Purple Prose and Languages

Purple Remington typewriter
I hope this doesn't sound hypocritical of me - but I really detest purple prose in the English language. This isn't because I have some kind of fear or hate of long words, and it's hopefully not because I'm too much of an uncultured philistine to grasp the true magnificence of overly complex prose.

Hopefully, it might just be because I understand a little bit about languages...

...The term actually comes from Horace's Ars Poetica (lines 14-21), where he talks about "purpureus" (literally "a purple thing"), describing flashy poetic asides that don't need to be there by comparing them to sewing purple patches on your clothing. Because of how prohibitively expensive purple dye was (it allegedly took 10,000 to 12,000 of B. brandaris, the carnivorous sea snails used to make the dye, just to make one gram), purple was a symbol of status, wealth and luxury that people would try to copy by sewing purple patches on their clothing. This was by all accounts a pretentious habit (think of Trimalchio from the Satyricon, a freed slave who tries far too hard and by all accounts is incredibly pretentious), just like trying to use incredibly tortured prose in the hope that it makes you look more cultured. (No, I am not very sympathetic towards people who use purple prose, and I'll explain why.)

Purple keyboard
The really amazing thing about Horace's advice is that Latin literature pretty much runs on purple prose: writers delight in diction (the choice of certain words), symbolism, and on occasion tortured syntax (if you have ever read Ovid's Metamorphoses, you will really know what I'm talking about with the tortured syntax - incidentally, the Metamorphoses are my unseens for my final Latin verse exam next summer. Eep!). But the thing is, you can do that in Latin and get away with it. More than get away with it - it works brilliantly because Latin is a participle-based language. Hence it can describe things incredibly vividly. It's also highly inflected, meaning that syntax can be messed around with and people will still understand - which is absolutely great for poets and writers who want to emphatically position certain words. Not to mention a rigid tense system is great for logical thinking and sorting out sequences of events. And even better, Latin is a concentrated language. You don't have to say "I am"; you just say "sum". You don't have to say "the beautiful woman"; you can just say "pulchra". You wouldn't expect that concentrated languages are suited to purple prose, but somehow that concentration leaves you far more room to describe what's going on in all sorts of ways.

Purple quill
English, on the other hand, is almost completely different. While it gets a lot of words from Latin, to be sure, it's hardly inflected at all and relies much more on syntax, meaning there's much less you can do in terms of swapping words around if you want to get across a message. Its tenses can be very sloppy, getting time confused, and it's hardly concentrated at all - you use various pronouns and auxiliaries and conjunctions all cluttering up the writing. So if you want people to understand your writing instead of drowning in it, you have to cut down on a lot of the purple prose and mainly concentrate on clear, striking writing.

So why, then, do people think that techniques transfer across languages when anyone who's at least bilingual could tell you that they really don't? Now, I like the study and teaching of the classics, but I've really got to blame generations of misguided teachers for this one:

We've been raised thinking that English is like Latin.

Ship of Loquaciousness sailing on the purple sea
This probably doesn't make that much sense, but think about it. Graeco-Roman culture has left a deep imprint on Europe and its literature. The classics have been taught and passed down pretty much since we had an education system and things only intensified with the Italian Renaissance and the birth of Renaissance humanism. And we found our literary role models in the classics: Homer, Hesiod, Cicero, Ovid, Virgil, Tacitus, Catullus, Livy, Suetonius, Horace, even writers where the manuscripts are heavily corrupt such as those of Propertius...

...So far, so good. Nothing is wrong with that. All of them were brilliant writers.

Purple prose cat wants a cheezburger, but it takes about 10 minutes of him pontificating before he gets to the point
The problem comes when, after having analysed their techniques, you decide to apply them to your vernacular language. If you're working with a language like English, you can see where this is heading: prose so purple it's heading for the ultraviolet region.

And this is what we've been doing for a very, very long time. This is why some people think purple prose is good prose. This is why some people think cluttered, incomprehensible writing is a sign of great talent when actually it's a sign that you need some practice with working out what works well in your own language and what doesn't.

Incredibly purple prose
And this is arguably a reason why we should be teaching things like this in the study of languages, living or dead. Languages change, it's true, but generally the structure - the skeleton - of a language stays static enough for people to work out what it's like, and this structure determines what you can and can't do with the language when trying to write well, when trying to stir people's hearts or get them to pay attention to your otherwise nearly incomprehensible PhD thesis.

People would do well to pay attention to that structure.