December 14, 2011
Another point brought up at the American Anthropological Association meeting of worldwide journal publishers concerned writing, with several journal editors advocating “international English.” This sounds wonderful in principle. If every anthropological writer were to write in easy-to-understand English, then the anthropological playing field would be largely leveled, with native speakers and non-native speakers on a more even standing.
However, in all honesty, how many native speakers of English would be willing to write in international English, curtailing their jargon, limiting their circumlocutions, and simplifying their sentence structures? American academics, not least anthropologists, have a mortal fear of sounding stupid. One reason why anthropological writing is so often convoluted is to avoid revealing the relatively simple ideas one may be expressing—to avoid sounding stupid. In some English-language anthropological writing, linguistic complexity is necessary, given the subtlety of the ideas being expressed. In much more anthropological writing, the complexity seems unnecessary. Complexity may reflect the fact that the authors are bad writers. Or it may reflect an “emperor’s new clothes” syndrome, whereby authors cloak ideas in impenetrable prose because those ideas themselves are unclear, or else all too clear.
If anthropology journals were to mandate that writers write in a standard international English—something that has happened to a degree in medicine and in the hard sciences—the problem of anthropology’s lack of true globality would largely be solved. However, it is hard to imagine this happening. Instead, it seems more likely that a two-tiered class structure would emerge, of Americans and other native speakers writing in complex English, and foreign scholars writing in “international English.”
Ideally, international English might liberate American anthropology from its rhetorical excesses (a tendency I date from Geertz: earlier writers like Benedict and Boas, read retrospectively, are marvels of clarity). More likely, it would simply serve as a form of academic distinction. Those who can write in a complicated way will, and those who can’t won’t—but with only the latter being fully comprehended by many of their readers.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong