At TownHall, Dutch Martin reviews a new book--added to my wishlist--John McWhorter’s Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care
Gathered from the review, McWhorter—a linguist--laments the decline of English language instruction, knowledge and usage over the past century. He has company, including one of my progenitors.
Best paragraph of the review:
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.In a related column from last week (registration required), my father, Philip Ochieng, asserts that the English language can be a weapon to be used against the “enemy,” that is, the former de facto colonizers; those same Europeans (and Americans) whom he says continue to economically and culturally colonize African peoples.
Like [Polish/English writer Jacob] Bronowski, I was uprooted from my [Kenyan Luo] tribal crucible at a very early age to train me for a slot into my career pigeonhole. All my ethico-intellectual make-up has been moulded since then by European syllogisms, allegory and idiom. In this way, Ngugi [wa Thiong'o, a Kenyan Kikuyu writer] and I are privileged because we studied English up to the tertiary level. [SNIP]
I agree fully with Ngugi that English and Euro-Christianity are imperialist tools. It was through them that our minds were and continue to be subdued to make us part willingly with our wealth.No, we don’t see each other often, thanks for asking.* :-)
However, what really interested me was the tangential point, where Philip asserts that one can only express himself in the language in which he thinks. He goes further to state, though it is better to transmit ideas using one’s native language, that it has its limits. The particular language has to lend itself to the expression of certain concepts for that concept to be adequately understood by the listener/reader. For example, I’m guessing that there was no word for “iceberg” in Dholuo (Philip’s native language) until the well after the arrival of Europeans to the Horn of Africa.
I do not agree that our mother tongues are the only - or even the principal - tools by which we can reply effectively.
First, to use them effectively against imperialism, their techno-superstructural content would have to be as powerful as that of English. Kikuyu or Dholuo would have to be able to express an equal number of ideas. And, to influence as many minds as are necessary, they would have to enjoy a global outreach.
Ngugi will never influence the world for the simple reason that his books will never get out of the Kikuyu cocoon.A few years back, I noticed many letters-to-the-editor of Nation Media (the Daily Nation)--Philip’s platform—from his primarily Kenyan readership, were complaints of having to pull out a dictionary every time they read one of his columns. (I had to laugh because I usually have to do this also. However, this was a practice that I had picked up early on and maintained to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the language level of the writer.) Additionally, many were exasperated at his ironic need to pull out American and European political and philosophical references to drive home his points. For the most part, Philip dug in his heels. (The old buzzard is stubborn when he thinks he’s right. Now you know from where it comes.)
The whole of our "dot-com generation" is functionally illiterate in both languages [English and native tongue]. Our children claim to know English and usually communicate only in it, but it is appallingly bad English.
As a newspaper editor, I never cease to be dismayed by the kind of English I get even from PhD holders. Yet members of the urban "dot-com generation" do not really know their mother tongues either. There is a word for them – alalia.Taking his education into account—American and classical European—and from observing, I know that Philip uses “high-falutin” language indeed. (My mother says he was even like this some forty-odd years ago.)
Of the complaints, I found myself to be of two minds. On one hand, I’m of the Eric Hoffer school of thought: one should never pass up the opportunity to receive any new knowledge, whether it’s a definition of a single word or a new concept/idea that falls into one’s path. On the contrary, a person should actively seek out new ideas and their transmitters/translators. (And—to point out the blindingly obvious--it certainly is a lot easier to do now than was so in Hoffer’s time.)
On the other hand, however, a communicator should always keep his/her audience in mind when composing a piece. (Eww! Doesn’t that last line read as though it’s straight out of some freshman Communication I course? Too bad. It’s true, so it stays.) As he observes, the vast majority of Philip’s audience consists of readers for whom English isn’t their first tongue and who weren’t fortunate enough to have their “ethico-intellectual make-up […] moulded […] by European syllogisms, allegory and idiom” as thoroughly as he was.
The best of written communicators strike a balance between high-quality language and being mindful of whether his/her target audience will care enough to want to pull out a dictionary every time they encounter his/her byline.
So, ease up, Mzee, just a little. And have one of your minions drop some links into your missives, so people will have easy access to those authors and concepts of which you write.
*For clarity’s sake--to differentiate Philip from my step-father--I had had no contact with my biological father before I found him via the Internet back in 1997. It helped that he happened to be a journalist, well-known in Africa. For very personal reasons—as you can imagine—I have confined our “communications” to my “spying” on him via his weekly column for the last four years.
UPDATE: Holy Cow! While looking up the word "alalia," I discovered that someone actually named their daughter "Alalia!" Okay, the Old Man might have a slight point.