Venerable readers of this blog will recall that I received three “B” grades as an undergrad. One of them came from John Romano, because I was hospitalized for a week and thus missed enough of his class to receive an automatic penalty, though I’d never gotten a “B” on any assignment. I respected his choice, because he operated from unyielding precision in his teaching and evaluation. The second came from John Parks, and it stemmed from a disagreement over Mary Gordon’s bigoted trash novel Men And Angels. I did not feel the book was worthy of assignment nor of discussion in our class and I said so. Dr. Parks decided to engage me on this topic in front of twenty fellow undergrads; the consensus at the time among the students was that I had won the argument in scorched-earth fashion, but Parks had the final word when the grades were handed out. To this day, I remember him as an example of how not to teach at the college level; he was a soft and weak rhetorician who relied on the authority of his position, an easily provoked midwit perfectly suited for nothing better than the pallid bovine regurgitation of better writers’ work, a disjointed thinker who started blinking back the precursors of naked tears when I, a nineteen-year-old boy in a threadbare “Rockville BMX!” T-shirt, raised my voice at him.
Which leaves a third “B”, which wasn’t really a “B” because I saw the light during my third week of class and took advantage of a university rule which let me take a certain number of courses on a pass/fail basis. This, too, came from an in-class disagreement I had with the professor — but unlike the work of Mary Gordon, which has never appealed to any sort of reader other than the feebly subliterate, the substance of our squabbling remains intellectually relevant to the present moment.
Over the past few years The Atlantic has become little more than a series of Magic-8-Balls in which various combinations of the words “Trump” and “racist” have been assembled to great horking choruses of approval from the Park Slope crowd. You can what you like about the forty-fifth President, but one thing he has managed to flawlessly accomplish has been to show just how shallow the rivers of American intellectualism run nowadays. Confronted with the mere existence of a real-estate-developer-and-reality-TV-show-turned-politican, the vast majority of our great public minds and institutions have resorted to an insane and feverish bleating of pornographic obscenities. The self-appointed greatest minds of the country, defeated en masse by a fellow who likes gold-plated bathroom fixtures. Trump turned over the rock of our respect for universities and senior press (think the New York Review Of Books) and showed us the filthy beetles scuttling away from unexpected sunlight. He confirmed what many of us long believed: namely, that the Ivy League and the public-opinion-making institutions had rotted from within perhaps thirty or forty years ago as they replaced their original charter of knowledge-seeking with a feckless, inbred currying of credentialist claptrap in which the joy of learning has been replaced by a conformity of unquestioned belief.
Yet their triumph is not complete, because they have merely erected an unsteady new cathedral on the centuries-deep bedrock of Western thought and philosophy. The sniveling victim-porn of Matty Yglesias and Jake Tapper may seem all-powerful now, but they could be swept away by even the most ephemeral of enlightenments, the same way that the best-selling novelists of the pre-Victorian era mostly exist today as caustic asides in the diaries of Boswell, Pepys, and others. There’s a movement of young men afoot — the so-called “Clean Living Kings” who reject Pornhub and YA fiction in favor of Stoic philosophy. It’s a movement accidentally predicted by Tom Wolfe’s A Man In Full. These young fellows can taste the empty calories of modern society, and they are digging for vegetables in the cellars of antiquity.
This won’t do. In order to make the progressive revolution permanent, we have to ensure that young men (and women, of course) are unable to read the great books of the past. Previous dictatorships of the proletariat did this by burning the books, but doing so only burnishes the attraction of the ones that escape the fire. Far better to leave the books in play but simply to ensure that they are inscrutable. Orwell showed how this would be done: through Newspeak.
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.
Emphasis mine. And this, dear reader, is how I got into a scrap with my Linguistics teacher in 1990. He was a Chinese expat with such a thick accent that you could often look around the lecture hall and read incomprehension in half or more of the faces, this being more strongly distributed in higher and more distant rows of seating. I don’t remember what set it off, but somehow he and I started arguing about what he called “Black English”, pronounced Brack Engrish. He claimed that Black English was as complete a language as standard English. I stood up and stated that
a) “Black English” was probably a bad term for it, insofar as it was cultural/regional and not genetic; and
b) any dialect which reduces the number of available words is a subset of English and therefore inferior, because it cannot convey the same range of meaning without resorting to external techniques like tone of voice, physical motions, and extreme notions of context.
I don’t know what plans he’d originally had for that class, but the last forty or minutes of it turned into the two of us (at one point, literally) yelling at each other. No surrender was possible, because he was the professor and I was convinced then, as now, of the righteousness of my position. Eventually we realized that our time was up and that the classroom was empty. “Crass over,” he snapped. I walked out, got on my show-chromed Carlo-Lucia-era Boss Pro XL BMX bike, and rode directly over to the registrar, where I changed my registration to pass/fail, a decision which was validated by the consistent “B+” applied to every paper I wrote afterwards.
