LESS THAN WORDS CAN SAY

by Richard Mitchell

Chapter Thirteen
Hydra

Unfortunately, the plain English movement is probably not the result of a widespread conspiracy. That's just wishful thinking. It's simply one more head of the many-headed monster of muddled language and thought. If there were a conspiracy, it might conceivably be thwarted, but if we cut off the plain English head, another will grow in its place, and perhaps a more horrid one.

At one time I thought that I was the victim of a conspiracy myself. I was certain that the Admissions Office had salted my classes with carefully selected students, students who had no native tongue. Many of my students seem unable to express themselves in any language whatsoever. They aren't utterly mute, of course. They can say something about the weather and give instructions about how to get to the post office. They are able to recite numerous slogans, especially from television commercials and the lyrics of popular songs and recent--very recent--political campaigns. They are able to read traffic signs and many billboards and even some newspapers, and they can claim certain emotions with regard to various teams and even individual athletes, whose names they often know. They can spin more or less predictable reveries about the past or the future either in very simple concrete terms or in sentimental banalities, or both. But they cannot pursue a process; they cannot say why evidence leads to a conclusion; they cannot find examples for analogies. They've never heard of analogies. They speak and write English as though they were recent immigrants from Bulgaria, whose Bulgarian itself had been totally obliterated on Ellis Island.

Of course, it was all an illusion, a phantom of wishful thinking. There was no conspiracy at all. They were just ordinary American students pretty much like any others. They were the typical product of our schools.

Everyone who has succeeded in learning a foreign language has come to "think" in that language, as we say, although we probably mean something even more complicated than that. Now it seems that there are millions of Americans who can't think even in English. How is it with them? Do they plan, or do they merely fantasize? Do they solve problems, or do they simply rummage around for a suitable slogan? Are they the people Socrates had in mind in thinking about that unexamined life that wasn't worth living? Can they examine life?

People in that condition don't think of themselves as being in that condition because they don't think of themselves--they don't think at all. To think, we must devise connected chains of predications, which, in turn, require fluency in language. Those who are fluent in no language just don't have the means for thinking about things. They may remember and recite whatever predications experience provides them, but they cannot manipulate them and derive new ones. Mostly, therefore, they will think and do those things that the world suggests that they think and do. For some of us, it must be very important that people in this condition remain in this condition, for we have obviously devised ways to see to that.

Truncheons are for louts. The great masters of social manipulation use language. They know, furthermore, that the establishment of a flexible and subtle language for the ruling classes is only half of what's needed. The other half is the perpetuation of an ineffective and minimal language among the subjects. Ordinarily, the second half is assured by man's natural propensity to bother himself as little as possible, but history occasionally requires that the rulers take some special pains to preserve the ignorance of their subjects. Our own recent history provides a splendid example of how this is done.

The civil rights struggles of the early sixties made it look, for a while, as though the public schools might, in fact, become integrated someday. That turned out to be an illusion, of course, but in those days it did seem possible that millions and millions of poor black children would find themselves in "better" schools, schools where white children (we thought) were being taught the skills suitable to their place in society. In those days we took out some insurance so that social disorders might be averted.

America depends on the poor black population of its cities to be always the same. They are a reactionary's dream, an utterly stable segment of society. Every year, without fail, they will consume just so much junk, just so many TV dinners, and just so many pay-by-the-week burial-expense insurance policies. They will invest a predictable proportion of what little they have in lottery tickets and patent medicines. They will keep the whole legal system employed by committing, quite regularly, an ever-growing number of crimes, mostly against each other, fortunately. Some few of them will always provide a never-failing pool of utterly unskilled labor to do the necessary scut-work that underlies the technology that the rest of us can handle. They will support prodigiously the enormous illegal drug industry and contribute vast sums to all those along the line who profit from it, very few of whom are to be seen in the streets of the ghettos. They will buy couches and lamps and refrigerators of the sleaziest quality on the never-never plan at fantastic rates of interest. There is simply no counting the benefits they bestow on the rest of us.

