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A Dead Language?

April 7, 2010

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison is an acclaimed African American author who has contributed renowned works such as The Bluest Eye and Beloved to literature. She employs African American English (AAE) through the characters in her novels, even though she appears to speak a very standard variety of English during interviews or in discussions about her literature. Her use of AAE is therefore a conscious choice, suggesting an emphasis on the significance of language. The following quote gives us an idea of how much she values language:

“We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

With her emphasis on language in mind, along with her conscious use of AAE throughout her literature, what can we make of her quote below?

“A dead language is not only one no longer spoken or written, it is unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis. Like statist language, censored and censoring. Ruthless in its policing duties, it has no desire or purpose other than maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance. However moribund, it is not without effect for it actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential. Unreceptive to interrogation, it cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences.”

TONI MORRISON, Nobel Lecture, Dec. 7, 1993

Critics of AAE often defend Standard American English (SAE) as if it is an “unyielding language content to admire its own paralysis” and “unreceptive to interrogation”. Challenges to SAE usually do not result in a positive public reaction. In a way, presenting Standard American English as the only right way to speak and verbally express yourself is “censoring” for African American English speakers. By “maintaining the free range of its own narcotic narcissism, its own exclusivity and dominance”, could AAE critics be “thwart[ing] the intellect, stall[ing] conscience” and “suppress[ing] human potential”? Is Standard American English, in some ways, a “dead language” by Toni Morrison’s definition?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy permalink
    April 8, 2010 8:20 pm

    First of all, I love Toni Morrison! But about SAE being a dead language in light of Morrison’s definition, I think it is in some aspect, and it is not in others. I agree that SAE may be “unreceptive to interrogation,” so it might be dead in this way, but SAE IS able to “form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story.” I think all languages are able to do these things, and it is their main function to communicate and think of new ideas, etc.

  2. Ayeska permalink
    April 9, 2010 8:16 am

    I see your point Amy, but I think Toni Morrison meant by her description of Standard American English (SAE) as unable to “form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story” is that it does not grant speakers the phonics, words, or phrases with which to fully express themselves. Their experiences or thoughts may call for a more nuanced language in order to share them accurately.

    The African American English (AAE) dialect is rich with stressed syllables, repetition of adjectives (ie: “small small” for very small), rhythm, creative words that better express mood and thought, and much more.

    To me it seems that Toni Morrison finds African American English to be less stifling of her creative genius than Standard American English, perhaps due to the plethora of rhetorical devices (unavailable in SAE) for her to choose from.

  3. Mawutor Komla Agbaku permalink
    December 13, 2013 3:08 pm

    My opinion is that, AAE is a unique variety of American English.This means every effort must be made to maintain it irrespective of the challenges it faces. True, SAE just as in the opinion of Toni Morrison, is dead in that it does not allow anything new. AAE is the direct opposite in that regard. AAE must be documented because I foresee a situation where the next generation would shy away from using it because of the linguistic prejudices associated with it.

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