Newspeak, "Reality Control" and Doublethink

Whatever Orwell's literary weaknesses are, they are well hidden by his political genius. In many ways Nineteen Eighty-Four is a non-fiction essay on the theoretical limits of power, disguised as fiction. And despite the inconsistencies of Julia, the rest of the political system imagined by Orwell is meticulously constructed. He fastidiously describes the elements through which the Party maintains its position of power, right down to an appendix on the construction of the official language, Newspeak. It is worth reading the appendix before the rest of the book, as, although much of it is reiterated within the text, it represents a distillation of the kind of cold logic applied by the Party.

For Orwell, how something was said, was always as important as what was said. The power of language is one of his many preoccupations throughout his fiction and non-fiction work (see his essay "Politics and the English Language"). Orwell had long argued against the use of obfuscatory language - indeed the very word "obfuscatory" would have been derided by him as an example of language that actually disguises meaning. This is very much reflected in the prose style of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which, like much of Orwell's work, although often vividly descriptive, shies away from decorative and indulgent use of language. The opening sentence is an effective example of the power of simple language: 'It was a cold bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.' No words unfamiliar to a primary school pupil, and yet an immediate impression of both familiarity and otherworldliness. 'Thirteen' is of course just one o'clock, but the alien idea of a clock striking thirteen immediately transports us to Orwell's future (or perhaps given its allegorical nature, parallel) world of Oceana.

For Orwell, clarity and power was attained by the use of his memorable 'plain style', but his invention of Newspeak is interesting in that it attempts to mask reality and influence thought not through extravagant use of language, but by the very paucity of its vocabulary and grammar. The language, which is reminiscent of that used in telegrams (a possible inspiration), is a key method through which the Party seeks to control individuals:

'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 principle of Ingsoc - should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words... There would be many crimes and errors which would be beyond his [a person growing up with Newspeak] power to commit, simply because they were nameless and therefore unimaginable.'

'At least so far as thought is dependent on words' is an important caveat. Unfortunately for Orwell, the idea that language prefigures thought - as most famously outlined in the notoriously spurious Sapir- Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determinism - is now widely discredited in the field of linguistics, but to what extent language influences thought remains a hot topic of debate. Again, it is important to remember that, like the rest of the novel, Newspeak is a thought experiment rather than an scientific theory, and perhaps there is a glimmer of hope for the inhabitants of Oceana after all. However, Newspeak is just one element of the Party's control over the mental state of individuals, and it is clear in the novel that every aspect of reality is under the manipulative control of the Party.

Orwell had a distrust of political euphemisms, not because they are a form of mind control, but because they are a form of lies. And in Nineteen Eighty-Four, lying is taken to new and absurd extremes - from the chocolate ration being 'increased' from thirty to twenty grammes, to the assertion that "Oceana has always been at war with Eurasia." This wholesale reconstruction of the past to suit the present circumstances is one of the most powerful uses of the political lie: '"Who controls the past," ran the Party slogan, "controls the future: who controls the present controls the past."'

As Goldstein writes in The Book: 'The mutability of the past is the central tenet of Ingsoc. Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memories. The past is whatever the records and the memories agree upon. And since the Party is in full control of all records, and in equally full control of the minds of its members, it follows that the past is whatever

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