French postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault once articulated the idea that language defines how we view ourselves and the world around us and, as such, language can limit or liberate concepts in our minds.
People who speak more than one language understand this on a fundamental level. One language might allow you to express an emotion or an idea that has no equivalent in the other language.
But what happens when your mother tongue begins to change in ways that also change what you are able—and not able—to express?
The Russian language underwent such a transformation with the onset of the Bolshevik Revolution, when Communist ideology introduced terms such as “comrade” and “commune.” Similarly, the Chinese language was substantially altered during General Mao’s Cultural Revolution in ways that many lament as a “corruption” of everyday speech, with lasting effects until now.
Chinese novelist Murong Xuecun summarizes the effect of Mao’s Cultural Revolution on the language in an op-ed he wrote in 2015 for the New York Times: “More than 60 years of Communist hate education, inane propaganda and the comprehensive destruction of classical civilization have spawned a new style of speaking and writing. The Chinese language has become brutalized—and the Communist Party is largely to blame.”
Perry Link, a scholar of Chinese literature, also captures the “militarization” of the language. In an essay published on ChinaFile, the Asia Society’s website, Link gives this colorful example from his prior travels to the mainland. He writes: “At the ends of banquets, even today, mainland Chinese sometimes urge their friends to xiaomie [annihilate] the leftovers; a mother on a bus, the last time I was in Beijing, answered her little boy, who said: ‘Ma, I really need to pee!’ by saying: ‘Jianchi! [Be resolute!] Uncle bus driver can’t stop here.’”
A language “militarized” or “brutalized” is perhaps what George Orwell would call Newspeak—the slow corruption of a language as it begins to normalize and serve a dystopian new reality.
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” Orwell writes in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” It follows that a generation raised speaking nothing but the “Newspeak” of their native culture may not even be aware of how this shapes their minds. As Orwell puts it: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
The German language illustrated this schism perfectly after Germany’s unification in 1990. Germans who had been living in East Germany for 45 years emerged with new ways of expressing themselves and their surroundings, referring to workers as “cadres” and calling Christmas tree angel ornaments “year-end winged figures.”
In the same respect, the Persian language has been undergoing slow but lasting ideological changes in the 40 years since the Revolution. One can almost identify the moment that this linguistic metamorphosis began. It was October 1978, when Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Paris from exile in Iraq and subsequently coined the phrase the “Islamic Republic,” but not to mean a republic or a democracy per se, rather a divinely ordained government.
From that point forward, more divinely ordained concepts and words have seeped into the Persian language, spoken by a generation of Iranians who are too young to remember a pre-revolutionary Persian language.
TB is developing a style guide to identify Islamic Republic “Newspeak” that often distorts ideas and subjugates them to regime propaganda. These terms are used in Iran by professionals in local media, government officials, documents, and political rhetoric as well as everyday vernacular spoken by the general public.
Here are some examples of “Newspeak” in Iran and how we recommend correcting them:
Velvet Revolution is the name given to a series of nonviolent protests between November 17 and December 29, 1989, in Czechoslovakia that led to the overthrow of the authoritarian communist regime and the reestablishment of democracy. In Iran, this term is often used instead of the term “color revolution” or as an alternative.
In publications outside Iran, the term refers to the nonviolent nature of the protest movement and the popularity of the Czechoslovak people’s movement. But in pro-regime publications, the term is used with a negative connotation, referring to conspiracy theories to refer to nonviolent protest movements. Iranian government publications have even used the term “velvet coup” to distort the original meaning of the term.
Since Iranian government publications have given a negative meaning to the term, it is better not to use it to describe Iranian movements and to limit its use to its original meaning, the 1989 movement of the Czechoslovak people.
“Resistance economy” is a term used by Ali Khamenei in 2016, which he recommended as a way to deal with the pressure of foreign sanctions. In that year’s Nowruz message, he said 2016 would be the year of resistance economy (action and action), and in various speeches he has given since then, he used this term with descriptions such as “endogenous economy,” “strengthening production,” and “economy that relies on people.” Why not be consistent?
(Adopted from the secular Arabic term, which means “noncompliance” or “non-obligation.”)
According to Iranian election law, adherence to Islam and Islamic governance of the state is achieved through a person’s confession. “Noncompliance” means that a person is not loyal to these two tenets, which also means noncompliance with velayat-e faqih (guardianship of the Islamic jurist), the very essence of the Islamic Republic.
Khat-e Emam refers to the ways and thoughts of Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic. In the early years after the revolution, groups considered themselves part of the “Imamate Line” or followers of the Imam (Khomeini)’s line, including students occupying the US embassy in 1979, who called themselves students of the Imam’s line.
Today, political groups with the title of Imamate Line appear in every election. Imam Khomeini’s line is a vague concept and its definition varies for different people from the range of reformists to fundamentalists.