It is an article of faith among the literati that “language is dynamic and ever changing”. One need only to listen to the baggy pants set to realize that there’s an audible gulf between generations speaking the same language, nevermind disparate nations and languages. Even that cerebrus of words, The Oxford English Dictionary, apparently has come to terms with this. Judging from the frequency and uptake of “modern” words we see in the OED, one wonders if they’re making room for these neologisms by throwing out old words as they go. Who needs eleemosynary when you can have selfie?
But let us pause for a moment. Are all linguistic morphs equally valuable and thereby deserving of recognition? More to the point, how to we know which words are even worth keeping, or for that matter, disposing? I would suggest that there are clear trends here, and in this case, unlike financial investing, the trend is not your friend.
Most visibly, we see a clear and distinct decline in the size of the vocabulary in common use. For example, if you read even the popular English literature of 50 or 100 years ago, today’s writing is simpler, trite, hackneyed, and banal by comparison. No doubt this is an homage the fine job done by our public school system and parents utterly uninvolved in their children’s education. No doubt it reflects a population that reads less, watches more, and does almost nothing in its slack hours. The problem here is that this becomes a deadly cycle of self-reinforcement. Place the microphone of poor speaking into the loudspeaker of poor writing and you get linguistic feedback – a howling screech of incoherent and uninteresting wordsmithery.
Worse still, the purveyors of this dreck don’t even understand just how awful what they write and say actually is. It’s precisely because today’s English speakers are so utterly tone deaf that someone like Jay-Z gets taken seriously as an “artist” or “poet”. Consider, for instance, this bit of rhyming:
So I ball so hard muhfuckas wanna fine me
But first niggas gotta find me
What’s 50 grand to a muhfucka like me
Can you please remind me?
Ball so hard, this shit crazy
Y’all don’t know that don’t shit phase me
(From “Niggas In Paris”, Jay-Z and Kanye West)
Its profanity isn’t anywhere near as offensive as its illiteracy. It is to writing as grenades are to fishing. More importantly, it lacks complexity, sophistication, and depth. The words are simple, the ideas are trivial, everything is easy to digest, and, in the end, it is not even slightly interesting. But this, ladies and gentlemen, is the work product of a man nearing a billion dollars in net worth. The culture is richly rewarding such sewage to the point that one wonders when the OED will canonize muhfuckas.
Note well that the use of profanity and vulgarity here is without any real contribution to content or meaning. Naughty words have always had some role in language and can serve to set a mood, provide a verbal exclamation mark, or record the speaking of a third party. But none of that is taking place. The vulgarity does not contribute to the narrative, it’s just … well, it’s just there. Its purpose isn’t to drive a compelling storyline but to titillate, provoke, or otherwise keep small- and easily distracted minds interested until they get to the next line.
This technique was pioneered years ago in visual entertainment when Hollywood discovered that sex and violence need not have any real role in story telling. They just needed to be present. In fact, a good part of Hollywood now makes movies that openly sneer at their audience knowing full well that a head exploding or an anal rape will bring them right back into the fold. That R rating may have alienated a few good critics (are there any left, I wonder?), but it attracted incremental millions in box office revenue. Literature and music were just late to this party, but they’re well onboard at this point.
Finally, we see language intended simply as a tribal marker. There is probably no more troublesome word in the English language than nigger and its derivatives. There was a time, not too many decades ago, when its use was strongly discouraged by the educational establishment, by parents, and the larger culture and even the entertainment business. Upon visiting Africa for the first time, the comedian Richard Pryor is recorded to have said that he saw no “niggers” there and covenanted to never again use the word – a word that had been a staple of his stage act.
But today the word has huge currency in popular music and culture. We are hectored about racism, white privilege, and so forth while at the same the children of slaves are embracing the most corruptive and destructive terms ever used to describe their forebears. When confronted by this, we’re told that “we’re taking the power away from the word”. Really? If you are not of African descent, see what happens when you try to use the term at your next cocktail party. Hilarity will ensue, I assure you.
In truth, what is happening is that nigger is being used to mark someone as a member of a club. That club might the club of rappers. It might be the professional victims club. It might be the club of underclass African-Americans. Or, more typically, it’s the club that wants to rub everyone else’s noses in it. Whatever it is, it is not about narrative, fine language, or compelling stories. It is a sad, bottomfeeding, vulgar, and destructive use of language. It is also entirely effective in marking people as members of a club. In so doing, they instantly alienate themselves from the larger culture, notwithstanding how many politically correct preening claims to the contrary we hear. If you scream “I belong to a different club than you” loudly enough, people believe you, and they treat you differently.
Language – high or low – is intended to be an instrument for conveying meaning. It is a vehicle by which we are able to interact with each other, debate ideas, work together (or not), and generally conduct our lives between and among ourselves. Language truly is the original internet, having fostered love, hate, art, war, peace, commerce, and exploration long before a single transistor showed up in the temples of Bell Labs. But today’s language is so simplified, so debased, and so politicized that it is beginning to lose its power to enable and ennoble us. Any machine that becomes sufficiently rusty will inevitably cease to work in its intended manner, and language is no different. But it need not be so. Language still has the capacity to enrich us and remain a conveyance for ideas if only we’ll just let it:
THE angels are stooping
Above your bed;
They weary of trooping
With the whimpering dead.
God’s laughing in Heaven
To see you so good;
The Sailing Seven
Are gay with His mood.
I sigh that kiss you,
For I must own
That I shall miss you
When you have grown.
(“Cradle Song”, William Butler Yeats)