Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The stripping down of language

One thing about the English language that constantly fascinates me is the variety of words that in their own nuanced way mean much the same thing. I’m sure most languages are that way – not really speaking anything other than English has a lot of drawbacks – so I have to confine these observations to that with which I am familiar. Regardless, being able to express myself in my native language is an honour as well as a constant delight.

Okay, enough of the rah-rah BS, let’s get down to the point of this post. Since I’m currently writing a novella for Orca Book Publishers Rapid Read Series (see my post from last week), I have been forced to completely strip down my way of expressing myself in prose to pretty well bare essentials. In no place is this more evident than in my choice of words. Anything with more than two syllables has to be looked at for possible replacement. Any word with five syllables is pretty well verboten.

Having to write this way has gotten me thinking about how the English language is deteriorating. I consider that I have a fairly large vocabulary, and I enjoy using it. But whenever I get a bit cocky about this, I just remember back to when I waded through Howard’s End by E.M. Forster. To get through that novel, I actually read two books: the novel itself and my trusty American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, without which I would have been screwed, the vocabulary is that obscure. At points, it seemed as if I had to crack the dictionary at least once per page.

In his time, Forster (and many others who wrote “serious literature” 100 years ago) was considered a giant of English prose. Now, he’s relegated to a backwater because his books are just so dense with words, writ large with lengthy descriptions and imagery. Getting to the crux of the matter, using florid vocabulary has simply fallen out of fashion.

Every year the Oxford Dictionary drops “archaic words and phrases”. New words and phrases are added, certainly, and many laud this effort because it proves to them that the language is growing and changing, ie “it’s alive and well”. But is it? I can’t put my finger on the actual figures, but the number of words in the average English speaker’s vocabulary is dropping every year. If memory serves, most of us know 50,000 words and use maybe 20,000.

To my mind, this is not a good thing. The language is poorer for it. However, on the other hand, try writing a book of any kind with the sort of dense prose style of Forster these days, and you’ll get shot down by nearly every publisher – unless your name is Lord Black of Cross Garters. (Ever try wading through one of his books?)

The causes for the diminution of the available English vocabulary are many and varied. I’m sure we could all come up with at least five, most lists led by a single word: texting, closely followed by “fewer people are reading”.

As writers, can we do anything about it? I like to sneak in the odd “large word” – except in Orca novellas – but they’re almost always flagged by my editors. (“Too obscure. Find another way to express this.”) I don’t ever want someone to require a dictionary to get through one of my novels, but there’s certainly nothing wrong having to resort to one a couple of times in reading 300 pages, is there?

As “usable language” shrinks, so does literature in many ways. Many North American publishers want dialogue, dialogue, dialogue. Description should be kept to a bare minimum (certainly in crime novels), and when using imagery, the author is on a very short leash.

Is this a good thing? Am I just being cranky because I can’t use my 25-cent words all that often anymore? What are your thoughts on the subject?


Toe Hallock said...

Dear Rick: This is a little like Rocky Balboa, suddenly, for the first time, stepping into the ring against Apollo Creed. Seems like it wouldn't be a disservice to slip in a challenging word every now and then. You know, just to soften them up a bit. Let them realize they, too, can succeed beyond expectations and soar like an eagle. Sorry. Did I overdo the metaphor bit? Personally, I believe simplification of the English language is a harbinger of future literature. Suits me just fine. In this future day and age, who has the time to spend reading 800 pages of a best seller? Only to realize that half the content was material repeated multiple times throughout? Hope I didn't offend anyone. Yours truly, Toe.

Rick Blechta said...

What you're talking about is bad editing, Toe. Long novels seem to be the baliwick of established authors who seem to be able to get away with much more. I don't know if editors are told not to annoy them, or they simply threaten to leave the publisher, or what it is, but my feeling is editors let this type of author get away with bad writing.

My post was about the deterioration in available/understood vocabulary. There are some really lovely words out there that are considered too "old-fashioned" or archaic or whatever.

I've read very few 800-page novels that really needed/deserved to be that long.