Tone Deaf

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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!

 

 

 

Porch Culture and Citizen Sociolinguistics

Fear proves itself.

William Whyte

Recently I had an encounter with a visitor to Philadelphia (a prospective Penn father, college touring with his son) who said, “I didn’t realize the University of Pennsylvania was located in a rough neighborhood.”  When pressed, he elaborated.  “I mean, West Philly–there are some nice houses, but mostly row houses. And some are really run-down.”   Screenshot 2019-07-09 11.38.44

Since I have a house in that neighborhood (I call it a “twin,” not a “row house”), his comments forced me to reflect (okay, I was pissed-off). I would never describe West Philly (especially the part within walking distance of Penn) as a “rough” neighborhood.  Yes, some people do not have money to repair their homes. And the homes are old. I don’t equate low-income with “rough.”

But this visitor also found it difficult to interact in this area. As he put it, “We were not threatened in any way, but neighbors were often out and just stared at us as we parked and walked to and from the car.” Despite his denial (“we were not threatened in any way, but…”), his description of the neighbors as “just staring”, suggests he felt uncomfortable and, well, threatened.  But I would never equate neighbors being “often out” with his “rough neighborhood” description.

One of my favorite things about West Philly is that people are “often out.” They do not have huge private back yards or indoor leisure spaces. But they do have front porches with tables and chairs for family and friends. Isn’t it okay for them to be out?  If a visitor is parking in their neighborhood, why should they not watch him?  In addition to economic diversity there is a huge amount of ethnic and racial diversity here. And many residents of West Philadelphia speak different languages. This makes the neighborhood feel good—to me.  I am happy when people are out after work, and if they “stare” at me, I stop and say hello.  But for visitors like this one, from an exclusive gated community in Florida, interacting with a diversity of neighbors might feel slightly uncomfortable.

How is any of this relevant to Citizen Sociolinguistics?

Citizen Sociolinguistics thrives in spaces where people talk about language and communication, and where people feel free to share stories and personal experiences that illuminate how certain ways of speaking contribute to who they are. These kinds of discussions often happen on-line—they include voices across socioeconomic statuses, language backgrounds, and gender, racial, and generational differences.  These conversations may be unique, even weird, sometimes misguided, or challenging, but like my neighborhood, they are not “rough”.  And like the richness I see in my neighborhood, citizen sociolinguistic richness depends on being open to encounters with others.  Citizen sociolinguistic forums—discussions about “Spanglish” or “Common Welsh Phrases” or “Gender Neutral Pronouns,” for example—are like West Philly front porches.  But Citizen Sociolinguistic dialogue and community formation, like my neighborhood, can be damaged by visitors who don’t engage in the discussion because they see that front-porch presence as a threat.

Even on-line, there are visitors who shut down points of view being voiced within the “rough neighborhoods” of citizen sociolinguists.   Rather than engaging with the conversation they react impulsively to an impression made by a certain word or phrase.  Forums and videos on “gender neutral pronouns” for example, have drawn many citizen sociolinguists to post about their own experiences with language, and are potentially a center for understanding the way pronouns are changing in the way they function in our society. But this very phrase—”gender-neutral-pronouns”—can also draw in outsiders who don’t engage in the community but react to what they view as a threat to their own identity. These are commonly called “internet trolls.” They shut down dialogue.  As I’ve written in a previous post, trolling can lead to entire comment forums being disabled or expunged.  The trolling comments turn previously amicable and open spaces for engaging with language into platforms for an alternative xenophobic or otherwise bilious message.  All dialogue ends.  Trolls in the neighborhood of citizen sociolinguistics send everyone inside off their porch.  Citizen Sociolinguistic conversations are not gated communities.  They are more like the front-porch society of West Philly. But trolls treat certain citizen sociolinguistic conversations as if they are rough neighborhoods, where the simple act of discussing certain ways of speaking are aimed at them—treating discussions of “gender neutral pronouns” for example, like threatening “stares” of neighbors.  The troll does not stop to say hello—but scares everyone inside, silencing them.

The out-of-town visitor to a diverse neighborhood, like the outsider troll visiting a language discussion, creates a threat by imagining one.  In doing so, walls go up around neighborhoods, barriers divide communities of speakers.

