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.