My wife and I went last night to a farewell gathering for one of her cousins, who is moving with her husband to California. We were at Bar 13 in Manhattan, a place I havent been to since I gave a couple of readings there about five or six years ago in the series that maybe they still hold on the first Monday of the month. Originally, the gathering was supposed to be in a different place, where my wife’s cousin had booked a private room, but through a series of misunderstandings that room turned out not to be available, so what was supposed to be a small, intimate and emotional goodbye gathering, turned into the packed rooftop space at Bar 13, where were wedged in shoulder-to-shoulder with people almost all of whom looked to be at least twenty-five-years younger than I am. We spent most of the time standing near the bar talking to relatives, getting jostled as people walked back and forth, and while it was a little bit disappointing, it was also interesting to watch the goings on. I have not been out in a place where college-age and under thirty people go to party in a long time and so, during the lulls in conversation, I put on what a friend and I used to call our “anthropologist’s hat,” and just observed what was going on.
Mostly, of course, things havent changed all that much since I was in college. People who go out to drink and dance are people who go out to drink and dance, but one thing caught my eye, and I really had to force myself not to stare: two young men at the end of the bar were nuzzling each other’s necks and then tentatively kissing and then deep into a fully passionate make-out session, and nobody was paying any special attention to them, not even the people who stepped up to the bar next to them to order drinks. The guys were so into each other that it was beautiful to watch, but what really astonished me, in a giddy, happy way, was that everyone around them was responding as if it were a normal thing to see, no differently than if a heterosexual couple had been doing the same thing. Even five years ago I don’t think that would’ve been the case, and I think I can say pretty safely that ten years ago it would never have happened – at least not in a place with as mixed a crowd as Bar 13’s rooftop had last night
So this got me thinking about how times have changed, about the kinds of progress that have been made in terms of gay rights, women’s rights, civil rights and so on, and I remembered how happy I was after the conversation my freshman composition class had about the speech on race that Barack Obama gave in March 2008 in response to the controversy surrounding his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. What made me happy was not their analytical responses to the speech itself, but the way the conversation proceeded, specifically the way the white students in the class did not get at all defensive about the idea that, as white people, they simply did not have to worry about race and racism the way the Black students in the class had to. Ten years ago that defensiveness would have been a huge stumbling block. Now, it’s entirely possible that the luck of the draw just happened to hand me a class filled with more or less progressive (in terms of race at least) white students, and I am certainly not going to argue that this one anecdote indicates a sea change in how we deal with race in this country, but it was hard for me not to notice that this conversation was markedly different from the ones I used to have and, at least to myself, celebrate it just a little bit.
The conversation took an especially interesting turn, at least to me, when one of the white students in class asked what has become one of the most predictable questions in these discussions, Why is it okay for Black people to call each other the n-word, but it’s not okay for white people to do the same thing?” At this point, I inserted myself into the discussion – which had been moving along quite well without me – and suggested that we ought not to be afraid, in a context like this, where no one was calling anyone names, where someone asked an honest question and deserved an honest answer, to say the word nigger out loud. To be afraid to say the word, I suggested to the class, would be to give it a kind of power it ought not to have. The Black students in the class, all of whom I would say are younger than twenty-five, especially the African-Americans (a couple are from other countries) nodded their heads when I said that, and some of the white students did as well, and then the Black students started to tell stories about their experience with the word, from being called a nigger by white racists to their parents and grandparents responses to the word to the one African-American woman who talked about how she uses the expression “my nigga” to refer to both her Black and white friends.
None of the Black students had a problem saying the word out loud, while some of the white students continued to say the n-word. I found this fascinating as an example of language politics in action – and I’m not going to say more about it than that since I didn’t ask people to talk about why they did or did not use the word – but what really moved me about the conversation was watching this mixed-race group of relative strangers talk about racism not as if it were no big deal, but as if the fact of its being a big deal were so obvious that it hardly merited comment (if that makes sense) and so the discussion was one of the most honest, least contentious and constructive discussions of race I have ever witnessed. This too, I think, would not have happened ten or even five years ago, though, as I said above, whether this experience in this class is suggestive of anything larger than this experience in this class is a question I am not qualified to answer.
And of course this question of what words are and are not appropriate makes me think of the official silencing of Michigan Representative Lisa Brown for her use of the word vagina on the House floor in Michigan about a week or so ago. Here’s the video of her remarks, which I think provides all the context you need:
I’m not going to go into detail about the whole story, since you can read plenty about it elsewhere, and I am not so sure I have much to add to what has already (more or less predictably) been very well said, though to read what I think is a brilliant response from a slightly different perspective, check out this blog post on The Dirty Normal. But it strikes me that Brown’s statement is a perfect example of what it means to make the personal political. Or, perhaps more accurately, to refuse to avoid dealing with the fact that the political is also always personal, that there are real people, with real bodies, whose lives are really at stake in the laws we make concerning reproductive rights; and that to expect a woman-with-a-vagina to discuss a law that involves her body, without making her body – and I mean here her own body, not some abstract body-with-a-vagina that she shares with all women like her all over the world – part of the discourse, is to impose on her a kind of self-alienation that ought to have no place in a democracy.