In a brilliant book about the City of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, Mike Davis identifies precisely this dynamic. He laments the “fortress” neighborhoods people build up around themselves in the LA area. Invoking a phrase from William Whyte, eternal sage of city life, he writes, “’Fear proves itself.’ The social perception of threat becomes a function of security mobilization itself, not crime rates” (p. 224). And, gradually, this leads to the destruction of public space.  City planners’ strategies designed to keep homeless people away—unsittable benches, randomly-timed outdoor sprinklers, elaborately caged trash areas, non-existent public restrooms—end up driving not just the homeless but everyone away. Or almost everyone. Outside public spaces become the realm of drug addicts and dealers—precisely those targeted by the tactics of the city planners.  Fear proves itself.

Conversations about language can also become places where “fear proves itself” in this way—where trolling drives away discussion of the language issues that most need diverse input and forms of expertise. Some see trolling as the playful practice of free speech on-line, some see moving to gated communities as exercising the freedom to safely raise our children.  But both may also be viewed as self-fulfilling practices of disengagement and isolation that come from fear.

What can we learn from this?  And how do we circumvent self-fulfilling fear that drives people into gated communities and shuts down language discussion?  For urban planning, Mike Davis suggests we can drive away fear of crime and homelessness by creating a “dense, compact, multifunctional core” (p. 231) for the city.   When people are nudged to gather in public spaces, the inevitable sociability builds community and motivates humane solutions for social issues. I’d like to think there are analogous solutions for conversations about language. It would be a mistake to isolate language discussions to their own gated community, with ‘comments disabled,’ away from the trolls. Instead, somehow, discussions will have to be more densely and diversely occupied, to ensure that trolling can’t derail them, and that engaged citizen sociolinguists continue to illuminate our understanding of language and each other.

So get out on that metaphorical (or real) front porch and join the conversation!  Conversations about language inevitably are conversations about life and how we can live together.

Woke: The Other W-Word 

screenshot 2019-01-04 09.01.19I just read and relished every word of Deborah Cameron’s blog review of 2018, “The W-Word,” about the highly contested word “woman.”  Strangely, when I first saw the title, even knowing her blog generally addresses issues about women (pardon me!) and language, I thought the W-word in question may have been “woke,” another word that has been used and contested a lot this year.

My mind may have gone in this direction because a friend had just e-mailed me with this query:

Tell me about the word “woke.”  I see it used in so many ways and places, but I don’t understand if it’s an adjective, verb, or what?

Good question!  I was hoping Cameron’s blog would answer it for me.  But no: wrong W-word.  Then, I thought, oh geez!  Woke! I should not be the person to answer this.  My intuition suggests that much use of this word verges on what I have discussed elsewhere here as “Linguistic Gentrification”. Claiming any expertise about it seemed like overstepping.  But… those thoughts didn’t stop me from unilaterally formulating my own answer and firing it off:

There is a lot to say about the word “WOKE.”  I love and hate that word.  In general, I would say that people use it as an adjective to describe someone who is aware that we live in a diverse world full of many different perspectives and that we should not write those off without considering them.  As in, “They are woke.”  If you say that about someone, I would say it means that person has a broad perspective on the world and doesn’t just see things from their own possibly white middle class standpoint.   They understand different points of view, different aesthetics and moral frameworks than just their own.  They are fully behind the “Black Lives Matter” movement and probably have a sign in their yard that says “Hate has no home here” written in several different languages and scripts.  But if they are truly “woke” they also know that even being able to have a yard and put that sign in it means they are privileged.  They would also understand that I am using singular “they” in this description so that I don’t have to use a gendered pronoun.

A non-woke person would say something like “All Lives Matter” (not just “Black” lives).  They think they have a certain sense of taste and morality because it is The Best Way to Think—not because it is a cultural perspective they grew up with.  I think of a supremely non-woke person as someone who is impossible to talk to because they think they are superior but are ignorant and not willing to learn. 

That said, the word “Woke” can be used, as you point out, in lots of different ways, and it can be just another way of being judgmental about other people. So, despite my endorsement of “woke” people, above, I try not to use the word!

Then, after sending this and feeling sheepish about the possibly un-woke level of confidence and verbosity in this response, I decided to poke around a little and see what others are saying about the word “woke,” starting with the usual suspect, Urban Dictionary.

