Teenage Talk: It Doesn’t Just Change Language, It Changes Our World

Citizen Sociolinguistics flourishes in those moments when language catches us by surprise and forces us to start talking about it.  Consider, for example, the way people alternately marvel or reel in horror at the language of teens. There’s something intriguing going on with teen language that sparks human curiosity. Parents and high-school teachers like to share their stories about the language of teens, and professional linguists like to study and explain it. Non-linguists may judge teen language as right, wrong, or just plain weird (“sick” is a word for something you like?).  Linguists tend to describe teen language as playing an important and complex role in language change over time (semantic reversal! Sick!). Now, I would like to consider how teen language changes more than just language, it changes world we live in.  To get a bigger picture of what teen language is good for we need to turn to a third view: that of teens themselves.  

Everyday Adult Perspectives on Teen Language

First, let’s consider how everyday adults talk about the language of teens:  Sometimes with wonder, but also with trepidation, even revulsion! 

Much of the language of teens seems to crop up out of thin air. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when we have all been at home working, studying, or goofing off together, we may be hearing and seeing more teen language.  This post on Twitter, for example, illustrates one working-from-home Mom’s experience with Teen language (or in this case, a 12-year-old):

First of all: Ew! Moving beyond that initial reaction, I showed this tweet to my 13-year-old daughter and she was very impressed! She was also slightly baffled: How did this kid come up with all these different expressions? My daughter and I shared a moment of wonderment (and horror) at this mini fart thesaurus.  Sometimes the language feats of teens carry an impressive ‘air’ of mystery and the unknown.   

More comprehensive catalogs of teen language or ‘what kids are saying these days’ often lead to this same kind of wonder and disgust.  Each semester, for example, my friend Mr. Z, a high-school teacher, has his Language Arts classes compile lists of their favorite “slang,” from which he creates a word cloud. Those words mentioned more often (like “bae” below) show up larger in the cloud, and those less-common words (“sick”) are tiny. 

These word clouds have become an impressive tradition over the years, and they’ve begun to function like semester-to-semester time capsules. Each year, the teacher and I, and the crops of new students in his classes, marvel at the old standbys and the new arrivals. These word clouds tend to impress everyone—including other teachers in the school. But as often as people are impressed with teen language, they are baffled, and even wary of it. Sometimes we don’t even understand what teens are saying (BAE? shawty? krunk?). When we do understand (or think we do), we might not know how to react, or how to talk about it (white girl wasted?).  Many adults tend to disengage when teens talk in strange ways. What are we supposed to say? Should we tell them not to use those words?  To speak with more maturity?  More formality? Some teachers would balk at compiling a word cloud like the one above—it seems too subversive for school. And in moments of frustration we might even think, what is wrong with teens?  15 fart expressions? Really? Why can’t kids just speak about important things and do so like adults??!!

Linguists’ Perspectives on Teen Language

Linguists, however, love to talk about teen language.  But, unlike many parents, teachers, or everyday language police, they don’t judge it or fear it, they describe it and provide the long view. Still, they often manage to take teens’ active engagement with words and the world out of the equation, describing youth language in general as an engine of language change, rather than exploring teenage talk as a dynamic part of their interactions with others.  

This article, posted on the website of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), for example, points out that, much as some adults would like to limit our language to one, correct, immutable, and testable form, the only thing constant about language (paradoxically) is change.  Many words and expressions we take for granted were once considered problematic youth language.  The article provides useful examples: “Bus” was once considered an unseemly shortening of “omnibus.” And, many phrases we now consider problematic in certain contexts –the inevitable “double negative,” for example—were once a staple of older forms of English. Linguists are very good at illustrating that language change happens and that it’s okay.  No need to worry about teen language—it’s natural. Teen language, like a slowly moving glacier, may be hard to navigate for us old folks, but just as that glacier carves out a beautiful and lush valley, teen language will slowly manipulate the word for us, over time shaping the very language we inhabit and enjoy. Trust the process.

