Most people recognize the process of neighborhood gentrification: A once affordable neighborhood with character becomes transformed by wealth into a place that the very people who nurtured the character of that place can’t afford to live in anymore (or don’t even want to). With a moment of thought, you can probably think of a few examples of linguistic gentrification too: Everyday, “non-standard,” yet uniquely expressive language gets repackaged as cool, trendy, even standardized—so much so that the original users may no longer want to use it.

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When neighborhood gentrification strikes, features of old run-down structures originally organic to a way of life—like a breezy front stoop or an original ice box—get repurposed as signs of sophistication. Likewise, linguistic gentrification: Features of language originally part of a way of life—and some looked down on in schools or marked as “non-standard”—become markers of sophistication, local knowledge, or social cachet.

Often these gentrified features originally come from speech typified as “African American.” Those very features deemed “non-standard” resurface as expressively powerful, and get used by white people. So, while most English teachers will decry the use of a “double negative” as incorrect, students in an Ivy League University will use the phrase, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” strategically and to great effect (see previous post, Language Awareness II).

The word “finna” has also gained popularity these days in suburban Honors English classes I’ve been working in. It even appeared in a collective slang word cloud they created last semester:

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Finna also appears on the Internet in this official looking entry (the very first hit for a google search):

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 9.10.28 AM “Shawty,” “salty,” “jawn,” and the ubiquitous, “yo” are other words gentrified by suburban Honors English 11th Graders.

 But when asked about “finna,” “salty,” or “shawty,” few students can provide a sense of the social history of these words, aside from their own personal contact with them. Most assume they just were part of auto-tuned YouTube songs or funny Vine videos that somehow went viral. A few mention Kanye West as a good source of these expressions. In conversation, one student mentioned that “finna” might come from “fixing to,” a “Southern” phrase. But, others had no idea that “finna” might be parsed that way.

 Just as neighborhood gentrifiers vary in their knowledge of the history of the city they occupy, linguistic gentrifiers have varying levels of awareness of the historical foundation for these words, phrases or features of pronunciation. And, newcomers to words and phrases like “salty,” “ain’t nobody got time for that,” or “finna” use them with wide-ranging degrees of finesse. Some gentrifiers—of cities and language—surely recognize underlying character and build on that. Yes! Others might lack that sensitivity, driving away residents and speakers, losing generations of history and life ways that built the original character that drew us to those places and expressions.

Do you recognize linguistic gentrification around you? Do you partake in the process? What are the different types and what are their effects? Please comment!


3 thoughts on “Linguistic Gentrification

  1. Hi Betsy,

    I came across your blog post while doing a google search for “linguistic” and “gentrification”. I see where you’re going with the term “linguistic gentrification”, but I guess I’d caution against using this analogy, as it reinforces the myth of gentrification as a spontaneously occurring phenomenon that comes to be through the actions of individuals. While the individuals sometimes referred to as “gentrifiers” certainly have a role in the process, gentrification does not happen without the concerted efforts of major institutions, including city and state government and the real estate industry. This is especially the case with the current third wave of gentrification, which is largely driven by corporate money and public-private partnerships. The linguistic appropriation you discuss here seems to be a different phenomenon. (I recognize that there is also institutional involvement in the linguistic appropriation you’re talking about, namely the music industry and media, but the mechanics and stakes are still quite distinct from those in neighborhood gentrification.)

    The youth symbolic economy at play in the cases you discuss seems to take place mostly in the linguistic realm of slang, and the terms in question are likely to fade from white youth’s vocabulary in a few years (and in the double negatives example, the double negative is used only judiciously and strategically. Also, multiple negation is perhaps not the best example of appropriation since the form is so widespread throughout the English-speaking world and even in the communities of kids at Harvard, and it has a complex and shifting history of prestigiousness.) More importantly, to my mind, the stakes of someone appropriating your language are quite different from those involved in gentrification, when you can no longer afford to live in your house or neighborhood.

    Your post gave me the impression that the main issue in both cases is one of not knowing and appreciating the history of what’s being appropriated. I agree with you that this lack of knowledge is problematic, but the main problems of gentrification are economic and material. As we know from metaphor theory, the danger of an analogy is that it highlights some aspects of the source and target domains while obscuring others. Using the analogy of gentrification to refer to the change in linguistic (symbolic) value that comes from individual linguistic appropriation helps to frame gentrification first, as a semiotic problem, and second, as something accomplished by individuals, rather than a structural phenomenon. The analogy obscures the larger political and economic forces behind gentrification, and that makes it harder to intervene in gentrification processes and contest them.




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