Financial Times Advocates Newspeak!

The total surveillance society program is further along in London than in the US (the prevalence of CCTV, for instance), but it’s still a shocker to see a comment in the Financial Times, which many consider to be the best paper in the English language, advocating Newspeak.

For those of you who need a refresher, English writer George Orwell’s best known work, 1984, describes a totalitarian state which has perfected the art of mind control. One of its tools is Newspeak. From Wikipedia:

Newspeak is a fictional language in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, it is described as being “the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year.” Orwell included an essay about it in the form of an appendix in which the basic principles of the language are explained. Newspeak is closely based on English but has a greatly reduced and simplified vocabulary and grammar. This suits the totalitarian regime of the Party, whose aim is to make any alternative thinking – “thoughtcrime”, or “crimethink” in the newest edition of Newspeak – or speech impossible by removing any words or possible constructs which describe the ideas of freedom, rebellion and so on. One character says admiringly of the shrinking volume of the new dictionary: “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”

Now from the op-ed in the Financial Times by Michael Skapinker, which, a la Newspeak, recommends sharply reducing the vocabulary used in writing for the convenience of foreigners. We’ve too often seen, however, that seemingly beneficial initiatives can be turned to other ends.

From the Financial Times:

When I spoke to a recent Brussels conference of business translators, one of them asked me if the Financial Times had any plans to publish a separate edition in simplified English…..

On the Eurostar back to London, I pondered what a simplified FT might look like. The first issue to tackle, I thought, would be vocabulary. In his book The English Language, David Crystal says that a medium-sized English dictionary has about 100,000 words in it. Even native speakers know only a fraction of these….

Mr Crystal, in his book, recounts an attempt to work out how many words the average native English-speaker does know. This involved taking a sample of entries from different parts of a dictionary and asking the subject to count how many she recognised. Extrapolating her answer to the whole dictionary suggested she understood 38,300 words and regularly used 31,500.

How many words would a non-native speaker need to understand a simplified form of English? Several people have investigated this over the years and have come up with a similar answer: fewer than 1,000. One of the pioneers of simplified language, Charles Kay Ogden, devised what he called Basic English in the 1920s. It used only 850 words – sufficient, he said, to communicate.

The Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe, a champion of simplified English, has devised a system that uses no more than 900 words. The association’s involvement demonstrates what often drives simplified English: the need for safety.

When pilots or sailors from different countries talk to each other, they usually do so in English. English is the international language and, in spite of challenges from Spanish or Mandarin, is likely to remain that way throughout our lifetimes.

Air traffic controllers, pilots and sailors began speaking to each other in English and soon developed a language they could all understand. A limited but effective vocabulary was one part of it, but they also needed forms of speech that they could all recognise. Misunderstandings meant people could die.

So in 1980, Mr Crystal writes, a project was set up on Essential English for International Maritime Use. Also known as Seaspeak, this relied on standard, easily understood phrases. So instead of “What did you say?” or “I can’t hear you” or “Please repeat that”, sailors and coast guard officials were told to opt for “Say again.”

The European aerospace association’s effort began a year earlier when the Association of European Airlines asked aircraft manufacturers to improve the comprehensibility of maintenance manuals. Many airline technicians were not native English speakers and found the documents difficult.

In 1986 the manufacturers issued their first guide to Simplified Technical English, which was then adopted by the Air Transport Association of America and has since become an international standard.

The standard is specific in its instructions, which aim to ensure that once someone has learnt a word in one form, they will not encounter it in another. So manufacturers are told the word “follow” should always mean “come after” and not “obey”. So you can say “obey the safety instructions” but not “follow the safety instructions”.

You can see why this might be useful in aircraft maintenance books but it would be unnecessarily restrictive in reporting the credit crisis.

But at least one news organisation has developed a simplified English service, and it did it some time back. The Voice of America broadcast its first programme in what it calls “Special English” in 1959.

This has a slightly bigger vocabulary – 1,500 words. It also has style rules: use short sentences that contain only one idea. Use the active voice. Do not use idioms. And above all, speak slowly. Special English broadcasters speak at two-thirds of normal speed.

To a native speaker, the effect is soporific. To a non-native speaker, the increase in comprehension must be thrilling. Simplified English may not be for everyone, but with the rise in the number of people around the world working in English, I suspect we will see more of it.

The problem is it will be too tempting to make a more robust version of Simplified English serve for everyone. Just imagine how it will take dumbing down to a new level.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Anonymous

    I’m not sure what you expected from the FT, or Economist for that matter. Each have described GWB as some visionary genius. It is largely in the British media that I have observed the servile prostration of media on the alter of fascism and plutocratic hegemony.

    This suggests the British are no better than the Germans they defeated. They appear to want EXACTLY the same society as NAZI Germany. Britain should be annexed as the 51st state. They have lost their way. They need guns and religion to escape tyranny.
    The only society that is several times more pathetic than the USA.
    I’m not sure why we are not bombing London.

