Friday, August 26, 2016

Famous Speech Friday: Toni Morrison's Nobel lecture on language

Never underestimate a spinner of tales like the great novelist Toni Morrison, even though you might be tempted to do so by the beginning of her Nobel Prize lecture, delivered after she won the prize for literature in 1993.

That's because she begins with a simple fable about an old blind woman who is a clairvoyant: Two young people tell her they have a bird in their hands and demand that she tell them whether the bird is alive or dead, intent on proving her a fraud. She tells them, after a long wait, that she doesn't know whether the bird is dead or alive, but that she knows "it is in your hands."

Morrison then explains what the fable, heard in many cultures around the world in various versions, means to her:
I choose to read the bird as language and the woman as a practiced writer. She is worried about how the language she dreams in, given to her at birth, is handled, put into service, even withheld from her for certain nefarious purposes. Being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency - as an act with consequences. So the question the children put to her: "Is it living or dead?" is not unreal because she thinks of language as susceptible to death, erasure; certainly imperiled and salvageable only by an effort of the will. She believes that if the bird in the hands of her visitors is dead the custodians are responsible for the corpse.
Then she lets her speech soar further, to share the deeper meaning she sees. Morrison's concern, befitting a global award and speech, is how language is misused around the world:
The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge. Whether it is obscuring state language or the faux-language of mindless media; whether it is the proud but calcified language of the academy or the commodity driven language of science; whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, hiding its racist plunder in its literary cheek - it must be rejected, altered and exposed. It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind. Sexist language, racist language, theistic language - all are typical of the policing languages of mastery, and cannot, do not permit new knowledge or encourage the mutual exchange of ideas.
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Use a fable to make your point: A master storyteller, Morrison reached for a fable to carry this speech from beginning to end. It's a tactic I wish more speakers would try. After all, fables are durable, time-tested ways to convey information, suspense, and all the elements of the dramatic arc. In this speech, Morrison is describing a complex, detailed, and intellectual view of language and the impact of abuses of language, so a simple fable gives all listeners something with which to connect. At the same time, the fable is easy to remember, making it easier for listeners to repeat.
  • Active verbs enliven your speech: This line is loaded with active verbs that bring it (and language) alive: "It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind." It's all the more powerful as a result.
  • Speak truth to power: If you are lucky enough to have this kind of platform, use it for all it is worth. Morrison does not mince words here, and addresses important and weighty issues. A speech this important gets saved and recorded and will outlast the speaker, all the more reason to make it count.
If you're a writer or storyteller or just a language nerd, this is a masterpiece of a speech. We don't have video of this speech, but you will find the text and audio here. Be sure to listen to the audio recording--it includes a short introduction that is missing in the text version.

Join me in Edinburgh, Scotland, on October 20 for a new workshop, Add Meaning with Metaphor: Improve your Speeches with the Most Powerful Figure of Speech. It's a pre-conference workshop at the Edinburgh Speechwriters and Business Communicators Conference, designed to help both speakers and speechwriters use this powerful tool. You can register here for just the workshop, the conference, or both.

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