Against Latin

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Sebastian Flyte has a critique of my overuse of Latin. One thing I do want to add is that it’s not all part of my “style,” I used to the term “thickly scaffolded” in the post Sebastian highlights to allude to thick description, which I assume some of you will know about. I guess I could have referred explicitly to thick description, but I thought the idea of a scaffold was more precise in terms of what I perceived the exposition style of Ross & Reihan in GNP to be (and since many here have molecular biology in the background I also thought it would be a useful word to put there). But yeah, I use a lot of Latin-derived terms….

53 Comments

  1. Zinsser is a dogmatist and basically a nobody. It sounds like a crib of Strunk and White, who are dogmatists too. 
     
    Razib has little or no problem in the area in question. He should carry on as before.

  2. Style police bug me, but he has a point about concision not being your strong suit. I find that Orwell’s six rules are worth re-reading every now and then. 
     
    Zinsser’s anti-Latin bigotry has a point but goes too far at times: there are cases where Latin or Latin-derived words really do suit the purpose. But wherever possible I give preference to words of Greek origin, because I find they almost always sound better.

  3. I’m still learning.  
     
    Razib brings an forceful energy to his posts. The great thing is: you can feel his passion despite the use of such cold and long words. And that’s a great thing. 
     
    It’s great to write quickly and with vigor, but Zinsser says that good writing is good editing. So we should all say what we want with fervour, but take the time to trim it after the first burst. Are there any unnecessary words? Any adverbs that just repeat the meaning of the verb, or aren’t needed? Any little qualifers that dilute the message but add nothing? (a bit, sort of, it’s interesting to note, kind of etc – Zinsser says ‘if it’s interesting to note – just note it’.)

  4. From Matt’s link to Orwell, quoting one of the greatest sentences in the English canon: 
     
    Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes: 
     
    I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. 
     
    Here it is in modern English: 
     
    Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account. 
     
    —– 
     
    When you understand why the first paragraph works and the second doesn’t, you’re on the right road.

  5. “but he has a point about concision not being your strong suit.” 
     
    I always figured this was intentional, the lack of concision being a sort of de facto filter on impulsive tard commenters.

  6. “Razib has little or no problem in the area in question. He should carry on as before.” 
     
    I think so too. He has his own style and he leaves one in no doubt whatsoever as to his meaning and intent.

  7. I always figured this was intentional, the lack of concision being a sort of de facto filter on impulsive tard commenters. 
     
    hm. well, i do agree that i could keep the same substance while tightening up a bit. my tendency to write loose & long has to do with the fact that i general write a post in one sitting and do one edit for obvious spelling and grammar errors. not to filter people out. 
     
    btw, use of latinate words is supposedly a feature of nerd speech.

  8. Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account. 
     
    i have to admit, that does read a bit like me.

  9. Am I the only one who prefers the Modern English version to the Biblical version?

  10. I understand the bottom one quicker, which for my purposes is better. In fact, the second one is still more obtuse than it needs to be; here’s an even better version:  
     
    ‘Success in everything is determined solely by having enough dumb luck to end up in the right place at the right time; it has nothing to do with talent.’ 
     
    A benefit is when you strip the reflexively venerated old-timey prose people can more quickly spot the empty clichés.

  11. It’s the French that I loathe: “critique”, indeed. Ugh!

  12. Razib has been reading S. J. Gould a little too enthusiastically, it seems.

  13.  
     
    Razib has been reading S. J. Gould a little too enthusiastically, it seems.
     
     
    scoundrel! you’ll never see me use the word ‘confute.’

  14. But wherever possible I give preference to words of Greek origin, because I find they almost always sound better. 
     
    like callipygian. mellifluous is latin, though.

  15. like callipygian. 
     
    at our HS they read poems over the intercom. one time the poem was titled ‘callipygian queen.’ that sent everyone to the library at lunch to look up callipygian…. (now they have iphones, so everyone would have known immediately)

  16. re: Callipygian 
     
    I used a version of that word in my Match.com profile tag line a few years ago, as follows: 
     
    “Are you a cutie, with a callipygous booty?” 
     
    Match.com forced me to edit the last word to “beauty”… either way, it garnered me a few high IQ callipygians, who appreciated my candor.

  17. That’s the benefit of a large vocabulary. You can say the nastiest things to a girl’s face, and she’ll like it, as long as it’s a GRE word. I believe one of the female posters at Sepia Mutiny once titled a blog post “Callipygia,” referring to an accompanying picture of her brown booty in summer shorts. (sorry for the gross-out there, Z)

  18. assman…thin ice….

  19. tendency to write loose & long has to do with the fact that i general write a post in one sitting and do one edit for obvious spelling and grammar errors. not to filter people out.  
     
    I meant the tard filter comment as only tongue-in-cheek. 
     
    As for writing advice, I highly recommend this book. It is mentioned briefly in the Language Instinct in the part that discusses how different syntactic structures can be more or less taxing on working memory. I think the book’s linguistics savvy puts it a cut above most style guides. Instead of relying on the simple yet at times counterproductive advice of shedding certain words or counting syllables, the emphasis goes to matching your sentence structure to the flow of information being communicated. I think this broader scope gives you a better sense of what writing (and reading) clear prose is really all about.

  20. how much immediate pay off will these sorts of style books give? i mean, i write the way i write. i don’t outline or anything, it’s kind of instinctive.

  21. With the book I linked to, I would recommend just skimming through it first to see if you find its perspective on clear writing enlightening. Brad DeLong has a brief review of it here 
    that might be worth looking at.

  22. ok, tx. so seriously, how good is your weed?

  23. ok, never mind, you don’t live somewhere where i trust weed quality ;-) (checked your IP)

  24. Tut tut, razib, you overlooked the blatant nerd reference. You are a disgrace to your people.

  25. I’d recommend reading something. I got an instant return, just by avoiding pointless adverbs and adjectives and dodging a pointless setup. eg, Birch Barlows opening to the multiple intelligence theories post:  
     
    I have come to believe that it is crucial to realize that there are other factors in intelligence besides g and its subfactors  
     
    The bolded part should be deleted. Firstly, it’s terrible English, but secondly: it comes off as a qualifier. Begin with authority!  
     
    OK, here’s what’s wrong with the modern English Bible translation. 
     
    1. It looks terrible, the reader runs a mile.  
     
    2. There is no humanity, no people involved. Who the hell is speaking? The old version has people: I returned under the sun.  
     
    3. There are no active verbs. Active verbs are the most powerful tool in the English language. I returned under the sun and saw!! Two active verbs, returned and saw, draw the reader in with their warmth and authority.  
     
    4. The words are too long. Compare syllables. Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena… uggg. length. Even worse, these long words have to be digested all at once: only one comma in the whole sentence! This is the great problem with latin words – they latch onto each other like parasites, one feeding off the other. They can?t stand alone and confident like Anglo-Saxon words, they need lots of friends backing them up. This is because they are so vague to begin with, they need more words to make them clearer. So you put in ?activities?, but then the reader mightn’t get that you’re talking about a contest, so ‘competitive’ must be added on. ‘Capacity’ doesn?t work by itself, so ?innate? must be appended. It can’t just be ‘talent’.  
     
    5. The words in the old version are good, strong and warm anglo-saxon: battle, riches, bread, race, sun. You can grasp these things, they don’t embody a vague concept like latin derived words (Consideration, phenomena) Say the word battle out loud, right now. Doesn’t it touch your bones? Every word in the modern version is a vague concept. Only two in the old version are: time and chance, at the end. And both are one syllable!  
     
    Now. Razib’s readers have the IQ to digest most of what he says. That’s a great thing. Razib’s stomach lets him digest hotter spices than most. Does that mean he should with every meal? Why make things tough?

  26. people can go too far in Strunk-and-Whitefying their style. The best aspect of Razib’s writing, imo, is his ability to choose the *best* long word or phrase to describe something in a unique way. 
     
    also, there’s something to be said for adding unnecessary stuff in the Birch Barlow way if that is how the writer otherwise talks. then again, it does have a feeling of excess. the best writers are able to strike a balance between their characteristic locution and brevity… i suppose that’s the golden mean.

  27. If everyone strongly preferred short anglo-saxon words in their writing, we would ultimately lose the rococo beauty of all those two-dollar latin sockdolagers.  
    I’m sure if you did stylometry on your writing, you’d find that you’re some kind of an outlier both in terms of word count per sentence and average word length (compared to other bloggers or for that matter writers generally). There have been posts I’ve skipped or skimmed simply because my reaction on seeing them was ‘Christ, another wall of text! I don’t have time for this right now…’. My wife has also commented on your style (she regards it as pretentious, though I know this is not the intent). 
    So anyway, yeah… you could improve your style by editing for brevity, but don’t take the style police too seriously. Flyte’s ‘translation’ of your passage is crap. I think the fundamental error is in assuming that writing is 100% about efficient communication, when aesthetics and entertainment clearly have a role too. 
    Looking at the passage from Ecclesiastes, you can see that the original is hardly as brief or direct as it could be. The rewrite using big words is obviously terrible, but a rewrite to be as concise and clear as possible would still not be as good as the original.

