Jargon generator offers a reality check on language

Sentence creation toy is 'warning' against obscurantist academic speak. John Morgan writes

December 31, 2009

Does the claim that "the linguistic construction of post-capitalist hegemony may be parsed as the delegitimisation of de Man's aesthetic ideology" sound like something from an obscure US journal?

Or does the suggestion that "the illusion of structural identity opens a space for the expropriation of metaphoric substitution" bring back memories of a particularly jargon-heavy conference presentation?

If either of these statements sounds plausible, it is because they are composites of words and phrases from academic journals, broken up and mixed together at random.

They are generated by the Virtual Academic webpage, the work of Tracy Weiner, associate director of the University of Chicago's writing programme, which aims to help advanced undergraduate and postgraduate students relay their knowledge more clearly.

She described the random sentence generator as "a toy that's trying to make a serious point".

"Students who are reading a lot of stuff that is written like this are tempted to write like this as well," Ms Weiner said.

"It is really easy for students to imitate the style before they understand what they are saying. It's a warning against imitation, frankly."

Relying on such language means that specialists "can talk only to each other", Ms Weiner added.

The Virtual Academic's companion page is the "Write Your Own Academic Sentence" feature, where visitors can choose from a stock list of words and phrases such as "linguistic transparency", "praxis", "discourse" and "reification".

The random generator will then produce provocative statements along the lines of "the eroticisation of pop culture gestures toward the legitimation of the specular economy", or "the epistemology of the gaze asks to be read as the historicisation of the gendered body".

The phrases in the generator are common currency in academia.

Ms Weiner said: "We just sat down with a whole bunch of academic journals from many different fields - with some beers, I have to say - and we picked out phrases that seemed to be popping up lots and lots of times."

But surely complex theories often require complex language?

"Sometimes you really need that specialist language for the degree of precision that will allow you to pursue a complicated argument," Ms Weiner said. "On the other hand, sometimes a word just becomes fashionable. Sometimes a specialist can think about the language they use all the time and, instead of using the word, use its definition."

The generator offers a "reality check", Ms Weiner added.

"If academics are going to talk to people outside their profession, they have to find the right balance between clarity and precision."

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

http://tinyurl.com/5bphge

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