Who Are Citizen Sociolinguists?

At several places on this blog site, I have attempted to define and clarify what “citizen sociolinguistics” is.  But readers may still be unclear about who counts as a citizen sociolinguist.  Can scholars also be citizen sociolinguists?  Can robots? Small children?

Generally, citizen sociolinguists are any people (let’s exclude robots for now) who talk about language and publicly share their insights, often via Interned-based social media.  Citizen sociolinguists do not primarily concern themselves with scholarly debates. Instead their observations function as social gambits, luring any interested peers into a discussion of language by illustrating something unique, funny, interesting, absurd, or annoying about language around them.

Katiemayoxx” , for example, who has a YouTube Chanel primarily focused on Make-Up tutorials, begins her video about “things Welsh people say” by explaining that “today’s video is going to be a pretty different video actually.  Just something different that I wanted to film because I think some of you might find it interesting or maybe even funny.”Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 9.38.37 AM.png

From another part of the world, “GregoryShampoo”, invites viewers to learn how to speak “Singaporean English, aka, Singlish,” urging them to learn “five very important Singlish words: Lah, Sia, Siao, Wa Lao, and Bo Jio,” and illustrating the best possible attitude to embody while saying them.

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Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 9.58.57 AMIn the United States, “thethugyone,” from South Philadelphia, begins by telling his audience he’s had a bad cold, sinusitis, and pneumonia for a while, and so, he says,

…being sick, I’ve been on YouTube watching videos, like, incessantly.  Just for entertainment, you know. And I came across like, different accent challenge videos and I figured, “I’m from south Philly I can do an accent too,.. I mean, just the way I talk, or whatever.  So.  Yeah. So I figured maybe you guys could relate to it? I don’t know if there’s anyone from South Philly or from Philly in general.  People who aren’t from the East Coast think it’s from New York.  But trust me, I’m from here.  I’m from Philly and when I hear a New York Accent it’s not the same. So you’re all crazy, So the accent challenge, here it goes…

As these examples illustrate, those who I am calling “citizen sociolinguists” are generally non-scholars, and their insights are made with no intention of contributing to a scholarly discussion.  Instead, these videos are primarily offered up as entertaining performances–enticements to lure in more viewers. And, they succeed! As the comment-threads following these videos go on to illustrate, these YouTube performances generate extended dialogue about language.

Many YouTube response comments reaffirm the initial YouTuber’s perspective or provide extended stories about their own experiences with the language under discussion.  For example, comments following KatieMyoxx’s “things Welsh people say,” affirm what she has presented as “Welsh sayings,” in statements like:

im welsh and im from south wales, im from cwmbran and i say all these<3 welsh and proud!

Other commenters pick out specific words to underline as very important.  One commenter, for example, reaffirms the importance of the Welsh word, “cwtch”:

Anyone can hug but only the Welsh can cwtch.

Another emphasizes that now she understands her own use of “cwtch” better:

OMG CWTCH IS A WALES THING! I’m a vocabulary person, and i said that word in a sentence at a gathering and someone asked me if I was welsh… it all makes sense now…

Typically, commenters add to the discussion by drawing on personal experience, but now and then commenters will proffer some knowledge that is less experiential, more scholarly–ish as this person, who emphasized historical of one of the “Welsh” words, “mun”:

‘mun’ is also in the Sheffield dialect of Yorkshire English of the 19th century and it meant man.

Similar chains of comments unfurl below the “Singlish” and “South Philly” YouTube performances referenced above, and infinite other social media performances, on YouTube and elsewhere.

All these comments, even those taking a more scholarly stance, become part of an on-going conversation, working together with the initial performance to produce a citizen sociolinguistic portrait of a certain way of speaking.  By contributing to dialogue about language, these commenters (as well as the performer who sparks the dialogue) are taking the role of “citizen sociolinguist.”

And, as citizen sociolinguists all these social media performers are asserting (and creating) value for language they are using.  Are you a citizen sociolinguist?   Do you post your own performances? Comment on language? Please share below!

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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?

 

 

 

Nyle DiMarco: Citizen Sociolinguist of the Deaf Community—and Communication in General

Let’s be honest:  Most hearing people could not be bothered with sign language.

As kids, we may have thought about how amazing it would be to know it: Maybe weScreen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.23.28 PMhappened on the card with the alphabet and learned how to spell our name, or to sign a few top secret words to friends. But after a first enthusiastic burst, the card gets lost, the signing seems like too much effort.

