Posts Tagged ‘palin’

Each semester, while I was teaching, I found I had to spend some time within the first few classes on the problem of Engfish. The first assignments always came back in a sort of half-language carefully constructed to reveal nothing, commit to nothing, and generally avoid saying anything dangerous or objectionable.

Reading Maureen Dowd’s piece in the NYT today (sidenote: sometimes Dowd makes me nuts with her cleverness, sometime I wish I had written it myself), I realized that Engfish is exactly what we’ve been getting from Sarah Palin. No wonder that temptation to bang my head on the table felt familiar–I recognize it from the frustration of reading students’ first attempts at college-level academic writing.

And it makes me wish I could tell Palin the same thing I told them: You aren’t saying anything, and I strongly suspect it’s because you don’t care that much about the topic country/political situation. Caring about getting a good grade elected isn’t going to be enough to propel your writing speaking from “sounding academic political” to actually saying something. No, you’re going to have to figure out–and I’m not promising this will be quick or easy–what the hell you have to add to the conversation about this text the world. What are you passionate about? What are you committed to? What authority does that give you? Then you can get down to what you have to say, and you might be worth listening to.

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In 1981, Kenyan author and theorist Ngugi wa Thiong’o formally renounced English as his artistic medium. The English language, he claims, is too bound up with colonialism, exploitation, and hegemony to be useful as a means of fighting those forces through literature. Language and politics, for him, are too entwined, too married to one another, for the colonial or post-colonial subject to be able to untangle or divorce them and use them against each other.

Ngugi’s position is radical in many senses, in that it a) calls into question the value of creating art with “borrowed” or learned vocabularies; b) raises serious doubts about people’s control over their languages; and c) rejects English, which is (perhaps unfortunately) often the only language in which Americans and other English-speakers can read fluently. If you or I were to explain this position to most Americans, it would probably be understood as anti-American, while the language it is written in–highly theoretical English–would be read as “elitist.”

Over the course of this presidential election, however, it is becoming clear that many, many Americans not only agree with Ngugi in thinking that a language they perceive as hegemonic can never be appropriated for non-hegemonic purposes, but would actually take his manifesto step further. To many Americans, knowing, understanding, or being able to speak that language identifies you with it so thoroughly that they assume any word of it must have been learned in pillow talk. If you speak the language of lawyers, economists, academics, or diplomats, you must be in bed with them. They do not trust that your words–which come from a percieved hegemonic discourse–can be untangled from the slimy limbs of what that hegemonic discourse stands for: elitism, wealth, and condescention.

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