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:

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 12.27.15 PM

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.

Making a Scene: Get thee to YouTube

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 9.44.39 PMI just saw Shakespeare’s Hamlet off Broadway at the Classic Stage Company. The production features Peter Sarsgaard as a hipster Hamlet, drinking, sniffing coke (meth?) and lackadaisically moping around, while delivering his lines in a way that uncannily grabbed my attention. His perfectly laid-back, but pained delivery turned the super-familiar, “To be or not to be…”, “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt…”, “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him…” into brand-new-seeming phrases.

Hearing these lines again also made me think of the modern Internet meme-like quality of much of Shakespeare. How different is “To be or not to be” from President Obama’s “Yes we can!” or Sweet Brown’s “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”? Why do we keep watching and performing these phrases again and again? One reason might be that each time we hear these recognizable words in new contexts, we experience something different (See also, modern day poetics post). How would this work with Shakespeare?

I decided to choose one meme-like phrase of the play and focus on that, and Sarsgaard’s performance struck me most during the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene. I had remembered this scene as one of an angry Hamlet ranting at Ophelia (his girlfriend) telling her, “Get thee to  a nunnery!”, shoving her around crazily. But in Sarsgaard’s version, Hamlet and Ophelia (played by Lisa Joyce) seemed not really to be talking to each other at all. Hamlet wasn’t ever yelling and rarely even directing his speech at Ophelia, but musing to himself about the pointlessness of marriage, the fickle nature of all women. He closed the scene in angst, leaving the stage without looking at Ophelia:

I say, we will have no more marriages:

Those that are married already, all but one, shall live;

The rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go.

Throughout the scene, Hamlet came off as depressed and disillusioned with all womanhood and humanity. Ophelia seemed heartbroken, for losing Hamlet, and for Hamlet losing his mind. Each seemed not to be talking to, or even addressing each other. The scene, as played by Skarsgaard and Joyce seemed about painful and isolating misunderstanding. It seemed deeper and sadder than I had ever remembered.

I turned to YouTube: How do others make meaning out of these words?

First, I found the Mel Gibson (1990) movie version:


Though this scene takes a long time, Gibson cuts nearly half of the text. He never even says “get thee to a nunnery,” “make thy way to a nunnery” or even, the final, “to a nunnery go!” Instead, he yells a lot and pushes Ophelia around.

Next, I looked to the more elegant Kenneth Branagh & Kate Winslet (1996) movie version. Here Branagh includes all of Shakespeare’s text, including “Get thee to a nunnery.” And he delivers it directly to Ophelia’s face.


Branagh, like Gibson, but not to such a degree, yells a lot while storming around a huge castle atrium.

Ethan Hawke (2000) takes a different approach. He is a modern guy, involved in business dealings in New York, up in a high rise, holding a beer (Carlsberg). But, like Gibson & Branagh, in the nunnery scene, he emotes directly to Ophelia. He is massaging her shoulders as he delivers his “Get thee to a Nunnery” line, and oddly pleading with her when he tells her why she should go, “We are errant knaves all; believe none of us”:


One YouTube commenter (the only one) suggests a possible problem with this performance:


As Georgian Wolf’s comment hints, Hawke’s engaged stance toward Ophelia seems strange considering the harsh, yet almost stream-of-consciousness content of his lines.

Big Stars are not the only ones performing Shakespeare on YouTube. So, I started looking at non-professional versions performed by students in English classes. My favorite was an unlikely performance by “Hong Kong students”:


This version came closest to the painful sense of detachment and loneliness I got from Sarsgaard’s performance. Hamlet is staring off into space for the “get thee to a nunnery” line. And, many of the other lines cut to imagined, dreamlike spaces (and distinctly non-Denmark like settings):


This HK Students’ version might speak more to other high school age students (especially in Hong Kong) than any of the professional productions do. And, collectively, this small set of YouTube scenes (and there are many more) illuminate the potential range of interpretations of a single scene, even a single line, of Shakespeare—including the potential to mock Mao Zedong!

Still, many High School English students seek out the “Spark Notes” website rather than YouTube to try to figure out what is going on in Shakespeare. How does Spark Notes represent the Nunnery scene?

Hamlet is very nasty to Ophelia and tells her to become a nun.

