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How Language is Used to Separate Us

Try and remember an experience you’ve probably had, where you’re reading something, written in the language you’ve spoken for your entire life, and you can’t understand what it even says. It could be the terms and agreements of an app, the legalese of a court document, a research study about something you’re interested in, or even a job description.

Chances are you’ve come across something like this and thought “how the hell am I supposed to understand this?”

Well, a lot of times, you aren’t, and that’s on purpose.


Institutions throughout the world and across time have used complicated and exclusionary writing to keep the common person out and in the dark. In this article, I’ll talk about how the use of needlessly complex language has been, and continues to be, used to exclude most people from knowledge.

Red Fabric Waves
Red Fabric Waves

"Knowledge is power and it can command obedience. A man of knowledge during his lifetime can make people obey and follow him and he is praised and venerated after his death. Remember that knowledge is a ruler and wealth is its subject."

-Saying 146 from Nahj Al-Balagha.

Nahj al-balagha is an eleventh-century collection of more than two-hundred sermons, nearly eighty letters, and almost five-hundred sayings, all attributed to Ali ibn Abi Talib, who was the fourth Rashidun caliph (r. 656–661) and the first Shia imam.

My first article wasn’t going to be about language, but instead on Bohemianism and its impact.

While getting some feedback on it, I got some revisions that were hard for me to follow. The revisions were perfectly valid and reflected the writing expected from a professional or a student. When communicating with certain people or institutions, there is an expectation of you to speak with a level of detail (which somehow becomes obscurity) that isn’t the case in other areas of life.

I thought about my future (I’m going through a career change) and how it would involve fluffing up my emails and using unnecessary buzzwords in my presentations.

If someone asked me to describe my job, I’d be expected to say:

"I am entrusted with the conceptualization and strategic oversight of marketing initiatives for a highly esteemed automotive dealership, ensuring the formulation and execution of comprehensive promotional strategies aimed at enhancing brand visibility, fostering customer engagement, and optimizing sales performance."

When the accessible way to say it would be:

“I come up with, and direct marketing strategies for a car dealership.”

I will note here, and in other parts of this writing, that

 

varying levels of complexity are required to express a point with accuracy.

I am not advocating for only simple language to be used.

So why do some of us feel that it’s expected of us to write sentences that are often more complex and confusing than they need to be?

Because sometimes it is, and here’s why I think that’s the case.

The Legal Example

At the top of the article I mentioned the length and complexity of your standard “Terms and Agreements” contract (and just to remind you, yes, it is a legally binding contract). It’s a common joke that nobody ever reads these, and who can blame them? They’re often pages long and written in legal-speak that the average person isn’t trained to understand. It may as well be in another language!

Why is this? Well, to be completely fair, the law allows people to sue each other over almost anything. In theory this is an awesome legal right for the people, but in practice it has become a means for the wealthy and elite to legally protect themselves when they do something wrong. Alright, fair enough, but in addition to protective measures, these terms we all blindly agree to often contain clauses that allow companies to track us, sell our data, and even prevent us from suing them.

The Academic Example

What about something you may have heard on the news, some new discovery that you were genuinely interested in? Maybe you decided to look into it further and ended up on the web page for a scientific journal. The page shows you the abstract of the study, but it reads like an encoded message and, as you read on, you feel even more confused than when you began.

Most of the time, the reason for this is valid. Some fields of study require some intense jargon to accurately explain and describe concepts and the methods used.

Although that's true, it's also true that many students and researchers embellish their writings. They add words and phrases that effectively serve to confuse readers who aren’t embedded in academia.

Do most people write articles with the express intention of confusing the general public?
I’d say probably not.

It is the case, though, that researchers and students inject their projects with jargon and big words to try and make their papers sound more intelligent. There was actually a study conducted which examined if this had an effect on whether or not the writer was considered more or less intelligent. The funny part about their findings is that, the more complex the writing, the less intelligent the writer appeared.

