As this blog exists in part to unpack and simplify how being able to communicate well impacts our ability to understand each other and find belonging in an increasingly lonely and complex world, I’m occasionally going to use it as a space to delve more deeply into my initial thoughts and reactions to some brief, accessible and/or non-academic articles about language and linguistics from time to time. One place where I reliably find excellent, wholesome-yet-bite-sized writing to this effect is Chi Luu’s Lingua Obscura Column on JSTOR Daily. A self-described “peripatetic linguist who speaks Australian English and studies dead languages,” her column explains complex linguistic ideas and trends for anyone with a general interest in the quirks of contemporary communication.
My interests insofar as linguistics and its applications focus more on modern “living” languages, so Luu’s latest in the series, The Tangled Language of Jargon, really hit home for me, as someone privileged enough to have obtained an advanced education, with a natural ease for language acquisition, to the extent that of my ability to communicate effectively in writing with friends/on social media is often
obfuscated convoluted complicated hindered weakened by the language I learned to use in grad school… and honestly, in most things I’m more stoic than peripatetic, but at least we can all agree that no one has time for any of that platonic nonsense.
I am a native academic English speaker… worse, I am a “jargonist” with more higher education using a primarily etymologically Latinate lexicon (in English) than that of say, business English, which originally used the simpler Germanic forms and grammar to make communication more accessible for non-native speakers (but has now given way to so much of it’s own disgustingly ugly vocabulary, as Luu explains): “Jargon has now become the devil’s corporate middle management’s language, making information harder to share and receive. It has seeped into almost every facet of a complex modern life, giving us new buzzwords not even a mother could love, with terms like self-actualization, monetize, incentivize, imagineering, onboarding, synergize, and the like.”
Some of my friends on social media will say things like “I can’t speak Spanish but I am fluent in gif” or “I am fluent in memes,” (referring to “image macros”). I barely understand what any of that means. It’s communication between friends, they must understand each other, and it incorporates a flashy visual component in ways that are completely new for human interaction in general. I also have at least one friend from grad school who is studying something like “memeology/the dialectics of memes, from a cross-disciplinary media studies perspective,” but I don’t know if that will help any of us communicate with each other over the internet better.
On this blog, though, I am mostly concerned with my own communication skills, and this is important for me to learn because from where I am, living abroad in the third country since emigrating (on a six hour time difference at minimum) it is weird to see such abstract, completely visual (and therefore inherently unclear and subjective) modes of communication freely tossed about on social media among otherwise monolingual native speakers of American English. I am alone in that my communications with close friends and family from my hometown who do speak the same native language is as I do occurs on various social media platforms, and is almost exclusively in writing. It’s an odd space for me to navigate… it looks and feels like a sort of language attrition, but it’s not just happening to me, communication breakdowns are occurring on such a mass societal scale, brought on by social media. Sidenote: American English truly is the language of the Internet (technically, you can’t even code in British English, since once you get to defining the “colour” of your text you’ve broken the code!)… as is trolling.
I am aware that my place of privilege is also unique in that I’m one of the few functionally monolingual people I encounter in my daily life. My partner has two mother tongues, Finnish and Swedish, and has native fluency in English, and is functionally proficient in basic German (about B2, though is a “typically modest” Finn). Most of my acquaintances and burgeoning friends I encounter in person speak English fluently/natively… but second to Maltese (and in some cases; Italian, a very popular third language here). Suffice to say it’s not usually the same English I speak. (Maltese English is a separate topic that I may cover later, but either way, after two centuries of English occupation, it’s much closer to British English than my original, nasally Western New York twang.) Other friends I see in person are also living abroad from other countries and speak French or Spanish or German (etc.) as their mother tongues, with varying levels and abilities of English.
So this is a struggle since I’ve learned to write almost exclusively in more formal, academic English than is appropriate for social media, but it took me a long time to realize this, and longer still to hack the regular code-switching, if you will… even to recognize this as code-switching! It’s much more common in verbal, face-to-face conversations. And there are so so so many synonyms in English, probably more than any other language. To someone like me, to a writer like me , so accustomed to writing with that woefully inaccessible academic precision, it is rarely
apparent obvious clear just how many words there are for saying the same thing… which is a bit ironic, but not as coincidental as irony is sometimes chalked up to be.
Despite advanced or academic English being so rarely the most concise or accessible way to communicate, to the point that I am sometimes literally unable to convey my points simply, it nonetheless remains the language of my internal monologue, how my brain describes the thoughts that meander along, wondering and pondering and contemplating and thinking. I wonder, do we native English speakers really all speak the same language, when English has such a broad range of vocabulary, and there are clear uses of the more simple words of Germanic origin, and the longer, more complex lexicon of Latinate words? It is easy to find completely different definitions of jargon itself, depending on if you prefer your definitions to be brief and jarring or a paragon of specificity.
Luu points out that “together with conventional Latin and Greek scientific usage, Latinate forms by now make up a majority of English vocabulary [among native speakers]… and that number might be increasing, thanks to jargon…” but she doesn’t explicitly mention how the pushback of jingoism is almost exclusively the entire vocabulary of populist politicians and movements… especially in the English-speaking world… and not just the American part of it. Here in Malta, this is happening; Maltese nationalist politicians advocating for hardline immigration and anti-EU policies… despite the population of Maltese people globally, the Maltese diaspora, being at least as large as the entire population of the Maltese archipelago! Brexit came about almost exclusively by this same type of anti-immigration fearmongering by politicians making it their mission to bastardize and decontextulize immigration trends, using short sentences to whip up base fears among rural and poorly educated Brits. And of course, in the United States, the government’s own website on plain language looks like the source of the first fifteen seconds of every single one of Donald Trump’s hours-long soapbox rants, regardless of whether or not he is sending coded messages to Neo-Nazis in simple, plain English.