It’s common among the literati to carry around a bunch of grammar gurus, like¹ Erykah Badu’s Bag Lady. Usually you’ll find some mix of H. G. Fowler, E. B. White and Quiller-Couch, and perhaps some volume-by-committee such as The Chicago Manual of Style or Hart’s Rules.  I personally used to follow Fowler.  I would read from his The King’s English almost every day.  I enjoyed it only moderately, but I assumed it was a mandatory part of the writer’s daily diet and exercise.  I boxed like a fiend with Fowler in my corner.  I’d beat you down for any latent coordination of relative clauses, or any fused participle.

A funny thing happened early this decade. I realized I was in a quagmire and became disillusioned.  I’ve learned to make linguistic love, not war.  My attitude towards prescriptive grammarians has become “kiss my that-which-abusing, colon-and-semicolon-using, passive-voice-embracing arse, bitches!”

This article is a continuation of “Tongue of Warcraft, Part One”.  Warning: that prior installment is very likely to offend sensitive readers.  This one perhaps less so.

Les mots de la tribu

(The tribe’s words)

Blame it on dictionaries.  I’m also a born dictionary geek.  My parents, uncles and aunts still love to tell stories of how I read dictionaries as a child.  I carry my preferences among dictionaries every bit as pugnaciously as I did my preferences among grammarians. I quickly found at the top of my leader-board the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD).  There was something particularly neat about AHD.  Sprinkled among the very clear and expansive definitions were notes from a usage panel, and these notes were less about scolding people for language sins, and more about recording observations of language in natural usage.  That was my introduction to the descriptive study of grammar.

It took a while for my conversion though.  I was still carrying my Fowler stick around for years while enjoying the subversive insights of AHD.  Then I heard Geoffrey Nunberg on NPR’s Fresh Air telling irresistible stories of language in its natural habitat, offering scant patience for the cadre of grammar bullies who are much quicker with a “THOU SHALT NOT” than they ever are with a truly fresh insight on language³.  I soon learned that Nunberg was a long-standing member of the AHD usage panel (he’s now its chair), and the pieces started to fall in place quicker⁴ than hoplites into a phalanx.

Blame it on Hip-Hop.  It was the breaks and break-dancing that drew me in, but once the likes of The Juice Crew, Ultramagnetic, KRS-One and Rakim came on the scene, I began to understand for the first time in my life just how rich African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is.  I used to ridicule AAVE as surely as any California school board member before I started to pay attention to what was going on in Golden Age Hip-Hop lyrics.  I’ve spent a lot of time studying the rhetorical schools overlapping the Elizabethan era, and their Renaissance founts in France and Italy.  It became apparent to me that the Hip-Hop generation world-wide is revolutionizing language every bit as effectively as the great upheavals that brought us Chaucer, Shakespeare and company.  They so clearly occupy a different orbit, a higher state of excitation than the likes of Fowler, an orbit that can’t be reached by meek adherence to unimaginative rules.

Hip-Hop is no more than the most prominent manifestation of a youth movement that effectively meant that the tribes aggregated by the great 19th and 20th century empires (Britannia, France, the U.S….) were finally taking over those empires and re-making them in their own image. The same thing happened to the tribes who took the Roman and Byzantine empires by the scruff of their necks centuries ago, and started the process towards the grammar harpy’s received linguistic wisdom.

But while Rome is burning, the grammar nannies are busy balling up their knickers over angels dancing on pinheads⁵.  The language they think they’re protecting is dying. It’s changing at an astonishing pace  It became very obvious to me that anyone with any gifts with language can much more profitably deploy those gifts describing these prodigious changes than focusing on the useless court rites of the aristocracy.  Right now the aristocrats are in the tumbrels on their way to Madame Guillotine.

So what, you?  You want beef, right?  You think I’m just a music fan who overstates the influence of a genre?  It’s worth taking a glance at the home country of Madame Guillotine.  Right turn, Clyde.

L’Académie française me fait chier

(Literally: The French Academy makes me shit)

And as usual, when it comes to revolutions, those French (Gauls, if you prefer, Roman) are ahead of the game.  They’re also ahead of the game when it comes to bureaucracy.  In the U.K and U.S. the grammar constabulary is led by any buffoon who can write a book and convince enough copy-editors to mistake it for The Bible. In France, they don’t mess about with such a scrap.  L’Académie française will tell you how to use the language, and you will thank them for it, mon enfant.

L’Académie is a pretty slow-turning battleship.  As British economic power, and Hollywood’s golden age battered their way into French culture, birthing Franglais, L’Académie turned slowly to meet this threat.  In the mid-90s L’Académie was still screeching “stop saying ‘[l’]e-mail’.  Say ‘[le] courriel’! DAMMIT! ‘[le] courriel’!”  And while the battleship was firing broadsides to the north, a sly little pirate cruiser scudded in from the south and just about annihilated the juggernaut.  The little cruiser took the form of a French rap group called NTM (renamed from “Nique Ta Mere”—”Fuck your Mother” so a few more retailers might innocently stock their music).  NTM was every bit as brash and nasty as the U.S. Rap groups Dionne Warwick was contemporaneously excoriating in front of Congress (“That little boy Snoop Dogg can’t even spell ‘ho'”), but they tapped into youth culture just as effectively, and one of the things they did was to popularize a form of French argot, Verlan, which is somewhat along the lines of Pig Latin, but much more sophisticated.

