Demotic or Not?

Originally, and still to linguists and historians, the word “demotic” referred to the day-to-day, or common, script used by ancient Egyptians for business transactions, records, and, most likely, what might have passed for correspondence. Hieroglyphics were usually reserved for the sacred and monumental uses, and employed by the priesthood.

In more recent times, authors have been classified as to whether their writing is “demotic” or “literary,” although sometimes instead of “literary,” the term “hieratic” (meaning priestly writing) is used. In other words, does a writer put down words like the common folk speak them, or is he or she highfalutin and esoteric in word choice and sentence structure?

What brought all this terminology to mind is that recently I ran across a commentary that, if I read and understood it correctly, seemed to suggest that Robert A. Heinlein had begun as a demotic writer and moved more to a “literary” style in his later works. The same commentary suggested that while demotic writers tend to be more popular in their lifetimes, the work of writers with a more literary style outlasts the demotic stylists, with the notable exception being Mark Twain.

To me, all this misses several points. Is the way the author writes true to the author? And does it matter so far as the reader is concerned? And could it be, perhaps, that “literary” prose outlasts demotic prose because the beauty of the words and the presentation of the ideas and/or story outlast a style that becomes dated as society changes, linguistically, socially, and technologically?

In truth, I have no idea if any of those hypotheses are correct. All I know is that, for the most part, I write in the manner in which I speak – except the sentences I put in the books are much, much shorter, because, as my family knows, I can speak sentences that are far too long.

7 thoughts on “Demotic or Not?”

  1. Corwin says:

    Having read the book to which you refer, one must acknowledge that the style in RAH’s works does change over time. However, isn’t that simply what one would expect as a writer grows and matures and thus enhances their skill. Likewise, as audiences change, so must a writer if he/she wish to keep an audience. One also should remember that Heinlein began writing both for pulps and for what is now called Young Adults so one would expect there to be stylistic change and growth over the years. If I compare your earliest work to your latest (all of which I have), I can definitely see growth and development in you as well. Don’t change your style too much though, I like it as it is. 🙂

  2. R. Hamilton says:

    Personally, I favor dialog being a slightly more readable* approximation of how the character might speak, given their background and context; and for historical novels, reasonably accurate to that, notwithstanding modern PC sensibilities (e.g. Mark Twain) – it was how it was, and perhaps slightly less jarring even for those on the short end, insofar as they could tell what was meant to be hostile and what was merely thoughtless or condescending. Certainly I don’t hold with censoring or bowdlerizing, esp. what was intended better in the context of the times, than it might appear today. (Mark Twain, Stowe, etc) It shouldn’t require elaborate trigger warnings to briefly convey that speech and expectations differed in the past, and to try to evaluate in context and not by today’s standards.

    For first person narration, I’d say the same, adjusted to be even a bit less idiosyncratic*, perhaps with the guise that the story was told enough after the fact that the narrator had gained some sophistication, or at least as much as they’d gained by the end of the story.

    For third person narration, I’d prefer timeless elegance, but not the sort of exotic vocabulary that Donaldson favors, or at least not so much of it when more accessible words would do every bit as well.

    That much variability and context might be rather demanding; but in a communication with a single sender and multiple recipients, it seems to me that the burden is on the sender, that, though they might challenge their readers, they shouldn’t create obstacles without thought and purpose, but esp. in fiction, should provide an immersive but comprehensible experience. Joyce was brilliant, but how much more would whatever the substance of his work be appreciated if it didn’t take months of struggle to even begin to decode it? Carrol though, can be taken as amusing nonsense even if one isn’t reading the annotated version that explains most of the inside jokes and references.

    * I seem to recall Asimov saying something to the effect that he favored clarity over style; and mostly I appreciated that when reading his work.

  3. JRB says:

    I don’t know if “Demotic” writing is more wordy than “Literary” writing, but I do know that when RAH started writing, he was probably being paid by the word. Shorter, punchier, Anglo-Saxon English was probably more profitable (and salable) then the more polysyllabic, Latinate writing.
    On the other hand, I remember his later works becoming increasingly wordy and unwieldy. So what do I know.

  4. Franklyn Hamsher says:

    A suggestion relating to word choices. In your various series over the years you often use different words to denote times and days of a week,months, seasons, etc. I find such changes difficult to track from book to book and series to series.

    Would it be possible to put a descriptive explanation either in each book of a series moving forward as you sometimes do with recurring characters? An alternative might be to provide such explanations on the web site.

    Many thanks!

    1. Wine Guy says:

      I have noted this as well but since it remains consistent within the story (or series), it becomes part of what makes that milieu unique. While I understand Mr. Hamsher’s point, my vote is nay.

  5. zach says:

    Do not about demotic or literary writing styles but I found that with “stranger in a strange land” RAH’s writing changed. I much preferred his earlier style and have reread them many times where as his later books I have probably only twice thrice.

    The imager series I have reread all of them so many times that I have had to replace some of them. The same applies to some of the recluse series.

  6. Wine Guy says:

    “Demotic” vs. “Literary” is one of the reasons I got into a lot of arguments with my Humanities professors in college.

    I may or may not have said during one heated discussion that the difference was merely “mental masturbation to provide Masters and PhD’s to people who can’t handle the rigor of engineering and science degrees.”

    Yes, I dropped the class.

    Yes, I was a Biochemistry major. Why do you ask?

    (I may have altered my stance since then… a little.)

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