Re: ATTN JMS: Influences?

 Posted on 11/8/1995 by to

I was more or less unaware of this latest battle until someone aske=
if I'd seen it. Most of it's scrolled by, except for Marco Bernardo's
post and a few others; since his quotes a lot, I'm going to use his as a
kind of rosetta stone to address the others.

One of the biggest hot buttons lately (in general, not just here) h=
been the question of language vs. culture, and how the two inter-relate.
There seems to be the sense that language =3D culture, and that unless yo=
speak street language, the language of a minority, you are somehow giving
up your culture. Which is, of course, nonsense.

Lemme give you some examples. I'm basically one-and-a-half
generation American; my father was born ehre of immigrant parents, but
lived his formative years back in Byeloruss. My family came here, and th=
single most important lesson was, "Learn English." For years there was a
second language spoken around the house -- a sort of polyglot mix of
polish, russian and=1A*| white-russian --(6 but outside the house, and ou=
tside of
the kind of "little europe" community we often lived in, English was the
way to go.

Similarly, in Jewish culture, it is standard to learn Hebrew, Yiddis=
and *the dominant langauge* of whatever country they're in. Why? Real
simple. Economics, and common sense.

Sure, you can choose to speak only street language, or a culturally
influenced language, but if you choose that, you are going to limit your
economic prospects. Particularly as we become more and more an informati=
based society.

None of this required sacrificing my culture. I could have chosen t=
maintain my second language, but I chose to focus in on this one. My
CULTURE, my heritage, where I'm from, where my family is from, the histor=
of my people...that's still intact. None of that is sacrificed in the
smallest way. I'm still proud of where my family came from, and the
struggle taken to reach this country. It's got nothing to do with one's

English has become the langauge of economics not just in this countr=
but in others as well. That's an undeniable fact, I'm sorry if it's not
a kind fact. In this country, unless you're in a primarily hispanic or
italian neighborhood, if you walk up to someone and start speaking spanis=
or italian at them, the odds are you'll get a blank stare. (This is also
partly our own native ethnocentrism creeping in.) Go to Europe, and you
will find an English-speaking person a hell of a lot more often. Because
that's becoming the standard for economic reasons.

I know a number of african-american educators who are driven to
despair over the street english question. I'll recap the main points tha=
they stated: "Don't they realize that dz=14hstreet english is *slaver's*
english? Slave masters didn't want their slaves to know english, to spea=
well, because that way would lead them into thought and the ability to
control their own lives. They wanted them to speak poorly, to get their
ideas across inefficiently, to be hobbled at the cerebral cortex. That's
why one of the biggest crimes you could commit would be to be caught
reading a book.

"Street english isn't anybody's culture; they weren't speaking
street english when our people were ripped from our native countries.
It's not our culture. It's got nothing to do with us. It's just a
bastardized form of english used to keep us repressed. If people want to
stay in touch with their cultural roots, there are more efficient ways
to do it that don't lead to further repression because we can't compete
in the business world."

Yes, language changes, new words are introduced, the whole purpose
of language is that it should be fluid. It should be fluid enough to
add new meanings, new terminologies, words from foreign places that are
in some ways more effective. In this way, the language becomes more
precise through addition. The more the language becomes *imprecise*,
the more poorly it is used, the more people are limited in thier
(their) possibilities.

It's real simple, people, and it's got nothing to do with anybody's
culture. If I wanted a career in math, I'd have to learn the rules of
math and be able to apply them. If I want a career using language, the
better my grasp of the rules of that language, the better. In this
country, it's english; in mexico it's spanish, in germany it's german;
it's not one being any better than the other, that's just common sense.

Now, I suppose you could choose to only speak broken english, or
street english, or an otherwise inefficient form of english, whether it's
in the barrio, or little italy, or little korea, or little poland in
Chicago...and that's fine, *provided you never intend to leave and pursue
work outside that community*. Because if you do, you're screwed. Becaus=
if you're from little italy, and you move into little korea, you know
what? You've got noting much in common, their culture is as valid as
yours is...the only thing you *may* have in english. And if
there isn't that bond, your economic prospects are zilch.

