A Scholarly Approach to the Colloquialization of Academia.

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Listen. I used to be one of those people who was like “Unless I use proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and vocabulary at all times, no one will take me seriously.” Guess what! That’s not literally even true!

And before anyone tells me I have misused the word “literally”: Not anymore! I have a bit of news for everyone who relies on technicalities and dictionary definitions for their terms: language changes. Like, in Old English, “to starve” meant “to kill,” “awesome” was anything that caused awe, and any animal was just called “a deer.” These meanings don’t exist any more because language evolved to a place where the original definition has become obsolete to the way people use these words today. If I say “wasn’t that an awesome flash flood that destroyed the better part of our humble town,” chances are no one will pick up on my intended meaning, and if you point at an iguana and call it a deer, you will look like a genuine fool.

Academia in particular has this super specific vernacular and style that a) is rooted in traditions that are centuries of years old, b) excludes anyone that can’t mimic this style, c) is completely arbitrary, and d) has no need to exist anymore.

The elitism of academia has been around since the times when only the richest folks in town knew how to read. “You’re only smart if you can afford to be! Poor people can’t have ideas because they don’t know how to communicate them in written form!” said the bourgeoisie. In the 17th century, the rich and scholarly got even more pretentious by referring back to antiquity to inform their values. It should come as no surprise that their precious ancient Greek philosophers also favored the aristocracy. Both Plato and Aristotle believed in stratified societies that prefer the few elite individuals over the many plebeian masses; it’s really not hard to see how this became distorted into the rule by divine right of kings in European monarchy. Even Plato’s ideal society, The Republic, was like “The god who made you mixed some gold into those who are adequately equipped to rule, because they are the most valuable,” implying that some citizens are literally worth more than others, which seems an odd way to run a theoretical utopia.

To the 17th century scholars, Latin and Greek represented a period of philosophy and progress, and thought that by mimicking these cultures they could bring about an artificial age of enlightenment. Ancient civilizations were remembered exclusively as environments that cultivated philosophical and cultural thought, rather than as empires that enslaved nations and conquered land by force. 17th century scholars didn’t give a shit about that. So, during the neoclassical era, only the wealthy could afford to learn how to read; only the wealthy had the free time to study Latin; only the wealthy could contribute to literature. Education was valued and sought after, but only a few could hope to attain it. In addition to justifying their elitism by appealing to The Great Philosophers, they borrowed thousands of words from Latin, and retroactively made English into a Latinate language by adding in silent letters and arbitrary grammar rules.

It would be swell if these new rules were efficient to communication, but instead they were the exact opposite, which really undermines what “language” is all about. For instance: the split infinitive. Academics are always trying to cramp James T. Kirk’s style by saying it should not be “to boldly go,” but “to go boldly.” Why? Because in Latin, “to go” is one word and academics in the 17th century decided that if Latin can’t split up an infinitive, then neither can we. We need to make sacrifices if we want to sound fancy. The thing is, this is an archaic rule applied for an arbitrary reason. If people easily understand what is being said, and the goal of communication is to make ideas easily understood by people, then how can it possibly be wrong? Appeal to tradition is an informal fallacy that needs to be stopped. To say “this is right, because this is the way it was done in the past” raises the question “why was this done in the past?” The latter question is answered by the former, creating an infinite regress, referring eternally back to the precedents of precedents. And besides, maybe in the future they don’t care about splitting infinitives. Why is anyone trying to apply 17th century language rules to the 23rd century? They don’t even have currency in their society anymore!

Finally, at the beginning of the 20th century when industrialization was swinging its heavy hammer down upon the western world, when there was a working class instead of just “lords” and “glorified slaves,” folks started to question the weird and arbitrary institutions that kept education limited to the upper class. Yet, in an academic setting today “the elite” has shifted from being “the rich” to being “the most capable of adhering to the rules set by the 17th century scholars who ruined the English language,” known by a more commonplace name, “professional.”

Academics are quick to dismiss any argument that does not abide by the rules of syntax, grammar, and vocabulary as “unprofessional.” This makes it inaccessible to a majority of the population, which includes people who are learning English as a second language, people with reading disabilities, and people who are too excited about their topic to reduce their writing into a dry pablum just so it is palatable to the restless ghosts of three-hundred-year-old scholars. Failing to use the correct form of “your” in a sentence doesn’t render the sentiment meaningless. Just because I use a lot of excess punctuation marks in my writing doesn’t mean my point is invalid!!!

Anyway, maybe I’m a literary anarchist, maybe I’m a rebel without a clause, but it’s about time that the institutions surrounding academia, education, and professionalism got a little bit more inclusive and a little bit less completely ridiculous.

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