Thoughtful people like teachers and parents who really don’t want to unnecessarily criticize teenagers, find these linguistically informed verdicts on teen language a relief.  After discussing controversial words that appear in the language cloud, for example, words that teens themselves have shared, Mr. Z and I want to have an adult message for students, but we don’t want to be preachy. It’s useful to be able to cite linguists who tell us there is something important and lasting going on (language change) when, for example, teens say “like” in every other sentence, seem to shorten perfectly good greetings to “yo,” “what’s good?” or “whaddup?”, or use LOL incessantly, LOLOLOLOLOLOL.  They are not being lazy or losing their mental acuity. The linguist says it’s fine. “LOL” in spoken discourse might one day be used by heads of state. Our language will never stop changing and that’s okay. 

I’ve always found these explanations useful and persuasive at first, but ultimately incomplete. Once we’ve been consoled by Linguists that teen language is simply contributing to the inevitable if glacially paced process of language change, the conversation usually stops. But when we discuss the role of teen language this way, we take the teens out of the world that stimulates and inspires them, and, out of a world that might also hold injustices and frustrations to which they are reacting, out of institutional norms that they might be resisting by using language in creative new ways.  Out of the realm of controversy. Instead of engaging with any of those possibilities, once we legitimize the way teens speak by naming its role in “language change,” we can go back to just waiting for teens to either talk like adults, or for teen language to be accepted sufficiently over the course of time so that adults use it too.  

By stepping beyond the “language change” explanation, I’m not trying to debunk anything linguists have learned and published about language change.  It’s real.  It’s interesting.  And it seems important to remind ourselves that language change is inevitable, and that we are all participating in it.  However, the focus on language change illuminates only a small corner of a much larger conversation that we can have around teen language.  Recognizing that language changes and teen language plays a role the process should be just the beginning of that conversation about language.  However, many times I’ve witnessed the “language change” explanation as the end point.  Science has spoken. The Glacier will move. Language will be fine. Conversation stops.  As an alternative, to keep the conversation going, and to capture the remaining 99.9% of what motivates teens when they communicate, I’m suggesting that when we talk with teens about their language, we include their perspectives as well. 

Teen Perspectives on Teen Language

Teens, perhaps more than any other age-group, are surrounded by new and varied language everyday – language of parents, friends, teachers, coaches, multiple and diverse social groups, and, now, the Internet! While many teens may try to act sage and bored, the world and the language that constructs it, is relatively new to them, and one of their main jobs as developing humans is to figure out how to make it work. This will lead to language change. But the language of teens will inevitably change not only language, but also the world. Teens grow up in a world of stimulating newness. Teens also have ideas and desires of their own.  Their job is to listen to and participate fully in that world of language. Some of the things they say will seem weird to adults. Sometimes the language they use will change the world.  

Consider, for example, the phrase, “people who menstruate.” Recently, this phrase was quoted with disdain by JK Rowling in a now infamous tweet: 

Following this tweet, the Internet broke out with horror at JK Rowling’s statement.  Many long-time JK fans officially pronounced their Harry Potter Fandom dead.  I was confused. As a cis-gendered woman, literally the same age as JK, I thought her comment only slightly funny—a dumb, slightly mean joke—but I didn’t see how it caused such a revolt against her.  Then I asked my daughter (13-years old and a big Harry Potter fan) what she thought.  “I can see why people are upset.  People are rightly calling her transphobic, mom,” my daughter said immediately, and then proceeded to explain to me that many “people who menstruate” might not label themselves “women.”  In that moment, we seemed to come face to face with generational differences in language use, specifically how we use language in gendered ways.  Who knows if this usage will lead to lasting language change.   But discussion of this phrase and how we describe gender categories, seems important.  As my daughter’s quick response to my confusion showed me, teens are participating in those discussions and they hold strong opinions.

I raise this example to illustrate the importance of conversations about language—and often, especially, the language of young people. Teens are not just talking about farts, sex, or getting stoned. But that’s part of the picture too, and to talk about the world-changing words, we need to be more open to talking about all language. What if, instead of chalking up the profusion of creative teen language exclusively to language change, we kept the discussion going? We could start talking with teens about the language they use, learning from them what those words are doing, asking teens questions about their language, rather than giving them explanations from linguistics:  How did you learn all those words I don’t know?  Where do you think they come from? Would you use those words with adults? If not, then with whom? Why? Why do you feel so strongly about using or not using certain words or turns of phrase? 

