New Uses for Old (Linguistic) Tools

rakefornecklacesDIYGoogle “Old Tools, New Users” and you will find a host of innovative ideas for how to recycle old rakes, hammers, screwdrivers, clamps and even the toolboxes that once held some of those things you no longer use. These sites offer new life for our favorite old (but now unused) implements by giving them updated roles in our updated lives. I don’t need this old (but cool-looking) rake but I do need someplace to hang my scarves and necklaces. Voilà! Problem solved. I don’t need these extra hammers, but they could do a great job holding up my i-Pad.ipadDIY

Just like old rakes, hammers, and pitchforks, old linguistic tools have been repurposed by DIY adventurers, and their new uses have multiplied on the web. For example, a dialect survey created in 1930’s by the linguist Hans Kurath has become widely known via internet-mediated social circles. This survey includes two parts: a list of words to read aloud, to illustrate how you say them (including Water, Crayon, Caramel, Syrup, Pecan & New Orleans), and a list of prompts to elicit what locals call certain items (For example, “How do you address a group of people?”). The original purpose of this survey was to gather data that could be used to construct Regional Linguistic Atlases. And Kurath created several of these, in multiple volumes, using his survey and careful statistical mapping to characterize local dialects of the United States.

Just over a year ago, a version of Kurath’s survey reappeared as a modified and internet-ready “Dialect quiz” in the New York Times, How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk.

Rather than using this quiz to create regional dialect maps, the NYTimes quiz offered to indicate “where you’re from.” Many people I know took the New York Times quiz at least one time, and declared astonishment as to its accuracy. But others also took it several times, playing the part of people from places they had lived at some point in their life. Others laughed at its extreme inaccuracy–like an Australian friend who was identified as from Yonkers. People were using the tool and relishing it, but instead of using it to pinpoint regional variety, the new use seemed to foment talk about mobility. Discussions like, “When I lived in Atlanta… but in Chicago…”

Another re-tooled version of Kurath’s dialect survey surfaced before the NYT “Dialect Quiz,” and circulated through Tumblr and YouTube as the “Accent Challenge” or “Accent Tag.” There are now thousands of Accent Challenge videos posted on YouTube. These performances illuminate features of English in today’s world that could never have been predicted by Kurath as he and his research assistants traversed the States with their trusty notebooks and gigantic recording devices.

English that Includes Korean: One accent challenger, featuring what she calls a “Konglish” approach, reads through word list and prompts twice: Once, as she would say things when she is with her Korean friends and again, as she would talk with her American friends (see previous Post).

English Around the World: The accent challenge videos go far beyond Kurath’s boundaries of the United States, including Jamaica, Australia, New Zealand, and dozens of finely divided regions of Ireland, Scotland, and England.

English and Exchange Students: Some accent challengers have even used the survey as a way to compare the different varieties of foreign accented English—and comparisons of the differences between Swiss, German, and Italian speakers.

Stories of Language Use: Almost all accent challengers take their time with the survey, prefacing the reading of the list with long stories of how they grew up speaking certain ways and with whom, and interrupting their survey with asides that add to their story.

All of these Accent Challengers (and there are many more varieties) display an awareness of their own and others’ speech that Kurath could never have fathomed or welcomed, as he set out to document the unmonitored, regional speech of rural folk.

Now, working with teens in high school English classes, I’ve had them develop their own New and Improved Accent Challenge, to explore language around them. They’ve devised new word lists and prompts that depart from the standardized goals of Kurath, to ask peers, parents and locals about more contemporary local language distinctions. Instead of asking “What do you call a small bug that rolls into a ball when touched?” for example, they’ll ask “What do you call the dairy dessert that comes from a machine?” since the distinction between those who say “soft serve” and “custard” appeals more to them (as citizen researchers) than the name of a roly-poly.

Most old tools probably did their job well. Rustically beautiful rakes and hammers remind us of simpler times, while lending a hand in our modern homes. The new role of linguistic tools can also bring to mind a simpler communicative time and simultaneously illuminate some features of our updated communicative world. Repurposed and in the hands of citizen sociolinguists, Kurath’s old survey does not lead to several more pounds-worth of bound volumes of linguistic detail, but instead, it builds awareness and sparks dialog about complex forms of linguistic diversity. The conversations brought on by oldtoolboxthese repurposed linguistic tools go beyond “roly-poly” or “custard” and “soft-serve,” building awareness of linguistic difference, how quickly it changes, how it separates us, or can draw us together.

Have you made new discoveries by using old linguistic tools like the “Dialect Quiz” or the “Accent Challenge”? What other old linguistic tools are you aware of that might take on new uses today?

 

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Beoseu or Bus? How do you say it?

KoreanBusWhat’s bigger than a Croissant? A Beoseu!

Before I get on that bus (Beoseu), a brief croissant recap: The last post on “Croissant” generated a lot of commentary—including some new ideas about the reasons for the spread of the Frenchish KwuSAHN pronunciation among the moms of my friends and students. One croissant lover on Facebook posted:

I wonder if Julia Child was an influence?

