09 August 2015

A Few Thoughts on Jargon

A friend introduced me today to the notion of "realia", which is an educational neologism originating (it seems) in the study of foreign languages, and which refers to the concrete particulars of foreign culture.  The term in that context is reasonably old. A quick Google Books Ngram search shows that the term has been in use for at least 200 years, though most of the references in the 1800s are to a genus of mollusks.  The term is used extensively in an article of an educational journal published in 1921.  However, it seems to have taken on a more generic use in education, as evidenced by this wikipedia article.  I didn't know the history of the term when I wrote the following thoughts, so the facts have robbed me somewhat of the legitimacy of their occasion, but the Wikipedia article irritated me and reminded me of a lot of educational jargon I've heard.  So here are the thoughts I shared with my friend.


"Realia" seems like one of those really obvious things that someone came up with a jargon word for so they could publish a paper or a book or something on education theory.  (Commence ruminations on jargon.)

Normally, I think jargon develops to minimize the "costs" of communication.  We agree on a bit of jargon, or one arises spontaneously, in order to make it easier to reference something, either by shortening its existing name or by drawing a distinction between two things which would be easily confused given existing nomenclature.  (Simplifying the name, or narrowing the reference.)  I suspect that jargon develops primarily around things that get referenced a lot in a particular community (because it's useful to have a short and precise way of naming that thing), or in technical analytic work when an important fine distinction is being drawn.  

For example, in biology people refer to "sequencing", because this is discussed frequently, and people will know without further specification basically what you mean.

Or in Catholic theology one often hears about semi-pelagianism, which is a strain of theological viewpoints which have one particular element in common with the theological views of Pelagius. Saying that something is "semi-pelagian" saves one the effort of saying "that theory has in common with pelagius the idea that the grace one receives initially which enables one to act for sanctifying grace is merited by human efforts without divine aid" or of calling something pelagian and then distinguishing the particular way it's pelagian.

But I don't think "realia" is actually useful in this way.  The cost of remembering the jargon word, and the cost of explaining it to outsiders both seem to outmatch the benefit of not having to say "real world objects" (which has the same number of syllables, I think, and pretty much exactly the same meaning, as far as I can tell).  I suspect that the advantage of education jargon like this (and on some level probably the reason so much of it floats around) is that it creates a linguistic difference between educational "professionals" and non-professionals that enables the former to surround their work in an obfuscatory fog, thereby preventing outsiders from passing judgment on what's being done or the validity of the underlying rationales, and adding perceived value to one's status as an "education professional".

Of course there are other reasons for it: sometimes people who train teachers want a catchphrase with which to communicate a method or approach to their trainees that will be easily memorable as a maxim later on when they're teaching or planing lessons.  I'm not sure how much "realia" would help there, but who knows.  It also creates a distinctive flavor to a particular teaching methodology (an insider code).  But honestly if you spend enough time surrounded by people who use this lingo, it becomes clear that it's all a bunch of hype and common sense (or stupidity).

I can also remark that the same sort of jargon-for-the-sake-of-a-professional-aura occurs sometimes in theology, especially in the area of biblical studies, where academics tend to want to mask the fact that a large amount of their work is piling up conjectures on the basis of a fairly small amount of historical data.  So we end up with things like the "Johannine Community" or "Q" or "deutero-Isaiah".  And people are introduced to these concepts in a way that focuses on applying them to texts, and quickly become invested in performing analysis based on them, so that one somehow forgets to ask whether they're supported by the historical evidence well, and eventually doesn't care because all the important professionals agree on them.  Outsiders might say "deutero-Isaiah is a stupid idea", but outsiders aren't the ones deciding on your tenure application or reviewing the article you submitted to the Journal of Near Eastern Studies.  (This is an oversimplification, obviously, but the phenomenon is real, even if complicated by other factors.)

But perhaps I'm totally wrong about realia.  Doubt it, though.  

[I was, at least in part.]