Amglish In, Like, Ten Easy Less

Arthur E. Rowse

Part 3

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It was really a gas to meet this far out dude. We scarfed down a pizza and beer, then hung loose until I got tired and split the scene. I came back to your pad so I could crash on your sofa. Do you dig it?

The world of computer nerds has also contributed new words to the nationas vocabulary, including char for character, url for a Web address, prolly for probably, spam for unwanted e-mail messages, and asl for age, s.e.x, and location.

The Key Role of Blacks.

No population group has contributed more to todayas informal language than African-Americans. Whether in musical lyrics or street lingo, they have been at or near the cutting edge of almost all language changes since the early twentieth century. From early slave talk to spirituals, Dixieland, swing, rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and finally hip-hop, African-Americans have set the pace in pop music and pop talk to this day.

To a great degree, jazz and its lyrics sparked the trend. It all started in earnest in the 1930s and 1940s with the publicas infatuation with the groovy jazz of Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. For many people, that love affair has continued right through to the present day.

Among the first words that joined the popular lexicon from the jazz world were baby for sweetheart, balled up for confused, berries for perfect, big cheese for the boss, bimbo for a tough guy or floozy, dope for hallucinogenic drugs, john for toilet, and nookie for s.e.x.

The White Negro.

Novelist Norman Mailer was one of the first to spot the vital links between blacks and whites that formed the basis of todayas informal American English. It was in 1957 when he spelled them out in the Fall issue of Dissent magazine in an article ent.i.tled aThe White Negro.a In New York, New Orleans, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, he wrote, white dissidents of the beat generation acame face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marihuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were Hip. . . . The hipster had absorbed the existentialist synapses of the Negro, and for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro.a Mailer himself was part of the white generations that grew up in the same early period and took to jazz and swing music so completely that they adopted much of the black lingual inflections as their own. He singled out the words man, go, put down, make, beat, cool, swing, with it, crazy, dig, flip, creep, hip, and square. aTo swing with the rhythms of another is to enrich oneself,a he added.

The Hip-Hop Craze.

Amglish has also been strongly influenced by the hip-hop movement with its rapid-fire lyrics set to the sound of heavy drums. The rapper style sprang from folk poets of the Caribbean and West Africa as well as Cuban reggae and good old American jazz.

Hip-hop was born in New York in the late 1970s and soon developed a powerful crossover appeal, eventually drawing many more white fans than black. It also spread its own culture to other venues, such as break dancing, veejaying, deejaying (like a video or disk jockey emceeing an event), and a wide range of mostly baggy clothing styles.

With the help of many eager corporate sponsors like Nike, Coca-Cola, and Sprite, hip-hop was soon spreading around the country and the world on the wings of Music Television (MTV) and Hollywood films such as Wild Style, Breakina, and Beat Street. Its international appeal was largely due to its rebellious nature and language, which drew enthusiastic support especially from dissident groups in other countries.

To this day, it is considered smart and cool for whites to mimic black vernacular. Among the more popular hip-hop terms have been boyz for gang members, chillina for acting cool, hood for neighborhood, and my bad for excuse me for fouling up.

Among the top artists have been Grandmaster Flash, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Queen Latifah, P. Diddy, the Wu Tang Clan, and the great white hope, Eminem. Hey man, know whaam sayina?

Hip-Hop Lit.

Although hip-hop has not generated much literature, at least one rapper claims his agangstaa novels with s.e.xually explicit language have sold well. He is Renay Jackson, one of the stars interviewed by Spencer Michels on the Online NewsHour in 2003. Jackson, who worked as a custodian for the Oakland (CA) Police Department, claims that one of his novels, Oaktown Devil, sold 35,000 copies.16 In response to a question from Michels, Jackson said, aIn this neighborhood, just like the majority of neighborhoods I describe in my books, you have, like, killings, you know, drug dealingsa"look at thata"you know, just like the everyday life of, like, you know, the urban streets.a He says his audience is mostly young black males.

Michels also interviewed the publisher, Richard Grossinger, founder of North Atlantic Books in Berkeley, CA. aWhen I got the books,a said Grossinger, aI thought that they were actually pretty wonderful. They were good stories, they were funny, they had great dialogue in them, and they had a quality of authenticity that you just couldnat fake. I would say it would be disappointing to sell less than 50,000 of each of the books. And they could well sell up in the hundreds of thousands.a Innovative Language.

