Spexious

Observations and arguments.

While we’re on the subject of language

I confess to be a frequent listener of NPR programming in general and Fresh Air with Terry Gross in particular. And while JD and I enjoy swapping impressions of John Powers, David Edelstein and Maureen Corrigan (three Fresh Air commentators with voices meant for print magazines) as much as the next overeducated liberal, I do experience an ambient rise in dander at the commentaries of “linguist” Geoffrey Nunberg.

I understand the surface appeal, and in fact the first handful of Nunberg’s pieces I heard did pique my interest. But I now believe it was the discipline of linguistics itself that engaged me—the questions it raises about meaning and culture embedded in a single word, or cluster of words, or interrogatory inflection. In America, especially, the intersection of polyglot cultures, mass media, and information technology has created the most rapidly evolving matrix of language known to humankind in its history.

But the title of Nunberg’s trade paperback compilation of his commentaries, The Way We Talk Now, turns out not to have been intended ironically.

In essay after essay (for radio or print), Nunberg identifies a word or turn of phrase that strikes his fancy (something he perhaps read in the NYT), dutifully performs a LexisNexis search to compile some empirical statistics, and adds a dash of cultural musings that don’t require him to have to turn on the radio or television, to leave his fancy study, to have reason to interact with or listen to anyone at all unlike himself. The vacuum from within which he writes embodies some of the worst tendencies of the proverbial Ivory Tower. Far from attempting to understand how We (i.e. Americans) Talk, Nunberg appears engaged in a study of how the professional writing class has changed the usage and meaning of certain words in its prose.

Not that those questions are useless—on the contrary, that kind of analysis is sure to spark conversations among those members of the professional writing class who enjoy the Fresh Air. My problem with Nunberg is that he omits the most interesting and dynamic zones of language in actual use, e.g.:

– hip hop
– blogs, message boards, newgroups, chat, text messaging
– business-speak
– dance and club culture
– vertical trade publications (ok, so harry shearer has that copyrighted)
– youth music/television programming
– entertainment news
– the health and death industries
– junior high
– talk radio
– evangelical christianity / jihadist islam
– the gilmore girls

With all these (and hundreds more) to choose from, Nunberg returns again and again to the words of GWB, or Dennis Hastert, or John Kerry. Powerful mostly white capitalist male oligarchs with Ivy League degrees.

Which, the incredible shrinking political lexicon is perhaps historically interesting not in how the meaning of “liberal” or “left” has changed, nor merely in the related takeover of political discourse by elements of the extreme right, but in the recent and radical schism between political language and any identifiable plane of reality.

Consider e.g. yesterday’s news:

“This is a complex case with serious issues but, in extraordinary circumstances like this, it is always wise to err on the side of life.” – GWB re: T. Schiavo.

This from a man (aka the Texas Butcher) unwilling to commute a single death penalty case during his tenure as governor, and insistent that we withdraw from the protocols in the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations that would give the International Court of Justice in the Hague jurisdiction to hear cases on foreign nationals sentenced to death in the U.S.

This was not an assertion of morality or principle, but rather what GWB does best: spouting gibberish from the pulpit to help ensure that the faithful continue to feel righteous and true.

GWB himself acknowledges he takes more meaning from body language than any words that someone speaks.

So why should we bother listening to his?

The most fascinating discussion of language I heard recently on Fresh Air was during Gross’s interview with the RZA (aka Bobby Digital aka Prince Rakeem), in which he worked to explicate his serial identities using language she and a public radio listening audience might understand. At times her questions came off as awkward, but it seems to me that part of what we learned from identity politics is that the intersection of interpersonal languages will always create a bit of a mess.

Commentaries on language in contemporary America should unsettle, confuse, anger, and offend us. They should leave us shaking our fists at the generation after us and giving the finger to the generation before. Even Safire knows that. He’s been shaking his fist (and generating hate mail) in the Sunday NYT for more than a quarter century, and he’s still making up new words (cf. March 20, 2005: “cloturekrieg.”).

But Nunberg. “Hmm…” is just not enough.

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1 Comment»

  Fucking Nunberg « Spexious wrote @

[…] under Language Ok, so I’m a couple of weeks late on this, but what. the. fuck. was with Nunberg’s June 21 commentary about the value of memorizing […]


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