Slipping into Newspeak

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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.

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29 thoughts on “Slipping into Newspeak”

  1. In France, the Académie française is the official authority on the French language and produces all of the official dictionaries. The Académie has a reputation for being quite conservative with new words, so when the French public need a word for a new concept, they often use an English one.

  2. Hmm . . . I’m not so sure that we’re slipping into Newspeak. Our English dictionaries are adding more words than they’re taking out, aren’t they?

  3. The average American reads at about an 8th or 9th level (pretty strange considering the majority of the public graduates from high school after 12th grade…). This is why you see “over-simplified writing in the media,” as you mentioned. All forms of media (tv, magazines, newspapers, online content, blogs…) all need to write at these more basic levels in order to appeal to audiences.

    I’d like to know *why* most everyone reads at lower levels. Is it because most people are inherently lazy and don’t have a desire to read at more complex levels?? (sad thought)
    Is it because the public school system is failing to graduate seniors reading comfortably at a 12th grade level?
    I wonder if there’s been any research done to begin uncovering the root cause.

  4. Kenia:

    I’m not so sure about “the majority” of the public graduating after 12th grade–graduation rates nationwide average under 70%. I’m also not sure about the 8th/9th grade level–the only source I could find for that was a 1993 study, which can no longer be considered reliable. Finally, you have to ask yourself just what is the meaning of reading levels, and how are they measured?

    And–graduation rates used to be even lower; literacy for all is a relatively new phenomenon, and the insistence that all Americans should complete an academic high school program is an even newer one. I’ll agree there are a lot of people posting on the internet with less developed writing skills than one might wish, but on the flip side. . .they are using writing to communicate: a generation ago they would not have done so, except the occasional private letter, for which they would have substituted a phone call if they could.

    I don’t know where the English language is going, anymore than anyone else does, but I truly do not believe that government will ever be able to control language to the degree that Mr. Orwell, and the poster on the forum Maeve refers to, postulate.

  5. The average American reads at about an 8th or 9th level

    Presumably this is 8th or 9th grade? But what does that mean? There’s a law professor at a US “ivy league” university who famously gives his students a 19th century high school text (at college graduate level today) to demonstrate how badly-educated they are compared to previous generations. Today’s “8th or 9th grade” reading level probably corresponds to “4th or 5th grade”, say, 150 years ago. In another 150 years, statistics will show that the average American reads at a 12th grade level, and the government will hail this as a great improvement over the 8th grade level achieved 150 years earlier….but if you look deeper, you’ll find that “12th grade level” in 2160 amounts to reading “See Spot run”

  6. Although literacy, in the scheme of things, is relatively recent, I am chilled by this comparison to the book 1984. My 14 year old neice and her friends use works like “kl” (cool), “bk” (back), along with writing in a Glasweigan accent. I worry that, in time, the next generations won’t be able to differentiate between the current English language and so called “efficient” language. I saw on the news a while ago that the Oxford dictionary want to add misspelled words like “truely”, due to a large amount of people believing that to be the correct spelling. Although I despair somewhat, archaic language exists for a reason and people who lived in those times would most likely be similarly disgusted at our “new” language.

  7. As much as I don’t like to promote Ms. Palin in any way, this article surprised me. Not because these experts found her writing/communication skills to be above the average business executive, but because of the assessment that Lincoln’s Gettysburg address was written at a 9.1 level and King’s I Have A Dream speech was 8.8.

    These were both assessed using “Flesch-Kincaid readability test”.

    The important part is the clarity of the writing and the ability to convey complex ideas simply and effectively. Isn’t it?

  8. And my suspicion that 1984 is not so much a critique of totalitarianism as a scary prophecy of how the logic of Western culture was evolving, continues to solidify.

  9. Forgive me my optimistic outlook on things, but as long as people read old, classic literature, there will be a need to comprehend the words and language used therein. My beautiful daughter is masterful with her use of the English language and she also can create likenesses of people and things with a classical realism that has grown rare in contemporary art. It breaks my heart to have heard her utter, upon reading this article, “My talents are becoming obsolete.” For the love of God, she is only 17. We are bent on starting a revolution.

  10. What I find disturbing is the notion that the media dumbs down the language to appeal to the audience.

    If this is true, haven’t they taken into consideration the alternative that if they challenge the audience with with a more intelligent choice of words, then the audience will have to think more to be able to fully understand what is being said?

    This reminds me of the argument that television stations put on violent programming because that is what the viewers want. If every T.V. station put on the air what people need, quality and intelligent programming, rather than what they think people want, we wouldn’t be having this conversation about how America may or may not be “dumbing down.”

    There is another theory that I believe to be misguided as well. When people talk about who is in charge and who is probably to blame for the seeming decline of education in America, it is always the government that gets the blame. 1984 may be fiction, but the sentiments of many Americans seem to reflect the notion that the government is in charge and conspiring against the common man.

    I find this amazing because we have just had yet another sex scandal involving a politician. Year after year we are reminded how petty and unintelligent these people really are. I find it hard to believe that these people have the intelligence required to conspire among themselves plans to make the US unintelligent.

    Let’s step back for a moment for to the news casts and how they are using more simple language these days. In the past few years there seems to have been merger after merger of media companies. More and more these days you see less companies owning more media outlets. Ultimately, it is the owners who decide what shows are aired on their networks and the quality of the content.

    If there was a conspiracy by a large group of people to make America less educated, the smart money would be on the big money corporations who control the media and who lobby Washington with their deep pockets to make and pass bills that further their own interests And those interests are obviously to make more money.

    I personally believe that there is no direct conspiracy by anyone to make us less educated. I DO believe however that there is a conspiracy amongst the rich to keep themselves that way at our expense. What they are ultimately after is money. The fact that we are getting less educated as a result of their efforts to deepen their pockets is a side effect that you will never hear them complain about.