It is a foolish oversimplification to think of poor blacks as wards of the state supported by the taxes of the middle class. They don't eat that money. They spend it. It all comes back to some of us with interest. Millions of us have good jobs because of the poor. Millions of us have good jobs because of criminals and junkies. What would come to pass with us should we wake up one morning and discover that all the black poor had vanished in the night? What would America be like? Whatever else we can say about such an America, we can surely assert that it wouldn't be like this.

Imagine now an event less drastic and by no means impossible, however unlikely. Imagine that next June should bring us a million--that's all, just one million--black high school graduates who could speak and write clear, correct, fluent English. Andrew Young and Barbara Jordan we can handle--sure--but a million? That would be the end of affirmative action as we know it.

A fluent command of English cannot exist as an isolated skill, a clever stunt. A person who speaks and writes his native tongue clearly and precisely does so because of many other abilities, and those other abilities themselves grow stronger through the fluent manipulation of language. The simple matter of being logical is a function of language. A million high school graduates capable of fluent English would be a million Americans capable of logical thought. What would we do with them, especially if they were black? You think they're going to buy those lottery tickets and lamps in the shape of Porky Pig? You think they're going to hang out on the corners and provide employment for everybody from the local social worker to the justices of the Supreme Court?

Well, don't worry. It's just a bad dream. Next June won't even saddle us with a million white high school graduates who are fluent in English. That too would be trouble.

Even hypothetical trouble is worth worrying about, however, and in the sixties the possibility that black children would become literate someday was at least hypothetical, and, therefore, dangerous. Some unknown genius somewhere came up with an effective vaccine against black literacy. He contrived a gimmick that would certainly postpone black literacy for decades and perhaps forever. Like all truly great inventions, it was simple and obvious, once we saw it, of course. It was Black English.

To understand how the schools could have embraced something as silly as Black English, it is necessary to understand something about the people in those schools. Many of them drifted into teaching because of a disquieting and usually well-founded suspicion that their talents would not permit them to find much success as accountants or insurance adjusters. As compensation for meager ability, they discovered in themselves an abiding love for children, however horrid or grubby. Some of them found, once in the classroom, that their love for children was even greater than they had thought, and they became administrators as quickly as possible so that they might ladle out that love to whole schools full of children, even to whole school systems full of children. In the schools, rank and honor are accorded to the lovers of children inversely in proportion to the numbers of children with whom they deal. Those who deal with many children every day have the lowest rank. Those who deal with only a few from time to time have higher rank--and pay. Those who never have any reason at all even to see a child from a distance are general officers, usually dignified with the title of "educators."

All of these people, of whatever rank, rule over children, and some of them rule over some rulers of children. It is a calling that must cause, sooner or later, serious self-doubt in all but the most cloddish. That's why people in the schools will seize with fervor any novelty in pedagogy. There's no way to measure the effectiveness of a teacher who undertakes to teach what cannot be measured. If you put yourself forth as a teacher of arithmetic, you might be embarrassed when it turns out that your students can't do arithmetic, but when you claim to be teaching Positive Self-Image--who's to say? Black English is even safer than Positive Self-Image, for it doesn't have to be taught at all, merely applauded, and the teachers who applaud it automatically earn merit as teachers of Positive Self-Image and even of Intercultural Understanding. Accordingly, Black English, a concept just about as sensible as Black Arithmetic or Black Botany, swept over the schools like the impis of Chaka.

We were all feeling guilty in those days, anyway, and Black English seemed to offer us an opportunity to make up for past inequities and transgressions. Perfectly sane professors and even deans could be seen going around the campus in hair dashikis and saying "right on" to each other. It was suddenly revealed to us all that subject-verb agreement was an instrument of imperialist oppression, and we were deeply ashamed of having expected it of any of our students, whatever their color. We were about to institute courses in Swahili, but somebody discovered that Swahili grammar requires that the speaker know how to make careful distinctions in the form and placement of object and subject pronouns and even requires subject-verb agreement. It turned out to be just another instrument of imperialist oppression, and that was the end of Swahili. Besides, it was a foreign import, and we were all talking about the right to a language of one's own.

