Language Elitism...or Snobbery.....

September 29, 2010

On a mailing list that I belong to, I received an article about “techno-literacy”…

here is the link to the article

I found it a very interesting article, but my post is not about the contents.

As I read the article, something else started bugging me…the fact that there seems to be, in India, such a language elitism. Most of the urban population speak English, but a cleverer and cleverer command of the language (I use the word “clever” deliberately) seems to be a kind of status symbol of intellectual ability.

This morning, my friend Meera of Citizen Matters, and I, were discussing the article, AND the way it was written. She too said she could not understand the phrase ""embedded defaults". Phrases and words such as this one really do bug me. It seems to me that the writer is not just saying what s/he wants to say, but making another statement at the same time, by using such language. This is a statement of snobbery and arrogance; the prose is saying, "You are not as intelligent as I am, see you can't immediately understand all this." The process of mentally reaching to understand difficult, esoteric English somehow convinces the reader that s/he is also intellectually well-developed...and so the snobbery is perpetuated. Meera sent me a fine example of "turgid prose"; here is the link to the piece of text Let me reproduce it here: “There is no doubt the Indian Maoist movement – which has erupted in the sense of pure socio-occupational and physical geography in the agrarian-tribal location – has rendered the externalised imposition of a given Marxological/communistological historiography to define (in discourse) and articulate (in the materiality of lived practice) its struggle uniquely determinate to the specificity of its historico-geographic location redundant. But to assert that it has done so by claiming something that is purely autonomous tribal aspiration and struggle would be equally fallacious. For, tribal identities as they exist and pose themselves in and through struggles – both in areas of Maoist influence as also in sangh parivar-infested tribal areas of especially Orissa and Madhya Pradesh – are formed by being inscribed within the determinate, if not discursive, mode of capital. Those identities and their movements are thus either articulated by the specific configuration of dualised and hierarchised capitalist power, or are responses to the respective historico-geographic specifications of such a general configuration of power.” "materiality of lived practice"? "specificity of historico-geographic location"? "inscribed within the determinate if not discursive mode of capital"? I think I have a very good command of the English language. But when people start making up words such as "materiality", it seems to me that they want to flaunt their intellect, rather than convey what they want to say. One prime example of this, I find, is reviews of abstract art. In an attempt to put in words what cannot, probably, be expressed, the art critic often resorts to this kind of language to impress the reader and give the impression of both ability to review, and of high culture and intelligence. "A patina of reality shines in, and through, the innate layers of the artist's visual perception" is a phrase I just made up, and I assure you, I could use it in an art review without me batting an intellectual eyelid, and the editor would just love the erudite sound of it all, and publish it. The fact it means NOTHING would be brushed under the carpet! What bugs me even more, is the automatic "superiority" accorded to those who express themselves in English. We have dozens of languages in our country, and piously say we want to preserve them. But there is no getting away from the fact that fluency in English is considered a social and intellectual skill. I'm sure we have more intellectuals who express themselves well in other languages...but English seems to rule the roost. Yes, yes, I know, I am writing this in English, and certainly cannot write this as well in Tamizh, Bengali, Kannada, or Hindi....but the point I am trying to make is, I want to write in everyday, common-or-garden English, not some high-falutin' collection of lofty-sounding phrases that have to be worked out to be understood.

I don’t know if I’ve expressed myself clearly… what I am trying to convey… is that language should be a vehicle to express the thoughts of a writer, and not become a way of expressing intellectual arrogance. I want “good” English, I don’t want “clever” English.