Tuesday, November 04, 2008

May I borrow your teacup please? I have a storm.

The Daily Telegraph reports that certain councils are banning the use of certain Latin phrases, such as ad hoc or ex officio in official documents (it's also been reported in the Daily Mail, but since (a) their article plagiarizes the Telegraph, and (b) it's the Mail, I shan't provide a link). Mary Beard describes such a policy as "ethnic cleansing applied to language."

It may surprise some of you that I'm on the side of the councils. Yes, of course, Latin enriches the English language, and it is true, as Harry Mount says, that these Latin tags express certain concepts far more neatly than equivalent English circumlocutions. But, crucially, only if the reader already knows the meaning of the phrase. If not, then use of such terms becomes a bar to communication. Peter Jones complains that "This sort of thing sends out the message that language is about nothing more than the communication of very basic information." But communicating basic information is precisely what council documents are supposed to do. They don't have literary aspirations, and need to be written in a language comprehensible to their readership. Terms like ad hoc or ex officio may be part of the common vocabulary of educated middle-class people who read the Telegraph or take Classical subjects in prestigious universities. But they're not part of the language of EastEnders, and that is the language council documents must be written in. Yes, of course it's a good thing to encourage immigrants to aspire to a vocabulary that includes Latinisms. But you don't do that by including them in basic council documents.

We all adjust our language according to the audience. I would happily use terms like this in documents for the Open University. But in my day job, I produce process documentation. I would never put terms like ad hoc or ex officio in those, because the readers wouldn't know what they meant. All the councils have done is suggest that certain terms be avoided (not, incidentally 'banning' them).

This doesn't, of course, mean that I or the councils are advocating the expunging of all Latin derivations from English, or those derived from other languages. Words like 'virtue' or 'cul-de-sac' are commonly understood, so there is no need to find alternatives. To move the argument onto such vocabulary is setting up a straw man, unrelated to what the councils are actually doing. Referring to "ethnic cleansing" seems a bit silly.

At worst, the councils have been overzealous in the terms they have excluded. Most people probably understand 'etc.' or 'N.B.' (which are terms I've used in process documentation). But even the most obvious terms aren't always as broadly understood as you might expect - I've lost count of the number of reasonably intelligent and educated OU students I've had who don't know the difference between 'e.g.' and 'i.e.', so I can see the argument for using 'for example' and 'that is' instead.

The bottom line is that councils have a responsibility to communicate clearly to all people likely to be using their documents. It may be regrettable that this means many Latin phrases are no longer appropriate for use. But it's unfair to blame councils for acknowledging reality.