Monday, May 27, 2024

Common Cause

Hardly top-of-mind for most of us is the amazing rate of languages dying globally. Estimates are that about 3,000 of the 7,000 or so languages still spoken worldwide are endangered.[1] From Wales to Vanuatu to many other locations, impulses like the economic advantage of a widely spoken language, natural disaster, or migration drive this decline. The consequent loss of identity, cultures, and communities mean that we all "lose a part of who we are."[2]

Yet 1960 onwards also witnessed a rapid growth in the creation of "essentially fictional and 'private' languages with a playful or cryptic purpose." In an intriguing book on the subject, the French linguist Marina Yaguello explores many of the diverse motivations and processes driving the creation of imaginary languages.[3]

Through the years 1100 to 2005, the tally of created languages grew in single-digits during decades or more before the year 1900. This was followed by exponential growth in new languages, with 298 developed in 2000-2004.[4] The Star Trek cult-phenomenon continues to stimulate tens of thousands of fans to learn and speak Klingon with each other worldwide. 

Another language that's discussed is Newspeak, which George Orwell outlines in an appendix to his satirical novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Irrespective of the ongoing debates about the relationship between thought and language, Orwell's outline of Newspeak further illustrates a purpose of autocrats. He offers that their manipulation of language is to control "mental habits," making "all other modes of thought impossible."[5] 

He describes the principles of Newspeak as designed to (1) reduce vocabulary to exclude meanings contrary to the party line, (2) reshape grammar to dictate regularity, (3) create words to impose a "desirable mental attitude," (4) destroy undesirable meanings, (5) use euphemisms to mean "almost the exact opposite of what they appeared to mean," (6) abbreviate names to narrow and alter meaning, and (7) redefine scientific and technical terms to "strip them of undesirable meanings."[6] Orwell proposes that such changes are designed to change how we think, to control our worldview and actions.

As in Orwell's time, ongoing onslaughts of disinformation are designed to deny freedom of thought, and consequent freedoms of speech, and association. In topsy-turvy diatribes, today's autocrat-propagandists obsessively camouflage criminality as bravado or defiance, while continuing to warp truth to gain trust. 

As far back as 2015 and earlier, computerized propagandists were selling their dubious services to set the basis for these efforts, with claims of being able to track and harvest information to microtarget 5,000 data points of any of us. As Joe Westby notes, "The push to grab users' attention and to keep them on platforms can also encourage the current toxic trend towards the politics of demonization."[7] This is a dynamic amplified at a pace that allows little space for counter-framing. 

The urgency is to build and sustain robust individual and cooperative efforts to outwit these propagandists.

When less than six months remains to an election day, the important question remains what more will each of us do, locally and now, to help democracy thrive? 


1. Karin Wiecha (2013), "New Estimates on the Rate of Global Language Loss," The Rosetta Project Blog,  March 28, 

2. Anouschka Foltz (2015), "When Languages Die, We Lose a Part of Who We Are," The Conversation, December 9,

3. Marina Yaguello (2022), Imaginary Languages: Myths, Utopia, Fantasies, Illusions, and Linguistic Fictions, Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology 

4. Yaguello, pp. xx-xxi; see Klingon Language Institute website at:

5. George Orwell (1972), "The Principles of Newspeak," Nineteen Eighty-Four, Harmondsworth: Penguin, pp. 241-251 [1st published 1949]

6. Orwell, pp. 242-249

7. Amnesty International (2019), 'The Great Hack': Cambridge Analytica Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg,

No comments: