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The Language War

Robin Tolmach Lakoff
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: 1
Pages: 332
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  • Book Info
    The Language War
    Book Description:

    Robin Lakoff gets to the heart of one of the most fascinating and pressing issues in American society today: who holds power and how they use it, keep it, or lose it. In a brilliant and vastly entertaining discussion of news events that have occupied an enormous amount of media space--political correctness, the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings, Hillary Rodham Clinton as First Lady, O. J. Simpson's murder trial, the Ebonics controversy, and the Clinton sex scandal--Lakoff shows that the struggle for power and status at the end of the century is being played out as a war over language. Controlling language is a basis for all power, she says, and therefore it is worth fighting for. As a result, newly emergent groups, especially blacks and women, are contending with middle- to upper-class white men for a share in "language rights." Lakoff's introduction to linguistic theories and the philosophy of language lays the groundwork for an exploration of news stories that meet what she calls the UAT (Undue Attention Test). As the stories became the subject of talk-show debates, late-night comedy routines, Web sites, and magazine articles, they were embroidered with additional meanings, depending on who was telling the story. Race, gender, or both are at the heart of these stories, and each one is about the right to construct meanings from languagein short, to possess power. Because language tells us how we are connected to one another, who has power and who does not, the stories reflect the language war. We use language to analyze what we call "reality," the author argues, but we mistrust how language is used today--witness the "politics of personal destruction" following the Clinton impeachment. Yet Lakoff sees in the struggle over language a positive goal: equality in the creation of our national discourse. Her writing is accessible and witty, and her excerpts from the media are used to great effect.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-92807-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-16)

    A question may occur both to my fellow linguists and to others as they examine this book: What is an ivory tower denizen, a linguist like me, doing in the notoriously real world of politics? Is this what linguists do? Can do? Should do?

    While the Ebonics debate of 1996–97 (see Chapter 7) served to bring the field of linguistics to popular awareness (or at least more awareness than it had enjoyed previously, about–9 on a scale of 1 to 10), its workings are still not familiar to everyone. Moreover, even linguists argue among themselves and within themselves...

  5. 1 LANGUAGE: The Power We Love to Hate
    (pp. 17-41)

    Some of the stories in the news over the last few years:

    The fight over Political Correctness

    The Anita Hill / Clarence Thomas hearings

    The David Mamet playOleanna

    The role of Hillary Rodham Clinton

    The Bobbitt contretemps

    The Nancy Kerrigan–Tonya Harding faceoff

    The O. J. Simpson saga

    Adultery in high places

    Sexual misconduct in the military

    The Ebonics controversy

    The fight to make English the “official” language of the United States

    The death of Princess Diana

    The “Cambridge Nanny” case

    Sex (or whatever) in the Oval Office

    Each of these stories is different, but they share at least...

    (pp. 42-85)

    The evidence in the last chapter suggests that making meaning is a defining activity of Homosapiens,and that it is more than just a cognitive exercise, since those who get to superimpose a meaning on events control the future of their society. And since so much of our cognitive capacity is achieved via language, control of language—the determination of what words mean, who can use what forms of language to what effects in which settings—ispower. Hence the struggles I am discussing in this book are not tussles over “mere words,” or “just semantics”—they are battles...

    (pp. 86-117)

    Neutrality is advantageous only if it can be exploited and extended into an effective means of persuasion. Language both creates a message, through devices like framing and presupposition, and uses that message, winning the uncommitted over by assuming the “normality” and “neutrality” of the speaker’s position, as transmitted through arguments that (because they rely on neutrality) need not even be overtly stated and therefore need not be exposed to the rigors of examination. This and the remaining chapters of this book explore several recent cases in which language becomes a locus of struggle over self-definition and societal cohesion. The battle...

  8. 4 MAD, BAD, AND HAD: The Anita Hill / Clarence Thomas Narrative(s)
    (pp. 118-157)

    The movie everyone was going to see, and heatedly discussing, in the summer of 1991 wasThelma and Louise.In it two women (played by Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis), one a harried waitress and the other a put-upon wife, go off together without their partners for a couple of days’ vacation. They stop off for dinner; Thelma, the younger and prettier married one, is hit on, responds positively, drinks too much, and is helped outside for some fresh air by the guy she has been flirting with. He proceeds to try to rape her, at which moment Louise appears...

  9. 5 HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON: What the Sphinx Thinks
    (pp. 158-193)

    Bill, Hillary, and Al Gore are riding in Air Force One when it crashes and all are killed. They find themselves in heaven, and are directed to a large room, at the far end of which is God sitting on a majestic throne.

    Al Gore approaches first. “And who are you?” asks God.

    “I’m Al Gore, sir. I was the Vice President of the United States.”

    “Well, that’s very impressive!” says God. “Come here and sit on the chair on my left.”

    Then Bill Clinton goes in. “And who are you?” “Sir, I’m William Jefferson Clinton. I was President of...

  10. 6 WHO FRAMED “O. J.”?
    (pp. 194-226)

    Sometime between 10:15 and 10:45 on the night of June 12, 1994, the plaintive wail of a white Akita dog named Kato sliced through the calm evening air of Brentwood, California. The calm has never been restored.

    The story is still too familiar to merit detailed retelling. Kato’s wails led a hearer to the condominium of Nicole Brown Simpson, estranged wife of football hero and movie semi-star Orenthal James (“O.J.”) Simpson. In the front yard lay the mangled bodies of Nicole Simpson and a friend, Ron Goldman, stabbed multiple times.

    By 11:45 that night O.J. himself had boarded a plane...

    (pp. 227-251)

    On December 18, 1996, I was watching the local evening news programs on television, idly flipping from one to another. One story caught my linguist’s attention. It appeared that the Oakland School Board had just passed a resolution that “Ebonics,” the “primary language” of many of its students, was a “Niger-Congo African Language,” rather than a form of English, being “genetically based.” “Such languages,” the resolution continued (it went on for about two pages), had been “officially recognized” as “worth [sic] of study.” Therefore this language was to be used as a means of instruction in the Oakland schools (“the...

    (pp. 252-282)

    The ordinary acceptation of words in their relation to things was changed as men thought fit. Reckless audacity came to be regarded as courageous loyalty to party, prudent hesitation as specious cowardice, moderation as a cloak for unmanly weakness, and to be clever in anything was to do naught in anything. . . . The hot-headed man was always trusted, his opponent suspected. He who succeeded in a plot was clever, and he who had detected one was still shrewder; on the other hand, he who made it his aim to have no need of such things was a disrupter...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 283-302)
  14. References
    (pp. 303-312)
  15. Index
    (pp. 313-322)