The Outstater

February 2, 2023

‘. . . jus from how dey talking’

I THINK I GET IT NOW — wokeness, I mean. My office is on Indiana’s sanity fringe, and up until now I’ve been living in the 1980s, some say in the 1960s. But an article landed on my desk this morning that may bring me up to date.

The headline reads “Against Copyediting.” It is by someone named Helen Betya Rubinstein writing in something called the Literary Hub, the Jan. 26 issue to be exact.

Ms. Rubinstein’s argument is that copyediting is racist. Here’s the crux:

“It’s clear that copyediting as it’s typically practiced is a white-supremacist project, that is, not only for the particular linguistic forms it favors and upholds, which belong to the cultures of whiteness and power, but for how it excludes or erases the voices and styles of those who can’t or won’t perform this culture.”

I couldn’t agree more. Indeed, since I first entered the profession I have fought against any such grammatical tyranny. I wanted my words to be free as birds, to write like Donald Barthelme or E.E. Cummings, using “if,” “am” and “because” as nouns or whatever and assigning my own meanings to words while stringing them together “like pearls in Cleopatra’s necklace,” as Kurt Vonnegut put it.

But English, as you know, is a particularly tricky language. That is because it had to accommodate the diverse (mark that word) invaders of the British Isles, including the Angles, a Germanic tribe from whence English gets its name, which makes no more sense than its tortured grammar and quirky spelling.

Ms. Rubinstein suggests a better way. She quotes Lee A. Tonouchi’s work, “Da State of Pidgin Address.” Mr. Tonouchi, writing in what he says is Hawai’ian Creole English, or Pidgin. He notes, “dat da perception is dat da standard english talker is going automatically be perceive fo’ be mo’ intelligent than da Pidgin talker regardless wot dey talking, jus from HOW dey talking.”

Again, I couldn’t have said it better. I, too, have a favorite language. It is Tuyucan, spoken in a remote area of Brazil. It has word endings designed to express whether the speaker fully understands what he or she is talking about.

That said, I begrudgingly memorized the Associated Press Stylebook and other despotic tracts and began a lifetime of worrying about using “who” or “whom,” “that” or “which” while keeping an eagle eye out for the breath-pause comma and the obligatory umlaut.

But what Ms. Rubinstein inadvertently makes clear is that her complaint has nothing to do with language or race or skin pigment or even slavery, which, once ubiquitous, was first banned only in English-speaking nations. Rather, she insists any thought white people have had is racist dating back two thousand years or so, including the English language and, one supposes, anti-racism itself.

Ominously, Ms. Rubinstein blames it all on Western Civilization, which she seems to want stamped out. It can only follow that she thinks that copy editors, the policemen of her civilization’s hated but predominate language, are in the service of white supremacists or worse. And as with policemen, it doesn’t matter that an editor may be a person of color themselves.

“It remains socially acceptable to call oneself a grammar ‘Nazi,’” says Ms. Rubinstein, leaping to an even more fiendish language.

Yes, you must take her seriously, but know that white people only incidentally invented the hated civilization. Anyone could have done it. And in fact it has been put to good use by people of color throughout the world, many of whom having learned to speak perfect English. Singapore, Botswana, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Chile and increasingly in India all have adopted its tenets (but not, interestingly, ultra-woke but impoverished Zimbabwe, Venezuela and South Africa).

English, historically, like it or not, is the language of success as measured by living standards as well as accomplishments in the arts and sciences — by magnitudes.

The em dash in that last sentence might be superfluous, or misplaced altogether. — tcl


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