Speaking for my own childhood self, it’s hard to stay motivated when you and all your friends are not deaf.  Learning all the letters, then spelling every word out gets to seem incredibly laborious.

Even if one musters will to know more sign language, typing in “How to use sign language” on google doesn’t help much.  The tutorials that pop up generally feature a very silent video with minimal effects.   Like this one:

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But even this no-nonsense video has over two million views.  The comments underneath give some sense of what motivates people to come to this site, and it is not to learn a secret language. Most comments mention encounters with deaf people—real or fictional—and the desire to make a visible effort to communicate like them: They have fallen in love with a deaf person, or they have a regular customer who is deaf.  They’ve tried a little sign, and witnessed how gratifying it is to connect through this medium.

Many mention Koe No Katachi (“A Silent Voice”), an anime film about a deaf girl. Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.27.44 PM.png

And others say that Switched at Birth, a TV show about twins, one of whom is deaf, brought them to this instructional site.

And here arrives our Citizen Sociolinguist star:  Nyle DiMarco, who plays the deaf heart-throb “Garrett” on that show.

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Nyle DiMarco as “Garrett” in Switched at Birth

Poking around on the web more, Nyle DiMarco emerges as a gorgeous, young, creative, confident, brilliant, and deaf man.  He also appeared on America’s Next Top Model—and won.  He competed in Dancing with the Stars—and won.

He’s obviously an extraordinarily gifted human.  But what makes him a Citizen Sociolinguist?  In addition to modeling, dancing, and acting, he is continuously explaining, largely through YouTube videos, Twitter, and other social media, how sign language works for him and why.  He shows the world the role signing plays in his life—the same way other Citizen Sociolinguists I’ve discussed in this blog site talk about and act out the everyday role of Singlish, Konglish, Emoji, or other language varieties

Nyle talks about and shows us explicitly how signing works for him—with his family, with his friends, while flirting, at the movies.

He embodies what communication can look like in the hands of a socially gifted, smart and confident young man. Who, oh yeah, is also deaf.

One of his YouTube videos posts answers to questions people have asked him through Twitter, and his response to one question in particular, “Were you ever bullied?” caught my attention.  He replies, “No.  Maybe I was made fun of, but I never listened.  Because I have always loved being deaf.”  He importantly points out that being deaf has never been an issue for him—his entire family was deaf, he says, and “they knew what to do.”

Educators often talk a lot about how damaging a “deficit perspective” can be for learners. In the case of deafness and signing, if you consider it a deficit, you may never focus on a deaf individual’s strengths.  Nyle DiMarco embodies the opposite perspective—as he describes himself, he has never seen his deafness as a deficit.  He LOVES being deaf. And, in the best way, he loves being HIM.  He exudes self-respect—and respect for others.

In this way, Nyle DiMarco’s Citizen Sociolinguistics is illuminating not only for the Deaf Community, but for all of us—because he is talking about communication and modeling what it looks like in ordinary situations.

Nyle’s experiences surrounding the movie Black Panther illustrate this attitude in action.  When he went to the movie theater, full of excited anticipation for the show, the captioning machine the theater provided for him was a disaster, running behind the dialogue and awkwardly blocking sub-titles for the fictional Wakandan language spoken by characters in the movie.  He tweeted about his experience, vividly illustrating his position:

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And he wrote about his experience in Teen Vogue, describing in candid detail how awful his trip to the movie theater was (he left after ten minutes). He also made a larger point about the importance of sub-titling movies, and the biased views against it:

“I’ve heard the standard counterargument. Onscreen captions degrade the viewing experience. They’re annoying and distracting. I call BS. People don’t mind subtitles when they don’t understand the language being spoken.”

Nyle goes on to point out that many popular mainstream shows (Narcos on Netflix, for example) include subtitles for those viewers who don’t know languages other than English.  And, even Black Panther included sub-titles in English for Wakandan. His clarity and his humble description of his own viewing experiences on Twitter rallied thousands of Twitter followers in support of his point:  Subtitles of all types often improve the movie experience for everyone—why exclude those that are for deaf people?

But if you look up “Nyle DiMarco’s Black Panther Controversy” on line, you will probably find another Citizen Sociolinguistic controversy—this one with Nyle on the receiving end of the criticism.   Nyle attracted ire from members of the black/deaf community when he posted a video announcing the new American Sign Language (ASL) sign for “Black Panther”.

