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This excerpt below is from George Orwell's 1984 and it is the character Syme talking about the progress of the official language "Newspeak" and how its goal is to eventually destroy modern language.

Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make [thought crime] 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

George Orwell, "1984" Part 1 Chapter 5

While it seems Syme was talking about Newspeak reducing the language to one word per concept, I want to take it a step further. How could a totalitarian government (or ruling entity) gradually diminish a language until it's expressed in just one word?

I'm particularly interested to know how this could be done by force, whether subtle or overt, not by some natural or evolutionary means, and in a small period of time say 100 to 200 years.


Edit: People seem to be hung up on this. I was just suggesting 1984 as an example, a catalyst for creative ideas, NOT as the scope to which all answers should confine themselves. You could totally ignore the book and still come up with a creative answer to this question.

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    $\begingroup$ If we define "[human] language" as "systematic means of communication," the government will need to remove any and all needs of communication, as the language will be virtually non-functional. I feel like robots might be involved. $\endgroup$ – Nex Terren Aug 15 '16 at 13:08
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    $\begingroup$ It could be possible that the language sounds like it's only one word to an uneducated listener. Chinese, for example, is a tonal language that uses the same sound with different tones and each tone can mean many different things itself. 施氏食狮史 (Shī Shì shí shī shǐ) is an example of a homophonic poem. $\endgroup$ – Kys Aug 15 '16 at 16:28
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    $\begingroup$ Ook. Ook? Ook! Ook. Ook? Ook. $\endgroup$ – Joel Harmon Aug 16 '16 at 0:41
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    $\begingroup$ Hodor, Hodor? Hodor... $\endgroup$ – SeanR Aug 16 '16 at 10:33
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    $\begingroup$ With one word and silence, you could communicate in binary or in morse code. "buffalo buffalo ... buffalo buffalo buffalo ... buffalo" $\endgroup$ – Mark K Cowan Aug 16 '16 at 15:32

11 Answers 11

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Orwell didn't mean that the entire English language would be reduced to just one word, but that each concept would be reduced to one word. That is, instead of having many words with shades of meaning, like "pretty", "beautiful", "attractive", etc, there would be just one word for this idea. The idea is that alternate meanings and shades of meaning would be abolished. The example I recall from the book -- it's been decades since I read it -- was that the word "free" would be defined to mean only the absence of something, as in, "This yard is free of weeds", but that it would have no meaning of being politically free or free to make moral choices.

How could a government do it? Presumably by controlling education and the media. If children are all taught in school that this is what a word means, and are never told alternate definitions, and if all the TV programs and books and web sites all use only the government-approved definitions, then arguably people would have no way to even hear competing ideas. So unless a person thought of a competing idea himself, he'd have no way to know it. And Orwell's theory was that if the language has no words to express an idea, it would be impossible for a person to put into words, even in his head, and thus he would have a hard time thinking it.

This is why it's important to have public schools with curriculum set by the central government, such as "No Child Left Behind", and to have media run by the central government, like PBS. Or at least to have all the major media sharing the same "party line", like ABC, NBC, CBS, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, etc. Any competing media must be ridiculed as extremist and crazy or denigrated as unreliable.

Would it actually work? Hard to say. On the one hand, it assumes that the government can control all or almost all communications. The old Soviet Union made it a crime to own unauthorized printing equipment so people couldn't publish anti-government newsletters. But plenty of people still managed to do it. Plus there were radio and TV transmissions from outside the country. Today the Internet is seen as a threat by many dictatorships because it is difficult to control.

Even if you succeeded, would not having words in the language really stop people from having unwanted thoughts? It surely would not be a 100% effective tool. We can easily prove that from the fact that people throughout history have, in fact, often invented new words for new ideas, or managed to express new idea using words that originally had other meanings. The fact that there was no word for "telephone" or "computer" before those things were invented didn't prevent people from thinking of the idea. But maybe if the words don't exist, it takes a rare genius to think of the idea, while if the words are there, any reasonably intelligent person can express the idea. Hard to say.