I was immediately glad I had not sent my friend there. Most entries were negative and layered with snarky irony. The “top definition” reads as follows:

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First of all–minor point–this definition makes it sound like “woke” is a noun: “The act of being very pretentious…”. Then the author goes on to use it as an adjective.  Leaving that aside, the content belittles any kind of compassion, empathy, or open-mindedness that I associate (perhaps naïvely) with the best features of being a woke person.

The rest of the definitions (a total of seven) were similarly down on the word. A few (especially definition #5) also pick up on the idea that “pretentiousness” or “superiority” is involved in being woke, and imply that this pretentiousness is attached to liberalism (suggested in #5 by reference to the Huffington Post):

“A state of perceived intellectual superiority one gains by reading The Huffington Post.”

A couple definitions (#2 and #4) make allusions to “The Matrix,” equating woke-ness with taking the “red pill.” (For those not familiar with The Matrix, the red pill enables human beings to see a reality we are usually blind to—namely, that we are all floating in human size jars while machines harvest our metabolic energy and feed us an illusion that we are livin’ the dream—or at least trying to.)

And a couple definitions (#3 and #6) take on the grammatical form directly (I assume ironically) as in:

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(Try to ignore the strange (Einsteinian?), time-twisting formulation that suggests one can wake up and actually be in the past tense).

The least popular definition (#7) seems to me the best and most even-handed:

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I like this one because it gets at the social “consciousness” involved in the term, the good intentions behind those who use it (it “comes from a genuine place”), but also the overuse, and the potential for it to be used unthinkingly in “fake-deep” ways.  Leaving aside the possibly contentious use of “N—A”, this definition seems the most, wait for it… “woke” to me.

So why is it the least popular?  It is possible that the popularity of #1 and the relative unpopularity of #7 tells us more about the people who vote on Urban Dictionary definitions than something important about the word “woke”. I would like to write them all off as being silly and more ignorant than I am. But this takes us back to my first hesitation:  Why would I be the expert? Those urbandictionary.com authors and thumbs-uppers (and many more like-minded people who are not writing on urbandictionary.com) are precisely those who build that word’s meaning. My own opinion may be irrelevant. In practical terms, my view certainly matters less than the collective voice of people talking about and using language, coming up with and adding approval or disapproval to definitions and illustrative sentences on Urban Dictionary and everywhere else. I would also suggest venturing beyond UD, of course: A simple google search points to important connections between the phrase “Stay Woke” and African American struggles for social justice.  But just reading through those seven “definitions,” would probably be more useful to my friend than my singular e-mailed response, because these definitions give a sense of the ideological minefield one steps into when using that word!   People (and I am just one of the lot of them) create the meaning behind words.

So, whatever “woke” means, its best feature may be its potential to start conversations about “woke-ness” (whatever that is!) and, in the process, about a world full of different perspectives. In this way, conversations about the word “woke” may have something in common with Cameron’s discussion of that other W-word, “woman.”   As she points out, meanings of any word, and the inevitable changes in those meanings

“…can neither be imposed by fiat nor prevented by appealing to some higher authority.”

So, I’m suggesting we keep talking about these words and many more!  If we do, we will inevitably get more “woke” ourselves—whatever it ends up meaning (and let’s hope it’s not pretentious or fake-deep!). What does “woke” mean for you? Whom or what sources would you consult to find its meanings? Please weigh in!  Comment below (and consider going to urbandictionary.com to give your favorite definition a thumbs up or, better yet, enter your own)!

 

Opinion Matters: What Can We Learn from Opinions People Have about Language?

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I am willing to bet a Wawa Hoagie that you (or your “close friend”) have a strong opinion about some aspect of language.  By simply googling a bit, browsing through urban dictionary, or candidly recalling a conversation you’ve had recently, some opinions like these might surface:

  • If you live in the USA, you should speak English.
  • The way people from Philadelphia speak is completely different from the way people from New York speak.
  • The Welsh language is amazing.
  • The street spelled “Passyunk” should be pronounced “Peah- Shunk.”
  • “Jimmies” NOT “sprinkles.”
  • People SHOULD NOT use “literally” in a figurative way
  • “Ain’t” is not a word/ “Ain’t is a word.”
  • Everyone SHOULD learn another language.
  • Irregardless is a pretentious way of saying regardless!!!

People have their opinions.

