Thursday, March 14, 2002

A reply to Tinka, who discusses language in the humanities. A rather well-known sociologist named Pierre Bourdieu looked at this 30 something years ago. I quote from Academic Discourse:

But the teachers' self-assured use of professorial language is no more fortuitous than the student's tolerance of semantic fog. Quite apart from the fact that individual words, little known or unknown, always appear in a context which imparts a sense of familiarity to them or at least the feeling that they have already been heard fefore, the whole corpus of professorial language is employed in an environment dominated by the teaching situation with its distinctive space, its ritual and its temporal field.

While I won't go so far as to say it's all a conspiracy to keep those less socialised than us out, the language of academia is part of a system which Bourdieu describes as ritualistic as religion. "As one student put it, 'Lecturers have a way of asking, 'is that clear?', which actually rules out any question that it might not be clear.' Destined above all to play the part of the faithful at a church service, students must answer with ritual responses." It depends on understanding as a sign of being worthy: "By definition, the professor teaches as he ought to teach, and the meagre results with which he is rewarded can only reinforce his certainty that the great majority of his students are unworthy of the efforts he bestows upon them."

Yes, I agree with Tinka, as I pointed out in an earlier comment to her earlier post, we need precise language to speak of our research and to be able to communicate with others in the same field efficiently and easily. At the same time we tend to use those terms for a lot more than just efficient communication. We signal our arcane knowledge, our exclusive membership of a small, priviledged group, in short: we flash our cultural capital.

Do I think it's tacky when I get on the plane with businessmen all signaling their success aggressively through clothes, equipment and expensive habits? Yes. Why should I be annoyed that others think it's tacky when I signal my success through language?

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