The Anguish Language

Quite a bit happened this week in the wide, weird world of the English language.

There was of course the Presidential Oaf, I mean Oath, of Office. Kudos to Harvard professor and neo-Chomskian Steven Pinker -- author of The Language Instinct and the even more impenetrable The Stuff of Thought (and who is desperate for my kudos, I'm sure)... where was I? Ah yes, props to Pinker who, in the NYTimes, pinpointed why the Chief Justice of the United States screwed up in administering the oath:
[The] wayward adverb in the [oath] is blowback from Chief Justice Roberts’s habit of grammatical niggling. Language pedants hew to an oral tradition of shibboleths that have no basis in logic or style, that have been defied by great writers for centuries, and that have been disavowed by every thoughtful usage manual. Nonetheless, they refuse to go away, perpetuated by the Gotcha! Gang and meekly obeyed by insecure writers.

Among these fetishes is the prohibition against “split verbs,” in which an adverb comes between an infinitive marker like “to,” or an auxiliary like “will,” and the main verb of the sentence. According to this superstition, Captain Kirk made a grammatical error when he declared that the five-year mission of the starship Enterprise was “to boldly go where no man has gone before”; it should have been “to go boldly.”....

On Tuesday his inner copy editor overrode any instincts toward strict constructionism and unilaterally amended the Constitution by moving the adverb “faithfully” away from the verb.
Take that, you grammar fiends! (Don't get me started on Eats, Shoots and Leaves...). Language is messy, evolving and organic. Stop trying to force it into a narrow box of pedantic rules...

The next bit of language news is the discussion around Dr. Joseph Lowrey's benediction. I thought it was the best part of the whole event -- well, the third best (the best being that moment when Obama became president, and the second being Aretha Franklin). Yet Lowrey is now being reviled for being bizarre and racist.

Speaking as a white preacher, I'd say that a lot of fellow anglo preachers routinely miss the mark on good preaching because we don't think humor is appropriate in prayers (and we miss a lot of the great jokes in the Bible, but that's another rant), and because we don't use music -- both sacred and secular -- in our prayers. Just witness the rather insipid opening prayer from Rick Warren. Controversy broke out because Lowrey's benediction closes with a twist on Big Bill Broonzy's 1949 song about Jim Crow laws:
If you is white, you's alright,
if you's brown, stick around,
but if you's black, hmm, hmm, brother,
get back, get back, get back.
Just because Lowrey's inversion of that 60-year old tune was also funny doesn't mean it was foolish. It's an old trick, using humor where direct speech might have meant the whip, and Lowrey uses humor to make a clear statement that Jim Crow is (God willing) on the way out. Of course, it was read by some folks racist -- because it mentioned race. Heaven forbid we talk about race in America, or treat race with anything but PC fear and trembling.

Rhetorical structure in Lowrey's benediction was interesting too -- he closes and ends with music. My jaw dropped with the realization, a few words in, that the benediction at a presidential inauguration was being taken from James Wendel Johnson's "Lift Every Voice and Sing," once adopted by the NAACP as the "Black National Anthem." That sweet cognitive dissonance of something once alternative and subversive being declaimed at the very center of power.

Finally, there was a great article by Hugh Scofeld in the BBC about the new global English. I won't cite it in full -- go read it yourself. But the rhetorical image of the week goes to a quote in Schofeld's article from Jean-Paul Nerriere. M. Nerriere argues that the French need to realize the 'language war' is lost, that a bastardized English (that he calls "Globish") is universal, and those that object, well:
"We're just urinating on the ashes of the fire,"
Now doesn't that just sum up the blogosphere?

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