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Friday, August 04, 2006

Come one, come all, to 1984

It's true. The dystopia of saccharine tablets and missing orgasms which George Orwell foresaw is upon us, in the form of one of Wikipedia's language settings: Simple English.

As nearly everyone in the world knows, Wikipedia is the online encyclopedia to end all online encyclopedias. It will have an answer to 99% of anything you ask it--it might not be the right answer, but it'll be an answer. Wikipedia is the nemesis of English teachers everywhere, and beyond that, it's just plain fun. It can tell you anything from your favorite band's complete discography (including rarities, B-sides, live recordings, and singles!) to the finer points of the Kama Sutra, and you can read this stuff in any of 229 languages. One of these languages is the so-called 'Simple English'.

Simple English, according to the homepage, 'only uses very simple English words and simple ways of writing'. It goes on to elaborate, explaining that Simple English pages are intended for: a) people whose mother tongue isn't English b) children and c) people with learning disabilities. All nice and good, but also somewhat...creepy. This use of very simple English words severely limits the content of the Simple English Wikipages; for instance, if someone surfing the Simple English section wanted to read about Albert Camus, they wouldn't be able to. Albert Camus does not exist in Simple English. Search for him and Wikipedia will give you a basically blank search page (he appears in non-link format on a list of Nobel prize winners). Search for his famous novel The Stranger and you'll get equally diminutive results.

So, okay, maybe you say what child or non-native speaker or learning disabled person wants to read about Camus anyway? For that matter, what normal person wants to read about Camus? He was dense, French, and an existentialist. All very true, but my point is, if you can't read about someone or something in a certain language, does that mean it doesn't exist? If that's the case, then Simple English is rewriting knowledge itself, and if that isn't the case, then Simple English is still engaging in language slaughter. Simple English slices out synonyms, antonyms, and all but the most basic grammatical structure of English with frightening relish. Simple English cuts away the nuances, those pesky idiosyncrasies and that massive vocabulary which make English so beautiful to its native speakers and so hateful to anyone trying to learn it.

It would make Syme, Orwell's Newspeak enthusiast, positively drool.

In the Simple English entry for Nineteen Eighty-Four, the plot summary mentions that "Another thing they [the Party] are trying to do is cut all the hard words out of the English language and change it to make it more simple so that people will not be too smart or think too hard."

But that would be...unthinkable.

Be it mere dumbing down of the facts or actual rewriting of history, literature, science, and every other topic known to man, Simple English is simply scary.
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