Our Sitting, Lying President

Lies frequently reveal much about the values of a society, even when the field worker can not check on them.”  (Hortense Powdermaker, 1966, Stranger and Friend: The way of the anthropologist, pp. 185-6).

Lies, as stated above, can reveal a lot.  Gaining insights from lies – or inaccuracies– aligns perfectly with a Citizen Sociolinguistic view of knowledge. As I’ve mentioned (often) in this blog, whether accurate or not, how someone describes their own language tells us something about what that person believes society values.  Someone who describes themselves as speaking “broken English,” for example, may not be describing their own English accurately, but they have identified a dynamic in society that makes them feel insecure about how they speak.

So, as Citizen Sociolinguists, misrepresentations, inaccuracies, and even instances of straight-up lying about language are all important to consider.  As observed by Hortense Powdermaker above, lies “reveal much about the values of a society.”

Lies may also be important sources of insight for everyday citizens, especially

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Hortense Powdermaker, American Anthropologist, 1900-1970
considering this: President Donald J. Trump lies a lot.

What insights can Trump’s lies can give us into our own society and its values?

In the quotation above, Powdermaker was describing her fieldwork in Mississippi in the 1930’s.  Specifically, she was describing the disproportionate number of people in white society who claimed to have ancestors who were officers in the Confederate army, or who had owned large plantations and many slaves. While Powdermaker points to facts that show many of those she interviewed must have been lying, these statements, even more so in their inaccuracy, suggest an unapologetic presence of racist values.

So, let’s consider:  What does Trump lie about? What can we learn from those lies? To jog your memory, here is a list of topics Trump has lied about, compiled by the Toronto Star:

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A quick glance at this list might bring to mind many of Trump’s lies or misrepresentations:  He has lied about attendance at his inauguration, he has claimed he predicted the Brexit vote, he has claimed there was “massive voter fraud” during his election.  He has also, notoriously, claimed that President Obama was not born in the United States, he has claimed the Paris Accord would punish the U.S., forcing us to close coal mines while China opens more, he has claimed the Russia-Trump story is nothing but “fake news.”

What can we glean from this lying (yet sitting) president? Obviously, these are claims of a disturbed man who will say anything to put himself in first place.  But, do all these lies provide any deeper insight into what our society values? What propelled a liar of this magnitude into the highest office in our country?

Many of the things Trump lies about are not important (It seems foolish to join in the quibbling about how much of the Mall in D.C. was populated with people at his inauguration.)  Similarly, the lies that middle-class whites in Mississippi told about their ancestors were not important (Why quibble about how many slaves someone’s ancestors really owned—whether 1, 2 or 10?).  However, these types of lies share a similar dynamic:  People drawing on fantasies about themselves—and the willingness of others to go along with those lies—inevitably points to a hollowness. Powdermaker suggested that this hollowness, in the case of whites in Mississippi, was an absence of “a middle-class tradition.”

As the gap between super-rich and poor in the United States grows, a similar absence today seems worth considering: There are countless people in the United States –poor, middle-class, and wealthy—who live on fantasies of super-wealth, of fame, popularity, celebrity, the “good life”, or the super-successful-venture-capital-backed start-up.  And, many of these fantasies may be as hollow in human values as those of 1930’s Mississippi whites, lying about being from families of plantation owners and confederate officers.

Lies and inaccuracies can be important forms of knowledge, for Citizen Sociolinguists and for just plain Citizens.  Donald Trump’s lies are not going to stop.  What else can we learn from them?

What is the absence we—both rich and poor—are covering up by living with the lies of our president?  How might we fill it with something else?












Anarchism and Citizen Sociolinguistics

What could anarchism possibly have to do with citizen sociolinguistics?Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 10.25.02 AM

The word “anarchism” may suggest the big circled A (usually in graffiti form) or even images of “anarchist” punks overturning tables or setting fire to McDonalds— the opposite of responsible citizenship. And certainly a departure from any form of sociolinguistics.

Citizen sociolinguistics as anarchism? Let’s think this through…

First, many forms of anarchism do not involve violence and vandScreen Shot 2017-03-10 at 10.26.19 AMalism.  A google image search yields images representing anarchy as associated with liberty, peace, collaboration, freedom, and mutualism. Rather than relying on overt violence, anarchism usually flies below the radar.  It’s tricky, often clever, and often (for example, in cases of poaching or squatting) a matter of survival.

