JOE BIDEN IS NOT ARTICULATE: Does it matter?

Screenshot 2020-01-28 10.31.06Lately, Joe Biden’s language has been under the articulateness microscope.  When there are substantive policies to be debated, why do we hold up articulateness for critique in political discussions? Biden seems competent enough, and experienced. Does it really matter if he is articulate?  Short answer: It depends on what people say about it.

So, let’s take a look:  How are people talking about Biden’s speech?

Joe Biden’s manner of speaking has been called “choppy,” “rambling,” “halting,” and there are plenty examples to illustrate this as noted in this October 2019 New York Times article:

“People are being killed in western, in eastern Afghan — excuse me, in eastern, uh, Ukraine,”

“I would eliminate the capital gains tax — I would raise the capital gains tax”

“So there’s a, there’s — my time up?”

Still, Biden’s popularity has in part been fueled by this choppy, rambling, and halting style, as evidenced by these Iowans quoted in the same article:

“I love it. It appeals to the common people, working class, Americans, everybody!”

“I know he falls over some of his words, we all do.”

“Oh, big deal! He speaks from his heart.”

So, is he speaking poorly? Or is he brilliantly connecting with the common people? As discussed in a previous post, in certain situations inarticulateness can be a form of competence. Until recently, Biden’s choppy and halting delivery—with the occasional profane word thrown in—has worked well for him, projecting a down-to-earth image.  But, the claim that his disfluencies appeal to “the common people, working class, Americans, everybody” may be an overstatement. Even those common people and working-class Americans are starting to get worried about Biden’s disfluencies.  When the New York Times spoke to union leaders in Western Pennsylvania, those hard-working Americans insisted that their priority was to support a candidate who would maintain coal jobs.  Biden was their guy—but they had concerns. Not because he was wavering on his stance on coal and fracking, the issues that most concerned them, but because he didn’t seem very articulate. One of them summed up:

“You know it scares me.  I love Joe Biden, but lately he’s not as articulate. What’s Trump gonna do?”

For these union leaders, being inarticulate has become Joe Biden’s biggest vulnerability.  If Biden couldn’t get the Democratic nomination, some of them were considering voting for Trump and, as union leaders, advising their union members to do the same.

According to some accounts, Biden has been verbally awkward for decades, and for a long time Biden’s gaffes and hesitations, and even his profanity have made him likable.  But the union leaders had a different take for 2020: Right now we don’t need a friendly guy.  We need someone who can challenge Trump.  As the concerned union leader quoted above asked, if we put a hesitating, pausing, mis-speaking Biden on stage with Trump, “What’s Trump gonna do?” (Implied answer: Rip him to shreds). In the context of that discussion, it seems Joe Biden has pushed the limits of competent deployment of “inarticulateness.” If he can’t more seamlessly make his case, he simply won’t be able to stand up to Trump.

Others have discussed this as a problem of age.  He’s just too old to keep up—and his inarticulateness is the primary evidence of this. This argument is made clearly by a New Hampshire voter quoted in this Vox article:

“I don’t think he can take on Trump for that reason. I don’t think Biden is quick enough and sharp enough to take him on. His story is incredible, but he’s just too old.”

Biden’s inarticulateness is increasingly being talked about not as a sign of relatability and political competence, but as a sign of age, incompetence, and inability to beat Trump.  How did that happen?  Did he really start becoming more inarticulate? Is his brain degenerating?

His brain may be degenerating, but let’s be frank: That’s not what matters in this election.

Consider another politician famous for his folksy speech and mannerisms: Ronald Reagan. He was elected twice. Despite an increasingly simple speaking style and decreasing vocabulary during his time in office, citizens deemed his style relatable.  In Reagan’s case, much of his repetition and reliance on stock lines may have been caused by a brain stumbling through the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease.  Still he was a successful candidate, winning two terms and then ongoing status as a beloved former President. He was even dubbed, “The Great Communicator.” Why didn’t people focus on his inarticulateness–his slowing of speech, his waning vocabulary (now shown to be empirically measurable)? Because the people discussing his speech didn’t talk about it as a problem.