Despite my career as an “Applied Linguist,” I don’t feel that my job is to have strong opinions about language.  Nor do I feel it is my professional role to resolve differences of opinion that inevitably arise about language, or to “debunk” certain opinions out of line with research-based studies.   I am fascinated by other peoples’ opinions!  And, I do care about people and what those opinions say–good and bad–about our society. Why are opinions about language so strong? What compels people to spend so much time and energy opining about, for example, the pretentiousness of “irregardless,” the dictionary-status of the word “ain’t”, the “ugliest” regional accent, or the proper way to speak “English” and when and where it should be used?

Even the most accomplished linguist cannot resolve these debates—at least not in their role as linguist. Why not? Isn’t scientific research the best way to seek truth, to push the world forward, and to promote progress and change for the better?  Don’t linguists have the data that could resolve language debates? Yes and no.

While linguistics is sometimes categorized as a “science,” it differs in at least one important way from more prototypical scientific fields. Human language use (unlike our bio-chemical composition) is affected by opinions humans have about it.  My cells are organized in a certain way that, as far as I know, will not be affected by what my opinion is about them.  My own mother will always be my biological mother no matter what I think of her. But the way I speak—whether I call my mother “Mom,” “Ma,” “Mother,” or “Gretchen,” for example—is inevitably affected by my own opinions, my mother’s opinions, and the opinions of people around me, who hear me use those terms of address.

So, if peoples’ opinions about language affect how we talk and our opinions of other people’s talk, we probably can learn something about society by investigating those opinions more carefully—but what exactly can we learn?  Let’s think that through.

First, take a basic opinion:  English only!

As discussed in a previous post, statements about when and where English should be spoken might pose as reasonable requests for communicative clarity—but when looked at more carefully in context, they can also be a form of anti-immigrant racism, linguistic border patrol masquerading as reasonable opinions on language.

Language opinions also patrol less high-stakes borders.  Consider, for example, the opinion that “the Philly accent is not the New York accent.”  There are precise linguistic methods for measuring such a claim.  However, stating this as an opinion may be more about establishing an identity as a Philadelphian than the phonological distinctions between a statistically significant sample of New Yorkers and Philadelphians—the opinion itself acts as a form of linguistic border patrol. And again, language itself may be a stand-in for other identity features that matter more.

Sometimes, the linguistic border patrol sets up finer-grained distinctions, not about race, immigration status, or location:  Consider the opinion, “Irregardless is not a word.”  Whether or not this is a “word” matters far less to the person stating this opinion than the picture this word paints of the user.  This “defininition” on Urban Dictionary provides a useful synopsis of what using “irregardless” might mean about someone:

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The important border being guarded here seems to be between “educated” and “uneducated.”

Another entry provides this useful clip from the movie “Mean Girls” to precisely illustrate a different type of person (one of the uncritical followers of the high school’s lead mean girl) who might use the word “irregardless”:

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Views on languages, language varieties, and words like “irregardless,” (often fleshed out with supportive examples and illustrations) may start as “mere opinions” from “lay people” about language—but as they become conversations including more and more people (as tends to happen on the Internet), they also build knowledge about language.  This knowledge isn’t validated through scientifically measurable accuracy of these descriptions—instead, this is a socially constructed accuracy.  Language types called “English,” “Philly,” “New York,” or “Educated” become understood as these labeled entities because these opinions and conversations build portraits of language users as social types. The categories these citizen sociolinguists set up can act as self-fulfilling prophecies—building communities, setting up distinctions, or breaking them down.

What can we learn from this?  We may not learn much about language at all—at least not the kind of learning you might expect from linguistics class or French101.  But we can still learn something important.  We can learn –through concrete discussions about language—how citizens shape distinctions between themselves and others, form local identities, create unique new identities, bond with and reject one another, and create and destroy social value.  Once we glimpse these processes (through the work of citizen sociolinguists) we might not know more about language as an object, but we do have more awareness of how language builds meaning for everybody using it.

Have you come into contact with any strong opinions about language?  What can you learn from those opinions? What social work do you think those opinions do? Please comment below.

Who Are Citizen Sociolinguists?

At several places on this blog site, I have attempted to define and clarify what “citizen sociolinguistics” is.  But readers may still be unclear about who counts as a citizen sociolinguist.  Can scholars also be citizen sociolinguists?  Can robots? Small children?