Over the years, I have learned that teens have strong opinions about language—and less strong feelings about whether they contribute to language change.  I’m suggesting we listen to those strong opinions. Once we assume teens participate actively in the world of language around them, we might also learn more about the world they live in, the way that they are processing it and in turn shaping it with their language. Then, we can start to think about how they might learn to navigate new and different ways of communicating they will encounter over their lifetime. The social world, inevitably, provides an abundance of opportunity, ridiculousness, oppression, joy, fear, despair, and hope for all of us. Our language is the primary way that we, over a lifetime, make sense of it, and sometimes rebel against it or create it anew, together.  Over time, language will indeed change.  In the meantime, let’s talk about it and make it work for us! 

What kinds of teen language exists in your life?  How do you make sense of it?  What have you learned from talking to teens about language? Maybe you are a teen? Please comment below.   

Tone Deaf

Screenshot 2019-08-08 09.28.20
Have you ever witnessed someone using language painfully out of tune with the present company? Examples I’ve encountered include

  • A college student, charging meals and shopping sprees to their parents’ credit card, complaining about how poorthey are in front of peers who struggle to pay tuition on their own
  • A museum docent welcoming a Korean-American visitor from Santa Barbara with the Mandarin Chinese greeting ni hao
  • A professor repeatedly referring to the women in his graduate seminar as girls

Every day, people use language in ways like this, slightly out of tune with the immediate
situation, ways we might describe as tone-deaf. Considered more literally, a tone-deaf musician cannot hear what their instrument sounds like relative to the pitch of others. A tone-deaf singer can sing loudly and clearly—while completely unaware of the cacophony their voice causes when surrounded by a chorus of voices singing in a different key. This can lead to some pretty painful listening.  In conversations, metaphorical tone-deafness can also lead to painful situations.  Often and understandably, the person most directly affected by tone-deaf turns of phrase may not feel they can speak up. Or, that if they do, the tone-deaf person may become defensive and the conversation will go nowhere. Tone deafness is an unfortunate state, but one with a remedy: More talk about language, that is, citizen sociolinguistics.

Almost nobody purposefully intends to be communicatively tone-deaf.  For this reason I prefer the formulation tone-deaf to the term micro-aggression which might also be used to describe the example scenarios above.  The term micro-aggression suggests these instances of tone-deaf language use originate from a malicious individual, intentionally using language aggressively to demean another person.  In contrast,  the term tone-deaf refers to a societally-induced state, one fostered by poor language education—even among our most privileged classes.  Advice to combat micro-agressions usually involves highlighting words or speech events to avoid:  Don’t use the n-word.  Don’t ask Asian-Americans where they are from.  Things to NOT say.  Unfortunately, this kind of advice can lead to accusations of “political correctness,” or to people simply clamming up in the face of the unfamiliar.  Instead of leading to further conversation about assumptions behind our language choices, conflicts around language across diverse groups continue to seethe beneath the surface.

Citizen sociolinguistic inquiry provides an alternative to these prescriptions for sensitive language use: More discussion about language and more consideration of different perspectives. We do not need a prefabricated list of words to use and not use, but an increased level of language awareness, and the skills to inquire about words and their uses and meanings across contexts.  Situations of tone-deafness arise every day, but they can be curtailed by improving language education, by specifically teaching our children how to tune in to the everyday workings of language in context.

Being tone deaf, speaking without regard for the other perspectives in a community, can be the result of any overly standardized language education, in which expertise is seen only to be lodged in the voice of the teacher or the text of a grammar book.  Even professors with PhDs, working at prestigious universities, might appear tone-deaf until less powerful individuals have the courage to call them out.  While a tone-deaf person may have excellent language skills according to one context and set of criteria, they have an underdeveloped ability to assess the context in which they are speaking, and the way others might receive their words. An education that enables such tone-deafness is an undereducation, because it never builds the expertise necessary to engage in the cycle of dynamic language awareness:  In many language arts classrooms, students have never been pushed to engage in citizen sociolinguistic inquiry.

A tone-deaf use of language, if unchecked, can have the opposite effect of citizen sociolingistic discussion.  Instead of fomenting conversations about language, it can silence less powerful voices.  Unless someone speaks back—for example, by calling someone out on the type of language they use—that tone-deaf perspective becomes the only one people hear. Nobody learns from alternatives. People who are literally tone-deaf may be discouraged from ever pursuing music.  They just won’t be able to participate.  The equivalent action for the conversationally tone-deaf  would restrict those who are tone-deaf to their own neighborhood of language use, be it an Ivory Tower, fraternity or sorority, family or clique, or other any other walled-off language community that “understands” them.