Regardless of why they say they use complex, formal writing, the use of it still acts as a barrier to entry for the average person. With Large Language Models (ChatGPT) now available, there’s a quick way to have these research papers rewritten in a way that’s easy to understand. Hopefully a move like this would allow a wider range of people access to the information that moves the world.

How we got here

Image of an ancient library.

To avoid a complete recap of the origins of language and writing, I’ll just give the quick version.

People developed a bunch of writing techniques over the years, from tablets to paper, from hieroglyphs to characters. The thing is, not everyone had the luxury to learn how to read and write, the people had to work. Who had the luxury, then?

 

Two broad groups primarily had the time and resources to devote to reading and writing. Those were the elite (think noble families and the like) and the religious class (think monks, priests, etc).

Writings, and therefore knowledge, collected and remained in their hands. Religious texts and collections of wisdom would have only been accessible to a select few throughout history.

We live in the modern era (or maybe even post-post-modern) where the internet is available to most people, and even when we think of the past 200 years we can imagine books being commonplace. Because of this, we tend to forget about the role that the written word, and those who controlled it, had in shaping our world.

Enter the Catholic Church, one of the most influential institutions in known history.
Although it is far from the oldest religion in the world, Catholicism has had a major impact on the formation of Western Culture.

 

These writings to follow about Catholicism’s effects on authority and gatekeeping are far from complete. I also acknowledge that it is not the only influential institution I could write about. If you’re interested in reading more about this topic, let me know.

The rise of Christianity and the eventual formation of the Catholic Church was a slow burn. It wasn’t until Roman emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity in 313 that the ball really got rolling. Thanks to the Roman Empire’s encouragement of a common culture, and the fact that it connected lands that were previously dangerous to travel through, ideas like Christianity were able to spread more freely.

It was thanks to the Greeks that Rome reached the heights that it did. Education, philosophy, and the arts were all strengths of the Greeks that the Romans adopted readily. This helped shape the minds of the citizens of the empire, which also included the previously persecuted and now accepted Christians.

During the period that followed, councils were held to establish a shared orthodoxy, an agreement on the rules and values of Christendom. The Empire of Rome, however, was not long for this world and it was thanks to Christian monasteries that we still have many of the works of art and literature originally from the Classical Period.

Classical Greek ideals and practices helped shape what eventually became Catholicism, and their emphasis on education and knowledge played a major role.

Next came the Middle Ages, where Catholicism played a major role across the board, from government to daily life. The major contribution we’re concerned with here, today is this.

The first universities in Europe were established by Christian monks.

Cathedrals and monasteries were places of learning for monks and nuns for hundreds of years before then, but from the 11th century onwards, these cathedral and monastic universities began to teach clerics, lawyers, civil servants, and physicians. What we know now as a regular, secular university is deeply rooted in Christian practice.

Some of you may propose that ideals like the Socratic method and the pursuit of knowledge and truth precede practices of Christianity, so even though the modern university has roots in Catholicism, it's origins are based in these Greek pursuits. That is fair, but to ignore the following point would leave you without a full picture of the situation.

Something to Consider:

While many still feel the significance of Christianity today, many don't. Those of us that tend to take a less organized approach to our spirituality may not consider the impact that Christianity and Catholicism played in creating the modern world.

Many of your morals, truths, and ideas on how to structure society come from Christian philosophy (and, yes, from many other philosophies as well). Underplaying the impact of these beliefs on Western culture would contribute to an incomplete world view.

Consider the role of the Catholic Church, the clergy, and the universities they established in relation to a person and God. Bibles were held by the church, sermons were conducted by the clergy, and any information people received about Christianity in general came through them.

Not only did they physically hold the Bibles, but the church established what is called The Magisterium. This established the church’s authority to interpret the word of God in it’s written form or through tradition. Basically, they said “we’re the only ones allowed to interpret the Bible and anyone who says anything contrary is wrong.”

