- Books, Literature, and Writing
Newspeak: How Language is Important to Freedom
"Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten...The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect."
Syme from George Orwell's classic novel, 1984
The Importance of Reading
One of the biggest issues of the new year is SOPA and PIPA. Of course, for us writers we are especially concerned, because of the argument by opponents that these bills would threaten free speech if passed.
The word "censorship" raises red flags for most anyone because of this strong desire to maintain free speech. If we cannot post what we want, express ourselves without restrictions, or even speak our minds sufficiently, then we cannot be free.
In 1984, Winston speaks to one of the writers of the Newspeak dictionary, Syme. Winston talks with Syme about how he and others are destroying words when the writer responds with the quote above. Newspeak is the language being created by the government in the novel that is an abbreviated and much more limited version of the English language. For example, "thoughtcrime" and "ungood" are both Newspeak words. A "thoughtcrime" basically occurs when a person does not believe in the Revolution or the Party, while "ungood" simply replaces the word "bad."
The smaller dictionary restricts thoughts and the ability to protest against injustices committed by the government. Censorship also does this but it in a slightly different way. When one does not know the facts, they cannot protest because they are never shown reason to. If a story is never leaked that would upset the public, there won't ever be any outcry. If the word "freedom" was scratched out of the dictionary, how would you know what it is and that you are in any way lacking it?
I am in no way likening SOPA and PIPA and its proposed ideals to those of Big Brother. However, the bill and this dictionary within the novel share similarities in that they threaten individual liberty and speech in the name of protecting citizens from violating law. In 1984, it is much easier for the citizens to refrain from committing a thoughtcrime if their words are limited enough to be easily interpreted and strictly defined enough so that violations can be punished without a doubt.
When something is done in the name of the well-being of society as a whole yet threatens the liberty of the individual, does that make it just or unfair?
Already words used in the technological age limit the regular Joe on the street with expression. When you can define "LOL" and "OMG" and refuse to use words longer than two syllables because it simply takes too long to text, you limit your own free speech. Many my age and those who surround me do not understand me at times and so I have to act as dictionary and use these simpler, limited terms in order for them to....not fully grasp but lightly touch what I meant to say.
The way I see it, simple words with simple meanings make simple thoughts and simple people.
This is why the Party in Orwell's infamous novel limits speech to the point of taking each word and redefining them, mixing them, or just erasing them. Limited language limits the thoughts of the people. Without the means to express thoughts much deeper than "I feel good" or "I feel ungood," there is no means to sucessfully commit a thoughtcrime and even if it was committed, there is no way many people would understand enough to follow and take action.
Taking celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt and fusing them together into "Brangelina" is another example of words being added to the dictionary that limit speech. No longer are they two individuals but instead they are one item and a rigidly defined plaything for audiences to read and gossip about. Of course, they aren't the only Hollywood couple to get bundled together like this. Why not read one word instead of three? "Brangelina" instead of "Brad and Angelina?"
America sits at a snug number 49 on a list of 158 countries that are members of the United Nations and are considered illiterate.
It isn't surprising, then, to also realize that the largest literacy program in the United States reaches a mere 100 people yearly.
What's my point?
The focus for discussions lately has been all about censorship. People have gone so far as to fear that hubs will be taken down, sites will become unavailable, and that the government may even censor those things they just don't want us to read. It's certainly something to be feared when your ability to read or write becomes threatened so there is nothing wrong with this.
However, in a society not focused so much on literacy, does it really matter what we're allowed to read? In some ways the U.S. as a whole already has been censored. The focus on keeping things from being hidden behind a black screen rather than providing the public with a proper means to educate themselves takes away their free speech.
In 1984, free speech is limited as the dictionary slims down with each new edition and words continue to be limited or taken out. There is not much difference between this action and slimming down the population that could actually read the word "dictionary" if the book was placed in front of them.
Without the ability to read or write, the illiterate cannot effectively know how to protect themselves from the loss of this freedom that they may not realize they even have. The threat of censorship should be a reminder of what those within the illiterate community face everyday. As we aim to protect our own rights, I think more should also work at giving those who cannot read the right to do the same.
© 2012 LisaKoski