Fine Language in a Volatile World
Human speech and writing are the truest expressions of our creativity and emotions, having led to beautiful fiction and records of our bittersweet history. While the importance of languages to our civilization is undeniable, there have often been discussions on their overly complicated and nonhomogeneous nature, and how this may be fixed if truly an issue. Constructed languages such as Esperanto, artificial modifications of rules or vocabulary, and the rising popularity of skim-reading, summaries and bite-sized news are examples of consequences of the perceived obsolescence of complex literary language in a volatile world.
Clarity and conciseness are two concepts that are praised in any type of writing, but often they seem to be confused with barrenness, minimalism or laziness. The American poet Ezra Pound, for instance, seems to be highly interested in conciseness, as he speaks of poetry as “the most concentrated form of verbal expression.” In ABC of Reading he quotes a translation of the word dichtung (poetry in German) as condensare, “to condense” in Italian, stating elsewhere that one should use “no superfluous word.” One may easily misconstrue his dicta as demanding precisely the stripping down of language, the elimination of all writing beyond the bare skeleton of whatever story must be told. That indeed would be not only a misreading of Pound but a very dangerous undertaking in itself as George Orwell’s 1984 makes abundantly clear. Eliminating synonyms, crudely abbreviating or shortening words or grafting them together – such as with “doublethink”, “Ingsoc” (English socialism) in 1984, or “Comintern” (Коммунистuческий интернационaл), “Nazi” (Nationalsozialismus), “Gestapo” (Geheime Staatspolizei), etc. – and other similar mutilations of language serve only to cripple writers. In fact, the effect they would have on language is so obvious, it can be proven mathematically.
Lexico, an online dictionary within the purview of Oxford University Press, states that the Oxford Dictionaries have identified a total of 171,476 actively used words, as well as 47,156 which are obsolete. Let us do as 1984’s Syme does, and consider the concept of “good”, with all its meanings and their spectra. Syme says that, upon the completion of his work, they would all be relegated to 6 words, all of them modifications of “good” – “in reality, only one word.” Let Syme explain himself:
It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ”good”, for instance. If you have a word like ”good”, what need is there for a word like ”bad”? ”Ungood” will do just as well — better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ”good”, what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ”excellent” and ”splendid” and all the rest of them? ”Plusgood” covers the meaning, or ”doubleplusgood” if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words — in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston?
According to the thesaurus, in our less dark world, the word “good” has 370 words with similar or opposite meanings. Three hundred and seventy words, turned into a single one! And what would be the result if Syme had succeeded and the entire English language were brutally sieved through the filter of Newspeak?
A simple bit of mathematical combinations will show us. Let us assume that most words have fewer synonyms and antonyms than “good” does, and take 200 English words per Newspeak core word. Now, we assume that obsolete words are not used often enough to be relevant, and we are left with 171,476 English words; divided by 200, that means 857 Newspeak words. We’ll round that up to 900 – why not? We might as well give Syme’s dreams a fighting chance. Finally, we’ll consider a sentence of only five words; enough to illustrate the point, without covering this page in zeros. With 171,476 words placed in sentences of 5 words each, English has a number of possible sentences equal to:
Meanwhile, Newspeak, with 900 words, has:
That is a change of 12 orders of magnitude: 1 trillion times fewer possible sentences. As sentences increase in size, so too does the number of potential meanings, and the impact of a single added or removed word in a lexicon. Artificially adding new words is often unnecessary, as it bloats the language, making it more difficult to learn and understand. Removing words, however, reduces the focus, dilutes the purpose, and erodes the soul of writing, as it eliminates the writer’s ability to clarify his or her intent and express emotions without writing something that has already been written. “Technique,” Ezra Pound claims, should be seen as “the test of man’s sincerity”; without sufficient variety in expression, one cannot develop a technique to hone, and will never be truly original in his or her work. Syme’s work would do more than eliminate the possibility of dissidence and rebellion; it would also eliminate originality, thus destroying any chance of progress, be it cultural, scientific, or otherwise.
Of course, Orwell’s Newspeak is a hyperbole, meant to display the power of language over a people, but any forceful attempt at modifying a language leads to confusion and loss of information. A simple example of this is Romanian language’s tumultuous relationship with the letter î. Î, or i-circumflex, is a letter denoting the close central unrounded vowel – represented in the Cyrillic alphabet by the letter ъ. Î was added to the Romanian language after the adoption of the Latin alphabet to replace Cyrillic. However, in 1904, a decision by the Romanian Academy also added the letter â, which was functionally identical to î; now, the new letter was used in the center of words, while î was used at the beginning or end of words. This completely unnecessary addition caused a fair amount of confusion but was eventually adopted… before being changed yet again in 1953. The new Romanian Communist Party greatly disliked the letter â, as it was deemed “too close” to the Latin alphabet; thus, they removed it from the language, switching to exclusive use of the letter î. Not to worry, this was not the end of â; after the collapse of the communist regime, the Romanian Academy instituted a new change, which was really just a copy of the one made in 1904. Thus, in 1993, â returned to the Romanian language – presumably, as an attempt to wipe clean any remnants of communist influence. As a result of these incessant changes, my parents, who grew up in the communist era, and I can barely understand each other’s writing. Plenty of people continue to write in Romanian without the use of â to this day, and confusion occurs remarkably often. This is because these modifications to our language were never brought in as a result of the way the language evolved, but for political reasons. While “Miniluv,” “Ingsoc” and “doubleplusungood” are – thankfully – not part of our daily speech, they certainly make their point clear.