Verlan was originally an obscure slang by ghetto youth to confuse the police (compare how so much Cockney slang originated as a way to throw off Old Bill).  Crucially, Verlan distorted words from the downtrodden Arabic and Roma population just as happily as it did high French. It was truly a middle finger to the establishment (including L’Académie which had a lot of power over what a student could say in school without facing sanction) by the same disaffected masses who rarely got any attention until the riots of 2007.  By the time of those riots, state politicians such as Sarkozy were busy railing against the physical destruction of the “racaille” (“contemptible rabble”) while politicians of language were stunned in their impotence.

Verlan would, thanks to NTM, work its way into the casual speech of almost all classes.  Right now among many French even up to their mid-Thirties you hear “la femme” and “l’homme” (“the man”, “the woman”) not much more often than you hear “la meuf” and “le mec”, the Verlan equivalents.  It is truly to the point that you can’t claim to be learning French without learning at least some Verlan.  Verlan and other forms of argot are changing French so surely that no one would be crazy enough to underestimate the upheaval initiated by a potty-mouth troupe of French rappers.

Oh, and L’Académie française? Really, they don’t know what hit them.

Much like our favorite Anglophone grammar nannies.

Get out the Bastille, before the mob gets here!

Are you one of those who runs around with a marker to edit grocery store lines to say “fewer than 10 items”)?  Do you jab at Trekkie friends over Roddenberry’s infamous split infinitive (“to boldly go”)?  Do you think that only Winston “up with which I will not put” Churchill is worthy of ending a sentence with a preposition?  Do you either wince or cower at any stop other than a comma or period?  Well, you might not know it, but you’re about to be run the fuck over.  Put that style manual down and back slowly away.

I know it’s not easy.  Let me help.  First of all, it does not make you a better writer.

You can write well while violating every rule in your favorite manual.  And you can write poorly while doing the same.  Good writing is not about rules, but about self-expression.  You are not Mr. Fowler or Mr. Quiller-Couch, so it’s rarely a good idea to mimic their prejudices.  Prejudices are not in themselves bad.  I’ll admit, I do prefer to use “fewer” with countable nouns. I do tend to avoid fused participles. But those are matters of personal taste. Little squibs of what makes Uche, Uche. The folly would be for me to impose that taste on everyone else.  The very idea should be just as silly as the idea of imposing taste in dress upon everyone else.

The personal tastes of high priest grammarians who managed to dupe masses of writers and editors into drinking the Guyana kool-aid are not necessarily better than mine, nor yours.  Actually, in the case of some, such as E.B. White, your own instincts are almost always going to be better than those of the putative master.  White was remarkably stupid in his prescriptions.  William Strunk is not completely off the hook, but it’s White who took something moderately bad and made it atrocious.

I find it very interesting that so many politicians of language venerate Shakespeare.  It would be very brave (and foolish) to use much Shakespeare as an example to prescribe language prejudices.  Shakespeare was happy to spell the same word three different ways in the same act (heck, he was even careless with the spelling of his own name).  He used punctuation in ways that would reduce a modern editor to shell-shock.  Shakespeare actually derived much of his evocative power from the very things grammar harpies rail about.  Mixed metaphors?  Latin words over Anglo-Saxon?  Refusal to omit “needless” words?  The passive voice?  Shakespeare reveled in all of them.

Oh that’s done it, has it?  That’s a low blow, isn’t it?  The referee should give me a warning, should he?  Well, I’m not backing down.  Take your best beloved Shakespeare play in one hand (and don’t try to cheat with Lamb’s Tales, or anything) and your best beloved grammar bible in the other.  I dare you.  I do not lie.

Let me preëmptively⁶ warn off the straw-man-seeking Quixotes.  Mind you, I’m not claiming that any hack grammar rebel can stand up with Shakespeare.  I’m not suggesting his full range of license is available to every writer.  Shakespeare pulled off high-wire feats of language that only someone with his incredible abilities could manage.  It’s not that you should never try the pyrotechnic stunts you see on TV.  It’s just that before you do, you’d better have some talent, and you’d better be ready to put in the years of training.

The barrier to license, however, is not as high as grammar nannies would have you believe.  You’d better be a master to attempt:

Up from my cabin,
    My sea-gown scarf'd about me, in the dark
    Groped I to find out them; had my desire.

But any Jack or Jenny can use a colon to set up two clauses in contrast, or to make one clause a presentation of an idea in another, as Shakespeare does in almost every other verse.  Doing so will not spoil your writing.  Nor will mixing up “which” or “that”, and respective use of comma, in most cases.  Most people fluent in English will be able to tell the few cases where mixing such things up does truly sound odd.  Most of the time people think such things lead to poorer writing because they’ve been trained to think so.  Because some snarling Pavlov of a teacher in grammar school (or even in the MLA program) whacked them on the head with a ruler until they became sensitized to the supposed (but actually imaginary [and take that “actually”, Fowler! Smell it!  Smell it!  Now take it!]) evils of the passive voice.

The bottom line is that if actuarial counting of stops and parts of speech were the measure of good writing, you would expect the very best writing to at last approximate the supposed standards.  It doesn’t take a lot of examination, even if you don’t start with Shakespeare, to determine that this is not the case.  It shouldn’t take much more reflection for a writer to accept that there is no useful basis for grammatical programming.

Speaking of prejudice

Clearly AAVE has always been controversial in linguistic circles.  One of the highlights of the “Ebonics” debate was the parade of specious examples by white knight defenders of maiden English illustrating how AAVE supposedly dumbs down language to fit lazy skulls (yes, these blowhards recycled their ridicule of “If it didn’t fit you must acquit”).  What I learned when I started paying attention was just the opposite.  AAVE generally complicates and enriches the rules of grammar, which is to be expected from the remnant of a patois that incorporates elements of a lot of foreign languages, and conventions of minor dialects.  The same is true of Verlan.

