Wednesday, April 20, 2005

language and inclusion

I had an interesting discussion last night with my roommates about the use of jargon in writing. Sonya was reading a book for class that used a lot of philisophical jargon - things like "praxis oriented theory." She was navigating it fine, but complaining because there was some difficult language. From what Natalie labeled a marxist perspective, she argued that using big or unusual words in your writing only serves to exclude those with smaller vocabularies from reading your work. This creates a literate elite and keeps those less educated from accessing the ideas of ones writing. Sonya was advocating an extreme inclusivity - writing as simply as possible. I mostly argued in defense of big words, party because I like them, and partly to argue. I'm still thinking about it, though, today.

What does it accomplish to use unusual words and write more complicated sentences? I think it lets language push the limits of what it can do. Reminds us of the richness of shades of meaning we have access to, and exposes us to unusual words that are beautiful and fun to say. Like perspicuity! Also, using a large vocabulary and less common grammatical structures is a way to show your command of the language and your education, it's a way to gain respect and establish authority, especially when you are writing as someone who is educated in a certain area. It also demonstrates a level of respect for your audience as educated, intelligent people with access to a dictionary.

On the other hand, writing inpenetrable academic prose really just guarantees that aproximately 3 people will read your work and only because they're writing on something similar. If you have something to say, saying it in a difficult to understand manner will not help get the word out, and if your thing doesn't matter, why write it in the first place? And it does take a greater command of the subject (and of the language) to translate your thoughts into something that someone who is not an expert (or a college grad) can access.

Of course, as an educated person who talks to other educated people a lot, using big words is a fun game, or sometimes I'm not sure what language is normal and what's jargon. So how does one reconcile a love of language and perhaps too much education with a desire to write hospitably? Where is the balence between accesibility and complexity?


Bob K said...

One of the things I learned from Lev Vygotsky is that language is more than just the way we communicate, it is also the vessel in which our ideas are held. So giving people language is like giving them access to ideas. If we keep our language ultra-simple then the ideas that more complex language would give us access to would be kept from us. That would be more exclusive than putting more complex language in our writing.

That said, there is, sometimes, just bad writing. Some of my students adopt a tone when they write that has an air of "I'm being heavy and philosophical right now" and merely serves to obfuscate their ideas. So the answer, I think, is a balance - we need new language to help us think more clearly but it must be presented in a way that is accessable.

taliendo said...

I had this debate with myself sometime during my undergrad work, and finally came to the conclusion that it's not about using simple or complex langage, but about using the right word for the circumstance. The nice thing about words is that they are definitive by nature. And more often than not, there are better choices regarding our diction than the words we commonly use. It is up to us, as writers, to choose those words with care.

"Every word we utter was given to us by another; it is the assemblage of those words that make them our own."
-August West.

morgan said...

It also depends on what you're writing about. Do you remember my post I made a long time ago quoting the people who were writing the super-intellectual essay on Rocky? When you are writing super-super-intellectually and your topic is Rocky, that's just a little ridiculous.

jimmy said...

As a peruser of thick philosophical and theological texts, I've come to the conclusion that it's all about one's audience. If I'm writing to other theologians, I'm going to use theological language, because it's more precise and the shared meaning allows me to better get my point across. There are some things that just work better with one word, especially when it's shorthand. But if I'm writing for a non-theological audience, I'm not going to use large words - or I'll use them with definitions, so as to be all educational...