In his brilliant book, Two Cheers for Anarchism, James C. Scott illustrates that in unobtrusive, yet subtly influential ways, anarchism is everywhere.  He gives examples of everyday forms of anarchism, starting with the most mundane, jaywalking.

Like other forms of anarchism, jaywalking is a subtly coordinated act of rule-breaking. For example, you might decide not to jaywalk when walking with a small child (it would set an unsafe example). But if it’s three a.m., you’re alone with not a car in sight, you might cross at a red light, or even in the middle of the block! As Scott writes, “judging when it makes sense to break a law requires careful thought, even in the relatively innocuous case of jaywalking” (Scott, 2012, p. 5).

Scott goes on to mention more radical forms of lawless behavior: desertion, squatting, poaching and points out that these are often the lowest risk options at hand: “desertion is a lower risk alternative to mutiny, squatting is a lower-risk alternative to land invasion, poaching is a lower-risk alternative to the open assertion of rights to timber, game, or fish.  For most of the world’s population today…such techniques have represented the Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 10.25.49 AMquotidian form of politics available” (p. 12).

Now, what does anarchism–even in its most subtle forms–have to do with citizen sociolinguistics?  This: Everyday understandings of language generated by citizen sociolinguists follow the same tactics of everyday acts of anarchy.

Just as anarchists go out and jaywalk, desert, poach or squat, citizen sociolinguists get online and post videos about “How to Speak Singlish,” engage in lengthy and opinionated dialogue about the finer distinctions of South Philly (Sow Philly) vernacular, post tutorials on varieties of English in Yorkshire (I’m proper chuffed about it!) or engage in Indian language(s) play in the YouTube videos like “Google my Bulbul.

These acts of citizen sociolinguistics, like many acts of anarchism, are not concerned with developing a coordinated social movement. And yet, like sustained, tacit anarchism, they gradually build valuable knowledge from the ground up, drawing on fine-grained distinctions provided through living locally and perceptively, and sharing that knowledge in everyday ways, often via social media like YouTube and Twitter.

Like anarchists, citizen sociolinguists are usually breaking the rules of “elites”:  Singlish is outlawed in Singapore classrooms. South Philly vernacular or Yorkshire expressions like “I’m proper chuffed” are not considered “proper English.” Videos like “Google my Bulbul” mix languages, defying named language boundaries.  These acts of citizen sociolinguistics, like acts of anarchy, illuminate the workings of human communication precisely by departing from its standardization.  Enforcing rules of language, in many contexts, may seem as silly as stopping at a red light on a deserted 3 a.m. stroll.  Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Just as acts of anarchy are lower-risk alternatives to official political action, acts of citizen sociolinguistics are very low risk.  But they are more likely to affect language use at a local level than more organized, top-down attempts to re-legislate language standards. People use languages in infinitely variable ways around the world–and in ways that change from day to day.  Everyday language use never aligns completely with those narrowly functional standards, frozen in time, laid down in language textbooks or even in sociolinguistics class. Instead, most language users develop fine-grained local understandings of their own language use by using their own language. And quotidian language politics for them takes the form of citizen sociolinguistics: Like everyday acts of anarchism, the posts and musings of citizen sociolinguists illuminate the fine-grained knowledge of those tuned more closely to the workings of the social order than those who are making the laws.


Do you participate in acts of citizen sociolinguistics?  What are they?  Why? Do you see the “anarchism” in them? Or do you more highly value top-down understandings and legislation of linguistic practice? Where do you stand?  Add your comments below!



Speak Good Singlish: A Form of Citizen Sociolinguistics

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 12.52.27 PMLast week, the New York Times published an opinion essay  by Mr. Gwee Li Sui.  In it, he suggested the Singapore govenment’s “war on Singlish,” had some problems. Singlish (Singapore English), he argued, represents Singapore well, bringing together many of the languages of that nation. Mr. G even asserted that Singlish has the power to “connect speakers across ethnic and socioeconomic divides like no other tongue could.”

He included a short glossary, illuminating Singlish’s internal variety (see sidebar).