In the first wave of immigration into this country, the emphasis was
on learning english as fast as possible. You moved in to little italy,
or little germany, or the other immigrant neighborhoods that sprouted up
along coastlines and harbors, in New Jersey and New York and parts west,
which gave you a brief leg up, while you learned the language, and the
culture enough to master it and move out, pursuing better opportunities
outside that small community. Now, the small community has become the
dead-end in many cases, and learning to deal with the dominant culture
around you has become perceived as a threat to one's culture, which one
left behind in another country.

Okay, you bring your culture with you, that's great...and the next
guy brings *his* culture with him, and that's great...and neither of you
learns a middle-ground language, and *that's* great...and two hundred
thousand more guys do the same, and *that's* great...until one day when
a bunch of *your* guys have to make deals with and buy and sell to the
OTHER guys. Then it's a problem.

What makes a nation a nation is a certain commonality, something the=
share in common. That's our strength, and our life's blood. The more we
are fractured, the weaker we become. We fought a civil war because we
were A united states, not THE united states, because we weren't americans=
we were Virginians, or Carolinans. And now we're fighting a new civil
war in the streets because we're hispanics or eastern europeans or native

People need to stop being threatened by the use of "you" instead
of "se" or "du" or "vou." It's a word. It doesn't detract from where yo=
came from, who you are, what your culture is. Stop trying to make the
overall culture bend to your specific needs, because it won't, and in the
end you're the one hurt by limiting your options.

We evolve by becoming smarter, faster, better. By adapting to our
circumstances. Why do you think we're here and the dinosaurs are dead?
Because us little mammals adapted, and adjusted, and sought out the best
way to survive in our new environment; we didn't stay locked in the way
we were because that was our culture before.

Street language is poorly used english, mixed with a smattering of
the local ethnic verbiage, whichever ethnic group happens to be there at
the moment. That's all it is. Take pride in the ethnic background?
Absolutely. If you speak spanish or italian or korean, don't you want to
speak it as well as you can to communicate with your neighbors? If so,
then why is it *not* okay to speak english as well as you can?

No we don't always speak in complete sentences, I lapse into street
profanity and syntax when appropriate for color or effect...but when it
comes down to it, I have options *outside* that. I have the flexibilily
(flexibility) of doing both. If you don't have that flexibility, you're
screwed. It's as simple as that.

Finally, on the subject of's sad when someone who
simply suggests that we should strive to be as good as we can at somethin=
-- whatever that something might be -- is an "elitist." I always
figured it was the human heart always striving to be the best possible at
what we do. Yes, let's praise mediocrity and fuzzy thinking and imprecis=
instead. Because that's what we end up with. The less precise your
language, the less capable you will be of conveying what you want.

When did we reach the point when saying it's okay to be less than
we are is a grand idea, and saying we should work harder to master an
everyday part of our lives is something to be derided and insulted?

Jeannette has been unjustly maligned in this conversation, for sayin=
something that totally reconciles with the nature of this program: to
always shoot for the absolute best. And those of you who jumped on her f=
this should be ashamed of yourselves.

You don't want to learn standard english? Fine. You don't have to.
Just don't ever leave your neighborhood, because the people three blocks
down feel the same way about THEIR language and THEIR culture, and they'r=
every bit as entitled as you are. M=1Egw=7Ftz=1F!B=7FAnd then we will ha=
ve more and more
neighborhoods and communiites that can't communicate with each other, tha=
can't deal with one another, that fight with each other. I'm all for it.
It makes for great drama.

Maybe you've heard about it...the Tower of Babel.

And if that makes me an elitist...I couldn't be happier. Because
only being an elitist, a perfectionist, striving to be better than the
next guy, has given us an Einstein and a Jorge Luis Borges and a Santayan=
It has given us Nelson Mandela and the Beatles and Churchill and everyon=
who has ever won an olympic foot race in the last thousand years.

A society is measured by the marks left by the best of us. Any
society that forgets this is on the downward slide. Elitism is an
evolutionary stance. It's not a bad word. It respects that which is
(to that culture or society) best and brightest in all of us, the potenti=
we have for greatness. "An elite squadron" means that they're the best
they are at what they do. "An elite few" means the same thing.

Elitist? Hey, Jeannette...if it's true, wear it as a badge, because
that's what it is.