One of my modules this year is about Law and Language, and one of the first things we’ve looked at is Legalese. One of the most confusing dialects of English I’ve ever seen.
And yes, I do call it a dialect. Because to those who are unable to speak it, it’s basically incomprehensible. Full of jargon, full of weird phrasing, with everything ending up sounding very posh and clunky.
But that got me thinking. How much of what I say as a Christian is incomprehensible?
One of the funnier examples we had in the Law seminar went as follows:
‘Judge: Are you the defendant?
Defendant: No, I’m the guy who did it…’
How far should we go in making things understandable?
The topic of ‘Christianese’ has come up several times in the past year, but it’s particularly pertinent for me now, as we’re looking at just how important language use is.
Looking at examples of terrible legal sentences, a few things have become clear.
Be clear and concise. A long sentence whose main clause does not have a verb within a short period from the beginning of the sentence and whose subject and verb are separated by several subordinate clauses and which is so long that by the time you get to the end of the sentence you’ve forgotten the beginning of that sentence because of so many unnecessary repetitions of a word which represents the concept you are talking about, is hard to understand.
Use simple language. If that’s unavoidable, try to explain it. So I could be talking about sin. To make things clear and concise it’s probably best that I just use the word “sin”. But it’s probably worth explaining that “sin” is something that we think, say or do which is not pleasing to God. Something that separates us from a perfect relationship with God.
Of course there are others. Unnecessary wordiness, dodgy phrasing, binomials (where the two words mean exactly the same thing but both are deemed necessary…)…
Language is a powerful tool that, used well, can really help people understand what we believe and why we believe it. But we have to take care; we can start to alienate people just by the words we say, and that’s not very helpful when we’re aiming to spread God’s affection, tenderness and devotion. Sorry, I meant “love”…