Tuesday, August 16, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks an important question: "How has language changed for you as a writer?  What is your opinion of how modern technology (especially texting) has changed writing?  Many writers as well as journalists now use more vulgar words in their work. This seems to be the new norm. What are the moral implications of this?  Is language "neutral" when it comes to conveying values and shaping human thought?"

Whenever I start reading something, the first thing I look for is a high level of language performance. It doesn't matter whether the work is fiction or non-fiction, if the prose is as pedestrian as the language we read in newspapers or overhear at the supermarket or DMV, merely utilitarian, then I will be disappointed and feel that work is de-totalized and minimalistic. (And what passes for political discourse in this country ---as well as the jargon of the Academy---is offensive enough to the ear and mind to make a lover of language run screaming from the room.) A literary work is, first and foremost, a performance of language. For that reason, I expect the instruments of expression---sentences and paragraphs---to be music and poetry. I expect them to be polished, and the writer to have at his or her command a mastery of the English tongue so complete and sophisticated that, as I read, I learn more about the possibilities of language performance. I want to be surprised by the prose, ambushed by its beauty. Words are the flesh of thought. And that means the language is my portal into the consciousness of the writer who, on the page, is singing an interpretation of being that transforms and refines my reflections.

          (And, by the way, these 140 E-Channel posts so far are not an example of what I mean because they have to be written too quickly---on the run, as it were---and lack the weeks I typically invest in revising fiction and essays; these posts, at best, can only be utilitarian and journalistic; they are as close as I ever get to releasing first-draft material.)

Language is sound and, therefore, is never "neutral." The sounds we make in speech are guttural, palatal, cerebral, dental or labial. In The Anatomy of Poetry (1968), Marjorie Boulton makes it evident that on the level of what Aristotle once called melos, even the most microscopic datum of speech carries an affective quality or tone, and is sedimented with feeling or sense (and therefore not "neutral"). B and p sounds feel explosive; m, n and ng we experience as humming and musical; l as liquescent, holding within itself something of streams, water, rest; k, g, st, ts and ch are experienced as harsh; t and d are best suited for short actions; and th tends to be soothing. Emotion has become sound. (For more discussion of this topic, language and being, see chapter two, "Being and Form" in my book Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970).

I've read that the English language contains over a million words (and is still growing, of course), that the average speaker uses about 20,000 words in his or her everyday speech, though we know and recognize far more words than that. Our humanness, and especially our ability to achieve an inter-subjective relationship with others in the social world, is based on the possibilities of language. To a degree, then, I believe the health of a culture can be measured by the performance of those who speak and write its language. If that thesis is credible, then perhaps we should be worried by the coarseness, vulgarity and at times obscenity that we encounter so often today in American speech. In one of the many pages of writing instruction that John Gardner gave to his students in the 1976, he observed that, "You live in a world in which it is possible to buy flavored, edible panties (strawberry, lemon-lime---), a world where the word 'asshole' passes for elevated diction. Think about it."

 As a much younger writer, I did think about that. And today, more than thirty years later, I brood daily about the debasement of American speech. (In the last few decades we have not only turned the word "asshole" into proper diction, but we have moved on to mainstream many four-letter words in our fiction, stand-up comedy routines, and daily speech). In his posthumously published book, The Art of Fiction (1983), Gardner also said this: "Pettiness, vulgarity, bad taste fall away from him (the serious writer) automatically, and when he reads bad writers he notices their lapses of taste at once. He sees that they dwell on things Shakespeare would not have dwelled on, at his best, not because Shakespeare failed to notice them but because he saw their triviality. (Except to examine new techniques, or because of personal friendship, no serious apprentice should ever study second-rate writers.)"

In a world that offers us the truncated language we find on Twitter, the anonymity of the Internet, and the triumph of Hip Hop and gangster rap, does anyone ever talk anymore about taste? Is that old-fashioned now and "corny"? Have we become, as American men and women, too liberated and progressive for good taste in our daily and literary use of language? Do we now have so little respect for those who listen to us and for ourselves? As Gardner said, long ago:

       Think about it.

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