Of all the continuing chroniclers of the American language, PBS has been the leader among major media with its running segment, Do You Speak American? It was in 2005 when rap star JT the Bigga Figga said on the show that black language is constructed ofa"alright let me take it all the way back to the slave days and use something thatas physical. All the slave masters gave our people straight chitlins and greens, you feel me, stuff that they wasnat eating. But we made it into a delicacy. Same thing with language . . . .

They didnat want the slaves playing drums because we was talkina through the drums . . . you feel me? So through the music, thatas kinda like going on now with the rap thang. Itas ghetto music. People talkina about they issues and crime and, you feel me?

Along the way, hip-hop terms have gone both national and international. Bling-bling even found its way into the linguistas bible, the Oxford English Dictionary.

Freaked-Out Valley Girls.

By the 1980s, the language-generating process shifted briefly to mostly white high school girls in Californiaas San Fernando Valley who added their own versions of the new lingo with their giggly barf me out, fer sure, as if, and totally, as in ashe totally freaks me out.a Subsequent ma.s.sive usage of the word totally has effectively reduced its wattage close to zero.

Perhaps their greatest single contribution to todayas lingo, however, is the word like. n.o.body at the time could have predicted how prevalent this four-letter word would become in the following decades. It was already stretched thin as a noun, verb, adjective, and conjunction. To all these duties, Valspeakers used the word to introduce a quotation, such as, aI was like, aWhat are you doing, girl?aa A Family Word Game.

Making up words has become a private joy for many American families. One of the first to notice the tendency was Allen Walker Read who called it athe effervescing of languagea in a 1962 article for American Speech, the American Dialect Societyas magazine. More recent is a 2007 book by Paul d.i.c.kson, Family Words.17 He lists such gems as mudwaffles (chunks of mud brought into the house on running shoes), lurkin (a single sock whose mate is lurkina around somewhere), granny hangers (loose flaps of skin hanging from an old personas upper arm), rump spring (an old stuffed chair with a spring showing through), and garpe (one familyas name for grape jelly because of a misspelling on a shopping list).

These high-pitched contributions to the language were, like, immortalized in the 1983 movie Valley Girl, which by now seems aso yesterday,a a further bit of Valspeak. Just as Valspeak was dying out in 1995, another movie, Clueless, revived it briefly with a printed guide to the movieas slang. The film added the ubiquitous whatever and helped to consolidate the ever-present like and you know in the nationas vocabulary.

Seeking to capitalize on the informal language trend, Steve Jobs, the clued-in chief of Apple, launched his famed Think Different ad slogan in 1997. His willingness to risk offending savvy tech buyers with this questionable grammar proved to be a smash hit. By this time, few could have been offended by the ploy pioneered earlier by Winston cigarettes.

Cosbyas Complaint.

After 2000, hip-hop sales dropped significantly while many critics cited a deterioration in the lyrics and an increase in raunchiness and misogyny. An even bigger decline in sales in 2005 might have been sparked by professional funny guy Bill Cosby. The wildly popular African-American TV star, who has a masteras degree in education, blew his top in a 2004 speech at Howard University at a ceremony honoring the Supreme Court decision on school desegregation.

aJust forget about telling your child to go to the Peace Corps,a he said. aItas standing on the corner. It canat speak English. It doesnat want to speak English. I canat even talk the way these people talk. aWhy you ainat?a aWhere you is?a . . . I blamed the kid until I heard the mother talk. Then I heard the father.a He said it wasnat like this when he was growing up blacka"and kind of bilingual: aYou used to talk a certain way on the corner, and you got into the house and switched to English. Everybody knows itas important to speak English except these knuckleheads. You canat land a plane with aWhy you ainat?a You canat be a doctor with that kind of c.r.a.p coming out of your mouth.a Cosby was politely applauded at the predominantly black university, but some African-American leaders objected later, pointing to the contribution of black dialect to world culture and citing the popular art of Langston Hughes, Ray Charles, and others. In response, Cosby pointed out that such artists all spoke what he called standard American English.

The Filter Principle.

The drop in hip-hop sales should not have been surprising to close observers with a broad view of history. The key might be called the natural filter principle of language. When pollutants like oil threaten the life-giving qualities of ocean water, a natural cleansing action seeks to bring the pollutants under control. Likewise, when a language becomes too polluted, natural cleansing action takes over.

