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The genius of languages.

I READ Ngugi wa Thiong'o's "Recovering the Original" with much interest (see WLT, September-December 2004, 12-15). As an African American professor of English, as a child of a military family--often accused of "talking proper"--as a South Carolinian, and as a writer, I've always had an intense interest in language. Like Ngugi, I can recount plenty of schoolhouse/education anecdotes. One that stands out took place when I was on a selection committee for a special summer program for high-school students. In the text of her recommendation, a teacher wrote: "I've been knowing her for ten years." The European Americans on the committee had an immediate and extremely negative reaction. How could a school teacher write such a sentence? My response to them was that this sentence in African American Vernacular English (AAVF) revealed much more about this teacher's relationship with her student than would the statement "I have known her for ten years." The sentence on that page meant that the teacher had seen this student grow from a child into a young lady, had possibly dried her tears, had celebrated her successes in school, had spoken with her about her aspirations. There was genius in that sentence, and in every language, as Ngugi so powerfully reminds us.

In researching African American children's literature, the subject of language comes up over and over again. Poet June Jordan is proud of writing His Own Where (1971), which some consider the first young-adult novel written in black English. Poet Lucille Clifton, one of the pioneers of black children's literature, has spoken about being challenged for using black English in her books. Her response was that she was writing literature, not grammar books. At the other end of the spectrum, Carolivia Herron's controversial Nappy Hair has been criticized for a host of issues, among them the problematic nature of her comments about language: the main character is praised for speaking both the King's and Queen's English, as if this mastery compensates for her nappy hair. As teachers and writers, what do we teach? That speakers of black English must consider themselves bilingual and master both? Robert McNeil, of PBS's McNeil-Lehrer Report, suggests in his recent documentary "Do You Speak American?" that black English and standard American English are growing more widely apart in grammar, pronunciation, and more. What are the implications of this development?

In many ways, the relationship between standard American English and the Gullah language found in the South Carolina and Georgia sea islands is the case study most similar to the English/ Gikuyu relationship. The Gullah people have a relatively new sense of pride in their language, demonstrated not in a small (or uncomplicated) way by the monumental project of translating the Christian Bible into Gullah. Ngugi's insights are invaluable in helping writers, teachers, and observers of American culture interpret and understand the linguistic, artistic, socioeconomic, educational, and cultural issues surrounding Gullah as well as other forms of American English. His memories and musings clarify most poignantly the genius of language, a genius that many lose sight of all too often and easily.

Dianne Johnson

University of South Carolina
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Author:Johnson, Dianne
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Letter to the Editor
Date:Sep 1, 2005
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