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D. A. Martin
- Veröffentlicht auf Amazon.com
Format: Gebundene Ausgabe
There was a time not long ago in our history when an elaborate command of the English language was considered part of the fabric of American culture. Orator Edward Everett kept a crowd hanging on his every word during his three-hour speech (yes, three hours!) at Gettysburg in 1863 because he was an excellent orator in a time when American society valued excellent orators. Even during the first half of the 20th century, a command of spoken and written English on a level that today would confound many college students was not only required by the time one finished the eighth grade, but was the social norm; ain't so anymore.
In Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, John McWhorter examines this cultural decline in the use of high-fallutin English in contemporary America. He shows that people were taught from grade school, whether or not they went on for higher education, to always put the English language in its Sunday best. W.E.B. Du Bois stands out in particular. Du Bois's first assignment in a composition class at Harvard in 1890 was to write about himself. This is what he wrote:
"For the usual purposes of identification I have been labeled in this life: William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on the day after Washington's birthday, in 1868. I shall room during the present twelve-month at number twenty Flagg Street, Cambridge. As to who I really am, I am much in doubt, and can consequently give little reliable information from casual hints and observations. I doubt not that there are many who could supply better data than the writer. In the midst then of personal uncertainty I can only supply a few alleged facts from memory according to the usual way."
And if that's not enough, he finishes with this closing linguistic zinger:
"I have something to say to the world and I have taken English twelve in order to say it well."
This example speaks volumes about the cultural currency that a high command of English possessed back then, and which no longer exists. Can you imagine anyone writing or speaking like this today and not be viewed as pretentious, arrogant or just plain uppity? What happened to cause American society to no longer value such an elevated command of our language?
The authors shows that the 1960's, which scorned the American Establishment as oppressive and constricting, also caused modern-day America to view the highly stylized English of earlier generations as old-fashioned and morally suspect - hence the linguistic shift from the formal to the informal. Americans of an earlier time went out of their way to write and speak good English, and the gap between written and spoken English was indeed wide. The 1960's (McWhorter puts it around 1965 exactly) changed all that. Now, we just talk - and we write how we talk. Using dressed-up English is just so "old school." This counter-cultural revolution is also reflected in poetry, music and journalism. Furthermore, the author points our how this phenomenon is uniquely American: we just do not love our own language today like other countries love theirs (most notably France).
What new American dialect, then, best embodies this new linguistic counter-cultural paradigm? Why, Black English, of course. McWhorter points out how Americans of all stripes since the 1960's 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.
Although the author points out that the natural evolution of language in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, as all world languages evolve, he does point out some important drawbacks to the modern-day tendency to "dress down" English. This can be seen particularly in the modern education establishment, where the emphasis on the formal language acquisition of earlier generations has been all but tossed out the window. This does not bode well for anyone, but it is particularly damaging to black and immigrant schoolchildren.
McWhorter covers a lot of ground in Doing Our Own Thing, giving the reader plenty to chew on. It is a fascinating look into how the 1960's transformed American society from one that spoke the language and held it in high esteem to one in which people just talk. Regrettably, it looks as if this trend in linguistic informality (some would call it pure laziness) will continue.