April 23, 2014

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Seth Schoen Makes a Doubleplusgood Point

Following up on Arnold Kling’s observation about non-general-purpose languages, Seth Schoen reminds us that Orwell’s 1984 featured a language called “Newspeak,” in which it was supposedly impossible to express subversive thoughts. Seth offers this quote from 1984:

Newspeak was the official language of Oceania and had been
devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English
Socialism. [...]

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of
expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the
devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought
impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been
adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical
thought – that is, a thought diverging from the principles
of Ingsoc – should be literally unthinkable, at least as far
as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so
constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression
to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to
express, while excluding all other meanings and also the
possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. [...]

Though I’m happy to grant Orwell some literary license here, I doubt that Newspeak could really exist. At least, I don’t see how it could exist as a language for everyday use. Yes, language can guide and channel thought in dangerous ways. But it’s hard to imagine a workable language that makes it impossible to speak frankly about politics.