Saturday, 15 August 2009

The Language That Locks Others Out

For as long as I have been involved in the study of the Humanities, that wonderful of collection of subjects that defies all attempts at precise (or at the very least concise) definition, I have been interested in the language used to write about it. It's no surprise that the Sciences have a language all their own, or rather that they have multiple dialects, special vocabularies, one for each general subject area.

Take, for example, biology, which has a need to name things in order to discuss them: pharynx, larynx, trachea -- parts of the body used for speech and breathing, among other things. Once could hardly carry around a diagram at all times for the purpose of pointing out "this little bit here, see?" in order to talk about it.

In chemistry, there are systems for the naming of molecules, like adding the prefix "thio-", which means that the molecule has had one oxygen atom replaced with a sulfur atom -- hence thiosulphate has one more sulfur atom and one less oxygen atom than sulphate. These peculiar dialects are still English, of course, but they contain whole new words and systems for creating words, in order to better discuss the intricacies of their subject matter. They are necessary to further the study of their subjects.

The questions I have been wrestling with are the ones that arise when we compare the dialects of subjects in the Sciences with those of subjects in the Humanities: to put it simply, to what degree do the Humanities need their own dialects (if at all), and to what extent are we meeting (or surpassing) that need?

Language, the very point of language, is to communicate. And while it may require that a student learn the dialect of the subject matter to fully understand the subject matter itself, that seems a small price to pay for the furthering of greater human understanding. The unfortunate part is that language can be used to prevent communication as well as to facilitate it.

Every new word that is created to make discussion a little quicker for those already familiar with the subject is a roadblock to those who are not already familiar with it. Because of this, there is a trade-off, a cost-to-benefit ratio that must be weighed when deciding which words to use. There comes a point at which a dialect becomes so specialized that it requires extensive study just to enter into the discussion: this is what I mean when I write of the language that locks others out.

If we start from the principles that greater human understanding is a good thing, and that it occurs best when people understand one another best,* this leads to a series of questions every writer in the Humanities should ask her- or himself when writing.

First: How can I say this? What are my options, as a writer, as to which words to use, what kind of phrasing?

Second: How efficient is each option? It's all well and good to say that X is a very complicated word that will be understood by few, but if the alternative is a two-hundred word explanation, then perhaps it is necessary for the "best" communication.**

Third: Who will understand each option? If I use a highly technical word, how many people will be able to grasp my meaning?

After considering each of these, the writer in the Humanities should be able to make a judgement call as to how best to phrase a particular thought.

What ought never to occur is the deliberate choice of a more technical word out of a desire to seem more worldly, more learned, or more intelligent. Language should not be used to shut others out deliberately.

I realize I've been dancing around the issue a bit; let me be more clear: I have noticed, in past years, what can only strike me as a kind of linguistic envy held by some of those in the Humanities for the complicated dialects used by those in the Sciences. I'm not saying that all complicated concepts should be simplified -- as you may have gleaned from my roundabout writing, I favour an approach that balances communicating efficiently within small groups and communicating effectively with large ones. Many complex terms in the Humanities are necessary, simply because many subjects in the Humanities do build successively from one subject to the next, and so to understand the one, you need to have previously studied the other; however, many more seem to be used just to make writing sound more scholarly, and to build a private walled garden for scholars.

Let me show an example. I won't say where it's from, but some of you might recognize the style. And if it's your writing, I apologize, but this is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.

"art is intractably enmeshed within its originary geotemporality"

What I believe the writer is trying to say is that art is, by its very nature, part and parcel of the time and place from which it comes. Or that art cannot be separated from its time and place of origin. Phrases like "intractably enmeshed" and "originary geotemporality" make up the worst kind of academic writing in the Humanities: they needlessly confuse, obfuscate, enshroud, or (to put it simply) hide the writer's meaning, all in what appears to be an attempt to keep others out of one's chosen field of study.

This is the language that locks others out; this is what needs to stop.


Comments and questions should be made in itty-bitty words, so's I can understand 'em.

*I understand this is a very loaded term, because "best" could mean both "most efficiently" as well as "with the greatest number of people", but please, keep reading.

**"Best", for me, seems to mean a balance between communicating with the most people and communicating the most efficiently.


Anonymous said...


Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

As the person who wrote those words ... hmmm. On the one had you are completely correct: there is a more lucid way of stating that point, which is that art partakes of its time and place. On the other, the phrase does try to enter into a conversation on aesthetics and historicism that has some precise terms -- jargon, the language of specialists.

Here is my continued weakness as a scholarly writer: I love language so much that I am often finding inventive ways of phrasing things rather than simple ones. That can veer towards poetry -- or towards the pedantic. Who wants to talk to someone who loves the dictionary so much?

Well, I do ... but I realize that my ardor for super lengthy greek and latin derived words is not the best way to make an immediately clear statement. I fight with that all the time -- because as a blogger my goal is more people accessing my work, not readers feeling excluded. At all.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

A few more thoughts here.

Stephanie Trigg said...

