Two days after President Trump’s inauguration, on January 22, 2017, the newly-minted Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press with Chuck Todd. She discussed White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s first press briefing the night before, in which he claimed, despite the existence of much photographic and documentary evidence to the contrary, that the crowd for the Trump inauguration was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe.” Todd asked Conway why Spicer used the occasion of the administration’s first press briefing to spread demonstrable falsehoods. Conway responded that Spicer was not offering up falsehoods, but was instead offering up “alternative facts.”
Almost immediately, the words “doublethink,” “Orwellian,” and “Newspeak” began circulating in the media. Slogans like “WAR IS PEACE,” “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” and “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” were invoked, and the fictional source from which these words and slogans were derived, George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dystopian narrative set in a nightmarish alternate surveillance-state version of post-WWII Britain, shot to the top of the Amazon bestseller list. An extra printing of 75,000 copies of the book was ordered by its publisher Penguin USA, and Nineteen Eighty-Four, along with other dystopian novels like Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, emerged as unexpected literary points of reference for much of the conversation around the language and intentions of the new administration.
Oldspeak and Newspeak
I claim minor powers of prophecy at best, but my English 1102 courses at Georgia Tech in the fall semester of 2016 spent the better part of the strange and hectic month leading up to the November presidential election reading and discussing Nineteen Eighty-Four as part of our class focus on utopias and dystopias. We traced the origins and cultural employment of phrases like “doublethink,” “Newspeak,” “Big Brother,” “thoughtcrime,” and “Orwellian” before they became repopularized buzzwords; we discussed the characterization of the novel’s central trio of Winston Smith, Julia, and O’Brien; and we examined Orwell’s use of literary techniques such as the book-within-a-book device in Part Two and the foreshadowing of Winston’s eventual fate hidden in some of the novel’s earliest images and situations. All of these engagements with the novel were fruitful, but as is sometimes the case, our class’s most unexpected and surprising engagement with the book was one that developed somewhat haphazardly—almost by accident.
In Orwell’s novel, the totalitarian government of the superstate Oceania, known as “the Party” and led by the seemingly all-seeing and all-knowing “Big Brother,” closely monitors and surveils the actions and behaviors of its citizens through a wide variety of control systems. One of the most insidious and ingenious of these systems involves the Party’s attempts to alter and control the use of language itself, and by doing so, restricting and shaping the potential content and form of Party members’ thoughts and actions. Oceania’s official language is called “Newspeak,” and although this language still bears a resemblance to “Oldspeak” (or Standard English), the Party’s ultimate goal is for Newspeak to replace Oldspeak entirely, both by creating its own new vocabulary and by eliminating unnecessary existing words. Orwell’s conception of Newspeak, detailed in the appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four, draws a fascinating link between language and thought: he writes that the purpose of Newspeak is to “make all other modes of thought [which depart from Party doctrine] impossible,” and “literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words” (309-10). Orwell points out that Newspeak is “designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought,” an aim accomplished both by restricting the possible meanings of words, especially any secondary meanings, and by radically diminishing the size of its vocabulary year by year (310).
The result is a hodgepodge of compound words and abbreviations, a weird shorthand of prefixes, suffixes, and interchangeable parts of speech. “Very, very cold” in Oldspeak is rendered as doublepluscold in Newspeak (Orwell 312), for example, and the Oldspeak phrase “to think in an orthodox manner” is stripped down to the Newspeak neologism goodthink (314). More chillingly, the Oldspeak sentence, “Those whose ideas were formed before the Revolution cannot have a full emotional understanding of the principles of English Socialism,” becomes in attenuated Newspeak Oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc (315). And, most notoriously, the preamble to the Declaration of Independence is rendered into Newspeak as simply: crimethink (322).