The U.S. Supreme Court essentially backs the same principle. It has left the matter of obscenity up to the general public by ruling that the key factor in determining whether something is obscene and therefore prohibited is whether it violates acontemporary community standards.a18 It is possible that Cosbyas speech helped slow the flow of language that threatened to destroy its own habitat. It is also possible that radio jock Don Imusas excesses caused a similar effect. On April 4, 2007, the foul-mouthed faux cowboy flamed out when he called the Rutgers womenas biracial basketball team anappy-headed hos,a a term for African-American He didnat object when his producer sitting with him added another racial insult.

After getting some immediate flack, Imus issued a quick apology. But some people called for his dismissal because of his long record of making similar remarks. A week later, NBC, citing many complaints, canceled its simulcast of the show, Imus in the Morning. The next day, CBS canceled the radio version, citing its sudden concern about the effect of such language on young people, aparticularly young women of color.a These reactions followed many public protests, essentially votes of individuals, some of whom had sought publicity for a book or for themselves on the show. There was yet another turn of the giant filter, perhaps the key one. It was the decision of seven sponsors to pull their ads, including American Express, General Motors, Staples, Sprint, GlaxoSmithKline, Nextel, and Procter and Gamble. Thereas nothing like a pulled ad to get a talk jockas attention.

So, in effect, it was the general publicas decision, the filter principle, that an important line had been crossed, and the violator needed to be ostracized. It was like the natural way that Amglish depends on the broad public, not the language police or broadcast censors, to set the ground rules in the final a.n.a.lysis.

Such a process does not work well in formal English with all its bewhiskered rules and self-appointed guardians of the sacred relics that range in age from four hundred to over two thousand years old. Look at how ineffective parents, teachers, and politicians have been in stamping out obscenities through censorship and punishment over the long haul.

Hip-hop Reverberations.

Only a few weeks later, it became apparent that the Imus case was reverberating in the hip-hip world. A campaign by the late C. Delores Tucker in 1995 to tone down some of the b.i.t.c.hes, hos, n-words, and stuff was finally coming to a head. Punctuating this campaign was a further drop in alb.u.m sales. Her widower said the Imus case had abrought about a revival of the struggle she wageda against lyrics demeaning to women.19 The drop in sales was also enough to cause Russell Simmons, the multimillionaire owner of the hip-hop label Def Jam and fashion house Phat Farm, to call for a voluntary ban on bad words and the imposition of guidelines. His decision coincided with an NAACP attempt to kill racist and s.e.xist terms.

Simmons told a reporter that he was responding to apublic outragea that could lead to a anasty discussiona and possible censorship.20 He added that decisions in the music business tend to be driven more by commerce than ethics, and sales of unedited regularly have exceeded those of edited ones. Of course, public sales are simply votes in the marketplace.

The natural language filter is always working, but it doesnat always bring dramatic results. Howard Stern is living proof of it. The man whom the New York Times once called athe King of All Four-Letter Wordsa effectively conquered earthly talk radio in 2004 and moved to outer s.p.a.ce as a talk host for Sirius XM for an obscene amount of money, said to be $500 million over five years.

The difference between Stern and Imus may be a matter of humor and precision. The precision of the former can help blunt his excesses; knowing exactly where to draw that line can neutralize the filter. Imus apparently had to learn how to limit his remarks. Stern already knew. In general, people enjoy a certain amount of s.m.u.tty talk, but it has to be judicially tempered in the long run.

The Wash Cycle Is On.

There is evidence that all obscenities and vulgarisms are going through a cleansing initiated by the general public, without any dramatic threats, movie codes, or too much bleeping. People who speak Amglish donat normally distinguish between vulgarity that is acceptable and vulgarity that is not. They tend to let the general public draw the line.

Take the age-old s...o...b..put-down, for example. Excessive usage over many years appears to have weakened the phrase to the point where it is now used more as a term of endearment between two men, as in, aHowas it going, you old sunovab.i.t.c.h?a Another word that has lost its shock value is suck. Originally used to describe a basic human action, from nursing an infant to a s.e.x act offensive to some, it is almost exclusively used now to express simple displeasure or disgust without implying any off-color inference.

The actual date of death for suck as a vulgar term was August 2, 2006. That was the day when the establishment media endorsed its new viability. The online magazine Slate, a branch of the Washington Post, declared the word acompletely divorced from any past reference it may have made to a certain s.e.x act.a Since then, it has acquired enougha"should we say dignity?a"to be used in formal doc.u.ments, such as memorial notices honoring the dead.

