The other day, Ralph Fiennes, the famous British film actor who also loves stage acting, said he does not so much love the current direction of language.
“We’re in a world of truncated sentences, soundbites and Twitter,’ Fiennes said, being quoted for a soundbite. “(Language) is being eroded — it’s changing. Our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us.”
And he’s worried about the relevancy of Shakespeare going forward now that he says he sees young drama students are having more trouble with the Bard than those a few generations ago would have (one wonders if Fiennes really remembers how well those young students did generations ago). He’s worried about how you perform plays with a lot of words with multiple syllables when the direction of language is more Hemingway than Faulkner, read, spoken and understood.
I used to be with Mr. Fiennes on this, and in college, was really worried that that kind of written language would be the equivalent of Newspeak from George Orwell’s 1984. For example, the text, “I love you,” is soul-baring, while “luv u ;)” is common, casual, and expresses nothing. It’s not even “double-plus ungood,” as a character from Orwell’s novel would be expected to say, it’s “++ungud.”
It’s not that you’d have to censor people anymore; they wouldn’t be able to articulate anything meaningful, let alone seditious. (That was my thinking.)
But, that’s a very college sort of thought to have. And you see writers who have just graduated, even journalists supposedly trained to be concise, want to write using the biggest word that comes to mind, maybe even because it’s the first. School trains you to prove that you’re intelligent and educated more than that you’re actually a good writer or know what you’re talking about. “First thought, best thought,” — but only if your first thought is actually good at communicating.
Wasn’t it Shakespeare who said, “Never make use of a sesquipedalian word when a diminutive one will suffice”?
Or was he the one who said, “Brevity is the soul of wit”?
There’s certainly nothing wrong with great-big words, and they are often good to know, especially when not to use them. Twitter, in common usage, may be a gift for people to concisely say stupid and empty things. But that’s what most people say anyway. The longshoreman philosopher of the mid-20th century, Eric Hoffer, said there wasn’t an idea that could be expressed in 200 words.
“But the writer must know precisely what he wants to say,” Hoffer cautioned. “If you have nothing to say and want badly to say it, then all the words in all the dictionaries will not suffice.”
You may need more than one tweet of 140 characters to get the full thing across, but you’re also going to make every letter count. You’re going to spill over the limit and go back and look at what you’ve written. Have I expressed this in the most effective way possible? Why am I wasting space on adjectives when I could use a more inherently evocative word (“walked without hurry” vs. “sauntered”). If someone reads only this message, how can I make this memorable and impactful on its own?
Writing has always been easy; so too chatting and tweeting. But good writing is always heavy labor, it’s just the form has changed now.
The future belongs to the aphorist. And I’m OK with that.