What Is Newspeak?

Language and Propaganda

George Orwell, "Nineteen Eighty-Four"
 Lech Linkel/Flickr CC 2.0 

Newspeak is the deliberately ambiguous and contradictory language used to mislead and manipulate the public. (In this general sense, the term newspeak is usually not capitalized.)

In George Orwell's dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (published in 1949), Newspeak is the language devised by the totalitarian government of Oceania to replace English, which is called Oldspeak. Newspeak was designed, says Jonathan Green, "to shrink vocabularies and eliminate subtleties."

Green discusses how the "new newspeak" differs in method and tone from Orwell's Newspeak: "Rather than shorten the language it is infinitely broadened; instead of curt monosyllables, there are mellifluous, calming phrases designed to allay suspicions, modify facts and divert one's attention from difficulties" (Newspeak: A Dictionary of Jargon, 1984/2014).

Examples and Observations

  • "Newspeak occurs whenever the main purpose of language--which is to describe reality--is replaced by the rival purpose of asserting power over it. . . . Newspeak sentences sound like assertions, but their underlying logic is the logic of the spell. They show the triumph of words over things, the futility of rational argument and also the danger of resistance."
    (Roger Scruton, A Political Philosophy. Continuum, 2006)
  • Orwell on Newspeak
    - "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."
    (George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Secker & Warburg, 1949)
    - "'You haven't a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston,' [Syme] said almost sadly. 'Even when you write it you're still thinking in Oldspeak. . . .In your heart, you'd prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don't grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?' . . .
    "'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."
    (George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Secker & Warburg, 1949)
    - "The face of Big Brother swam into his mind . . .. Like a leaden knell the words came back at him:
    (George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Secker & Warburg, 1949)
  • Newspeak vs. the Enemy of Deceit
    "Words matter. . . .
    "[A]sk the Republican Party, some of whose members sought to eliminate certain words from a report by the bipartisan Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, including 'deregulation,' 'shadow banking,' 'interconnection' and even 'Wall Street.'
    "When Democratic members declined to participate in such selective wordplay, the GOP members issued their own report without the words that might have caused sensitive readers to recoil or that might have implicated parties Republicans wished not to be implicated. . . .
    "More concerning than the limits of sharing or the boundaries of transparency are the intentional manipulations of language to obscure truth. Totalitarians throughout history have relied on writing and speaking badly--that is, without clarity--to keep the masses confused and captive. Clarity, the enemy of deceit, is anathema to authoritarians everywhere."
    (Kathleen Parker, "In Washington, Newspeak on Deficits, Debt and the Financial Crisis." ​The Washington Post, December 19, 2010)
  • Axis of Evil
    "[C]onsider the now-famous phrase, 'axis of evil,' which was first used by President Bush in his January 29, 2002, State of the Union address. Bush characterized Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an 'axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. . . .'
    "In reality, 'axis of evil' is a term chosen to selectively stigmatize countries for the purpose of justifying military actions against them. . . .
    "[T]he term has played an influential role in creating the frame through which the public has perceived the problem of terrorism and the question of whether to go to war with Iraq."
    (Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq. Penguin, 2003)
  • Totalitarian Semantic Control
    "Newspeak is the product of a totalitarian control over semantics, history and the media more ruthlessly complete than any which has yet emerged in the modern world . . ..
    "In the West, the comparative freedom of the media has not necessarily clarified matters. Whereas totalitarian semantic control may produce an unrealistic dogmatism, free semantic enterprise has resulted in an anarchic tug-of-war in which terms like democracy, socialism, and revolution become virtually meaningless because they are appropriated by all sections for legitimation and abuse."
    (Geoffrey Hughes, Words in Time, 1988)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Newspeak?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/newspeak-language-and-propaganda-1691267. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). What Is Newspeak? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/newspeak-language-and-propaganda-1691267 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is Newspeak?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/newspeak-language-and-propaganda-1691267 (accessed March 24, 2023).