After seeing a YouTube repository of Shakespeare scenes, performed in dozens of new ways, this bare bones description disappoints. Unlike a Spark Notes synopsis, YouTube performances of classics don’t attempt to generically summarize THE meaning of a scene. They collectively communicate the huge range of potential meanings behind not only Shakespeare, but all our language. Also, inevitably, some performances work, some don’t. Why? What comes together to make a scene? How could centuries-old drama make sense in our world? Why do some performances speak more to certain people than others? To explore these kinds of questions, get thee to YouTube!

Have you encountered YouTube versions of “classics”? Have you any favorite versions? Can YouTube help students connect to literature and understand language in this way? Please comment below!

Word Wars: Shakespeare, Hip Hop, and the Common Core

Aesop RockEvery Wednesday morning, I visit a class of very smart, insightful, and surprisingly alert (considering class starts at 7:30 am) 11th graders during their English class. This week, they were finishing up their analyses of Hamlet soliloquies, and I took this opportunity to ask a few lingering questions about Shakespeare and Hip Hop (see previous post). What are some reasonable points of comparison?

Almost immediately, vocabulary began to emerge as the common ground.

One music fan pointed out that, like Shakespeare, the Hip Hop artist Aesop Rock commands a gigantic vocabulary, a fact documented last spring when this Shakespeare/Hip Hop infographic came out in an article by Matt Daniels (“designer, coder, and data scientist”) entitled, “The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop.” Daniels conveniently located Shakespeare’s relative spot in the lineup:


All the way to the right, sits Aesop Rock. And just to the left of him, members of Wu-Tang Clan and the Roots. These guys far surpass Shakespeare, and fans know it. Daniels writes that he originally excluded Aesop Rock (he seemed too obscure), but Reddit Hip Hop fans were insistent he be included. They knew he would shine in this comparison. So, Daniels ran the numbers and found they were right.

Voluminous Internet feedback followed the posting of Daniels’ article. As soon as Daniels’ chart came out, people began using it as a way to compare the quality of Hip Hop artists. Commenters suggested that it would follow that since Drake and JayZ are far to the left, they are obviously inferior artists to Aesop Rock or Wu-Tang. True?

Not really. Daniels quickly argued against this interpretation. First, he pointed out, vocabulary and verbal artistry are not the same. In a follow-up article, Daniels drew on a response to his first version, by Robert Gonzalez, to support his point of view. Gonzalez wrote that “On The Black Album track ‘Moment of Clarity,’ Jay-Z contrasts his lyricism with that of Common and Talib Kweli (both of whom “rank” higher than him, when it comes to the diversity of their vocabulary).” Then, Gonzalez cited these lines from Jay-Z:

Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense

But I did 5 mil – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since

Jay-Z is claiming to step down in terms of lyricism and vocabulary, gloating over his millions, but relinquishing any real claims to artistry to the hip hop artist Common. But is he really letting go of those claims to verbal art? He cleverly plays with the name “Common” and the phrase “Common sense” and in the process he implies that, in addition to doing “5 mil,” he still has some verbal skills. This suggests there is more to Hip Hop artistry than simply knowing a lot of words.

Other responses to Daniels’ Hip Hop vocabulary post point out that an artist’s “vocabulary” includes expressive devices that extend beyond words. Nathan, on Pigeons and Planes, brings this point home, when he writes:

In hip hop, and music in general, words aren’t the only thing that makes up an artist’s vocabulary.

As I followed this chain of remarks about vocabulary and Hip Hop, from the 11th grader’s comment on Aesop Rock, to the Internet posting, to the comments on that, I noticed the marked insistence that vocabulary, alone, can’t account for someone’s artistry or the extent of their communicative resources.

Delving into language artistry—be it Hip Hop or Shakespeare or Rush (another musical group the 11th graders invoked)—seems to be a much more complicated matter than counting words. For any director adapting Shakespeare to a new stage or in a new context, choosing costumes, deciding on the pacing, delivery, voice, pitch, tone, accent, and gestures, all enter into decisions for how to make a play that communicates with its audience. These decisions seem to align with those of Hip Hop artists like Jay-Z, similarly making “Common” sense decisions about how to reach their listeners.

Recent debates about the Common Core State Standards and their requirements for “vocabulary acquisition and use” traverse the same theme. Some have been worried that the common core designates specific vocabulary to be learned, ranging from outrage that the common core designates left-wing vocabulary or overly specified “academic” vocabulary or even the teaching of “Islamic” vocabulary.

