Signet Essay Contest 2013
There is a Soviet joke that tells of a man who escapes to Israel while his brother stays in the Union. Knowing that their letters will be opened, the brothers agree to communicate through the color of their writing: blue ink means that all is well, red the opposite. The Israeli brother writes home soon after his departure, and after some months he receives a reply: “Dear brother, everything is wonderful. Our nation is happy, our leadership is brilliant, and our stores have everything – the only thing missing is red ink.”
As with so many aspects of the novel, language in George Orwell’s 1984 closely parallels that of the USSR. Orwell describes the incredibly powerful totalitarian regime of Oceania, where every action is observed and any thought against the ruling Party is punishable by torture and death. One of the Party’s most prominent tools for controlling thought is the invented language of Newspeak, which is meant to replace standard English by the year 2050. As Orwell describes in the appendix to 1984:
The purpose of Newspeak was … to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought—that is, one diverging from the principles of Ingsoc should be literally unthinkable … 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. (299-300)
In a society where already no unorthodox word may be spoken, Newspeak strives to prevent it from being even thought. The Soviet Union exhibited a similar state of total censorship – and to a much lesser degree, both the USSR and modern American society display similar examples of vocabulary being used to manipulate perception. Nowhere, however, has it proven possible to manipulate minds and views using language alone.
On a simpler scale, it is clear that eliminating expression does not prevent free thought. In Oceania, a telescreen hears every whisper and sees every scribble; it is practically impossible to utter a divergence from Party ideology without eventually being brutally punished. Of course, though, this does not stop thought, nor even expression. 1984‘s protagonists desperately seek (and sometimes find) opportunities to rail against the Party and discuss revolution, despite the resulting certain death. Such an all-observant state is no piece of science fiction. The USSR, although technologically less powerful than Oceania, nonetheless discovered millions of people who spoke against the system, most of whom were similarly brutally punished. Again, this did not stop such thoughts or speech – even those who would not speak openly could communicate covertly, as in the all-too-realistic story of the two brothers.
1984‘s Newspeak, however, goes further. The Party no longer controls merely expression to others; with Newspeak, it aims to smother what one can express even to oneself. The novel does not reveal whether Newspeak ultimately fulfills its purpose. In the eponymous year of the book’s setting, “there was not as yet anyone who used Newspeak as his sole means of communication” (Orwell, 299). Presumably, full control over mind and thought will come about only when this cauterized tongue becomes the society’s only language.
For Newspeak to be mind-controlling, several important conditions must be met. On the simplest level – even if it is possible for language to control thought in general, the specific language of Newspeak must be constructed and introduced so as to achieve this goal. Given the detail that Orwell devotes to explaining the rules and vocabulary of the language, it is surprising that he glosses over the process by which the language will be put into place. One of Newspeak’s developers proudly announces that his committee is “cutting the language down to the bone,” (Orwell, 51) removing both extraneous words and meanings, but the methods are unclear. Newspeak is not an entirely new language, but rather a bowdlerized form of English. A speaker of a language does not draw his vocabulary from the current dictionary, but rather from his existing mind and knowledge. How can the Party make an English speaker forget a word or connotation that he has used all his life, or ensure that a child will not pick up such a forbidden connotation from his parents’ speech? How can it be certain that there is no abstruse circumlocution that can be used to describe an illegal concept like freedom or equality? Even for citizens deeply buried in the orthodox mentality, it is difficult to outlaw a certain word or construction without explicitly naming it, and thus pointing out its existence. Orwell offers little by way of convincing the reader that Newspeak is as perfectly planned as it purports to be.
Let us assume, however, that Newspeak is somehow implemented so that it controls thought as well as any language can. What, then, determines its success? According to the linguist Louis-Jean Calvet, there are two
implicit postulates that we must express so that [Newspeak fulfills its function]: 1st, that thought necessitates language: if a word does not exist, the concept cannot manifest itself; if a word disappears, the concept disappears. 2nd, that reality cannot exist except in language; the gift of experience is nothing if there is nothing by which to signify it (Sur une conception fantaisiste de la langue: La ‘Newspeak’ de George Orwell, 103; translation by essay author).
