April 10, 2016
I’ve been thinking about this concept I’ll call ‘language socialism’. I’m kind of deriving it from this movement in Chinese literature called baihuawen yundong (白话文运动), which was basically to move from writing in difficult-to-decipher classical prose to writing in everyday spoken Chinese.
I’ve considered it mostly in relation to the way I speak English to non-native speakers versus the way I speak it with native speakers. With non-native speakers, I try to simplify my language. I don’t shy away from complicated ideas, but I tend to minimize my slang use and complex sentence structures. It actually has a funny effect – some non-native speakers think I sound more intelligent because I end up not using “like” as often as some other Americans they meet. On the contrary, native speakers must think I sound like an idiot because I overuse “like” in their presence to compensate.
I think of ‘language socialism’ like this: we want to use language in an inclusive manner, so we try to boil things down to the most important points and avoid fancy wording. This way, we’ll reach a wider audience and keep everyone’s understanding on an even footing.
Of course, I don’t think we should only chase efficiency, because that would take all the beauty out of language, but language also has different purposes, some practical, some for art, and some a combination of the two. I remember reading Lao She as a child and not thinking very highly of his prose (because he was an advocate for vernacular Chinese), but it really says something about his accessibility because I actually read a lot of his stuff. If he’d gone for a convoluted and fancy style (though I know that classical prose in Chinese is the exact opposite of convoluted), I might have never read it at all.
There’s something else I realized too - when you look at medical or scientific terms in English, they’re often a layer removed from English itself. For example, it’s not immediately apparent to me what Myasthenia gravis means. I guess if I had studied Latin before, I could do some guessing, but in my current state, sans Wikipedia, I have no clue. In Chinese this same term is 重症肌无力, which is something any person with a basic knowledge of Chinese can figure out, no medical knowledge required. It’s hard to say what kind of effect this discrepancy has though, because I doubt Chinese patients are actually more informed.