This is a guest post by author jonathan schork
The case for dumbing down out literature… or not…
It seems appropriate to admit at once, in the spirit of candour, that I love language, and that I’m no less a fan of the English language than I am of more exotic, poetic ones like French, Russian, & Japanese. The English language enjoys an unique place in our modern linguistic canon: it derives influences from so many—most notably Germanic & Latin, but also Hindi, Taino, Arabic, & others—that it avails us of much more texture & nuance than might be obvious at first glance. There’s a wonderful, witty joke in the 1982 film Sophie’s Choice about the many ways one can express in English the idea of speed, but the sum of this joke is that English is intrinsically difficult because it offers too many choices. A hundred years ago, people in the U.S. had on whole a much larger vocabulary than today—on the order of four times larger (using language density tests to establish objective measures of sophistication—more on this shortly)—and as our expansive language shrinks and our literacy skills wither, the contemporary writer is confronted with an unfortunate choice: create a lush, sumptuous canvas of language for a small, literate audience, or shrink our language to accommodate the unsophisticated reader. This, then, is the conundrum for a modern writer who loves his language.
A hundred years ago, the U.S. literacy rate was around 80%; a century later it is around 99%, an important achievement with an important caveat: even as more people were able to read, the level of complexity of American seemed to have shrunk, so they were in fact able to read less competently. There is a great deal of science examining changes in language complexity, and two very different schools of interpretation, both of which offer some validity when considering the matter of diminishing literacy skills. The centerpiece of this magisterium is the Flesch-Kincaid readability quotient. Created in the 1970s for the U.S. Department of Defense, using key metrics of writing style—length of words, words per sentence, & sentences per paragraph, for example—to establish the level of difficulty & relative grade level of writing subject to testing, the Flesch-Kincaid offers us an insight into evolving literary styles when used to compare and contrast relatively older work with more contemporary writing. Through this device we can not only ascertain evolving patterns of rhetoric & communication; we can also plot these data on a graph. The resulting picture is not a pretty one: over time, as remarked above, our collective language skills have begun to atrophy.
The competing interpretations of this phenomenon are fascinating for the virtue incumbent in each. On the one hand is the theory that diminished rhetorical complexity is an essentially democratizing process in which growing simplicity of style and content—or at least their presentation—make more information more broadly accessible to more people. There’s currency in this point: even as our literacy rates have improved over the past century, the pool of academically talented people (from which, for example, our legendary founding fathers were extracted) has gotten smaller, thus the audience for complex ideas couched in sophisticated rhetoric has also shrunk. In theory, a hundred people with a high school diploma exposed to a simplified version of a complex matter is better than the one genius articulating that matter in unavailable, difficult to digest text. The corollary to this theory, then, would be that the entire matter is advantaged by its exposure to a broader, more diverse audience. On the other hand is the notion that atrophied rhetorical skill also atrophies the ability of a society to ingest and comprehend complex matters in a cogent manner. This theory holds that the lack of complex language skill subverts the ability of the audience even to grasp complex ideas, let alone participate in their development. Anecdotally, our current crisis of scientific & historical illiteracy—affecting subjects as diverse a genetic engineering, vaccine efficacy, climate change, and repetition in harmful historical trends—seems to lend greater currency to that latter, though this may merely be an expression of my elitist bias.
For several years in the late 90s & early aughts I was a guest columnist for a Key West, Florida, weekly newspaper. My subject, reliably, was “human rights”, though, because the paper served a “gay” audience, my writing was often inferred to be about gay rights. As an aside, we should regard it as fascinating that human rights were so broadly withheld from the LGBTQ communities by our egalitarian society that these rights felt like special privileges for which gay people were fighting. Generally well-regarded by my readership, my work, none the less, provoked two interesting response, both contingent on my particular styles of reason & rhetoric. Where reason was concerned, I often offended the sensibilities of a segment of the gay communities for holding them to the same high standards I was arguing should be embraced in lieu of heterosexual prejudice, so anti-hetero- terms like “breeder” & not-so-subtle gay sexism were criticized without reservation or indulgence. In the rhetorical case, I was asked why I “used so many big words”.