Generally, citizen sociolinguists are any people (let’s exclude robots for now) who talk about language and publicly share their insights, often via Interned-based social media.  Citizen sociolinguists do not primarily concern themselves with scholarly debates. Instead their observations function as social gambits, luring any interested peers into a discussion of language by illustrating something unique, funny, interesting, absurd, or annoying about language around them.

Katiemayoxx” , for example, who has a YouTube Chanel primarily focused on Make-Up tutorials, begins her video about “things Welsh people say” by explaining that “today’s video is going to be a pretty different video actually.  Just something different that I wanted to film because I think some of you might find it interesting or maybe even funny.”Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 9.38.37 AM.png

From another part of the world, “GregoryShampoo”, invites viewers to learn how to speak “Singaporean English, aka, Singlish,” urging them to learn “five very important Singlish words: Lah, Sia, Siao, Wa Lao, and Bo Jio,” and illustrating the best possible attitude to embody while saying them.

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Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 9.58.57 AMIn the United States, “thethugyone,” from South Philadelphia, begins by telling his audience he’s had a bad cold, sinusitis, and pneumonia for a while, and so, he says,

…being sick, I’ve been on YouTube watching videos, like, incessantly.  Just for entertainment, you know. And I came across like, different accent challenge videos and I figured, “I’m from south Philly I can do an accent too,.. I mean, just the way I talk, or whatever.  So.  Yeah. So I figured maybe you guys could relate to it? I don’t know if there’s anyone from South Philly or from Philly in general.  People who aren’t from the East Coast think it’s from New York.  But trust me, I’m from here.  I’m from Philly and when I hear a New York Accent it’s not the same. So you’re all crazy, So the accent challenge, here it goes…

As these examples illustrate, those who I am calling “citizen sociolinguists” are generally non-scholars, and their insights are made with no intention of contributing to a scholarly discussion.  Instead, these videos are primarily offered up as entertaining performances–enticements to lure in more viewers. And, they succeed! As the comment-threads following these videos go on to illustrate, these YouTube performances generate extended dialogue about language.

Many YouTube response comments reaffirm the initial YouTuber’s perspective or provide extended stories about their own experiences with the language under discussion.  For example, comments following KatieMyoxx’s “things Welsh people say,” affirm what she has presented as “Welsh sayings,” in statements like:

im welsh and im from south wales, im from cwmbran and i say all these<3 welsh and proud!

Other commenters pick out specific words to underline as very important.  One commenter, for example, reaffirms the importance of the Welsh word, “cwtch”:

Anyone can hug but only the Welsh can cwtch.

Another emphasizes that now she understands her own use of “cwtch” better:

OMG CWTCH IS A WALES THING! I’m a vocabulary person, and i said that word in a sentence at a gathering and someone asked me if I was welsh… it all makes sense now…

Typically, commenters add to the discussion by drawing on personal experience, but now and then commenters will proffer some knowledge that is less experiential, more scholarly–ish as this person, who emphasized historical of one of the “Welsh” words, “mun”:

‘mun’ is also in the Sheffield dialect of Yorkshire English of the 19th century and it meant man.

Similar chains of comments unfurl below the “Singlish” and “South Philly” YouTube performances referenced above, and infinite other social media performances, on YouTube and elsewhere.

All these comments, even those taking a more scholarly stance, become part of an on-going conversation, working together with the initial performance to produce a citizen sociolinguistic portrait of a certain way of speaking.  By contributing to dialogue about language, these commenters (as well as the performer who sparks the dialogue) are taking the role of “citizen sociolinguist.”

And, as citizen sociolinguists all these social media performers are asserting (and creating) value for language they are using.  Are you a citizen sociolinguist?   Do you post your own performances? Comment on language? Please share below!

How to Pronounce “Succinct” (A Succinct Guide)

The other day, over brunch with friends, one very accomplished lawyer in the group mentioned that his boss had corrected his pronunciation of “succinct.”  My friend had been saying “suss-sinked” and his boss had insisted on “suck-sinked”.  My friend recalled that he immediately changed the way he said it.

What?

As a descriptivist and a “suss” person myself, I was shocked to hear about his prescriptive, “suck” boss.  And even more shocked that my intelligent, sensitive, and perceptive friend didn’t call his boss out for being such a rigid “suck” person.