  28. Bbartlog 
     
    My translation is basic, not crap.  
     
    Razib himself said he doesn?t care about style, and only wants to get his message out there. Quote: One thing I do want to add is that it’s not all part of my “style? His writing process just feels natural to him. I don?t care about style either. And Zinsser doesn?t like it. He criticises guys who say to him ?I want to find my style, what?s my style etc? And I don?t see why a short post telling us about a book review and an upcoming book review by himself should have a ?style?. Half Sigma writes in a simple manner too. And the most boisterous and energetic of all ? Tom Wolfe. Style comes after mastering the basics. You can?t become a stylistically brilliant violinist without first learning the rules. 
     
    And about Ecclesiastices. The purpose of that wasn?t to show brevity, but to compare word-choice, word-length, and word-impact.

  29. My translation is basic, not crap.  
     
    Aesthetically, in my not so humble opinion, it’s crap. If you evaluate it purely on the basis of efficient communication, then it’s fine – so maybe the problem is simply that we are not looking for the same thing at all. The following in particular grates on me: 
     
    could?ve got some of the details elsewhere. I?ve ran through 
     
    This sounds ungrammatical to my ears – I would use ‘could’ve gotten’ and ‘I’ve run through’.  
     
    I don’t care about style either 
     
    Um wat? I guess you mean that you aren’t (in this context) interested in stylistic goals other than efficient communication. Obviously you do care about style, else why the critique? 
     
    I don?t see why a short post [...] should have a ?style? 
     
    Now you seem to be claiming that there is such a thing as an absence of style. Concise, unadorned writing is a stylistic choice just as prolix writing is. I suppose if by ‘style’ we want to refer only to unusual choices that give the author a particular voice, and not to different ways of writing in general, then your points would make more sense to me.

  30. For what that’s worth : 
    I’m a french speaker and i find english prose that’s too close to french or too latinate to be slightly annoying . English prose that’s heavy on the anglo/germanic is cool because i actually learn new words reading it , not just anglicized french words that i already know . Of course too anglo-saxon a style quickly overwhelms a modern english speaker . English isn’t really english without its latin heritage afterall. A good mix of both kinds of roots is probably the best.

  31. Yes I didn’t edit my own edit, I know. I responded to that critique on my own thread. Ideally, I should have altered it. I translated it out loud and wrote down what I said.  
     
    re style: i meant guys who try to find their own personal style without learning the basics.

  32. Question: Why do nerds like Lord of the Rings?  
     
    Whence this strange combination of medieval mysticism and all things science? Nerd culture is obsessed with cold, long words, as Razib says. The more abstract the better. But they also love wizards and magic.  
     
    On first reading LOTR the nerd feels a rush of cool air on his face, because he has never read such clarity before. He grasps all the words, instantly – they don’t require the usual mental adjustment/translation. All the words are warm and strong: they touch him in a deep place. Here is Tolkien’s great climax. 
     
    The earth groaned and quaked. The Towers of the Teeth swayed, tottered and fell down; the mighty rampart crumbled; the Black Gate was hurled in ruin; and from far away, now dim, now growing, now mounting to the clouds, there came a drumming rumble, a roar, a long echoing roll of ruinous noise. 
     
    What energy, active verb after active verb after active verb: groaned, quaked, swayed, tottered, crumbled, hurled, growing, mounting, drumming…The nerd falls back in his seat, defeated, dazzled.  
     
    But he doesn’t now why this has affected him so much, so he keeps to his Latin. Zinsser can tell the nerd why this keeps drawing him back.

  33. Per Orwell: 
     
    I thought that ‘Politics in the English Language’ essay was at least partly about mealy mouthed usage of English’s latinate vocabulary where a politician might use to say something but not say it, as when someone might say that there are too many deer, so we have to ‘liquidate some portion of the deer population’ rather than ‘kill a lot of deer’ (or people). In a native English speaker, words like ‘kill’, ‘murder’, and ‘slaughter’, I guess cause neurons to fire that cause neurons in the limbic system to fire, while the neuron for ‘liquidate’ isn’t connected to the limbic system. Since ‘connected to neurons in one’s limbic system’ doesn’t fire any neurons in the limbic system, I guess a better way of putting that, is that a native English speaker understands “kill” in his belly as well as his head, but “liquidate” only in his head. 
     