At the time, this felt like a genuine betrayal. I’d taken linguistics because I wanted to better understand the complexities of the English language, not because I wanted to be lectured on the interchangeability of dialect by someone who had access to a mountain of evidence proving otherwise. Eventually, I came to realize that modern academia is largely deconstructive; in other words, it’s a bunch of people who have used a rope to climb a wall and proceeded to pull said rope up behind them while simultaneously lecturing the people left behind on the meaninglessness of ropes. The highest and most pleasurable calling of the university professor now is to denigrate all the learning he has spent a life accumulating. This allows him to enjoy supremacy on several levels; he achieves the apex of his profession, enjoys the freedom to criticize his predecessors with impunity, then ensures that his successors will be ill-equipped to criticize him. This arrogant “apres moi, le deluge” mindset is absolutely omnipresent now in the liberal arts; it also goes a long way to explain all the changes made in the admission policies to most institutions over the past few decades.
No surprise, then, that an appropriately credentialed linguist is the author of “Embracing your inner child is comforting and fun—and just might revitalize the English language.” Were you aware that it required revitalization?
A generation understandably spooked by “adulting” may well embrace the linguistic comfort food of childlike language… Does the new trend of kidspeak represent a dumbing-down of the English language—and of American society as a whole? Just the opposite: With the rise of kidspeak, we are actually witnessing English’s enrichment.Kidspeak extends our word stock in exactly the same way that Old Norse, French, and Latin once did. On the internet, for example, kidspeak refers to a “smol kitty” and a “smol baby,” but not a “smol mailbox” or “smol Blu-ray player.” Smol, then, is not merely a way of spelling small, but a more specific term referring to diminutive cuteness… English today is arguably more fertile than it’s been since Shakespeare’s time, and those itchy about the novelty of kidspeak might consider that not so long ago pedants were insisting the proper person should say “bal-coh-nee” for balcony, stamp out “nonwords” such as standpoint, and use obnoxious to mean “ripe for injury.” Their arguments failed miserably when presented to everyday speakers, who tend to have good intuition about how language should work.
This is precisely the sort of idiocy which should be addressed with extreme intolerance. “Everyday speakers” — what a moronic phrase! Didn’t Samuel Johnson speak to peeople every day? — “tend to have good intuition about how language should work.” I think the author is trying to imply that language is refined for efficiency in “everyday” situations, but he doesn’t quite have the sentence-assembling ability to put that across without ambiguity. Let’s say that’s his point. “Everyday speakers”, given the chance, will boil language down to its bare bones then use context, voice, and gestures to fill in the rest. They’ll do the same to art, music, and everything else. If you want a vision of the everyday-speaker future, Winston, imagine a street in downtown Detroit or New Orleans or Selangor, forever: Language becomes patois, art becomes graffiti, music becomes someone drumming on a five-gallon bucket.
This sort of idiocy would be toxic if McWhorter actually believed it, but he doesn’t. Compare the aw-shucks tone of his Atlantic article with the summary from one of his (rare) scholastic publications:
It has become widely accepted that English has undergone no interruption in transmission, its paucity of inflection treated as a random loss paralleled in Scandinavian. This paper argues that English has in fact lost more of the Proto-Germanic inheritance than any other Germanic language including Afrikaans. These losses extend far beyond inflection: where other Germanic languages overtly mark a given feature, in a great weight of cases English leaves the distinction to context.
Ooh! “Paucity of inflection”! McWhorter’s approach to language is ivory-tower consistent: shades of meaning for me, but not for thee, you everyday speaker, you. He’ll retain his fancy English as he pleases, but you should go ahead and start babytalking about “smol puppers” and similar stupidity. A generation of this, and we will all become babbling idiots, communicating approximately in pidgin. We will have achieved Newspeak, only it will be full of “doggos” and “puppers”.
Won’t this make it impossible for young people to learn the lessons of the past? Well, yes — but that’s kind of the point. And to satisfy the curiosity of the rare few who can look away from YouTube long enough to express the mildest curiosity regarding the open grave of Western culture, McWhorter suggests that we “translate” Shakespeare into Modern English. What a horrifying thought. Not to worry, I’m giving it a shot below:
HAMLET:Shit, bro, idk if I even wanna be here. u wan 2 scrap or peace out? But wat if I ‘an hero’ and then have bad dreams when I’m dead and shit? It’s mostly these motherfuckers bein’ bitches about peelin’ they own caps and shit. Yeah ima ride for mine.
Naturally, this is all being done in the holy name of Diversity And Inclusion but consider, if you will, the following:
This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave. It rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood. It recalled the departed self-confidence, and inspired me again with a determination to be free. The gratification afforded by the triumph was a full compensation for whatever else might follow, even death itself. He only can understand the deep satisfaction which I experienced, who has himself repelled by force the bloody arm of slavery. I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the ‘tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom. My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.
The beauty of proper English is that it can be mastered by anyone with the will and capacity to do so. It does not discriminate. It is a tool available to all who might wield it in confidence. Frederick Douglass was one such man. He used the discipline of language to effect major change — in his life, in the life of others. In a Newspeak world, he could never have persuaded as he did, could never have accomplished what he did. In this way, the leveling of English won’t serve to erase oppression or discrimination: it will serve to make it permanent. We will have two official languages: English for the people who make the rules, and Newspeak for those who must follow them. The speakers of the latter will live in the eternal sunshine of a spotless present, never troubled by Shakespeare or Douglass in “the original”, never given the chance to express or consume a contrary opinion. O brave new world, that has such people in it!