December 27, 2006

Back to Bentolila

In response to Mark Liberman's December 22 post on Alain Bentolila's position on rap music and his reference to my writing on the subject, I am in full agreement with Mark's dismissal of Bentolila's take on rap lyrics and ghetto speech as linguistically unsophisticated. However, I do see something in Bentolila's fear that the world view of rap lyrics discourages engagement with the universal in favor of the particular — but I come at the issue from a different perspective than he does.

Bentolila appears to suppose that the slang usage of a word like GRAVE in both positive and negative connotations suggests an impoverished vocabulary, in which words' usages are stretched beyond coherence because there is so little material to work with. He would likely apply the same "semantic bladder" analysis to Black English's famous use of BAD in the same way (a now antiquated term, but paralleled since with analogous usages such as of STUPID). However, Bentolila would be at a loss to come up with more than a few such cases — that is, there is no systematic use of words in this way.

For some words to switch-hit between the positive and the pejorative is normal in human language in general: MUZHIK in Russian means both "peasant" and "bloke, good ol' guy." This is not evidence of Russian going to the dogs — nor is it evidence of how magically creative Russian speakers are (a forced analysis of Black English's BAD back in the seventies that made my skin crawl even at 11). It's just how language works.

Then Bentolila worries that certain words are used especially frequently, as if this, again, suggests that the vocabulary is shrinking. The offending term most often referred to in English in this vein is FUCK, of course. However, in all languages there are words — such as discourse particles — that are used dozens of times a day by many speakers.

In Saramaccan Creole, the word NOO (pronounced "naw") means, roughly, "then." It is also used as a marker of new information. "NOO the man found out he didn't have any money left." "The red boat NOO, that's the one we need to use." "You, NOO, are his father." When a Saramaccan speaker talks about something in a narrative or explanatory vein, NOO seems, impressionistically, to be every bit as frequent as FUCK is in the speech of a streety American teen. And yet NOO is not "slang" — it's grammar. One could write a whole paper on it (and, as it happens, one is!).

One of the hardest lessons a linguist has to teach is that there is complexity and nuance in even the rudest, most unmonitored of speech. I just finished doing a radio show where a black speaker said "I almost had to get on up out of there" in reference to seeing a movie. A few days ago a relative of mine said "Then what am I doing sitting up here in your house?"

In neither case was anything "up" in the literal sense. This usage of UP is a pragmatic one — i.e. it conveys a speaker's emotional standpoint. To wit, this UP conveys a sense of intimacy upon the location referred to by the speaker. For example, the movie in question was Dreamgirls, and the connotation was that there were many black people in the audience and that their response was spontaneous and warm.

This usage of UP would stump any layman speaker who tried to explain it (I have tried this often) but it is in fact quite systematic -- even when used amidst ample utterances of FUCK and anti-authoritarian sentiment. It is just as much "grammar" as something few educated French people could explain such as what the prefix RE- contributes to the word REPOUSSER, which translates into English as "push" just as POUSSER itself does.

That Bentolila, a linguist, can hear nothing but deficit in the French of the banlieues suggests that there are differences in purview between what linguistics is in France as opposed to the United States.

However, Bentolila's worry that rap lyrics and street speech represent something other than universal views is not insane, in my view. Actually, rappers and their academic fans are of the view that even the ugliest rap lyrics DO express what at least OUGHT to be a universal message: that until the "playing field" is completely level, our job is to wait for a seismic revolution in how America operates rather than teaching people how to make the best of the less-than-perfect.

Yet this is, in terms of how people have made the best of themselves throughout history and how they are doing it worldwide today, a highly PARTICULAR world view. A street folk music that teaches people that there is something sophisticated and insightful about artfully phrased despair and nihilism is, at least, something plenty of people might have less than sunny feelings about.

If in France and the United States it is a more "universal" value to stress self-direction, persistence and ingenuity, then I would agree with Bentolila that all citizens would best be armed with at least a little "universal" to compliment the "authenticity" of the street code. In that vein, I would almost rather read Bentolila's glib musings than those of American intellectuals waxing rhapsodically about how "progressive" rap lyrics are.

Nevertheless, however we feel about the tone of street speech and its use in music, to dismiss it as a tub of semantic bladders is inaccurate, and impossible for anyone who bothers to truly listen.

Posted by John McWhorter at December 27, 2006 01:17 PM