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    $\begingroup$ «This yard is free of weeds» I haven’t read it in decades either, but I think it was “the dog is free of fleas”. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Aug 15 '16 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ Just as a sidenote, your third paragraph seems to be implying that the US government is attempting this. Personally I think that's attributing far too much competence to the US government. $\endgroup$ – Tin Man Aug 15 '16 at 19:03
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    $\begingroup$ This concept is expressed pretty well in the film "The Giver", a film adaptation of the dystopian novel bearing the same name. In the film, as Jonas gradually regains a spectrum of feeling, he starts to use more specific synonyms and alternate word meanings and is swiftly reprimanded by his mother for his choice of wording. $\endgroup$ – Conor Aug 15 '16 at 19:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Amadeus9 "Attempting" and "achieving" are very different things. :-) $\endgroup$ – Jay Aug 15 '16 at 19:25
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    $\begingroup$ @AmiralPatate "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, at least so far as thought is dependent on words." -- Orwell, 1984, appendix $\endgroup$ – Jay Aug 16 '16 at 17:36
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One of the other themes of that story is despite Big Brother's efforts, the human will found a way. If words are reduced, intonation and facial expression will have to take its place. This is far harder for BB to detect and to restrict. Even today, we have expressions like, "it's not what you say, it's how you say it."

As evidence, I point to my own cat and my neighbor's dog. Each seems to know exactly three verbal expressions, or "words." Those are meow, hiss, and purr; and woof, grrr, and whine, respectively. With these few sounds, along with tone, volume, body language, and so on, they each communicate with me.

My cat has been able to let me know:

  • Feed me
  • Thank you for feeding me
  • Pet me
  • Please stop petting me
  • Go away, I'm busy
  • Let's play
  • Help!
  • Oh, hi!
  • I said, HI, dammit!
  • Hey you! Yes you, idiot. How can you not get that I'm saying HELLO!?! Pay attention.

And my neighbor's dog has indicated:

  • I am aware of you, not-my-human
  • Don't get so close to the fence, not-my-human
  • OK, fine, as long as it's YOUR side of the fence
  • Hey, is-my-human, something is happening out here!
  • Hey, is-my-human, can I come back inside now?
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    $\begingroup$ +0 This is good food-for-thought, but it doesn't really answer the question. You're explaining how non-verbal communication is possible, but you don't say how a government could forcibly make a society non-verbal. $\endgroup$ – LCIII Aug 15 '16 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ @LCIII I think his point is that, even if Big Brother succeeds in removing our vocabulary, we will still communicate complex concepts using methods which are far more difficult to control. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Aug 15 '16 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ @LCIII His point isn't that the government would intentionally force society to use non-verbal communication, but rather the opposite: That in a society where verbal language is rigidly controlled by the government, people might use non-verbal communication to circumvent government restrictions. $\endgroup$ – Jay Aug 15 '16 at 14:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Jay That's all well and good, but the question is "How could a governing body do this?" $\endgroup$ – LCIII Aug 15 '16 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ "the human will found a way" -- well, not really.. the thought police were monitoring Winston and Julia from the very beginning; everything they got away with, they were allowed to get away with. There was never really any hope. As Winston said, "thoughtcrime does not entail death - thoughtcrime is death". $\endgroup$ – Blorgbeard Aug 15 '16 at 23:58
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The last word in your language will be essentially translatable as look-at-me.

It is possible to simplify language. It may even be desirable at some points, because humans will trend towards complexity, and turn around and trend towards simplicity, (and not just in language) because the optimum point will be different for different people at different points, and people like change. If a government is catching a language during its slide towards simplicity, it might be able to nudge the trend quite a bit further along than it would naturally go. Of course, if the language is trending the other way (towards complexity), the government would be better off artificially "complexifying" the language, to make people want to trend towards simplicity, and then riding the simplifying train all the way down.

Why would this happen? because the government would like to control what people think, and one way to do that is to control what people are taught, and what words they have to put these expressions into language. It wouldn't be quick, but starting with an overt push and "popular support" to simplify language (to "better communicate") can help, and probably get the language (or at least the official government sanctioned word-list) down to functional basics within a generation or two. Native speakers might test at knowing 20,00-35,000 words, but non-native speakers might test from 2,500-9,000 words - so a government can probably get vocabulary cut down too that much without losing the ability to communicate. Three generations will limit how much of the larger body of vocabulary is remembered - that is, after the third there will be very few people who know it was ever different, especially if education is tightly controlled.

And how would this happen? First, by overtly getting rid of synonyms, variations, and shades of grey. Anything that can be grouped similarly, should be pared down to one word. Longer sentences and fragments should be encouraged, because it will take more less general words to match the information given by a single precise one. Education will help here, more subtly, instead of kids learning word lists to expand their vocabulary, kids would learn how to describe or talk about things using the same, increasingly reduced pool of words.