This self-granted authority, along with the complex and foreign writing of the Bible itself, concentrated the power in the hands of those select few.

Universities

While they originally began as an extension of the church, ideological movements brought universities further and further away from their Christian roots. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Scientific Revolution all worked to bring universities towards rational and provable ideals. Many of the practices and ideals that were inherent to cathedral universities stayed with the academics who strayed further from belief in God.

Side Note: The English Reformation was also a major blow to the legitimacy of the Catholic Church.

My opinion is that authority imparted

by the Catholic Magisterium stuck with the academics. The air of superiority that seems so natural to a good number of academics reminds me of the sense of importance felt by their priestly predecessors.

Watch only a handful of interviews and debates involving leaders in scientific fields and you can feel the condescension towards the lesser-educated. It's a human quality to feel superior to those less educated, it's the result of an ego that hasn’t been confronted and reigned in. It’s not even something to get upset about, because most of us have felt that way at least once towards someone before.

My perceived issue is the insistence and enforcement of using a certain kind of vernacular. By making everyone speak like you, you exclude any ideas that don’t fit in your worldview. There are definitely ways that people disagree using the same type of academic speech, but the disagreement is still within the same realm of accepted custom and thought.

Linguistic Relativity (also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) is the theory that the language you think in heavily influences the way that you think. People are still trying to work out to what extent the theory is true, but the basic concept is undeniable.

The easy example is the difference between the rules the English language follows versus Spanish. Examples like word order, adjective placement, gendered language, and verb conjugation are all ways the languages differ. If you think in Spanish your thoughts are, at least in a grammatical sense, organized differently. It isn’t a reach to say that these minor differences, expressed throughout years of living, can change the way people think.

Even in the United States, it's common to hear black Americans speak AAVE (African American Vernacular English) which is English with its own unique grammatical features, vocabulary, and accent. The origins of AAVE aren’t agreed on but the prominent view is that it seems to have always been an English dialect that survived in the African American community.

Despite being a unique dialect with rules, structure, and history, AAVE has been considered an inferior way of speaking English by the educational system.

In response to the sentiment above, in April of 1974 the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), a division of National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), issued a statement regarding students' rights to their own way of speaking.

"We affirm the students' right to their own patterns and varieties of language—the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language."

If the snootier of people got their way, we would lose culturally significant means of expression in favor of a single, approved way of communicating. This would be one step further towards the blending of cultures, peoples, systems, and beliefs into a single, worldwide culture. Something that is perfectly possible (and some would argue probable) in the technologically connected world we live in today.

If we continue to submit to the standardization of writing we will continue to lose the individuality of people, the differences between us that make life an incredible work of art. Not only would we move towards one boring culture, but we’d exclude anyone unfortunate enough to be looked over by the ruling class.

The TL;DR

Throughout time there have been countless ways that the ruling class have kept the masses under their power. One of these ways is by using hard to understand writing, which is inaccessible to a large portion of the people. If we continue to play by these rules, not only will we keep excluding the under-educated, but we’ll keep moving towards a monoculture, losing the uniqueness of experience that makes life exciting and meaningful.

So, moving forward, I’m going to continue writing in a way that feels natural to me, and that works to get the meaning across as accurately as I can, and to as many people as I can.

I have to say again, I’ve hardly begun to scratch the surface with this topic.

One part that I didn’t approach, because it needs its own full article, is the way that slavery and forced illiteracy has had lasting effects on black communities in the United States.

There’s also the effects of colonialism on native populations, with the practice of assimilation and how it wiped out ways of life, never to be seen again.

If you’re interested in hearing more, let me know in the contact page.

To avoid only harping on problems

without presenting solutions, I propose

this.

With the advent of large language models like ChatGPT, any document can be translated from cryptic jargon to plain speech. Although these models bring with them an entirely new set of problems, this may be one cost effective way to make information more accessible.


I thank you for your time. I hope everyone reading this well and, till next time, take care.

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