I told the story to my 19-year-old son and, free and ironic thinker that he is, he said that, no doubt, my friend’s boss what just “messing with him.”  My son, the ironic thinker, is also not a lawyer—so he may have over-estimated the subtlety of humor that goes on in law offices.  Then again, I’m not a lawyer either, so the jury is out on that one!

I next turned to social media to get a feel for the pulse on this word.  What are Citizen Sociolinguists saying about it?  First, I checked with my twitter feed.  A quick poll (suck- or suss-?) revealed that everyone who cared enough to respond was a “suck” person.  Really?

What about YouTube tutorials?  What did they say?

The first several that pop up are all firmly “suck” videos.  This is a representative (and the most viewed) example:

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I was disappointed by this firmly “suck”-sided video, but happy to see that many comments on this and other similar tutorials contested this rigid prescription.  And one even commented that he loved the dislikes (though, admittedly, his “love” seems tinged with irony):

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Some suggested the absurdity of worrying about this:

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Another comment zeroed in more specifically on the “suck” problem:

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Finally, I found a “suss” demo.  This video specifically labeled “suss” as an “Aussie” pronunciation.  The producer of another video owned “suss” as a legitimate Aussie way of saying “succinct,” exemplifying it with a real Aussie bureaucrat’s speech. But this site also seemed to distance itself from this pronunciation, advising viewers not to “mix accents”:

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Wait, is Australia part of the UK? Confusing indeed!  My overall conclusion?  People should pronounce “succinct” in whatever way suits their personal taste or situational needs.

And, if you ever get frustrated, or start worrying too much about whether “suck” or “suss” is “right” or “wrong,” consult this most fantastical and definitive pronunciation manual of all:

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This is a  sublime demonstration of the pronunciation of “PronunciationManual”.  Sadly, however, this pronunciation manual has no entry for “succinct.” So, to conclude succinctly, I have an appeal:  Could someone, or perhaps even the creators of The Pronunciation Manual, PLEASE make a guide for pronouncing “succinct.”  This is one silly entry the world needs ASAP.

If you are still reading, please comment below!  Are you a “SUCK” person or a “SUSS” person?  How do you feel about “SUSS” when you hear it? Would you be willing to volunteer to make an entry for The Pronunciation Manual?  Do you know any other word conundrums that need to be recorded there?

 

 

 

Nyle DiMarco: Citizen Sociolinguist of the Deaf Community—and Communication in General

Let’s be honest:  Most hearing people could not be bothered with sign language.

As kids, we may have thought about how amazing it would be to know it: Maybe weScreen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.23.28 PMhappened on the card with the alphabet and learned how to spell our name, or to sign a few top secret words to friends. But after a first enthusiastic burst, the card gets lost, the signing seems like too much effort.

Speaking for my own childhood self, it’s hard to stay motivated when you and all your friends are not deaf.  Learning all the letters, then spelling every word out gets to seem incredibly laborious.

Even if one musters will to know more sign language, typing in “How to use sign language” on google doesn’t help much.  The tutorials that pop up generally feature a very silent video with minimal effects.   Like this one:

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But even this no-nonsense video has over two million views.  The comments underneath give some sense of what motivates people to come to this site, and it is not to learn a secret language. Most comments mention encounters with deaf people—real or fictional—and the desire to make a visible effort to communicate like them: They have fallen in love with a deaf person, or they have a regular customer who is deaf.  They’ve tried a little sign, and witnessed how gratifying it is to connect through this medium.

Many mention Koe No Katachi (“A Silent Voice”), an anime film about a deaf girl. Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.27.44 PM.png

And others say that Switched at Birth, a TV show about twins, one of whom is deaf, brought them to this instructional site.

And here arrives our Citizen Sociolinguist star:  Nyle DiMarco, who plays the deaf heart-throb “Garrett” on that show.

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Nyle DiMarco as “Garrett” in Switched at Birth

Poking around on the web more, Nyle DiMarco emerges as a gorgeous, young, creative, confident, brilliant, and deaf man.  He also appeared on America’s Next Top Model—and won.  He competed in Dancing with the Stars—and won.

He’s obviously an extraordinarily gifted human.  But what makes him a Citizen Sociolinguist?  In addition to modeling, dancing, and acting, he is continuously explaining, largely through YouTube videos, Twitter, and other social media, how sign language works for him and why.  He shows the world the role signing plays in his life—the same way other Citizen Sociolinguists I’ve discussed in this blog site talk about and act out the everyday role of Singlish, Konglish, Emoji, or other language varieties

Nyle talks about and shows us explicitly how signing works for him—with his family, with his friends, while flirting, at the movies.

