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The New York Sun


The Lawnside Syndrome

November 29, 2007

By John H. McWhorter

There's one at every event.

Despite my reputation in some quarters as a hidebound "black conservative" out of touch with the way most reasonable people think, I actually have a pretty easy time when I give talks. My views on race and much else are largely what would have been considered liberal in 1960.

But there's almost always one audience member who barely seems to have heard anything I said. I've been jetting around a fair amount over the past few weeks, and have been impressed by the consistency of this.

I am on a panel at an event on citizenship in America. Afterward, I meet a black man in the audience who, I can see from the chill in his eyes, is not a fan. He has a problem with the way I have depicted the all-black town I lived in for part of my childhood.

The problem is that the only place I dwell upon, Lawnside, N.J., is in my book "Losing the Race," and only in passing. The man cited a high-achieving family who were central to goings on in the town back in the day. Twice. The implication was that I was remiss in not recounting this.

In other words, he read (skimmed?) my book, came across a mention of Lawnside, and was put off by the fact that I did not include a noble historical timeline of the place. But wait: "Losing the Race" is an extended argument about cultural issues, within which a paean to Lawnside would be an irrelevant digression.

This man did not understand that the book was an extended editorial. He was processing it instead as a procession of sentences.

In its way this makes sense. Linguistic analysis reveals that casual speech occurs in packets of about seven words at a time. Have you ever tape-recorded yourself and friends talking? You surely saw what I mean. We do not usually talk in the carefully crafted kind of sentences we write in.

People like this man read the way we talk. He encountered a sentence about Lawnside. He likes Lawnside, and so he was waiting for the next sentence to be a teach-in about Lawnside. He wasn't waiting for the next sentence to continue a larger argument, because he doesn't read for argument. He reads as we talk, and we do not, ordinarily, "talk" extended argument.

The next day I gave a talk elsewhere noting that educators who claim that Black English is an African language with English words are gingerly allowed to have their say in public by many trained linguists, because of the influence of political correctness in the academy. A professor who attended the talk wrote me that night dismayed that I had said that trained linguists were themselves doing scholarly work treating Black English as an African language.

His dismay was based, in fact, on a written version of my talk that was available to people who came to the conference. In it, I clearly indicated that almost no trained linguists make such claims themselves.

He, however, read the written version only as a sequence of sentences, within which he was discomfited by the general issue of my taking a cadre of academic linguists to task. The overarching argument I made was opaque to him. He just read seven words at a time.

The same problem is at the root of what has become, courtesy of YouTube, an impression that on Fox News I called Barack Obama a "mammy."

What I actually said was an indictment of Blue America's notion that Senator Obama could bridge the partisan divide between the left and the right, as was often said about Mr. Obama not long ago. This is, I said, based on a notion that black people possess some kind of holistic wisdom that could override the epistemological divide between Michael Moore and Ann Coulter—i.e., in the vein of a mammy.

That is perfectly clear from what I said. But legions out there hear, simply, my phrase "it's as if he's mammy"—which, if you undo the contractions, consists of seven words. They are listening orally, so to speak.

Never mind that to equate Mr. Obama with a handkerchief-headed Aunt Jemima figure would make about as much logical sense as comparing Sophia Loren to Al Jolson. Our innate, untutored propensity for processing language in quick, user-friendly chunks distracts so many from the studied but useful artifice of using language to express longer-lined ratiocination.

I am always open to learning how to craft my message more effectively. However, when I speak or write, I will not spend so much time digressing to assuage the mental hobbies of all comers that I end up saying essentially nothing. I will not indulge in an almost occultishly painstaking retooling that would allow me to communicate such that people who can only take in seven words at a time will understand me.

But that means that there will always be people nattering from the sidelines who hear and read with our mere genetic endowment, unfamiliar with the artifice of listening to the longer line.

I sometimes wonder whether we might really be on the way to the state of things in the cult movie "Idiocracy," where English five centuries from now has devolved into a casserole of "Hillbilly, Valley Girl, innercity slang and various grunts."

Original Source:



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