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  • The Diacritics 4:10 pm on September 24, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: attention span, discourse, economics, government, , message, obama, public discourse,   

    “The language of economics and individualism” 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    The New York Times ran a piece by Yale professors Theodore R. Marmor (public policy emeritus) and Jerry L. Mashaw (law) discussing how public discourse has shifted from “the social circumstances of average citizens, our common institutions and our common history” in the period from the 1930s to the 1960s to ” individual choice, agency and preferences” today.

    “[T]here is a crucial difference between then and now: the words that our political leaders use to talk about our problems have changed. Where politicians once drew on a morally resonant language of people, family and shared social concern, they now deploy the cold technical idiom of budgetary accounting.

    “This is more than a superficial difference in rhetoric. It threatens to deprive us of the intellectual resources needed to address today’s problems.”

    I wonder how much of this change is a consequence of the 24-hour media cycle, the vast amounts of information on the Internet, and the ability of pretty much anyone with a keyboard, microphone, or video camera to get his views heard. It’s much harder to shape public discourse when everyone else is trying to do so in different ways. The Internet, especially, levels the playing field: even a president can’t make his voice heard much louder if the background din is too strong.

    “In 1934, the government was us. We had shared circumstances, shared risks and shared obligations. Today the government is the other — not an institution for the achievement of our common goals, but an alien presence that stands between us and the realization of individual ambitions.”

    Marmor and Mashaw lay the blame too squarely on the government and don’t indict the media enough. In considering the state of today’s public discourse, it’s important to remember that there’s no more “gentleman’s agreement” between politicians and news outlets anymore. Can anyone imagine today’s photojournalists mercifully agreeing to photograph a polio-ridden FDR only from the waist up? Yesterday’s polite standards are long gone; today’s media is “hard-hitting,” if not always on the mark.

    It’s pretty incredible how pithy headlines — especially in this era of low attention spans (particularly in my generation) — can send a politician’s or government’s message tumbling out of control. It’s the difference between a front page headline of “Obama unveils ambitious $3-trillion jobs plan” and “Economists doubtful that Obama’s ‘job-killing’ plan will work.” For the short-of-attention, one headline conveys a significantly different message than the other. Why bother even reading the analysis if we seem to get the point from the headline?

    Despite politicians’ intents and careful calculus, their message has to pass through an unforgiving (and often biased) filter before it reaches their constituents. Politicians no longer have sole control over their voice. (Did they ever? Or were media outlets just more cooperative back then?) My generation — including me, I admit! — ingests its news and analysis through tweets and Facebook shares rather than deep analysis. Many older people, too. I don’t wake up to a Times on my family’s front porch anymore; I wake up to a Facebook feed.

    Perhaps our discourse is out of control. We have a lot of things to blame for that, not least ourselves. The Internet has taught my generation, for better or worse, that the ability to get our voice heard means that our voice is worth hearing. So we all shout. As we come of age, I can’t imagine things reverting much.

    Marmor and Mashaw write:

    “Over the last 50 years we seem to have lost the words — and with them the ideas — to frame our situation appropriately.

    “Can we talk about this? Maybe not.”

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  • The Diacritics 5:16 am on September 2, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , mayda del valle, metaphor, obama, spanish   

    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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