that the decadence of our language is probably curable. Those who deny this would argue, if they produced an argument at all, that language merely reflects existing social conditions, and that we cannot influence its development by any direct tinkering with words or constructions.”
To control thought
According to Orwell, “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. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.” The idea that language influences worldview is linguistic relativity.
For example, the word “free” still existed in Newspeak but could only be used in terms of something not being possessed, as in “the dog is free from lice,” or “this field is free from weeds.” It could not be used in terms of being able to do as one pleases, as in “free choice” or “free will” since these concepts no longer existed. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum. Any redundancies in the English language were removed.
As Orwell further states (through the character of Syme, who is discussing his work on the latest edition of the Newspeak dictionary), “By 2050—earlier, probably—all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron—they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually contradictory of what they used to be. Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”
Some examples of Newspeak from the novel include crimethink, doublethink, and Ingsoc. They mean, respectively, “thought-crime”, “accepting as correct two mutually contradictory beliefs”, and “English socialism”—the official party philosophy. The word Newspeak itself also comes from the language.
Generically, Newspeak has come to mean any attempt to restrict disapproved language by a government or other powerful entity.
(Some of these are only part of the “abbreviated jargon — not actually Newspeak, but consisting largely of Newspeak words — which was used in the Ministry for internal purposes” described by Orwell in chapter 4.)
- Artsem: Artificial insemination.
- BB: Big Brother.
- Crimestop: To rid oneself of unwanted thoughts—i.e., thoughts that interfere with Party ideology—in order to avoid committing thoughtcrime.
- Dayorder: Order of the day.
- Equal: Only used to describe physical equality such as height and weight. It does not refer to social, political or economical equality because there is no such concept as social inequality in purportedly egalitarian Ingsoc
- Facecrime: An indication that a person is guilty of thoughtcrime based on facial expression.
- Free: Meaning negative freedom (without), in a physical sense. Only used in statements such as “This dog is free from lice”, as the concepts of “political freedom” and “intellectual freedom” do not exist in Newspeak.
- Goodthink: Orthodox thought.
- Ingsoc: English Socialism.
- Issue: Children produced by goodsex.
- Joycamp: Forced labor camp.
- Malquoted: Flawed representations of the Party or Big Brother by the press.
- Miniluv: “Ministry of Love” (secret police, interrogation, and torture).
- Minipax: “Ministry of Peace” (Ministry of War, cf.: “Department of Defense”, “War Department”).
- Minitrue: “Ministry of Truth” (propaganda and alteration of history, culture, and entertainment).
- Miniplenty: “Ministry of Plenty” (keeping the population in a state of constant economic hardship).
- Oldspeak: English; any language that is not Newspeak.
- Oldthink: Ideas inspired by events or memories of times prior to the Revolution.
- Pornosec: Sub-unit of the Fiction Department of the Ministry of Truth that produces pornography for proles.
- Prolefeed: The steady stream of mindless entertainment produced to distract and occupy the masses. The prole in prolefeed is reference to the Marxist concept of the proletariat.
- Recdep: “Records Department” (division of the Ministry of Truth that deals with the rectification of records; department in which Winston works).
- Rectify: Ministry of Truth euphemism for deliberately altering the past.
- Speakwrite: An instrument used by Party members to note or “write” down information by speaking into an apparatus as a faster alternative to an “ink pencil”. Speakwrites are used extensively in the Ministry of Truth by both Winston Smith and others in their daily work.
- Telescreen: Television and security camera devices used by the ruling Party in Oceania to keep its subjects under constant surveillance.
- Thinkpol: Thought Police.
- Upsub: Submit to higher authority. In one scene, Winston Smith is instructed to alter a document to conform with the Party line and submit it to his superiors before filing it: (“rewrite fullwise upsub antefiling”; note that this sentence is an example of the Newspeak-influenced bureaucratic jargon rather than official Newspeak).
A, B, and C vocabulary
The “A” group of words deals with simple concepts needed in everyday life (such as eating, drinking, working, cooking, etc.). It is almost entirely made of words that already exist in the English language.
The “B” group of words is deliberately constructed to convey more complicated ideas. The words in this group are compound words with political implications and aim to impose the mental attitude of the Party upon the speaker. For example, the Newspeak word “goodthink” roughly means “orthodoxy”. The B words were in all cases compound words. They consisted of two or more words, or portions of words, welded together in an easily pronounceable form. The resulting amalgam was always a noun-verb and inflected according to the ordinary rules.
The “C” group of words deals with technical vocabulary and is supplementary to the other two groups. Since the Party does not want its people to have knowledge of more than one subject, there is no Newspeak word for “science”; there are separate words for different fields.
The advantages of Newspeak are its means of preserving the secrets of the Party, preventing politically motivated actions, and promoting the use of politically correct terms. Its disadvantages include the Party using censorship and glamorization of themselves, compromised freedom of speech, and the prevention of the flow of ideas for the citizens of Oceania, who are controlled by this reduction in their language.
Words created to soften the blow of something taboo quickly absorb any negative connotations they were meant to avoid in the first place. Steven Pinker, a Harvard University linguist, calls this the “euphemism treadmill”, also known as pejoration. By creating such euphemisms, Newspeak only creates a new generation of derogatory terms. As Pinker argues in “The Game of the Name”, the euphemism treadmill signifies that “concepts, not words, are in charge: give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name”.
In expressing their opinions and concerns, the Party exercises the same rights librarians seek to protect when they confront censorship. In making their criticisms known, characters such as Winston and Julia who object to certain ideas are exercising the same rights as those who created and disseminated the material to which they object. Their rights to voice opinions and efforts to persuade others to adopt those opinions is protected only if the rights of persons to express ideas they despise are also protected.
Limiting language limits more than just words—it limits thought. Without the means to express thoughts beyond “I feel good or ungood”, people lack the means to commit a thought crime. Even if it were committed, it is unlikely that people would understand enough to take action. Free speech diminishes as the dictionary slims down with each new edition. There is not much difference between this action and reducing the population that could actually read the word “dictionary” if the book were placed in front of them. Without the ability to read or write, one is unaware of the concept of “free speech” and unable to know how to prevent its erosion.