Whither English topic of talk series Speaking out: Hopkins has eight language luminaries lined up to lecture on the laxities, latitude and lineage of English, American-style.

March 08, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Whether the shape of American English is as contemporary as Quentin Tarantino, as rococo as Coolio, as orotund as Pat Buchanan, or as natural as Annie Dillard, an intrepid legion of language luminaries will try to take its measure in a lecture series that begins MondayMarch 11 at the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus.

The series, "English in America: The Shape of Our Language," promises a lively celebration of words and their abuse, power and evolution, from the provocative "dissing" of the inner city, to the TV talk of cops and killers, to the pastoral language of the land.

In the opening lecture, Anne H. Soukhanov, executive editor of the third edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, will argue that word use can show the direction society's taking. Watching words in the 1980s, she says, enabled her to predict the divisions of the 1990s.

The Virginia-based lexicographer, who monitors new words and usage in her Atlantic Monthly column "Word Watch," saw "gated communities," "intentional communities," "hydraulic bollard" come into usage.

"A new sort of Fort Dodge mentality, a closing in of the wagons, a sense of us-vs.-them was seeping into the language, before it was being described in news stories," she says.

"The word 'militia' was taking on a new meaning. I began to detect some really seismic divisions within American society."

Ms. Soukhanov examines some of these issues in her book "Word Watch: The Stories Behind the Words of Our Lives." She recently appeared on CNN with Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan discussing the vocative use of "girl," as in "Hey, girl, I haven't seen you in a long time," and "Hey, girl, get a life," shouted from a moving car.

Making it into Ms. Soukhanov's latest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary are the Baltimorism "lemon stick," the Flower Mart delicacy, and the Chesapeake Bay regionalism "drudge," as for oysters. And not necessarily because the Baltimore novelist Anne Tyler was on the very distinguished usage panel.

Ms. Soukhanov claims to be one of the first wordsmithies to write about the usage "glass ceiling" to describe corporate limits to advancing women executives. And in the 1980s she was one of the first to deal with the word "diss," for disrespected and disgraced.

"Dissing -- the notion, concept and what it means and how that's related to the code of the street" will be dissected by Professor Elijah Anderson, a distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, on April 1. Professor Anderson has written a classic study of race, class and urban change in his much-praised book "Streetwise."

"Dissing," he says, "is so provocative for so many people, it takes on so much significance, that it can encourage a lethal response."

In "The Code of the Streets," his chilling cover story for the Atlantic Monthly, magazine, about a year and a half ago, Professor Anderson wrote that quoted the language of the inner city ghetto: "If someone disses t to straighten them out." "In fact," he wrote, "among the hard-core, street-oriented, the clear risk of violent death may be preferable to being 'dissed.'"

And, he says, " 'dissing' has gotten into the wider culture, into polite society." It is, of course, what political candidates do. as they move through the primary season toward the presidential election. They call it "negative campaigning."

The rhetoric of violence will occupy Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies in the Hopkins writing seminars, on April 8 when he talks about hate speech in the United States since the 1930s.

"There's a lineage that has to be traced," he says. "I want to put it in historical perspective. The problem with hate speech is that it's contagious, it's provocative and it incites violence."

He's not going to advocate: "These people like to be suppressed. It gives them the sense of righteous indignation."

He will talk about Republican candidate Pat Buchanan, who he sees as the modern "master of hate speech." He describes Mr. Buchanan as "crafty."

"He's so good at it, he's impressive," Professor Miller says. "He's like the guy who gives you a beating without leaving a bruise."

The really tough talk of television cops and killers will be explicated March 18 by Henry Bromell, an executive producer of the TV series "Homicide." , the television crime series set in Baltimore. Mr. Bromell, whose short stories have appeared used to appear in the New Yorker, writes many of the "Homicide" episodes, notably last season's widely acclaimed "The Gas Man."

He has taught at the Iowa Writer's Workshop and won a Houghton Mifflin Fellowship for his short-story collection "The Slightest Distance." Somewhat paradoxically for a guy who talks tough, he won the 1992 Humanitas Prize "for humanizing achievement in TV writing" for the drama "Amazing Grace," about a maid who tries to register to vote. This story from the "I'll Fly Away" series also won the Writer's Guild Award.

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