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Evelyn Ch’ien on Weird English

English Is Getting Weirder. R We?

By Evelyn Nien-Ming Ch’ien

Evelyn Ch’ien is the author of Weird English (Harvard University Press, 2004)

English is getting weirder. Many of the same catalysts for the stretching, breaking, and reconstruction of English is happening to all utterance that we call speech and mark-making that we call writing. In the 21st century, technology has been the driving force of English proliferation. Our fascination and love for all that is aesthetic about language and communication, by our immersion in the linguistic experience, can be enhanced by technology and thus render us creators of linguistic worlds. To be a teaching world literature at this moment, and writing about weird English, is to not only teach the texts and the stylistics that are evidence of this change, but to conceive of how our subjectivities are changing, to see that the human race is thinking, feeling and designing the mental world differently, and that new linguistic tools are being invented to help in that architectural project. It is to acknowledge that only is English getting weirder, but so are we.

If the inception of language is the manifestation of our subjectivity, then we can look at the conditions of the twenty-first century that surround us and make their way into our writing. We have witnessed the epistolary works of the eighteenth century, in which people felt obliged to communicate the whole of their subjectivities in extended letter-writing practices. We have also witnessed the terrible aloneness of post-war alienation, in which novels seemed like patchworks of aphasia, signaling a loss of control over one’s subjectivity and an angst for regaining it. In Weird English I wrote about the ushering in of a global subjectivity, in which the diaspora consciousness caused a number of writers to relate their experience polylingually. I wrote about how such consciousness has been most obvious in immigrant and postcolonial writings, which were often writers not merely creating text but transcribing language that was previously uniquely oral. Along with the digital music revolution, our enthusiasm for the importance of sound quality and reproducing certain atmospheres has improved our drive to privilege the experience of others (and to reproduce the aesthetic elements of their lives, in this case, the accents, pronunciation and song of their languages). This has contributed to the survival and generation of weird English literature.

In terms of the content of what we teach, students enjoy weird English as a language. They want to read new language, whether it is the adventure of exploring old English, Klingon, hip-hop sounds or weird English. I read to them in weird English, rap to them in lecture, because this is the acoustic form of teaching weird English; this is my responsibility to present the live version of English, the only rules being that language communicate and express the subjectivity from which it came. This criteria for judging the quality of weird English – that it simply be strong expressive stuff, sounds similar to the criteria for judging a good cup of coffee; but in all seriousness good expression is transporting, or caffeinating. And reading feels good even if it hurts, saddens, or angers us. When we are reading, the most important emotion we can feel is that of others, and the stronger the expression the better the writer’s emotion comes through. Thus the quality of weird English is determined by its pressure on the distinction between strong expression and orthodox writing. This is probably why experimental work is often criticized for being unintelligible or too zany to be held to the same standards as orthodox writing. The criticism of orthodox writing is that it limits expressiveness and the capacity to describe settings and experiences that are outside the realm of the orthodox. A great challenge is not simply to teach world literature and weird English literature, but to explain the difference between subversive writing that demonstrates skill and strategy and an experiment with language that does not show a gift for language. Weird English is not merely broken or radical, but a form of art; it requires a strong ear to be reproduced well. The interesting thing is that weird English demands to be read aloud, because if it cannot be rendered into a recognizable acoustic form, then the transcription is probably flawed. Is weird English a bridge language that will led to multilingualism, or will the hybrids we see now absorb more languages and be even more varied than presently? Or will it be an urban trend that resides within the borders of internationalized cities that have populations mixed enough to require hybrid languages that become iterative hybrids? The computer and the computerized subjectivity now makes urban culture available to everyone, and the universal language is a combination of icons, words and characters. But the acoustic mixing will be something that we can train our students to hear, to transcribe, and to believe in as a trend of democratization of language(s). The act of presenting them with multiple weird Englishes in the classroom is permitting them to recognize the work required in listening to another culture. So far, much of the creation of weird English is by authors who are immigrants, postcolonial subjects, or whose immediate family members are immigrants, so the transcription process is possible.

In Weird English I pushed forward the idea of multilingualism, vernaculars in the hope of emphasizing the need for variety of expression above all else. Such assertion of expression is part of the phenomenon of global citizenship, where the consequences of global imagination included hybrid language, the presumption of audiences as multilingual and the book as an inclusive interface between communities. The capacity to transcribe and record the oral as well as the capacity and the motivation we have to reproduce the sounds that make up a multilingual, multi-vernacular environment combine to generate weird English literature. But the act of transcription is as local as it is global, as individual and personal an act as a universal gesture of dignity. English permits and demands renovation and refurbishing, because of this vacillation between global spread and local entitlement and linguistic proprietariness.

