1984, NewSpeak and the Holy Language

A long while back I wrote some thoughts on the dispute between the Ramban and the Rambam about what makes Hebrew the holy language, in the context of a general dispute over the context of qedushah. The Rambam says that Hebrew’s holiness comes from it having no native expletives, even sexual organs are identified by euphemisms or loan words. The Ramban, just as he defines “and you shall be holy” as going beyond the letter of the law, defines the sanctity of the Hebrew language in terms of its relationship to G-dliness — not “merely” that it toes the halachic line.

Along the lines of the Ramban, I want to explore the relationship between language and thought. Your mind is less capable of managing those ideas if you’re thinking in a different lexicon and grammar. Knowing the assumptions behind the language is actually a precondition for correctly understanding the worldview! This is my justification for spending time looking at verb tenses and parts of speech in the Hebrew of the Tanakh,  or the implication of the hononimity of “tov meaning both “functionally good” (it does its job well) and “morally good” (such as a good person), or the numerous times I start the discussion of a topic with the etymology of the root of the Hebrew term.

To quote 1984 (George Orwell, 1948) the story’s Ingsoc (English Socialist] leaders invented the language of NewsSpeak for this reason:

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought–that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least as far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect method. This was done partly by the invention of new words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever…A person growing up with Newspeak as his sole language would no more know that ‘equal’ had once had the secondary meaning of “politically equal,” or that ‘free’ had once meant “intellectually free,” than, for instance, a person who had never heard of chess would be aware of the secondary meanings attaching to ‘queen’ or ‘rook.’ There would be many crimes and errors which it would be beyond his power to commit, simply because they were nameless and therefore unimaginable.

This is an informal form of a notion in linguistics called the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”, formulated by Edward Sapir and further developed by his student, Benjamin Lee Whorf. Here is  Sapir’s formulation (The Status of Linguistics as a Science, 1929):

Human beings do not live in the objective world alone, nor alone in the world of social activity as ordinarily understood, but are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the
medium of expression in their society. It is quite an illusion to imagine that one adjusts to reality essentially without the use of language and that language is merely an incidental means of solving specific problems of communication or reflection: The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group. No two languages are ever sufficiently similar to be considered as representing the same social reality. The worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached… Even comparatively simple acts of perception are very much more at the mercy of the social patterns called words than we might suppose…We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation.

And Whorf writes in “Science and Linguistics” (1956 edition):

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds — and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way — an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, but its terms are absolutely obligatory; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.

Similarly (but lehavdil!), the language the Torah was given in and which was shaped by a community that followed it will make it easier to think along the same lines.

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