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He was criticized for, as a white celebrity, overstepping his role as a spokesman for the deaf community, and soon other signs were proposed for “Black Panther”:

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The Moth News story excerpted above, for example, elicited this comment praising the slamming of Nyle (and two thumbs up):

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 12.06.50 PMHow did Nyle respond?  This seems like an important test of not only Deaf communication, but communication in general.  According to a sign language interpreter friend of mine: “Nyle did apologize, saying he did not mean to take over and use his fame to overstep boundaries, and I don’t think this tainted his overall reception in any way.”

I looked around on line a bit then and found that, not only did he apologize, he also fully embraced alternatives.  Immediately after his Twitter post, a black deaf man posted a different version of an ASL Black Panther sign.  Nyle responded with “Thanks @jaceyhill” and unmitigated enthusiasm:

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The Twitter feed continued to take up @jaceyhill’s SUPERHEROIC version of the sign.  While a few haters remained, most responses piled on to say thank you to Nyle for his contributions, and, even, as this post illustrates, to promote greater unity:

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So, I don’t see “sign language” as just a potential secret code any more—thanks, in part, to my new favorite Citizen Sociolinguist, Nyle DiMarco.  Every day, he puts his voice out there, talks about being deaf, about using sign and other modalities (like subtitles), and respecting whatever comes back.  His points about his own communication are not meant to stand as immutable truths, but to begin a dialogue about communication and human dignity.  Along the way, more citizen sociolinguists—like @jaceyhill, above, who coined the ASL Black Panther sign that stuck—join in to contribute the expertise that can only come from their unique perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

What is Gabagool?

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 7.07.26 PMA couple weeks ago, I saw the item “gabagool” on the menu of a local Philly restaurant.  Having lived in Philadelphia for a while, I had the vague feeling this was just an ironic nod to the way people here pronounce the delicious, ham-like meat, “Capicola.” But, since it was printed out on a real, official menu of a nice center city restaurant, I thought I might be mistaken.  Maybe “gabagool” was just one more variation on Italian meats and cheeses that I didn’t know.

So, in Citizen Sociolinguist form, I turned to (Gaba)Google.  What did I learn?Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 10.55.26 PM

As I suspected, Gabagool is “just” another way of saying “Capicola.”  The top definition on Urban Dictionary (the first google hit), also supplies a couple useful analogs in the “Napolitan” dialect:  Manigot (for Manicotti )and Rigot (Ricotta).

One Urban Dictionary author also knew a little linguisticky detail about voiced and unvoiced consonants, and came up with a pattern for these special words.

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In addition to Urban Dictionary entries, (gaba)google brought up quite a few videos associated with “Gabagool”– Citizen Sociolinguists have a special knack for recognizing and displaying all the non-linguistic elements of a scene.  These non-linguistic aspects of context provide crucial meaning to unique ways of speaking.  “Gabagool” is not simply a “Napolitan”, voiced-consonant way of saying capicola. It is something you say in a certain special context while looking a certain way.

By consulting the citizen sociolinguists posting on Youtube, we begin to see all the otherScreen Shot 2017-10-28 at 10.07.29 PM features of a scene that go into using the word “gabagool.”  The most popular video example, by far, is this clip from the Sopranos, in which Silvio Dante, outrageously played by Stephen van Zandt, demands, “Gabagool!  Over here!”

Everything in this scene that surrounds Silvio Dante’s “gabagool” illustrates the context of New Jersey Italian American family. And, as Meadow Soprano (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) illustrates in her iconic line, “Don’t eat gabagool, Grandma, it’s nothing but fat and nitrates,” even speakers of the word gabagool who don’t know much Italian (or feel any reverence for the cuisine) can fluently speak this variation.  According to Atlas Obscura, you will not even hear “gabagool” (or proshoot or manigot for that matter) if you go to Southern Italy, their ostensible original homeland. Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 11.07.21 PM

Gabagool, instead, serves as an emblem for identity—say “Gabagool, ovah here!” and you are not simply demanding some capicola, you are being a specific type of Italian American, probably born-and-raised in the tri-state area.  Even the comments from the Sopranos’ YouTube clip (and another compilation of all the gabagool scenes in the series) zero in on love for just this word:

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Of course, it is possible to seriously misuse the word “Gabagool.”  In another popular video that came to the top in my google search, Michael, from the show The Office, tries to use a Sopranos style “gabagool” in a standard business lunch restaurant and makes no sense at all.

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Michael is trying to impress their Italian American client at lunch, but instead shows a (typical-for-his-character) dramatic misreading of context, using “Gabagool” in a setting that is far more like Applebees than a gathering in the Sopranos’ living room.  The waitress has no idea what he is talking about, (and who knows what the Italian American client thinks!).

