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09 June, 2016


Little did good old chum Bob Peters know when he posted a Toronto Sun guest column by Tom Harris on his Facebook timeline a few days ago, that he would send me off on a path of discovery that is rarely traveled by other than very deep thinkers and students of the Queen's English.

In this opinionated but strangely revealing item, Harris (executive director of the Ottawa-based International Climate Science Coalition) accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of using "duckspeak" in his approach to climate change; to which I respond: "What else is new?" Duckspeak is not exclusive to our young, otherwise breath-of-fresh-air PM.

U.S. President Barack Obama does the same, asserting in the Cutting Carbon Pollution in America section of the White House web site: “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”

Referring to greenhouse gases (GHG) as “carbon pollution,” as both Obama and the Canadian government do regularly, is difficult to overlook. “Carbon pollution conjures up subconscious images of dark and dangerous emissions of soot.  What they are almost always discussing is carbon dioxide (CO2). But were they to call it that, most people would be unconcerned, remembering from grade school that CO2 is a trace gas essential for plant photosynthesis."

In his Sun opinion piece, Harris went on to suggest that "We hear it all the time: 'Climate change is real', '97% of experts agree', 'we must increase our use of green energy to reduce carbon pollution'. But it is all 'Duckspeak', precisely what George Orwell warned us about in his novel 1984."
Eric Blair used the pen name
"George Orwell".

At the risk of customarily losing 90 per cent of my readers after the first couple of paragraphs in complex dissertations such as this, I should explain that "Nineteen Eighty-Four" is a dystopian (opposite of utopian) fictional novel by Orwell published in 1949. The story is set in Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain), a province of the superstate Oceania in a world of perpetual war.

Further explanation is also necessary at this point.

Thanks to Orwell, Doublespeak, Oldspeak, Newspeak and Duckspeak all reflect deliberately ambiguous or evasive language; any language that pretends to communicate but actually does not. Does this sound familiar?

Duckspeak was a form of speech consisting entirely of words and phrases approved by the controlling party in Orwell’s disturbing vision of a dystopian future. As Harris puts it "Someone who had mastered Duckspeak could fire off ideologically pure assertions like bullets from a machine gun, without thinking, their words emanating from their larynx like the quacking of a duck."

Being called a "Duckspeaker" was a compliment in 1984 since it indicated one was well-indoctrinated in the official language and views of the state.

To properly background these assertions, it is pertinent to take a look at the appendix to Orwell's novel "The Principles of Newspeak", but more about that later.

The term "Duckspeak" first appears in Orwell's novel as being uttered by a chap by the name of Syme (no first name), a philologist and researcher engaged in the compiling of the Eleventh Edition of the Newspeak Dictionary.  Orwell explains that Syme and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill were lunching together in a small underground store cafeteria, jam-packed with chattering patrons.

Syme apparently had reservations about his so-called friend Churchill. He immediately detected Winston's certain lack of enthusiasm for discussing the Newspeak Dictionary project.

"You haven’t a real appreciation of Newspeak, Winston," he said almost sadly. "Even when you write it you’re still thinking in Oldspeak. I’ve read some of those pieces that you write in 'The Times' occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?"

"Winston did know that, of course," writes Orwell. "He smiled, sympathetically he hoped, not trusting himself to speak. Syme bit off another fragment of the dark-coloured bread, chewed it briefly, and went on. Eventually he fell silent for a moment, and with the handle of his spoon was tracing patterns in the puddle of stew. The voice from the other table quacked rapidly on, easily audible in spite of the surrounding din."

"There is a word in Newspeak," Syme was prompted to interject. "I don’t know whether you know it: DUCKSPEAK, to quack like a duck. It is one of those interesting words that have two contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it is abuse, applied to someone you agree with, it is praise."

"Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?" stated Syme with conviction. "In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed, will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. Already, in the Eleventh Edition, we’re not far from that point. But the process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there’s no reason or excuse for committing thoughtcrime. It’s merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won’t be any need even for that. The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect. Newspeak is Ingsoc (the political ideology of the totalitarian government of Oceania) and Ingsoc is Newspeak," he added with a sort of mystical satisfaction. "Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?"

Orwell had a brilliant, creative mind and remarkable ability to express it. I am in awe of his writings.

Now back to our boy Tom Harris.  He contends that rather than being merely ridiculous or social satire, the purpose of climate Duckspeak is ominous: To convince opinion leaders and the public to think about climate change only as the government and eco-activists want.

To support alternative points of view is "climate change denial", today’s version of thoughtcrime, punishable by excommunication from responsible citizenry, he adds. "Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sets the stage for climate change Duckspeakers by repeatedly asserting, 'climate change is real'."

Harris allows, however, that Trudeau’s claim is correct but trivial, since the climate is always changing. In his way of thinking, it is the Duckspeak equivalent of proclaiming “sunrise is real”.

It is not surprising, then, that language tricks like Orwell’s Duckspeak are being used today to justify the unjustifiable in the war of words over global warming, and for that matter, every other issue currently addressed publicly by government of all stripes and persuasions.  After all, why make honest admissions and concessions to the public at all costs when there is the technique of avoidance at one's disposal? 

I have half a notion that many politician are not even aware of the fact that they resort to Duckspeak.  It comes naturally to them, as if by the process of osmosis.  

Duckspeak is insatiable.  It has become a fact of not only our politics, but most other aspects of communications in today's society.  Orwell would undoubtedly get a kick out of that.

Like the proverbial bull excrement of current-day vernacular, Duckspeak is capable of baffling our brains -- if we're not careful.

I simply do not believe that the vast majority of Canadians are that gullible. We're just a tolerant breed that is often underestimated by those in higher places.

Let the ducks quack...Give them enough rope until they strangle themselves!

NOTE: Read the following only if interested in further insight to Orwell's thought-provoking creation of the Newspeak Dictionary.  I find it fascinating, but I'm odd that way I guess.

An appendix to the novel, 1984
Written by George Orwell (Eric Blair) in 1948

Newspeak was the official language of Oceania, and had been devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc, or English Socialism. In the year 1984 there was not as yet anyone who used Newspeak as his sole means of communication, either in speech or writing. The leading articles of the Times were written in it, but this was a tour de force which could only be carried out by a specialist, It was expected that Newspeak would have finally superseded Oldspeak (or standard English, as we should call it) by about the year 2050. Meanwhile, it gained ground steadily, all party members tending to use Newspeak words and grammatical constructions more and more in their everyday speech. The version in 1984, and embodied in the Ninth and Tenth Editions of the Newspeak dictionary, was a provisional one, and contained many superfluous words and archaic formations which were due to be suppressed later. It is with the final, perfected version, as embodied in the Eleventh Edition of the dictionary, that we are concerned here. 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, a least so 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 meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever. To give a single example, the word free still existed in Newspeak, but could only be used in such statements as "The dog is free from lice" or "This field is free from weeds." It could not be used in its old sense of "politically free" or "intellectually free," since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself...

Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum. Newspeak was founded on the English language as we now know it, though many Newspeak sentences, even when not containing newly created words, would be barely intelligible to an English-speaker of our own day...

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