There’s a preposterousness to this question, implying as it does that complexity of language & style is a deficit, and my tongue-in-cheek response was always the same: “I use big words because I have big ideas to get out”. More accurately, however, was that I wrote very much like I though & spoke—that my rhetoric wasn’t rhetoric but an extension of my style of cognition. I was unwilling to compromise my style to make reading easier, on which point my editor concurred with some degree of pride, and it was a credit to my audience that they not only soldiered on, but regularly reported that they’d learned a new word or a new idea. They might joke about needing a dictionary on hand, but the quality of the discussion on subjects that had the potential to be quite provocative tended to be more nuanced, complex, & respectful, features we should be happy to promote.
The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign has distinguished itself for its lack of nuance, complexity, & respect. Applying the Flesch-Kincaid test to speech text by the candidates, we see that the grade level of Donald Trump’s rhetoric is around the 4th grade, and Hillary Clinton’s was only marginally better at a 7th. The legendary founding fathers would have been dismayed: the writing of the U.S. colonial intelligentsia was so rhetorically dense that, today, it’s nearly as indecipherable as Shakespeare, but it was assumed at the time that eloquence & complexity were fundamental not only to good communication, but especially to good leadership. It’s not merely the diminution of the complexity of contemporary presidential rhetoric that is noteworthy, though: public speech in the U.S. in 2016 is almost shockingly disrespectful, vulgar, & rude—thoroughly democratizing, but an abrogation of the social compact that requires at least a modicum of polite behavior. It wouldn’t be difficult to submit that the vulgarization of our language is a natural extension of simplification.
In 2004 I wrote the novella Fearless Inanna. Set in ancient Sumeria ca. 2800bc., it concerns the epic adventures of a young woman all around the ancient near east in a search for a dragon whose curse has turned her parents to stone. It was fun to write, & the last literary project on which I worked with my late wife, the retired English teacher Mary Cooke Hoeft, and occupies a special place in my mind. Because one of the devices of this story was to create a sort of feminist version of the ancient Gilgamesh Epic, and because I used several important sources to echo that structure (cited in the bibliography), Fearless Inanna, like the rest of my writing, reveals the complexity—and, dare I say, eloquence?—of my manner of thinking & speaking. The Flesch-Kincaid test indicated a readability quotient appropriate to my intended audience—intelligent, literate kids in their mid to late teens—and yet I was pressured to simplify both vocabulary & syntax, & to remove entirely the bits of literary DNA I had lifted from the Gilgamesh & grafted into my own text, all in the service of “making it more accessible to kids who can’t read.” I struggled with this editorial advice for a while: naturally, I wanted an audience, but did I really want to pander to an audience who couldn’t read? Ernest Hemingway, with his terse American prose, is one of the most widely read U.S. authors, but the Flesch-Kincaid reveals that he writes at the 4th grade level; would it be presumptuous of me to admit I’m not a fan? I’m not advocating the use of jargon—specialized language seemingly designed to make writing inaccessible to all but the members of the clique who have adopted it—but our language has hundreds of thousands of words, many quite beautiful and precise; surely we can find a word more perfect than Hemingway’s monosyllabic literary grunts? The Inanna book finally made it into print in 2015, long after the decease of my wife, & only after I had resolved the matter of dumbing down the text in a way that seemed to synthesize the two competing interpretations of Flesch-Kincaid: I left the prose dense & (I hope) eloquent, and appended a twenty-plus page glossary of the more difficult vocabulary for the benefit of those readers who were more likely to struggle. It’s not widely read, but one woman commented that “it was so beautiful, she wished she had a daughter with whom to share it”. Were that the only compliment this difficult book received, that would have been enough.
So, circuitously, I bring this essay back to that point at which we started several hundred words ago: simplify & democratize, or encourage rhetorical complexity for the benefit of complex thinking & polite speech? As a matter of trivia, the Flesch-Kincaid score of this essay is grade 16.3 (late college), with a readability score of 34– not an easy read by any contemporary metric—but what does that style say about my relationship with my audience? Did they get bored and leave before they got here? Did they soldier through and learn something new? In the end, we might conclude that this subject is more complex than the simple didacticism applied to it by other scholars & journalists: if we respect our readers without pandering to them, we can hope that our work will improve not only the quality of literacy skills in the U.S. today, but also—and more significantly—we can diminish not the eloquence of a well-turned phrase, but instead the ocean of vulgarity, profanity, & verbal rage under which we seem to be drowning. It may be an expression of my intrinsic optimism that I’m prepared to risk eloquence.