THE OFFSPRING of Imperial Latin grew to adulthood as national languages: Romanian, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese. Though today's Imperial English has spawned dialects ranging from pidgin to gay, my guess is that none will follow the Latin example of setting up separate households. The printing press, air stravel and electronic transmission have pulled divergent cultures back into a huddle; they have called or dialects home to help support the family.
In The State of the Langauge, 63 observers run their fingers over the hide of current English the way the blind men checked the elephant. But being more modest than the blind men, the 60 venture no generalizations on where the language is at, each instead confining his conclusions to his chosen patch of skin. The result is a wide-ranging and informative but uneven and oddly unsatisfying book -- a whole less than the sum of its parts. The title should have been The States of the Language.
Though there are various asides -- on the seeming invincibility of solvenly speech, for instance, or the responsibilitity of slovenly speech, for instance, or the responsibilities of lexicographers to fads -- the book focuses on dialects and jargons peculiar to the 20th century. These are worth investigating, since all day long we casually cannibalize specialized language forms, borrowing "strike out" and "ante up," say, from sports and games; "inferiority complex" and "neurosis" from psychoanalysis; "schlemiel" and "chutzpah" from American Yiddish. We have turned the shop talk of art, music, law, medicine, advertising into common parlance and have embraced code words from such newer callings as radio, television, motion pictures, night clubs and moon travel. These subjects and more (sports is a surprising omission) are treated here at length and on occasion with passion.
Contributors to The State of the Language disscuss as both participants and critics the controversial dialects of social protest: the cadence and imagery of Black English; the laobored nouns and pronouns of Women's Liberation; the distasteful insights of homosexual lingo; the shameless intensifications here called Gangbangsprache (in my parents' home, filth). The bedroom, the lavatory, the gay bar, the jail, Marin County and the poetry of bodies (or at least of women's bodies) receive voluptuous accountings; I suspect that even the latest vocabulary of sexual separation -- split-speak -- would have received respectful appraisal had the book appeared a month or two later.
These dialects of protest catch our attention particularly when we are in a stew about the prospects of the only world we have. The worry quotient is high just now, and we are eyeing our language anxiously for portents. Soothsayers are used to diagnosing the human condition from the entrails of sonnets; the difference is that at the moment we are paying attention. John Simon has taken precedence over Bo Derek on the Dick Cavett show (though if I were speaking figuratively it should be the other way around). Indeed, some among us seem convinced that the answer to inflation, empty gas tanks, Soviet blitzkriegs and demoralization lies in distinguishing more exquisitely between "flaunt" and "flout."
So it would have been nice if the editors had synthesized their contributors' views of the trees into a view of the forest. They missed a natural jumping-off place in this sentence by David Reid:
"The [Jonestown] deaths occurred in late November, and before the year was out, political columnists were talking about how unimpressed voters had 'done a Jonestown' on some defeated candidate for Congress."
There we are getting down to it. It took centuries to strip the word "God" of majesty and then to drain its juices until it could no longer support even the force of an oath. It took only a couple of weeks for a skulk of columnists to trivialize a word which embodies the language of enormity.
Don't worry, the editors might have said, whether this or that outlandish locution startles ossifying ears. Worry instead about whether it nurtures the language, or leaches it.
By that test, some obnoxious innovations can make a strong case. But it is often not the case their backers had in mind.
Monroe K. Spears is quite right to note that "anyone who encourages students to believe Black English is acceptable at the top levels of our society is perpetrating a cruel hoax." But thee is more to it than that. True, the contention that Black English adds to the self-respect of its speakers may be linguistically irrelevant, but that does not dispose of the key question: Can the mother tongue draw nourishment from this vital outgrowth? I think it can.
This will be no consolation to Geneva Smitherman, who backs Black English as a virtual Declaration of Indepenence, arguing that "the question of the moment is not which dialect, but which culture, not whose vocabulary, but whose values, not I am vs. I be, but WHO DO I BE?" On the day when Black English happily cavorts with Oxonian, Nebraskan and Brooklynese, Geneva Smitherman will wipe away a tear; she does not believe we deserve Black English.
Angela Carter similarly celebrates the "polemical, subversive bias" of what she calls the language of sisterhood. It expresses moral outrage, and moral outrage feels good.
Unfortunately, moral outrage cannot long sustain a rootless vocabulary. When The Times of London banned the title "Ms." from its columns recently, moral outrage played no part (though perhaps it should have.) The Times' of point was simply that Ms. is "artificial, ugly, silly, means nothing, and is rotten English."
And what are the prospects for the aforementioned Gangbangsprache, a vivd descriptive advanced by Randolph Quirk?
Not bad at all. Gangbangsprache is a survivor. The raffish element has always hung around the dance floor trading dirty jokes, or is it likely to cease as long as a few people still blush. There is even a kind of muffled, inarticulate poetry in Gangbangsprache to warm the hearts of those who lack the command of language that could shape more fitting words. There is resonance in ****. (Fill in any of the half-dozen terms around which the whole silly argument rages.)
But Quirk contends that in addition Gangbangsprache fulfills a moral duty, since it is widely conceded that "linguistic concealment is itself obscene." Moreover, there is littl objection to exposing hyprocrisy in language, for "explicit opposition there could scarcely be."
Let me make the opposition of one concerned observer explicit. Hypocrisy as a coverup for evil is itself evil, and I condemn it with Quirk. But to insist on letting everything hang out -- self-indulgence, discourtesy, slovenliness of person and tongue -- on the ground that to do otherwise is hypocrisy, that is . . . hypocrisy. To treat linguistic decency as an obsecenity, and linguistic flashing as an act of virtue, is to paralyze the sphincter muscle that protects the comity of language and civilization alike.
The question becomes then whetehr language and morality are intertwined -- and whether our society is too far gone in moral decay to sustain a noble discourse.
And The State of the Language cannot answer that. Perhaps the Bible can.