Then, subtly by encouraging a relaxed attitude to grammar will probably also help, since formal language and grammar encourage precision, and also marking words for part of speech, number, and a host of other things that takes one word and makes it many. Fostering an attitude that the point is getting the meaning across and nothing more will help hide the reduced word usage, since only one word is now standing in for dozens.

At this point, something else has started to happen. People will be groping for ways to articulate specifics and differences, since the language that would have once marked them out are gone. So, in come the gestures, from specific gestures to the hand-wavy "you know what I mean" gestures. Intonation and facial expression, not to mention body language, will come to mean more and more as people need to get information across with less and less formal vocabulary. People might make up words, but given your government is actively and overtly trying to discourage this, "because it is exclusive" or "because using words people don't know is unhelpful/rude/antisocial" - the words will probably not catch on.

So what will happen instead is that the expressions, gestures, and body language will slowly take on a life of their own. The government will be overtly focusing on preventing the creation or use of words, and perhaps on limiting the existing sign languages (or preventing codified new ones) from being used as a bridge, but casual gestures and contextual meaning will probably slip by until it's too late to matter. The new language will not be codified, not with the government on watch against such "redefining", but will rather be quite intuitive. The government agents will be thinking of language as vocal, as textual, since that's what they can control. On the other hand, some word like "thingy" will be intuitively made to acquire dozens of meanings based on context, gestures, location, and there's no way to stop that, it has to be that way to let society function, or the word couldn't have been made to substitute for others in the first place.

Your society will hit the point other answers have described, where you have one-word-per-concept... but the government will not be satisfied not after so much success, and will try to keep paring the language down (actively removing "dangerous" concepts and censoring away at everything else). At this point, it will only work if the body-language has developed enough to compensate for the lack. People need to communicate their problems, and how to fix them, they need to interact, bargain, gossip, complain.

So, look-at-me. Look-at-me and gesture to a problem, look-at-me and toss over a solution. Here's the thingy I was talking about, there's the place where what you're holding goes (look-at-me gesture to it). Look-at-me, essentially becomes a placeholder, it only needs to inform its listener about intent-to-communicate... since otherwise looking in the wrong direction will stall out a conversation. Something to catch the ear, gain attention, that is the absolute minimum we would need from spoken language for safety and survival, if someone isn't looking, is too far away to touch, and needs to know. Command someone to look, until they know what someone is trying to say, until they find the problem, and can show a solution, until context can clue someone in on what's going on.

Essentially, the government would alternate overt and subtle means (overtly simplifying and redefining, subtly encouraging relaxed simplifying and re-purposing) to pare down the language to the bare essentials, then take over overtly again to push past the one-word-per-concept barrier that a language won't drop below on its own. In the process of trying to control thoughts via vocabulary, it will have pretty much converted a low-context to a high-context culture, since the high context culture can get meaning across without words... so actually the government will have failed to prevent people understanding and communicating all kinds of ideas, they will have just switched from one medium of communication to another, with the possibility of making people more observant and detail-oriented, since they will have to notice and remember all the contextual details instead of having them spelled out.

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It depends on your definition of a word

a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning. Words are composed of one or more morphemes and are either the smallest units susceptible of independent use or consist of two or three such units combined under certain linking conditions, as with the loss of primary accent that distinguishes black·bird· from black· bird·. Words are usually separated by spaces in writing, and are distinguished phonologically, as by accent, in many languages.

Say the word your language runs down to is Bo, through inflection, repetition and context you can have the following exchange.

Stranger Approaches

You: Bo

Stranger: Bo

Stranger begins searching your shop

You: Bo?

Stranger: indicating with hands the size of a grapefruit Bo?

You: Bo!

you offer the man a grapefruit

Things can be worked out, however you do begin to see the problem, that without context you just have nonsense. A single word language restricts the transmission of information across any distance apart from the face-to-face.

How a government might implement this

First, get rid of outside influence

  • Burn books
  • Isolate the population from the outside
  • Remove those that speak secondary languages

Then

  • Remove the media's use of non-standard speak
  • Slowly turn down the amount of words in language, removing complicated words and replacing with ever simpler ones
  • Outlaw words that have been removed, initiate a thought police that will systematically remove dissenters, preferably converting them but removing them in the middle of the night is also fine
  • Educate children - only teach them the single word, ideally reducing their education down to just simple tasks, anything complicated won't translate in a single word society.

