Music is a universal language of humankind, as perspicaciously illustrated in a segment of the film ‘Mission’ where benevolent Jesuit missionary Gabriel plays the oboe on the top of the stiff cliff surrounded by the heathen natives. The beautiful Gabriel’s melody enters the souls of the natives, stays there in wonder, enough to disarm all hostility toward Gabriel and open their hearts. The language of music intoxicates the heart and satisfies reason and nothing more.
But that is not what it is like in this world we live in. Music is perceived as an ideological, political tool for suppressing and propagating specific ideas by persecuting the proponent of a theory that irks the majority populace, as posited in scholar John McWhorter’s article “Is music theory really #SoWhite?” The article’s gist is that two music professors at Hunter College are in a row because of their different opinions about renowned Austrian music theorist named Heinrich Schenker criticized for his openly racist views on just about everything. Schenker is long dead, but his genius in musical theory still retains magnificence among academics worldwide, including those whom Schenker might not have regarded as kindly and respectfully. One of the proponents is professor Timothy Jackson, who highly esteems Shenker’s musical theories irrespective of his personal belief and ideas.
The nemesis comes in the name of professor Phillip Ewell. He is also a cellist and half-black, attacking his peer Jackson to defend Schenker’s racist views that are an essential part of his music theories, so to speak, campaign for Jackson’s dismissal from the college the count of racism. That is not the end of Ewell’s fury against Shenker and his admirer. The arrow also shots Ludwig Von Beethoven’s bust, whom Erwell thinks doesn’t deserve the genius composer’s high appellation because the panegyrics from white supremacists ornaments his abilities.
Reading the article with the images of the dead Shenker and the two professors at tirades, so to speak, in my mind’s vision, I feel like watching an inquisition tribunal or communist party’s kangaroo court where the innocent not committed crimes regardless of his/her personal faults or weakness is savagely summoned and tried without attorney testifying the truth. The truth, said Edgar Allen Poe, is the satisfaction of reason, the fulfillment of judgment. I understand Erwell’s fury erupted in the BLM movement’s wake, which brings the suppressed matters into the light. But the accusation of Jackson as a racist that hurled him to the center of controversial debates at the expense of his livelihood because Jackson spoke for Shenker’s work as values attributable to the benefits of arts doesn’t seem to hold water. You can have a heart burning with passion with a head kept in the cold with reason.
Word On The Street: Debunking The Myth Of A Pure Standard English by John McWhorter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Sometimes, the courage to express my thoughts in English as a second language meets with insidious challenges between the grammarian Scylla and fault-finding Charybdis, lurking in the safety of anonymity on social media to stalk the prey with perverted joy. So, it is only natural for me to find encouragement from the books reassuring me that the mastery of language does not equate with intelligence. So, it is no wonder that I have the pleasure of reading Word on the Street, an invigorating narrative told in scholastic zeal and impressive erudition flavored with street-smart audacity. McWhorter, who belongs to the constellation of brilliant linguists, such as Samuel Johnson and Steven Pinker, talks about language in terms of social and cultural contexts, making the academic subject a hot topic of a Charlie Rose talk show.
McWhorter takes his view against language relativism that language shapes thoughts. The possession of words does not determine the thought process to contextualize the mentalese. Therefore, slang, idioms, and parlance outside the elite group of society and the educated middle class are not denigrated as improper English. In this sense, Pidgeon English, the quaintly charming admixture of scattered English words and a speaker’s native language, is not a corrupt version of pristine English but a hybrid of languages born out of the ingenuity of the human mind and changeability of language in nature. Isn’t English a living proof of the incredible amalgamation of languages still undergoing evolution? Who would have thought that English of the underclass would shine as a lingua franca?
What strikes me most about the book, which concurs to his fellow linguist Pinker’s point of view on language not as a touchstone for one’s cognitive ability, is that solecism in spoken and written language does not reflect the user’s less desirable trait of academic ineptitude. To put it more bluntly, just because your grammar is besotted with errors doesn’t mean you don’t know what you are saying, or forthright, you are less intelligent. Take Leonardo da Vinci, the Renaissance polymath, who had no fewer than six grammar books on Latin and Greek to grasp the syntax of the classical dead languages he was so hopeless to learn thanks to his lack of formal education. In fact, da Vinci’s writings are ridden with misspellings and amorphous sentence fragments, just as Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austen, and Emily Bronte showed in their manuscripts. So, did their imperfect language skills overrule their force of imagination and contextualizing it in words? Does this betray that language shapes thought?
McWhorter can transcend the demarcation of race in the communication of this extensive knowledge about the subject drawn from a wealth of learning and scholastic industry with urban wit and debonair guy attitude to his readers, academic or general. His intelligence freely crosses over time gaps, chasms between class divide across continents and oceans with a universal theme of words that we, as human creatures, have spoken thus far. And he tells it using full of scintillating metaphors, examples, and anecdotes, which helps the reader comprehend otherwise monotonously academic subject without pressure and enjoyably. Samuel Johnson said that the possession of knowledge is to share it, and the possessor of the knowledge shines when he applies the knowledge to the crowd of life. Well, Word on the Street shows it all.
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