Monday, August 4, 2014

Fired for teaching about homophones...

Yesterday, I read the very sad story of Tim Torkildson, a social media specialist at an English language learning center in Provo, Utah.  Mr. Torkildson had a blog and wrote a post about homophones, a staple of every young American child's early language instruction.  Homophones are words that sound alike, but are spelled differently and have different meanings.  Meet and meat are homophones; so are so, sow, and sew.  Actually, when I learned about homophones, they were called homonyms.  But then I moved to another school and encountered the other term.

One would think homophones would be a completely innocuous thing to blog about, especially if one is teaching English to non-native English speakers.  Homophones can be pretty tricky for the uninitiated.  Unfortunately, Mr. Torkildson's blog post didn't sit well with his boss, Clarke Woodger, owner of the Nomen Global Language Center.  Mr. Woodger allegedly fired Mr. Torkildson because he fears the blog post will associate his school with "the gay agenda".

That's right.  A man who owns a language center tasked with teaching English as a foreign language is afraid to teach students about homophones...  apparently, because he is afraid his potential students will think his school teaches about homosexuals.  Woodger explained to the Salt Lake Tribune that his students come from 58 countries and many have only a basic understanding of English.  If that's true, would they even necessarily know what the word "homosexual" or the shortened euphemism "homo" means?  You can read Mr. Torkildson's blog post about this incident here.

I posted about this on Facebook and remarked that it reminded me of the whole "niggardly" debate.  In 1999, David Howard, who was then working as an aide for Anthony Williams, the mayor of Washington, D.C., used the word "niggardly" to describe how he would have to manage a fund's tight budget.  The word "niggardly" means miserly or parsimonious.  It sounds a little like the infamous n-bomb, but is actually spelled differently and has absolutely no etymological relation to the word "nigger".  Mr. Howard used the word properly and not in a racist way at all.  However, a couple of people he was working with were not familiar with the word, which has understandably fallen out of fashion.  Within ten days of using that word, David Howard was handing in his resignation to Mayor Williams, who hastily accepted it.

I remember being pretty disgusted when I heard about this situation, even though I know the word "niggardly" is not exactly a word one hears every day anymore.  I learned the word in a vocabulary lesson when in was in the 9th grade.  Moreover, even if I hadn't, it seemed to me that a simple conversation about intent and a quick consultation with a dictionary would have cleared up the issue before it ever made the news.  Of course that didn't happen, and it was a national case...  a very embarrassing national case, especially since the people involved were D.C. government officials who should have known better or at least conducted themselves in a more professional manner.

I understand that David Howard's choice to use the word "niggardly" instead of miserly, stingy, or parsimoniously was probably a mistake.  However, I think the bigger mistake was made by the people who ignorantly took him to task for saying something he didn't actually say.

A very liberal and, I think, terminally guilty Facebook friend of mine took me to task for defending Howard.  He wrote:

"The word "niggardly", which is archaic, doesn't mean anything "miserly" doesn't, so anyone doubling down on the use of it is actually trying to be an asshole. "Homophone" is the only word that means what it means - AND, it doesn't resemble any offensive word, anyway."      

Not knowing David Howard personally, I have a hard time discerning if he actually intended "to be an asshole" or just decided he wanted to use a 50 cent word to express himself.  I told my Facebook friend that it was his opinion that using that word makes someone an asshole.

He came back trying to school me with a Wikipedia article about the controversies surrounding the word "niggardly"...  It was an article I had already read, along with an excellent book by Randall Kennedy about the word "nigger".  The incident regarding David Howard and the DC government was discussed at length in his book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word.  Kennedy, by the way, is a black, left leaning Harvard law professor (or at least he was a professor when the book was published in 2002).  While I don't use the n-word or even the word "niggardly" myself, I have to admit it was interesting to read about the history of the word.  I would recommend Kennedy's book to anyone who wants an interesting language lesson.

In any case, while I respect my Facebook friend's position about not offending people by using words they might not know or that may upset others, I also believe that people have a responsibility to educate themselves about their own language.  They also have a responsibility to stop and think before they react.  Anyone who reads this blog may already know that I am not a fan of "burying language".  Offensive words that become taboo eventually get replaced by other words that end up needing to be made taboo.  Moreover, changing the language doesn't necessarily change a painful condition.

I am a big fan of looking at intent, too.  You may hear someone use language that, taken at surface level, sounds offensive.  But I think it makes sense to think about what the communicator was trying to communicate before you react with offense.  As an English major in college, I read a lot of books by black writers.  The so-called n-word was rife in most of those books.  Should I have been offended?  I don't think so... because that word served a legitimate purpose in what I was reading.  Do I think it's smart to go around casually using controversial words that may offend people?  Generally not, though there are always exceptions to that rule.  An intelligent person looks at the situation objectively, though.  They don't pressure a person to resign from a job over misunderstanding a word like "niggardly" and they don't fire someone over teaching about homophones because they fear people might think they are promoting "the gay agenda" (not that I think that's necessarily a bad thing to promote).

Of course I understand why people like my Facebook friend think it's better to just not go there with words like "niggardly".  It's very easy to bury taboo words or symbols (or even words that sound like taboo words or symbols) and dismiss them as "offensive".  It's a lot more challenging to use your brain and determine the communicator's intent and whether or not it's worthwhile to be offended by their message.  I think it's sad that more people aren't more willing to use their brains instead of their emotions when they are expressing themselves.    

2 comments:

  1. PLEASE tell me that the Utah guy has been or is in the process of being reinstated. It would be nice if the idiot who fired him were himself fired as well.

    My mom said homonym was the collectively used word when she went to school. when she taught, there were homonyms (same spellling and pronunciation but different meanings), homophones (same pronunciation,, different meanings) and homographs (same spelling but different pronunciation and meaning). Now, she says, there are so many designations and variants that she doesn't know them all and doesn't even care to know them.

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    Replies
    1. I have no idea if the guy got reinstated or even wants to work at that place anymore. I think being a teacher in such an environment must be very difficult.

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