I’ve been rereading the Appendix to 1984. The Party planned to ditch English and have all its members speaking Newspeak only by 2050. (It’s not certain what they planned for the Proles; O’Brien thought they were ineducable, in which case they would still be using Oldspeak.) But Newspeak was designed to have no redundancy in its lexicon and also to be spoken in a rapid, monotonous voice, with no variation of stress or tone (duckspeak) which would make it very hard to follow even in a moderately noisy environment. Do you think a language like that is viable?

—Mornche Geddick

Your question was an opportunity to reread Orwell’s description of Newspeak.  I think it’s a brilliant satire of totalitarian and authoritarian modes of thought; it should be read along with his less fantastical but equally perceptive “Politics and the English Language”.

The main sources or targets seem to be these:

  • An aesthete’s aggrieved reaction to the regularities of artificial languages like Esperanto.  Though this is slightly provincial— what’s wrong with agglutinative languages?— it fits in very well with the Party’s blunt destruction of everything from the past.
  • The careless meaninglessness and deceitfulness of political jargon.
  • The Soviet fashion for syllabic abbreviations, e.g. Sovnarkom for “council of people’s commisioners”.

But that’s not your question.  Would it work?  As a written language, purposely impoverished in meaning and cut off from the past, I don’t see why not.  There are clear examples of the latter: Atatürk’s adoption of the Roman alphabet cut off Turks from centuries of literature; the adoption of báihuà (the Mandarin vernacular) over wényán (the classical literary language), plus the script reform, did the same for China.  To be sure scholars in both cases could continue to learn and study past works, but it was a new barrier.

Could the Party keep the new language immaculate of heretical meanings?  Only by retaining absolute power, which of course is a political not a linguistic question.

Newspeak depends on what’s normally called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; it was intnded to make all other modes of thought but Ingsoc impossible.  But if the political side wasn’t there, I doubt that the linguistic side would hold up.  Suppose the totalitarian state simply collapses, as in V for Vendetta: would the absence of metaphorical uses of “free” continue?  I doubt it; people would simply invent new words or senses.  Writing in 1948, with all the European empires intact, Orwell might suppose that uneducated peoples (denied access to sophisticated liberal thought) could never rebel; I think it’s clear by now that this was wrong— despite his own hatred for imperialism, Orwell grossly underestimated the capacities of non-Europeans.

As for the monotonous delivery “without involving the higher brain centres at all”, I think this should be taken as a parody of political speeches, especially the propagandists for extremists, mouthing out verbiage with no concern for careful thought, beauty, or internal contradiction.  In the world of 1984, it wasn’t a bug but a feature if torrents of Newspeak were hard to follow; the aim was the suppression of thought and progress.

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