A Dead Language?
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?