Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Disappearing Language

I'd like to preface today's post with a little video:

Seriously. Watch the video first.

Okay, here's assuming you watched it. Wasn't that fun? What did you think about those statistics regarding modern vocabulary versus common vocabulary even a hundred years ago? Children long ago had expansive vocabularies compared to adults today. It's a bit staggering to think about. I'm not saying I'd love to return to the lyrical stylings of Shakespeare but I do pause to ponder when I realize that we lose words from our active English vocabulary more and more each year, and with each passing generation. (And yes, we get new creative words each year to fill in the gap. I use the word creative loosely.)

What has this to do with books? Ever notice how whenever some literary bigshot puts out a list of must-read books most of the titles are for older classics? Kids and adults alike roll their eyes and yawn with boredom at the thought of trying to sludge through classic literature. Part of that reason is the language barrier. We're used to simpler language these days. With constraints and limits to our time, today's market calls for easy to read books that still deliver the rush readers' crave. To have to think or work to get through a book is frowned upon. No one wants to look up a few words in the dictionary, and dare we think of using any of these new—yet old-fashioned—words in our actual speech?

I suppose what frustrates me is when a writer naturally has a wider vocabulary (because writers presumably read a lot and have larger vocabularies than the average person on the street) and they submit their work to others to read and they get a lot of flack for making those readers have to think while reading. Reading today is primarily a pleasurable pursuit and yes, a lot of hype and big advances go to books that sell well because they are accessible to the masses. I'm not knocking on that. Publishing is a business after all. What strikes me as sad, is that in order to sustain the business side, some writers have to dumb down the vocabulary in their books. No one admits that's being asked of us (by the public mostly), but if we want stories to sell, the average person on the street shouldn't be expected to encounter any words that will make them feel uncomfortable because they do not recognize or understand them.

Okay, so some of you are probably thinking, "Yes! I have justification to go full-force in my manuscript and anyone who tells me differently is a vocabulary luddite." Um, no. Like anything, there needs to be balance.

For example, science-fiction is one of those genres where it is tempting and easy for any person of great learning to dive in and expound upon their knowledge within the thin shell of a fictitious story. I've seen it. Some of these types of stories do sell and have an audience—a limited audience, usually made up of other professionals in the same field (or aspiring amateurs) who grasp the terminology used in the story. In actuality, there isn't much story in these novels and many info dumps.

Beware the tendency to unleash your entire vocabulary or professional terminology on your intended audience. Realize that these kinds of books are not usually best-seller material although they can have a faithful following in certain demographics. It doesn't have to be science-fiction. It can be in any field or genre. Words for the sake of words does not a good story make.

Now before anyone gets up in arms, I'm happy to say that there are many books that still get through to the public and do well, that have a sprinkling of abnormal words. Most readers encounter an unfamiliar word, take their best guess at its meaning or skip it. Anyone who tosses a book aside over a handful of unfamiliar words probably isn't the right reader for that book or who has given in to the dumbing-down effect. Don't think I'm calling for tar and feathers here, it's their choice.

Personally, I get a bit tickled when I encounter a abnormal word when I read (especially in middle-grade or YA books.) I also love it when I read an unpublished manuscript that uses direct terminology to describe something in an accessible way. For one thing, it helps to cut down repetitive words and promotes the use of stronger nouns or verbs that don't need extra adjectives and adverbs as descriptors. And yes, I'm not above digging out my hefty dictionary from time to time to really understand a new word's meaning. Afterwards I tend to run into those words in other places and then find myself using them in both writing and speech.

I've seen the same effect with my own children. I read age-designated fiction to them but I also have been reading out of older classics to them. They do pick up on the language and have grasped the meaning of words that go over the heads of their peers. (Plus there's nothing quite as charming and cute as hearing a four-year-old use big words in a sentence.)

There are two sides to the literary snob label. There's the valid argument: why say something with an unfamilair big word when a simpler word will do the trick? True, yet we also run out of simpler words faster and run into repetition issues or sometimes the unfamiliar word drives home the writer's point better than its simpler substitute. I get alarmed at the growing trend in writers to embrace the easy way, to dumb down their prose in order to be more marketable. Society grows stupid with it. We do have an influence. If kids back hundreds of years ago could grasp a wider language because their books taught them too, what are we teaching future generations with our simplier language?

It's important to make books understandable to readers but it doesn't hurt a reader to have to think a little or even stretch their vocabulary. Balance is key. Writers struggle sometimes over word repetition and phrasing that isn't passive. We speak in a passive way and with a restrained vocabulary. Suppose we unshackle that restraint and instead of sticking to basic slang, profanity, and clich├ęd phrasing we start putting more of our rich, powerful language to use? Sure, kids today speak the way they do. We're also influenced by the world around us. Stay in any environment for long enough and you begin to act, think, and speak like others in that environment. Step into another environment and perception alters because it is not the same world. Written language is no different. If all we produce is dumbed down books, we also help contribute to a dumbed down society with a short attention span.

Give a group of people from one environment the power of influence through literature and other media and watch the masses be influenced by that environment until it spreads and spreads. People forget that there were other environments. Some scoff at others from different environments. Other environments attack the growing mainstream. Hurt and anger rebound. Respect is lost and smaller environments are trampled into dust. Right now we're seeing a mainstream of accessible, easy-to-read fiction full of limited vocabulary and sensationalism. It's always had its place among environments. Yet, it is only one environment and shouldn't be allowed to stomp out the others. It's arrogance to assume any one person's environment should be the mainstream or unchangeable.

There are so many sides to this issue, I can't begin to cover them. I think the video shows the point well. At the end of my ramble here I'd at least like to plead two cases: first, don't ever crush a writer just because you can't understand a handful of words here and there in their manuscript. Grow smarter instead. And secondly, don't go overboard, as a writer, with complicated jargon that makes your story thin and puts the reader at a distance. We shouldn't get all purple prosey or try to show off. Sometimes simple words and terms can have a profound influence. Sometimes moving away from our Teutonic words to Latinate ones works better. We can't go back to Shakespeare's time in an instant, if ever. We live in the here and now. We also recreate the here and now each day. Everyone who writes and shares their words has more influence than they know.

1 comment:

  1. I grew up reading classics so I have a natural love for the "shakespearean" language. :D But, as you have pointed out, we live in the here and now and must therefore write accordingly. Still, like you, I get tickled when I come across uncommon words in books. I love learning new words and looking them up in the dictionary.

    Laini Taylor is one author who's not afraid to use "big" words in her writing. No need to dumb it down for the reader--her books are good examples of balance in language.