The Linguistic Color Line

Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 9.19.18 AMW.E.B. DuBois has asserted that “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” What is the color line? Was this true all over the U.S.? And what about the 21st Century? Have we overcome the problem of the color line?

For the early part of the 20th Century, in the South, Jim Crow laws made the color line very explicit: Blacks were excluded from white public spaces: drinking fountains, sections of the bus, etc .

But these explicit laws permeated the North as well. There were “White’s Only” clubs, like The Cotton Club, even in Harlem.

What about the 21st Century? Does a color line remain? Of course. While there may no longer be Jim Crow laws on the books, there are still implicit ways in which an individual’s race is monitored in public. One key mechanism for this monitoring is what I call the linguistic color line.

Everyday, individuals in the United States modify the way they act and talk when they are in the presence of white people. This is not simply a matter of being “polite” or adjusting one’s talk to fit into certain social situations. Sometimes, it is a matter of “Talk like white people or you will be brutalized.”

This was depicted recently in a brilliant satire of a police stop, performed by Larry Wilmore as commentary on Sandra Bland’s arrest in Texas.

At point 4:16, of the clip linked below, Wilmore identifies precisely the linguistic color line that Sandra Bland was being asked to toe:

http://www.cc.com/video-clips/yjv4ys/the-nightly-show-with-larry-wilmore-mess-within-texas—sandra-bland-s-arrest

WILMORE: I mean, it’s easy to say, “Black people, why aren’t you acting like the Dowager Countess when a cop pulls you over?”, right?

WILMORE (Channeling Dowager Countess in English Accent): Oh, hello, officer. I’m so pleased you’ve unexpectedly dropped in on me. Would you like some tea I brewed in my glove compartment here?

Apparently Sandra Bland was not allowed to act and talk certain ways in her own car when addressing a police officer.

As Wilmore sums up, “We live in a world where black people have to strategize so they’re not brutalized by police.”

And, much of this strategizing involves modifying one’s language.

The linguists Nicole HollidayRachel Burdin, and Joseph Tyler, in their detailed and revealing blog post on the linguistic nuance of this encounter, have, with irony, labeled Sandra Bland’s crime, “Talking While Black.”

As the Sandra Bland encounter illustrates, while we may have fewer explicit laws about where black and white people can congregate, we continue to have tacit rules about ways black people are allowed to talk and act in certain spaces.

This, lately, has been dramatically illustrated in the case of police encounters. But it is often also the case in schools, where certain (white) ways of talking and acting are expected from all children—even (especially?) when most or all of them are not white. Schools have been legally desegregated, Jim Crow laws have been abolished, yet, as soon as any student steps across the threshold of a public school, they are expected to talk and act in certain ways that match white notions of polite and proper.

This is the linguistic color line. Enforcing that color line in classrooms may not be so dramatic as the Sandra Bland encounter, but it can, for children, be silencing.

Have you encountered the linguistic color line? Have you witnessed it being enforced? In institutions? In schools? In service encounters? In social activities? Is it time to lift what W.E.B. DuBois called “The Veil” and let people speak?

Please comment!

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WAVE! White American Vernacular English

What if we analyzed everyday speech of White Americans as a legitimate, internally consistent system?

Try googling “White American Vernacular English” and guess what you get:

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 3.46.16 PM

The Wikipedia entry for “African American Vernacular English.”

Does this mean WAVE does not exist as a legitimate systematic variant of the English language?

WAVE might easily be characterized by a quick internet search for “Grammar Pet Peeves.” Using this definition, my search reveals many possible tokens of WAVE, probably recognizable to most readers. This is a typical Internet circulated list:

Screen Shot 2015-06-12 at 4.04.17 PM

This list (and the countless other similar lists on the Internet) probably contains some words or usages that most white people use frequently.

Sometimes, we have less conscious awareness of WAVE tokens. For example, a few months ago, news surfaced about an individual who had, over several years, changed thousands of instances of a certain “grammar error” on Wikipedia. When I asked people to guess what it might be, many came up with common pet peeves like those on the list above. But the culprit was the phrase “comprised of,” used where the Wikipedia editing maven considered “composed of” the correct choice. “Comprised of” he asserted, simply has no place in the English language.

Many white people, however, use “comprised of” all the time. Even I, a college professor, but a native speaker of WAVE, grew up using “comprised of” in place of “composed of”! Many of my peers don’t think of it as “wrong.” Swiftly, people began to speculate that this Wikipedia correction maven had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Many other people who point out “errors” white people make also, frequently, are taken to task. The errors they are pointing out inevitably are recognized as common (even systematic!) but easy to overlook. The people who have these Pet Peeves sometimes even apologize for being so picky.

