Literary Lexical Innovation

by Luke Otley

Note: Although by no means a perfect project (indeed is one that opens more doors than it closes) I feel that the following is a fairly readable investigation that involves the study of one example of lexical innovation in literature. Hopefully upon reading, one is prompted to think about how language is used by our own governing bodies, media, etc. 


It is not uncommon for an author to coin a term or phrase to describe to the fullest extent what they are trying to convey. For example ‘Catch-22’, term from the novel titled under the same name, became understood among English speakers as a neologism for a ‘no-win situation’. It is however less common for a whole series of lexical items to be created, whether from English or otherwise, to suit a particular purpose. In the following essay we will be studying George Orwell’s creation of ‘Newspeak’ in 1984. Firstly through distinguishing patterns (if any) in the way the new vocabulary was created, the reasons for using them and their effect within the work. From this study we will determine whether any lexical items have succeeded in breaking into the dominant vernacular of English, and if so, why?

What is Newspeak?

Newspeak was the official language of Oceania in Orwell’s novel 1984. It was devised to meet the ideological needs of ‘Ingsoc’ or English Socialism. In the particular year the novel is set, Newspeak was slowly being integrated into society. No one as yet used it as their sole means of communication. As such, the version in use in 1984 was a provisional one, which contained many ‘superfluous words’ and ‘archaic formations’ which were due to be suppressed later.[1] Orwell goes on to write that the purpose of Newspeak was to create a vernacular that provided a medium of expression for the world view and mental habits of Ingsoc supporters, while simultaneously making all other thoughts impossible. In this way, once Old Speak (Standard English) was forgotten; a heretical thought would not be possible, as Newspeak just simple does not cater for it. Its vocabulary was so constructed to give exact expression of what a Party member was seeking to express, while excluding all meanings that could be inferred from the same expression. This was done through the introduction of new words, but mostly through the removal of ‘undesirable’ words and words that were suspect of having multiple meanings. Newspeak was designed to diminish the range of thought, and sought to do this by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum. Newspeak is divided into three classes, known as A, B and C vocabulary.

Newspeak Grammar

Newspeak grammar differs from Standard English in two distinct ways. The first, Orwell states, is that different parts of speech are almost entirely interchangeable. That is, any word in the language could be used as a noun, verb, adjective or adverb. The noun and verb form both have the same root, this lack of variation led to the destruction of many archaic forms. For example the word ‘thought’ cannot exist in Newspeak; ‘think’ would be used for both noun and verb. Interestingly, no etymological principle was followed in the selection for which word would be the ‘root’, in some cases the original noun was kept, in others the verb. Adjectives were duly formed by adding the suffix ‘-ful’ to the noun-verb, such as ‘speedful’ and the suffix ‘-wise’ to create an adverb, as in ‘speedwise’ for ‘quickly’. Some Standard English adjectives were retained, but in number they were small. In Standard English, and by contrast, nouns can be made from adjectives, for example through edition of inflectional suffix -ness­ to slow to create slowness.   Use of the derivational suffix ‘-ful’ in Standard English is similar to that of Newspeak, but it is one of many dozens in relatively constant use.

Any word could be negated by adding the affix ‘un-’, or strengthened by the affix ‘plus-’, or for even more emphasis ‘doubleplus-’. For example. ‘uncold’ meant warm’, while ‘pluscold’ and ‘doublepluscold’ mean ‘very cold’ and ‘superlatively cold’ respectively. These methods allowed an “enormous diminution of the vocabulary”. [2]

Unlike Standard English, Newspeak grammar achieved almost total regularity. Almost all inflections followed the same rules. The past participle and progressive verb all shared the same root word. For example ‘think’ and ‘thinked’, ‘steal’ and ‘stealed’ etc. In this same vein, all plurals were made my added ‘-s’ or ‘es’, i.e the plural of man would be ‘mans’, thus the alternatives could be eliminated (noteably, Newspeak retained two variations of plural ‘–s’ ‘–es’,where it may have been possible to use solely ‘s’). Irregular forms of adjectives (periphrastic –more, most) were also scrapped. Inflectional suffixes in Standard English serve the purpose to form grammatical variants of the same word, often with the result of moving a word from one syntactic category to another.[3]

Pronouns, the relatives, the demonstrative adjectives and the auxiliary verbs were still permitted to inflect irregularly under this system. All followed their ‘ancient’ usage, other than ‘whom’ that was deemed unnecessary (likewise, whom is out of common use and almost archaic in modern English). A word which was “difficult to utter, or was liable to be incorrectly heard” was considered a bad word.

