3

I am not a native English speaker and thus, am not sure whether 'erudite language' is putting it right.

Yesterday, a friend of mine stated that he thinks that lots of people, including himself, do not participate in elections, or generally follow the stream of politics-related news because they don't feel capable of understanding the things uttered by politicians and likewise due to unnecessary complex speech.

He holds the opinion that those who hold positions of power and the media should put things as simple as possible in order to make sure that everyone, including the most uneducated, can follow the current events, understand political decision making and involve themselves.

For instance, just to show how far this is going, said friend didn't know the meaning of the word 'consensus' and declared it unnecessary complex, proposing something like 'agreement' after I told him what consensus means.

At this point, I tried finding arguments for why we need a broad diversity of words in our language, and why everyone should invest time to educate themselves in that field. Only thing was, I couldn't come up with more than

  • Finding substitutes for 'complex' words might work, yet it would lead to less sophisticated arguments because a substitute is a mere workaround to convey a more profound meaning.
  • Pruning our language will lead to less knowledge, lesser ways to express ourselves and thus, to cultural decline.

Yet my friend argued that not everyone is smart enough to understand (or learn) erudite language and that in a democracy, everyone should have the opportunity to understand what political decisions are made, and why.

So, the political stuff aside, what are better reasons for a broad, complex language? Why don't we circumcise our language until everyone is able to understand everything? Or, to put it in another way, how can I make my friend understand that if he doesn't know a word, it is worth the time to go and fetch a dictionary?

  • 5
    This is really a matter of opinion. And society as a whole will not be affected by individual people's opinions. People's use of language is affected by various social pressures that individuals may not even be consciously aware of. Being easily understood by a wide range of people is not necessarily the most important social goal in all contexts, and your friend's position doesn't account for this. Being specific and expressing your meaning precisely isn't necessarily the most important social goal either, and your position fails to account for this. – ewawe Aug 11 '16 at 9:37
  • You would persuade your friend the same way he would persuade you to use words whose meaning is well-known and understood. – user6726 Aug 11 '16 at 16:07
  • I do not think that it is purely a matter of opinion, but also of research. – geh Aug 12 '16 at 20:58
  • This has received at least three unexplained downvotes. I would love to know what the reasons for that were. – Wottensprels Aug 14 '16 at 7:40
  • 1
    The other day a friend was having difficulty pouring wine into a small cup from an oversized decanter. We discussed whether the decanter was inherently a bad idea and I said, "I think it'd be hard regardless of the receptacle." At this someone retorted, "Another word might be 'cup'!" I laughed, but I didn't mean "cup". I meant anything that might receive wine. Does the difference matter? Not in that casual context, but you can imagine it might sometimes be a useful distinction. Anyway, just two cents. Whether we "need" erudite language or not has no bearing on its use in any case. – Luke Sawczak Jul 17 '18 at 17:14
3

Both you and your friend are framing in terms of "simplicity" vs. "complexity" what's really a slightly different issue, etymological transparency vs. etymological opacity. Or, in the most basic terms, native vs. borrowed. Most people speak a language that has a layer of "erudite" vocabulary borrowed from the language of a more influential, and usually "older", culture: depending on where you are in the world, it's usually one of Latin, Chinese, or Arabic. This means there are certain lexemes, and sometimes a certain amount of grammar, that you have to learn from scratch on top of your native language if you are to understand this "erudite" layer.

For example, most speakers of English can break down the word "independence" as far as "depend", which is still a borrowed "erudite" word; speakers of Romance languages have it easier, since the Latin root -pend- is still transparent to them as meaning "hang", in the most everyday sense, and so indépendance or indipendenza still discernibly contain the metaphor of no longer "hanging off" of something (over a presumed cliff).

So the solution — if you choose to think of this as a problem — is not in "pruning" the language, but in nativising its vocabulary. It's already been done in a lot of languages; the German Unabhängigkeit, or the Russian nezavisimost', are exact translations, or "calques", of the Latin independentia: "non-off-hang-ing-ness". That said, both Russian and German still contain a lot of Latin vocabulary, although much less that English. Very few languages have gone the way of near-complete nativisation, Icelandic being one famous example. It's hard to tell whether it did or did not lead to any greater political awareness, but it clearly involved no "pruning" of the language — if anything, it was the opposite, a massive infusion of new words.

