A Man with a Flashlight

We’ll be seeing more of this
April 13, 2007, 12:16 pm
Filed under: Language

With Don Imus gone from CBS (and for a rare glimpse of the internet’s version of a hastily painted new sign glued up over the old one, click here, but be quick about it) a debate is brewing about who can call women hos. (And about how to spell the plural of ho.) There was a similar debate over who can use the word “nigger” after Michael Richards worked himself into a lather and tossed it at some black patrons who apparently weren’t listening politely enough to his comedy act.

I’m sorry if my typing the actual words “nigger” and “ho” makes anyone uncomfortable. I do it simply because if you try to discuss something, but you can’t say exactly what it is, then you may end up writing funny sentences like this:

About half of African Americans, when polled, say the word or it’s derivative (the one that ends with “a” instead of “er”) should never be used…

Now when Richards said “nigger,” if you watch the video, he was boiling mad. And, as happens when you’re boiling mad, I think he realized very quickly that he had fucked up and crossed into some very serious no-man’s land. Some people think he was a closeted racist, and he let his true colors show. I think maybe it was just the meanest thing he could think of to say.

I think he realized it even before he finished speaking, but kept talking anyway, clinging desperately to the hope that he could somehow pull off the joke, turn it around somehow and make it funny, somehow dig himself out of his hole. But the hole was too deep for that.

So, just never say “nigger,” if you’re white. What’s so hard about that?

The hard thing about that is that language is sort of infectious.

Yes, the way you speak probably reflects the community where you grow up. In fact, the American language is divided into dialects not so much by geography as by social class. If you listen to a person speak, you maybe can’t tell how much money they have, but you can probably tell how much money they grew up around, and maybe their race as well.

If they’re older, that is. Younger people are harder to pin down, they are starting to speak a sort of medley.

To give an example, when Cheney comes into Bush’s office in the morning, we know they don’t say “What’s up, my nigga?” And who knows if young black men in San Francisco do either – but that’s how it looks in movies, which not only imitate life, but also give our lives something to imitate.

But these lines are starting to blur. People are using language they aren’t supposed to, and it’s not just Don Imus and Michael Richards. In February, Ayako and I spent a few weeks back in the States. On the number 12 Trimet bus, riding into Portland, I saw a white boy call a black boy nigger. They were about fourteen and they clearly knew each other – they spent half an hour talking, lounging across four bus seats while old people stood next to them. The white kid used the word just like he was black, and that was obviously the point.

In a world where white kids love hip-hop, and want to be like Mike, and dress in a clear imitation of black kids, how can you stop them from saying the one word that demonstrates – by its very riskiness – that they don’t really consider themselves white?

And how can you tell a kid walking down the street, bopping to the Pharcyde’s I’m that type of nigga on his headphones, that he can groove on that music, and he can let the lyrics flow into his head, but he can’t let the same language come out?

Did I mention that Im that type of nigga is a fantastic song, that it makes R. Kelly and P. Diddy look like Kenny G? Did I mention that it uses the word “nigga” over 50 times?

Don Imus called a team of hardworking, talented athletes prostitutes, and fuck him. But we should recognize that Imus, and Richards, and that kid on the 12 bus, all tried to go outside the language dictated by their race and social class. Let’s also not step delicately around the fact that they were all white men – and “white man,” these days, is a more commonly used insult than “nigger,” though its power to hurt is far subtler. Maybe, in a way, they wanted to become black.

Black people using the word were supposed to be reclaiming it. And god knows it needed reclaiming. But the problem is, if the word has been reclaimed, and if it represents blackness in popular culture from music to movies to sports, then a lot of white people are going to find it irresistible, and not because they’re racists, but because they hope it will give them access to a culture which exludes them. It allows them to dream of escaping the category they are placed in – seemingly a universal human desire.

Is language shrinking?
April 6, 2007, 9:12 am
Filed under: Language

From sciencedaily.com. Linguists asked young people and old people, in Chicago and Mexico City, to list words for emotions:

The younger participants, regardless of language, tended to use the same sets of words with limited diversity in their responses. The older participants had fewer identical words but far more diversity.

“We expect a more diverse vocabulary in the older participants. They have experienced more living and have broader vocabularies,” says the Penn State researcher. “This suggests that older adults have more diverse emotions.”

Is it not equally possible that the smaller vocabulary shown by younger participants reflects a general shrinking of English and Spanish vocabulary over time?

At one time English had little standardized spelling, but as printed matter became widespread standard spellings dominated. It is worth asking whether a similar effect, fueled by ever-more-standard English on television and the internet, could begin replacing rarely used words with more mainstream counterparts. Unlike harmonization of spelling, this change would curtail expression.

Facial expression, the universal language?
April 6, 2007, 8:52 am
Filed under: Language

Apparently not. For Americans, the mouth shows how one is feeling; Japanese look to the eyes. And it holds true for emoticons too:

In the United States the emoticons : ) and : – ) denote a happy face, whereas the emoticons :( or : – ( denote a sad face. However, Japanese tend to use the symbol (^_^) to indicate a happy face, and (;_;) to indicate a sad face.

Maybe that explains why they draw faces like this. animeĀ face Nod to Andrew Sullivan.

March 24, 2007, 2:30 pm
Filed under: Comedy, Language, Politics

Tony Blair rises in my esteem. Also I like the way Catherine Tate pronounces “tattoo parlor.” Thanks to Andrew Sullivan.

Nice how 10 Downing Street looks an awful lot like an ordinary house.