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Friday, 24 January 2014

Latinate language is the bane of the social sciences

Back in the 16th century when Hans Holbein the Younger made this drawing for a chimney piece people looked back to classical antiquity for their aesthetic models. The Italianate was therefore fashionable especially in northern Europe for many hundreds of years afterward as people demonstrated an aspiration to equal the excellence that the Renaissance (and, by extension, Roman antiquity) represented, and it wasn't until the Romantic revival of the early 19th century that the Gothic mode became established. In England, the Pre-Raphaelites took this predilection a logical step further and looked back to the Middle Ages to find models suitable to their artistic program, and if the 19th century was about anything it was about improvement. There's a puzzle at the heart of these movements: in each case people looked back in order to move forward.

In modern times in the social sciences there's an analogous tendency, especially in language, to ape the physical sciences which, founded as they were during that period in the late Renaissance and in subsequent centuries, rely for their cognates on Latin and Latinate constructs - there's a fair bit of Greek influence as well but for my purposes the main point of reference is the Latin one. As a result in many texts dedicated through careful analysis to establishing the truth about social phenomena you find a kind of language that I like to call "Augustan" after the poetry of much of the 18th century that took as its model the writing of the time of the Roman emperor of that name. Augustan poetry in English is clean, elegant, effortless, and polished and it was against this type of writing that the early Romantic poets revolted once they started publishing their own books, starting in 1797.

Getting back to the social sciences, I'm going to take a clip from a book I opened a couple of days ago but then closed out of frustration with the sanitised, antiseptic, scientific language I found in it. The book is titled Audience Evolution and it's by Philip M Napoli, a professor in the Graduate School of Business at Fordham University in New York.
This transition to a more interactive media environment, like the transition to an increasingly fragmented media environment, also has undermined traditional analytical approaches to media audiences. At the most basic level, an audience marketplace predicated primarily on the quantity of audience exposures to advertisements is being undermined by various technologies that empower audiences to block or skip advertisements, whether in terms of online pop-up blockers or the fast-forwarding features associated with digital video recorders.
And elsewhere:
However, as much as the autonomy facilitated by the new media environment undermines the utility of the more passive, exposure-focused conceptualization of audiences, it is also highlighting other, traditionally marginalized, aspects of media audiences. The new media environment is one in which there are substantial opportunities for audiences to interact with media, whether it be at the most basic level of searching for content, or at more advanced levels such as providing feedback, influencing outcomes, responding directly to advertising messages, or generating parallel content.
In the first example you can see that there are actually a relatively large number of Germanic-originated words (italics used for words with Germanic origin; "parallel" comes from the Greek) because Napoli starts talking at the end about THINGS and he doesn't have much choice in the matter. But where there's a choice and the need for an abstract noun Napoli always goes for the Latinate word. I had the same problem during my master's degree in a unit of study titled Strategic PR where the set text was Public Relations Theory II, edited by C. Botan and V. Hazleton. In the final essay I received a mark of 10 out of 40 because the textbook was so unsuitable to me that I struggled to read a single page of the Latinate dross it offered.

So a quick word to those who write books like these on topics in the social sciences: be KIND to your reader and vary the modality you use when choosing language. Don't just opt for the easy way and plump for a Latinate option: chuck in a few words that are derived from the relatively broad array of etymological sources we are lucky to have associated with English. Use the diversity of language to make your book or paper easy and pleasurable to read. Don't be Augustan, be Romantic!

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