2012-01-09

On Language

I just finished reading Jay-Z's book, "Decoded". It was a great read, very interesting and insightful. In any case, he brought up an interesting point about language in the Epilogue, quoted below:

Rap, as I said at the beginning of the book, is at heart an art form that gave voice to a specific experience, but, like every art, is ultimately about the most common human experiences: joy, pain, fear, desire, uncertainty, hope, anger, love - love of crew, love of family, even romantic love (put on "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" some time and tell me rap can't be romantic - or if you want to keep it street, put on Mary J. Blige and Method Man's "I'll Be There For You/You're All I Need To Get By"). Of course, in the end, it may not be the art form for you. Oprah, for instance, still can't get past the n-word issue (or the nigga issue, with all apologies to Ms. Winfrey). I can respect her position. To her, it's a matter of acknowledging the deep and painful history of the word. To me, it's just a word, a word whose power is owned by the user and his or her intention. People give words power, so banning a word is futile, really. "Nigga" becomes "porch monkey" becomes "coon" and so on if that's what's in a person's heart. The key is to change the person. And we change people through conversation, not through censorship. That's why I want people to understand what the words we use - and the stories we tell - are really about.

This reminded me of a section of George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," in which he talks about the decay of the English language, specifically when it comes to political language, and how some believe that we cannot directly influence language to reshape words or redirect the usage of language back to a more reasonable place. Orwell believes, however, that language can be intentionally shaped, and makes the following statement:

"What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.

What I believe he's getting at is this: he talks earlier in the paper about different ways in which the English language has decayed, and one of them is that of certain words or phrases coming to have implicit meaning through common usage, completely apart from the actual meaning of the word or phrase. We then simply use that word or phrase as a pre-packaged idea, without thinking about what we are really saying. Some of the examples of this idea which he gives are "toe the line", "the hammer and the anvil" (common usage being that the anvil takes a beating, but actually, the anvil always breaks the hammer), "swan song", and "ride roughshod over". The idea is that, in this case, you are choosing the words first, and the words then define the meaning - because the meaning is pre-fabricated and attached to those specific words. He lists cases in which authors using these pre-fabricated ideas often mix meanings and metaphors, showing they don't actually understand what they are saying, but are simply using a set phrase which is understood a certain way, apart from its actual meaning.

What he is advocating, is that you decide the meaning you want to convey first, and then choose the right words to flesh out that meaning; that you understand the idea you wish to convey and choose words for it, rather than allowing the pre-set arrangement of words to define your meaning.

So, how does that relate to Jay-Z? The most important part of the statement I quoted in relation to this is the following:

To me, it's just a word, a word whose power is owned by the user and his or her intention. People give words power, so banning a word is futile, really. "Nigga" becomes "porch monkey" becomes "coon" and so on if that's what's in a person's heart.

What I have seen in hip-hop music since getting into it is a very intentional usage of language, which is a big reason it is attractive to me. Good rappers use language in a way that suits their meaning, and sometimes even take advantage of pre-defined phrases or words that have certain cultural connotations to obscure their true meaning, forcing you to really give their lyrics some thought to work them out, or simply putting off people who aren't interested in taking the time to discover what they wanted to say. Much like poetry, in fact.

Specifically in terms of the word "nigga," Jay-Z says that they have taken a word which was hurtful, and turned it into a term of endearment. Rather than surrendering to the word, they made it their own. His comment that people give words power, that their ideas will come out using different words; that if we ban "nigga", we just get "coon" instead, speaks to the idea that we can, in fact, change language; that we can do what Orwell recommends, and find our meaning, and then choose the words which best express that meaning.

I think Orwell and Jay-Z also both offer an important challenge - to really think about the language we're exposed to. Don't just hear someone call something "communist" and assume it's malevolently oppressive, think about the context and whether the comparison even makes sense. Don't just hear someone use the word "freedom" and get warm fuzzies about whatever they're referring to - think about how they are using it, whether what they are using it to describe actually merits the word, and don't allow them to handcuff you with it by convincing you that you're really being "freed".

Language is incredibly important, and I think we all would do well to be intentional both about how we use language, and how we take it in.