My own prejudice in language is against developments that reduce expressiveness.  I lament the dying of the subjunctive mood, and I’m very happy that even the mighty Strunk and White haven’t made a dent in the passive voice.  I deplore the widespread confusion of “hoard”/”horde”, “home”/”hone”, “pour”/”pore”, et cetera because I fear the forfeiture of words.  I have a strong antipathy towards business-speak, because a lot of it feels to me a reduction of expression to formula (buzzword bingo).  Yes, this is just my prejudice.  It does not have to be yours.

I find it interesting to map this prejudice against the idea of prescriptive linguistics.  Prescriptivism generally reduces the range of expression.  The writer starts with a strong sentence that expresses his own [we’ll get to that “his” in the next article] personality, and the unique shape of that creative moment.  Then the writer realizes that his grammar school teacher would have demanded that he move this clause over here, and change that tense or voice to this other thing, and soon enough, the sentence has lost much of its original flavor.

And this is why I don’t just shake my head and walk away when I encounter grammar harpies.  This is why I’m only too ready to jump into the ring with them.  This is why if I ever run into H.G. Fowler or E.B. White in the afterlife, St. Peter had better be quick with the peace porridge.  These pets-de-loup grammar queens are not harmless.  Their books are responsible for scaring many good writers into vapidity.  I’m happy that rapper Kid Cudi, who was expelled and did not complete high school, can express himself so freely and eloquently, but prejudiced as I am towards education, it infuriates me that so many people go in for a University degree and come out as tins of intellectual jelly, beaten to a pulp with rules that serve no useful purpose.

At least the problem is a temporary one.  Language is changing at such a pace that today’s grammar apostles will be trivia questions even within MLA programs in another decade or so.  And for future observers, the emergence of Fowlers and Whites of Verlan and whatever evolves from American English will be a sure sign that the next cycle of language is itself changing.  Writers are at an exciting time right now.  We have the opportunity to participate in the purification of the dialects of the emerging tribes.  Information technology offers us an increment in reach at least as dramatic as the great leap of the printing press.  The only obstacles to the stage are the shells of language politicians.  It’s about time to round them up and push their tumbrels towards La Guillotine.  That’s their inevitable destination, anyway.

Those volumes look slim, but they’re two ton loads on your back, and deep down you probably recognize that.  Lay down your prescriptive burdens.  You’ll feel much better.  Trust me.  No?  OK trust Erykah Badu.

Bag lady you gon’ hurt your back
Dragging all them bags like that
I guess nobody ever told you
All you must hold on to
Is you, is you, is you…


¹ Someone trained to spot imaginary confusions from usage might claim here that the preposition “like” could introduce an example of the “gurus” or could introduce an simile for the behavior.  Anyone who has any idea what a bag lady is (even if you’re not up on the subject of the allusion, Erykah Badu’s metaphor) will have no idea understanding the right interpretation to be the latter. If you’re a recovering Fowler-head, anyway, you’ll know he insists that the former usage would have to be “such as”, not “like”.  If you still have this affliction the following formula is the best treatment, uttered every time “like” slips from your fingers—Eat me, Fowler:² I use “such as” when I think it sounds better.

² Grammar nannies will decry that colon.  Eat me too [spot the imaginary confusion].  I shall find apposition wherever it suits my taste to find apposition, and the use of colons to separate such appositives is well attested.  Moreover, it does nothing to reduce the quality of the sentence.  Nothing.

³ And yes, Fowler would love to box me over several characteristics of this sentence, but I now say to Fowler: bring it on, punk! I’ll ring your bell f’sho”.  Of far more interest is the Weblog maintained by Geoffrey Nunberg and colleagues.  Language Log is a delight of linguistic discovery and discussion, and it delights in popping the balloons of grammar harpies.  Geoffrey Pullum, one of the Language Loggers recently caused a ruckus by writing an article “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” in The Chronicle of Higher Education to mark the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style.

⁴ No I don’t feel like a “more quickly” just now, mmkay?

⁵ I’ll mix metaphors to my own bloody taste, and I’ll rhyme anyone to death if they’ve got something to say.  King Kong ain’t got shit on me!

⁶ I do enjoy that archaism, and yes, I’m overall quite an amateur⁷ of archaisms.

⁷ That particular sense of “amateur” is becoming an archaism, and it pains me to watch this happen.

✄ ✄ ✄

53 Comments copied from the archived TNB site »

2009-07-19 07:42:51

When you meet White and Fowler – can I watch? I will bring a big-ass bag of popcorn to THAT event!

I have lots of micro-comments that could pepper about, esp since you know that I dig Messrs S&W, but I think you really nailed your argument right here:

It’s not that you should never try the pyrotechnic stunts you see on TV. It’s just that before you do, you’d better have some talent, and you’d better be ready to put in the years of training.

You can’t break the rules until you know what it is that you’re breaking, right? And then – let loose with the intention and irony and hilarity that will then ensue.

Or, perhaps: Where’s that colon at?

2009-07-19 08:01:52

Also, that link which is Pullum’s article = brilliant!

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-19 08:33:31

It is always good for a writer to understand grammar. My quarrel isn’t with understanding, but in erecting silly rules, especially when they’re based on only a partial understanding. The problem with most style guidelines is that many are written by people who don’t know as much about English as they think they do. Even when written by an expert linguist, they very often go out of date quickly, but are still quoted by acolytes well past their best-before date.

