Every language is constantly evolving to reflect societal shifts, such as technological developments or changes in what is politically acceptable. Language adapts to meet the needs of the speakers. New inventions need new vocabulary. We assigned the telephone a name of reference upon the time of invention. We changed the name of its development — the mobile phone — when it became, well, mobile.
Language is influenced by age, location, education, environment and other factors that cause us to pick up on variations in speech and word choice that signify a group identity. These variations can be the distinction between a southern accent from a New Yorker accent, or they can take the form of entirely different word choices, such as what Americans call a sweatshirt and what Australians call a jumper. We borrow words from other languages, sometimes even changing their meanings or grammatical structure. It’s a constant evolution.
Language and word choice are often used to signify a level of intelligence — or at least that’s what people think they’re doing when they try to integrate a word they learned this morning into their afternoon coffee chat. Three in five people use complex vocabulary to appear smarter, and 58% have used a word to sound “smarter” even when they didn’t understand its meaning. Using words that are seen as more advanced than words used in everyday language is often seen as an indication of having a broader vocabulary.
But how many times within a discussion has someone used the wrong word and completely thrown you off? While the person may know what they’re talking about, incorrect word choices can make their opinion seem less credible. Mark Twain stated, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is a really large matter — it’s the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug.” While word choice and the way we translate our intentions into language can clarify our perspective for others, overly complicated language can inhibit our ability to communicate effectively with others.
The whole point of writing my articles is that I want you to understand my opinion. I want to persuade you; I want you to agree with me. So why would I write in such an obtusely didactic way that you would simply click off my article or not fully comprehend my point? I’ve often been told to read when I have writer’s block, and I, as many do, read like a writer.
I decided to pick up one of my friend’s books on her bookshelf and was taken aback after reading a few pages of it. I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I knew the meaning of every word, yet the way the words were interlaced together left me questioning my abilities within the English language. Did the author even want the reader to have any clue what was happening in their book? I couldn’t tell. It made me wonder: Did this author become a writer to express their thoughts and emotions? Or to intimidate others with the “depth” of their thoughts or their perceived intelligence?
The English language has developed to become more applicable to those who use it so that we can more easily understand each other when communicating. So why do we create pieces that are linguistically inaccessible to others? Is it the fault of the reader for not having a high enough comprehension level to decipher the meaning? Or is it truly the writer’s inability to break down their “complex” thoughts into comprehensible literature? In the world of literature, we often blame it on the reader, claiming they don’t have the intellect to analyze the message knit into the nonsense. However, writers play a role in these misunderstandings too. Metaphors offer a profound beauty in which readers can interpret the phrasing in a myriad of different ways.
Within a metaphor, there is a literal meaning and an alternate meaning. Even though there are often many interpretations of the same metaphor, there is still the literal interpretation that unifies readers. When that literal meaning is removed due to intentionally complicated word choice, that unification is lost. This facilitates discussion and a range of points of view, triggering conversation. Increasing the distribution of knowledge exposes alternate points of view about society, culture, race, the best diet, how not to mess up your children, the true balance of work and life and even the meaning of life. A wider range of life experiences reflected in written works provides evidence to support these alternate points of view, and with the exclusion of some, there isn’t an accurate representation of the population.
The literary community is overtaken by elitism. Not until recently was the act of reading and writing something in which most people participated. Even in the 1940s, only 40% of Americans read literature. In the 19th century, it was only the upper-class elite who had the ability to read, write and document literary history. Their opinions were documented while the rest of society was not given the same access to this exclusionary collection of recorded knowledge.
While we’ve progressed from only absorbing the words and stories of upper-class white men, certain groups of people are still not adequately represented in this literary community. The continuous exclusion of underrepresented groups that exists today allows those with more widely accepted writing who benefit from literary elitism to feel above others and provides a sense of superiority for them. And while using advanced vocabulary is this same concept on a smaller scale, it still perpetuates the idea of boasting one’s intelligence.
With a median pay of $20,300 as of 2017, being a writer often does not provide a salary that is substantial enough to live off of without supplementary income. Therefore, a writer’s salary must often be supplemented by a partner’s salary or secondary jobs — a privilege that not everyone has. Not every writer has their breakthrough and is able to abandon their other responsibilities to focus on writing, which leads to a lack of socioeconomic diversity in the literary community. They can afford to write in confusing phrasing and to push their narrative onto a susceptible audience.
Within everyday conversation, the use of confusing vocabulary is used to create a power imbalance between the speaker and those listening. The lack of ability to process communication from the speaker creates insecurity within the listener. Overall, the intelligence barriers created within language solely work to promote the inequalities of the literary community rather than to further develop the language to better adapt to society. So what can we do to battle these boundaries that are enlaced within the community? Highlight and promote the work of underrepresented groups.
Gabby Rivas is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at email@example.com