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:

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 7.00.34 AM

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:

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 7.00.56 AM

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!

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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.