At one time, that folksy interpretation of Reagan’s speech style was enjoyed by Biden too.  But now the word articulate has come to haunt Biden’s campaign.  As the very different cases of Biden and Reagan suggest, how we perceive someone’s inarticulateness is more a product of a context and everyday conversation than of that individual’s brain–even if the examples of halting speech and bumbling frustration coming from that individual are as real as the recordings replayed again and again on national television.  It’s not the speech itself that’s giving Joe trouble, but the way people talk about it. So, back to our original question: Let’s say Joe Biden is inarticulate.  Does it matter? Not on its own.  But all those people out there discussing Biden’s speaking problems—and the journalists reporting their remarks—are making it matter more and more each day.

Being “articulate” (or not) probably does matter for the success of a presidential candidate.  But how we talk about it is what makes it matter.

BEING INARTICULATE AS A SIGN OF COMPETENCE: You know what I mean?  

Being inarticulate is highly under-appreciated.  In many cases, rather than a sign of carelessness or miseducation, being inarticulate may instead be an important building block of sociality and even democracy in a diverse society.  Consider, for example, the following much-maligned expressions deemed “inarticulate”:

You know what I mean?

Like, um…

Whatever

These are expressions that have been derided by English speakers, teachers, parents, and elders, as a mark of younger generations’ lack of backbone, intelligence, or will.  Taylor Mali’s spoken word performance mocking these hesitant words and the mannerisms that accompany them has circulated widely on YouTube.  In under three minutes, Mali brilliantly delivers his entire monologue using these expressions and piling onto them all the hesitant rising intonation in the universe:

In case you hadn’t realized? it has suddenly become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about? or believe strongly in what you’re like saying?

Invisible question marks and parenthetical you-knows? And you-know-what-I’m sayings?  have been attaching themselves to our sentences, even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions?

Are we like the most aggressively non-committed generation to come along in like a long time?

Mali’s spoken-word performance almost seems to be celebrating these ways of speaking.  Immortalizing them.   But he concludes by imploring listeners to “Speak with conviction,” delivering this line with conclusive falling intonation, and a facial expression of drop-dead seriousness.

This call for confident articulation of our convictions makes sense—in certain contexts.  Dozens of you-know-what-I-mean?s throughout Swedish Activist Greta Thunberg’s speeches would likely lessen her impact on worldwide climate awareness. “Invisible question marks” and ubiquitous likes would be surreal on the presidential debate stage.  Fluent, confident, unhesitating speech—speaking with conviction—remains the preferred mode in political debates or speechifying in Davos.

But last week I asked some graduate students in my class—many of whom are international students, all of whom are multilingual and have lived in different parts of the world—to think more broadly about being articulate.  Specifically, I asked, are there certain situations where being inarticulate is more useful?

An answer shared by several students took me by surprise:  Paradoxically, phrases like those maligned by Taylor Mali can also help a person sound like a competent language speaker.

One student from China mentioned how, upon arriving in the United states, she was surprised to hear so many “likes” among the native speakers here.  She started using like and you know what I mean to fit in.  As she put it, using these phrases does double duty:  It makes you sound like you’ve been living in the US for a while, and simultaneously gives you time to search for a word, or think through the rest of your sentence—always useful when using a new language.  As soon as she learned the phrase you know what I mean, it became a crucial bridge to successful communication with local English speakers.

A student who grew up in Philadelphia, but had spent the last year living in Brazil, had a similar perspective on speaking Portuguese there.  The crucial word for him had been tipo. Another student remembered that when learning French, her instructor, frustrated with all the students’ “ums” told them to please use the proper French “euh” instead.

The examples began to flow—what about saying o sea or este in Spanish? Or something like ba in Swedish? A quick google search yielded lists of filler words in dozens of other modern languages. This duolingo forum about filler words contains an outpouring of citizen sociolinguistic expertise and appreciation (and a little Taylor Mali-like opprobrium) including these enthusiastic examples:

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As these stories and outpourings of multilingual “filler” words suggest, being “inarticulate” in this way may be an important step in joining a new language community—and even sounding “native-like”.  For a new speaker of any language, speaking “with conviction” may not only be impossible, but undesirable. The priority may instead be fitting in, and using words like like and you know what I mean, can be the most competent way of entering into new conversations.

What forms of being “inarticulate” function well for you?  Or do you find ums, likes, tipos, and you know what I means annoying? Please comment below!

Given or Negotiable?: Korean Family Address Terms on the Move

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Eunsun Lee, a doctoral student in Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. 