Let’s bring this all together then—the (gaba) good, the bad, and the ugly: Gabagool epitomizes something wonderful about learning language: You only need know a few words to join in and start speaking.  However, to use those words effectively, you also need to know much more about who uses them, in what settings, and how.  In the case of capicola, you must saaaaavor the gabagool—despite the fat and nitrates.  The tenuous connection of gabagool to Italy also illustrates that words aren’t locked into being part of “A Language.” Inevitably, communities of speakers develop their own uniquely local communicative flair.  However, that local flair requires not simply knowledge of a word, or its voiced consonants, but a sense of context.  As Michael-from-The-Office illustrates, if you don’t understand when, where, and how to use one of these emblematic words, you might be better off just not using it.

Do you have certain emblematic words you say, that mark you as part of an inside group?  What are they? In what settings do you say them? What effects do they have?  Have you ever made an error or faux pas when attempting to speak an emblematic word like gabagool?  Please share your stories and comment below!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Acquisition versus Learning and Citizen Sociolinguistics

Did you LEARN how to speak English or ACQUIRE that ability?  What about Spanish?  Or Arabic? This is a distinction that many in the language teaching world like to think about.

Some tend to think that first languages (“mother tongues”) are acquired through participation in family and society, while additional languages require explicit instruction, and are thus learned.  Nobody taught us how to conjugate verbs as we acquired our first language—but this seems to be a big focus of learning additional languages in high school.

But even granting that you acquired a lot as a baby, don’t you consciously continue to learn a lot about your own “mother tongue” as you get older?  Consider all the subtle forms of language we continue to learn/acquire long after we seem to have mastered at least one “mother tongue.” Some of that later-in-life language we acquire without much thought, but other language, we probably spend some conscious effort learning.

Take, for example, ordering a hoagie (sandwich) at Wawa.  If you are not from greater Philadelphia, you may not even know what I’m talking about.  For many, this type of language knowledge has been acquired through such subtle cumulative processes of socialization that people don’t know how to articulate it.   And, it may feel awkward to ask someone directly how to order a hoagie at Wawa.  So, it seems better to just muddle along in the hopes that finally you’ll get it (acquire it).

But sometimes we just don’t have the time, the connections, or the guts to acquire certain types of language knowledge through incremental interactional trial-and-error.

That’s where Citizen Sociolinguists come in.

This act of articulating subtle, socioculturally acquired knowledge—so that outsiders can learn it— is PRECISELY what Citizen Sociolinguists do.  You want to know how to order a sandwich at Wawa? Citizen Sociolinguists have produced You Tube videos on it:

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Not even sure what “Wawa” means? You don’t have to wait through years of socialization to acquire that knowledge, you can simply google it.  If you look on Urban Dictionary, you can get a relatively straight definition:

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Etc…

And, if you browse through other definitions, you  will also get a taste for the ironic reverence many Philadelphian’s feel for the convenience store:

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You can also browse a bit and find some good stories of people who did not follow protocol at Wawa, like this Twitter post featuring a gaffe by Sean Hannity (woe is he):

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Citizen Sociolinguists then, are the language teachers you always wish you had—the ones who teach you what is NOT in the book, but what is crucial to learn to get along.  The ones who answer the questions you were afraid to ask—because it seems like you are supposed to already “just know.”

This explicit learning provides a good starting point—by directing language learners (all of us) what to look for.  Once I get some explicit instruction on, say, “how to order a sandwich at Wawa” or, for that matter, “how to greet someone on the street in Philadelphia,” I don’t need to follow those explicit steps, but I may begin to notice how true-to-life this depiction is—or how people vary from it—and how my own individual variation may fit in.

Citizen Sociolinguists provide us the secrets all good teachers do—combatting a fear of total ignorance that might otherwise paralyze a learner—so that we can forge ahead on our own learning path.

By the way, many contemporary applied linguists and language teachers avoid both the terms “learning” and “acquisition” in favor of “language development”—a combination of these processes.  This also seems to apply to the type of growth that happens when we engage with Citizen Sociolinguists.

How have you used the Internet and the knowledge of Citizen Sociolinguists to learn a new language, or to learn new aspects of a language you’ve been struggling to understand?  Has this explicit training opened new forms of participation for you? Please leave your comments below!

Is This Realistic? Citizen Sociolinguistics and The Movies

A question I often ask when I’m watching a movie’s depiction of local speech, a stigmatized dialect or mock-worthy speech act is, “Is this realistic?”

How could one possibly answer that question?

