For the writer, words are instruments of pleasure and pain. The right word can break hearts while the wrong words can cause howls of derision. It behooves us to get them right. There is no such thing as the almost-right word any more than there is the almost-right bomb disposal sequence.
Fuzzy language cannot convey hard truth.
For all the wonderful gifts technology has given us in recent years, it has presented unique challenges for the writer.
When I was in university a fellow student complained that he was constantly getting poor grades. He couldn’t understand it. He was doing the work, reading the texts, and meeting all the requirements of his essays. He asked me to take a look and here’s what I found:
“B4 Spenser the English language had no rules. But after it changed 4ever and now it’s dope. BTW, Shakespeare put in his 2-cents 2 tho IMO it was Spenser who made the biggest diff. PPL should pay dues, like…”
OK, I’m exaggerating, but not by much. The guy was so used to text speak he either forgot or didn’t know how to write a coherent sentence in an academic forum. You could reasonably argue that even without ‘text speak’ his style was far too informal to achieve success in academia.
Perhaps this is how language will evolve. In 50 years maybe ‘before’ will be spelled B4. Maybe by then no one will know how to use a pen to express their thoughts. Perhaps things like novels will have been replaced by movies and television. Short stories may still exist; they can shorten a commute and don’t require much time. Of course, watching a video or playing a game achieves the same thing…
The New Latin
There was a time when virtually every document in Europe was written in Latin. Right up to the 14th century you had people like William of Ockham, Roger Bacon and Thomas Aquinas all writing in that language. The Magna Carta is written in Latin and so were all legal documents.
It was the language of the scholar. No matter where you lived, England, France or Italy, if you were educated you could read, and if you could read you read in Latin. Even if you didn’t have a university education you probably understood Latin anyway, because the Catholic Mass (the only game in town at the time) and all the prayers were in that language. Even Jews and Muslims learned Latin because it was difficult to conduct business without it. The good thing about having a nearly-universal language was that you could travel from England to Paris or Berlin and be able to converse with the natives. Something you certainly couldn’t do, at least, not as easily, if you were limited to English.
It wasn’t until William Caxton printed Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in 1477 that a book was published in the English language. Caxton went on to print 108 titles in English, many of which he translated himself. Great for those of us who love the English language. Not so much for people who wanted to be able to communicate on an international level. From the fifteenth century until the twenty-first, language served to insulate countries from one another.
In some ways we have returned to the Latin period. Through the internet we have instant, if sometimes odd or poetic, translations into English from Japanese or Greek or Russian. And even if you were unable to read a tweet in Russian you’ll still find things like ‘LOL’ in the middle of the Cyrillic. We’re reversing the fallout from the tower of Babel. In case you’ve forgotten:
And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”
But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.
And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them.
Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city.
Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.Genesis 11:4–9
Nowadays having the whole world understanding one another is deemed a good thing. You’re far less likely to pick up arms against a race if you speak the same language–both literally and figuratively. But we’re not quite there yet and even when two countries do both speak ‘English’, confusion sometimes happens.
The Wilde Problem
Oscar Wilde was a clever chap. His comment about Britain and America being separated by the same language is as true today as it was a century ago. This poses particular problems for writers who hope to reach an audience in both countries. Even though they sound similar, there are some major differences not only in the specific words used by Americans, (sidewalk and pocketbook instead of pavement and handbag, for instance), but in terms of usage.
In America ‘nother’ is a word. As in, “Winning that game was a whole nother thing…” It still makes me cringe. Though in fact, they’re not entirely wrong. The words “a” and “nother” used to be separate. In English we merged them to form “another”, but Americans, bless their little pointy heads, decided to keep them separate. Sometimes. Only when they can sandwich an expletive or the word ‘whole’ in the middle just for emphasis.
They also say things like “I could care less.” Which implies you do care at least a little. On this side of the Atlantic we say, “I couldn’t care less”, meaning your degree of caring is at rock bottom. Alas, even the mighty Toby Ziegler, speechwriter supreme (The West Wing) created by that only slightly-minor deity Aaron Sorkin, says “nother” and “I could care less.” For shame.
Which means what, exactly, from the 21st century writer?
Well, I’m sure you’ll remember one of the first rules of writing anything, whether it’s a birthday card, a speech, or a novel is:
KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
But what happens when the audience is a mishmash of cultures?
Well, my best advice to to know where the biggest linguistic landmines lie. For instance, a ‘rubber’ in England has a very different meaning in the US…
Recognise that there will be tricky things that you just cannot anticipate. For instance, I recently learned that the word ‘ignorant’ has shifted in transit. Ironically, it seems to have become a word about which many people are, well, ignorant. It does NOT mean stupid. You can be extremely intelligent and well educated but still ignorant about certain things. I am a novelist, have degrees in two subjects, and can discuss a wide number of topics intelligently. However, I am completely ignorant about cricket. It doesn’t keep me awake at night. Most of the people I know (not all, by any means) are ignorant about cricket. I’m fairly ignorant about particle physics, The Hunger Games, and thirteenth century Mongol history. That doesn’t make me stupid or a bad person. Just ignorant. You know what else I’m ignorant about? Why people assume ‘ignorance’ is an insult.
Another confusion I happened upon in a discussion on a movie forum (the international one), concerned the words smart and clever. One person took offense at the fact that a character in The Imitation Game uses the word smart instead of clever. Is it, he asked, because they’re pandering to an American audience?
I have to confess I had no idea why this was an issue. (Another thing to add to my ignorance list) and so I read on. Well, it appears Americans use ‘smart’ instead of ‘clever’. You only use ‘clever’ if you’re English. If you say ‘clever’ you’re suggesting you’re smarter than others. Apparently. I have to admit, I’m still confused. Further research is needed, obviously.
My point, though, is that there are nuances in language that don’t always translate from one country to another. What’s a writer to do?
Well, I think you need to be true to yourself. Write the words that come naturally to you. Write the words that come naturally to your characters. And avoid the textspeak unless you’re using a mobile (uh, cell) phone…
I’ll leave you with this profound thought from those philosophers of the 1970s, the BeeGees: