Sunday, 2 March 2008


George Orwell was an intelligent man and seemed to have quite a good grasp of semiotics and the importance of language and its capacity to structure and regulate thought. In 1984 he created the concept of 'newspeak' which was a creation of the state with the aim of regulating how people think and exorcising thought which would be harmful to its interests:

"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. 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 it is dependent on words"

The word free, as in political freedom, became undesirable in Oceania and its use was restriced to a negative use, for instance the dog was free from lice. I could go on and list Newspeak words but Wikipedia does it better than I could so I suggest you check out the relevant article. What interests me more than the fictional world is how this principle is used in the here and now.

A good example of Newspeak is the political correctness campaign or the campaign for plain English and these are two campaigns I generally support. The former started off a campaign to make our use of language more gender neutral. For many, gone are the days of chairmen and manholecovers we now have chairperson and peopleholecovers. I'm generally supportive not because I think any one instance will offend either sex but because we have a language that belies a history of male dominance and reaffirms those positions by their constant use. The campaign for plain English works in a similar way by making the complicated langauge used in law for instance, or politics, accessible to the layman. In the law this has meant the irradication of much of the Latin used, terms like plaintiff and defendant are now replaced by claimant and respondent. They seem like small gestures but they are steps towards the breaking down of class and gender divisions.

More cynical attempts to control public perception with Newspeak are the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan those who fought against the invading coalition forces were not the resistance but they were enemy combatants, a position that denied them the basic Geneva Convention rights. In Iraq the term used was 'insurgents' but even this seems to be politically sensitive as it admits there is a problem and now the official term is concerned local nationals. Politics is rife with this sort of language, ways of circumventing truth by the careful choice of words and this is a major reason people are disillusioned by the process.

I'd always rather be won over by cunning argument than subverted by the 'right' words.


Heather said...

peopleholecovers? really?

I need to reread 1984 sometime soon.

Paolo said...

It is such an influential book it is always worth revisiting. It also begins to feel more and more pertinent, not just in terms of newspeak but all the different infringements on civil liberties of the past few years. For instance we have more cctv cameras per person in England than in North Korea or China, isn't that astounding not to mention very big brother? There is a good documentary on the subject called Taking Liberties which, whilst it focuses on the UK, is utterly fascinating: