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We live in a time of great lingual flux where words are being added, dropped, and meanings are changing/broadening rapidly. Oxford Dictionaries Online spokesperson, Angus Stevenson noted:

New words, senses, and phrases are added to Oxford Dictionaries Online when we have gathered enough independent evidence from a range of sources to be confident that they have widespread currency in English… On average, we add approximately 1,000 new entries to Oxford Dictionaries Online every year…

It is rather like trying to hold back the tide – if one wants to slow down or turn back the change of language. I’m just racing to stay behind while my adult children endure my increasingly regular – “what does “that” mean?”  Thus, I was interested in what Swiss based journalist, Renata Cosby, had to say in her article on the Elasticity of English:

English is the lingua franca of international affairs, business and science included. But which English is actually spoken or best used in a given environment? Too easily and too often the question is summarily settled: either UK or US English say the powers on high. The question however belies a greater problem, more unknown than overlooked.

Linguists maintain that English is an elastic language. It can absorb words from other languages while retaining its sovereign identity – or creating new ones. So when approaching international markets, the real question to be asked by businesses or universities and their media relations departments is not “Which English?” but rather “What form of English is spoken in our target market?” and to plan accordingly – because, really, whose language is it?… it has as many owners as it does versions and perversions.

Whose Language is it Anyways?

If it is true that English has many owners, surely this must include African American cultures among the teaming others who make up English language users. So it was with some interest that I read a recent comment piece by Associate Professor Robin Boylorn lamenting the “appropriation” of “African American language.”

… white people’s adoption of the term distorted it (“bae”) to the point of misuse and meaninglessness. What was once a word born of the beautifully eclectic black Southern laziness of the tongue and a shortened version of baby, became a catchall term for anything from inanimate objects to food. The reference to affection was consistent but bae was used to describe everything from one’s (desired or actual) significant other to pancakes. “That’s bae”, a student swooned, glancing at a picture of J Cole during a discussion of black masculinity last summer in class. “These cupcakes are bae”, I read in a Facebook post attached to a picture of a delicious-looking dessert not many months later. And just like that, the shelf life of bae in the public imagination expired and the gatekeepers of mainstream language decided that it must be banned.

Cultural appropriation at its best, steals, reduces, overuses and then disposes of words like so much bathwater…

This cultural “borrowing” of black language and phraseology happens regularly, allowing non-black folk to “try on” black culture through the use of African American English vernacular and slang without having to “put on” the cultural consequences of actually being black in a culture conditioned to devalue and dismiss it.

I don’t know who Professor Boylorn defines as the gatekeepers of mainstream language – if we are all owners?  She makes no allowance for how everybody from every culture, and from every other first-language, in every part of the english speaking world, are creating versions and perversions of the language. Instead, she pits her lament in victimhood, borrowing the words of linguist Jane H. Hill, who talks about the “dominant group’s theft” (white people’s adoption) of African American language:

As Hill claims, language appropriation is further problematic because it gives dominant groups control over the language. Dominant groups get to decide, for example, when and if certain words are worth appropriation, when and how the words should be used, and then when the word becomes cliché, overused and therefore passé.

Surely Hill and Boylorn give too much power to the “dominant group.” They give too much power away. They would be hard pressed to define the boundaries of the monolith they claim to be the gatekeepers of mainstream language in a culture that has been experiencing rapid immigration, the influx of cultures, the ever dendritic evolutions of popular culture, along with language adoption, assimilation, and mutation.

As Cosby observes, “English has as many owners as it does versions and perversions.” Interestingly enough, Boylorn somehow ends where I began: language is elastic – irrespective of the culture to which one self-identifies:

The good news is that black language is resilient and black folk are creative. So even when the dominant culture tries to dispose of the terms it wears out, other words and phrases will emerge.

This may be an overstatement, but here’s a news flash: all human folk are resilient and creative. And we will use what ever means we can to try to get our point across. As we saw in Paris, some will use sarcastic cartoons, and others will use violence. Though they are not very effective forms of communication (in other words, they do not actually achieve understanding), they are feeble attempts to says something – marginally less effective than having these same groups line up across the street from each other and yell.

“To achieve understanding, we need to want it.”

That is the very first line in To Understand Each Other, written years ago (1962) by Swiss physician and author, Paul Tournier. To understand AND to be understood: what a gift! Therefore let me urge you to use all the elasticity of what-ever languages you have at hand; beg and borrow, appropriate and adopt with all the imaginative powers you possess, and let yourself want understanding. I suspect in the end, this is what Boylorn would want as well.


For further thoughts on the elasticity of languages, see Keith Kahn-Harris’ article: “The Pleasure of not understanding a language can be awesome.”

To work towards linguistic civility is to… see the confusion of tongues as a reminder of our mutual capacity for language, not as a reproach to our common humanity. From the vilest online troll to the saintliest of peacemakers, we are all other to each other, and, when we speak without being understood, we celebrate the possibility of otherness to highlight our connectedness.

We all have it in us to find ways of revelling in languages we do not understand. It can happen in humble ways, such as enjoying the unfamiliar speech of the radio station playing in a taxi. Or in those moments of being overwhelmed and awestruck at the incomprehensible street in a foreign land. It can happen when we linger on the Chinese characters in a restaurant, rather than on their English translation. All that is required is releasing oneself from the pressure to achieve literal understanding, and letting oneself embrace a much deeper understanding.