Demotic or Not?
By: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
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.