Fortunately, however, being metaphorically “tone deaf” is something we can work to avoid by having conversations about language and including language awareness and inquiry as part of any language arts education: Let’s investigate who uses the word girl in different ways and why, explore uses of ni hao and all the ways Asian Americans experience that greeting, discuss how people relate to the word poor and the implications.  We can also develop inquiry skills to investigate more obviously controversial words like the n-word, fag, or the use of gender-neutral pronouns.   Any tone-deaf encounter provides us impetus for a discussion about language and how it affects all of us.  Each conversation about language can illuminate the ways we have all  been socialized into different understandings of how certain words work.

When we talk about language, we develop an inquiry skill that all humans need — the ability to listen to others and to engage with different perspectives. The more we talk about language, the more deeply we understand how and why some language may be hurtful, and how some can be powerful; how words like girl or ni hao may be offensive to some or how people experience words like poor differently.  But more generally, we develop ongoing habits of awareness of context and the way language works within it.  This is the goal of citizen sociolinguistics.

Have you experienced tone-deaf uses of language? Have you developed ways to avoid them or combat them?  Please talk about your experiences in the comment section below!

 

 

 

Talking Music and Singing Language: More is More

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 9.23.40 AMJane Frazee (a renowned music educator who also is my stepmother) has spent most of her life teaching and writing about music and music teachers (see her latest here).  She constantly thinks about questions of music and children.  And when I talk to her about Citizen Sociolinguistics, she keeps thinking about music and children. I’ll tell her about the “Accent Challenge” or “Language Pies” or high school students’ fascination for “slang,” and she says, “that’s a lot like what we are trying to do with music!”

What’s the connection?

One of the questions Jane has been thinking about has to do with music Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 9.29.08 AMnotation.  Why do we teach children to read music notes when their natural sense of rhythm and melody is always initially much more sophisticated than anything they can read on paper? Children who are jump-roping, hand-clapping, rapping, singing, patty-caking, Miss Mary Mack Mack Macking during recess, are looking at quarter notes and eighth notes in the music classroom and saying, in unison, “Ta Ta Tee Tee Ta.” Most children love music!  But Music Class can seem disconnected from other experiences kids have making music. And as kids get older, into their teens, they want to be playing their own instruments, in bands with friends, or socializing around music in other ways that don’t seem to connect to more formal music instruction.

So, why are we teaching “Music” when they already know it?

And, here’s the connection to Citizen Sociolinguistics: Why do we teach children—and young adults—“Language Arts” as if they don’t already know how to use language?

How can music and language teachers capture the knowledge and joy their students have for music and language without stifling it?

Many kids in music class –at least in the Ta Ta Tee Tee Ta style music class— have no idea they could make connections to what they may have been doing five minutes ago, singing with friends, before they walked into class.  In part, this is because the sophisticated musical things that kids do together without any teacher around –the moves they easily make rhythmically and melodically as they syncopate hand claps, lyrics, or jump-rope steps–take a long long time to learn formally and to put on paper.  Jane’s work explores how to give children the tools, gradually,  to represent and build on those rhythmic and melodic inclinations in notes, on a score.

From a Citizen Sociolinguistics perspective we can do something similar.  We’ve got the tools to explore what students know about language.  But students need permission to “count” what they are already doing as important knowledge about how language works.   When we talk about language from a Citizen Sociolinguistics perspective in English class, students reveal things that have never come up before:  “My mom sounds so formal whenever she is on the phone!”  “My mom uses a Chinese accent when ordering dim sum in English.” (Moms come up a lot.) “My teachers have no idea how emojis work!” “What would you call the store Five Below in Spanish? Cinco Abajo or still just Five Below?” “What are “salty looks”?”  Like kids playing with music and rhythm on the playground, these kids continually play with language, exploring different accents, languages, meanings, phrases, and creating new words and ways of speaking daily.

But if kids already know and love music, know and love language, what are teachers supposed to do?  Should we just give up and let them do their thing?  Is there no point to teaching music and language arts?    As music teachers and music lovers, as language teachers and language fanatics, music speakers and language singers, lifelong students and teachers, Jane and I would agree: No! We don’t stop teaching, but we don’t discount the richest foundation for what we teach: the music and language kids already make everyday.

