Work and play hard: English as metaphor

posted by Sandeep

Slam poet Mayda Del Valle minced no words when she took Duke University by storm last year:

And I’m speaking in tongues
blending proper with street talk
everyday meets academic
bastardizing one language
creating new ones.

Her first piece that night, the frenetically melodious “Tongue Tactics,” was a send-up of the social dichotomy between “high-class” and “low-class” Spanish. Others can have their haughty tongues, she spat, but leave her the passionate, earthy, real street talk.

Although the poem was about Spanish, the English she used was “street” as well. And it was mesmerizing. The passion, simplicity and attitude of her language made it fantastically engaging. It just wouldn’t have been the same if it were delivered as a staid speech.

And yet, almost 300 miles north of Durham, North Carolina, President Obama and his speech writers were collaborating to enchant audiences, too. Although Obama is no slam poet, with his refined and multisyllabic English, his words are poetic in a totally different way.

Do their different styles resonate with different aspects of our identity?

English-speaking societies delineate high- and low-class speech in many ways. For example, your accent, especially in Britain and the U.S., can give others information about your socioeconomic background. Non-standard grammar might lead others to stereotyped conclusions about your education or neighborhood.

Vocabulary choice, too, has been a marker of socioeconomic status in English for at least the last millennium. When the Normans invaded the British Isles in 1066, they brought their language, a Latin-derived Romance tongue related to French. For well over a century, Norman-speaking people formed most of the ruling class in Britain. Their language, and all of the Latinate words it carried, became known as high-class speech. Later, as the Normans assimilated into the local Briton culture, the English language that emerged was stratified between Latinate vocabulary (high-class) and native Germanic vocabulary (neutral or low-class).

The distinction persists today. Latin-derived vocabulary is perceived to be more intelligent and eloquent, whereas Germanic words are seen as earthier, simpler and unpretentious.

It’s incredible how the social atmosphere of southern Britain nearly 1,000 years ago is still determining our performance of language and identity today.

Think about the dichotomous connotations of these pairs: ask/inquire; do/execute; begin/commence; drink/imbibe; speak/converse; lie/repose; small/diminutive. Which would you use in daily conversation, and which might you use in an essay or a speech? Would you feel comfortable crossing them over to the opposite situation? (The first word in each pair is Germanic and the second is Latinate.)

The deliberate choice of certain derived vocabulary is informed by our social surroundings. We speak in certain ways to impress certain people. Most socially aware native English speakers can suss out when to use different vocabulary.

What identity are we attempting to embody? Are we Del Valle or Obama? Is it possible to be both?

The unofficial motto of my alma mater, Duke University, is “Work hard, play hard.” It speaks to our dual identity as a university: academic strength coupled with social acumen. We bust our brains during the week in class, and on the weekends, we let our pent-up stress out in uniquely vigorous ways.

But in a linguistically metaphorical way… suppose we can describe our academic life, mostly confined to classrooms and professors’ offices, as our “Latinate” identity, and our social life, passionate and street, as “Germanic.” We use different social “vocabularies” throughout our day, with different people and in different locations. When we cross over these vocabularies—acting informal in a presentation, or speaking stiltedly at a section party—the effect is jarring: not necessarily always bad, but always noticeable.

It’s not that we owe a particular allegiance to either vocabulary: After all, we do work hard (Latinate) and play hard (Germanic). But for many of us, the “work hard, play hard” mantra implies a strict dichotomy.

The truth is that even though Latinate and Germanic vocabularies share a complex, stratified and sometimes dichotomous history, modern English wouldn’t work without constant interplay between the two. We cross over our lexicons constantly. Just look at this column, for example—I oscillate between “big” and “small” words, between Latinate and Germanic vocabularies.

English, because it has absorbed the ideas and mannerisms of so many different social strata and geographic variations, is one of the most expressive languages in the world. Both Del Valle and Obama can exist in the same linguistic sphere. English’s heritage and character gives it power.

I wonder what would happen if we saw more crossovers between work and play. What if we brought the same vigor we apply to our co-curricular activities and weekend parties into the classroom? And what if we brought more intellectual dialogues onto the quad at our colleges?

If Latinate and Germanic English words don’t have to be used separately, maybe we can bring the best of both worlds together—“work and play hard.” Maybe it doesn’t have to be a separated proposition. It already seems to have worked in the English language. I wonder if it can work in our lives, too.

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