  11. There will always be a luxurious richness of language that one may immerse oneself in, due to the perennial abundance of eloquence that abounds in literature old and new.
    However, it is grievously sad that illiteracy is on the gain in both Britain and America due to successive governments deliberately neglecting education. No government past or present has ever had any interest in educating the masses !

    For decades, it has been common for English teachers to have an exceedingly poor comprehension of their own native language – they can’t spell or punctuate properly, and they have very poor understanding of sentence structure. It is shocking to see people with degrees deploying the most vilely appalling English !

  12. SueO: Hear! Hear!

    Joe, the news media is a private business–therefore, a competitive business. Newspapers, television and radio make their money by delivering audience to advertisers. And a business which persists in offering its customers what it believes they need, as opposed to what they actually want, succeeds in the long term only if it either finds a niche population of folk who actually want what it offers (health food restaurants), or is heavily subsidized by either public or private sources (NPR and public television). I don’t think there is any need to explain why we don’t want government subsidies for news media–and private ones are in some ways no better. The entertainment media, of course–with the exception of NPR and public television–is also a private business subject to the same market forces.

    The internet is changing that somewhat, but markets are and always will be markets. You can’t make money selling people something they don’t want.

    What the internet has allowed, of course, is the aggregation of niche audiences, so that sites (such as this one) which offer people the opportunity to revel in chit-chat about English language rules and usage can get together conveniently. And there are a surprising number of such sites.

    As a side note–no 8th grade level readability here! I tried running some of our comments from this thread through the Fleisch-Kinkaid calculator at Surprising and gratifying. I think. Of course, the readability scales don’t actually measure things such as correct usage, punctuation or spelling, so they tell us nothing about how literate–or careful–the writers are. They only tell us how long their words and sentences are.

  13. See? Fourth paragraph: “which offer people who revel in chit-chat.” And, yes, I proof-read and revised. Twice.

  14. No government past or present has ever had any interest in educating the masses !

    Depends what you mean by “educating”. Public education was created with the specific intention of dividing people into a class of future political leaders and a class of worker drones. The people who introduced it didn’t exactly try to keep their intentions secret. (Read John Taylor Gatto’s The Underground History of American Education, for example; on-line here)

  15. Bert,
    Peter is right to ask for clarification. “Educating” does not mean the same thing to everyone. Judging by public service ads and the usual stay-in-school harangues, “educating” means preparing an individual to make a “good” salary in the work force. That kind of “educating” is what I’d call job training.

    The kind of education that feeds the mind and spirit has always been reserved for the children of the rich and powerful. Even as we post these comments, universities all over the country are cutting back on the humanities and bolstering business and computer technology programs.

    As Kathryn points out, markets are markets. You can’t sell people what they don’t want. And a culture fed by the mindset reflected in television sit-coms and advertising does not want an intellectual education.

    Sometimes I think we should establish secular monasteries. Put all the abused and neglected boys and girls in them, make them comfortable, and educate them to preserve the learning that is slipping away. Who knows, it might be wanted again some day.

  16. What I hinted about governments past and present having major interest in keeping people illiterate still stands.
    It is pointless to debate such truths, and indeed I wish I had not posted anything at all whatsoever.

  17. Bert, ‘anything at all whatsoever’? ‘Vilely appalling’? Such redundant phraseology remindse that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones! 😉

  18. “Such redundant phraseology remindse that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones!”

    Verily, sirrah, thine eloquence astoundeth me.

    I truly wish that I could deploy English so magnificently.

    “phraseology” ? Umm…

  19. Oh, and before you post something else equally half-witted, let’s examine what you posted : “…remindse that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones!”

    Firstly, you didn’t even check for typos – now that isn’t clever, is it ?
    Reminds ? Reminds whom, exactly ?

    Grammar is obviously not your strong point !

    Secondly, my “phraseology” is not redundant.

    Thirdly, if you have to use clichés, then at least use them properly !
    The expression is, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

    I really hope you don’t post anything else, because you will just look even more stupid. Clearly, sir, you are neither literate nor intelligent.

  20. bert, you sound like one of my students with your pompous verbosity and over-reliance on wasteful adverbs, though I am glad you took the time to google “phraseology” after your initial post indicated you had no familiarity with the term. When you season a little, you will realise that sometimes less is more. Or as you would no doubt say, diminished less is majorly more.

    To be fair, I probably appear stupid to you because from a position of ignorance, everything seems stupid.

    PS – you don’t need a space before a question mark or exclamation mark, and ‘whom’ would be incorrect as it is subject not object – here, I will save you googling: edit/whom.html

  21. I guessed correctly that you are an English teacher.
    Your entirely fatuous and grammatically incorrect post shows you to be…STUPID 🙂

    I’m ignorant ?

    Wow, please let me remind you : “…remindse that people…”

    Reminds whom ?

    “whom” is objective. However, you indicated neither subject nor object…

    So, I tried a lucky guess.

    P***** like you are a waste of oxygen.

  22. You don’t like old-fashioned English ?

    Tough ****.

    I have wasted enough of my time with your childish ******* bs.

    “Or as you would no doubt say, diminished less is majorly more.”

    Really ? I would say garbage like that would I ?

    You don’t address your own nonsense. If anyone is being pompous, it is indeed you.

    You have been unnecessarily rude for no good reason whatsoever.

    ******* ****** !

  23. Furthermore, I didn’t “Google” phraseology, not was I unfamiliar with the term.

    Your supremely arrogant tendency towards assumption is infernally irritating in the extreme.

    Before posting yet another bs inflammatory response, please consider that you initiated this !

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