Once the children are converted, then begin retiring the previous generations adults from society.

This would need to be a continuous task, with constant reinforcement of the word. Human babies babble and generation of new languages (slang) is an innate process within humanity.

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  • $\begingroup$ Say wha say wha? bobobo! $\endgroup$ – Captain Man Aug 16 '16 at 15:39
  • $\begingroup$ @CaptainMan Bo, bo, bo... and so forth $\endgroup$ – Chris J Aug 16 '16 at 15:42
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    $\begingroup$ You have written down three different sounds as "Bo", "Bo?" and "Bo!" but if those sounds start to be used consistently to mean different things then I don't think it would unreasonable to describe them as different words, and spell them with different letters, e.g. "Bo", "Bow" and "Boh". $\endgroup$ – bdsl Aug 16 '16 at 20:56
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The obvious answer, although not I suspect the one you are looking for*, is that English would become extinct in the same way as thousands of other languages have become extinct over the ages: that is it would be replaced by another language. The new language might contain a single word derived from English in the same way that there are undoubtedly extinct languages whose only relic is a single borrowed word that has been adopted into some living language.

As Chris J said in the comments to the question, the quote from 1984 does not mean that people will be reduced to only being able to say one single word. That would make humans unable to think at any level above that of animals, which even the totalitarian tyranny of Ingsoc did not aspire to. The intention behind Newspeak in 1984 was "merely" to remove synonyms and antonyms. The link takes you to the Wikipedia article on Newspeak, which says:

This would, of course, not prevent heretical statements such as "Big Brother is ungood," but not only would this statement sound absurd in the ears of the politically orthodox, it would also be impossible to elaborate on or specify exactly what the statement means since all concepts and words that can be used to argue against Big Brother (i.e. liberty, rights, freedom, etc.) would be eradicated from the language. The statement would thus be meaningless.

For how the change to the restricted vocabulary of Newspeak was to be accomplished, I refer you to 1984 itself. It was described as being done over decades by a mixture of propaganda, rewriting of history and previous literature, censorship, social pressure and - of course - terror.

I think you have been misled by Orwell's use of the word "every" in "Every concept that can ever be needed…". He meant it in the same sense as "each", i.e. that each of a limited set of concepts would have one word, not that all concepts would be melded into one word. To literally destroy human language would require raising babies in isolation from any human society, as has sometimes happened with "feral children" who were abandoned or lost as babies but survived among animals.

But to raise children in isolation would require those making the practical arrangements to bring this about to communicate among themselves. This would mean that more complex language survived somewhere, unless, as Nex Terren's comment suggested, those doing the raising were robots.

If the children were raised in isolation and denied interaction with other people during the language-forming phase of early childhood, they would grow up to be severely intellectually disabled. If, however, they were prevented from communicating with adults but not from each other, then I think that the innate human language ability would reassert itself in some form, not necessarily a spoken form. Consider how Nicaraguan Sign Language evolved.


*The edit to the question saying that answers should not be limited to the universe of the book 1984 was made while I was writing this answer.

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All thought can be expressed in binary, so technically you can reduce language to one word. One character even. But binary is complete so cannot be used as a limiter because it includes dissenting thought.

All complexity and subtlety can be built from it. If binary, the literal simplest form of communication is complete reduction cannot be used to limit thought. If instead you build something that specifically excludes dissent (a book of correct thought) it will be incomplete. Any human who has language will invent ways to express all parts of the human condition. A shadow language will emerge to express things that that cannot be expressed by the book of correct thought. (See the shadow of the torturer by Gene Wolf for an example of novel ideas expressed using only The Book of Correct Thought)

I don't think it's possible to force an incomplete language to prevent banned thought. If you want to ban the expression of dissent you might have to ban language entirely. Or use some other method (fear springs to mind).

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    $\begingroup$ So, 0 would be silence then? $\endgroup$ – Cem Kalyoncu Aug 16 '16 at 15:11
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I know this one has already been answered - but I just had a little idea that might apply to your scenario:

In the next 100-200 years the scientists of the Totalitarian Government develops an effective form of telepathy.

Now to avoid some of the problems associated with telepathy, such as having people read thoughts you dont want them reading or being overwhelmed with too many thoughts from so many people, the telepathy has been altered.

When a particular word is spoken the thoughts of the speaker are transmitted telepathically to anyone who could hear the spoken word. To begin with you could have several key words for transmitting telepathically, and eventually reduce this down to just one.

