30 years later, are we heading towards another wave of Newspeak?

I have just seen 1984, the play. I have read the book something like one year ago, and I cannot believe they managed to create something for the stage that could respect the novel and still be so incredibly surprising at the same time. Mind-blowing is how I described it, because I cannot think of another word that is so close to what the audience experiences. The play starts from the end of the story, so to say, with people from the future analysing Winston’s notes. What I find at the same time clever, spectacular, and disturbing is the mise-en-scene. We are watching what happens to Winston, but we are inside his mind as well. We are Winston and we are Big Brother. We feel his pain, and we share with him the astonishment for what is happening around. However, we also see the images from the screen, what Big Brother is seeing while he controls him. The blackouts and the alarms that we experience constantly are what Winston sees and experiences.

One of the most interesting concepts in the book, from my point of view, was obviously the Newspeak. Unfortunately, this part is one of those that has suffered the most from the cuts needed for the screenplay, and it is, maybe, the only real complaint that I have about the adaptation.

Just to offer a brief summary for those who haven’t read the novel, the story happens in a dystopia, a world of oppression ruled by the Party (also Ingsoc, or English Socialism). This has created a reality in which human beings live in fear, constantly controlled by the Big Brother through the telescreens. In this book, the control of the totalitarian regime is brought to the extreme of even controlling the thoughts of the population. How is that goal achieved? Of course, the presence of screens in the apartments makes almost impossible for people to express their opposition even in private, including putting down on paper what they think. This is the problem that Winston has from the beginning: he knows that what is happening is wrong, and feels the urge to express it in its diary, so that the future generations will be able to know. Exactly as plenty of other chosen character in literature, he has the gift of knowledge, but this talent is not something that makes him happy or better than the rest. On the contrary, because of it, he is upset, he struggles, and he is found guilty and punished. We are seeing, once again, the myth of Adam and Eve. Of course, it is not he only idea inspired in the biblical teaching, so is also the idea of sexcrime.

The other way of controlling the population is the Newspeak. This language, opposed to Oldspeak, or Standard English, works in a completely different way compared to any other language we know, natural or artificial. A language is the mean human beings have to communicate, and the more they know and learn, the more the language evolves and grows. In the case of dying or dead languages, the speakers don’t use them anymore (as it happened with Latin when the vernacular languages gained importance over it), or they disappear (as it has been the case of some aboriginal languages in Australia.) A dead language, however, doesn’t lose its vocabulary, it simply stops in time as it is at that given moment. The case of Latin is different due to the fact that the Catholic Church uses it as its official language, and therefore the vocabulary is being expanded again.

Newspeak is different, its purpose is to prevent people committing thoughtcrime, so it needs to systematically reduce its vocabulary until all thought against the Party is impossible. The Project, such is the name of the plan to promote Newspeak, aims to orderly eliminate,  by 2050, all word that could allow thoughtcrime. One of the ideas is that synonyms are useless, and so are antonyms:

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 word? 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?

Not only the Party deprives the citizens of their dignity by cutting the food allowance and starving them, and by putting the children against their parents; it also wants to annihilate the one characteristic that makes them human: the ability to speak. I can’t believe that we currently live in a moment and in countries where we are free to talk and think, and we ourselves torture and maim our own languages writing things such as: “r u ready?”, “c u l8r”, “ikr”, and so on. I am not complaining about what other people do, I recognize that I am guilty as sin as well, and that I often find myself reading the charts of synonyms that I find on Facebook to keep my vocabulary alive and flowery.

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