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Seeking a “Common Language”: Is Such a Goal Even Desirable, Let Alone Achievable, Essay Example

Pages: 6

Words: 1626

Essay

In the chapter entitled “What’s Black, Then White, Then Said All Over,” from her book “Slam Dunks and N-Brainers: Language In Your Life, The Media, Business, and Politics,” author Leslie Savan examines the way words entre our culture, often starting as the “slang” of various ethnicities (particularly of African-Americans), often becoming “common usage” words, and eventually even entering the lexicon as “legitimate” words (Savan, 2005). Savan’s work, as well as the work of other authors writing on the same or similar subjects, leads to the question of whether a “common” or “official” language is necessary (or, for that matter, even possible) in the United States. That is perhaps the single most important question (or questions) related to this matter: is the adoption of a common language in the United States even possible, and if so, by what mechanism? And finally, is such a common language desirable?

The idea of words entering the lexicon from coarse slang to common usage to so-called “real worlds” is as old as language itself. It is, to a degree, how language “works,” how it grows and changes and remains alive. William Shakespeare, perhaps the single most well-known (at least by name-recognition) author in the history of the English language, routinely invented new words, or made adaptations to existing words, to suit the needs of his characters and his stories. So there is, without question, both an historical precedent and a somewhat natural mechanism by which words grow and develop and enter the lexicon. This does now, however, address the question at hand: should a “common” or “official” language (along with the associated mechanisms by which new words would be required to enter the lexicon) be “forced” upon our culture – and further, could such an idea even work successfully –could an “official” language be decided upon and then “enforced” in the United States, or would such decisions and enforcements too greatly diverge from the natural ways through which language grows and changes and adapts.

In the chapter/essay “What’s Black, Then White, Then Said All Over,” author Leslie Savan examines the ways through which myriad terms have entered our “conversational English, while many –even most- of them have somehow managed to continue to carry he stigma of “slang,” avoiding identification as “real” or “official” English-language words (Savan, 2005).

Savan makes the argument that much of the so-called “black” words that have entered common usage have dome so through advertising and the media, where such terms are used in commercials and in youth-oriented television and movies that make use of these words, until they become so common and recognizable as to almost leave behind their attachment to their “black” origins, and simply become common slang words. In her essay she offers an extensive list of words and phrases of so-called “black” origin that have become so common as to be almost universally recognizable and understood (only a few of which will be excerpted here):

All that, back in the day, bling, blues, bogus, booty, bro, chick, chill, cool, dis, don’t go there, hip, homeboy, living large my bad, player, and you know what I’m saying? (Savan, 2005)

Savan makes the point that many of these words and phrases have come into common usage through advertising sources.  For example, she references a campaign for the soft drink “Sprite” that made ironic use of the phrase “Image Is Nothing,” all while using recognizable spokespersons such as famous athletes to repeat the catch phrase and drive home the message. Soon, Sprite was among the fastest-selling soft drinks in the country (Savan, 2005).

Further driving home the point that black culture, as appropriated by the media, has been wildly successful in reaching the youth market through advertising, Savan makes note of how, in the early days of MTV, the network rarely, if ever, played music videos by black artists. It was when they began to break their own rules, and began adding artists like Michael Jackson and Prince to their video rotation, that they saw their viewership explode (Savan, 2005). The evidence was clear: so-called “black culture” had a wide appeal, mush wider than simply to the presumed “black audience” for which it originally seemed intended. Savan even coined a phrase to describe this phenomenon: “covert prestige.” In this phenomenon, members of “higher” classes” often appropriate the slang and vernacular of “lower classes” as a means of a appearing “cool,” of showing off a certain worldliness. As Savan notes, this is not just a black/white issue, nor is it confined to the United States. In Great Britain, for example, “upper” class British citizens appropriate the vernacular of “lower” class citizens, driven by much the same reasoning as drives the same phenomenon in the United States. It seems this “adoption” of slang is a universal phenomenon (Savan, 2005)

Still, the fact that new words –such as those from different subcultures of the United States- can and do enter the common lexicon, this fails to address the question of how (if at all) these words become an “official” part of the language, nor does it address the question of whether an “official” or “common” language is a necessary, desirable, or even achievable goal in the United States.