We build connections:  That music you love on the playground? That counts as music in class too! That language you’ve noticed in that rap song that sounds amazingly cool? That counts as “Language Arts”!  Now let’s start thinking about how those daily discoveries you make about language relate to music notation, to English literature.  In music, this is called “improvisation” “song-writing,” or “composition.”  In English, “creative writing” or –hey- “composition.”   These are the most sophisticated skills musicians and language users can get –and teachers  can help them get there.

For me, Citizen Sociolinguistics provides a framework to gather everyday language knowledge and legitimize its role in the language arts classroom so that students’ language awareness and creativity grows.  For Jane, her half-century of experience with music teaching and teachers has given her a massive repertoire of music projects that build on students’ knowledge of music and connect it to the techniques of improvisation and composition.

Sure, there are musicians out there who never took music class, who never learned to read notes.  There are brilliant story-tellers who never wrote down a word of their stories.  As Jane and I agreed yesterday, “More is more–Not either/or”  (and hey! that makes a nice poem, or song!). So lets develop ways to make the connections that make the most of language and music in and out of class.

How do you make connections from language to language arts?  From music to music lessons?  From music to language and back? What do you think music notation and the written word have done to build language and music awareness? What are some of the ways we can concretely build these connections—in classrooms and out?  Please comment below!

Language Diversity Pies

whomCBSWhat if you had to fill in a pie chart with different slices representing all the ways you speak? How many different slices would there be? Or, would you have just one whole pie called “Perfect English”? Would that be ideal?

Some news media, of late, suggest that the “Perfect English Pie” should be the goal. In this editorial today on CBS Morning, Faith Salie bemoaned the fact that many people do not follow her rules for proper “whom” usage.

Salie implies there should be only one uniform type of slice in our language pie, the one in which we are “speaking well.” This is especially true in “America,” Salie says, because according to her, most Americans only speak English:

Very few Americans, myself included, speak more than one language fluently. So, the least we can do is try and honor English by speaking it well.

Besides, she added, using “whom,” just makes you feel more special:

It’s like putting lipstick on your sentence.

The two comments posted, which don’t seem to even hint at irony, endorse Salie’s perspective:

VEGANSAM THANK YOU!

Cfc EditorTerrific vid. It’s nice to know that someone still cares.

Two days earlier, a Saturday New York Times front page story voiced another view on cleaning up language—not “who” and “whom,” but a certain way of saying “Wiscahnsin.” The headline reads:

 For 2016 run, Scott Walker washes “Wiscahnsin” out of his mouth

In this video, and the accompanying article, the author points out that Mr. Walker, now that he is running for national office, has changed how he speaks:

[Scott Walker] has left “Wiscahnsin” back home in Wisconsin. He now wants to strengthen the economy, not the “ecahnahmy.”

At the end of the essay, Jennifer Horn, Chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party remarks:

I didn’t hear it [the Wisconsin honk]. Good for him, good for him.

Both Ms. Horn and Ms. Salie voice the view that we need to avoid certain ways of speaking and use those that are proper or less local seeming. Ms. Horn admires Walker’s new Wiscahnson-free diction, suggesting this makes him more palatable as a candidate. And, Ms. Sadie tells us we need to be especially protective of English, since it is the only language most Americans speak.

But, how do “Americans” really use language? Walker may be ditching his Wisconsin “honk,” but he is not replacing it with a sublime original super-perfect “American” speech. Instead, the article suggests, he is picking and choosing different types of language, adding variety to his language pie. When addressing Republicans in South Carolina Mr. Walker told them, in a characteristically un-Wisconsin-like way, that he enjoyed “talkin’ with y’all.”

To connect with people, even as a Republican in the United States, only speaking English, Mr. Walker’s Language Pie must contain some variety. He might be using “y’all,” in South Carolina, but he probably doesn’t in New Hampshire. And he may still talk about the “ecahnomy” when he is back at the family dinner table in “Wiscahnsin.”

But let’s suppose people are not running for office. Do people in the United States still need several different slices in their Language Diversity Pie? Or should they just focus on “speaking well” as Faith Salie suggests?

