Thursday, June 23, 2005

Doing our own thing

Still on the subject of Language Change and attitudes to it, a book by American linguist John McWhorter, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care , is worth a look.

He argues that written American English is losing its power and status to spoken American English, and charts the rise of the counter-culture movement in the 1960s, the changes in lyrics of Black American music forms and the collapse of political rhetoric as key points in this switch.

In many ways, he takes a prescriptivist view on all of this. But given the criticisms of prescriptivism that you've been subjected to on the course (the "get a life, Lynne Truss" syndrome as you might call it, or the "Norman Tebbit - no!" syndrome, perhaps), it's good to get a bit of balance.

I can't say I agree completely with his findings, his political outlook or even like his style much (in places) but there are some real gems in there. If nothing else, read the introductory chapter where he sets out his stall, and the pages on "Play That Funky Music, Whiteboy".

This also gives me the chance to point you towards a new feature of this blog: a link to a real website where resources can be made available to you outside college. I know it's too late to really help A2 students, but for the currebt AS students it could be handy, and even for you lifers (like Craig, Farouk and Amma) who're about to leave, it gives you the chance to get hold of material - if you ever need it/want it/even care - once you've left college, and more importantly to stay in touch!

It's here and I've posted various reviews of the McWhorter book on it. But just in case the website isn't quite ready, here's a review of McWhorter's book from an African-American conservative:

There was a time not long ago when an elaborate command of the English language was considered part of the fabric of American culture. In 1863 orator Edward Everett kept a crowd at Gettysburg hanging onto his every word during his three-hour speech. Three hours? Yes, because he was an excellent orator in a time when American society valued excellent orators. Even during the first half of the 20th century, a command of spoken and written English on a level that would confound many of today's college students was required by the time one finished the eighth grade. Besides that, it was the social norm; ain't so anymore.

In Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, John McWhorter examines this decline in the use of high-fallutin' English in contemporary America. He shows how people were once taught from grade school (whether or not they went on for higher education) to always put the English language in its Sunday best. W.E.B. Du Bois stands out in particular. Du Bois's first assignment in a composition class at Harvard in 1890 was to write about himself. This is what he wrote:

For the usual purposes of identification I have been labeled in this life: William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on the day after Washington's birthday, in 1868. I shall room during the present twelve-month at number twenty Flagg Street, Cambridge. As to who I really am, I am much in doubt, and can consequently give little reliable information from casual hints and observations. I doubt not that there are many who could supply better data than the writer. In the midst then of personal uncertainty I can only supply a few alleged facts from memory according to the usual way.

And if that's not enough, he finishes with this closing linguistic zinger:

I have something to say to the world and I have taken English twelve in order to say it well.

This example speaks volumes about the cultural currency that a high command of English possessed back then, and which no longer exists. Can you imagine anyone writing or speaking like this today and not be viewed as pretentious, arrogant or just plain uppity? What happened to cause American society to no longer value such an elevated command of our language?

In the 1960's, McWhorter argues, the Americans who scorned the American Establishment as oppressive and constricting also began to view the highly stylized English of earlier generations as old-fashioned and morally suspect - hence the linguistic shift from the formal to the informal. Americans of an earlier time went out of their way to write and speak good English, and the gap between written and spoken English was wide. McWhorter says all this changed around 1965. Now, we just talk - and we write how we talk. Using dressed-up English is just so "old school." This counter-cultural revolution is also reflected in poetry, music and journalism. Furthermore, the author points out that this phenomenon is uniquely American: we simply do not love our own language today like other countries love theirs (most notably France).

What new American dialect, then, best embodies this new linguistic counter-cultural paradigm? Why, Black English, of course. McWhorter points out how since the 1960's Americans of all stripes have incorporated Black English and its accompanying body language and vocal cadence into this counter-cultural toolkit. By no means criticizing Black English, he devotes considerable space in chapter five analyzing the cultural meaning of the 1970's funk music hit "Play That Funky Music, White Boy." For the P.C. crowd, try to tell a white guy to "Perform with spiritual dedication the bewitchingly vernacular songs familiar to us, young Caucasian male," and see how far that gets you.

Although the author points out that all world languages evolve, and thus the natural evolution of language in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, he also notes some important drawbacks to the modern-day tendency to "dress down" English. This can be seen particularly in the modern education establishment, where the emphasis on the formal language acquisition of earlier generations has been all but tossed out the window. While this does not bode well for anyone, it is particularly damaging to black and immigrant schoolchildren.

McWhorter covers a lot of ground in Doing Our Own Thing, giving the reader plenty to chew on. The result is a fascinating look into how the 1960's transformed American society from one that spoke the language and held it in high esteem to one in which people just talk. Regrettably, it looks as if this trend towards linguistic informality (some would call it pure laziness) will continue.

Review by: Dutch Martin

Good luck in tomorrow's exam and I'll see you in the ENA6 one next week.

1 comment:

Freddie_Ljungberg_aka_the_1_Wura_and_Ewurasi_love said...

any last minute hints about what the paper topic will b 2moro morning??