When you meet someone in Korea, there are several things they will ask you to initiate a conversation. Among many other things such as your occupation and country or city of origin, they will want to know your age, which determines the address term that they can use to talk to you. Age indeed plays a key role in shaping the language you can use with others.

But there is one huge exception to this significant role of age in determining the appropriate address term for use. Below is an excerpt from a newspaper article (Lee, 2018) in Joongang Ilbo, one of the major nation-wide newspapers in Korea.

Park, who is two years in her marriage, complained, “The address terms make it so awkward between family members at holiday gatherings.” Park’s husband has a younger brother and a younger sister, who is 5 years and 6 years younger than Park, respectively. Despite the age difference, Park addresses them as akassi and tolyennim. “I just can’t get used to addressing my brother- and sister-in-law, who are way younger than me, as akassi and tolyennim,” said Park. “I find it bizarre to be using honorifics to them while my husband addresses my younger sister simply as checay.”

So what’s with all these address terms? To give you a bit of the background, below is a table that compares the address terms that women and men are expected to use to address their in-law family and the etymology of each term.

When wife addresses husband’s … Whom? When husband addresses wife’s …
시댁 sitayk (媤宅) ‘Husband’s house’ [+H] Entire family 처가 cheka(妻家) ‘Wife’s house’ [-H]
어머님 emenim ‘Mother’ [+H] Mother 장모님 cangmonim (丈母-nim) ‘Wife’s mother’ [+H]
아버님 abenim ‘Father’ [+H] Father 장인어른 canginelun (丈人-elun) ‘Wife’s father -senior’ [+H]
도련님 tolyennim ‘Young master’ [+H] Younger brother 처남 chenam (妻男) ‘Wife’s brother’ [-H]
서방님 sepangnim ‘Husband’ [+H]
아주버님 acwupenim ‘Older relative’ [+H] Older brother 형님 hyengnim (兄-nim) ‘Older sibling’ [+H]
아가씨 akassi ‘Young lady’ [+H] Younger sister 처제 checay (妻弟) ‘Wife’s younger sibling’ [-H]
형님 hyengnim (兄-nim) ‘Older sibling’ [+H] Older sister 처형 chehyeng (妻兄) ‘Wife’s older sibling’ [-H]

[+H]: with honorific morphemes / [-H]: without honorific morphemes

In a nutshell, if your husband has a younger brother or sister who is significantly younger than you, your familial relationship with them overrides the age factor, prescribing you to use honorific address terms for them. However, notice that the same does not apply to men when they address their wife’s siblings. That is, age is still the most influential factor for using honorifics. They only use honorific terms for your wife’s parents and older brother (and not her older sister—indicating the influence of the gender factor as well).

Park’s remark in the previous excerpt can then be understood as her uneasiness about the asymmetric terms between husband’s and wife’s family members. And she was not the only one to make such remarks; according to a survey conducted with 4,000 respondents nation-wide in 2016, 65% of the people perceived the gender disparity in the family address terms to be problematic (Lee & Kim, 2018). In the past few years following the survey, several national petitions were  posted on the Cheongwadae (the executive office of the President of South Korea) website regarding the problematic address terms that women have to use for their in-law family members.

In response to these visible changes in the people’s perception of the prescriptive address terms, the government agencies such as the National Institute of Korean Language and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family announced some policy revisions and public campaigns to address this issue in 2018 and 2019. They have made a few suggestions on the alternative terms that can be used in place of the traditional terms. Given the discrepancy between the prescriptive address terms and the terms that people actually feel comfortable with, it was recommended that each family consider using some of the alternative terms to fit their communicative needs.

This move by the government agencies generated tons of commentaries under a number of online media reports. A lot of the commentaries often took the discussion to an aggressive gender conflict, where male commentators bringing up the honorific address terms men use for their brother’s wife as a counter example and criticizing women for overproblematizing and unjustly claiming for a revision of the standard addressing norms. Some of the comments criticizing the move included (translated by me):

  • Just because there is no ‘-nim’ suffix at the end of the terms doesn’t mean that those terms don’t have honorific meanings. There are so many other problematic language practices these days. What a pity that people are picking up on this trivial issue.
  • Why don’t you get rid of all the address terms altogether and just follow the American way of addressing people by their first name? Wonder how you’d feel about being called by your first name by your nephew.
  • The presence of honorifics in the address terms you use is not as important as the amount of respect you pay in your actual interpersonal relationship with the person. Why denounce the address terms? They’re not gonna change so easily any ways.
  • The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family should address other more significant issues than this.