And white people generally don’t officially get penalized for saying “literally” in a figurative way, or using “comprised of” instead of “composed of.” In classrooms, teachers say things on these Pet Peeve lists all the time and, unless that teacher has an arch enemy in the class, nobody corrects them.

And nobody collects these words together and calls them WAVE and then says they are appropriate in some situations, but not in others: “Okay, you can say “literally” for emphasis when you are drinking with friends, but never in a job interview.”

Let’s face it: WAVE is not a thing people talk about. AAVE is. And because AAVE is named, sometimes people say it is appropriate here and there, but not over there.   Originally, the christening of a variety of speech with the name AAVE was meant to provide legitimacy. But over time, this good intention has stumbled all over itself by suggesting on the one hand that it is “legitimate” but on the other hand, only in certain (non-white) situations.   WAVE on the other hand, does not need to be labeled because white people speak it. And even though some people have a few mild “pet peeves” about it, WAVE is legitimate in white public spaces (like schools).

Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa, in their brilliant article in Harvard Educational Review this month, call this a raciolinguistic ideology. They carefully illustrate how the language of white people is not subject to the same “appropriate” or “not appropriate” critique that the language of Black or Brown students is subjected to in classrooms. Flores and Rosa do not talk about WAVE—because it does not exist as a named entity. And this illustrates their point. White people, by virtue of being white, get to count as using language appropriately.

As long as I am a white person, I can speak the way I grew up speaking. Aside from the occasional article about linguistic Pet Peeves or the (OCD?) programmer who corrected thousands of instances of “Comprised of” on Wikipedia, nobody will correct me. They will understand that I’m just speaking after all, I’m not writing the f***ing Declaration of Independence!

And literally nobody will sympathetically identify me as a native speaker of WAVE, but kindly advise that my speech is not appropriate in school.

Are you a speaker of WAVE? Do people sometimes tell you it is not appropriate for certain situations? Do you repeatedly get critiqued for speaking the way you grew up speaking in your home? Do you see other evidence of raciolinguistic ideologies around you?

New Uses for Old (Linguistic) Tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Untranslatable and Multilingual Words

pochemuchkaAbout two years ago, a blog listing 11 “Untranslatable words from other cultures” became unexpectedly popular.This list includes beautiful illustrations and words that describe situations or states of mind that we all might recognize, but may not have a single word for, like the Spanish word for post-meal conversation:

Sobremesa: the time after lunch or dinner you spend talking with the people you shared the meal with.

Or the Russian description of a potentially annoying type of person:

Pochemuchka: Someone who asks a lot of questions. In fact, probably too many.

The “pochemuchka” description also includes the aside, “we all know a few of these,” suggesting that, though the word is distinctly Russian, the sentiment may be familiar cross-linguistically.

The voluminous comments following the 11-word list reveal a general recognition of the social arrangement or emotion described by each entry, but also the special added zing that these sentiments take on when a specific word gets attached to them. As one commenter wrote:

Tine • What a lovely post! It gives me great joy to hear about other people’s perceptions and how they cherish it enough to give it its own word.

The subsequent proliferation of sites with “untranslatable words” like this suggests that many people like Tine, above, are drawn to words from afar that name subtle, yet recognizable, feelings, perceptions, situations, or social nuance. (Try googling “untranslatable words” and you will find dozens of lists, videos, and essays). Paradoxically, these “untranslatable” words seem to translate well to readers, as insinuated by at least one commenter on a YouTube video illustrating “8 Untranslatable words” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPHJp25u7Tw):

Qichin 8 Untranslatable words … and their translations.

If there are words that exist in one language but have widely recognized meanings, could there also be words that exist in many languages (or “cultures”) but have different meanings? Is there a flipside to “untranslatable words?” I call these multilingual words. They exist. But this type of word seems harder to find.   Googling “multilingual words,” yields no entries describing this possibility–only multilingual word lists featuring supremely translatable words like Hello, Goodbye, Thank you and You’re Welcome, or simply definitions of the word “multilingual.” Googling “words that exist in multiple languages” yields the same lists of “untranslatable words” described above.

Still, words that look the same and sound the same in different languages but have different definitions in each of those languages do, of course, exist. The recent guest post about Google my Bulbul, a popular YouTube video, provides at least one example. The word “Bulbul” draws a few comments that suggest different definitions:

Insan hor  ‘Bulbul’ means ‘Penis’ in Egyptian.

Yzeed Az no it means beautiful bird 😛

Business Andbusiness is is bird with melodious voice

SillyDodo  Uhh.. bulbul in hebrew is a word for penis..

