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The New York Sun


Creole Vs. French

July 26, 2007

By John H. McWhorter

I have a rep as "controversial" on the race scene. It is less well known that I am equally "controversial" in my original field.

I have studied creole languages, usually formed when African plantation slaves learned a rudimentary version of a European language and built up a real language by using the European words in new ways.

Slaves who created a creole language in Surinam, for example, took the words been, go, and stand, shortened them to bi, o, and ta, and put them together to mean "would have." "I would have gone" in this creole, called Saramaccan, is Mi bi o ta go.

Neat. But, unsurprisingly, the slaves did not bother with the fact that the past tense of think is thought rather than thinked, or that we use an ending of -s in the third person singular. You can get your meaning across without that stuff, and they did, just like Yiddish does without some of High German's linguistic bric-a-brac.

On the basis of that, I have written that creole languages, like Saramaccan and Haitian Creole, are less complex than ancient languages like English that did not arise Phoenix-like from the ashes of people building it anew. Creoles are complex enough—my spoken Saramaccan is dopey because it's hard to speak any language you didn't learn in the cradle. But not as complex as Russian.

Yet the politically correct squad among creole specialists has had my head for it. If I say Saramaccan is not as complex as Navajo, I am a racist.

In that light, every two years there is a linguists' "summer camp" at a university, with courses offered to graduate students from around the world. I am out at Stanford University doing a lecture on the simplicity issue in creoles.

Before it, a student who speaks a creole asked warily which scholar had studied a certain point about creole, who had studied a point about creoles. His pencil was poised to scribe the reference on a pad. I said that it happened to be me who had worked on that issue. His pencil stayed still. Then he asked about another issue, and I directed him to a creole specialist other than myself. He diligently wrote down that citation.

His assumption was that my views must be held at arm's length. I joshingly called him out on it, and he acknowledged his skepticism. But then it was time to start my talk.

The job of academics is to convince, and I worked hard to make this guy and likeminded students see that what I am saying does not disrespect creole speakers, and that creole languages are just not as complex as languages like Polish.

He listened, and after the talk he had his picture taken with me and we planned a meeting the next day. He'll never agree with me completely. But he saw that I am, simply, trying to think.

I have similar experiences on the race punditry scene. At least once a day someone approaches me on the street. Often, they say they were prepared to loathe me, but that after reading one of my books they realized that I am sane. "I don't agree with everything," they usually say. But I'm not the Antichrist.

Yet, while in linguistics, I find that it is relatively easy making people see that all I am doing is trying to make some sense, with race, it's harder.

There are only a few thousand linguists, but countless millions of people interested in race. I can't lecture personally to any but a sliver. And for every person who has bothered to read one of my books, there is another one who has heard some shard about me as "anti-Affirmative Action," "hating rap," "wanting black people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps."

I have neither written nor said any of that. But those who think I did, reasonably, never put forth the effort to read my books. And why would they trawl through my opeds written over seven years?

I think racial preferences were once appropriate, and still support socioeconomic preferences. At the Fourth of July party I wrote about recently, my brother-in-law and I spontaneously hugged at one point cheering about Kanye West's latest album blasting from the stereo and anyone who read the hiphop chapter in my book "Winning the Race" would see that I listen to plenty of rap.

Yet I must face that to be "controversial" is to be misinterpreted and toe-tagged by people who have no idea what you have actually put out there. I must be satisfied by knowing that I am participating in changing "the conversation," as it is put in the think tank world.

Women at the all-black Spelman University have protested a rap video showing a man sliding his credit card through a woman's posterior crevice, dismissing that such things are "real."

Black parents nationwide are dissuading their teens in weekly gatherings from drifting from achievement as "white." This has only started lately.

There is no new Al Sharpton.

These sorts of things are all I have ever been about. But for many, I just hate baggy jeans and get off on dissing my own people. People who come up to me while I am eating or buying underwear often tell me not to give up despite the static.

Don't worry, folks. It's not as easy as it is with people like the aspiring creole scholar I met with yesterday. But I have a job to do, and I'm in it to stay.

Original Source:



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