Language seems benign – don’t swear in front of your grandmother, don’t shout “fire” in a crowded theatre, and you’re okay. There are, however, many inflammatory issues which intimately involve language and here are a few.
Controversy One: The New York City Council once debated whether to ban the words, “bitch, “whore,” and “nigger,” because there was too much abuse occurring on involving these words. The ban was voted down. It turned out that these words could be abusive, but were also often affectionate. Sometimes “my bitch” turned out to mean “my best friend,” “whore,” especially when shortened to “ho’,” was used as a greeting among buddies, and “nigger,” was also commonly used, especially among African-Americans, as a term of affection. The rub was the impracticality of banning words which were used thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of times a day in New York City, and also the fact that the council was proposing to ban a series of contexts, not a few words. Who would be the judge of the motives of the people using these words? What would be the punishment? Besides, as any linguist can tell you, a new slang would pop up in the blink of an eye. Should these words have been banned?
Controversy Two: Writing about the recent British riots in The London Daily Standard, Lindsay Johns referred to “mass BBM broadcasts, written in street slang, inviting [the rioters] to join in the thuggery. … [English] is being squandered by so many young people of all races and backgrounds.” He describes an “inarticulate slang full of vacuous words such as ‘innit’ and willful distortions like ‘arks’ for ‘ask’ or tedious double negatives.” Mr. Johns is too upset to see that the rioters were consciously or unconsciously using language as a tool for protest. They didn’t like the standard British ways; the way people dressed, or their banks, or their method of governing, or their condescending attitudes, or their education system, to name a few, and they used their own non-standard language to protest against these oppressive arms of society. The language was a straw man, and Mr. Johns fell for the deception, railing against “arks” and “innit” instead of confronting the true objective of the protest, which was an overthrow of the status quo in all its forms. Did the American “Occupy” protests use language as an anti-establishment tool – besides creating the new meaning of the word “occupy?”
Controversy Three: I have been watching women wheeling babies along the street in my town, Hoboken, New Jersey, and have noticed that mothers constantly talk to their babies, often laughing, gesticulating, and giggling. “Look at those pretty Christmas lights!” “You’re such a pretty girl!” Nonsense, babbling, strings of language. Nannies often (usually?) wheel their charges in silence, or talking to others on their cell phones. It would take more research than I would undertake to determine the effect on the babies of this language drought, if indeed such a drought exists. Maybe I am seeing an artifact. The larger sociological question would be, should we provide longer m[p]aternity leaves so that parents can provide the kind of nurture which only a parent will bother to provide? Besides other areas, the linguistic richness which the children cared for by parents who are bonded closely to them must be a good thing for the children as a means of developing not only their vocabulary and syntax, but their emotional and intellectual intelligence as well. What do you think? How much would your students sacrifice to stay home and raise their children themselves, or isn’t that worth it at all?
Controversy Four: Languages are disappearing along with species. The number of languages in the world has shrunk drastically, and the rate of shrinkage is accelerating. Is it worth preserving dying languages? Should the American government, for example, fund the efforts of the Wampanoag Indian tribe to resuscitate the language they spoke when they greeted the Pilgrims? Wampanoag leaders have been painstakingly reconstructing their native tongue through studies of documents written in the Wampanoag language in the 17th century, along with other methods. The argument for letting Wampanoag die is evident – who needs it? All of our commercial, religious, governmental, cultural, academic, and other life gets along very well without it. The argument for supporting Wampanoag’s revival is more subtle; they had a system of government, education, family life, religion, and commerce which ran on unique principles. Since our systems are in some ways crumbling today, wouldn’t it be good to learn about other systems which we haven’t thought of yet to find ways of correcting our weaknesses? The Wampanoag, for example, knew that the world was round long before the Europeans did. Hmmm. Maybe their way of thinking was productive. Every language reflects a nuanced way of living and thinking; imagine living without your lullabies and fairytales, without Shakespeare, Dickens, and Tennessee Williams, without southern accents and “ain’t”, without our ways of addressing each other (Ms., Mrs., Miss, Mr., Sir, Madam, Master, Hey You). The world could get along fine without all of those things, right?
Exercise; Any one of the above controversies could form the basis for an essay, or a class discussion.
Exercise: A more challenging exercise would be to ask students to ferret out other controversies involving language. It wouldn’t be hard, for example, to find such controversies in our political life in America in this election year.