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-07-19 09:44:49

excuse me, are you saying that pig latin is unsophisticated? because it’s the only other language i speak. and i find that it’s very classy, and quickly impresses people at all of the dinner parties and banquets i attend. usually people offer me jobs on the spot and ask me to marry into their families.

also, unless i’m mistaken in how i’ve been pronouncing it, your name sounds an awful lot like pig latin.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-19 12:50:12

Dude, no way! You and your Mom left almost the same comment. Those roots run deep, deep, deep.

I guess “more sophisticated” sounds snarky, but I didn’t mean that in the “ooh the French are so cosmopolitan” sense. The sophistication is truly a matter of mechanics.

In Pig Latin, there are really just two rules.

dog → og-day
art → art-way

Verlan is a lot more complicated than that. I mentioned

“femme” → “meuf”

That’s a simple phonetic reversal of the word. Notice the “e” at the end of “femme”. It’s rarely pronounced, but it’s still there, called a “mute e”. The most common example of when a mute e will be unmuted is while singing, because people don’t like to STFU every now and then so you can enjoy the accompanying instruments. In the well known song line:

Auprès de ma Blonde: Qu’il fait bon (Next to my fair sweetie, ooh how it’s fine)

The mute e becomes unmuted. Normally “blonde” would end with the “d” sound, as in English. But in the song you sing it kind of like “blond-uh!”. Well, sometimes Verlan also unmutes the e in the same way, and so you get a form such as:

“louche” (strange) → “chelou”

In which case the e is unmuted and then the two syllables are swapped.

Then sometimes Verlan creates a mute e out of nothing at all:

“flic” (argot for “cop”) → “keufli”

And in some cases people start dropping sounds at the beginning or at the end. Most people say “keuf” rather than “keufli”.

Then when a word becomes common in its Verlan form, it’s sometimes reverlanized:

“keuf” → “feuk” (sounds a lot like English “fuck”. Appropriate, eh?)

Sometimes the last syllable is further deformed after substitution:

“hachish” → “chichon”

And Franglais words aren’t immune:

cigarette → garetsi

Which often then gets the syllable-dropped-and-distorted treatment:

garetsi → garo

See what I mean about sophisticated?

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-20 16:15:07

Silly, silly me. “Cigarette” is not Franglais. It’s more like Glaifran, a word English borrowed from French.

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Comment by Irene Zion |Edit This
2009-07-19 10:06:15

It sort of does, Uche. (Sound a bit like pig latin.)
Reading your posts is so much fun. I love your mix of erudition and South Park.
Also, I’d really love to know how you make those little squares and what they are meant to do.
(Pulling of my kicks, my feet are killing me.)

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-19 13:10:20

As for the mix of voices in my writing, yeah, that’s pretty typical of me. I’m a bit of a linguistic chameleon, but I’m happiest when I’m able to let loose with all three faces of eve. That’s part of the reason I love this audience so. I don’t know why, but I feel as if with you, I can write the way I enjoy writing. As a good chameleon, I can stay in any one color as long as I need to while blending in, but when in the comfort zone, I bask in the rainbow of one who reads Chaucer or John Skelton while listening to Mos Def and Talib Kweli, or who listens to The Indigo Girls while typing computer hacker slang in professional chat rooms.

EDIT. I tried to post the following as a separate response, but it’s not coming through.

What sort of kicks? Timberlands? Adidas? I kicked off my Adidas kicks when I got back from the Boulder arts fair just now. My feets were killing me, too.

And yep, “Uche” is pronounced exactly like the Pig Latin of “Chu”. In fact, energy secretary Steven Chu and I are Pig Latin brothers. We have a secret handshake and all, but of course I can’t tell you how it goes.

As for the “❧”, that’s just a regular character. It’s called “ROTATED FLORAL HEART BULLET”. This page has more information than you’ll ever want about it:

If you like it you can just copy/paste it from my post, or from that page. If you like fun little characters you can cut and paste, here are a couple of links:

Comment by Zara |Edit This
2009-07-19 10:56:55

Bravo! This was great, Uche. Your posts make me think and laugh out loud in the same second.
I, too read the dictionary as a child – don’t know whether I actually learned anything from it. Although when I was a journalist I would open the dictionary each day to a random page and word and try hard to get that word into my story somehow. The trickiest was trying to get ‘labyrinthine’ into a bog-standard murder story. I can’t remember if I did it or if that was the word that defeated me.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-19 13:15:22

Sha! As if! Of course you learned something from it. Dictionaries have their own soul, kind of like Tom Riddle’s diary in Harry Potter. If you spend enough time in their pages, they possess you. Even if you don’t know you are possessed, you probably know deep down the cause for that occasional, inexplicable fever to write word after word after word, stir the words into a thick soup, and then skinny dip in it.

If that is not the impulse of the possessed, what the hell is?

What’s your favorite dictionary?

Comment by Zara |Edit This
2009-07-19 13:48:20

The SOED. Snap!! Great minds and all that….

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Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-19 18:41:24

That’s what I’m talking ’bout!

I also have a few worst dictionaries, but the one that gets special mention, because it’s so unfortunately wide-spread is Merriam–Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. A depressing number of resources, on-line and otherwise are based on this garbage.

The funny thing is that AHD was originally in response to the uproar over permissiveness Webster’s Third dictionary, by the same company that produces the Collegiate. Originally AHD was supposed go back to beating people over the head about grammar and usage. I don’t know what changed at the AHD, but it hasn’t felt like a prescriptive pain-in-the-arse as long as I’ve been reading it.

Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-07-19 19:01:24

Hate the Cassell’s dictionary too. What about one favourite word? If you could pick just one…

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-19 20:12:40

Oh yeah, Cassell’s is pretty pants, too. I seem to recall wanting to puke all over Longman’s but that’s been a long while.

My favorite word? Yeah, sorry, I’m boring. It’s the too obvious floccinaucinihilipilification, as you know the longest word in the SOED. I love the silly way it was formed by stringing together a bunch of Latin words for “naught”.

And you?

Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-07-19 21:56:45

That’s a great word! Mine is oubliette. I like the way it sounds. I like the meaning too. ‘A little place of forgetting.’ I can’t remember where I first heard it, I may have stolen it from someone who said it was their favourite word.

Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-07-19 21:59:34

Oh, and given the length of your favourite word – I thought you might be interested to know that the longest place name in NZ is this –


It means – ‘The hilltop where Tamatea with big knees, conqueror of mountains, eater of land, traveller over land and sea, played his koauau to his beloved.’

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-20 05:53:43

Oh schweet! A place name longer than Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch!

Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
2009-07-21 11:30:18

Uche, if you weren’t happily married with children…and if I wasn’t happily married with children…hahaha.

Love this stuff. Keep it coming. And thanks for explaining Verlan in the comment to Lenore. Was wondering. I feel so much smarter now.

Zara – when I think of an ‘oubliette,’ I think of one of those little holes in the ground in a medieval torture chamber. I think this is hilarious that it is your fav word!!!

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-21 12:11:59

Erika, indeed, indeed. We’ll just have to write a joint novel about the alternate reality and hope S and L don’t consider that cheating.

Song on cue: Erykah Badu’s “Next Lifetime”. (”Maybe we’ll be butterflies…”)

And re: “oubliette” you remind me that one of my favorite words in Igbo is “Nchefu”, which means, in a thousand concrete and abstract ways, “forgetting”.

Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
2009-07-22 19:18:09

I wonder if it’s too late to change the spelling of my first name. “Erykah” is way, way cooler.

Looking forward to the next article on the ‘generic’ masculine 3rd person pronoun. Hell yeah, I’ll get into that ring with you. (Please note: I said WITH you…not AGAINST you. I’ve seen that jumping front ball kick of yours…vicious.)

Comment by Don Mitchell |Edit This
2009-07-19 11:16:28

Nice piece, and it interests me greatly. My mother was a HS English teacher, but she was very permissive if the context was creative writing. Not so for academic writing, though.

I gather you grew up where multiple languages were spoken. So did I. In small-town Hawai’i, my place of origin, it was a rare kid (of any ethnicity) who couldn’t speak standard English as well as Hawaiian pidgin, and often another standard language, such as Japanese. And we all knew when to use each one, including when to use one for effect.

There’s been a historical shift that I find interesting. When I was young, there weren’t very many mainland kids in our schools, and those few seemed very different from we white-local kids. For one thing, they couldn’t talk pidgin. But because there weren’t many of them, one could assume that a white kid could and would talk pidgin. This isn’t true any longer. When I’m in Hilo, I can tell that I’m being perceived as a white-outsider because there are so many of them now. But all I have to do is speak — it’s easy for me to drop in local accent and pattern, of course. What I like is how people are quite taken aback. What! How did you learn to speak like that, Mr White Guy? Uh, I grew up here, but if you’d be more comfortable having me speak standard English, I will.

I also love what the linguists call “code switching,” which means shifting back and forth between languages in the same conversation. The last time I was out in Papua New Guinea, I would be talking with village people and we’d be mixing the local language, Melanesian Pidgin, and standard English, even in the same sentence. It wasn’t a matter of having fun or showing off. It was more that each speaker would choose the word or phrase he or she considered the most likely to be understood (or in my case, to substitute for words in the local language I couldn’t remember).

And I’ll drag this out to include a comment on your Part I, which I hadn’t seen until today (being new to TNB). When I learned to speak Melanesian Pidgin, I was uncomfortable using some of the words: masta, pikinini, missus, mangki come to mind.

Masta/missus = white man/white woman. Of course to non-English speakers, they were just words. I asked not to be called “masta,” and people obliged (they called me “white-body” instead). Young people understood, but old people thought it was silly. They didn’t care what it implied. It was just what white men were called. They had a point.

And for pikinini or mangki, the children of white people or black people were pikininis or mangkis — that’s what those words meant. Still, it felt strange to be using words that in English would have been demeaning or insulting.

Sorry to go on so long.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-19 13:32:35

First of all, how dare you apologize for such a wonderful, insightful comment? I demand you apologize for your apology.

Seriously, you and I could be brothers in the sort of experience you describe. Yes, I’ve grown up in a welter of languages. When I was three and left Nigeria for the first time, I spoke English, Pidgin, Efik (the predominant language of my mother’s state) and Umon (my mother’s ancestral language). I also spoke some Igbo (my father’s ancestral language). We moved to Cairo, where my father says I was quick to pick up the predominant Arabic. Then through England, with stints in continental Europe, then to the U.S. By the time I went back to Nigeria for secondary school, government policy was to encourage mixing of ethnic groups in schools, so everyone could manage some Yoruba and Hausa as well as the usual English and Pidgin.

The other part that resonates with me is the feeling of feeling a stranger when you should feel at home. Growing up in so many places left me with the sensation of not really belonging anywhere. My main self-defense, as yours, is flexibility with language, but even that doesn’t always smoothen the path to acceptance.