Overall, it seemed that the online commentaries under the media reports were inclined toward a negative attitude to the change. This piqued my interest, as I had initially thought there would be more positive reactions to the change as shown in the national survey results and the number of signers for the national petitions. Is this really what the majority of people think of about this change? How about my family and friends? How would they perceive this change and their own uses of those address terms?

So I decided to conduct my own citizen sociolinguistic interviews with people around me. As a first step, I interviewed my mother, who is in her mid-50’s, positions herself as politically liberal, and most importantly, addresses her husband (my father)’s siblings in the traditional way. Then I asked her to interview her friends, which in turn elicited responses from 13 different women in their mid- to late- 50’s. The questions that my mother and I used were:

  1. How do you address your husband’s siblings?
  2. (In case you had known them before you were married) Were there any changes in the ways you addressed them after you were married?
  3. How do you feel about the terms that you use?

Interestingly, I found more variance in the address term practices than I had expected. Only 3 out of 13 respondents strictly followed the prescriptive rules. In the rest of the cases, they reported a range of alternative practices including:

  • Using the terms that your own children would address them (e.g. Samchon “Uncle”, Komo “Auntie” [-H])
  • Using the terms that your husband would address them along with the honorific suffix -nim (e.g. Nwu-nim “Older sister” [+H])
  • Addressing them in relation to their own child’s name (e.g. Eunsun-emma “Eunsun’s mom”, Kyengmin-appa “Kyengmin’s dad” [-H])
  • Using different terms when your parents-in-law are around and when they are not

Struck by the variance in the practices, I inquired the factors for choosing the terms that they use. Some of the influential factors I have found are:

  • Socialization experiences 
    • In their own family
    • In husband’s family
  • Their perception of the husband’s parents’ conservativeness
  • Their interpersonal distance or age difference with their husband’s siblings
  • The husband’s siblings’ preference / Whether they have children
  • Their own preference
    • The degree to which they feel ‘comfortable’ using those terms
    • The association of knowing the ‘correct’ terms with well-educatedness

Except for the one respondent who reported that she had never questioned using the traditional address terms, all the other respondents reported that they had gone through some adjusting processes when they got married and as their relationship with their husband’s siblings evolved as they had children. Two salient strategies emerged in the processes: a) negotiation, where they talked with their husband’s siblings and reached agreement on which term both sides feel comfortable using; b) silence, where they chose to opt out of using address terms for their husband’s siblings altogether due to their uneasiness with the terms.

Address terms can be a very sensitive issue since it would directly affect how you verbally communicate with the person in face-to-face interaction. This was well-supported by the online data that I encountered and the conversations that I had with my interviewees. Although revising the prescriptive norms regarding the address terms may not be the right remedy for this issue as some commentators online have pointed out, it is evident that major changes have been occurring at the micro-level practices of people’s use of those terms.

Now I am curious to know our readers’ reaction to this issue of family address terms. To what extent do you think there is a value or meaning to the prescriptive rules? How would you want to address your in-law family members? What if there is a conflict in the ways you and your husband or in-law family members think of the terms? How would you go about to address the conflict through conversations? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

 

 


References

Lee, E. (2018, Sep 23). “남편 동생은 도련님ㆍ아가씨인데, 내 동생은 처남ㆍ처제?” (“My husband’s younger siblings are called Tolyennim and Akassi, and my younger siblings are called chenam and checay?”). JoongAng Ilbo. Retrieved from https://news.joins.com/article/22996250

Lee, E. (2019, Jan 23). 도련님 대신 ‘OO씨’…성별 비대칭 호칭 바뀐다(‘XX-ssi’ instead of Tolyennim … Gender-Asymmetric Address Terms Change). JoongAng Ilbo. Retrieved from https://news.joins.com/article/23313592

Lee, P. & Kim, T. (2018). Aspects and Problems in the Contemporary Use of
Address Terms and Reference Terms within a Family”. The Sociolinguistic Journal of Korea, 26(1). 277-309

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.

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

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 12.32.20 PM

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”:

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 1.13.31 PM

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.

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?

 

 

 

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?