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Language and culture

3 October 2011

Some years ago I read somewhere that different cultures had different styles of writing, and that this could contribute to cultural misunderstandings. English speakers favoured a direct stryle, getting to the point as quickly as possible, whereas in Spanish and some other languages this was regarded as bad style, and good writing led up to a point gradually and in a roundabout way.

One of the blogs I enjoy reading is Clarissa’s blog. She teaches Spanish literature, but has complained about over use of the passive voice (see, for example, my first paragraph — “was regarded as bad style”).

I remarked on this, and Clarissa responded with a whole blog post, in which she responded Culture-Specific Writing Styles | Clarissa’s Blog:

For years, I preferred to write my research in Spanish and dreaded writing in English because precision and concision that are marks of a good writing style in English were completely alien to me. If Spanish allows for interminable, roundabout sentences, then Russian does so to even a greater degree. I can create a sentence with 15 dependent clauses that goes on for 20 lines and uses a passive construction in every clause. I really dig writing this way, too, because it reflects my way of being so well. Learning to stop beating around the bush and just saying what I want to say was a long and painful process for me. It was very hard to get rid of all the verbal flourishes, all of the “It might be argued”, “One might be justified in venturing a suggestion”, “It should probably be mentioned”, “What seems to be in need of being pointed out in this situation”, etc.

She attributed the Russian predilection for this kind of writing to the repressive society of the 20th century. I think I agree.

When I worked as an editor of academic texts at the University of South Africa (Unisa), I noticed that a lot of the texts originally written in Afrikaans and translated into English were written in this prolix roundabout style, and when I once wrote a memo in a direct style, an Afrikaans-speaking member of staff described it as “pre-scientific”. Some departments at Unisa even explicitly instructed their students to use the passive voice, because it was regarded as more “scientific”. But it also seemed to me that the departments that made a big fuss about being “scientific” were regarded by English speakers as putting on airs. Russian “nauka” and Afrikaans “weetenskap” have different connotations from the English word “science”, and something is lost in translation. What a Russian, an Afrikaner or a Greek would call a “scientific paper”, an English speaker would be more likely to call an “academic” or “scholarly” paper.

I was a student at Unisa before I worked there, and I first encountered this kind of thing in Practical Theology, which was a compulsory first-year course, and which I dropped as quickly as possible. Despite its name, it was almost entirely theoretical, and made up its own jargon in order to appear “scientific”. One of the phrases that stuck in my mind was “the agogic moment in pastoral counselling”.

It is the “soft” sciences, like the social sciences, that seem most attracted to nebulous verbosity, and it was one of their number, Stanislav Andreski (a Pole) who castigated his colleagues for this in his book Social sciences as sorcery.

One of the manifestations (unimportant in itself but very revealing) of the timorous but disingenuous humility characteristic of a burrowing apparatchik is the taboo on the word `I’. `One still shudders at the arrogance of the author in his repetitive use of the first singular concerning complex issues’ – says a reviewer of one of my books, who for all I know may be the only creature in whom this obscene word can induce actual shudders, although by saying `one’ instead of `I’ he implies that most of his readers suffer from this allergy. I doubt whether the reviewer in question favours the majestic first plural normal among the older French writers, and still common among their successors, but which in England is reserved for the Queen. Presumably he prefers the anonymous `it’, and likes to see an expression like `I think that …’ replaced by `it is hypothesized …’, which (apart from expurgating the dirty word `to think’), ministers to the bureaucratic underling’s predilection for submissive anonymity combined with oracular authority. I do not see why declaring that I – a mortal and fallible man but entitled to express his opinions – hold this or that view should be more arrogant than pretending to be the Voice of Science (Andreski 1972:193).

I think this is where it links up with what Clarissa said. The burrowing aparatchik of the Bolshevik era in Russia had his counterpart in the bureaucratic underling in apartheid South Africa, and both were prone to bureaucratic circumlocutions.

And as Clarissa gave examples of Russian writers who wrote in a clear and direct style. And the same could be found in Afrikaans in the writing of people like Beyers Naude (a dissident Afrikaner theologian), who could turn Afrikaans from the clumsy and ponderous tool of bureaucratic oppression into something light, clear, and beautiful to read.

But while oppressive bureaucracy may account for some of the differences in style, I don’t think it accounts for all. Perhaps English has also been affected (or infected) by the urban fast-food culture, with people eating on the trot.

Clarissa also writes about this in her blog, What You Need to Know About Your Russian-Speaking Friend | Clarissa’s Blog

A Russian-speaking party is very different from the Anglo-Saxon party, for example. For one, nobody stands while trying to balance the plate and the glass. Everybody sits around a big table. Regardless of the economic situation of your Russian-speaking hosts, food will be abundant and will consist of several courses with many food choices. Nobody will ever ask you eat off a paper plate and drink out of plastic cups. The table will be beautifully and properly laid, there will be beautiful table linens and dinnerware.

In language, and in eating, the English direct approach often seems to people in other cultures to be rude and abrupt.

When people meet each other on a country road, they pass the time of day in drawn out greetings. In Zulu a common greeting is “Sawubona” (We see you), followed by “Usaphila?” (Are you still well?) and several other polite enquiries. In a busy city street, however, there are just too many people to greet in this fashion, and so people tend to pass each other without greeting, unless they recognise someone they already know.

This has got transposed into English telephone conversations, and I have often had people phone me and the first words they say are “How are you?” and I have to restrain myself from asking “Who wants to know?” It is one thing on a country road with someone you can see. It is quite another coming on the telephone from a stranger you can’t see, who probably wants to sell you time share.

In Ovamboland in northern Namibia such greetings could get quite elaborate, and foreign visitors were warned to expect this, and advised to respond to these polite greetings and enquiries with “Ehe”, which could mean “Yes” or “OK”, depending on context. One old man used to like to take the mickey from the foreigners, and the conversation would go something like this

Ua le le po
Are you well?
Is your father well?
Is your mother well?
And your wife, is she well?
Did you steal my goat?

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