Orwell’s 1984: On the Power of Words to Affect Thought

holding up the cover of my 1984 paperback
1984 is book #269 from The Literary Project.
(I skipped ahead a little…)

I recently re-read George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984. It had been at least 15 years since I had read it the first time, and so I remembered little. In diving in again, I was struck by Orwell’s masterful ability to demonstrate the power of words and their importance to a liberal state–for a democratic society and individual freedom. It is a power that, I believe, most of us–myself included–tend to seriously underestimate.

To drive this concept home, Orwell invented a fictional language: Newspeak. It is the official language of Oceania, the totalitarian state within which 1984 takes place. It is a highly abbreviated version of Standard English, a language built chiefly by eliminating words so that what is left is only the ability to express permissible–or, “Orthodox”–ideas. Words that can be used to express unorthodox thought are completely stripped from the language, so that expression–and even thought–that is against the Party’s principles is impossible.

Winston Smith is our protagonist, and towards the beginning of the novel his “comrade” Syme sits down with him at lunch and discusses his work: he is on an enormous team of experts compiling the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak dictionary.

Syme explains:

“You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words–scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone.”

He goes on in more detail:

“It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great advantage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other words? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good,’ for instance. If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well–better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words–in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?…”

His disdain for the complexities of the Standard English language, “Oldspeak,” is evident:

“…In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning…”

That sentence, with its description of shades of meaning as “useless” made an impression on me. I had to put the book down for a second to ponder on it…and I came to equate Standard English as we know it today (and really any language in the world that isn’t Newspeak-like), as being a language for human beings, for expressing all that encompasses the multi-faceted human condition; whereas Newspeak reduces the human down to an automaton machine, who’s primary goal in speaking is efficiency in its exactitude.

And then Syme reveals the true purpose of Newspeak, the reason for holding efficiency above all else:

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime* literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten…”

(*Thoughtcrime is unorthodox thinking, all of which is against the law in Oceania.)

“To narrow the range of thought.” Although we usually think of the spoken or written word when we think of language, isn’t the purpose of language truly to create ideas and order our thoughts? The expression of an idea from one person to another is actually secondary, because the idea must be developed first before it can be expressed. Innovations, creative visions, worldviews…are all developed in our minds. And although we do receive most of our thoughts and ideas from the world outside of us initially, all of those ideas were originally hatched inside of someone else’s mind. And once their ideas enter your mind, you can, in turn, turn them around and around and make them into something new by synthesizing all the concepts you hold in your head, which are only there because of the language that you know. This is why limiting words actually would result in a narrowing of thought.

Syme then goes on to paint a frightening future:

“By 2050–earlier, probably–all real knowledge of Oldspeak will have disappeared. The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron–they’ll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be…The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking–not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.”

“There will be no thought.” …Terrifying.

So think now to all those times you’ve heard friends and relatives lament the fact that English has too many synonyms. Although they are almost always not synonyms in the true sense, but rather elegant inventions to express slight differences in nuance, many people are frustrated when reading works with “fancy” words that they need to look up; and they seem to think the author only uses them to “show off.” Of course that may be the case in some instances, but more often than not the author is making a conscience choice to use one word over another in order to truly express their thoughts more exactly. I understand that this frustration with words does not come from a place of wanting to turn our world into a totalitarian state…but this frustration is the epitome of lacking understanding of the importance of words and language, nuance and shades of meaning.

Word are important. Incredibly important. And to these frustrated people…I must insist: elevate yourself. Rather than wishing language was brought down, bring yourself up. Learn new words. Deliberately use them in your speech so that you may learn them well. And as you learn, you’ll find yourself feeling less frustrated and more empowered. At least, that’s how I feel as I do this myself. I know that I have so much to continue to learn, but as I do I feel more and more empowered in my thinking. Perhaps this way, one individual at a time, we’ll maintain an educated citizenry of the free world, and we’ll protect the very tool that protects our civil liberties: our free thought.