Melanesian Pidgin sounds interesting. “pikin” is Nigerian pidgin for child, regardless of parents. “mishish” used to be what you’d call a lady who was married in a church. Whenever someone was treating me as an outsider it was often marked by calling me “oyinbo” (”whitey”), “aje-butta” (”softy”). I left Nigeria just as it was becoming common to use the pejorative “akata” to refer to Black Americans or Nigerians who had spent time in the U.S.

Comment by Don Mitchell |Edit This
2009-07-19 15:23:20

OK, I apologetically retract my apology.

Language doesn’t always smoothen the path to acceptance, but it surely does wake people up sometimes when you use it and they are not all expecting you to — as you know. I was in a queue at the Toronto Airport once and the cricket team from the Univ. of Papua New Guinea were in line behind me, and they were surprised (and pleased, I think) to have this old white guy drop back in the line and start talking in pidgin about the university. Of course my pidgin is old-style, the language having moved on since I learned it.

I didn’t remember my favorite pikinini story until after I posted. I was listening to local PNG radio, some time in the early 70s, and the announcer had a story about Prince Charles. He began, “Prince Charles, pikinini bilong Queen….”

And you’re completely accurate about the “not belonging anywhere feeling.” Sometimes it’s sad, but sometimes, to me, it’s a comfort. I wonder if you ever feel the same way.

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Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-19 18:48:22

“Prince Charles, pikinini bilong Queen….” should be the title of a poem. It has quite music to it, as Pidgins so often do. Nigerian Pidgin is a little less pretty in this case. “Prince Charles, de pikin for Queen”, or “…de Queen pikin”.

And I do feel the same way about not really belonging anywhere. It was very hard for me in my teens, but since adulthood I’ve reveled in universal stranger status. I think it has enriched my life beyond measure.

Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-07-19 18:59:40

I like the Vanuatu Pidgin-English word for Bra – ‘Titty bilong basket.’

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-19 19:57:25

Now that’s a priceless mouthful. Ummmmmmmmm… Well, you know…

Comment by Don Mitchell |Edit This
2009-07-20 02:19:47

Zara, it’s almost certainly “basket bilong titty.”

With typical pidgin syntax, the version you give would mean “the basket’s breast.” In PNG/Bougainville pidgin, bra is “banis bilong susu,” or “enclosure of the breast.” But increasingly, by now I’m sure overwhelmingly, it’s “bra.”

There’s a very long tradition on the part of white colonials/missionaries/traders to make fun of the ways that pidgin handles new objects or concepts. For example, it was widely believed that in PNG pidgin the “word” for “piano” was “blak bokus igat tit sapos missus i paitim i singaut,” literally “black box with teeth that if struck by the white woman makes noise.”

Hah, hah. Very funny. Those natives! What they won’t make up next! In fact, as you can guess, what people were doing was describing something, not naming it. Everybody I knew was aware that the name for piano was piano.

One more, along the lines of English-derived words that some folks would rather not say. The traditional PNG pidgin word for penis is “kok,” and for vagina, “kan.” Now imagine the nursing sisters (nuns) at the mission near where I lived going about their (useful and skilled) business of running a bush hospital, while needing to use what seemed to them vulgar English slang terms. Sr. Melita, an obstetrical nurse, managed to get them out, but it didn’t seem easy for her. She should have code-switched and used the local polite/anatomical term for vagina, kado.

Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-07-20 11:13:37

Oops! Thanks for clearing that up!
I love the image of the nun’s struggling with ‘kok’ and ‘kan’. Language is fascinating, and the struggle for finding the right words too. Recently I was in Australia and an woman from a very remote Aboriginal tribe was trying to explain the first time that she saw a car. She said she thought it was a ‘large moving rock.’ I thought that was the best description. Simple but effective.

Comment by Don Mitchell |Edit This
2009-07-20 11:24:49

I agree — it is a nice description.

Back in the 1920s, the people I worked with had never seen a white woman. White men, yes (Catholic priests). The first white woman who entered the area was a nun, who belonged to one of those cover-everything orders. She was wearing a wimple, all starched and ruffled and only her hands and her face showed.

Old people told me, “When we saw that thing, we thought it was something from the ocean, perhaps a walking sea shell.”

Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-07-20 13:01:30

I love that. A walking sea shell. Perfect.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-20 16:09:30

That is another great, poetical line.

Comment by Aaron Dietz |Edit This
2009-07-19 14:12:23

I can’t get too steeped in style and grammarian debate; I’m just not educated enough to offer anything coherent.

However, I’m still kind of sitting here enjoying your section headings and footnotes. Don’t see that often, though I think we should.

Comment by Marni Grossman |Edit This
2009-07-19 17:10:56

I just went back and read part I. And both parts are, of course, brilliant.

While I’m a big stickler for spelling, I’ve never been one to harp on grammar. Rules, I’ve always felt, are meant to be broken.

I love to begin with “and” or “but.” To end with a preposition. Most of all, I love fragments. One-word sentences.

Once, in college, I received a low grade on a paper for that very crime. “Too many incomplete sentences,” she wrote. It was crushing. It’s not as though I can’t write perfect, grammatically correct sentences. It’s just that they don’t seem to pack the punch of a tiny, concise fragment. My professor, however, was not convinced.

Thanks for enlightening me, Uche-

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-19 19:19:30

Yeah, professors do have to do something, of course, but you’d think it would be more fulfilling even for them to spend time encouraging and helping polish the idiosyncratic voice of each student, rather than reducing everything to slide rule exercise.

