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January 31, 2006

McWhorter Spinning on His Head

A thoughtful reader directed me to a budding academic smackdown on hiphop linguistics. Apparently, some noob declared himself the first Canadian research to recognize the double-negative in black American speech. I had that discussion with my french teacher when I was a sophomore in highschool. Apparently, the bigger mistake is studying AAVE through the lens of hiphop. That's a chicken and egg or a chicken and coq au vin problem. I mean deconstructing a lyricist like Pos is hardly going to give you insight to what's being said on the corner by Jamal 40Dog (that's Joe Sixpack at the Albee Square Mall). Nor is looking for what's being said in the Dirty South going to give you any indication of what rappers are going to say next.

Dr. Darin Howe recently contributed a book chapter that focuses on how black Americans use the negative in informal speech, citing examples from hip hop artists such as Phonte, Jay Z and Method Man. Howe is believed to be the only academic in Canada and one of the few in the world to take a scholarly look at the language of hip hop.

As Friedman remarks, a little basic fact-checking would have helped
here. There's been plenty of serious academic research on hiphop,
including linguistic research, for quite some time now. Friedman
quickly Googled up a bibliography of hiphop scholarship compiled by
John Ranck of Simmons College, to which I'd add the even more extensive
bibliography maintained at the Hiphop Archive website.

I think the subject is fairly devoid of profundity and I defer to Avery Tooley in these matters anyway, but I always find the etymology of hiphop a curious subject. To the extent I find lyrics mistranslated it's cool to understand the idioms of the 'hood. But the sociological impact of lyrics on the hood and vice versa isn't a particularly insightful meme if you ask me. While I complain about the derangement of hiphop and the vulgarity of its creations, I don't harbor any illusions that something special is going on here. Human beings are apt to be crude and even perverse for the sake of perversity. When nobody cares, there's nothing to keep that perversity in check. You can call it 'the culture of the ghetto' if you like, but it's still universal. Just because some slick American businessmen figured out a way to commoditize it doesn't make it more than what it is.

I mention McWhorter because I think his love for blackfolks gets him in trouble in this regard. He espouses, as an educator, a high standard of conduct and despairs at the conduct (and language) of the black masses. So while I might punt this football his way, even if he carries across the goal it doesn't score many points in the game of life.

See, I think all of those National Geographic specials with native folks music have been edited for television. Anywhere women don't do the equivalent of vote, all the love songs are just booty songs. You do know what 'squaw' means, don't you?

Posted by mbowen at January 31, 2006 08:33 AM

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You hear what's going on at Berklee? http://insidehighered.com/news/2006/01/31/hiphop

Posted by: Yvette at January 31, 2006 09:06 AM

Well, depending on which circles you run in, even the word "wife" has a derrogatory meaning to some. When I hear men discussing whether to marry someone just because they like the sex and say "should I wife her?" it doesn't sound very respectful. I used to think that squaw meant a Native American wife until I went to college and heard a white girl, who had guys thinking she wanted to darn their socks and do their laundry ... just because, tell them that she didn't do squaw work. Words evolve. Being a squaw these days sounds like being a maid - which, traditionally, is all wives really used to be (and many still are).

Posted by: Qusan at January 31, 2006 10:55 AM

I'm not familiar with McWhorter's stance on this topic but I am somewhat familiar with the man and his views. He appears to me to be very intelligent and well in tune with the state of sociopolitical views about the state of the African-American political landscape and why it needs to evolve to the times we are living in now. I think he stands for true progress, self-reliance and responsibility for the choices you make in life.

Posted by: Anonymous at February 4, 2006 10:27 PM