  2. jest

    fox news and cnbc have already done this with disastrous results.

    it’s especially disastrous when they are reporting on things that the CEOs barely understand, let alone the journalists. by the time the reporters dumb it down to that level, it does the original story no justice. it’d be easier to write a personal finance column on paying off a credit card, which invariably what happens.

    i’m just glad i’m not the only one who sees parallels between today’s financial/economic “journalism” with orwell’s book.

    the similarities are frightening: newspeak, fedspeak, doublethink, continual war, “inflation fighting” institutions causing it, erosion of the middle class, fraudulent economic statistics, 2+2=5 accounting, etc.

    i have a hard time figuring out of cnbc is propaganda; they toe the line pretty consistently. especially with all the flag waving.

  3. Anonymous


    Economist and FT editorials are not much better on the average than their WSJ counterparts.

    Now there, I’ve said.

    As for the rest of the papers… no contest.

    It’s just better to ignore the editorials.

  4. Anonymous

    The problem, in my view, is not the FT nor its editorials which usually are pretty sensible. I’m afraid the problem is Michael Skapinker, who I make a point each week of not reading.

    It is curious that he is given such valuable op-ed space to spout nonsense. (Last week I believe he wrote about suitcases.)

  5. burnside

    Of course, things can wander off in the opposite direction, though I don’t for a moment suppose they will.

    Max Beerbohm’s Henry James parody, “A mote in the middle distance,” must be among the funniest things ever to be rubbed off the tip of a pen.

    I’m wary of creeping Will Safirism. Frozen languages are mostly dead ones. And barbarisms survive primarily because they work. Most don’t make the cut.

  6. dearieme

    My father used “say again”. He’d learnt it in the army. Fighting the Boche – you know, the Hun. Yes you do; the Krauts, Hermann, Jerry.

  7. LJR

    Ogden and I.A. Richards created Basic English and I have spent some time reading Richards’ book, How to Read a Page. Let me just say that Richards is one of the most sophisticated thinkers I have ever read. Condensing the English Language to 850 words is a momentous accomplishment and completely past the abilities of normal people who don’t understand language but merely swim in it.

    I would argue that the 850 words in Basic English are not limiting but actually liberating. If more of us had to convert the trashed up mixed metaphors we commonly call “artistic use of language” into the simplified form of Basic English the result would be most humbling. Stripped of their fancy trappings our thoughts would reveal threadbare underwear covering an obese and flabby body. Jellyroll.

    If English is to be the common world language then I strongly approve of any effort to create a core vocabulary with enough power to express most content.

    Orwell be damned. He obviously doesn’t understand that the notion of freedom does not rest on the existence of the word. Writers tend to forget that words refer to experiences and one can experience captivity without having a word for it. Do you really think the slaves of the south didn’t know they were slaves? Of course they did. And they would have no matter what language they spoke.

    Word hackers get all pissanty about any attempt to limit their ability to dredge up some obscure word as a sequin on an otherwise drab thought. That’s fine. But just don’t get all snitty about thinking that limiting a vocabulary is limiting “freedom.”

  8. Anonymous

    The battle-lines have already been drawn; teachers in the education system are at the forefront of this. I remember being told how to write – in short active sentences with the simplest words possible. The continuing critiques over the years on writing style beat people to actually endorse writing in a muted voice.

    And the comment on the slaves knowing they were slaves – to a certain extent yes, but without the ability to read great exposers and thinkers of freedom, and even more so to emphatically present the ideals of freedom to their captors, they were hopelessly mired in bondage for far longer than otherwise with a larger language.
    And to LJR, who actually wishes to return to a form of slavery with a smaller vocabulary – absurd, for the question becomes, who on earth could possibly have the authority to tell me how to communicate?

  9. mdubuque


    I have found the FT to be DECISIVELY the best English language newspaper in the world. Nothing comes close.

    Whether its Krishna Guha with his inside sources at the Fed or John Dizard as the highlight of every Tuesday morning for me, their insight and comprehensive treatment of complex issues is so far superior to the NYT and the WSJ that it isn’t funny.

    That’s clearly just my opinion. But I am not alone

    Clearly the competitive environment has changed for newspapers in general and Rupert Murdoch has an established strategic target of deep penetration of the WSJ into the British market.

    I’m convinced I have seen some responses from the FT to such competitive pressures and have watched these developments with some trepidation and concern.

    However, so far so good, in my book. The paper is clearly changing, but it seems that on balance they are still making excellent decisions on how to proceed. The expansion of their website is one example.

    One mitigating factor in this whole discussion about a version of the FT with a more limited vocabulary is that it does seem to be specifically discussed in the context of a broader Asian and European appeal (i.e. those business readers who do not speak English fluently, yet still need access to some of the world’s best journalism and editorial content).

    This trial balloon is not being raised in terms of dumbing down the paper to appeal to intellectually stunted evangelicals in the heartland
    of the USA.

    That is a positive sign. But, as you point out, there is always the danger of this more remedial content and approach seeping into the FT.

    That is indeed most worrisome. Let’s hope the Editorial Board of the FT continues to make the necessary tradeoffs in their typical reasoned manner.

    Matt Dubuque

Comments are closed.