    Given that Z does a lot of controversial topics in his posts, I think staying with the latinate vocabulary is probably a good idea. If he were to go Anglo Saxon, the comment section would probably get a lot less high minded.

  34. Per that LOTR quote: 
     
    The passage gets it’s coolness from the fact that every word in it leads to an emotional response in a native English speaker. The point about the latinate vocabulary is precisely, to a native English speaker, that it doesn’t.

  35. Interesting point j mct. LOTR is very popular in Germany, and German is a very earthy language. I’m not sure how popular it is in the romance languages.

  36. As a long-term lurker, I admit to a slight irritation at Razib’s writing style. His writing leans toward the pretentious side, which is not so bad as long as it’s clear. But often, I find his sentences convoluted without the benefits of say, precision or gasp! eloquence. This is a minor peccadillo; but it’s food for thought.

  37. I’ve wondered about stuff like that too. 
     
    Of course our latinate vocabulary comes mostly from French, but I’d bet words that don’t really resound in the gut to an English speaker might do so to a French speaker, so they don’t really mean the same thing even if they were synonyms on some sort of level. I’d also suppose that lots of words that don’t create a gut reaction that are directly from latin, very well did to an ancient Roman. I’m not sure that just the specifics to how it sounds matters all that much. 
     
    But maybe it does and I’m wrong. French, Latin, and Greek, have reputations for being better ‘philosophical’ languages than English, because the words themselves, based on how they’re pronounced not getting to the hearer’s gut, but… I kind of doubt it. I can just imagine a native French speaker listening to some guy like Marshal Ney going off on a cussing tirade would hear something very much like us listening to General Patton doing the same, while he would sound vaguely ridiculous to us, because French doesn’t sound all that cussed to us. 
     
    Maybe the French commenter above could help us out on that score.

  38. One last, per German being ‘earthy’. 
     
    I’d ssay that it is at least possible, that German sounds ‘earthy’ to us and French sounds ‘airy’, because of what the German and French words mean in English. 
     
    If anyone in GNXP’s wide international readership is a native Chinese speaker, does German sound ‘earthy’ and French sound ‘airy’ to native Chinese speakers?

  39. If anyone in GNXP’s wide international readership is a native Chinese speaker, does German sound ‘earthy’ and French sound ‘airy’ to native Chinese speakers? 
     
    cantonese sounds ‘earthy’ and mandarin dialects ‘airy’ to this english speaker ;-)

  40. My source for the earthiness of German theory? Friends. These guys. Oh, and this guy.

  41. Wait. Replace ‘earthiness of Germany theory’ with the Earth-German Guess. Sounds earthier.

  42. Well it all depends on the speaker, I’ve met Wolfgang Joop and when he speaks German it takes on a very airy fairey quality ;)

  43. I love this thread. Whether any realize or not, all you guys are at least partly correct while mssing an important aspect of the larger picture. 
     
    There’s more than one way to “skin a cat,” as the man said; “yeah–diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks.” “Whatever floats your boat.” 
     
    What you’re really discussing is the amazing range of vocabulary, construction, and other stylistic options available to the speaker/writer of English. It’s open-ended in ways that make it a virtually infintely-expandable means of communication, literally guaranteeing eventual primacy among all those intent on communicating. 
     
    It is common (and a leftist trope) that the dominance of English is perceived as an outgrowth of an imaginary “imperialism” characteristic of capitalism, likening those in the ever-widening orbit of international trade to conquered peoples for whom familiarity with the language of their masters is a prerequisite to anything more than survival. 
     
    But the truth is, while more complex than I can explain or even begin to comprehend fully, in one respect, simple: English has become intentionally universal, the recognized language, not only of free trade, but of liberty itself, thoughout the world. 
     
    And, to return to picking our favorites from among renderings of the Biblical observation (above), I’m surprised nobody had seen fit to cite our own (American) contribition: 
     
    “The race may not always be to the swift, nor the battle to the strong–but that’s the way the smart money bets.”

  44. Does anti-Latinate sentiment demonstrate cycles of fashion? 
     
    Maybe there’s something to it, but bear in mind that academics will always try to force their stupid tastes in fashion on everyone else. Sure, be concise, use active verbs — OK, I can do that with Latin-derived words. 
     
    Germanic words sound very different, though, so if you need to give a strong emotional coloring to your thoughts through sound, then they’re more worthwhile. Clobber, flapdoodle, botched up, etc. Same with Yiddish words.

