What’s the antonym of freewheeling? A Meditation on Language
Sometimes, I’ll start writing something (these days it’s mostly academic papers) without knowing where I’m going with it, without understanding fully the case to be made or how to make it or even if there is a case to be made. Perhaps I shouldn’t let my professors know this but oftentimes I begin writing without a draft, work my way through what I’ve been taught is proper “format,” stopping as I go to find out what this philosopher says about that or what that guru says about this, and the process becomes for me, mostly a learning one. I write to learn. I write to explore. I write to discover something new. But, I also only write in English, and it is the variety of English that is informed by “Englishness” - sure, I’m aware of how it is critiqued, but ultimately, my education in the language has been a liberalized Western canonical one and so I wonder how much this limits the range in which I can explore and grow and critique? I wonder how far I can get when I begin to freewheel in my writing (or write without regard for the rules and methods) when my very subjectivity and theoretical framework is always and already informed by Standard English “appropriate” methods?
As much as I love the language and as much as I personally might be content to study it and write about it for the rest of my life, I realize that English (maybe like any other language that may act to limit a person’s communication capabilities) is controversial. I recently read Anna Wierzbicka’s Imprisoned in English: The Hazards of English as a Default Language (2013) in which she beautifully argues that in our current globalized world where English is the central, hegemonic language medium, academics should learn to think beyond the language in order to reach a more “universal” praxis that does not depend merely on the theoretical framework of one dominant discourse. To do so, she says, would be to limit our imagination, our abilities to have a varied and culturally rich perspective on the human experience and the study thereof. Wierzbicka begins with a reference to neurologist Oliver Sacks’ The Island of the Colorblind (1976) about the prevalence of achromatopsia on the Micronesian atoll of Pingelap in which Sacks recalls how he and his “colour-normal” team asked a local how they distinguish between yellow and green bananas. The local replied that they don’t “just go by colour. We look, we feel, we smell, we know - we take everything into consideration.”
And it’s that inability to take everything into consideration that Wierzbicka argues is the problem with “English” dominant academic discourses that has given me pause for thought. In our previous RAD book club read, we discussed bell hooks’s Teaching to Transgress and in our follow-up podcast (here), I talked about how the chapter essay titled “Language: Teaching New Worlds/New Words” was really my favourite. In it, hooks speaks about the fluidity of language - how it seeps in and out of places and spaces and times and how it transcends and how it can be appropriated. How it can enslave and how it might yet still liberate. She writes:
“This is the oppressor’s language yet I need it to talk to you.” Adrienne Rich’s words. Then, when I first read these words, and now, they make me think of Standard English, of learning to speak against black vernacular, against the ruptured and broken speech of a dispossessed and displaced people. Standard English is not the speech of exile. It is the language of conquest and domination; in the United States, it is the mask which hides the loss of so many tongues all those sounds of diverse, native communities we will never hear the speech of the Gullah, Yiddish, and so many other unremembered tongues. Reflecting on Adrienne Rich’s words, I know that it is not the English language that hurts me, but what the oppressors do with it, how they shape it to become a territory that limits and defines, how they make it a weapon that can shame, humiliate, colonize (hooks,1994, p.168).
Further to her discussion, hooks considers the way in which the black vernacular rose as a site of resistance, a reclaiming of English that worked to create a counter-hegemonic world view but that the resistance of those of us in the academy to use it (or other forms of non-Standard English) is problematic. If pedagogical practice is meant to help our students forge ahead in unknown territory and spaces, offering them the tools that are needed in seeking to understand what we know not, then as teacher academics, we also need to realize that unless we open ourselves to non-standard discourses, then we miss a crucial learning opportunity ourselves. We freewheel without any consideration of why we’re freewheeling and what ‘universe’ is imposed on our writing. Unless we ponder and trouble the etymology and the ontology of the words we choose to use so nonchalantly, we risk being imprisoned in an English that speaks to only one type of person: the Standardised English type of person. And it’s not, I don’t think, that we need to be bilingual or multilingual to avoid being that type of person (although that would be nice, I’m sure!); rather it is about reading beyond what we think we know and exploring more. I think it is about making sure that when we sit down to write, it’s not just about freewheeling in one genre that works to homogenize our academic discourse but about opening our senses so that we can see the richness and variety of a multiplicity of “language colours.”
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York: Routledge.
Sacks, O. W. (1976). The Island of the Colorblind. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.
Wierzbicka, A. (2013). Imprisoned in English: The hazards of English as a default language. London: Oxford University Press.