 These are not subtle sentiments or distinctions. “Bulbul” is not “untranslatable.”  People just disagree on the translation. They also disagree on what language it comes from.  Therefore, in the face of this comment controversy, the best way to understand what “bulbul” means is to see how the video-maker, Funzoa, uses the word in his video. The Bollywood style of the entire video points to the more romantic “beautiful bird” definition. And, Funzoa, perhaps to disambiguate as clearly as possible, illustrates his otherwise whimsical “Google my Bulbul” with a very dictionary-illustration-like bird:

Bulbul bird

Finally, in the comment thread about the meaning of “bulbul,” Fuzoa explicitly disambiguates:

Funzoa It means a beautiful bird in india. Ao either way google bulbul works. Hehe

With this example of a “multilingual word” in mind, I went back to the “untranslatable” words to refine the distinction. Do people disagree about the meaning of these untranslatable words the way they do about multilingual words? I found numerous claims to new “untranslatable” words in dozens of world languages. But all these words seemed isolated to the language claiming them, and most comments agreed on each meaning.

In some cases, commenters argued about the linguistic uniqueness of the word. So, while Brazilians may want to claim “saudade” as uniquely untranslatable, others name new words to describe it. “Saudade” is to Portugese as “dor” is to Romanian as “stesk” is to Czech as “tesknota” is to Polish as “sehnsuchst” is to German. Similarly, “hygge” is to Danish as “cozy” is to English as “gezelligheid” is to Dutch, and so on.

The comments largely confirm that the “untranslatable” words, while new, are readily understood by readers of different languages as distinctive, and descriptive of feelings we generally understand.

But, finally, one comment thread on the 8 Untranslatable words YouTube video posed this challenge:

Jolly Infidel  Good stuff… But i was hoping for a english word that has no foreign translation.!

And the response came:

ThePolocatfan276 I think that’s called “slang”

Is “slang” so special as to be “untranslatable?” Could it be elevated to the level of “saudade” and “hygge”? Or is it more “multilingual,” like “bulbul”?

Recalling my recent discussions with teens, who love to talk about “slang,” several possibilities for each type of word came to mind. Take this current phrase, for example (with definition approximated from multiple 11th grade discussions).

Eyebrows on fleek: When someone is perfectly coifed, eyebrows smooth and plucked, looking supremely socially confident.

Like “saudaje” or “pochemuchka,” “fleek” seems to be an “untranslatable” word. We recognize the feeling of the expression, “Hey, I’m ready to go to the party! Eyebrows on fleek!” but we might not use that phrase in our own “culture.”

GucciThe following words seem more like the multilingual word, “bulbul.”

Drawin’ (drawing a picture or being annoying?)

Gucci (designer brand name or good—as in “it’s all Gucci”?)

Turning up (showing-up or getting-really-excited-for-a-social-event?)

Even though these words are in English, they act like multilingual words because they mean differently across different groups of people. Teens recognize one meaning, older adults another. Rather than naming a feeling we all recognize, with a new and special word (on fleek!), these words are the same words we all recognize. But, they are infused with new, youth-culture meaning (That’s Gucci!). So here we have it:

Untranslatable words show how naming something brings meaning to a widely recognizable aspect of our social or natural world.

Multilingual words show how our social connections bring new meanings to our words.

Assuming this view on multilingual words, we may be speaking many languages even when we think we are only speaking one. And, being lost in translation may not only apply to named languages like Russian or Spanish or Portuguese. It may also happen when we use words that apparently belong to the same language.

As the linguists Sinfree Makoni and Alastair Pennycook wrote in 2006, in their book Disinventing and reconstituting language (p. 36):

All communication involves translation.

This translation involves not only the typical act of one language being translated into another, but also, and more substantively, the act of people talking to each other and trying to make meaning out of each others’ words. Both untranslatable and multilingual words have the potential to open up different kinds of worlds: Those we recognize but haven’t yet named, and those we have yet to know about.

What “untranslatable” or “multilingual words” do you know? How do you use them? Where, when and with whom? Have you every felt lost in translation in your own language? Please comment!

Reactions to an Increasingly Diverse English: “Google My Bulbul”

funzoaPlease watch this video before reading the post.

Warning: this song WILL stick in your head—possibly for days.

Created by the famous Youtuber Funzoa, “Google My Bulbul” is, at the most basic level, a video of an adorable teddy bear singing a song that praises the utility of Google. Why many find the video funny (it has almost 2 million views and a 13-1 like-to-dislike ratio) can be dissected from a variety of angles: music, visuals, cultural references, etc., but for the sake of this post I will focus on the use of language in it.

