After my last post, some readers took immense issue with my use of the phrase, linguistic gentrification.

I pointed out that sometimes privileged, white people use phrases taken from the life ways of black and brown people without knowing the deeper story of that language.

So I made an analogy to “gentrification.”

I wanted to suggest that, just like neighborhoods, our words have had previous residents.

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 7.31.52 AMIronically, and perhaps too late, I realized the word “gentrification” itself has its own vivid history, of which I am only a partial witness. As the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (pictured) has stated, “We live in “a world of other’s words” (1984, 143).   And this certainly became clear when I used the term “gentrification.” Reader responses rolled in:

@grvsmth started an exchange on Twitter:

Sorry, @brymes, I find “gentrification” a really problematic term; applying it to language only muddies the waters

@nelsonlflores came to my defense with this mature formulation:

It seems very different to acknowledge its complexity than to completely dismiss as a viable concept.

But others held fast: @capntransit suggested we simply should not use the word “gentrification”:

The dehumanizing and scapegoating is so woven into the frame, I can’t see how you’d extricate it.

Any word I use, to quote Mikhail Bakhtin again, comes already “populated—overpopulated—with the intentions of others”(1981, 294). And, clearly, I had blithely used the word “gentrification,” not knowing the previous intentions of others using it. I hubristically thought I could, in a 500-word blog post, populate it with my own intentions: A useful analogy for a linguistic process. Not so?

In my own defense, these responses also illustrate the point I was trying to make: I was “gentrifying” the word “gentrification”—attempting to people it with my own intentions, the same way people take over neighborhoods with theirs.

But in that short exchange, we also began illustrating the positive potential in such a process by constructing a new social history for the word “gentrification.” And we began to use it as a way to think about language too.

As a character in Chang-Rae Lee’s novel, Native Speaker puts it (p.46):

No matter how smart you are, no one is smart enough to see the whole world. There’s always a picture too big to see

So what do we do? Do we just stop trying to see it? As Citizen Sociolinguists, we try to assemble a bigger picture than any one person can see by putting those different perspectives together. In the spirit of Citizen Sociolinguistics, to search for more of the “world of others’ words” behind “Gentrification,” I tried a Citizen “Corpus Analysis” by googling the phrase, “Why is Gentrification…” and waiting for the autofill to happen. Here’s what came up:

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 7.00.34 AM

According to the Google algorithm, it seems that, in agreement with the Twitter responses, gentrification is a word that people associate with being “bad”—but also “important.”

When I added the word “so,” only one Google search response came up:

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 7.00.56 AM

Again, like language, gentrification seems to take on a life of its own. No matter how much we say about it—whether it is good, bad, important or controversial, it is happening. And, like language change, it is hard to stop. We live in a world of others’ words, others’ intentions, and we navigate it. As citizens, and certainly as Citizen Sociolinguists, I urge readers to explore the range of perspectives on it—and that we do it together.

Have you ever had a moment when you realized you live in a “world of others’ words”? What words have you used that – perhaps too late—you have realized are “populated with the intentions of others”? How did you learn about those intentions? Please comment below!

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One thought on “A World of Others’ Words

  1. I very much agree with you and your assessment of the complexity and difficulty of navigating “others’ words” when trying to figure out parts of the world. For all that we academics joke about terminology creep, I think a lot of our terminological gymnastics are often earnest attempts at dealing with these once-again-very-well-described-by-Bakhtin issues.

    That reaction to your previous post was interesting. I only saw the reaction when I read this one, so I was struck by the way that the tweeters seemed to argue that the word gentrification was objectively (or at least unquestionably) unusable/unsalvageable. But what you and Bakhtin are pointing out here is that these things are never unquestionable–there’s always an “overpopulation” of meanings and intentions.

    Liked by 1 person

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