Tuesday 15 November 2011

Vocabulary and Society

In between changing nappies (diapers) and longing for a full night’s sleep I’ve been doing some of the preliminary work for my PhD. I study the social and cultural history of medicine, which involves looking at medical records, movements and advancements and using them to try to reconstruct ideas about the way people thought and regarded themselves in the period in question. I look at Ireland and Britain during the late Victorian period up until Irish Independence from Britain in 1921.

The late nineteenth century saw the establishment of ‘proper medicine’ as we know it today, and it was pretty controversial. Opponents claimed that the medical profession used Latin to describe medical conditions not because it was a lingua franca (a bridging language that two people with different mother languages could use to communicate), but because it excluded those who hadn’t received a classical education i.e. the vast majority. Therefore, language was used to protect the economic interests of a small minority while preventing the masses from making their own educated decisions about their healthcare.  It essentially made people unable to understand or learn about their own medical conditions, and reliant on doctors both for interpretation and treatment.

This is probably too simplistic an explanation of opponents, but it does show the power of language to include or exclude. It doesn’t even have to be a different language such as Latin it can be as simple as the type of vernacular you use. Anyone who has read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four remembers how the aim of Doublespeak was to reduce language to so few words that resistance to Big Brother couldn’t even be articulated, let alone carried out. Every country has a section of disadvantaged youth who are frustrated that their lives seem to have so few options available to them, yet don’t have the vocabulary available to communicate this. On the flip side, street-speak or slang can be sometimes used to exclude older generations.

I suppose it brought home just how much the vocabulary that you use, or that you have your character use tells the reader something about that character. The type of vocabulary you have, the language you speak, the accent you have, how you address people around you – it all helps give a picture of the social groups that your character belongs to, wants to belong to, or opposes.

How do you guys approach language style in your work?

P.S. That lolcat has nothing to do with the post, just thought it was cute.


  1. I've been playing with this a lot in my latest novel and it's super challenging to get right. Often my fake slang comes off forced instead of organic. :/

  2. One of the ways I try to show different characters is with vocabulary. Not to be too stereotypical, but the words people use should give you some description of them.