One of the scariest things I’ve read lately is this comment in a language forum:
America is based on the tradition of divergent thinking… There was a time when nuances were important; larger vocabularies were needed. These vocabularies will soon be superfluous as we move into an age where communications are devised and sent in the most efficient manner available. (Emphasis added.)
Anyone who has read George Orwell’s 1984 will hear in this comment an echo of the character Syme’s conversation with Winston about the shrinking size of the Newspeak dictionary:
We’re getting the language into its final shape …We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone. The Eleventh Edition [of the Newspeak dictionary] won’t contain a single word that will become obsolete before the year 2050.
Rules of grammar that contribute to precision of thought are already breaking down. Nuances that used to be observed in newspaper writing are disappearing, for example, such pairs as smell/fragrance, peal/toll, famous/notorious:
Wedding Bells are Tolling Less in Milwaukee
Stories about history’s most famous murders at the Crime Library
Such a Tiny Flower But What a Beautiful Smell
The character Symes explains to Winston that paring English to the bare bones of communication is in the public interest:
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.
In Orwell’s novel, the emasculation of the language is undertaken by the government as a means of controlling and extinguishing dissident thought.
In reality, thanks to the neglect of language instruction in the public schools, over-simplified writing in the media, and the popular attitude that standard English is “elitist” and “undemocratic,” government intervention has not been necessary.