Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities Public Lecture Series

Talking Both Ways: Cultivated Elites and Popular Language in the Humanities

English has thousands of words drawn from other languages, especially from French, although only a limited number of those still bear the marks of foreignness. Savoir-faire and déjà vu, for example, belong to everyday talk even while being identified as foreign. The jocose phrase “déjà vu all over again” shows perfectly well how such expressions can be foreign and familiar at the same time. But there is a set of expressions drawn from a wider range of foreign languages that is found only in cultivated English. Expressions like Weltanschauung and fin-de-siècle belong to that group. They have a significant role in the practice of humanists. What is the function of such terms? What do scholars actually gain by maintaining a range of more or less foreign words in scholarly conversation? An aggressive criticism heard often in our time is that highly cultivated talk of that kind is motivated largely by snobbery, and deserves to be ignored as the chatter of an elite. Such foreign-derived expressions, according to a populist view, are exclusive in both senses of the word. They appear to have high exchange value because it takes a long time to acquire them, and their use further ensures that the majority of the population will not be able to take part in specialised conversation. Whatever the limitations of populist criticism—and they are considerable—humanities scholars today cannot simply hold to elitist practices as if by right. While some of our number may be recalcitrant, there is now a clear collective expectation that what we say will be couched in terms that can resonate outside the academy. Our work is being assessed for its engagement and for the public benefits it can bring, and there is no proper reason for us to reject that requirement.

It is not clear, however, just what that exigency might mean for our practice of cultivated language. In principle, the answer is clear enough. It is that scholarly knowledge should be translatable and, where appropriate, actually translated into commonsense language. But how, if at all, can scholarly talk be manhandled into everyday language without losing the fine nuances that give it value? The difficulty—some would say, the impossibility—of translation from one language to another has preoccupied humanities scholars for centuries. It informs the great scholarly tradition of philology, which will be invoked in this talk and examined for its past value as well as for its challenging unsuitability to our present ways of thinking.

Peter Cryle is an Emeritus Professor in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Queensland. He is the author of a number of books on the history of sexuality and the history of medical thinking, including Geometry in the Boudoir (Cornell UP, 1994), The Telling of the Act (U of Delaware P, 2001), and, with Alison Moore, Frigidity: An Intellectual History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). His most recent book, co-authored with Elizabeth Stephens, is Normality: A Critical Genealogy (Chicago UP, 2017).

Please RSVP for this lecture here.

6.00pm Thursday 21 September 2017
Room E109, Forgan Smith East, St Lucia Campus, University of Queensland
For further information, please contact or 07 334 69492.

All welcome.


Room E109, Forgan Smith East, St Lucia Campus, University of Queensland