Another point must also be raised: political vocabulary is essentially jargon, no different in principle from the jargon of seafaring or video gaming. By which I mean, it developed as a form of communication between people with specific shared experiences, trading transparency of meaning for speed, efficiency, and not the least, the ability to identify with the group. The reason we have Latinate political terms such as "consensus" was that, a long time ago, it was part of a jargon shared by people who (1) knew Latin and (2) had political phenomena as part of their everyday experience; then it was handed down generations to people who didn't necessarily know Latin anymore, but for whom a certain amount of Latin vocabulary came with the job requirements (as well as general social status). It's understandable that they weren't in any way motivated to abandon this vocabulary in favour of something more transparent to the less educated populace — unless they were of a specific type of political creed, nationalist or "national revivalist". Movements of that sort in several different countries have in fact affected many languages, and in a generally positive way at that.

But they were dedicated movements. By default, it's still up to the individual speaker whether they feel it necessary to expand their vocabulary with Latinate (or, say, Arabesque) political jargon. Not everyone has equal opportunities here, as regards time investment and the availability of knowledge (though that's less of an issue now that we have the internet). So your friend has a point. "Complex" speech isn't necessarily always inherenty valuable; often it exists just because a relatively small circle of people has found it convenient. However, you can't just decree a sweeping language reform, or manufacture the political will and popular support for it out of thin air. It's still mere reality of life that if you want to understand politicians, you might have to take time to learn new words. I'm not sure, however, that this is one of the "better" reasons, or that such better reasons even exist, beyond the most basic "knowing more is better than knowing less".

  • 2
    I don't think any native speaker of English would consider "depend" to at all be erudite language! But there would be many archaic Old English words that are. – curiousdannii Aug 13 '16 at 13:11
  • This has received unexplained downvotes as well. Personally, I found your answer good and think it shed some light on this sort of speech is perceived by different groups of people. Still, it reads like mere opinion and therefore I hope some other thoughts find their way into this. – Wottensprels Aug 14 '16 at 7:43
3

Excellent question. I'm sure you don't dispute the need for a larger vocabulary at the expense of a smaller one. If you go into a hardware store, you better be able to express the difference between a nail and a screw with some kind of words, maybe not with those two but with longer sentences that will involve vocabulary that will end up distinguishing them. A technical vocabulary that covers more ground than the common set of words is necessary in many areas in order to communicate both more efficiently, by collapsing a lot of nuances into single words, and more accurately, by limiting vagueness in the technical terms.

What I think you are finding trouble with is that there seem to be a lot of, as you say, erudite words, words which seem to obscure rather than clarify. Academics and those that aspire tend to use more obscure words, not just as direct technical communication but as a sign of social status; using big fancy words can be used as a sign of superiority. They're acting like gate-keepers; people who don't know the silly arbitrary language can't get in. These words don't mean anything more, it feels like its just a separate language to hide behind.

That may well be true, or it may just come out of other things. English is well know for it, but other languages have a similar layered vocabulary. They have a base vocabulary from the far past, but then either invaders or a strong neighbor or religion encouraged acceptance of a lot of new vocabulary (French terms in English, Arabic terms in Turkish and Persian). And literacy and education can add many words.

So often there are informal words and more formal variants for the same things. Agreement/consensus, go/proceed, pee/urinate/micturate, and on and on. Why use the more obscure words when the easy ones already work just fine (and this would save a lot of time in learning too)?

Someone famous, was it Feynman? Einstein? Twain? said that if you can't explain a concept to an eight-year old then you don't understand it well enough. To which someone like Voevodsky probably replied, if you can explain it to an eight-year old then you don't have anything interest. Randall Munroe in his 'Thing Explainer' takes a large number of scientific concepts and literally translates them to the 1000 most frequent terms in English (which presumably doesn't include the Latinate scientific terms at all), all in order to show that you can communicate without the obscure obfuscating terminology. There are examples of Gödel's incompleteness proofs explained in words of one syllable. Read it and you can judge for yourself. These attempts are very entertaining for those who already understand the concepts and can map the informal terms to the formal terms they already know. Whether it is informative to those not in that situation has never been addressed.

Also, there are invented languages, like Toki Pona which attempt to give small axiomatic elements that combined produce all concepts. So you only have to learn a minimum of pieces, from which anything you want can be expressed.

To attempt to answer your question directly though, new words are useful. Why don't we circumcise our language until everyone is able to understand everything? One could say that limiting oneself to basic vocabulary is literally dumbing down the language, limiting the language encourages limiting thought. Concepts are complex and giving single labels to those complex things makes the concepts easier to remember.

Also, if you don't learn the new word, then you won't be able to communicate or understand. For any given word, you're not really going to know whether it is common or rare or if the user is showing off or if it really does help in understanding.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.