An example of such use is the following pa.s.sage in a womanas paid memorial notice on a newspaper obituary page of the Post that same year to tell her long-deceased mother, aLife down here sucks.a (The name and date are omitted to avoid identifying the person involved.) Since then, the phrase has become quite common, especially for that very special message sent to honor a dead relative online or in a newspaper obituary page, or in remembrance of a birthday or anniversary.

A Google survey revealed more than five hundred such phrases, nearly all of which were in a funereal context. When the word stinks was subst.i.tuted as slightly less offensive than sucks for grieving people, only three examples showed up. Sucks is clearly preferred over stinks for such somber occasions.

ACLU Solves a.s.shole Problem.

When the American Civil Liberties Union heard that Pennsylvania state police had issued more than seven hundred citations to people for mouthing off at such things as an overflowing toilet, it sued them. The suit included Lona Scarpa who faced a $300 fine for calling a motorcyclist an a.s.shole for swerving toward her.

The case was settled in January 2011. The police paid Scarpa $17,500 and agreed to stop arresting people for such things. A year earlier the city of Pittsburgh paid $50,000 to a man who had been cited for making an obscene hand gesture.21 The Fading F-Word.

Even the f-word, which used to be the best attention getter, seems to be fading. To describe a sunset with it, for example, is apparently no longer considered hilarious. And when Vice President d.i.c.k Cheney publicly told Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont to ago fa" yourself,a hardly anybody was surprised or shocked. The word apparently has lost some of its shock value through ma.s.sive overuse.

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Much of the credit for the new atmosphere should go to the many comedians who have played a big role in this self-cleansing action. Few have been more ingenious than Jon Stewart of The Daily Show on Comedy Central. By uttering the f-word so often while knowing it will be bleeped, he spares the millions outside the studio audience from hearing the word and, of course, laughing at his jokes. Thatas a sacrifice beyond the call.

Strong reactions continued long after her death. As the era of political correctness set in, there were numerous efforts to denigrate her book for not representing slave life more accurately. In 1949, author James Baldwin blamed her for not fully revealing athe inherent evils of a bad system.a Talk about late-hitting a little old lady when sheas downa"and under!

Stoweas realistic style became the pattern for T. S. Arthuras Ten Nights in a Bar-Room, published three years later. Like Stoweas book, this was a clever use of common speech to plead for a cause, in this case temperance. These books helped break the template of stuffy British literature and plot a more permissive course for American literature.

An Activist Lexicographer.

Even some dictionary makers can be called pioneers when they aim both to codify the language and change it. Noah Webster was a rare bird who fitted both job descriptions. He led a move not only to Americanize the language brought across the ocean but to inventory the vocabulary that existed mostly in the latter half of the eighteenth century.

His Dictionary of the English Language in 1806 was the first major U.S. dictionary. He also performed surgery on many British words by removing the final k in words like musick, dispensing with the letter u in words like colour, and transposing the last two letters in words like centre and theatre. But he failed to kill silent letters such as the b at the end of thumb, for which he got the third finger from some critics.

Websteras activism was largely inspired by Samuel Johnson and the famous dictionary he published in 1755. Johnson was of two minds as well. He vowed to afixa English by excluding new and bawdy words while publishing off-color ditties such as this one by one Sir John Suckling: aLove is the fart of every heart; it pains a man when atis kept close; and others doth offend when atis let loose.a Contributing Authors.

The previously mentioned Mark Twain was another brush cutter for early Amglish with his lovable creations, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and his efforts to use the vernacular of black and white boys playing together in the South of the early 1800s. His Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1876, starts out, aYou donat know me, without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ainat no matter.a H. L. Mencken called Twain athe first American author of world rank to write genuinely colloquial and native American.a23 Mencken also singled out author Walt Whitman for his aromantic confidencea in the role of aiconoclastic and often uncouth American speechwaysa in fostering U.S. democracy. He said Whitmanas acentral purpose [was] to make war upon the old American subservience to 18th century English pedantry and open the way for the development of a healthy and vigorous autochthonous language in the United States.a Whitmanas love of slang led to a pioneering magazine article ent.i.tled aSlang in America.a24 Menckenas words for Whitman could also describe himself. His mammoth book, The American Language, is a tour de force of the American languageas history. Other trailblazing pioneers of language in the twentieth century include Ring Lardner and his depictions of street and bar talk in New York; Studs Terkel, with his quotes from unsung heroes; Norman Mailer, with his bold-at-the-time obscenities; and Tom Wolfeas gripping descriptions of affluent societyas seamier side.