Upon closer (any) examination, the Common Core encourages reflection on vocabulary and nuances of meaning precisely along the lines of the Internet exchanges surrounding the use of Hip Hop vocabulary and its relative worth. For grades 11 and 12, standards for “vocabulary acquisition and use” include the following:

Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Interpret figures of speech (e.g., hyperbole, paradox) in context and analyze their role in the text.

Analyze nuances in the meaning of words with similar denotations.

These standards do not focus on accumulating huge quantities of vocabulary words in isolation or determining the specific words that should be learned. Instead, these standards direct teachers and students to relish the “nuances” of word meanings, to understand that nuance “in context” and to make fine distinctions between words of similar meanings. Addressing these standards might even bridge the sophisticated types of debate that surround postings about Hip Hop and other music lyrics, and the kind of talk English teachers hope to encourage around literature like Shakespeare.

What do you view as a sophisticated use of vocabulary? How do you define “vocabulary”? Is it only words? How do you judge the relative merit of different verbal artistry? Please comment!

Shakespeare or Hip Hop?

wutang  Shakespeare

Last week in an 11th Grade English class, the English teacher and I started a discussion of language in Hamlet by presenting this poetic musing from D.H. Lawrence:

When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder

That such trivial people should muse and thunder

In such lovely language.     

Then we asked students about their experiences reading Shakespeare’s language so far. They shared frustrations (Too repetitive! Confusing word order!) and doubts (No way could one man have written so much!). Nobody fully embraced the idea that Shakespeare was a creative genius.

Nor did anyone take issue with Lawrence’s glib use of the phrase “trivial people” or the condescending tone he took toward them. Why shouldn’t everyone muse and thunder in lovely language?

Then, we trotted out this Shakespeare versus Hip Hop quiz (one I also shared with my Facebook friends, thus the 79 responses).

The questions and answers (quiz adapted from Ammon Shea’s book Bad English (2014)):

Quote Answer % Correct (n=79)
1.   The music, ho! 1.     Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra 78%
2.   But if you don’t, I’ll unsheathe my Excalibur, like a noble knight 2.     Gangstarr, “Step in the Arena” 66%
3.   Holla, holla! 3.     Shakespeare, King Lear 62%
4.   This is the proper way man should use ink. 4.     Big Daddy Kane, “Taste of Chocolate” 45%
5.   Welcome, ass, Now let’s have a catch. 5.     Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 68%
6.   The money that you owe me for the chain. 6.     Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors 48%
7.   Pay me back when you shake it again. 7.     Nas, “You Own Me” 67%
8.   Holla, ho! Curtis! 8.     Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew 60%
9.   Sabotaged, shellshocked, rocked and ruled, Day in the life of a fool. 9.     Public Enemy, “Brothers Gonna Work it Out” 70%
10.          Every square inch of it, that he chose for himself, is the best part. 10. Wu-Tang Clan, “Wu-Revolution.” 37%

People seem to get the right answer an average of about 60% of the time. Just barely a collective D-.

As some astute 11th graders pointed out, they were able to choose the “right” answers by second-guessing the test, not by deciding whether the language represented the “essence” of Hip Hop or Shakespeare.

Number 1 (78% correct!), for example, seemed to point to Shakespeare only because it sounds obviously like Hip Hop. Typical test-designers, students speculated, would include “ho” just to trick people.

Number 9 (70% correct) includes the word “shellshocked,” which another student pointed to as a giveaway, since that word didn’t exist until after the First World War. Shakespeare didn’t have any shells of that kind!

So, unless you know the exact lyric or play, or recognize testing tricks or oversights, the average person seems to have about a 50/50 chance of correctly guessing whether these quotes come from “Shakespeare” or “Hip Hop.” What does this tell us? Perhaps Shakespeare’s forte was not in his isolated mastery of “The English Language.” Instead, he may have been capturing exactly what “trivial people” said. Their wondrous language (including “ho” and “holla holla”), gleaned from Shakespeare’s active life in the pubs (so we’ve heard), may be precisely what Shakespeare wrote down.

What does that tell us about literary language? About Hip Hop? About our collective language resources? Do you know some “trivial people” that “muse and thunder” in lovely language? How do today’s artists—musicians, screen-writers, poets, playwrights—take up the talk of everyday people and use it for effect?   Please comment!