Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Can you stand a bit more on the language front?

I found Aline’s post yesterday really fascinating and thought-provoking. As communications between countries headed into hyperdrive with the dawn of the internet age, it only makes sense that language would change. Since one of the driving forces of American culture is to sell American products and the country’s lifestyle to the rest of the world, it doubly makes sense that American English is swamping its foreign cousins.

We see it in Canada with American spelling of words now being the common style in nearly all our print publications, whereas when I moved to this country from the States in 1971, I had to play a lot of catch up so that university profs wouldn’t red mark everything I gave them. Now, I’d probably have no trouble using the spelling I grew up with. Besides, being a language junkie, I enjoyed learning all the new Canadian words for commonplace things. I still have trouble with some of them, though, catching myself using “paper napkin” instead of “serviette” or “sneakers” instead of “running shoes”. Now I notice Canadian kids using “sneakers” all the time. Why? Because they watch more American-made entertainment than Canadian.

Can anything be done about it? Sadly, no. The richness of the English language diminishes every year as vocabulary in general usage drops. Sure, words are going to drop out of use (if not style) and new ones will take their place, but it is a fact that the bulk of new words coined are related to technology and science. We’re losing a lot of words that have nothing to do with these things.

However, the real question is: as writers, can we make this new reality work for us? Do we have to keep dumbing down our writing in order for readers to understand us without a dictionary at their elbow. (I remember doing this when reading Forster in university, and at times it got very irritating, even if it was interesting.)

Barbara and I have both written Rapid Reads novellas, short works of fiction for those with poor English reading skills. Naturally, one of the key components was much more basic vocabulary than we would normally use. My basic rule became: if it has more than three syllables, find another word. Setting out on the project, I believed that my writing would be severely compromised. But you know what? By the time the ms was accepted by my editor, I was pretty proud of what I’d accomplished. I’ll bet Barbara was, too. The little things do read rather well. Would I want to have to write like this all the time? Absolutely not, but I wouldn’t mind doing it again. Having to strip it all down and still have my prose work well was rather exhilarating. It also fundamentally changed the way I write. I look at every single word now, and if it ain’t pulling its weight, out it comes.

Should we keep using arcane words in our writing? I think so, especially when their use enriches a story by expanding the sense of place or character. We may have to fight with our editors over saying it that way, but I’m sorry, “Your readers will have to look that word up!” or “I’ve never heard it said that way before!” are not adequate reasons to water down a bit of richness in a novel’s prose.

So I expect to see “fairy cakes” in Aline’s next novel if it’s appropriate for her characters to use that phrase. To be quite honest, I think it’s much more vivid than “cupcakes” anyway. I’ll bet fairy cakes taste better than their American cousins, too.

3 comments:

Aline Templeton said...

I can't promise 'fairy-cakes' but I can say there will be 'stushie' for a rumpus and 'glaikit' for stupid!

Aline

Rick Blechta said...

There should also be at least one Ceilidh, too!

dveeeeeee said...

Can anything be done about it? Sadly, no. The richness http://www.gw2.us/ of the English language diminishes every year as vocabulary in general usage drops. Sure, words are going to drop out of use (if not style) and new ones will take their place, but it is a fact that the bulk of new words coined are related to www.gw2.us technology and science. We’re losing a lot of words that have nothing to do with these things.