Language should never be tampered with by external entities – it must develop organically, since it is as much a living, breathing organism as the culture and community it is intertwined with. This is shown throughout 1984, as culture is torn apart or replaced, while the community is beaten into submission. Take for example the attire of the Party and those working under it: overalls, regardless of occasion, position, or time of day. A generally working-class piece of clothing, extended to the middle-class, and even the ruling Inner Party above them all. The only difference between these overalls are their colors. Winston, and all other Outer Party workers, wear blue overalls – with members of the Anti-Sex League adding an “odious scarlet sash, aggressive symbol of chastity” – while the Inner Party wears black overalls instead. In imposing such a stripped-down dress code, the Party eliminates the individuality of the middle-class, as well as all mediocre intellectuals or above-average thinkers, whom they consider to be the greatest threat to their rule.
More powerful than all such mutilations of expressive codes, however, is one’s ability to act for the action’s sake. The thrush whose song Winston and Julia hear at their first tryst does not sing for them, it sings for “no mate, no rival;” as Julia acknowledges, “he was just singing,” to no end other than to sing. Similarly, the “prole” woman with the figure of an ”overripe turnip” sings without purpose, but with “deep feeling.” By contrast, Winston remarks that he “had never heard a member of the Party singing alone and spontaneously.” It is not the act of singing, or the meaning of the lyrics – after all, the true meaning of a thrush’s lyrics are known only to the thrush – it is the spontaneity and purposelessness of the act that gives it true meaning, and it is the ability to act without an agenda, without political meaning, that give the thrush and the singing woman their power. Moreover, it gives the concepts thus symbolized immunity to the the Party: natural freedom, instinct and free will could never be eradicated, as any entity, be they an evil Party, a benevolent protectorate, or a neutral empire, necessarily relies on these concepts. As far as we know, nothing can exist outside of the freedom of nature, nothing can thrive in nature without instinct, and nothing can create, improve, and innovate without free will – it can only stagnate. On a universal scale, stagnation is death, and subsequent oblivion, effectively leading to all that which stagnates becoming an “unperson” – something so utterly insignificant and forgotten, that it may as well not have existed at all.
However, even having freedom, instinct and free will is not enough; one must have a medium to express themselves through. The thrush has its birdsong, the prole woman has her heavily accented English, and the poet, Ampleworth, his literary language. That is, of course, until the entirety of the English language comes down to a single word which exists, but cannot be used: “God”. Ampleworth has decided, as writers often do, that this word had to go in that particular slot in his text, and no other word could possibly take its place. Ezra Pound would likely be quite proud of him. Despite being described as “an ineffectual, dreamy creature” who simply translates or modifies existing texts, the poet retained his integrity, his originality, and his technique – and, in doing so, retained his sincerity, and the soul of his work. Logic would dictate that he should simply pick a suboptimal rhyme to save himself from the persecution of the Party, but logic did not factor into his judgement. It could never; just as the thrush does not choose to whisper instead of risking being heard by predators, and the prole woman does not choose to live her life in safe silence, so too can the writer never choose to cripple their own writing, if they are to maintain their individuality and sense of self.
Artificially modifying a language – whether for political reasons, to achieve some hidden goal, or even for no reason at all – is equivalent to tearing the feathers off of a bird’s wings, covering its eyes, ripping out its vocal chords, and sealing its beak shut. It is the subtlest, most insidious form of censorship, as it censors not what can be said or done, but what can be thought and felt. A child born after a word is forcefully removed from a language has had the emotions that word carried, its meaning and its melody ripped out of its grasp. Ironically, the most heinous offense one could commit in 1984, “thoughtcrime”, is the truest, purest, most sincere expression of humanity. It is the freedom and the ability to rebel senselessly against a harmless, imagined regime – or intensely against a brutal, real one – and language is the medium through which this can occur. After all, Syme is right. By removing, crippling or even mildly diminishing the language needed to express a human’s every emotion, thought, and belief, one could “make thoughtcrime literally impossible”. Or, as Ludwig Wittgenstein says: “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt” – “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
This essay was originally submitted as a written assignment for ENG 231 Landmark Texts of the Western Tradition (Fall 2021) with professor Olga Nikolova.