Translated to the classroom, how do we speak to these subjectivities and reach them? In teaching weird English to the classroom, how do we make that a global environment such that weird English is the norm, the way we need to think instead of a persistent monolingual environment? The question for the twenty-first century is what status written language will occupy and how it will be used. And for those in departments of literature, what will be the effects on those creating, reading and teaching literature? If we are texting and emailing and rapping all the time, what kind of writing will we produce in our spare time (though, that’s shrinking too: as someone I know once put it, “When I can’t think of anything else to do, I check my email.”) Will orthodox writing as we know it become as arcane as handwriting, or as anachronistic as calligraphy? I sometimes ask my students if they find certain vernaculars difficult to read, and this generation appears more adept at it than older ones. In response to whether he found a book difficult, one of my students said reading The God of Small Things was “like reading the newspaper.” Given the complexity of what this college generation listens to—rap, MTV, new vocabulary that surfaces every day in relation to the internet—their context for creativity is rhythmically very different than previous ones. It is not that people did not listen to dirty beats back in the old days, but technology has made it possible to subsist in an acoustic and virtual environment of our own making for our social and psychological needs. And this is what, as English professors, we strive to illuminate and critically interrogate in the classroom: the status of human subjectivities and how to convey them through language. We are not simply interrogating subjectivity as manifested in the human body. Our subjectivities are now our computers, our phones, our ipods. Our brains float through chatrooms, making connections as disembodied personalities. Perhaps due to generational difference, my students skilled with socializing in this manner; they mySpace eachother and use hosts of acronyms and nutty grammar. Emotionally, they get across that line of etiquette pretty fast. They are comfortable with a subjectivity that lives and breathes on a computer; one of my students declared that his computer had “qi” or energy flow.

The capacity to perceive a computer as a prosthetic, as an extension for our bodies, is becoming more real. This does not mean that virtual environments script our lives, or that globalization really means computerization—it did not mean corporatization before and there is no need to exaggerate the loss of the human touch, etc. But in terms of language, gesture is returning to the screen, literally, as pinching and stretching our fingers now can control (the Mac Air and iTouch and iphone all respond now to small hand gestures directly on the screen, to open, zoom etc on the screen). These micro-gestures are a new sign language for the twenty-first century. Even this small example makes us rethink our own mental frames in terms of gestures and visuals, discarding language or command codes and promising a more organic relationship to computers.
If our subjectivities are now extended by computers, how will this influence our language use? In a conversation with a programmer, it occurred to her that computer language being English was a serendipitous and “the fact that these computer languages are somewhat based on English…I mean what if someone in France is programming in Java, do they just learn all the words, you have someone from Japan and they write all their programs in English, and so does this even have any meaning to them at all?”

Computers are multi-tasking machines with sophisticated levels of compartmentalization. My computer-oriented students have trouble conceptualizing a paper and one theme—and prefer multiplatform presentations. They require the acoustic versions of literature in the classroom, and respond to it more than monotone lecturing. They also enjoy synthesis of technology and writing; writing one’s thesis and persisting on it—obsessing, as they might say—is an increasingly foreign concept; they would rather share, swap and trade information and engage in group projects. For me, a lecture has become a performance and multimedia show, while a seminar for undergraduates has morphed into various group sections and group projects. It’s not the paper they are scared of, it’s the solitude that the paper requires. They are more social than I remember my generation being, because at times we had to be alone, and this generation never does, and almost never is. Recently in a college magazine a writer bemoaned the ever-presence of cellphones. Professors now have to deal with the ubiquity of parents, whom students can call immediately after meeting a professor to ask opinions about majors, grades and research. In previous generations students had to find their way independently, alone-ly.

In terms of general quality of life, I can’t blame students for wanting a platform to share ideas together. I encourage it. The solution is to combine the virtual world and the weird English world, and to communicate to them their active role in building both. To be teaching world literature is to be teaching the world and how to exist in it as 21st century citizens. These students may be hesitant to be alone because there are no rules or limits, just the strength of their expression that leads them to both a community and a survival. It is acceptable to voyage with prosthetic subjectivities and weird language if this is the case.

January 21, 2008

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