Monday, 23 November 2009

Some Words for Our Ears

Among the benighted minority who squeaked through graduate training without a smidge of linguistic enlightenment, the present writer must with shame admit membership. With the hotheaded omniscience that sometimes afflicts graduate students, one could equate linguistics with Anglo-Saxon and all that jazz, and skip it. The only consolation, even compensation, is that discovering language as a discipline fifteen years later has the zing of Balboa seeing his ocean or a poet first perusing Chapman's Homer. Luckily, too, for those like me discovering the Big Truth, it is becoming easier and easier to relieve one's ignorance without even having to return to graduate school. The word is as close as your LP phono or FM radio.

The first step in a sound regimen of self-inflicted in-service training about the miracle of language is available in a remarkable radio series available on LP's; "Ways of Mankind," edited by Walter Goldschmidt of UCLA's Anthropology Department for the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (Gregory Hall, University of Illinois, Urbana, Illinois), is still, in my judgment, the high water mark of educational broadcasting in America. The late, great Moe Asch--founder of Folkways Records--put "A Word in your Ear" and "I Know What I Like" on an LP now available from the Library of Congress.

Ironically, for the pride of us know-how Americans, the series was created by that Canadian genius Lister Sinclair in CBC's studios at Toronto, with Ford money. English teachers who share a general skepticism about my principle that cultural anthropology is the most important single cognate course for four majors need only invest a half-hour listening time to check my hypothesis: "A Word in Your Ear: A Study in Language" has been described by the late Robert Redfield as containing in its small compass all that the general public needs to know about the nature of language.

It shows how language and culture exist in reciprocal interaction; it explains how place, time, age, sex, circumstances, and occasion affect language. Not only is this half-hour the most extraordinary elementary introduction to linguistics, but it is also a compelling work of art per se. Having used this recording for the past ten years in classes as varied as seventh-grade core and Ivy League graduate school, I now defy the recording to bore me. It is like an almost perfect poem; the more I hear it, the more I am pleasantly astonished by its structure. (The next insidious step in my subliminal campaign to get every English teacher to take at least one course in cultural anthropology is to play the flippantly phrased but serious reverse side, "I Know What I Like: A Study in the Arts.")

The next set of sounds for sorely tried ears (with little faith left in radio as a cultural force) is Dr. Bergan Evans' delightful new series for Westinghouse Broadcasting (with radio stations in New York City, Boston, Baltimore, Cleveland, San Francisco, and Pittsburgh). The Northwestern University English professor has taken that tawdry instrument of triviality-the interviewer's beeper telephone-and made out of it a machine for civilized conversation. His improvised chat about "transpire" with Theodore Bernstein, the linguistic watchdog of the New York Times, was a fascinating insight into that good grey lady's grave prose. Evans rapped Newsweek's knuckle-headed editor who had outrun his etymological information in "learned" speculation on the meaning of the "apple" controversy in the new translation of Genesis.

And why does an airport control tower talker say "Do you read me, Eastern 516?" when it's hearing not reading that is involved? These are just a few of the news-pegged items on one half-hour of Evans' linguistic omnibus, "Words in the News." Write Westinghouse if you are not within earshot of their stations. Ask them to let your NCTE affiliate put it on a local station. You'll be surprised how easy it is to convince these public-spirited broadcasters. And having listened to the series for a few weeks, you will think of local angles for a show of your own on the way language is being used, abused, and confused in your neck of the continental woods.

Out at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, they didn't wait for Doctor Evans' good example. "Where Minds Meet" is a thirteen half-hour series of aurally illustrated conversations between John Freund of the English Department and specialist colleagues. On the halfhour I heard over the Philadelphia's educational station, WHYY-FM, Freund and a colleague were discussing "Speech Sounds." Their synopsis suggests the interestingly off-beat but perfectly relevant examples they "quote" on tape to give their conversations more pedagogical point:

"Earmarks of English." Concerned chiefly with the nature of the phoneme. Emphasis is upon the importance of hearing rather than articulation in the learning of language. Examples include reversed speech sounds and words, interviews with speakers of Swedish and Chinese, and the speech of a man without a tongue.

The latter could talk intelligibly, whereas a congenitally deaf man was impossible to understand-the point so audibly underscored being that, paradoxically, the ear is more crucial than the tongue in the act of speech. Freund's series explores, among other things, feedback at cocktail parties, the varieties of noise that clutter communications channels, the intonational aspects of language, self-hearing and the experience of Helen Keller, the capacity to apprehend abstractions at successive age levels, the maturing of baby talk, famous voices as they influence ordinary speakers in search of a self-image, the Whorfian hypothesis and the explication of proverbs, the impact of fear on language, how context influences Negro and white images of each other, and, finally, programs on thinking in language and creativity with language. You have less excuse not to hear this program than the Westinghouse series.

For it is now being broadcast over the National Association of Educational Broadcasters tape network, a virtuous circle of almost 200 FM stations throughout our country. Listen, and watch your language: the linguistics you learn over radio may become your own, on tapes taken into your own classroom.

This is an abridged version of an article on "Language and Radio" to appear in the May 1963 issue of Studies in the Mass Media devoted to "The Cultural Potential of Radio."

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