  45. BTW, the worst offenders are not science nerds but arts and humanities majors — y’know, the ones who boast about their writing skills. Tacking “-ality” onto nouns for show (“directionality” — real word, but always used when “direction” is meant), using bozo metaphors just to sneak in big words (“violence is embedded in a larger social pattern” — should be, “is part of,” etc.), and so on. 
     
    Denis Dutton’s worst writers contest is typically won by arts and humanities people.

  46. Sure Agnostic. A Latin active verb is better than no active verb, but anglo-saxon ones have greater impact, as Latin verbs always come off as a little passive or abstract. A quick googled comparison: 
     
    skewer v. perforate 
     
    swerve v. deviate 
     
    grind v. pulverize 
     
    Only pulverize touches the bones.  
     
    The verb ‘to google’ in it’s active form ‘I googled’ is an interesting example of nerd culture making things simpler.

  47. Germanic words sound very different [...] Clobber, flapdoodle, botched up, etc. 
     
    Clobber and flapdoodle are not Germanic (they are of relatively recent origin). ‘Botched’ apparently goes back to middle english but has no cognate in German that I am aware of (and German is my first language). Seems like we’re starting to drift a little…

  48. I’m in quebec actually , but I’m very familiar with “standard ” french . 
    You’re underestimating accent . There are regional accents here and in france, especially in the countryside, that sound extremely rough and unpolished :) 
     
    Latin rooted words form the vast majority of french vocab and they  
     
    broadly came to us in 2 ways.  
    The first way was via the natural transformation of vulgar latin by speakers of a celtic and germanic background . This gave us words like “moyen” and “chevre” for mean and goat .  
    People who knows lots of romance languages notice  
    that common, everyday speech french word are in general morphologically much more removed from the original latin than the corresponding spanish or italian or even rumanian words. This is especially because modern french derives from northern french dialects , whose pronunciation was very germanic influenced.  
     
    These organically transformed words can sound quite earthy. They’re the everyday language words , basically , along with a few germanic rooted words.  
     
    The 2nd souce of latin rooted words in french comes from wordsmithing by intellectuals .This happened a lot towards the end of the middle ages, during the renaissance and early modern era . This gave words like “medium” and “caprin” . The germanic sounds like -CH are nowhere to be seen in that group of words. They sound more “airy”  
     
    Does anyone know ways to make italian sound earthy and not silly ?

  49. Does anyone know ways to make italian sound earthy and not silly ? 
     
    listen to a neapolitan try to speak “italian”? ;-)

  50. I give preference to words of Greek origin
     
    If that were true, you’d have used genesis there rather than the L. origin

  51. Clobber and flapdoodle are not Germanic (they are of relatively recent origin). ‘Botched’ apparently goes back to middle english but has no cognate in German that I am aware of (and German is my first language).  
     
    I mean Germanic, not German, origin. Like, the Germanic family of languages (English, Dutch, German, etc.), as opposed to the Latin / Romance family.

  52. “Denis Dutton’s worst writers contest is typically won by arts and humanities people.” 
     
    Well that is because there is no there there. Write it simply and it obviously false, or simple.  
     
    Anyone notice that in Flytes translation of this ( simple sentence) 
     
    “I suspect it’ll be the first positive review of a right-wing book on Scienceblogs” 
     
    becomes this: 
     
    “It’ll be the first positive review of a right-wing book in Scienceblogs history..” 
     
    Suspecting that you are going to do something is not the same as categorically saying you will, in fact no one would write the second sentence having not read the book. So misleading translation.

  53. The verb ‘to google’ in it’s active form ‘I googled’ is an interesting example of nerd culture making things simpler. 
     
    Not really, since verbing nouns is a rather standard phenomena across languages and has been occurring in English for centuries. It’s not a product of nerdish efficiency. 
     
    In regards to active verbs, just like cutting out latinate verbs can lead you astray so can dogmatically avoiding the passive. Compare the following sets of sentences: 
     
    1. Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists studying the nature of black holes in space. The collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble creates a black hole
    2. Some astonishing questions about the nature of the universe have been raised by scientists studying the nature of black holes in space. A black hole is created by the collapse of a dead star into a point perhaps no larger than a marble. 
     
    The use of the passive here makes for better continuity. By making “A black hole” the subject rather than the object of the second sentence, you know immediately how the information in the first sentence relates to what you’ve just read. Not having to wait until the end of the sentence to make this link provides for a more direct, continuous reading experience. Rather straightforward, but harping on simplistic style rules can make you miss the obvious.

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