Photo from the Colombo Public Library, which is pretty depressing.
I was trying to read a Sri Lankan book but I couldn’t. It was just too hard to read. There is a tendency in a lot of Sri Lankan English writing to use the most complicated sentence structure possible, even if you’re saying something quite simple. Words like elucidate instead of explain, confusing use of Latin (inter alia), endless conjunctions instead of periods – it all makes for purple and unreadable prose.
Orality Vs. Literacy
Perhaps it’s to do with the gap between written and spoken Sinhala, but many writers try to treat written English as another language, something ornate and ungainly, like a wedding suit. It’s prose that you couldn’t possible read aloud with a straight face. Most obviously, with long sentences there’s no time for breath. Of course, it’s not just a matter of long or short. In spoken English you can go on forever, but there’s still a rhythm, again, punctuated for breath. You can write run-on sentences with rhythm, but simply stringing thoughts together endlessly is as hard to read silently as it is to read aloud.
In English there was a big gap between the spoken and written forms, but successive poets like Robert Frost and e.e. cummings broke down the forms until what was considered common and/or taboo became more and more acceptable. Rather than accepting calcified forms of language ‘because they were’, generations of writers played with them and created a more supple and communicative literature focused on meaning. They have done the hard work of fighting convention such that we can write what we think and say, but many Sri Lankan writers don’t.
I have all of my notebooks going back to age five. My early stuff was the best, stories about me and my teddy bear going to alien planets and having water balloon fights. As I learned more about language, however, I started to over-compensate, such that by middle school I was using words like ‘plebiscite’ needlessly and writing long, wordy sentences that I thought looked impressive but which masked an actual paucity of thought. What I was kinda doing was thinking out loud and not editing for an audience. I was playing with words and ideas, but I didn’t have enough a sense of audience to think, ‘wait, maybe this doesn’t make sense’. Just because you took the time to understand and create a complicated structure doesn’t mean your audience can or will. That’s a hard realization to make.
In spoken language, of course, we get this feedback instantly. If you say something incomprehensible the person you’re speaking to will look confused, ask a question, and you’ll have to rephrase and repeat. Once you get to public speaking, however, there’s less feedback, and if you’re writing a book there’s almost none. The thing about writing a blog is that you A) write every day and B) get feedback. You are publishing immediately so you have to consider that someone might read what you’re writing 10 seconds later. Which makes it a bit more like speech.
Language And Class
These section headings are merging together content wise. The gap between literate and spoken language used to be a class one, but there are class difference in spoken accent as well. In his landmark 1966 study, William Labov found that different classes pronounced the sound ‘r’ differently (as in ‘car’ vs ‘ca’). What was most striking was that in certain situations the lower middle class over-compensated, exaggerating the r sound above and beyond upper middle class levels. They were trying to sound posher than they were, a process Labov called hypercorrection.
In Sri Lankan English, both written and spoken, people are people and they can and do hypercorrect. In the written form, however, this often sounds ridiculous. I mean, people don’t need to use big words all the time to show that they know them, but they do. They overcompensate but by doing so they reveal too much. Big words are great, but they have very specific meanings. When you’re speaking in generalities and using very specific words it’s incomprehensible to average people and incorrect to people who know what the words mean.
Writing For Reading
Seriously, when people try to sound smart it makes their prose unreadable. It has to stop people should write with the words they know for other human beings to read. It’s not a pissing contest. I’ll try to write a review of the book in question tomorrow, but unfortunately I simply can’t read it.