Thursday, January 28, 2010

Documenting My Thoughts on Intercultural Communications: Your "Big Words" Are Not My "Big Words" Part One


The link above leads to the introduction to this series wherein I explained why I felt compelled to document my thoughts on the matters pertaining to intercultural communications. Now you're thinking, "And why didn't you just label the link 'Introduction' or 'Read This First,' you pretentious broad?" But here's why: I am making a point.

Unless you have authored multiple books published by Brill and its ilk, chances are you don't use the word "prolegomena" very often. The word, whose etymology is emphatically Greek, is one of those words which people call "big words." They're difficult to spell, often rooted in Greek or Latin etymology, very infrequently used, and not readily understood by even native speakers of English (NSE hencefoth) much less speakers of English as an Additional Language (SEAL henceforth). But guess what. A typical SEAL is more likely to understand "prolegomena" than "lead-in."


Well-meaning NSEs avoid these "big words" like a plague when communicating with SEALs. While in general that practice is to be commended, the problem is that, in a given situation, unless the SEALs or both the NSEs and the SEALs are under ten years of age, there's only so much dumbing down that can be done by the NSEs and taken by the SEALs without a sense of ridiculousness setting in at some point. Imagine a nuclear physicist NSE explaining to his SEAL colleague his new theory on the interactions of atomic nuclei avoiding all the big words. I'm giggling like an idiot just imagining how the conversation would go. Well, what to do then?

Go ahead and use big words if you have to. Here's why:
  • As anyone who studies a foreign language (and, no, flipping through a Lonely Planet phrasebook does not amount to foreign language studies) knows that the real Kryptonite is not obscure or long words, but the so-called "false cognates" or "semi-false cognates;" namely, words which look and/or are pronounced alike in that foreign language and English. You assume that they mean the same as their English "cousins" only to find out the similarities stop at the orthographical level.* Big, unusual words may intimidate, but they rarely mislead people or cause them to assume things which aren't the case.
  • Big words may be unusual and strange to the eye and the ear, but they rarely surprise you. In other words, once you know the basics of how a language works, you can see that "big words" rarely behave irregularly. The most commonly used words in any language, on the other hand, are often the most unpredictable.

    Example: The infinitive (unconjugated) form of the verb "rejuvenate" (oooh ... big word ... Latin etymology ... scary) is "rejuvenate." The 3rd person, present, indicative form of it has the "-s" ending: "(He, She, It, John, Jane) rejuvenates." Not surprisingly, the 3rd person, past, indicative form of the same verb has the "-d/-ed" ending: "(He, She, It, John, Jane) rejuvenated." In the 3rd person, present, indicative, passive, it's "rejuvenated" across all persons.

    This is easy. The majority, if not all, of the big words behave in a predictable, true-to-grammatical-rules manner. Rejuvenate. Gasconade. Unencumber. Choreograph. Many more.

    Now think of all the common, easy words such as "be," "go," and "eat." To apply the general rules to these words, you would expect, "He bes not heavy; he bes my brother," "I once bed lost, but now I be found," "I have goed to hell and back," or "There bes no apple pie left, honey, I eated all of it this afternoon." Think of all the French verbs: aller, être, faire, avoir. I could explain to you in geeky terms why the most common of words have the tendency to be the most irregular, but for your sanity let's just say easy words are less predictable and much more tricky than difficult, less commonly used words.
In Part Two, I'll continue on this thesis. I meant to write it all in one post, but I'm getting sleepy.

*cf. attendre (French) vs. attend (English), avertissement (French) vs. advertisement (English), bizarro (Spanish) vs. bizarre (English), презерватив (Russian) vs. preservative (English), etc. (The last pair is an example from a very embarrassing personal experience when I was trying to explain to a Russian friend that I tried to avoid food products that had preservatives. презерватив in Russian means condom.)