I sat with a long time friend for a conversation. Curiously, our topic was “conversation.” We reminisced about the things we used to talk about ages ago, most of the time over the few available books and current affairs from a couple of international news media outlets. It was those days when access to books was limited, and the internet was not around, least of all taken for granted as it is now.

After a little while, it was time we had to part ways. While we were leaving the café, my friend started to lament about the decreasing number of conversations he has these days with his two sons at home. I wished I could have heard more from him on that, yet it could not happen because of urgent commitments curtailing the important conversation.

Later on, as I arrived at my house, I started to ponder over our struggle not to get through with conversations. The threat posed by the cutthroat competition from algorithmic tools backed and tailored to one's taste, “images” rather than “ideas” dominated exchanges on social media. The ongoing technological changes do not look good for the future of conversation.

The rise of memes and GIFs does not bode well for our use of languages, with the vocabulary we use sparingly. The four most common spoken English words are “I,” “you,” “the,” and “a,” according to Stuart Berg Flexner. Ten basic words account for a quarter of all English speech, while 50 simple words account for about 60pc. This is despite the hundreds of thousands of words in the English language.

This does not mean that verbosity automatically translates to good conversations and communication. What Charles A. Beardsley, lawyer, told his colleagues comes to mind.

“Beware of and eschew pompous prolixity,” he said, referring to legal talk that has nothing to do with communication.

“Legalese” consists principally of long-windedness, stilted phrases such as “Know all men by these presents,” redundancies including “separate and apart” or “aid and abet.” It includes non-English words that sound unnecessarily complex, like caveat emptor(“let the buyer beware”) or amicus curiae (“friend of the court”). Despite the efforts of Beardsley and many others, the situation has not improved much to this day.

The opposite of this is probably Imagism, a brief yet influential poetry movement in the early 20th century. It was broadly characterised by brevity, precision, purity of texture and concentration of meaning.

It should “use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something ... it does not use images as ornaments. The image itself is the speech,” Ezra Pound, one of the most influential proponents of the style, said.

This is not at all a limitation. The use of words can expand with the level of accuracy the author wants to attach to any subject. It is reported that an Eskimo tribe distinguishes 100 different types of snow with 100 synonyms to match them. The walrus also has many synonyms in the Eskimo language.

“In Yupik, there are forty-seven words for a walrus, depending on what he’s doing,” writes Clay Hardy, researcher. “There is no word for time. You tell me who’s got the proper values.”

Conversation’s essence is a “dialogue” than a “monologue and brevity.”

“Since brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief,” Polonius says in Hamlet, though what Polonius is really saying is that wise men know how to put things succinctly – which the Bard knew was a dramatically ironic thing for a windy chap like Polonius to say.

But Polonius, had he followed his own rule, was right. When Victor Hugo wanted to know how his publishers liked Les Misérables (1862), he wrote them: “?” His publishers shortly responded with a brief “!” completing the briefest correspondence in history. If the quality of the conversation of my friend with his sons has improved, then there is no reason to be worried about the declining quantity.

PUBLISHED ON Dec 04,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1127]

Tadesse Tsegaye (seetadnow@gmail.com), a polyglot with experience in multicultural-cum-institutional settings in resources management.

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