In her book, “Once Upon a Quinceanera,” author Julia Alvarez discusses the phenomenon of the Quinceanera,” a sort of “coming-of-age” party unique to the Latino cultures (the name has its root in the Spanish words “Quince anos,” or “fifteen years,” which is the age at which the tradition takes place).. In a way, it shares cultural roots with events like Bat Mitvahs; it signifies a passage from childhood to young-adulthood for young ladies of this particular cultural background. In this phenomenon, author Alvarez sees what she refers to as “retroculturation,” that is, the idea that cultures that have assimilated into new homelands, leaving behind certain traditions unique to these homelands, will occasionally, a generation or more later, reach back to “recapture” some of the traditions of these earlier, partially-abandoned cultures (Alvarez, Interview). A proper examination of this particular phenomenon could fill a book; in the interest of brevity, we must simply mention it in the context of the larger goal of this particular paper.

In an interview, author Alvarez discusses the Quinceanera, and its significance within Hispanic culture and as an example of retroculturation. It is her hope that the Quinceanera will continue to be more than just a glorified birthday party, but will in fact help to maintain the roots and cultural traditions from the various Latino countries from whence the tradition originated. She happily recognizes that many of the young girls she interviewed for her book did seem to understand the significance of the tradition, and how important it was in helping to keep alive at least some small measure of the cultural traditions from which these young women’s families originated (Alvarez, Interview).

In his book, “Cosmopolitan: Ethics in a World of Strangers,” author Kwame Anthony Appiah makes mention of the original definition of the word “cosmopolitan.” Long before it took on the slightest air of stigma, referring to one who was perhaps more “worldly” or “cultured,” than others, it actually meant exactly what the word’s roots intended: one who was “cosmopolitan” was, simply, a “person of the cosmos.” It took no special training or birthright to be cosmopolitan, it was simply a label used to describe any and all who saw themselves as members of the human race, without distinction for class or other measurements of superiority. In a way, Appiah recognizes that true cosmopolitanism is a celebration of our differences, and that an effort to minimize these differences, to sand off their edges and bring out the underlying sheen of conformity, may not only be undesirable, but also, in fact, may be impossible (Appiah, 2006).

And that is the real question that underlies the premise of this paper: we seek to find out whether a “common” or “universal” language” is a desirable or even necessary goal. What we discover along the way id that such a common language may well be nothing more than a Quixotic dream, an entirely unreachable -and quite likely undesirable- goal. Politics in the United States is currently fraught with discussion about whether English should be made the “official” language of this nation, and if its use in schools and in business should be enforced with the power of legislation. Such a goal may seem to some to be an achievement worth striving for; it would, in some ways, make life easier for many.

The stark truth, however, is that reaching such a goal is, frankly, impossible. With the rate at which the Hispanic population is grown in this country, for example, the Spanish language has quite clearly grown to become the de fact :second” language of the United States. No matter how many politicians rail against it, or use it as a means to fire up a voting base that is, frankly, fearful of the rapidity of the cultural change they witness happening all around them, these changes are unstoppable. These changes are organic processes, reflective of what has been happening with language for as long as there has been language. If there ever comes a day that here is a common language, it will not come through the force of law or at the point of a gun, but through the same processes that have always shaped the growth and change of languages. It will happen in a natural, organic, and human way.

Bibliography

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. (2006). Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. Penquin.com- interview with julia alvarez. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://us.penguingroup.com/static/html/features/alvarez

Savan, Leslie. (2005). Slam dunks and no-brainers: language in your life, the media, business, politics, and, like, whatever . New York, NY: Random House.

Stay, Free. (2005, November 14). Stay free! daily. Retrieved from http://blog.stayfreemagazine.org/2005/11/pop_language

(Stay Free, 2005)

(Savan, 2005)

(Appiah, 2006)

(Alvarez, Interview)

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