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.