The words we use to talk about ourselves and about each other are also the words we use to give meaning to our bodies, to what it means that we exist physically in the world. In this sense, the issues surrounding the word nigger are not so different from the ones raised by Lisa Browns statement, or at least the responses of the Republican men in the house to that statement — even though nigger and vagina are in so many ways universes apart – and I would venture to say that if you examined how easily the people at Bar 13 were able to accept the gay couple making out at the bar you would find that it was in part rooted in a change in the language through which they understand the meaning of the homosexual body. And that is a very, very good thing.
I am teaching two classes this month, Literature of the Holocaust and Freshman Composition. It’s an interesting combination, since the Holocaust literature class focuses on the use of language to make art, and therefore a kind of beauty, out of content that is anything but conventionally beautiful and the freshman composition class is focused on helping students learn how to use language precisely and persuasively, without being focused on the mastery of a particular content. I’ve decided I want to spend some time this summer blogging about the readings I assign in these classes and the discussions we have about them.
The first essay I have asked my composition class to read is “2b or Not 2b?” by David Crystal, a defense of texting not just as a means of communication, but as “language in evolution.” Crystal starts out by quoting John Humphrys who, in an essay called “I h8 txt msgs: How texting is wrecking our language,” wrote that people who text are “vandals…doing to our language what Genghis Khan did to his neighbors 800 years ago. They are destroying it: pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.” Humphrys, of course, is not alone in feeling this way, though is expression of contempt may be a bit extreme. My colleagues and I complain often about how frequently the language of texting finds its way into the essays students write for us, substituting the letter u for you, the number 2 for to, two, or too, and I even had one student who, in a literary analysis, kept referring to “the txt of the poem.” Oddly enough, my students tend to be no less critical. During the pre-reading discussion we had today, more than a few of them suggested that people who use texting abbreviations do so because they are lazy; one woman admitted that she’d stopped using abbreviations in her texts because she started using them in formal writing without even realizing it; and we had a small debate about whether the language of texting is indeed “dumbing down the language,” to quote one of the men in the class.
Crystal points out, however, that texting is hardly the first technological advance to be accompanied by prophecies of doom for language: “Ever since the arrival of printing — thought to be the invention of the devil because it would put false opinions into people’s minds — people have been arguing the new technology would have disastrous consequences for language. [What turned out to be unfounded] scares accompanied the introduction of the telegraph, telephone, and broadcasting.” More, he points out that within the context of the “multi-trillion instances of standard orthography in everyday life [the] trillion text messages [that are sent] appear as no more than a few ripples on the surface of the sea of language.” Hardly something with the power to destroy the infrastructure of any of the world’s languages.
What I enjoyed the most about Crystal’s essay was his illustration of how the abbreviations people use in texting are nothing new, that they are, rather, a further development of linguistic “processes used in the past.” How different, for example, is lol or ttyl from the swak (sealed with a kiss) that the girls I went to high school with often wrote at the end of letters or notes? Nor is it true that we are the first generation to worry that abbreviations such as those used in texting are somehow indicative of lower-class sensibilities. In 1711, Crystal points out, Joseph Addison inveighed against the abbreviations of his time, pos for positive, for example, or incog for incognito. And Crystal quotes no less a canonical writer than Jonathan Swift, who though that abbreviating words was a “barbarous custom.”
The most fascinating paragraph in Crystal’s essay, however, is the one in which he talks about the growing body of evidence which suggests that texting helps rather than hinders literacy.
An extraordinary number of doom-laden prophecies had been made about the supposed linguistic evils unleashed by texting. Sadly, its creative potential has been virtually ignored. But five years of research has at last begun to dispel the myths. The most important finding is that texting does not erode children’s ability to read and write. On the contrary, literacy improves. The latest studies (from a team at Coventry University) have found strong positive links between the use of text language and the skills underlying success in standard English in pre-teenage children. The more abbreviations in their messages, the higher they scored on tests of reading and vocabulary. The children who were better at spelling and writing used the most textisms. And the younger they received their first phone, the higher their scores.
While this may at first seem counterintuitive, if you think about it, it makes sense — though you do first have to recognize that textisms are created through a systematic and rule-governed process and are not random changes wrought willy-nilly on language by people who don’t know any better. Once you recognize that — and I admit it is not self-evident; Crystal does a decent job of making it clear — it is not hard to understand, I think, that someone who is proficient in text language is also going to be someone who is comfortable with language in general, understands how it works, and why and when and where it is appropriate and necessary to deviate from the standard.