In following with Betsy Rymes’s concept of “Citizen Sociolinguistics,” my hope is not to analyze the video from a traditional linguistic point of view. Instead, I will look at viewers’ comments posted on the video’s Youtube page and dissect how they reacted to the use of language. As you will see below, what’s particularly interesting about this video is that the creator himself has responded to some of the most interesting and often most negative comments about language.

So, to start with a simple description, in what interesting ways does Funzoa use language in “Google My Bulbul”? Here are some fairly objective characteristics that immediately jumped out to me:

  • Adding an “uh” to the end of lots of words
  • Inversion of word order that sounds odd to an American English speaker
  • Nonstandard use of the progressive tense–“All the information it always giving free,” “It never getting lost,” “It helping download any file”
  • Extremely high pitch

This is not an exhaustive list, rather just a few main things will stand out to most people watching the video. So how do viewers react to the mimicry of this, as the creator puts it, stereotypically “South Indian” accent? Some of the most interesting comments arose out of replies to the following statement (all spelling is written exactly as it appeared on the video’s Youtube page; my translations from Hindi are in brackets):

Lukas Hettieratchi: This is the stupidest thing ever!!!!!!!!!! What is the world, it sucks!!!!!! F**K THIS!!!!!!!

Funzoa @Lukas Hettiaratchi: The pun in this has a certain cultural connotation, u wont understand it if you dont see it. So u r right from your POV. But im sure u shall find smthing interesting from my othr videos

syawkcab @Lukas Hettiaratchi: The video makes fun of how desi [Indian] aunties talk. If you’re not desi, you won’t understand references.

Chakravarthy Kalyan @Lukas Hettiaratchi: lukas,just because u come from different culture does not give you artistic authority to pass stupid comments.This is an adaptation in karnatic classical  south indian music.This culture itself dates back to 1500 years.Learing classical music is a lifetime experience.This person beautifully adapted english into karnatic music and rendred a perfect song.If you cant appreciate some thing atleast have an heart to encourage.

The first two comments, including a comment from Funzoa himself, hint at the belief that the use of language in this video is closely tied with ethnic or cultural identity. According to syawkcab, in order to understand the video’s mimicry, viewers must be Indian. The final commenter finds the video “beautiful” because of Funzoa’s “perfect” integration of “English into karnatic music.”

Many viewers, such as Reeta Sood, simply find the use of accent humorous:

Reeta Sood: Funny Funzoa…really mazedaar [funny]…keep up your good work, accent n all…some morons won’t get it becoz of they un-evolved understanding … 😉

Other viewers, however, found the video annoying and even offensive:

Mohammed Almansour: Wtf is wrong with the writer of this song ??? And he used the freakin indian s**t accent f**k off!! Stupidest song ever

Hamzah Patel: Stop this horrible song funzoa is stupid. This is offensive to English people

I wonder what Hamzah Patel would consider as “English” people? Only British people? The traditional Anglosphere (UK, US, and other English-dominant former British colonies)? Anyone who speaks English at all? It’s worth noting that several hundred thousand people speak English as their first language in India and might use some of the phonetic or lexical features in this video that sound “odd” to an American English speaker.

One interesting exchange between Funzoa and a viewer highlighted different attitudes towards what counts as “correct” English:

Zarin Mansur: silly grammar error!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Funzoa @Zarin Mansur Hi, I dont do grammer errors. You may check my other content. The error was intentional. Like how sometimes, people from a non-english region in India, use broken english to convey a message. And you somehow fathom whats being said. So thats a pun intended, whether you get it or not.

Viewer Zarin Mansur calls the use of Indian Englishisms and non-standard English grammar wrong, whereas Funzoa sends a comment (apparently filled with non-standard English to prove his point) that argues that the lyrics he wrote are not full of errors; rather, they strategically deploy language in a way that represents how some Indians speak. Funzoa believes that he doesn’t “do grammar errors” because he is simply representing how English is actually spoken.

In conclusion, a quick scan-through of comments has revealed a surprising array of attitudes towards the use of the language in one of Funzoa’s most popular videos. On one hand, some reacted to the use of accent extremely negatively, finding the video either offensive, annoying, or simply incorrect. Others reacted more positively, praising the author’s effective deployment of language for humorous effect.

What do you all think of the video? Do you think Funzoa is right when says he doesn’t “do grammar errors”? Do you find the video offensive as some viewers did? I’d love to hear your comments.

Jacob is a first-year undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Linguistics. His interests include bilingualism, second language acquisition, code-switching, Bollywood movies, and taking walks around Philly.