The Breakfast Table

Que Happenin’?

Good morning, Jesse:

It’s no surprise to me that there are language issues in the news. In my experience, everybody–expert and amateur alike–has something to say about the state of the language.

For example, today’s Times has a story on the need to know Spanish if you live in New York (front page, above the fold)–can it be that Spanish is replacing French as the prestige second language? And Education Week reports today that the NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, is planning to test American schoolchildren on their knowledge of Spanish. The NAEP regularly tests reading, writing, and math, issuing national report cards on how our schools are doing in these subjects. The “1998 Writing Report Card,” which came out just last month, reported this scary news: The writing ability of half the American schoolchildren is below average! Anyway, the proposed test of Spanish will be the NAEP’s first foreign-language test. Other minority languages are also in the news. Today’s Arizona Republic reports on the first urban high-school class in the Navajo language, a move to stem the loss of Navajo among the young Native Americans who move to the city. Yesterday’s New York Times carried an article on minority-language revival in Europe–particularly Breton in France (the head of the French Academy objects that this will only dilute the purity of French). And the San Francisco Chronicle reports that is suing for trademark infringement, arguing that “Que pasa?” has become so transparent that we all know it means “What’s happenin’?” As a predictable response to this resurgence of interest in minority languages, today’s Toledo Blade runs a letter urging that English become the official language of the country. As if a law could get people to alter their language.

But back to your comments. Yesterday’s New York Times ran another article on Lewinsky, and on political slang in general. And I know that you commented on Lewinsky in a recent New York Post story. Speaking of Lewinsky, I happened by sheer accident to be spacing out in front of the TV last night watching a rerun on the USA Network of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, when I heard the Lewinsky reference that sparked the senior Lewinsky’s lawsuit. I found it amusing that the writers of this new series chose a euphemism where elsewhere they have been much more blunt. (Of course, the series title, Special Victims Unit, is itself a euphemism: It refers to sex crimes, something that didn’t occur to me till I saw the first episode.) Clearly they used “Lewinsky” for political shock value, and to draw attention to their new show–and why, I ask you, is a brand-new show already in reruns on a competing network? Anyway, I don’t think “Lewinsky,” as a verb or a noun, has the staying power of something like Heimlich, another eponym (word named after a person, for those who are reading over our shoulders) involving one person doing something physical to another. Of course, while a future episode of Special Victims Unit may choose to become more explicit about this maneuver, you won’t see diagrams of how to perform a Lewinsky in restaurants all over the country.

As for the Margalit Fox article you mention, I did read it and found it an interesting summary of what we might call “the linguist’s dilemma”: People want linguists to tell them how to be correct, but at the same time, they resist intervention, taking the attitude, “Who are you to tell me what to do?” It may seem like a no-win situation for us. But it’s also possible to see this as a natural part of the linguistic give and take (or what a theorist might call the social construction of language).

I missed the angry response letters to the Fox essay. Maybe they didn’t print them in the Midwest edition of the Times, or maybe I was absent that day. But they don’t surprise me. I get angry mail every time I try to point out people’s inconsistent language attitudes. Last month I wrote an Op-Ed piece about Louisiana’s new law requiring students to call their teachers “Sir” or “Ma’am.” The Louisiana state representative who drafted the law said there was a similar requirement in the state’s prisons, and he thought it worked so well he wanted to extend it to the schools. In my essay I pointed out that language is difficult to regulate: People just don’t want to use language the way other people tell them to. I also observed that people used to want schools to be less like prisons, but that now the trend seems to be to make them more like prisons, adding language regulation to crowd control, uniforms, metal detectors, and locker searches. In response, I got an angry letter from a reader telling me I ought to be in prison for writing what I did.

So I have come to realize, over a long career of such angry letters, that part of my job is to encourage people to look critically at language use, and part of my job is to get people angry.