Last week, exploring this angle with 11th graders and their teachers, we had them create their own language pie charts. In just a few minutes, many divided their pie up into seven or more sections, including different language for the following slices of social life:

  • Friends
  • Close friends
  • Adults
  • Parents
  • Parents’ friends
  • Home
  • Texting
  • Babysitting
  • With siblings
  • With brothers
  • With animals
  • At work
  • At school
  • With teachers
  • With sports coaches
  • Just Dad
  • Just Mom
  • Nice friends
  • Vulgar friends
  • Girlfriend
  • Professional situation
  • Writing papers for school
  • Writing sentimental texts
  • When complaining
  • When angry or snarky
  • When giddy or happy
  • When tired or depressed

Most students specified slices for “friends,” “adults,” “home,” and “school,” adding varying degrees of nuance. “With animals” was a pie slice only one student came up with at first—but after being reminded of special animal pet voices, many classmates agreed they would add this slice to their pie too. (I doubt they use “whom” with their pets.) Momentary moods were crucial to a few students—clearly different ways of speaking come out when tired or depressed, angry, or giddy.

Nobody spontaneously mentioned anything about languages other than English. But, when I asked about multiple languages in their lives, several students had more slices to add to their Language Diversity Pie:

  • Mandarin with Mom (not Dad)
  • Danish with Mom (not Dad)
  • “Asian”-accented English with Mom, or when ordering Dim Sum in Chinatown
  • Persian with parents
  • Mix of Persian and English in general when at home

A ten-minute discussion revealed a profusion of ways of speaking, languages and “accents” that fit into any one individual’s pie.

These teens easily recognize the distinctive relevance of all the slices of their pie at different moments, or with different people, or to convey different moods. Even these young 16-year-olds, in Honors English, most of whom have spent their entire lives in one suburban community, have wide-ranging communicative repertoires, and can recognize their distinctive utility.

I hope these wise 11th graders can also address those media voices, like Faith Salie, that suggest our language goals should lean toward less language diversity in our pies. Today’s teens will need to use different kinds of language to do many things: babysit, snuggle with their cat, comfort a friend, write poetry, mediate neighborhood conflict, apply for college, be President…

One unitary language pie called “Perfect English” could never do all that.

What slices make up your Language Diversity Pie?

Word Wars: Shakespeare, Hip Hop, and the Common Core

Aesop RockEvery Wednesday morning, I visit a class of very smart, insightful, and surprisingly alert (considering class starts at 7:30 am) 11th graders during their English class. This week, they were finishing up their analyses of Hamlet soliloquies, and I took this opportunity to ask a few lingering questions about Shakespeare and Hip Hop (see previous post). What are some reasonable points of comparison?

Almost immediately, vocabulary began to emerge as the common ground.

One music fan pointed out that, like Shakespeare, the Hip Hop artist Aesop Rock commands a gigantic vocabulary, a fact documented last spring when this Shakespeare/Hip Hop infographic came out in an article by Matt Daniels (“designer, coder, and data scientist”) entitled, “The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop.” Daniels conveniently located Shakespeare’s relative spot in the lineup:

rapvocabinfographic

All the way to the right, sits Aesop Rock. And just to the left of him, members of Wu-Tang Clan and the Roots. These guys far surpass Shakespeare, and fans know it. Daniels writes that he originally excluded Aesop Rock (he seemed too obscure), but Reddit Hip Hop fans were insistent he be included. They knew he would shine in this comparison. So, Daniels ran the numbers and found they were right.

Voluminous Internet feedback followed the posting of Daniels’ article. As soon as Daniels’ chart came out, people began using it as a way to compare the quality of Hip Hop artists. Commenters suggested that it would follow that since Drake and JayZ are far to the left, they are obviously inferior artists to Aesop Rock or Wu-Tang. True?

Not really. Daniels quickly argued against this interpretation. First, he pointed out, vocabulary and verbal artistry are not the same. In a follow-up article, Daniels drew on a response to his first version, by Robert Gonzalez, to support his point of view. Gonzalez wrote that “On The Black Album track ‘Moment of Clarity,’ Jay-Z contrasts his lyricism with that of Common and Talib Kweli (both of whom “rank” higher than him, when it comes to the diversity of their vocabulary).” Then, Gonzalez cited these lines from Jay-Z:

Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense

But I did 5 mil – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since

Jay-Z is claiming to step down in terms of lyricism and vocabulary, gloating over his millions, but relinquishing any real claims to artistry to the hip hop artist Common. But is he really letting go of those claims to verbal art? He cleverly plays with the name “Common” and the phrase “Common sense” and in the process he implies that, in addition to doing “5 mil,” he still has some verbal skills. This suggests there is more to Hip Hop artistry than simply knowing a lot of words.

