Friday, 9 March 2012


George Orwell created a new form of English for his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four called Newspeak. Its aim was to reduce the ability of the people to think unorthodox or subversive thoughts, so for instance the word free was reduced in meaning to have only the sense as in 'this dog is free from lice'. One couldn't use it to express other concepts of freedom such as free speech. It also aimed to simplify the language in other ways, such as eliminating antonyms (opposites). Thus there is no good/bad pair, but rather the opposite of good is ungood. Instead of warm we have uncold. It's suggested that the more unpleasant word is chosen to keep out of the pair, but I wonder if there's another explanation.

I was reminded of this when I was reading about marked and unmarked pairs in Greenberg (1966). The basic idea is that out of any correlation pair, one member is marked and the other unmarked. The marked member has a much more restricted meaning, whereas the unmarked member can stand for the neutral value. A few examples will clarify, from maths, lexicon and morphology (all from Greenberg).

-5 can only stand for the negative value of 5, whereas 5 may refer to +5 or to the abstract notion of 5.

Man, traditionally, could have a solely masculine meaning or could refer to humankind as a whole (that is, men and women). Woman could never be used with anything other than a feminine meaning.

Likewise, in Spanish, where nouns and adjectives are inflected according to whether they are masculine and feminine, the same pattern occurs. A group of men, if referred to as 'good', has the adjective buenos with the masculine -os ending. A group of women has the adjective buenas, with the feminine -as ending. A group of men and women together will be described as buenos but never buenas, even if there are ten women and only one man.

In each of the examples, the unmarked option is the one that is used in neutral contexts (and therefore shows up with greater frequency in corpora, so we can count if testing for a neutral context is not possible).

Back to Newspeak now, Greenberg also notes that
A considerable number of languages, African, Amerind and Oceanic, have no separate term for 'bad' which is expressed by 'not good'. On the other hand, there is as far as is known to me, no language which lacks a separate term for 'good' and expresses it normally by 'not-bad'. (Greenberg 1966: 52)
He gives this as one of a number of universal pairs in which one is always the marked member. It's this one that we use in questions such as 'How wide is it?' (not 'How narrow is it?'). It seems that of the pair bad and good, Orwell selected the unmarked option to keep (after all, he clearly didn't follow the rule of keeping the less pleasant adjective). If anyone out there doesn't have a PhD to write, it might be fruitful to test Orwell's adjectives and see if the one that is kept is the unmarked member of a pair. Sometimes this will be possible with looking at neutral contexts, at other times a corpus check of frequency will be in order (for example, I can ask both 'How warm is it?' and 'How cold is it?', so neither can immediately be said to be the neutral option. If, however, one turns up significantly more frequently in the corpus, it is likely to be because it is used to express the unmarked, neutral meaning as well as its own specific meaning, whereas the other member is restricted to its specific meaning).

Greenberg, J. H. 1966. Language universals, with special reference to feature hierarchies. Janua Linguarum. The Hague: Mouton & Co.

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