The A vocabulary

These words are what are needed for everyday life, the most common. For example things such as: eating, drinking, working, riding in vehicles, gardening etc. A vocabulary is composed almost entirely of words that already exist in the English language, but for two differences: they are comparatively small in number, and their meanings are far more rigidly defined. “So far as it could be achieved, a Newspeak word of this class was simply a staccato sound expressing one clearly understood concept”. It appears that semantic variation is particularly important to control in Newspeak.

The B Vocabulary

The construction of these words was for political purposes. These words were deliberately constructed for political implication. These ‘B’ words were a sort of ‘verbal shorthand’, packing whole ranges of ideas into a few syllables, but at the same time maintaining a forcible accuracy unknown to Oldspeak.

The B words were in all cases compound words. Two or more words, or portions of words, welded together. For example ‘goodthink’ ‘to think in an orthodox matter’[4]

The C vocabulary

The C vocabulary consisted entirely of scientific and technical terms.

Orwell’s inspiration for Newspeak

Orwell wrote several essays on the use of the English Language, a literary journey which led to his deconstruction of such a language within the novel. From 1942 to 1944 Orwell was an advocate of ‘Basic English’, which was an English-based language with limited vocabulary created by linguist and philosopher Charles Kay Ogden. It is essentially a simplified subset of regular English. It gained greatest support after the allied victory in World War II, with the aim to bring worldwide peace through language. In the novel The Shape of Things to Come, H.G. Wells depicted Basic English as the lingua franca that succeeds in uniting the world and establishing a totalitarian world government. Somewhat appropriately, English in the modern day does act as a lingua franca across continents, a “common means of communication for speakers of different first languages”[5].Orwell, in 1945, became critical of universal languages[6], producing an essay titled “Politics and the English Language” in 1946, in which he outlines developing ‘bad’ habits in writing form.[7]

Orwell’s 1984 envisions a dystopian society. With an oppressive government comes an oppressive language. Orwell creates a language, or rather, deconstructs a language, with the purpose to diminish as many of the lexical choices as possible. In the following paragraphs we are going to study more closely different examples and how these differ from lexical innovation in the history of English.

Firstly let us look at the prefix ‘un-’, exampled above to be added to any lexical item to provide negation. This differs from the grammatical rule imposed in Standard English. In English, whether a word takes prefix un-or in-to provide negation as a general rule depends on the etymology of each root word. For example, words take un- When they are of English (Germanic) origin, and in- if they originate from Latin.[8](The forms im- as in impossible, il- as in illogical and ir- as in irregular are variations on in-).Throughout history there has been a clash of each prefix use. For example, for several centuries English had both inability and unability, with the latter falling out of use in the sixteenth century, lacking an obvious reason for doing so.[9] Some pairs are still in conflict. For example, inarguable and unarguable are both grammatically sound in Standard English. Confusingly, some adjectives and nouns have different prefixes. I.e. unstable has instability and uncivil has incivility. The vernacular created by Orwell builds on the deviation of prefixes from Latinate root words. This could likely be linked to the patriotism of Ingsoc (English Socialism) – using only the prefix associated with the Germanic root. This fictional system does, however, raise an interesting query. When researching the different usages of various prefixes and suffixes, occasionally one could get no further to an answer than “you simply have to learn this by rote” or similar. Evidence suggests Orwell used these patches of inconsistency in the English grammatical system to build the foundation for Newspeak. Another case of confusion is the case of inflammable, which from a logical perspective one might suspect that it refers to an object that is fire-proof. However, the word comes from Latin inflammare, which uses an –in prefix that intensifies the root word.[10] As a result, the old form flammable was forcibly revived to counteract confusion.

Orwell’s decided path for Newspeak prefixes resulted in the elimination of all antonyms. Therefore, there could be no warm but only uncold. When decided which antonym to keep, the one with the more unpleasant nuance is selected to encourage depressive thought and pessimism amongst unorthodox speakers. However, the totalitarian party occasionally allowed a positive term to be preceded by un-. When un- is placed before a verb (noun-verb acting as a verb), it becomes a negative imperative; for example, unproceed means “do not proceed”, therefore disallowing criticism – for example, you could not say “running is bad”, only “running is ungood”, which would translate to “running is do not bad” which does not make grammatical sense, or express the desired meaning.