Would you find a “real” speaker of that local or stigmatized variety or notable swatch of talk and check with them?

Who might that be?  And who am I to label that variety “local,” “stigmatized,” or “mock-worthy” anyway?

From a Citizen Sociolinguistics perspective, one route to go is to look at the comments on-line.  Take a look at a stretch of movie dialogue on YouTube—inevitably you will find an example—and see what commenters say.

Here are a couple examples to illustrate:

Example 1:  Akeela and the Bee. 

This movie is about Spelling Bee competitions and an unlikely competitor, Akeela, who comes from a predominantly African American neighborhood in Los Angeles.  The movie makes a big deal about ways of speaking, as illustrated in this clip, where a Professor criticizes Akeela for her use of “ain’t”:

I like this depiction of Akeela’s snappy retort to the obviously lonely and socially awkward professor.  As the movie proceeded, I kept wondering how this clash of language attitudes and lifestyles would unfold.

Then, in another pivotal scene, Akeela’s brother tries to weasel out of helping her learn spelling words, but is peer-pressured (by an older and cooler guy from the neighborhood) to help her.  The scene seems almost goofily Hollywoodish, as it depicts, in a heartwarming way, the neighborhood rallying around Akeela to help her learn crazy-hard words like staphylococci.   

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After I see this, the “is this realistic?” question kicks in big time.  Here’s when I start scanning the comments.  And the commenters seem to answer, “yes!”  While some chime in simply criticizing (“Fuck this wake ass shit”[sic]) or loving it (“Love this Movir so bad”[sic]), the more specific comments remark on its authenticity:

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These commenters rally around the positive depiction of Akeela as a flexible speaker of both a local African American variety in Los Angeles and Akeela’s prowess as a spelling hero for the community.

Example 2:  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

Straying far from Akeela and the Bee territory, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off throws intense shade on anything having to do with school.  In one of its most quoted and widely circulated scenes, an Economics teacher (played by Ben Stein) bores the class with his “discussion” of The Great Depression, tariffs, and supply-side economics (aka voodoo economics).  In this clip, his “Anyone? Anyone?” refrain is featured as a non-question, a feeble bid to get students talking:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uhiCFdWeQfA

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This clip, like the Akeela clips, while entertaining, smacks of Hollywood overkill.  Teachers aren’t really THIS BAD are they?  And again, I find myself asking the question, “Is this realistic?”  It does seem to illustrate a recognizable and much-mocked speech act, often referred to in educational research circles as the “guess what I’m thinking” question.  But does this really happen in schools anymore?

To answer that question, I turned again, as is the Citizen Sociolinguistic way, to the comments.  Of course, many commenters recognize and appreciate simply the hilarity of Ben Stein’s performance.  But, additionial comments pile up in painful recognition of the “Anyone? Anyone?” speech act:

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For these viewers, Ben Stein’s performance smacks of today’s dysfunctional classrooms.  Part of the hilarity of his performance, I suspect, comes from its pinpointed realism.

Some of you astute readers might be questioning this Citizen Sociolinguistic method of gathering evidence of the “realistic” quality of these Hollywood performances.  Why grant any credence to YouTube commenters?  Why even believe what they say?  They might even be being ironic!  Yes—and perhaps some readers will interpret these comments this way.  And yet, even the existence of these comments (ironic or not!)  illustrates that these ideas are circulating out there in the real world.  And, as soon as they get put down in YouTube, they continue to circulate.  The comment regarding Ben Stein’s performance, “This never gets old.  I still have classes like that,” for example, has (so far) received 45 likes.  Viewers seem to identify with this perspective.  This performance of “teacher” seems to be a recognizable prototype; his much-maligned questioning style is one that students out there recognize and loathe.

And Akeela’s neighborhood peers, rallying behind her spelling training, seem to also be illustrating recognizable attitudes about ways of speaking and studying language.

These performances resonate.  That’s why they are up on YouTube.  That’s why they garner comments and why those comments garner thumbs ups (in some cases, many thumbs ups).  Those comments and thumbs ups perpetuate an understanding of these as recognizable ways of speaking—and attitudes about those ways.  Is something realistic? It never starts out so.  It becomes realistic in how people, subsequently, display their answers to that question.

What movie depictions of speech have you wondered about?  Do Citizen Sociolinguistic investigations shed light on those wonderings?  Please comment below!

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:

GibsonNunnery

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.

BrannaghNunnery

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”:

HawkeNunnery

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

HawkeComment

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”:

HongKongStudentsNunnery

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):

MarryaFool

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!