The Totalitarian Government wants everyone to adopt its new telepathic form of communication, and anyone found speaking in full sentences get punished (possibly by having their tongues ripped out?)

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I once read a German children's story describing the sadly humorous decline of a boy's grandfather who had an uncle named Jodok, about whom he was always telling stories. As time went on, the other characters in the tales were also named "Jodok", then he started calling everyone "Jodok". Eventually, the objects in the stories likewise became "Jodok"s, and in the end, even the verbs and adjectives, thus, something like "Jodok and Jodok Jodoked to a Jodok where they Jodoked a couple of Jodoks and saw Jodok Jodoking a Jodok Jodok with a Jodok." Not quite down to one word, but getting close.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Don. While an interesting and relevant reference it does not actually answer the question that was asked. Once you have enough rep you will be able to comment on any post, and while interesting this is more commentary. Check out the help center for more info on good q/a's and feel free to join us in Worldbuilding Chat once you hit 20 rep. $\endgroup$ – James Aug 16 '16 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ "Hodor. Hodor. HODOR! Hodor." Unfortunately, the question is "How to make this happen deliberately?" Not what examples already exist. $\endgroup$ – Brythan Aug 16 '16 at 19:35
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, the question is how the language could dwindle to just one word, and this is easily the only answer here that really addresses this question at all. $\endgroup$ – Dawood ibn Kareem Aug 17 '16 at 10:48
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This question asks how English could gradually dwindle to one single word, but the answer is it couldn't. Considerably before that point it would cease to be a functioning Human language.

The Natural Semantic Metalanguage theory argues that natural Human language is built upon a list of around 65 'semantic primes': the basic concepts of language upon which all else is built. The list is not definitive and is periodically revised, but after 40 years of research into dozens of languages from every major language family around the world, the most of these primes have very good supporting evidence.

Some of these primes are things like I, YOU, ONE, TWO, THINK, DO, NOT, IF, VERY. A government may try to reduce how a language is used, but if the distinction was lost between any of these, it would be completely unusable. People would switch to another language, or start replacing the words faster than the government could ban them. It's just simple reality that humans cannot speak without words for I and YOU.

(You may be aware of claims that some languages do in fact lack some of these words. I simplified my explanation of the theory: the primes are not always words, and can be affixes or phrases. They also only refer to particular senses of words, so that if a word seems like it more means 'a few' than the strict sense of 'two', further investigations would likely show that there is a narrow sense where the word only means 'two'. But there is always the possibility that a language doesn't have any word for 'two', in which case the list would be revised.)

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As mentioned above, Orwell was referring to one word per concept, removing shades of grey. But if we really want to go with just one word, think of the utility of "shit":

  • Verb: to shit (the action of shitting)
  • Noun: I stepped in shit.
  • Exclamation: Oh Shit!
  • Adjective: That's a shitty response.

Various usage examples:

  • Do you really mean that? No shit?
  • Are you pulling my leg? Are you shitting me?
  • You're not telling the truth. You're full of shit.
  • You're in serious trouble. You're in deep shit.
  • That's excellent weed. That's good shit.
  • That's a lot of... That's a shitload of ... ... and many more.

Eventually, we might be able to communicate with just variations on the word shit.

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    $\begingroup$ I disagree with you on one key point, it would be fuck not shit, it's much more versatile, usable to replace almost any word in a sentence e.g. fuck the fucking fuckers. $\endgroup$ – Separatrix Aug 16 '16 at 8:28
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Use a single-syllable word with a long vowel and on-off keying.

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    $\begingroup$ Hi Justin Megawarne. This answer has promise, but could be even better if you can make it stand further on its own and explain in more detail how it answers the specific question being asked. Can you edit your answer to include some examples of how such devolution of a language could happen, if desired by a totalitarian government? Thanks! $\endgroup$ – a CVn Aug 16 '16 at 11:13
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    $\begingroup$ Note to reviewers: This is not a link-only answer. It is link-heavy, but when stripping the links, it still provides an actual proposed answer. Compare Your answer is in another castle: when is an answer not an answer? on Meta Stack Exchange. $\endgroup$ – a CVn Aug 16 '16 at 11:14
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    $\begingroup$ This answer was meant to be slightly facetious, but it’s effectively telegraphy-by-voice. Highly impractical — but you could transmit Baudot code if you wanted! $\endgroup$ – Justin Megawarne Aug 16 '16 at 11:19

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