Let us take another example: bellyfeel. This noun-verb derives quite self-explanatorily from the idea of ‘intuition’ from Latin intueri, commonly translated as ‘to contemplate’. Intuition relates to a scenario where one aquires knowledge without the use of reason.[11] Colloquially, it is referred to as ‘gut instinct’, likely because the intuitive feeling feels like it comes from your stomach. Many cases of law enforcement using ‘gut instinct’ alone to make searches etc have led to questioning. Was it intuition or was it an emotion excreted by the person’s own prejustices?[12]. Orwell has taken an idiom, with it a plethora of emotions and historical baggage, and created a singular lexical item out of it. “Only a person thoroughly grounded in Ingsoc could appreciate the full force of the word bellyfeel, which implied a blind, enthusiastic, and casual acceptance difficult to imagine today”. The general belief is that through less expressive language, the singular lexical items became more powerful, which is an interesting concept.

Other types of lexical innovation exampled in Newspeak involve simpler clipped forms. For example: miniluv: “Ministry of Love” (secret police, interrogation and torture).  Interestingly, ‘Love’ has been shortened to ‘luv’ which is present in modern day non-standard English ‘textspeak’. In Standard English clipped forms are apparent and accepted, although there is a correlation with between a shortened form and colloquial language: flu for influenza[13]. As a side-note, Orwell is either semantically changing ‘love’ or naming these ministers ironically, as their descriptions entail the opposite of their title. Newspeak’s semantic structures follow this rule generally, blurring the line between Oldspeak to purposefully make unorthodox thought difficult. Here are two similarly constructed examples:

minipax: “Ministry of Peace” (Ministry of War, cf: ‘Department of Defense’ vs ‘War Department’)

minitrue: “Ministry of Truth” (propaganda and altering history, culture and entertainment)

A Shrinking Vocabulary

Newspeak focuses on the regularisation of vocabulary to decrease the range of ways people would have of criticising the totalitarian state. With the rapid introduction of the digital age, linguists, among many others, have debated over what the future may hold for the English language. The media, at least early on in the popularity drive and use of text-speak, tended to veer towards a morbid ‘Death of language!’ standing without thoroughly researching the topic ” the SMS (Short Message Service) vandals who are doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbours eight hundred years ago.”[14]. Linguists like David Crystal, however, have thoroughly researched the topic. Crystal states that modern technology actually results in an increased vocabulary, “internet users are continually searching for vocabulary to describe their experiences, to capture the character of the electronic world, and to overcome the communicative limitations of its technology.” Since the first text message was sent in 1992, the cultural phenomenon has produced a number of texting abbreviations in the Oxford English Dictionary. Crystal refers not only to new abbreviated lexical items, but to the dramatic rate in which technology based neologisms have been produced in the last decade. He also argues that not only does text-speak not decrease literary finesse, it increases and encourages it.[15] Take for example, the phrase “Ur the bst-man, y isn’t ur suit redy?” This translated into standard orthography becomes, “You’re the best-man, why isn’t your suit ready?” The reader of such a text would have to know the grammatical differences between ‘your’ and ‘you’re’, entirely based on context. There was, in the past, more of an ergonomic value to abbreviating so many words when sending an SMS, however with almost every mobile-phone user on some kind of contract now that grants more texts than they could possibly ever use, abbreviation has already become less commonplace. Add to that the in-built ‘predictive text’ systems that mobiles possess if one so chooses to use one, a system that, as the name suggests, predicts the word you are trying to type when you are only halfway through it.[16] From the public’s reaction to the linguistic phenomenon of texting, it is clear that attempts made to drastically adjust any dominant vernacular presumably be met with great hostility, hence we do not see any of Orwell’s lexical innovations being adopted to modern English.


In conclusion, although the grammatical rules and vocabulary restrictions imposed upon ‘Newspeak’ have not (thankfully) transgressed into our current structure of modern English, it is shown to have its roots quite firmly in real language practices. Orwell created a radically concentrated strain of English – with the sole purpose of restricting expression – which is counteractive to a language’s growth. In addition to creating his own word class, a mixture of nouns and verbs (noun-verbs), Orwell altered and simplified the grammatical rules in place in Standard English. Apart from a few examples, such as the elimination of the pronoun ‘whom’, the innovations displayed in the fictional vernacular are not shared with modern English. The reason for this being predominantly because no governing system with the purpose to eradicate expression exists in today’s culture. Some linguistic deceptions are in place that are not too far removed from Newspeak; for example ‘collateral damage’ is a phrase that translates to ‘hitting objects other than a designated target’[17], but the phrase was found to be used by the media to disguise civilian casualties.


Link to Bibliography