Certainly Julia Child’s presence in the homes of millions must have had an influence on the spread of “kwuh sahn” as the go-to pronunciation for so many moms of my friends. They may be speaking “Julia Child” as much as they are speaking “French.”

Others, like this Reddit comment from alaricus, pulled us back to The French Language:

I’m a Canadian, and so a little biased, but I happen to think that the relationship between French and English is close enough that most French loan words should be pronounced in the French way.

And some others suggested regional difference:

inigo_montoya cruhSAHNT – from US northeast and Midwest

EDFTON Kwason – London

Another Canadian—reporting from Twitter—asked his mom about “croissant,” and she delicately raised the issue of social class:

You mean that bun thing rich people eat?

Other Facebook friends also hinted at the class-connotations of kwu SAHN and kruh SANT, bringing Pillsbury into the picture:

How about crescent rolls?

Still others mentioned, it really depends on the situation:

I use both! When I’m at Miel Patisserie, I’ll say kwu SAHN, but probably not at Trader Joes. Trader Joes is strictly a kruh SANT place.

A couple International graduate students mentioned that they have had odd experiences when they used what they thought was the authentic French pronunciation. For example,

When ordering a ‘Western kwu SAHN’ it was clear the waiter had no idea what I was saying. I immediately switched to ‘Western kruh SANT and everything cleared up

Overall, I noticed two emerging trends:

  1. Everyone is familiar with multiple pronunciations (though they may not use them all); and
  2. Many people express awareness of the varying social value of those different croissant pronunciations.

So, we are flexible users of a range of Croissant usages. Why should we care?

Because this type language awareness is much bigger than Croissant. We are talking about new ways of making meaning and using words—not capital L languages, proper pronunciations, or even simple “word borrowing.”

Croissant-like pronunciation issues surround us. Some of them seem obvious. Most of us would never say the Frenchish kwu-SAHN at Trader Joes, when asking for a cheap, yet buttery, 3-pack. But, other words with croissant-like pronunciation issues may skirt our awareness.

To illustrate, lets move on to bigger things. Like the word bus. Not controversial, right? But what if you are in Korea? Like Croissant, Bus is considered a “loanword” in Korean. So, if you like GRE analogies, Croissant is to the United States as Bus is to Korea:

Croissant:United States::Bus: Korea

But if you say “Bus” in Korea, you might say it more like this:

버스 or “beoseu”

Of course, American travelers sometimes miss this nuance. As a transnational US/Korean graduate student told me yesterday:

Many Americans in Korea see that “Bus” is an “English” word and use American pronunciation. Most people in Korea wouldn’t understand them.

So, to use the word “bus” effectively in Korea, it seems you must pronounce this word as “beoseu.” Let’s revisit that analogy! Now, KruhSANT is to kwu SAHN as beoseu is to bus.

Kruh SANT: kwu SAHN::Beoseu:Bus

Even if you are an amazing English speaker who knows Korean, to be a competent communicator, you need to use the beoseu pronunciation. So I had to ask the student, as a Fluent speaker of English and Korean, as someone born in the U.S., but whose childhood was split between the United States and Korea, how do you say “bus” in Korea?

I say Beoseu—even when speaking English. If I said “bus,” people would probably think I was showing off or being pretentious.

Sound familiar? In the United States, Croissant becomes KruhSANT (not pretentious), In Korea, Bus becomes Beoseu (not pretentious). Why, you might ask, is this not simple “borrowing” of a “loan word”?

As these examples, show, and I hope to see more, when we say a word a particular way, we enact a unique identity, imply a social background, or attempt to spark a certain type of relationship with the person we are talking to. Thank goodness there are different ways to say “croissant”! This means there are more possibilities for expression:

What if one wanted to get silly with the ironic Trader Joe’s types? Use “Kwuh-Sahn”:

Do you have any more kwu-SAHN 3-packs?

Or, what if someone wanted to enact an ironically cosmopolitan Korean? Maybe they could use “Bus”:

Where does this train/bus go? 

i bus-neun eodi-ro gamnikka?

We are not simply “borrowing” words from another language and struggling to pronounce them in some original or authentic way. Each new word expands our repertoire—the fact that it is layered with a history in another country, place, or social milieu adds to the possibilities for both communicative brilliance and breakdown. Life remains interesting.

Are you a speaker of multiple languages? A master of mixture? Please comment or add your examples below!

 

Freedom of Speech: What you say and How you say it

Freedom of speech has been in the news quite a bit lately. In the context of the recent Charlie Hebdo attack in France, such freedom relates primarily to the content of the message. Freedom to say what you want to say—about religious figures, politicians, the State, demographic groups…

But does this sentiment also apply to How people speak? Which language they are using? How they use that language? If they choose to say “ain’t” or “y’all,” or varieties like “Konglish” (see previous post on The Konglish Accent Tag)?