Conway’s “alternative facts” might owe more to the Orwellian concept of “doublethink” (according to page 220 of the novel, “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them”), while Newspeak might find a more dubious parallel with the President’s limited vocabulary in speeches and interviews, and his garbled and occasionally incoherent 140-characters-or-less social media messages. Yet the comparisons between American 21st-century reality and Orwell’s mid-20th-century fiction have continued to be made, and have even gained ground. At my local bookstore as of early April, Nineteen Eighty-Four was still singularly displayed in its own place of prominence at the help desk in the center of the store, where presumably enough customers have asked for copies that the display was set up to spare time and energy for employees.
The Ministry of Truth in the Classroom
To circle back to Georgia Tech and English 1102: I needed a good in-class writing exercise to occupy fifteen or twenty minutes of class time after an hour of lecture and discussion was complete, something that would both serve as a bridge to the next class and synthesize what we had learned thus far. I had also received a pedagogy grant from Poetry@Tech for the 2016-17 academic year that encouraged me to further “embed” the reading and writing of poetry in my classroom, so I had poetry on the brain. We were nearing the end of our study of the last section of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and all we had left to read were its final few chapters and all-important appendix, in which Newspeak is examined historically and lexicographically, in the past tense, as a cultural phenomenon. I had recently been considering the fate of the character Ampleforth in the novel. Ampleforth is Winston Smith’s coworker in the propaganda-producing Ministry of Truth, and his job is to retranslate existing poems from Oldspeak into Newspeak, paying special attention to the elimination of obsolete or dangerous Oldspeak words. In Part Three of the novel, Winston meets Ampleforth in prison, where he is being punished for the thoughtcrime of using the forbidden word “God” in a Kipling poem he was reworking into Newspeak. Ampleforth seems genuinely befuddled by his crime and imprisonment—there was no other possible substitution for “God” in the rhyme scheme of the poem, he insists—and he even offers up some literary criticism to the uninterested Winston: “Has it ever occurred to you . . . that the whole history of English poetry has been determined by the fact that the English language lacks rhymes?” (237).
As I reconsidered Ampleforth’s fate, I found myself wondering about the role of poetry in Oceania and was surprised that Orwell was still able to find a place for it. If one of the defining characteristics of poetry is its openness to the multiple meanings and suggestive overtones of language—its willingness to acknowledge, incorporate, and even playfully engage with, the connotative associations of words along with their strictly denotative meanings—then how does poetry operate under a linguistic system designed to eliminate and reduce such a prismatic and polyvalent approach to language? Did the Party keep poetry around as a friendly and harmless vestige of Oldspeak, or did it see poetry as playing an integral role in its linguistic mission, as some form of rhythmically appealing propaganda—indoctrinating nursery rhymes for the proles, perhaps? How would one translate an existing poem into Newspeak, and how would one write an original poem in the language, anyway? What would the censors tolerate, and what could be smuggled into existence under the guise of the poem? The more I contemplated it, the more Sisyphean, bizarre, and complex Ampleforth’s task seemed to be. An idea coalesced: how would my students, by this point immersed in the rules and restrictions of Newspeak, respond to a challenge like that of Ampleforth’s? Could poems be created in a language seemingly designed to make its existence impossible?
I gave ostensibly simple instructions to my class during our final twenty minutes on Part III of Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Write an original poem, or translate an existing poem, into Newspeak, using the principles of Newspeak as explained in the novel’s Appendix as your guidelines.” A few of my students laughed, a few grinned, a few groaned, but most of them looked perplexed. I asked them if the assignment made sense. One student answered, “Yes, it makes sense, but it’s just impossible.” I decided to give my students until the next class meeting to turn in their Newspeak poems, at which point we would read some of them aloud and discuss. The poems would not be graded, but they did need to be completed and turned in online. I urged them to think of the writing assignment as an experimental exercise, a creative attempt to write within certain limitations and interact imaginatively with the atmosphere and headspace of the novel.
