The section of George Orwell’s novel 1984 that deals most fully with the “breakdown of language” is the appendix titled “The Principles of Newspeak.” The narrator there explains how “Newspeak” was intended ultimately to replace Oldspeak (standard English). Ironically, then, this change in language is not so much a “breakdown” as it is a deliberate governmental policy. Various passages in the appendix that seem especially relevant to this process include the following:
- At one point the narrator notes that the
purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the worldview and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc [that is, English socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible.
This is an intriguing passage for several reasons. In the first place, we don’t normally think of languages as having a “purpose.” Languages usually arise haphazardly, over thousands of years, without any central planning involved; they usually evolve in response to various unforeseen, unforeseeable contingencies. Newspeak, however, like every other aspect of the society this novel describes, is the product of conscious, deliberate planning – planning done, of course, by the powerful in order to solidify and extend their power.
Newspeak is designed to ensure not so much “proper” language as “proper” thinking: that is, the kind of thinking “proper” to “devotees” of Ingsoc. The word “devotees” is itself a bit ironic, since we normally think of devotion as the product of conscious thought and free choice. The “devotees” of Ingsoc, however, are actually forbidden to enjoy free thought or free choices. They are “devotees” not in the traditional sense but in the ways that members of cults are “devotees”: they are brainwashed and their thoughts are programmed by those in power. The main purpose of Newspeak is “to make all other modes of thought impossible” (emphasis added).
According to many philosophers and students of language, we can only think what our language permits us to think. This phenomenon is often called “the prison-house of language”: we are trapped inside whatever “language system” we happen to have been born into. This is a highly debatable view of language, but it seems to be the view adopted by the rulers of Oceania: whoever controls language controls what it is possible to think.
- Later the narrator notes that he purpose was Newspeak was
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.
This is an intriguing passage. We normally think that the purpose of education is to expand our vocabularies, allowing us to think new and complicated thoughts by adding more and more words to our lexicon. We also normally think that language is enriched by the existence of subtle connotations and implications and the possibility of multiple meanings for the same word. We often assume that one reason that Shakespeare is such a highly fascinating writer is that he had such a huge vocabulary and knew how to play with all manner of subtleties. He loved punning, for instance, which is to say that he loved getting as much meaning out of particular words as possible. The purpose of Newspeak, however, is to keep people speaking in (and thinking with) what might be called a kind of “baby talk.” The purpose of Newspeak is to retard linguistic development, not promote it.