Saturday, February 22, 2014

"1984": Newspeak as an Exoteric Language

I've always had a lot of questions about where the irregularities in the English language originated, and those questions are finally being answered for me as I listen to a Great Courses lecture entitled Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage by Professor John McWhorter of Columbia University.  McWhorter covers everything from irregular verbs and pronoun usage to esoteric and exoteric languages.

I'd never heard the distinction between an esoteric and exoteric language before, so when I finished reading 1984 , I began to think about the language the Party created to control the thoughts of it's citizens.  I realized this had to be an example of an exoteric language and that could help explain why The Party was so successful.

First, an esoteric language is used by small group of people, learned as children, and more complex. It is an "in-group" language and it's complexity makes it difficult for adults to learn.

Languages spoken by a large number of people, learned by adults and children are referred to as exoteric.  They are more accessible to outsiders and replicable. The inclusion of outsiders makes the language more sustainable as it is passed down and learned by the masses.

Newspeak, as the official language of Oceania in 1984, is an exoteric language.  All people are encourage to forget the old language and fully adopt to this new language The Party has created.  As a language being completely learned by adults and in a large quantity, the language had to be simple and easy to learn.  (I would call it second language learning, but The Party demanded that Newspeak replace the previous language.)

The simplification that took place condensed the language to bare bones, keeping only the language necessary.  It meant removing any synonyms or antonyms, replacing them with a single word that could be modified to adjust meaning.  Instead of the word bad, Newspeak has "ungood."  Something could be described as doubleplus ungood, ungood, good, or doubleplus good. The effect of changing language in this way and forcing it upon a large group of people is that there is no room for personal expression.  No thought can be expressed if The Party hasn't created the word describing it.  There are many fewer words, with much more rigidity in meaning.

By creating a simple language that only had words that described "goodthink" (Party approved principles), The Party could force all people into an identical way of thinking and thereby remove all opposition.  By the end of the novel, Winston can't remember anything but Newspeak and has lost his ability to express (and think) anything outside Party policy.  If language is controlled, thought is controlled.

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