We began our next class with the Newspeak poems. Most of the responses were translations of existing (mostly famous) poems, but a few were original, utterly weird and truncated. Just by adhering to the most basic of Newspeak strictures, subtle gradations of meaning and feeling were reduced and washed out of the poems, and individuality was swallowed up into the bland collective containers of traincar Newspeak constructions like “postgoodthinkful” and “doubleplusdown.” Poetic warhorses like the conclusion of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” became “Two roads unmerge in a wood, and I— / I take the one unused by, / And that makes all the unsame” (poem by Nick May). Wordsworth’s famous line “The Child is father to the Man” was reworked completely (and chillingly) into the simple and Orwellian “Big Brother is Father” (Mason Kirchfeld). Macbeth’s despairing soliloquy in Act Five of Shakespeare’s play is reduced to:
Life’s but a walking shadow, an ungood player
That walks speedful and scaredful his hour upon the stage
And then is heard unmore. It is a tale
Speaked by an ungood person, full duckspeak. (Amanda Bock)
“Duckspeak” is Newspeak for the act of making “articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all” [Orwell 319] and may be regarded as a useful metonym for the whole enterprise of Newspeak altogether.
The few original Newspeak poems were more unsettling, especially since they didn’t even offer up the mild ironic pleasures of seeing famous (and sometimes shopworn) phrases twisted into unrecognition. The original poems seemed like interchangeable memoranda, inter-Party communiques to be read quickly and disposed of. This short poem by Carolyn Majane is typical:
Used oldthink, oldspeak,
And lived in joycamp.
Runned away speedful,
I am unpersoned,
Thanks you thinkpol.
Often the poems functioned as instructions, trumped-up propaganda for the Party, as in the first few lines of Kurt Calabretta’s “Duckspeak alone”: “Duckspeak alone is doubleplusgoodspeak, / For any thoughtspeak contains crime.”
Even students who tried valiantly to express something individual or poetic in their responses seemed stymied by the limitations and strictures of Newspeak. One of my students who was most interested in writing poetry was able to smuggle in a halfway-memorable image or two or an occasional sustained rhythmic passage into his poem, but he admitted that Newspeak defeated his impulses in the end. It seemed impossible to sustain patterns of imagery. There was little to no appealing music or rhyme or sonic effects of any kind in the Newspeak poems. What Orwell described as the two most distinguishing characteristics of Newspeak’s grammar—its interchangeability and its regularity—resulted in an astonishing leveling effect in my students’ original poems: a bleaching-out of affect and effect, a corralling of all wayward emotional and intellectual impulses into a great undistinguished and indistinguishable middle, a grand and hollow victory by the lowest common linguistic denominators. Anyone conversant with the basics of Newspeak as outlined in the appendix of Nineteen Eighty-Four could probably make sense of the majority of my students’ original poems, but the nature of the language itself severely limited and even incapacitated the range of what could be conveyed.
I was honestly unsettled by the outcome of the experiment. Some of the poems, especially the translations of famous poems, were funny, but in a dark, deadpan, gallows sort of way. The attempts at original poems, like the grammar of Newspeak itself, were strangely uniform and too often indistinguishable from one another. Poetry, that supposed bastion and preserve of individual thought and feeling and expression, had been affected more severely and violently than I had imagined by the—I wanted to call them arbitrary, but they really aren’t arbitrary at all—strictures of an invented language. Newspeak had done what it was designed to do: diminish thought and restrict meaning. I thought of what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in his 1921 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (68). And I thought about the message, the thoughtcrime even, that one of my students, Kevin Dickerson, encoded into his otherwise purposefully inoffensive, almost meaningless Newspeak poem:
It’s an acrostic, and an alternative fact of sorts is hidden within. Read the first letter of each line straight down.
(Thanks to my ENGL 1102 students Nick May, Mason Kirchfeld, Amanda Bock, Carolyn Majane, Kurt Calabretta, and Kevin Dickerson for permission to quote from their poems in this article.)
If you would like to learn more about current events in our classes and scholarship, consider reading about Julia Tigner’s class that used visual rhetoric to re-see Black girls or Leah Misemer’s work building inclusive communities through Twitter.
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