I'd been meaning to read "1984" by George Orwell (published by Harcourt, Inc. in 1949) since early in the actual 1980s. But I got scared off, deterred by the writing and reading I had assigned to me back then, and didn't get around to it. I carefully called my 1984 diary "the real 1984," and I think I'll go back to that now that I've read Orwell's version.
The story of Winston Smith's life in totalitarian Oceania (specifically its capital, London) is frightening, especially because it can still be read as a prophetic warning about what's happening -- not only to our government, but to our language.
The Appendix to the book, "The Principles of Newspeak," was familiar. I hope it's just because I'd read it in a writing class, but I fear that it's because so many of the principles are coming into use. For a defender of Standard English ("Oldspeak," to Orwell) like me, it is a call to action.
Newspeak -- the governmental language which is being developed to replace Oldspeak -- is difficult to read, so I followed a footnote back to the Appendix to learn about it before going on with the early part of the book. As Orwell wrote,
"It was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak (or Standard English, as we should call it) by about the year 2050."
We're getting there, George, every time we ignore an old word or decide it doesn't really matter how exactly we use a word. Oh, you know what I mean... don't you?
"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" (English Socialism), "but 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, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc -- should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words."
"Political correctness," its very name an abomination against the First Amendment to the Constitution, owes a great deal to Orwell's Newspeak. The people who call handicaps "differences in ability" and poverty "economic disadvantage" are using Newspeak -- and they don't even seem to know it.
Another of Orwell's descriptions of Newspeak reads like a prophecy. Vocabulary was strictly controlled, as were the meanings of words, which were as few as possible:
"This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by stripping such words as remained of undesirable meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever."
Don't tell me I can't write more about this. Nobody is watching me -- yet.
Orwell described Newspeak's grammar this way:
"The grammar of Newspeak had two outstanding peculiarities. The first of these was an almost complete interchangeability between different parts of speech. Any word in the language... could be used either as verb, noun, adjective or adverb.
"The word thought, for example, did not exist in Newspeak. Its place was taken by think, which did duty for both noun and verb.
"Adjectives were formed by adding the suffix -ful to the noun-verb, and adverbs by adding -wise."
"Uncold meant 'warm,' while pluscold and doublepluscold meant, respectively, 'very cold' and 'superlatively cold.'"
OK, that doesn't sound too familiar yet. But Orwell continues:
"By such methods it was found possible to bring about an enormous diminution of vocabulary. Given, for instance, the word good, there was no need for a word such as bad, since the required meaning was equally well -- indeed, better -- expressed by ungood. All that was necessary, in any case where two words formed a natural pair of opposites, was to decide which of them to suppress."
Auuugh! But he did mention two peculiarities, so here is the other:
"The second distinguishing mark of Newspeak grammar was its regularity. Subject to a few exceptions which are mentioned below, all inflections followed the same rules. Thus, in all verbs the preterite and the past participle were the same and ended in -ed. The preterite of steal was stealed, the preterite of think was thinked, and so on through the language, all such forms as swam, gave, brought, spoke, taken, etc., being abolished."
So yes, words MATTER! But they can matter for disgusting reasons. According to Orwell,
"But the special function of certain Newspeak words, of which oldthink was one, 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 canceled by their existence."
Ranges of canceled words digust me as a writer and a thinker.
But there is one thing that reassures me about the "Principles of Newspeak." That's the use of the past tense. The preterites were, the word oldthink was one word used, and so on -- all in the past, in Orwell's text. Let's keep them that way. If you're not sure of the exact meaning of a word, look it up -- save the distinction. Use exactly the words you mean. Make a liar out of George Orwell.
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