Mr. G also pointed out that the more restrictions placed on Singlish, the more it seems to flourish: “In the eyes of the young, continued criticism by the state made it the language of cool.”

And, as his essay illustrated, individuals needn’t choose between Singlish or Standard English, as many people are aware of both (and other languages) and fluently switch between the two.

A few days later, the New York times published a letter from Li Lin Chang, press secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore.

This letter emphasized that the type of creative language use that Mr.G praised was only the purview of highly educated people, not everyday people in Singapore who need “standard English” to get ahead:

Not everyone has a Ph.D. in English Literature like Mr. Gwee, who can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English.

This statement piqued my curiosity.  Using Singlish does seem complicated—as it combines so many languages and grammatical systems. But I know many code-switchers in the United States who do not have PhDs—even some toddlers! Is code-switching between Singlish and Standard English different? Something only PhD educated people can handle?

In Citizen Sociolinguistic mode, I started searching the Internet to see who (in addition to Mr G, PhD) was facile with this type of “code-switching”.  It appears there are many non-PhDs who, like Mr. G, capably code-switch between Singlish and other forms of English, as illustrated (and discussed) in this YouTube Video :

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In about ten minutes’ more poking through the Internet, I also learned about the “Speak Good English” campaign in Singapore and spied this logo:

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 1.34.40 PMThe Speak Good English movement also includes  post-it note style signs like this, emphasizing the edits needed to “get it right”:Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 1.08.27 PMI also started finding quite a few signs suggesting an underground “Speak Good Singlish” movement, and even a counter logo:Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 1.33.55 PM

This movement also counters the official post-it notes with deftly edited signs translating “Standard English” into “Singlish”. Here are a few Pinterest posts to illustrate:

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This Pinterest user seems to have a good grasp of “code-switching” between Standard and Singlish.

A Google image search illustrated many more playful post-it style notes like the following English/Singlish translations:

And this sign even merges Singlish with Shakespearean diction (lah!):

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“Lah” seems important:

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Long before Mr. G wrote his New York Times editorial, the Speak Good Singlish movement seems to have grasped the import of Singlish for Singaporean Citizens.

Who was behind this “Speak Good Singlish” counter-punch?  Does their language awareness and ability to code-switch entail PhDs?

No. They are Citizen Sociolinguists, illustrating—with humor and creativity—how language connects to social value in everyday lives.  In the process, they are building everyone’s repertoire, rather than holding up one “standard” as the only functional way to succeed.

Of course, some readers may still feel that proud Singlish speaking citizen sociolinguists are missing out on something that a more rigid “Speak Good English” regime might provide them. What’s your opinion on Singlish? Or the “Speak Good Si/English” movement? Please add your comment below!!!


How Do Billionaires Speak?

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.41.55 AM“I wanna be a billionaire so fucking bad”—Bruno Mars

Maybe you’ve heard the above lyric from Bruno Mars’ joyously light-hearted pop song? The lyrics go on to imagine spreading money around and making friends happy–beer and scooters for everyone!

Last night during the Democratic Debates, the word “billionaire” also came up quite a few times, in not such a favorable light. At one point, Bernie Sanders even said, accusingly, that he was the only one in the debate who is not a billionaire. This came as a shock to me. Everyone seemed white, privileged, “rich” maybe, but billionaires?

What is a “billionaire” these days? Can you tell one when you see one? Can you hear it when they speak?

This brings to mind a perennial question in the world of Citizen Sociolinguistics: How do rich people speak? Decades ago, the Boston Brahmins where held up as the prototype of genteel isolated rich people who spoke in the richest of the rich type of way, as depicted in the PBS video, American Tongues.  This speaking style seemed to seep into the world of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn a la Philadelphia Story. And, look up “How rich people talk” now and you will find that guys on YouTube have clearly absorbed this stereotype:

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Last week, this same question, about the speech of rich people, came up in the 11th grade English class I frequent, in a discussion of Hamlet. Their teacher reminded them that the nobility usually speak in iambic pentameter (unless they are going crazy, which calls for prose). Here, a sane King Claudius illustrates:

“Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen”

Ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM….

