Wednesday, January 13, 2010

JOHN MCWHORTER AND ‘THE NEGRO’

John McWhorter makes an excellent point in an Op-Ed: he’s not sure that the term “Negro” is so very bad (noting particularly the verrrry proper United Negro College Fund).

He’s making the point in regard to the Obama ‘racist’ remark by Harry Reid. I’m not getting mixed up with it, nor am I implying that Harry Reid is somebody for whom I entertain a great deal of respect.

But in the process, McWhorter raises the whole subject of what is apparently now called (I didn’t get the Memo, but then it seems that the recipient-list for these things is always restricted) “African-American Vernacular English”.

I’m not going after AAVE specifically. But I want to make this single point: the complexity of any language is in some ways a very strong indicator of how competent that language is in giving its speakers a more comprehensive vocabulary of Reality.

Words and constructions function like pixels in a TV screen: the more you have, the higher the resolution of the picture you see; conversely, the fewer pixels, the fuzzier and less clear the picture.

So any language or variant or sub-language that ‘simplifies’ in the wrong ways is going to give its users a fuzzier and less-clear picture of Reality, putting them at a significant disadvantage from the get-go.

Think of radar: once the Brits had it with Chain-Home in 1940, then they could ‘see’ the Luftwaffe formations arranging themselves over their airfields in France for their attack missions over England. Once see-through radar was developed, that could penetrate cloud-cover, the Allied bombers had a much clearer and more reliable ‘view’ of the ground even at night. Ditto even up to now, where satellite-mounted cameras with tremendous resolution and even infra-red and thermal imaging can ‘see’ through all sorts of cover to get a ‘picture’ of what’s actually going on out there and down there.

So too with language: the many tenses of verbs (and think of Latin and Greek) enable a language-user to swim in Time, acutely aware – like a whale or dolphin – of the many nuances of water at different depths and temperatures. The moods – Indicative and Subjunctive – also enable a language-user to distinguish between what Is and what Might Be or Ought to Be (but isn’t at the moment) – and these are crucial distinctions not only for ‘better language’ but for giving ‘voice’ to mature human capacities of perception and analysis.

Grammar such as this is not a ‘class’ matter – like having an aristocratic Brit accent instead of some Cockney trash-talk. It is a matter of having far more advanced abilities to analyze and comprehend, which of course grant a much better chance of conducting accurate and useful deliberation, not only in one’s own mind but also when deliberating with others equally capable.

Nor is this merely a ‘professional’ language, a mystical argot spoken only among certain highly-specialized mandarin-elites who hold the mysteries of this or that area of study or knowledge (like listening to military officers or engineers or serious football fans or the electricians or plumbers working in your house or the mechanics working on your car). No, this is the basic language that Citizens must master in order to conduct their Business, which is to be The People who are employing a government now as unruly as any plumber-or-electrician from hell working on the vital mysteries of your house.

Grammar sort of got tossed in the late Sixties, when it was assumed – with poor Rousseau – that humans are ‘naturally’ good and it is ‘society’ and all its pomps and all its works that deforms humans.

To which the response can only be – and should ever have been – a polite but firm Phooey.

But no. ‘Grammar’ went away as being ‘elitist’ – so much so that (the hell-hot irony!) now only the self-proclaimed ‘elites’ can analyze and deliberate, on the basis of which they firmly believe that they – and not the Citizens – are the only ones who should have a say in how the country is run and what Shape American society and culture should take.

To which the response absolutely must be a vigorous and sustained Phooey.

In the Sixties’ witless but vigorous effort not to ‘discriminate’ or be ‘elitist’ not only were the vital competences of language tossed out, but language incompetences were raised up as golden idols of ‘naturalness’ and ‘authenticity’. Leading to a whole lotta incompetence, rendered far more treacherous for being mistaken for ‘naturalness’ to which its (greatly under-developed) users could lay claim as a ‘right’ and a ‘heritage’.

Oy.

Nor am I merely thinking of 'Ebonics'; the old Valley Girl blase 'whatevvverrrrrr' and 'like, ya know' and 'I'm like - and then he's like - and then I'm like .... ' and so on and on - are not what the serious civilization should be aiming for. It's not simply a matter of a langugage being 'expressive' as opposed to being effective at understanding; both of those tasks are important, but before one can 'express' one must 'have' ... and if there's nothing worth expressing then an 'expressive' language is going to be an exercise in futility, no matter how enjoyable and no matter how many 'customer-addled' universities now willingly enwhore their authority as instruments of higher education in order to keep their customers 'happy'.

That has to change.

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