Despite Orwell, 'Oldspeak' - not 'Newspeak' - lives in 1984
In the year 1984 . . . it was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak (or standard English, as we should call it) by about the year 2050. Meanwhile it gained ground steadily, all Party members tending to use Newspeak words and grammatical construction more and more in their everyday speech.
- George Orwell, ''1984''
The essential features of Newspeak were the abolition of all undesirable and unnecessary words and meanings, the simplification of grammar, and the creation of a special political vocabulary of compound terms such as ''crimethink,'' ''doublethink,'' ''unperson.'' Only by enforcing this artifical language could the ultimate totalitarianism be achieved - a state of absolute thought control in which unorthodoxy was impossible, since the words in which it could be expressed or conceived no longer existed.
Orwell invented Newspeak partly in response to the crude efforts by Communist and Fascist governments of his day to legislate language and thereby thought, and partly as a satire on ''Basic English,'' a radically simplified version of the language devised in the 1920s by the linguist C. K. Ogden. Basic English, using only 850 words and a simplified grammar, was claimed to be capable of expressing most things that could be said in standard English, with its vast vocabulary and its difficult grammar. It was not intended to replace standard English, but to serve for international communication and as an easy introduction for foreign learners. In 1933 H. G. Wells predicted that in the 21 st century Basic English would become the lingua franca of the world.
Newspeak is an extremely effective linguistic parody, the bitter sarcasm of a pessimistic, anti-intellectual, anti-establishment, middle-class quasi-socialist who was educated at Eton and was himself a writer with an excellent and mildly purist prose style. One measure of its impact as a satire is that standard English has accepted at least three of its words - ''doublethink,'' ''unperson'' (or ''nonperson''), and ''newspeak'' itself.
Meanwhile, in the real 1984, have any of Orwell's linguistic foreshadowings been fulfilled? Bureaucratic and official usage certainly continues to obfuscate - invasions are described as ''incursions'' or ''rescue missions.'' And institutional syllabic acronyms flourish: Orwell explicitly cited ''Gestapo'' (short for ''Geheime Staatspolizei'') and ''Comintern'' (short for ''Communist International'') as models for Newspeak creations such as ''Ingsoc'' (English Socialism) and ''Pornosec'' (the Pornographic Section of the Ministry of Truth). This system of word formation is now a permanent part of the language. We have ''Nabisco'' (the National Biscuit Company) and ''Tanzania'' (Tanganyika and Zanzibar). On the whole it seems a useful method of abbreviating. ''Tanzania'' is reasonably euphonious. But ''Soweto'' (from South West Town), a black township in South Africa, is the hamfisted coinage of some dedicated Newspeak expert. In Newspeak, all adverbs were formed by adding ''-wise'' to adjectives. This tendency, not invented by Orwell, seems to have passed its peak in the 1960s - most memorably satirized in the movie ''The Apartment'' - ''That's the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.''
Government, at least in the English-speaking world, has not seriously moved toward legislating language, with one disastrous exception. In every major country except the United States, the bureaucracy has forced metric terminology on an unwilling people. This is a classic piece of Newspeak legislation, specifically foretold by Orwell in the scene of the elderly prole ordering a pint of beer: ''Never heard of 'em,'' said the barman shortly; ''liter and half liter - that's all we serve.''
In other respects, the language is in better shape than most other components of our culture. The enormous vocabulary of English continues to expand so as to accommodate shifting and expanding conceptions. There is hardly any official control of the language. It is self-policing. It adapts itself to changing conditions by the traditional and highly democratic consensus of usage, monitored by an endless dialogue, often bitter but always healthy, between purists and radicals, experts and ordinary people. Oldspeak lives.