Sunday, 19 June 2011

Simplified Languages

Any one who read George Orwell's book Ninteen Eighty Four is familiar with the term 'Newspeak'. For those who haven't read the book, it's basically a dark vision of a future world ruled by a totalitarian regime that stabilises its rule through constant supervision of its citizens as well as through insuring they remain too busy doing one meaningless task after another thus wont have time to think, wonder or plan. The totalitarian regime also introduced 'Newspeak' which is a simplified language that drastically reduced the number of words in the English dictionary by just removing 'unnecessary' words. Thus basically to retard human intelligence, imagination and creativity by simplifying language and making it as plain and dull as possible. The Wikipedia article on Newspeak explains it as follows.

The basic idea behind Newspeak is to remove all shades of meaning from language, leaving simple dichotomies (pleasure and pain, happiness and sadness, goodthink and crimethink) which reinforce the total dominance of the State. Similarly, Newspeak root words served as both nouns and verbs, which allowed further reduction in the total number of words; for example, "think" served as both noun and verb, so the word thought was not required and could be abolished.

But is Newspeak as bad as it's portrayed? A recent news article on the BBC reminded me of how in our real human history governments did try to forcefully interfer in local languages for one reason or another. The article talks about the government of Taiwan deleting all Simplified Chinese scripts from its agencies texts and using only the more complex traditional Chinese script instead. Obviously this is probably for political reasons more than anything (I'd imagine to insist on their independent identity separate from mainland China), but on the Chinese side, according to the article, traditional Chinese script has been abandoned only in the 1950s for the simplified Chinese. Unlike Newspeak, however, simplification has been done to raise literacy levels rather than retard imagination.

Kemal and the new Turkish alphabet
I can think of another example of a language reformation and that is in Turkey after it won its independence from the Allies in 1923 and established the modern Turkish state. Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey, had a more nationalistic agenda to his language reformation. In 1932 he established the Turkish Language Association which aimed to remove all non-Turkish words in the local vocabulary that have established itself under the multi-national Ottoman rule. But not only did Turkish nationalism allowed for the reintroduction of abandoned Turkish words to replace those borrowed from other nationalities - there was more in the Turkish language reform. Mustafa Kemal replaced the Turkish script and alphabet completely from that based on Arabic alphabet and grammar to that of Latin based. There are two reasons for this. First was political; Mustafa Kemal wanted Turkey to move away from the Eastern world and join Europe and the West as a new 'modern' Turkey. The other reason was the complexity of the Arabic language compared to the simplicity of a language based on Latin grammar. Turning to a more simple script allowed literacy rates to increase - or so I'm told (I've never seen any statistics to prove anything though).

I'm really in two minds about this. I can understand the logic that a simpler language will be easier to learn and thus would allow for higher literacy rates, but does it effect imagination and intelligence? Could Shakspear write his plays in Newspeak? The Qura'an itself was revealed to an Arab population who valued poetry and the linguistic arts as the highest form of expression. Infact even today Muslims consider the miracle of the Qura'an to be a linguistic miracle more than anything else. Would simplifying language really be a good educational policy? I really don't know. A part of me prefers the more complex arts and allowing human imagination to wander wherever it wishes.  When I started studying Turkish language a while back, I was told that language isn't only a means of communication, but also the way people think.  Language is the result of an evolutionary process and reflects culture, ideas, arts and the characters of a people and the more languages you speak the more you can think in different ways.  Something doesn't sit right with government interference in language, even if it is to increase literacy rates.

I personally want to learn a computing language and be able to design websites.  I tried getting into it but found it too difficult and time consuming that I decided to leave it for another time when I have more free time on my hands.  Now I do wish there is a simpler programming language but I have to wonder, does simpler not mean I will be able to do less?  Rather than design a very unique website, I would probably only be able to put blocks and buttons with a very simple language.  Does not the same apply with human languages only in a non-tangible format that might only prove its negative effects after several generations?  It's a scary thought.