Other responses to Daniels’ Hip Hop vocabulary post point out that an artist’s “vocabulary” includes expressive devices that extend beyond words. Nathan, on Pigeons and Planes, brings this point home, when he writes:

In hip hop, and music in general, words aren’t the only thing that makes up an artist’s vocabulary.

As I followed this chain of remarks about vocabulary and Hip Hop, from the 11th grader’s comment on Aesop Rock, to the Internet posting, to the comments on that, I noticed the marked insistence that vocabulary, alone, can’t account for someone’s artistry or the extent of their communicative resources.

Delving into language artistry—be it Hip Hop or Shakespeare or Rush (another musical group the 11th graders invoked)—seems to be a much more complicated matter than counting words. For any director adapting Shakespeare to a new stage or in a new context, choosing costumes, deciding on the pacing, delivery, voice, pitch, tone, accent, and gestures, all enter into decisions for how to make a play that communicates with its audience. These decisions seem to align with those of Hip Hop artists like Jay-Z, similarly making “Common” sense decisions about how to reach their listeners.

Recent debates about the Common Core State Standards and their requirements for “vocabulary acquisition and use” traverse the same theme. Some have been worried that the common core designates specific vocabulary to be learned, ranging from outrage that the common core designates left-wing vocabulary or overly specified “academic” vocabulary or even the teaching of “Islamic” vocabulary.

Upon closer (any) examination, the Common Core encourages reflection on vocabulary and nuances of meaning precisely along the lines of the Internet exchanges surrounding the use of Hip Hop vocabulary and its relative worth. For grades 11 and 12, standards for “vocabulary acquisition and use” include the following:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.11-12.5
Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.11-12.5.A
Interpret figures of speech (e.g., hyperbole, paradox) in context and analyze their role in the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.11-12.5.B
Analyze nuances in the meaning of words with similar denotations.

These standards do not focus on accumulating huge quantities of vocabulary words in isolation or determining the specific words that should be learned. Instead, these standards direct teachers and students to relish the “nuances” of word meanings, to understand that nuance “in context” and to make fine distinctions between words of similar meanings. Addressing these standards might even bridge the sophisticated types of debate that surround postings about Hip Hop and other music lyrics, and the kind of talk English teachers hope to encourage around literature like Shakespeare.

What do you view as a sophisticated use of vocabulary? How do you define “vocabulary”? Is it only words? How do you judge the relative merit of different verbal artistry? Please comment!

Shakespeare or Hip Hop?

wutang  Shakespeare

Last week in an 11th Grade English class, the English teacher and I started a discussion of language in Hamlet by presenting this poetic musing from D.H. Lawrence:

When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder

That such trivial people should muse and thunder

In such lovely language.     

Then we asked students about their experiences reading Shakespeare’s language so far. They shared frustrations (Too repetitive! Confusing word order!) and doubts (No way could one man have written so much!). Nobody fully embraced the idea that Shakespeare was a creative genius.

Nor did anyone take issue with Lawrence’s glib use of the phrase “trivial people” or the condescending tone he took toward them. Why shouldn’t everyone muse and thunder in lovely language?

Then, we trotted out this Shakespeare versus Hip Hop quiz (one I also shared with my Facebook friends, thus the 79 responses).