The first idea is one that has been debated by many linguists and cognitive scientists — is it possible for a human being to think without language? Steven Pinker, a prominent cognitive linguist, argues that human thought takes place in a medium, known as “mentalese,” that is far more fundamental than any spoken language and that survives independently of the words that one is fed. He predicts that “concepts of freedom and equality will be thinkable even if they are nameless” (The Language Instinct, 73) to residents of post-Newspeak Oceania, and that words will quickly develop meanings beyond those listed in the dictionary. He even postulates that new generations will soon create a creole of Newspeak and make it into a natural language that can comfortably express any thought. The creolization process would be far more difficult with Newspeak than with other languages, since a deviation from the dictionary might quickly be punished. Even so, the process will proceed, albeit slower. If people speak dangerous words and deviate from the rules in 1984, there is little reason to suppose they will not in 2050.
Not all scientists are as convinced as Pinker that thought is entirely independent of language. Most, however, grant that some cognition is possible without language. Thus, some independent, original thought can occur even when one speaks only a stilted language – and this is assuming that Newspeak is quite as stilted as it aims to be.
Here we turn to Calvet’s second condition, that for Newspeak to function it is necessary for reality to exist only in language and, by extension, in the mind. After all, an independent reality would contradict and bypass Newspeak, making manipulation of both speech and thought more difficult if not impossible.
1984 deals extensively with the question of whether there is such a thing as external reality – a mind that has been taken over by the Party’s mindset and principles of mental manipulation is unable to conceive of such a concept. Thus, for the majority of Party members, it is true that reality exists only in the mind. In this case, this is very much the same thing as existing only in language; if the interior of one’s mind is infinitely malleable, then “reality” only takes a definite form when it is spoken. Calvet’s second condition is so satisfied for those Party members who are already absorbed in the party mindset. Yet for these people, Newspeak is irrelevant in the first place. If a mind is unable to partake in thoughtcrime, there is little need for a language that reinforces this inability. Rather, Newspeak is meant to stifle the possibility of unorthodox thoughts in those minds that might have them otherwise – and in these cases, external reality does exist; concept is not limited to language.
Newspeak thus fails to fulfill the necessary conditions to function. A look at some of the plentiful analogues to Newspeak in our world reveals the same inefficacy. In the Soviet Union, for instance, workers were often expected to show up on Saturdays for СУ66OTHИKИ (subbotniki), days of work that were officially strictly voluntary and in reality quite mandatory. This practice, oddly reminiscent of the Party’s ability to present orders so that “although no directive was ever issued, it was known that the chiefs of the Department intended that within one week no reference to the war with Eurasia… should remain” (Orwell, 182), shows that euphemisms cannot truly obstruct thinking. Perhaps a “СУ66OTHИKИ” announcement would sound less aggravating than “required weekend labor”, but any worker understood the implication perfectly. There are countless examples in modern American society, too: dentists are instructed to say “considerable decay” instead of “cavity” and “treatment room” instead of “operatory,” the Pentagon uses “general war” instead of “total nuclear war” and “accidental attack” instead of “unpremeditated war”. In each of these cases, however, one can see and understand the euphemism. The very fact that Americans joke and complain about politically correct, euphemized language shows that they recognize these manipulations and so are far less susceptible to them. In any case, as time goes on euphemisms tend to lose any power they once had, as the constant updating of newly acceptable terms demonstrates: “imbecile” is replaced by “feeble-minded”, then “retarded”, then “mentally disabled”, and so on. A word soon becomes just a word, and the underlying concept is what is brought to mind; allowed and forbidden synonyms merge over time.
And so we find that no existing analogue of Newspeak has come close to accomplishing its aims – and furthermore, that Newspeak itself has not been designed adequately for its purposes. More importantly yet, it seems that thought, reality, and language are not so inextricably bound that it is possible to use language to control thought in general. One can try to impose any limitations on language, attempt to regulate every syllable – but language, and even more so thought, shall find a way to go on in any case. The two brothers from the story have found a way to communicate despite stringent censorship and the failure of a first solution; so can any people find a way to overcome any obstacles to communicate with others and, crucially, with themselves. Newspeak is a terrifying concept, but we can leave it confined to the pages of 1984. Similar modern attempts at manipulating thought through language have failed, and we can expect any others to collapse as well. Human ingenuity and the nearly infinite scope of thought will thrive regardless of any society’s efforts to restrain it.
For information on the 2013-2014 Signet Classics Essay Contest, click here.
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