The lowercase poet e. e. c.u.mmings deserves special mention for his playful spelling and syntax. He caused a stir in the early twentieth century by occasionally signing his name in lower-case letters and deliberately mixing up words, both of which devices were due later to spread into common usage. Among his verbal inventions that didnat catch on were mud-luscious, puddle-wonderful, and eddieandbill.

Jumping for Junie.

Then thereas the more recent Junie B. Jones, the controversial character in a series of books from Random House originally aimed at the kindergarten crowd but later upgraded to older ages and expanded into movies, games, and coloring pages. With her informal language, Junie indirectly promotes Amglisha"and book salesa"with clever misspellings and questionable grammar in phrases like aI hearded that namea and arunned away.a In other words, she fits into the Amglish world, much to the dismay of many parents who wonder how their offspring can ever learn formal English by reading such material. Other parents swear that their children have been inspired to do more writing and reading than they otherwise would have. They add that the use of the vernacular by Barbara Park, the creator of Junie B., is similar to Mark Twainas cla.s.sic use of it in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the top American cla.s.sics.

Which set of parents is closer to the truth?

If the question is whether Junie has harmed the ability of young Americans to communicate, the answer seems to be no. One glance at the degree of texting, phoning, and e-mailing by youngsters shows that they have no problem making themselves understood by their peers while greatly enjoying the process.

If Huck caused no serious problems for readers of his day, Junie B. is not likely to do so today.

Cleaning Up Huck.

As the year 2011 began, however, Twainas book became the center of another type of controversy stemming from his use of the word n.i.g.g.e.r 219 times in the book. The racial issue came up like thunder when it became public that Alan Gribben, a language professor at Auburn University in Alabama, had decided that each word should be replaced by the word slave in a new edition, even though the slave in the book had been freed.

Gribben explained that the n-word had become so explosive at a time of growing political correctness that the book might become one that people praise but donat read. aItas such a shame,a he told the a.s.sociated Press, athat one word should be a barrier between a marvelous reading experience and a lot of readers.a25 The news story set off a national debate over whether the much-read literary cla.s.sic should be changed after so many years. Most critics said Twain himself would have objected. He once wrote, aThe difference between the almost-right word and the right word . . . is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.a But Comedy Centralas Stephen Colbert supported the idea of whitewashing American history and suggested that the job had only begun. aItas great to have the n-word out of Huckleberry Finn. Now get to work on the Moby D-word.a Except for his joking response, it looked like another example of the language filter starting to work, this time not on common obscenities but on the use of overtly racial terms. As this is written, not all the votes are in, but the Amglish system of allowing the public to make the ultimate decision on controversial language seems to be working, though often slowly and erratically.

This chapter has described some of the pioneers who helped create the informal language that is replacing formal English in the United States. The next chapter will describe how the new American lingo has spread around the world.

The New World Lingo.

go out mubarak.

a"Words on a manas forehead in Tahrir Square, Cairo, February 8, 2011.

This crudely crayoned message in Cairoas Tahrir Square is only one of many examples of the informal English penetrating the rest of the world. Such signs are part of a growing strategy by people in other countries to solicit international support for their causes by getting news microphones and cameras to pick up their crudely framed English words and convey them to the centers of world power.

Also ill.u.s.trative of the U.S. influence in the Arab uprisings in 2011 was the central role played by American-based social networks such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. The spark that lit the populist fires in Egypt was a graphic photo on Facebook of the distorted face of an Egyptian man beaten to death by police. When it became public on February 8 that the man who posted the photo online was Wael Ghonim, the Middle East manager of Google, the news brought out the largest crowd in Egyptian history to honor him.

These words and photos on the Internet were additional proof, if any were needed, of the worldwide influence of American language and pop culture. According to the Voice of America, there were 5 million users of Facebook in Egypt when the public demonstrations began there on January 25.

Five years earlier, Amglish had already penetrated the very birthplace of English so thoroughly that the nationas soccer superstar David Beckham blurted out the following words about his children: aThe homework is so hard these days. Itas totally done differently to what I was teached . . . and you know, I was like, aOh my G.o.d, I canat do this.a1 The new lingo had obviously gotten in too deep for him or anyone else to kick the habit.

Normally, Brits donat like to play second fiddle to their former colonies, but when it comes to keeping current with the latest patter from across the pond, they are obviously turning out to be little more than lapdogs in bulldog drag.

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