Big English Is Not Always Noisy

Mon, 18 Feb 2013 Source: Ansah, Kofi

To Dr Kofi Ansah:

Clare Foges, Prime Minster David Cameron’s speechwriter, calls it ‘antiseptic oratory.’ There seem to be an invisible prescription that forbids public speakers and writers to speak or write “anything remotely contentious, anything colourful, anything impulsive, anything that might be deemed offensive to anyone.” When we sacrifice rhetoric and ‘big talk’ in our effort to communicate clear meaning and deepen understanding, we risk impoverishing the beautiful art of communication, both in speech and in print. The best speeches in history were not deemed great because of their simplicity and clarity of expression; rhetorical brilliance and oratorical fireworks are important features that have distinguished the speakers and the speeches. If simple writings have helped our knowledge of issues, rhetoric has powered our understanding of what we already know.

Dr Kofi Ansah’s account of the use of big English in Ghanaian journalism is perhaps the best article I have read this year on Ghanaweb. According to Dr Ansah, big English produces noises that kill the message in communication. The academic would rather we said ‘former government’, instead of ‘erstwhile government’, swap ‘repeat’ with ‘reiterate’, replace ‘people’ with ‘citizenry’, ‘death’ with ‘demise’, and of course ‘very large’ with ‘gargantuan.’ He didn’t exactly pronounce a judgement on what constitutes good writing, except to settle for the same antiseptic argument that big English always impedes the communication of meaning because they are like big chunks of meat that are hard to chew. He also failed to say the impact plain English makes in communication, except that it makes for easy understanding. Communication, after all, is about meaning, he ‘opined.’

Did Dr Ansah mean to say that words like ‘erstwhile’, ‘reiterate’ and ‘demise’ are too big for the average Ghanaian reader? Sure, English is new to us; we would not be able to use it with the same proficiency as the accomplished British or American journalist. I have written in these columns that an American sociology professor wrote to tell me that our standards are very low, and perhaps not fit for consumption–even by ourselves. Many Ghanaians also think we have a long way to go, especially in written English communication. Nobody faults these suggestions. We may never be able to produce a broadsheet as good as the Financial Times, the New York Times or The Telegraph of England. We are yet to attain half the quality of their tabloids. Even their community newspapers would rival our national dailies. Columbian journalism remains an ideal we may never live. True, we have work to do, but the standards we have today are adequate for our purposes. When we say somebody speaks good English in Ghana, what do we exactly mean? Sam Boat, my SP in secondary school, was generally considered a great user of the language. And to be fair to Dr Ansah, all he did was to dabble in gobbledegook and bombast. What did the SP mean when he proclaimed at the Assembly Hall: “Commonsensically and psychology, you the Form 3 students are nothing before us?” But we cheered and hailed him. A dining Hall prefect would follow: “All the atavistic form 3 students are digging their own catacum.” Well, we figured out that catacum meant grave. So we could forgive Ofori, the boy who carried my food from the dinning hall, when he introduced his uncle to me as “the man who reared me.” Ofori even sounded well reared when he was also reported to have asked his best friend’s father whether he was the real father, because “he was uglier than his son.” Language was cancerous in those days.

It didn’t get any better at Legon (I am happy to learn that Dr Ansah is also a Vandal) when Chancellor Kohl, an SRC presidential contestant, filled the air with ‘menempenem’ and ‘caviet.’ He also promised “not to leave anybody ajar” when he was ‘voted into the power.’ Kohl didn’t win but he gave the present Minister of Youth and Sports, Elvis Afriyie Ankrah, a very hard time. Elvis, a confident speaker, won the elections. The use of language was not a big issue in Legon. Most of us spoke everyday English, often spicing our presentation with a new popular word to make a certain impression. We left Professor Aloysious Denkabe’s lecture with words like ‘adumbrated’ ‘everywhereness’ and ‘decrepit.’ If you managed to use the big words well, there were no problems. When you goofed, the Vandals booed and teased.

But then, big English is not altogether undesirable in communication–at any level. Even as I write, book reviewers in the West continue to quote Wole Soyinka’s description of W.H Auden’s face as “a compressed lump of volcanic lava in controlled convulsion.” Could we imagine a more effective use of imagery? Maybe small words would have painted a similar picture, but language is an art, not just a means of communication. W.S is not an average language user, just like British journalist Andrew Rawnsley, who also described a fine British politician as a beautiful statement ‘encased in a gleaming carapace of liberal elitism.’ The meat balls in the two examples are big; not many of us would know the meanings of the individual words. That is where context becomes useful. It is not difficult to imagine the ugliness of the face W.S has described when understood in context. You may also learn a new word like ‘carapace’ if you are in Rawnsley’s thinking. By the way, what is simple English? We agree that basic English may be too elementary for serious communication. Dr Ansah wants straight news to be written in simple English. Sure, that is what we were taught at journalism school. KISS was the word: Keep It Short and Simple. It did not matter whether you used the inverted pyramid style or any other. Everybody must read and not struggle to understand what you have written. No poetic flamboyance. It is even more important to KISS it in our journalism because many would not read beyond the opening paragraph. If a reporter introduces difficult words in the lead, he may be the only loser to read his poor report.

I haven’t observed many incidences of verbosity in our straight news stories. The reporting in the New York Times is not as simple as Dr Ansah may want to suggest. They make good and proper use of words, including big words. They know their audience. A tabloid may keep it very simple for the factory worker who may be interested in the sensational angle of the story. While keeping it simple, news people are confident that they are writing for the literate person who may want to learn a thing or two, even in a straight news report. And frankly, what is wrong with a Daily Guide journalist reporting that the ‘presidential edifice’ was not put to good use? What is also wrong with talking about the ‘demise’ of the president? If we limited our vocabulary to ‘death’ whenever somebody died, then the adjective ‘little’, which was also used as a verb in the 1600’s, would not have had a better verb in ‘belittle’ when former president Thomas Jefferson coined the latter.

Now, let’s find answers to the question I asked earlier: When do we say somebody has used language effectively? Dr Ansah would realise that it is always impactful when a speaker or writer sounds profound and scholastic. And you can keep it simple and still come across as erudite. True, some words are not conversation friendly. I have heard a few Nigerians use the word ‘flummoxed’ in very informal conversation. The other day, one of their actresses said to her boyfriend: “See me unfailingly at 2pm.” My first girlfriend always signed off her letters: “I care for you with a loving concern.” I knew she was trying to communicate the extent of her affection, but I felt the intention had been overburdened with too many words.

Well, maybe she wanted to impress her lover. She could be excused. What about journalists and other professionals who are supposed to communicate to our understanding? Do they have room to impress their readers with the use of language? Well, if saying it just for the sake of saying it was enough, then lollapalooza (exceptional example or instance) shouldn’t be a word. Kwesi Tawiah-Benjamin, Ontario, Canada


Columnist: Ansah, Kofi