So, in the fictional world of Shakespeare, rich people speak in Iambic Pentameter (and in this case, with the royal “we”). And Boston Brahmins (and their movie star acolytes or dude imitators) speak in a  “British” sounding r-less style.

But today, real billionaires don’t seem to speak like one another at all.  Consider the obvious exemplars:

Donald Trump
Bill Gates
Bill Walton  

Donald Trump may even sound a lot like non-billionaire, Bernie Sanders.  According to this article in the New York Times, one thing Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have in common is their appealing New York way of talking.

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 12.34.28 PMDoes this mean we have entered an new, open-minded era in which people don’t judge each other on the basis of how they speak?

No.   People who want to move into a stereotype of white privileged society will always need to alter their speech and talk like a stereotype of white privileged society. But they will not be talking like Donald Trump. No, they will be speaking in a way that reflects an intractable language ideology: Poor, marginalized, racialized people don’t speak properly (even if Billionaires speak the same way!). From within this ideology, the necessary (though not sufficient) way to not be poor, marginalized, or racialized is to change the way one speaks.

Being a real billionaire, on the other hand, provides one with the freedom to speak pretty much any way one wants to.

So, when Bruno Mars sings, “I wanna be a billionaire, so fucking bad,” he is not talking about being genteel or enjoying tea with a Boston Brahmin while discussing Dickens. He’s talking about buying the freedom to not care about how or what he speaks about, and to spread that joy to his buddies. He may not be speaking eloquently, but he makes an idealistic point: Billionaires (and Bruno Mars may even be one at this point!) don’t need to be selfish or stuffy. They have the freedom and money to make the world a better place for more than just themselves. They don’t need to talk a certain way, and they don’t need to act a certain way.

Billionaire politicians are real. And they are precisely the ones who can talk however they want to—they are rich, and they still get along with “the people”! As these debates continue, as we find a new President, let’s see what these billionaires do with their language. And let’s see how, beyond their free wheeling speechifying, they plan to use the freedom that billionairedom buys them.

A World of Others’ Words

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

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

So I made an analogy to “gentrification.”

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

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

@grvsmth started an exchange on Twitter:

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

@nelsonlflores came to my defense with this mature formulation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Citizen Sociolinguistics: What is it?

Citizen Sociolinguistics: What is it?

People often understand the way they speak by what other people tell them about it. Even the most eloquent speakers may hear those censorious voices behind their own: That is not proper. That sounds non-native. That’s not a word.

Why should this be? Why would we let others define the way we speak when we are the ones closest to our own communication? When, often, what other people tell us about our own language is no more informed than our own intuitions? And, when what other people tell us is less informed about the fabric of our own living?   Why do we let other people tell us how to talk when we are the ones trying to communicate?

For some reason we want standardized depictions of our own communicative ventures. Of course, this might seem logical—we need a shared language, after all. And yet, often these standardized depictions are limited in scope, vision, or utility. These standardized versions don’t seem to capture what really matters—they’re “not what I really meant.” So, when given the opportunity, people speak up about what they know, uniquely, about the language they use.

I call such speaking up about one’s own language, Citizen Sociolinguistics. And that is what this blog is about. In this blog, I explore what people say when they speak about language from a perspective of someone who knows their own context, who uses language there, and who cares about communicating.

Because, while censorious voices lurk behind each individual’s unique voice–“That’s not proper” or “That’s not a word” or “That sounds non-native”– people speaking out loud usually have inner retorts: “I do not want to sound proper right now.” “I like the unique flavor of my own “non-native” diction.” “It’s a word now—because I’m using it!”

Today, in large part because of the medium of the Internet, we can bear witness to those inner retorts. Paradoxically, the Internet does not limit us to standardized versions of communication; Rather, it provides a medium to talk back to those inner censorious standardizers.

While, as we shall see, sometimes people broadcast internalized censoriousness, (“I know I sound funny”) people also broadcast pride in their own sense of who they are and have taken to the Internet to spread the knowledge of their own unique voice (“People say I sound funny, but let me show you something…”).

In general, the Internet provides a medium for everyday perspectives on language and communication and this blog will be a place to explore those understandings. So, what are your experiences as a citizen sociolinguist? Have you experienced inner (or outer!) censoriousness? Share your experiences and speak out here! I invite your comments.