He embodies what communication can look like in the hands of a socially gifted, smart and confident young man. Who, oh yeah, is also deaf.

One of his YouTube videos posts answers to questions people have asked him through Twitter, and his response to one question in particular, “Were you ever bullied?” caught my attention.  He replies, “No.  Maybe I was made fun of, but I never listened.  Because I have always loved being deaf.”  He importantly points out that being deaf has never been an issue for him—his entire family was deaf, he says, and “they knew what to do.”

Educators often talk a lot about how damaging a “deficit perspective” can be for learners. In the case of deafness and signing, if you consider it a deficit, you may never focus on a deaf individual’s strengths.  Nyle DiMarco embodies the opposite perspective—as he describes himself, he has never seen his deafness as a deficit.  He LOVES being deaf. And, in the best way, he loves being HIM.  He exudes self-respect—and respect for others.

In this way, Nyle DiMarco’s Citizen Sociolinguistics is illuminating not only for the Deaf Community, but for all of us—because he is talking about communication and modeling what it looks like in ordinary situations.

Nyle’s experiences surrounding the movie Black Panther illustrate this attitude in action.  When he went to the movie theater, full of excited anticipation for the show, the captioning machine the theater provided for him was a disaster, running behind the dialogue and awkwardly blocking sub-titles for the fictional Wakandan language spoken by characters in the movie.  He tweeted about his experience, vividly illustrating his position:

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And he wrote about his experience in Teen Vogue, describing in candid detail how awful his trip to the movie theater was (he left after ten minutes). He also made a larger point about the importance of sub-titling movies, and the biased views against it:

“I’ve heard the standard counterargument. Onscreen captions degrade the viewing experience. They’re annoying and distracting. I call BS. People don’t mind subtitles when they don’t understand the language being spoken.”

Nyle goes on to point out that many popular mainstream shows (Narcos on Netflix, for example) include subtitles for those viewers who don’t know languages other than English.  And, even Black Panther included sub-titles in English for Wakandan. His clarity and his humble description of his own viewing experiences on Twitter rallied thousands of Twitter followers in support of his point:  Subtitles of all types often improve the movie experience for everyone—why exclude those that are for deaf people?

But if you look up “Nyle DiMarco’s Black Panther Controversy” on line, you will probably find another Citizen Sociolinguistic controversy—this one with Nyle on the receiving end of the criticism.   Nyle attracted ire from members of the black/deaf community when he posted a video announcing the new American Sign Language (ASL) sign for “Black Panther”.

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He was criticized for, as a white celebrity, overstepping his role as a spokesman for the deaf community, and soon other signs were proposed for “Black Panther”:

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The Moth News story excerpted above, for example, elicited this comment praising the slamming of Nyle (and two thumbs up):

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 12.06.50 PMHow did Nyle respond?  This seems like an important test of not only Deaf communication, but communication in general.  According to a sign language interpreter friend of mine: “Nyle did apologize, saying he did not mean to take over and use his fame to overstep boundaries, and I don’t think this tainted his overall reception in any way.”

I looked around on line a bit then and found that, not only did he apologize, he also fully embraced alternatives.  Immediately after his Twitter post, a black deaf man posted a different version of an ASL Black Panther sign.  Nyle responded with “Thanks @jaceyhill” and unmitigated enthusiasm:

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The Twitter feed continued to take up @jaceyhill’s SUPERHEROIC version of the sign.  While a few haters remained, most responses piled on to say thank you to Nyle for his contributions, and, even, as this post illustrates, to promote greater unity:

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So, I don’t see “sign language” as just a potential secret code any more—thanks, in part, to my new favorite Citizen Sociolinguist, Nyle DiMarco.  Every day, he puts his voice out there, talks about being deaf, about using sign and other modalities (like subtitles), and respecting whatever comes back.  His points about his own communication are not meant to stand as immutable truths, but to begin a dialogue about communication and human dignity.  Along the way, more citizen sociolinguists—like @jaceyhill, above, who coined the ASL Black Panther sign that stuck—join in to contribute the expertise that can only come from their unique perspective.