Comment by Don Mitchell |Edit This
2009-07-20 02:38:48

When I was in the classroom I dreaded papers written in “student passive.” If you (plural) don’t know what that is, fine. I’m not going to write about it. If you do, groan with me.

I used to advise students to read their papers aloud (to themselves), no matter whether it was a research exercise or a creative piece. I pleaded with them to use their natural voices rather than what they (wrongly) believed was an academic style. Of course some of them did master academic style and used it well. Most never did, and it was painful to read their attempts.

Turning their writing around (when I could) was fulfilling, yes, but there was serious self-interest in it — less struggling for me.

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Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-20 05:47:31

I think I know what you mean by “student passive”, but didn’t that originate from prescription, as well? An old-fashioned insistence that academic papers should be written in bloodless, impersonal style? I think a lot of students have drunk too much of that nonsense, so I can sympathize with what you had to go through. Uche’s prejudice: the passive should never be used to annihilate a personal agent.

Comment by Don Mitchell |Edit This
2009-07-20 06:53:16

The statement made by Uche Ogbuji is of interest, and should be responded to in a comment, such as the one that will be attempted here. By “old-fashioned insistence” it is possible that a reference to the teaching of English by elderly instructor’s has been made by Ogbuji, although as has been written elsewhere by other’s, it is possible that the “elderly instructor’s” may be those also described by other’s as “senile,” or at least may be thought of in that manner. It is the purpose of this comment, made by myself, to draw the readers attention to this and other problem’s.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-20 06:58:24

Ow! Wicked! Wicked! Wicked! You annihilated all manner of persons there. Ow!

Comment by Don Mitchell |Edit This
2009-07-20 07:03:28

Don’t you know how to use apostrophes? It’s “person’s.” Sheesh.

Comment by Don Mitchell |Edit This
2009-07-20 07:04:23

Whoops, neither do I. I meant:

Dont you know how to use apostrophe’s? Its “person’s.”

Comment by JB |Edit This
2009-07-19 17:28:01

Kickass piece, Uche. Lots to dig into. I may reread over a couple days.

I must say, less grammar nannies, more grammar bullies! Or: everybody just read Richard Lanham.

American teens are going into college aliterate (Not “illiterate”–there’s a difference).

Just curious: who are your top 5 MCs?


Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-19 19:49:53

I don’t mind grammar bullying as a simple exercise in applying prejudice. I have my own prejudices, and I do impress upon, e.g. to my kids, that I have some preferences for their usage. The difference is that I don’t claim some mythical divine right for these prejudices. I’m happy to say: that’s my preference, if yours is different, let’s hash it out. Another important difference is that I think I’m very quick to relent when it’s clear that something that annoys me sounds natural in someone else’s unique style. Competing relatives are just humanity. Absolutes are pretension to divinity.

And yes, we do need to keep teaching enough grammar that people have a basis for the arguments. I’m not sure I agree there is any big crisis with presently college-bound teens in the U.S. I think because more are going to college in the first place, there will always be some dilution of standards, but there is still a layer of highly literate teens. They do have a novel way of expressing themselves, but I think that’s something exciting.

My five MCs? Tough one. Without taking a moment to think whom I might have forgotten, I’d say (in no particular order):

* J-Live (who is also an English teacher, bless him)
* MF Doom
* Black Thought (of The Roots)
* Talib Kweli
* Posdnous (of De La Soul)

Near misses include my favorite female rappers Bahamadia and Jean Grae, who unfortunately just haven’t put out enough material for me to make room in that list. Same with Mos Def, who seems to be more focused on acting. Consistency impresses me, so I had to leave off Nas, and KRS-One, who had some wack patches. It’s a shame that the oldest-school rapper in my list is MF Doom (formerly of KMD), but the likes of Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap and Rakim have truly been outdone by some of their heirs, which is saying something.

Comment by Megan |Edit This
2009-07-19 18:29:48

Splendid topic, examples and tone, Uche. I fear the forfeiture of words too, though I still fuck up lay/lie myself sometimes and I speak the English as a native language.

Oh Erykah, how I adore your weirdness with words and just…overall.

Do you know that Donald Revell quote, “Poetry is language languaging”? Yeah. You reminded me of that.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-19 19:55:24

I’m honored to have made that association. Folks like Erykah, with her weird self, also remind me of “language languaging”. I wish more poets did.

2009-07-20 01:10:06

For a start, I’ll say this: I did the same thing as Zara, tracking down a random word in the Oxford English Dictionary and trying to find a way to make it work as an exercise.

I was born and raised in a country where written language and spoken can be wildly divergent – growing up as a bookish kind of kid, I developed a love for language, and took pride in what I assumed was my superior knowledge of the written word (although I’ll admit to wondering, more than a few times, just what the hell a gerund was).

It was about the time we started studying Chaucer in high school, and articles started to appear about the death of the English language thanks to mobile phones and the internet, that it started to dawn on my that the language itself was not set in stone, that fluidity and movement abounded, always had, and most likely always would.

Hart’s Rules sits sandwiched between the 15th Chicago and Strunk and White on my study shelf, flanked by the copies of Fowler’s Modern English Usage and <Roget’s Thesaurus that I geeked out over when I discovered them in a second-hand bookstore. Just tonight, actually, I was discussing the importance of style guides with someone (I will stand by the use of style guides in business until my dying day, mainly as a tribute to the poor internal proofreaders of large organisations). I love them, but equally as much as objects as sources of information.

