John Field recently wrote, in his The Learning Professor blog, an interesting post about academic writing. He was particularly referring to the tendency for editors and researchers to ‘clean up’ quotations from research participants. Indeed, sometimes participants themselves felt the need to do this editing work. He said:
The decision to include hesitations, slang, swearwords and dialect … crops up when you try to publish your results. I have yet to get a paper accepted that includes the words and sentences that the research participants actually used. Invariably, referees insist that direct quotations are turned into what we usually think of as standard English. Some referees get quite indignant about the use of dialect (‘How can I be expected to understand this stuff?’ was one comment), while others gently remind you of the journal’s international readership. So the quotations are duly turned into standard English.
This verbal ‘cleaning up’ is, Field suggested , a way of removing the particularities of ‘voice’. Evidence of location, class, gender, and race are removed in order to make the text ‘readable’. Writing so that everyone sounds the same, speaking in a grammatical and uninterrupted flow, untarnished by local vernacular, Field argued, was tantamount to denying the specificities of the people who were speaking and it acted as a form of symbolic violence.
Now this post prompted me to think beyond the specifics of quoting, and consider how academic writing more generally demands a kind of stylistic uniformity. I sometimes inadvertently stumble into this when I write in Australian English. No, I don’t mean I say “mate” or “stone the crows” or “Buckleys and none” … It’s when I use a word that is pretty common in Australia but apparently nowhere else. And yes, there are a few expressions that are in use in Australia and not in the UK.
One example of this is the verb ‘to sheet home’. It’s a handy term drawn from sailing, from the time when clippers on the wool and wheat run to and from the UK would set a big square of sail so that they could run with the wind, taking the most direct route home. (I’m particularly fond of this expression as there are generations of sailors on one side of my family.) In Australia, the notion of sheeting home is usually in the context of responsibility or blame – as in “responsibility for poor achievement on literacy tests is usually sheeted home to schools”.
Another example of an Australian word is the verb ‘to spruik’. This means to speak out in public in order to sell something, or persuade someone to come and look at something. So market stall owners who call out about the quality and prices of their goods are spruikers, they are spruiking. This is a handy verb to use in academic writing – I might say for example that Michael Gove is a spruiker for academies.
And of course there’s ‘larrikin’, a word originally meaning a hooligan, but now used affectionately to describe someone who doesn’t have much truck with social niceties, and who often acts without much regard for authority. Germaine Greer for example might be said to have a larrikin streak. And ‘wowser‘ is a useful word too, it means a teetotal killjoy who hates to see anyone else having any fun. I challenge you to put wowser in a sentence starting with your least favorite politician.
So the point is that these Oz words, and others like them, are just part of my vocabulary. If I have to remove them from a paper or book chapter in the name of readability, then something of me is also removed. Maybe that is no loss, but maybe it is.
It’s interesting that the rhetorical term for the insertion of ‘nonstandard’ or ‘foreign’ words into speech is barbarism. Barbarism is seen as an unnecessary interruption that disrupts the flow of speech, an insertion of ‘otherness’ which alienates the audience. It is associated in rhetoric with cacozelia, the habit of inserting ‘foreign’ words in order to appear learned or of using terms that are intended to disgust listeners. Both barbarism and cacozelia are seen as Bad Things. That they exist suggests that there is a long history of sanitizing speech, of ridding it of words which are seen as jarring and unacceptable simply because they do not fit the norm.
Interestingly, in academic writing the norms are not just conventions, shared implicit assumptions of reviewers, editors, and writers. They are actually built into some of the regulatory academic writing systems that we impose on ourselves.
One common and widespread practice of flattening out of lexicon and expressions occurs through referencing/citation systems. A good example is APA. APA is notoriously pedantic. APA won’t for example accept split infinitives, even though these are widely acceptable – just not in any journal that uses APA. As The Guardian Style Guide says “It is perfectly acceptable to sensibly split infinitives and stubbornly to resist doing so can sound awkward and make for ambiguity (p. 147). APA also rejects anything that looks like it could be slang – I’ve had to change ‘doled out’ (it’s Middle English) and ‘getting a grip on’ (comes from Old English) in a paper just to satisfy an APA obsessed copy editor. I won’t now write for some journals because they use APA. I find this pedantry a stylistic step too far, an editing of my academic writing that is unacceptable.
So… As John Field points out, and as my examples of Australianisms and APA suggest, there are aspects of academic writing that are potentially damaging to the everyday ways of making meaning that we use, and that are used by the people with whom we research. It seems there are plenty of opportunities in the academy for censoring, flattening and symbolic violence via processes of editing. That’s something that worries John Field, and it worries me too.
So…. Barbarism? No worries!
See ozwords if you’re interested in Oz-isms.