Figuring this out is an important task for the Citizen Sociolinguist. So, to explore, I sourced my Twitter friends:

 Is “Freedom of Speech” only about WHAT we say? or does it include HOW we say it?

A super-smart, zesty response came back from @nelsonlflores:

 @brymes Language policing should be reframed as an assault on freedom of speech!

What does this mean? What are examples of Language Policing as an assault on Freedom of Speech?

Here are some types of open, unconstrained, language policing mentioned by twitter friends or in stories told to me over the years:

Policing Language Code, as in, “English Only”:

  • Saying “Speak English!” to someone speaking another language when, for example, riding on public transportation.
  • Calling out to school-children speaking Spanish in the halls between classes: “Hey—English here!”

 

Policing Language Expertise, as in, “That isn’t even English”- or – “That is not Standard English”:

  • Describing “double-negatives” as “illogical” and thus “ignorant.” (Ain’t nobody got time for that!)
  • “Correcting” grammar in a way that impedes communication: Useful example provided from @joannaluz:

@nelsonlflores @brymes unlikely source: an ep of Masters of Sex depicts housewife correcting nanny–“ask” vs “aks”–as deeply violating — later the nanny deliberately uses “aks” in moment of defiance

Policing Language Boundaries, implying, “That is not Appropriate,” often done by authority figures:

  • Ignoring requests from someone younger until they follow with “sir” or “ma’am”
  • Ignoring what someone says, appearing not to understand, repeatedly saying “what?” when they sound “non-native” or simply different

 

These examples are about immediate acts of face-to-face language policing—hurtful to an individual, but momentary. However, the consequences of these acts of language policing, gradually, may significantly chip away at Freedom of Speech.

What? How? How do perhaps repeated slaps on our communicative freedoms like “speak English!”, “That’s not proper!”, or even simply passively waiting for an address term like “sir” or “ma’am” affect more substantive issues of Freedom of Speech?

This is how: The more we police how we say things, the more we circumscribe what gets said.

When we are worried about how someone is mixing English and Korean and Spanish, or sounding “ignorant” or “uneducated” or “disrespectful” in their diction, we might be missing out on what these people—who speak in a different way—have to say. I suspect we may also be missing out on an unfamiliar point of view.

The how and the what of Freedom of Speech are inseparable.

What do you think counts as Freedom of Speech? Is this freedom only about content? Is it also about how we say things? Have you experienced Language Policing that threatened your own freedom of speech? Leave your comments here!

The Konglish Accent Tag as Citizen Sociolinguistics

In my last entry, I made the assertion that, given the opportunity, people speak up about what they know about the language they use. And now, thanks to the Internet, we can bear witness to that speaking up—and learn something important about language from these Citizen Sociolinguists.

Take Kelly and her YouTube performance of her own “English” and “Konglish” ways of speaking. Here she performs the Accent Tag inventory—a list of words to pronounce (caramel, aluminum, mayonnaise…) and lexical prompts (“How do you address a group of people?”) that was developed by Serious Dialectologists decades ago, but has since been taken over by Internet People. Please take a look by clicking on this link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWOVL2bUKMI

While the list of words and lexical prompts could take about 60 seconds to recite, Kelly’s video lasts longer than eight minutes because, as a Citizen Sociolinguist, she takes time to contextualize her performance. She mentions that she grew up in North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia, that she was raised by Korean-speaking parents, and that at the age of 10, “when kids develop that whole language thing,” she went to Korea to live. Then, she moved back to Southern California as a teen. Because of her varied experiences with language, she performs the Accent Tag both in her “American” accent, and as a “Konglish” speaker.

One look at this video illuminates at least five critical and liberating points:

  • A speaker does not necessarily orient to one standard pronunciation, but selects between many possibilities.
  • The more experiences one has in different contexts, the more choices one has available—Korean? Texan? Californian?
  • How one pronounces or selects words can be an aesthetic choice—While Kelly does not (yet) use “Ya’ll” when she addresses a group of people, she has observed Texans say “Hey, how y’all doing,” and says she’d “like to pick up on that.”
  • How one pronounces or selects words can be a social choice—“People always picked on me,” she says, when she spoke English in Korea. And so she spoke differently there.
  • Speakers have awareness of what they want to sound like and why they say things in certain ways.

This video also yields one ominous observation: Despite these liberating aspects of Kelly’s performance, a sense of a judgment looms; A Standardizing Big Brother lurking somewhere, wanting to say someone sounds way off, really weird, FOBy, or jumbled up (all words Kelly uses to describe her own fluid language use).

As Kelly’s video exemplifies, under the imagined gaze of Standardizing Big Brother, sometimes people on line speak apologetically about their own language—voicing comments they have heard from other people. Other times, people speak out about more nuanced features of their own language. Usually, the same person does a little bit of both. Have you performed an accent tag video? Have you found one you appreciate? What did you think of Kelly’s?  Post your comments and findings here!