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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What happens when intellectual freedom dies?

George Orwell, author of Nineteen Eighty Four, a post-World War II novel that tried to describe a Britain in which fascism had won, explains that the death of intellectual freedom changes the language:
Newspeak was the official language of Oceania, and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism. In the year 1984 there was not as yet anyone who used Newspeak as his sole means of communication, either in speech or writing. The leading articles of the Times were written in it, but this was a tour de force which could only be carried out by a specialist, It was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak (or standard English, as we should call it) by about the year 2050.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 constructions more and more in their everyday speech. The version in 1984, and embodied in the Ninth and Tenth Editions of Newspeak dictionary, was a provisional one, and contained many superfluous words and archaic formations which were due to be suppressed later. It is with the final, perfected version, as embodied in the Eleventh Edition of the dictionary, that we are concerned here.

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 so 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 meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.
This change especially impacts concepts like "free."

Principles of Newspeak: To give a single example - The word free still existed in Newspeak, but could only be used in such statements as "The dog is free from lice" or "This field is free from weeds." It could not be used in its old sense of "politically free" or "intellectually free," since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispenses with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.
You can read more Principles of Newspeak here.

By the way, the idea of Newspeak is by no means farfetched. In The Spiritual Brain*, Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I discussed quite serious wishes to purge from the language words that imply that people have inner lives or free will (p. 119).

Tellingly, Frank Furedi cites - as another recent example - the term "mentally ill." It is to be replaced, he informs us, by "user of mental health services." Notice the underlying assumption that persons deemed mentally ill do use such services ...

Hat tip to reader Dave Gosse for reminding me of Newspeak.

See also "Free speech and intellectual freedom - some thoughts"

Here is the Introduction to The Spiritual Brain.

Just getting back to work after a migraine ...

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