Like any argot, Black English can be eloquent and poetic. While it is not in any sense at all a different language from English, it is in social terms at least what Old English once was to Norman French, the private talk of the oppressed. It is rich in subtle invective. It provides vast arrays of synonyms in a few very special subjects, most notably money, sex, and the enemy. Its extravagant lexicon seems the result partly of a desire to exclude outsiders and partly of the exuberance of skillful performance. In the mouth of a fluent speaker it is a powerful incantation. It is, furthermore, an illustration of the many differences between speech and writing, as anyone who tries to write discursive prose in Black English will soon discover.

It is only a sentimental populism that can pronounce Black English a "language" just as rich and useful as standard Anglo-American or any other tongue. Had Freud been thinking about language when he told us that the goose dreams of corn, he would have said also that the goose speaks of corn.

Eskimos have many words for different kinds of snow, just as the Jiukiukwe have many words for different kinds of tree-bangers. This is, however, obviously due more to environment than to the nature of their languages. Should the Eskimos run amok and conquer the world, the time would soon come when only the oldest grandparents remembered all of that vocabulary. Such special vocabularies are ordinarily related to matters of intense, even vital, interest. They can make exceedingly fine distinctions that may, in fact, mean the difference between killing a fat seal and freezing to death. In like fashion, although not often against the threat of death, our language offers large, specialized vocabularies, so that we can assemble whole dictionaries of terms used in medicine or philosophy or even insurance adjusting.

We think, at first, that Black English, or any argot, shows the same linguistic complexity, but it doesn't. Like slang anywhere and in any language, for instance, Black English provides countless words and expressions with sexual meanings. Here, too, we might assemble whole dictionaries. If we did, though, we would discover that many of those words, in fact most of those words, mean exactly the same thing. If you want to explore this phenomenon without disconcerting yourself too much, think of money instead of sex. You'll quickly assemble a splendid array of synonyms, but that's all they are--synonyms. They are not specialized terms intended to make finer and finer distinctions among various possible kinds of money. Such vocabularies, furthermore, are always ephemeral, and if a dictionary of slang is useful, it's useful not because it reveals fine distinctions but because it explains the bawdy jokes in Shakespeare. If the snow lexicon of the Eskimos were altered every twenty years or so, they'd die.

The extensive, specialized vocabularies of slang are clearly not intended to describe the world of experience more and more precisely. They are, rather, exuberant outpourings of the joys of word-play, colorful elaborations perfectly proper to speech and poetry. That's why slang, and especially what we call Black English, can be so jaunty and rambunctious and pleasing to the ear. Its metaphors can be subtle and penetrating, and its blithe disregard of standard grammatical forms is as crafty as it is cocky. Unfortunately, however, it will not serve us when we want to explain or understand the rationalistic epistemology that informs constitutional democracy or how birds fly. A child who comes out of school knowing only Black English will never trouble us by seeking employment as a professor of political science or as an aerodynamic engineer.

Here are the unacknowledged assumptions behind the Black English movement in the schools: Most black kids are too stupid to learn fluent, standard English. Some few are, perhaps, not too stupid, but to teach them fluent, standard English is hard work for the teachers. (Some of the teachers are too stupid to teach fluent, standard English, anyway.) It would be better, in any case, if they didn't learn fluent, standard English, since we would then have to admit some of them to important and lucrative professions. Black parents can be calmed into approving this scheme through appeals to "ethnic pride,'' which we will also "teach" in the schools just to provide a little extra insurance. We can explain that spelling and punctuation are devices of racial and economic oppression and that verb forms that change in the past tense are the result of centuries of prejudice and intolerance. They'll buy it.

And they did. They still do. Although we don't talk about it much anymore, the Black English mania has not gone away. It has even been reinforced with Bilingual Education, another mania with many similar unspoken assumptions. When we look around the country and see that schoolchildren are more ignorant than ever, and that black schoolchildren are ordinarily the most ignorant, we are inclined to think that something has failed. That is a naive conclusion. In fact, something has succeeded.


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