Home » Newspeak, or about the governments’ attempts to control the language

Newspeak, or about the governments’ attempts to control the language


Is Newspeak just a piece of the dystopia imagined by Orwell, or is it a realistic representation of a typical ambition of political power, connected with the will to influence language as a way to obtain self-perpetuation?

The idea that the government can try to control the language as a means to constrain the way people think is less bizarre than at first glance one might believe. The recent obligation to label the Russia-Ukraine war as a special military operation is one example, and not an original one either, of how to condition an issue perceived and debated in the public sphere. Likewise, in 1991, the Italian government obtained consent from Parliament for war activities (it was the Gulf War) named as international police operation.

That said, there is not unanimous consensus among scholars about the fact that by manipulating language, ruling elites can nullify aspirations to obtain greater political freedom and make opposition impossible. Yet, attempts to constrain the language and thus reduce dissent were doggedly pursued by totalitarian regimes in the past and today are still present in the arsenal of authoritarian undertakings.

Lessons from the past

In this light, Italian Fascism is of great interest. Mussolini’s regime openly set out to regulate the entire Italian linguistic repertoire, with an emphasis against the use of foreign words, which were considered detrimental to national identity and prestige. In 1932, the newspaper ‘La Tribuna’ announced a competition to replace 50 foreign words with Italian equivalent expressions. Between 1932 and 1933 a daily column published in the ‘Gazzetta del Popolo’ gradually proposed how to replace non-native words. These attempts were not at all spontaneous, for the press was tightly controlled by the government, namely the Ministry of Popular Culture. Since the 1920s, and with increasing severity, many new laws discouraged or prohibited the use of foreign words. A decree of February 1923 provided for a fourfold tax on the public display of non-native words in business signs. Later the penalty became heavier, and in 1937 it increased to 25 times. Since 1933, foreign films were compulsorily dubbed by qualified personnel (dubbing films is still frequent in Italy, although it is no longer mandatory).

Similar tendencies were at work in Germany during the 1930s. Language control in Nazi Germany was even more sophisticated than that practiced by Fascism. Many words were given a different meaning, and their semantic field was narrowed and immediately connected with the activities and goals of the regime. The very word Nazi, instead of Nationalsozialismus, was an abbreviation of increasing popularity from the 1930s onward. The reasons for this abbreviation are likely to be those that Orwell himself suggests, i.e. in abbreviating a name one narrows and subtly alters its meaning by cutting out most of the associations that would otherwise cling to it. As a further example he wrote: «The words Communist International, for instance, call up a composite picture of universal human brotherhood, red flags, barricades, Karl Marx, and the Paris Commune. The word Comintern, on the other hand, suggests merely a tightly-knit organization and a well-defined body of doctrine».

Eternal return

Fascism’s objective was one of strengthening national identity and prestige, a goal which is now shared by many right-wing parties. Indeed, an influential member of Giorgia Meloni’s ruling party recently proposed a bill, following which those resorting to foreign words in official documents would be charged 5,000 to 100,000 euros. Moreover, the bill prescribes that for any event, conference or public meeting held on the Italian territory, it is mandatory to provide suitable translation tools to ensure a perfect understanding in the Italian language of the content of the event. This means that in university-level seminars a translator will have to be paid even if all speak English. More generally, the proposal will set a ban on the use in public documents of words which are now part, de facto, of the linguistic baggage of Italians, such as bar, sport, club, meeting and so on. One might wonder what will happen to widely used Italian words if similar laws were enforced abroad. This is, however, a secondary question. The main problem remains the attempt to condition the way people communicate in order to foster national identity and prestige.

If there is one area in which the expressive force of anarchy has manifested itself in full force, it is that of language. This is basically a set of conventions and rules that spontaneously evolved to make communication between humans possible. Such set of conventions is clearly driven by changes in both the organization of society and the related evolution of the values and beliefs of its members. Ambitions to control the language correspond to the titanic dream of imprisoning such spontaneous process and directing it to meeting one’s lust for power. Something that always calls for firm opposition.

Photo by Sincerely Media

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