The questions and answers (quiz adapted from Ammon Shea’s book Bad English (2014)):

Quote Answer % Correct (n=79)
1.   The music, ho! 1.     Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra 78%
2.   But if you don’t, I’ll unsheathe my Excalibur, like a noble knight 2.     Gangstarr, “Step in the Arena” 66%
3.   Holla, holla! 3.     Shakespeare, King Lear 62%
4.   This is the proper way man should use ink. 4.     Big Daddy Kane, “Taste of Chocolate” 45%
5.   Welcome, ass, Now let’s have a catch. 5.     Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 68%
6.   The money that you owe me for the chain. 6.     Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors 48%
7.   Pay me back when you shake it again. 7.     Nas, “You Own Me” 67%
8.   Holla, ho! Curtis! 8.     Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew 60%
9.   Sabotaged, shellshocked, rocked and ruled, Day in the life of a fool. 9.     Public Enemy, “Brothers Gonna Work it Out” 70%
10.          Every square inch of it, that he chose for himself, is the best part. 10. Wu-Tang Clan, “Wu-Revolution.” 37%
AVERAGE PERCENTAGE CORRECT:       60%

People seem to get the right answer an average of about 60% of the time. Just barely a collective D-.

As some astute 11th graders pointed out, they were able to choose the “right” answers by second-guessing the test, not by deciding whether the language represented the “essence” of Hip Hop or Shakespeare.

Number 1 (78% correct!), for example, seemed to point to Shakespeare only because it sounds obviously like Hip Hop. Typical test-designers, students speculated, would include “ho” just to trick people.

Number 9 (70% correct) includes the word “shellshocked,” which another student pointed to as a giveaway, since that word didn’t exist until after the First World War. Shakespeare didn’t have any shells of that kind!

So, unless you know the exact lyric or play, or recognize testing tricks or oversights, the average person seems to have about a 50/50 chance of correctly guessing whether these quotes come from “Shakespeare” or “Hip Hop.” What does this tell us? Perhaps Shakespeare’s forte was not in his isolated mastery of “The English Language.” Instead, he may have been capturing exactly what “trivial people” said. Their wondrous language (including “ho” and “holla holla”), gleaned from Shakespeare’s active life in the pubs (so we’ve heard), may be precisely what Shakespeare wrote down.

What does that tell us about literary language? About Hip Hop? About our collective language resources? Do you know some “trivial people” that “muse and thunder” in lovely language? How do today’s artists—musicians, screen-writers, poets, playwrights—take up the talk of everyday people and use it for effect?   Please comment!

How Citizen Sociolinguists Work: Pow!

Today I spent the morning at a local high school in conversations with teens—participants in a collaborative research project I am working on with Mr. Z, a uniquely mellow and gifted High School English Teacher. For now, Mr. Z and I are tapping into the linguistic and Internet knowhow of his 11th grade students, our crack team of Citizen Sociolinguists. As is typical, after only 10 minutes of talking they had taught me—and each other—a few new words and a few new ways of exploring language.

Let me give you a taste of our method–and share with you our discovery of the word weg. We were all just back from Winter break, having made many new language discoveries during our travels or while hosting holiday visitors. Most of us hadn’t traveled much farther than various remote corners of Philadelphia. Jack, however, had ventured south to visit family in Virginia Beach, where he noticed another 16-year-old using a word, which for now we will call “pow.” Jack couldn’t remember the actual word, but he was using “pow” as a placeholder.

What? How could he remember the word, but not what the actual word was? He remembered what it did—which was just about everything. As Jack explained, someone who is really amazing can be “pow” or something really bad can be “pow.” You can say things like, “Those shoes, man. Pow.” This could mean that your shoes are very cool. Or horrible.

By now, the other boys listening were getting really distracted by the word “pow.” One of them kept making a slow motion punching gesture. Another kept saying “pow?” quizzically.

Jack insisted the word was not “pow.” He was just using “pow” until he could remember the actual word.

Jack promised he would find it, and began searching through his phone. After a minute or less, he came up with the word: “weg”!

How did he do that? The others were quick to point out that “weg” sounds nothing like “pow.” How do you find a word you do not remember and that means both “awesome” and “lame”? How do you look that up?

You can’t look in a dictionary: What would you look up? “Pow”?

You can’t do a Google search, though I suppose you could try asking a question like:  “What word would a teenager in Virginia Beach use to say something is either great or awful?”

You can’t ask the Professor sitting there. She has no idea—and the above Google search did not work.

So, how did Jack find the word “weg”?

He used one of the crucial tools of the Citizen Sociolinguist: Social media! He looked up his Virginia Beach friend’s Instagram and scanned the comments. Weg!

Do you have other ideas about what “weg” means? What methods do you use to look up words you don’t know the spelling of, or even what they sound like, and only (sort of) how they function? Post your comments here!