I remember hearing about a campaign to keep dying words alive – I’m going to google that and come back to this.

(as a side note: melange, ancillary, simulacrum… these are a few of my favourite things).

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-20 06:01:30

Style guides would be fine for business, and for anything else, provided:

* They were written by someone who actually understands language (and not every good writer understands language)
* They are clearly advertised for the short lifetime they deserve (fifteen years at the outset). Frequent update is a good idea. Maybe the Internet is the key to the next generation of style guides.
* They are couched more in terms of alternatives and examples, emphasizing the importance of taste in general, not just the prejudices of the author

Many people write English I hate to read, and I’m not against the general idea of getting them some help. I just think the popular crop of style guides is too far by a mile toward the opposite end of the spectrum.

Bad prescriptions IMO are far more evil than bad writing.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-20 07:07:43

For those thinking that one use of grammar nannies is to ensure that your own kids pick up elite-like usage from you, vouchsafing their path to the presidency of their chosen country, this article is worth a read:

Comment by Pat Hayes |Edit This
2009-07-20 13:29:58

Hey, we could not be more different, quite apart from my being pink even without the tickle. I love Strunk & White, am blind to poetry and cannot stand Rap or Hip-Hop. Still I agree passionately with everything else you say, so your point transcends such minor idiosyncracies. I think its all to do with language being about telling, and not about exhibiting social norms of any kind. If it works, its good. If it works well, so that the working is itself a source of joy or satisfaction, then its poetry, I guess. But for many people I think the main purpose of language is to reveal (or to hide) something about the speaker, not about what the speaker is speaking.

BTW, for the educationalists among us, my grammar school (= high school, US, but what a great name, right?) English teacher had a wonderful exercise: take a passage, and re-write – precis – it using a set number of fewer words. Nothing burns off student nonsense better than having to work very hard to save two words in a 300-word essay. Oh, and, every week for 4 years, read something by Orwell or Conrad or Chaucer or Hardy or Dickens or Defoe or …

Keep writing, bro.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-20 16:30:39

This is extremely incisive:

“But for many people I think the main purpose of language is to reveal (or to hide) something about the speaker, not about what the speaker is speaking.”

Of course that impulse is the source of many of the conflicting forces that bring me to the point of my essay. To exaggerate the arc a bit (makes for a better story that way) the Renaissance was all about the glories of individual expression, and the Jacobeans started the process of buttoning things down—only so much of that lustiness English Puritanism could swallow. By the time a lot of the grammar manuals I decry started to take shape, the doyens were trying to beat writers into a standardized style. In some cases, as in high-society academies, this impulse went so far that even the strict grammarians realized they’d gone too far. See Don Mitchell’s neat example of “student passive” above. I’ll bet that sort of thing, for example, led to the banishment of the passive. We’ve ended up with a confusing layer of prescriptions that have been confusing the hell out of writers and editors for ages. I think it’s got to stop.

Creating a precis is a great learning exercise. Trimming is always good, but should be informed by the ear of the student, under the guidance of a good teacher who knows the student, rather than by the arbitrary dictates of some distant St. Grammatica.

Comment by Don Mitchell |Edit This
2009-07-21 12:28:28

Uche, a while ago (like 25 years) I went on a W African novel binge. Wole Soyinka (The Interpreters was the only one I read), Amos Tutuola (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, The Palm-Wine Drinkard), Cyprian Ekwenski (Jagua Nana). I’m not mentioning Achebe because I already knew (and admired) him.

I did let my W African interest drop, though, and never picked it up again.

Who’s out there now that you find interesting? Is anybody writing like Tutuola? I so admired what he did with language in Bush of Ghosts.

Comment by Uche Ogbuji |Edit This
2009-07-21 16:11:11

Oh Don do I have treats for you. I’ll say it: I believe my generation is already surpassing the Soyinkas, Achebes and Ekwenskis in some style (I’d say not Tutuola, because that would truly take some doing). Young women authors are leading the charge. I’ll mention Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi and Nnnedi Okoroafor, and then I have to dash because they just called boarding for my flight. More later…

Comment by Erika Rae |Edit This
2009-07-22 20:18:42

Speaking of Oyeyemi, I do believe I have something of yours…. (And yes, I read it – spooky one, that.)

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Comment by Don Mitchell |Edit This
2009-07-22 04:03:15

Great. Thanks, Uche. I’ve ordered a selection.

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UCHE OGBUJI is a founding editor of the TNB Poetry section. He is also co-creator and co-host of the Poetry Voice podcast. His short collection of poems Ndewo, Colorado (Aldrich Press, 2013) is a winner of the 2014 Colorado Book Awards.

To expand a bit, Uche Ogbuji was born in Calabar, Nigeria. He lived, among other places, in Egypt and England before settling near Boulder, Colorado where he lives with his wife and four children. Uche is a computer engineer (trained in Nigeria and the USA) and entrepreneur whose abiding passion is poetry. His poems, fusing Igbo culture, European Classicism, U.S. Mountain West setting, and Hip-Hop influences, have appeared widely. Uche also snowboards, coaches and plays soccer, and trains in American Kenpo. You can catch more of the prolifically fraying strands of his life on his home page, or, heck, even on Twitter.

2 responses to “Tongue of Warcraft, Part Two—Politics of Language”

  1. […] ⁴ For my rant against megalogrammarians, see “Tongue of Warcraft, Part Two—Politics of Language.” […]

  2. says:

    Vivaldi himself have fallen into obscurity by the end section of his lifetime.
    Hence, they can make the children’s attention quicker than the books.

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