In 1783, Noah Webster broke what was seen as the final cultural bond between the newly created United States of America and Great Britain—the language. While the accuracy of the statement is dubious at best, the sentiment is clear. In rewriting and re-spelling large parts of English, Webster helped shape a nation. No longer did the nations share a government, why, therefore, should they share words? By subtly changing words supported by an “oppressive” London regime, he created a newfound American identity. Unfortunately, the same actions could be used for decidedly less benevolent reasons. In George Orwell’s 1984, entire committees would be given Webster’s task, amending his work to manipulate the masses to form Newspeak. By crafting slogans like “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength,” Syme and his Party counterparts could stop rebellions, start wars, and force unyielding loyalty to Big Brother. Unfortunately, however, Newspeak is not entirely fictional. By coining new phrases and crafting an entirely new lexicon to placate the masses, governments across the world are using Newspeak in all parts of life, bringing 1984 into 2013.
Before delving into the modern usage of Newspeak, it would be beneficial to first understand the quintessential foundation of the language: the Party slogans. “War is Peace” is the first part of the Party’s infamous ode to doublethink. By equating two seemingly conflicting views, the Party obviously seeks to confuse its base. “Peace” is often defined as a lack of war, but also can be seen as a period of normalcy. Because war in 1984 is no longer an occasional eruption of extreme violence but a constant fact of life, dedicated Party members and the proletariat find no actual conflict or irony in the phrase. Though the entirety of Oceania has never experienced “peace,” they seem to find it in, of all things, war. They simply do not know the definition of the word. Or, more likely, it has been so grossly distorted they cannot tell a difference between the two. Citizens do not accept the meaningless platitudes given to them because they agree; they accept them because they do not know or understand how to do anything else. True peace would not be peace at all. It would be an entirely new feeling. They have never understood peace; only Big Brother has. He knows all.
Such unknowing leads nicely into another tenet of the party, “Ignorance is Strength.” In Oceania, what the constituents do not know cannot truly “hurt” them. They live a “painless” existence. By not comprehending certain concepts, namely rebellion, peace, or freedom, the people find their greatest strength: their ignorance. They are good, faithful party members to their deaths. Big Brother, the followers know, is the only true source of knowledge and power. He sees all, knows all, and hears all. By remaining faithful, they can please their god. By remaining ignorant they can be strong for their fellow Party member. In a similar fashion to peace in the prior paragraph, members have never truly felt intellectual strength. Limiting the number of words and by extension increasing the ignorance of the people makes them stronger—they will be better equipped to ward off the evils of freedom and self-rule—and they are forever grateful to their masters for making it so. Such mindsets create a conscious loyalty. “But…” as said in the novel, “language can also corrupt thought,” creating an unsettling, unconscious loyalty that comes with ignorance: the failure to realize that great atrocities are being committed, curtailing any chance of social change.
The third and final plank of the Party slogan is “Freedom is Slavery.” The masses have never felt empowered except in ignorance. Nobody has control of his own destiny. Yet, somehow, they do have control. Everyone voluntarily works for Big Brother, some out of ignorance and blind loyalty, the others out of fear—another way the Party forces fealty—and in that fact, the population has freedom. They choose to work for the government. They are slaves not only to the state, but to themselves. And in that, they are set free only because there is no freedom to contrast their slavery. For example, the personal and loving bonds in a sexually-intimate relationship have now been stripped to, as Winston’s wife says, “doing their duty to the Party.” To their own ignorance, they are slaves; yet, they have been set free from any form of “evil.” No longer are they slaves to nature, to feelings, or even to themselves. In that, slavery to Big Brother is the ultimate expression of freedom. The elimination of “I” leads to freedom. However, the inevitable elimination of the word “freedom” from Newspeak leads to numerous questions. As Syme, a key contributor to Newspeak states:
“How could you have a slogan like "freedom is slavery" when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact there will be no thought, as we understand it now.”
The three slogans of the party are certainly far from those of any modern government, yet, the premise of each is very similar—fostering ideals to an accepting nation creates loyalty. It is not necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly has frightening implications. Newspeak or its manipulation of words, it seems, could simply be seen as an extreme form of “political correctness.” “War is Peace” can be found in any nightly news segment—“collateral damage” used to refer to construction demolition. Now, however, the term serves to belittle the deaths of individuals with hopes, dreams, and aspirations lost as a consequence of war. Supposedly, U.S. waged war to prevent war in Iraq and Iran—a “crusade.” U.S. citizens cannot necessarily take “facts” to be true either. Ignorance to mismanaged campaign funds or certain website rollouts makes their lives in the poll booths easier—they are stronger. Laws are necessary to society. They are designed to protect and propagate natural rights. Yet, do they not create some form of servitude? Slavery, it seems, does lead to freedom.
In short, Noah Webster’s dictionary has had a profound impact on society. Aided by a new set of grammatical mechanics and spellings, the United States eventually developed a culture quite different than that of Britain. Yet, his experience also indicated the true power a jumble of letters can have. By limiting the amount of words and “narrowing the range of thought,” the Party effectively pacified the masses, forcing a totalitarian monster upon the unsuspecting victims. The power of words is unquestionable. Yet, the practice is not limited to fiction. Ignorance to that fact, however, can be deadly, not life-giving. War will never be Peace. Freedom will never be Slavery. Ignorance will never be Strength. And nothing, no government, committee, dictionary, or lack of experience, will ever change that.