Monday, March 14, 2011

    Language basics

    Murali Sharma

    What should be the level of language used in newspapers? Perhaps, no consensus can be found for this question, but I do have a rule of thumb for myself.

    The question struck me a couple days ago when I was reading an opinion piece online in one of the English dailies published from Nepal. By the time I was halfway through, I stumbled across more than five words I did not understand. Lacking the patience to complete the piece, I moved on to something else. After that day, I have never read any other article authored by that particular writer. I have had similar experience with some news reports as well.

    Some writers and reporters might have the temptation to write in a sophisticated language and convoluted style to demonstrate their intellectual capacity. Books and professional journals, if anywhere, are the best places for them—not newspapers. The main objective of newspapers, in my view, is more to inform and less to educate. Language is a means of communication, and newspapers should use a language that is understood by as many people as possible.

    Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish sociologist, has said that even science is a form of sophisticated common sense. This implies, and I agree, that everything, including scientific issues, can be expressed or explained in a way that could be understood by most people. Although Pidgin English was in circulation in some parts of the world, Americans were, perhaps, the first ones to understand it and do something systematically to simplify their language.

    Soon after their country emerged as the foremost global power following World War I, Americans faced the challenge of communicating with those parts of the world where the French and Spaniards had firmly implanted their tongue, something the British had failed to do. So Americans launched several projects in the 1930s to make English fun to learn, simple to write and easy to understand.

    For instance, in 1939, Harvard University set up a Committee on Communication, which was later upgraded to the Harvard Commission on English Language Studies. The purpose was to develop Basic English that could be spoken and written with 650 nouns and 200 verbs or other parts of speech. The concept of Basic English was later expanded to high schools within the US as well. Ironically, two Englishmen—Ivor Richards and CK Ogden—produced the first work of Basic English.

    Impressed by the Basic English project, Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, said in his Harvard Commencement speech on Sept. 6, 1943, “Here you have a plan. There are others, but here you have a very carefully wrought plan for an international language capable of a very wide transaction of practical business and interchange of ideas.” Back in England, he asked his ministers to come up with ways to simplify their version of the English language.

    But the idea did not take off in a feudalistic United Kingdom where everyone, including the queen, speaks their own brand of English. Having thrown off the feudal yoke, the US was more amenable to such experiments. This is what makes the two countries, divided by a common language, so different.

    The result of the experiment has been spectacular and enduring. Writers and reporters contribute to mainstream US newspapers in a simple language. Excepting a few like Maureen Dowd, even such foremost experts in their fields such as Paul Krugman and Henry Kissinger, both Nobel laureates, write in an accessible language when they contribute to the New York Times and Washington Post. American books and films are popular, and the US has been able to establish cultural dominance around the world. 

    Nepal’s English newspapers seem to have imitated their British counterparts more than American. Mainstream Nepali newspapers are also in the same boat. They have abandoned colloquialism or jharrobad except in polemics and vitriolic rhetoric and increased the use of Sanskritised Nepali which is quite difficult to read, write and understand. I hate consulting a dictionary when I am reading the news, because it breaks the momentum and takes the pleasure out of reading a newspaper.

    For those Nepalis whose first language is not Nepali, this situation is incredibly frustrating. Just when these disadvantaged Nepalis are trying hard to speak, read and write the lingua franca of the country, newspapers might have been contributing to their alienation by using language that is increasingly difficult to comprehend. This is bad for the country’s working language and worse for the country’s fragile national unity.

    Occasionally, I too write for newspapers and my rule of thumb is this: An average high school graduate should be able to read and understand what I write. This article, at 11.5 Flesch-Kincaid grade level, is an example of this. By extension, all news and views published in an English newspaper should be within the grasp of people with a high school education. Newspapers can publish specialised magazines to accommodate contributions in a more complex language and style.

    What kind of language newspapers use depends on several factors—their message, motto, market imperative, genre and readership. Usually racy, sensational and low-quality tabloids have greater subscription numbers but enjoy less respect and credibility. Mainstream newspapers, though more respectable and credible, are often less profitable. This is a fine balance to strike between the market and the message. Basic English could be the perfect common starting point.

    In the same breath, it will also be a good idea for the Nepal Academy to come up with Basic Nepali that could be spoken, written and understood, for instance, with some 500 nouns and 150 verbs or parts of speech and be within the grasp of middle school graduates. Use of Basic Nepali will make communication easier for everyone and strengthen the unity of the country. Newspapers can play an important role in this effort by simplifying their own language. 

    Sharma is former ambassador to the United Nations and the United Kingdom

    source:The Kathmandu Post,15 march 2011