Sunday, August 28, 2011

Brick Wall and End-of-Line -- from a linguistic viewpoint

I had a few more thoughts on the subject of genealogical terminology.

All particular professions or groups develop their own specialized terminology commonly referred to as jargon. Jargon is not the same as the commonly used term "slang. " What is or is not slang has no real defined meaning and may be entirely contextual. The existence of slang expressions in a specific language is entirely dependent on having standard or normally acceptable speech patterns and vocabulary. For example, English has the acceptable word, policeman but there are dozens, maybe more, slang expressions for a policeman, some more or less derogatory. Slang is often considered socially unacceptable in more formal situations. You may have had an English teacher mark down a paper you wrote because you used a slang expression. In the media, depicting characters using various slang expressions can be used to identify the character with a particular social level or group. Occasionally, a slang expression will pass into general usage and thereby lose its status as slang.

The English language vocabulary and all other living languages, are constantly going through a succession of slang-to-acceptable speech transitions. The incorporation of slang expressions into the main stream of the language is one of the more obvious ways a language's vocabulary changes over time, with slang being one of the more innovative components of speech evolution.

Slang is also different than an argot. An argot is a specialized vocabulary, commonly associated with a criminal element in the society and is intended to be exclusive or even secret in nature.  When used by criminals, it is intended to prevent outsiders from understanding what is being said. See Wikipedia:Argot.

Back to jargon. To repeat, jargon is distinct from slang. Jargon usually involves the use of specialized terminology to identify the speaker as a member of a particular group and thereby exclude other, non-participants, from the conversation. Jargon is also used to achieve status within a social situation. For example, a salesperson, attorney or doctor might use a large number of jargon expressions to impress a potential client. Both slang and jargon are used to exclude and privatize otherwise open groups. To some extent, membership in a group is defined by how well an individual can employ the jargon or even the slang of the group. Jargon usage is not like slang. Specialized jargon seldom makes its way into current speech patterns, particularly because those who use the jargon wish the language to remain exclusive. Some (most) medical doctors and lawyers (university professors, accountants etc.) are also particularly adept at using jargon to increase their status. Both lawyers and doctors argue that their language usage is mandated by their profession in order to be more precise. There is a component of jargon that reflects actual definitional distinctions but much of so-called legal and medical language is exclusive not inclusive.

As both jargon and slang expressions find there way into the more common speech patterns they are usually abandoned by the people most likely to use them. Jargon terms may appear to be common words, but are used by the profession in a particular way, so as to appear to be more educated than the general population. A profession such as law, has a huge component of jargon and becoming a lawyer is to some extent learning how to speak the language of an attorney or lawyer. Jargon can also be used to enhance social distinctions. In the play, Pygmalion, Professor Higgins "reforms" Eliza Doolittle and moves her through the social structure based on changing her speech patterns and clothes.

Now what does this have to do with genealogy? To the extent that genealogy can be considered a specialized interest or even a profession, it has its own jargon i.e. a tree, a family group record, a pedigree chart, and many, many other specialized terms. One of the hallmarks of jargon usage is that the members of the group are almost entirely unaware that they are using the jargon, thus it is distinguished from an argot, where the usage is specifically intentional. So genealogists speak of "brick walls" which have nothing to do with a wall or bricks and "end-of-line" that assumes the understanding of an ancestral line as expressed by a semi-standardized pedigree chart. Neophytes to genealogy can be stymied by the terminology.

In the recent BYU Family History and Genealogy Conference a fairly high percentage of the presenters I heard used a high percentage of jargon, understandably, because the audience was obviously adherents and enthusiasts. On the other hand, the jargon used does have a tendency to discourage newcomers and reduce their level of interest, especially when genealogists are unaware they are using jargon at all.

One peculiar problem with jargon is that not all the adherents to the profession or group understand the the terms used in the same way. I recently used the terms "brick wall" and "end-of-line" in a post and it was interesting to see how differently from my usage those terms were understood by the commentators. 

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