I am not fully persuaded by Crystal’s argument — I would need to read the studies he talks about, for example — but he has convinced me that texting is not the simplistic linguistic phenomenon I used to think it was, and I am interested to hear how my students react to the ways in which he takes on their own prejudices. I am also very aware that while his essay is a wonderful exploration of the linguistics of texting, he says next to nothing about its social and cultural implications beyond language. In our discussion today, for example, and in every discussion I have had with classes about texting for the last couple of semesters, students talked about knowing someone whose boyfriend or girlfriend — who was not far away at the time — broke up with them by text. To me, that phenomenon is troubling, but it is also the subject of a very different post.
When I was getting my master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), we learned about a study – I wish I could remember the details, but it’s been more than 20 years, and I have forgotten – which measured the responses of people on a subway who spoke only English to a conversation taking place between a man and a woman speaking a language other than English. If I recall, one of the most common reactions the English-only speaking passengers had was to suspect that the couple was talking about them, or perhaps about Americans in general, and the assumption was almost always that whatever the couple had been saying, it couldn’t have been nice.
That kind of xenophobia, often mixed with racism, emerges quite commonly when discussions of linguistic pluralism or tolerance turn to the question of the degree to which United States society and culture can accommodate the public use, official and unofficial, of languages other than English. When my wife and I decided to raise our son to be bilingual, for example, and we chose to speak only, or at least predominantly, Persian to him for the first couple of years of his life, members of my family were very concerned that we were setting him up for ridicule, and even failure, because they were sure not only that he would learn to speak English with an Iranian accent, but that there was a good chance he would speak English ungrammatically. What bothered me, however, was not this practical concern my relatives had about whether or not my son would acquire English as a native speaker. Misplaced as that concern is – children are, after all, language sponges and can, if they start young enough, learn to speak multiple languages fluently, with the appropriate accent in each, without any trouble at all – I think it’s not an unreasonable one for people to have who have not yet thought closely about how children are socialized into their native language. No matter how exclusively my wife and I might have tried to speak only Persian with him, for example, he was immersed in the culture that is American English in almost every other aspect of his life. It would have been difficult, especially since English is my native language, for him not to have acquired English as a native speaker.
Rather, what troubled me about my relatives’ response was the anger, the tone of one who has been betrayed, that entered their voices, when they would tell me things like, “He’s never going to sound American, you know, and he’s going to hate you for that when he’s older.” Over time, despite the fact that we tried as much as possible to speak English to our son when people who didn’t speak Persian were around, it became clear that much of what some of my family members resented was that they couldn’t understand what my wife was saying to our son when she spoke to him in her language. Not that I don’t understand the discomfort that being unable to comprehend the language spoken by the people standing next to you can make you feel. In the late 1980s, I lived for about a year and a half in South Korea, and I neither spoke nor read a word of Korean when I got there. It was frightening. Moreover, unlike the people in the study I described above – who had no way of knowing what the conversations they were overhearing were about – I knew for a fact that a lot of the people I rode the train with every day, whose conversations I could not penetrate even the slightest fraction of an inch, or whom I passed in the street, or stood on line with at the bank, were often talking about me, and I knew this because they were not shy about pointing at me while they were saying whatever it was they had to say.
It was very hard at first not to assume that at least some of what they were saying was less than flattering, though I learned over time that most were probably just saying an adult version of what the kids in my Chamshil apartment complex would say every time I walked past, pointing and laughing with a delighted curiosity at the strangeness of my presence: Migook saram! Migook saram imnida! (An American! It’s an American!). Still, I have never understood the attitude, which I have only ever heard expressed by Americans, displayed so prominently by two guys from Chicago who were in Seoul for a medical conference of some sort. I know where they were from and why they were in Korea because my friends and I, all of us English teachers at the same school in Yoksam-Dong, overheard their conversation in the Pizza Inn (or maybe it was Pizza Hut, I am not sure) in the Samsung Building, which was one of the places we’d go for lunch when we had a craving for western food. These two men wanted whatever kind of overloaded pizza they were trying to order without one of the toppings on the menu, black olives, which they were trying without much success to explain to their waitress, whose English was not very good and who was very flustered at having to use it, especially as she could sense the rising frustration in her customer’s voices when it became clear to them that she wasn’t really understanding what they wanted. Finally, the waitress said, “Okay, okay!” as if she understood and went back into the kitchen. When she brought out their order a little while later, though, there were black olives on the pizza, and the guys from Chicago were furious. They didn’t exactly yell at the waitress, but their voices were raised as they demonstrated what they wanted by picking the olives off their food and setting them aside. This time the look on the waitress’ face confirmed that she had indeed understood what the men from Chicago wanted, and she took the incorrect order and went back into the kitchen.
I don’t remember why none of us tried to intervene, since there were those among us whose Korean was good enough to defuse the whole situation, but after the waitress had gone back into the kitchen, one of the guys leaned over the table and in a voice choked with anger and frustration said, “Why don’t these people learn to speak the fucking language!” His friend nodded, said, “Do you want to leave?” and they walked out.