Dictionary of Communist Totalitarianism decodes the language of propaganda

How did communist propaganda brainwash people? What were the most frequent words used in the communist press? And was it at all possible to learn any real news from the censored newspapers? These are some of the questions a team of Czech linguists is trying to answer in their Dictionary of Communist Totalitarianism.

“A handful of authors of the defamatory outpouring entitled Charter 77 including the posthumous offspring of the defeated bourgeoisie and ruined exhibitionists from the crisis years of 1968-1969 are being given cogent responses from all layers of our working people.”

These are the first lines of a front page piece in the daily Rudé právo from January, 1977, condemning the human-rights manifesto Charter 77 and its authors – including the future Czech president Václav Havel.

The angry and offensive language of this and other such examples of communist media language is something a team of linguists at Charles University in Prague has been studying for the past six years. In the first such project of its kind in a post-communist state, they have been collecting these words and analyzing the way the authorities exploited the Czech language. Professor František Čermák is the head of the team.

“It’s a kind of project which tries to capture that has never been systematically captured before. Those works you might know like Klemperer’s books on German and Fidelius’ on Czech were essayistic, and did not really explore what we’d set out to do, which was namely how the times permeated into the vocabulary and what it actually meant to all of us.”

The experts scanned the front pages of the official Communist Party daily Rudé právo, propaganda books and other such materials, collected the words, and analyzed them. In total, they have processed 15 million words as the basis for the dictionary.

“At the moment, we have some 15 million words made into a corpus which is completely tagged and anatomized. It’s not only words and their frequency but also the use of these words in a context that is decisive in allowing us to say anything of value to the readers.”

Professor Čermák and his team have been studying the communist language from three different periods – 1952, 1969 and 1977. In each of these eras, the regime was dealing with different issues, and that was very much reflected in the language.

“In the first period, the party and the regime were assuming a defensive posture and it just let it felt that it was defending itself against all sorts of attacks which were not always voiced.

“So there were quite a lot of expressions like ‘the accused one’; another was ‘to distract’ – that was extremely important – to distract aggressors, fascism, counter-revolution and so on. They even used a lot of swear words and extremely negatively loaded words.”

That was in many ways also similar, as we heard in the beginning, to the year when the manifesto Charter 77 appeared. It called on the Communists to respect human rights, as the regime itself had pledged to do two years before, when Czechoslovakia signed the Helsinki Accords.

“That was a protest movement which was heavily condemned by the Communist Party and there were new words coined just to condemn the signatories of the document – ‘samozvanci’ for example – something like ‘self-appointed defenders’. These words were very frequent and Charter 77 became the target of the heaviest attacks since the 1950s.”

Some of the most popular words in the apparatchik vocabulary were used to place phrases into a more general context, making it seem like large groups of people agreed with them. Professor Čermák calls these words ‘useful idiots’.

“Let me just mention a few of them – ‘secretary’ gained a very high frequency because the party had a lot of secretaries on all levels and every local party cell had a secretary. So that was a quite a new phenomenon.

“Also ‘trade union’ – there is an adjective, ‘odborový’, which was extremely frequent. Although trade unions had no role to play, they were used to fill in the background to pretend that the Communist Party was supported by something else. So it was a sort of a useful idiot which they used.”

“There is also quite an interesting point that went with it, which had not been noticed before. The Communists for some reason which I don’t quite understand even today were not content with some standard words like ‘stationary shop’ – papírnictví. That name was abolished and they devised a new word – ‘Narpa’ – which simply meant a place where you can buy pencils and paper, or ‘Chemodroga’ instead of ‘drogerie’ – chemist’s, and quite of lot of these things.

The language of the media, subject to strict censorship, was one thing. How people spoke at home or among friends was another.

Professor Čermák says when people read newspapers, they read between the lines, trying to guess what was really going on; also, they would adopt some of the expressions, but use them in slightly different forms.

“The language eventually showed a tendency to split between the language to be found in print, and the unofficial one that was used, given the atmosphere of general distrust, between friends or family members. So you had ‘strana’ – party, and the unofficial term ‘partaj’; another example – ‘komunista’ – a Communist, but people would say ‘komouš’, and quite a lot of things of this sort.”

One of the tools the linguists are using to de-construct the language of communist propaganda is frequency lists. They show how the occurrence of words changed in time, reflecting a change in focus by those who used them. Professor Čermák says that my guess, the word ‘strana’, party, was wrong.

“No, not really. I don’t know if you’re interested in the frequency lists, but ‘strana’ comes as one of the first words but not the very first because we didn’t select the ‘communist words’ from normal words. So even more important than ‘strana’ were words such as ‘nation’, ‘social’, ‘organization’, ‘central’, ‘political’, ‘power’, ‘country’. ‘movement’, ‘plenum’; these are just the most frequently used ones.”

The Dictionary of Communist Totalitarianism should be published by the end of the year.