I've come here from In the Middle, to read your post. Yes, there are excesses of jargon (and frankly, bad writing) in much humanities writing. It'd be hard not to agree. But quoting a phrase out of context doesn't tell us that much. If the neologism "geotemporality" were neatly (or even by implication) defined in the immediate context, much of the problem would disappear. I actually like "intractably enmeshed": I envisage a fishing-net of things that can't be extracted, pulled out, untangled. And I'd certainly disagree that neologisms are the main or only part of the problem for the humanities.

I'd also query the idea that all writing has to be presented in terms that are already familiar with the subject: language should be used to help us see things in unfamiliar ways.

I disagree that "the very point of language ... is to communicate." I think this radically underestimates the potential of language, reducing it to a very simple, mediating function, a channel of communication of pure, fully-formed thoughts from person A to person B (a model of communication I would have thought had been pretty much discredited now). Especially in humanities, other tasks of language are to make us think, feel, and wonder. Is it the point of language in poetry, in fiction, only to communicate a pre-existing thought? And why shouldn't academic prose sometimes reach towards such complexity?

Besides, language is irreducibly metaphorical. I'm struck by your paraphrase of Jeffrey's phrase: "art is part and parcel of the time and place from which it comes." If English were my second language, how "transparent" would such idiomatic language appear to me?

Sorry for long comment. I think this is a really interesting question, and the more debate about it the better.

(I've already edited this comment down, to simplify its expression where I can: so your post is having a good effect!)

Vellum said...

It's an interesting point about the idiom "part and parcel", but I did phrase it twice just to make sure readers understood. Idioms are more challenging.

On the other hand I don't think you're understanding what I mean when I say that the very point of language is to communicate. If language did not communicate, it could not make you "think, feel and wonder", indeed, unless by wonder you mean "wonder what on earth the writer was saying". Art, too, is a communicative medium. If art does not make us think, feel and wonder, I cannot imagine what does -- furthermore if its primary purpose were not to convey that thought, feeling and wonder, I can hardly imagine that it would do it so effectively. Communication is not always about facts, but it is, nevertheless, communication. If all it does is shield meaning, however, if all it does is make us wonder what the speaker or writer means, it is hardly doing its job.

Brantley Bryant said...

Supposing that you figure that a bit of writing doesn't just transport meaning from one place to another ("convey" being a vehicular metaphor), but instead helps create meaning through its style, its allusions, even its sound and rhythms, then isn't jargon just another form of poetic diction? After all, most humanists would scoff at the idea that a poem should be re-written to make its theme or narrative more readily apparent. Couldn't we give theoretical and critical writing the same poetic license?

"art is intractably enmeshed within its originary geotemporality"

To me, it seems this phrasing is all significant. I'm just going to play around with it a little.

"intractably" = Emphasizes the tightness of the connection, and also implies that there's something at stake: others may be trying to drag art away from its context.

"Enmeshed" = An implied metaphor about nets. This suggests a kind of complicated and intimate touching (rather than just being "part of," which expresses to me a more simple and basic relation, one in which part is subordinate to whole.)

"originary" = a shorter way of saying "from which it comes" that has the advantage of being an adjective. The adjective keeps attention on the keyword geotemporality at the end of the sentence. Heck, adding a clause in which art becomes an agent that "comes" from something might even lose part of the sentence's point, which I understand to be that art resists being personified or turned into an agent that "comes from" somewhere. Also the soft g here jives well with geotemporality.

(And others have noted that geotemporality is a keyword clarified by the writer in other works, a word that emphasizes we should consider time and space together)

"art is intractably enmeshed within its originary geotemporality"

All in all, this phrasing creates a very different feel for me, and hints at a very different world view and approach, than the phrasing "art is, by its very nature, part and parcel of the time and place from which it comes." That later sentence is just fine in itself, but I think it's a very different idea.

Vellum said...

Distinguishing between the conveyance of meaning and the creation of meaning is an interesting distinction when considering words. Thus a question for you: if the meaning is never conveyed, is it ever created?

Obviously I'm talking about conveying meaning to more than one person, but even so, I'm not debating the beauty of poetry; I'm debating the necessity of it when discussing academic topics.

If translating "art is intractably enmeshed within its originary geotemporality" into "art must be considered within the time and place from which it originates" loses something other than a) poetic phrasing and b) confusion for the reader, then I stand corrected. But I don't for a second believe that it does.

It is a different approach, I admit, but to advance human knowledge, is it necessary?

Anonymous said...

And why shouldn't academic prose sometimes reach towards such complexity?

Because then it itself has to be interpreted, on more levels than necessary. (And the tools for interpreting the necessary levels are rarely if ever provided: a thing we never see is, for example, "The author is a white twenty-first century male US citizen who has never really been in poverty or earnt his keep through daily labour. His views on peasant agriculture in seventeenth-century Thailand should be considered with this in mind"...) Unless you truly think your point is so intangible that it can only be signalled towards or induced in the mind of the reader like a current in a battery, why not communicate it at the lowest necessary level of sophistication? What's more important: the knowledge making it to someone else, or your looking clever?

(Of course the nature of our discipline is that we communicate to and compete with our peers, not the public. So actually the latter is more important. But it's not defensible to say so. Today tenthmedieval is in his curmudgeonly frame of mind. We apologise for any upsets to digestion. And if you actually do work on seventeenth-century Thailand I don't mean you, it was just a fictitious example.)