Anarchism and Citizen Sociolinguistics

What could anarchism possibly have to do with citizen sociolinguistics?Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 10.25.02 AM

The word “anarchism” may suggest the big circled A (usually in graffiti form) or even images of “anarchist” punks overturning tables or setting fire to McDonalds— the opposite of responsible citizenship. And certainly a departure from any form of sociolinguistics.

Citizen sociolinguistics as anarchism? Let’s think this through…

First, many forms of anarchism do not involve violence and vandScreen Shot 2017-03-10 at 10.26.19 AMalism.  A google image search yields images representing anarchy as associated with liberty, peace, collaboration, freedom, and mutualism. Rather than relying on overt violence, anarchism usually flies below the radar.  It’s tricky, often clever, and often (for example, in cases of poaching or squatting) a matter of survival.

In his brilliant book, Two Cheers for Anarchism, James C. Scott illustrates that in unobtrusive, yet subtly influential ways, anarchism is everywhere.  He gives examples of everyday forms of anarchism, starting with the most mundane, jaywalking.

Like other forms of anarchism, jaywalking is a subtly coordinated act of rule-breaking. For example, you might decide not to jaywalk when walking with a small child (it would set an unsafe example). But if it’s three a.m., you’re alone with not a car in sight, you might cross at a red light, or even in the middle of the block! As Scott writes, “judging when it makes sense to break a law requires careful thought, even in the relatively innocuous case of jaywalking” (Scott, 2012, p. 5).

Scott goes on to mention more radical forms of lawless behavior: desertion, squatting, poaching and points out that these are often the lowest risk options at hand: “desertion is a lower risk alternative to mutiny, squatting is a lower-risk alternative to land invasion, poaching is a lower-risk alternative to the open assertion of rights to timber, game, or fish.  For most of the world’s population today…such techniques have represented the Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 10.25.49 AMquotidian form of politics available” (p. 12).

Now, what does anarchism–even in its most subtle forms–have to do with citizen sociolinguistics?  This: Everyday understandings of language generated by citizen sociolinguists follow the same tactics of everyday acts of anarchy.

Just as anarchists go out and jaywalk, desert, poach or squat, citizen sociolinguists get online and post videos about “How to Speak Singlish,” engage in lengthy and opinionated dialogue about the finer distinctions of South Philly (Sow Philly) vernacular, post tutorials on varieties of English in Yorkshire (I’m proper chuffed about it!) or engage in Indian language(s) play in the YouTube videos like “Google my Bulbul.

These acts of citizen sociolinguistics, like many acts of anarchism, are not concerned with developing a coordinated social movement. And yet, like sustained, tacit anarchism, they gradually build valuable knowledge from the ground up, drawing on fine-grained distinctions provided through living locally and perceptively, and sharing that knowledge in everyday ways, often via social media like YouTube and Twitter.

Like anarchists, citizen sociolinguists are usually breaking the rules of “elites”:  Singlish is outlawed in Singapore classrooms. South Philly vernacular or Yorkshire expressions like “I’m proper chuffed” are not considered “proper English.” Videos like “Google my Bulbul” mix languages, defying named language boundaries.  These acts of citizen sociolinguistics, like acts of anarchy, illuminate the workings of human communication precisely by departing from its standardization.  Enforcing rules of language, in many contexts, may seem as silly as stopping at a red light on a deserted 3 a.m. stroll.  Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Just as acts of anarchy are lower-risk alternatives to official political action, acts of citizen sociolinguistics are very low risk.  But they are more likely to affect language use at a local level than more organized, top-down attempts to re-legislate language standards. People use languages in infinitely variable ways around the world–and in ways that change from day to day.  Everyday language use never aligns completely with those narrowly functional standards, frozen in time, laid down in language textbooks or even in sociolinguistics class. Instead, most language users develop fine-grained local understandings of their own language use by using their own language. And quotidian language politics for them takes the form of citizen sociolinguistics: Like everyday acts of anarchism, the posts and musings of citizen sociolinguists illuminate the fine-grained knowledge of those tuned more closely to the workings of the social order than those who are making the laws.

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Do you participate in acts of citizen sociolinguistics?  What are they?  Why? Do you see the “anarchism” in them? Or do you more highly value top-down understandings and legislation of linguistic practice? Where do you stand?  Add your comments below!

 

 

How Do People Use Language to Get Taken Seriously?

Is speaking-like-others-expect-you-to-speak the best way to get them to take you seriously?

In response to my last post (Freedom of Speech: What you Say and How you Say it) one thoughtful reader, I’ll call him Mr. MiddleOfTheRoad, took issue my rhetorical question: Why should we let others define the way we speak?

I had asserted that we shouldn’t let others define the way we speak, because when we do, we can’t express ourselves fully, and our unique perspectives may not be heard. The more we police how we say things, the more we circumscribe what gets said.

Mr. MiddleOfTheRoad asserted to the contrary, that

“…it’s in our own interest to learn how to speak as others do. We may WANT them to teach us.”

Two questions came up for me:

  1. Which “others” are you talking about? Teachers? Police? Parents? Bosses?
  2. Why wouldn’t they also want US to teach THEM? (Don’t Teachers, Police, Parents, Bosses learn new ways of speaking from Pupils, Citizens, Children, Employees?)

Mr. MiddleOfTheRoad continued…

If you wish to be taken seriously as, say, a lawyer then you had best learn how to speak as lawyers do, etc., etc.”

Yes, perhaps you must speak “as lawyers do” to be taken seriously as a lawyer. As another wise reader (I’ll call him City Kid) put it, a defense lawyer shouldn’t go before the judge and jury saying things like “Bobo here ain’t got no problems with the law.”

But aside from basic protocols for speaking in court or other professional settings, two problems immediately come to this mind:

  1. How do generic “lawyers” speak?(I suspect there are multiple nuanced versions Lawyer-Speak, just as there are multiple nuanced ways of speaking as a politician, a poet, or a preacher.)
  2. Is just speaking as some approximation of a generic lawyer really enough? (If you have something to say, something unique, that your addressees have not understood before, if you wish that unique perspective–your own–to be taken seriously, don’t you need to add something more than what “they” taught you? Might you not need to pull out some new expressive chops?)

There are more alternatives than speaking “like a lawyer” or “not like a lawyer.”

Yet, Mr. MiddleOfTheRoad went on to make a restaurant analogy:

“What would be the sociolinguistic equivalent of going into a restaurant and eating your meal with your fingers? That’s terrific if you want to offend people but if you don’t then you’ve got to learn and practice certain things.”

Again, the same two problems rankle:

  1. What is generic restaurant behavior? (Just as there are different ways of being a lawyer, politician, poet or preacher, there are many different ways of restaurant eating. Do you eat with your fingers at McDonalds? Lorenzo’s Pizza? Dunkin’ Donuts? Ben & Jerry’s? Might you grab an endive with your fingers at a Fancy French Restaurant if you had already asked the waiter for cutlery and wanted to make a point?)
  2. Is just knowing some generic approximation of restaurant behavior enough? Don’t we acquire new ways of eating when we go to new places? For example, I use spongy bread to eat my food when I’m in one of Philadelphia’s countless delicious Ethiopian restaurants. I use chopsticks when I’m in Chinatown, but, I may ask, diplomatically, for forks for my children.

How does this apply to using language to speak our minds, to command respect, to get people to take us seriously? Speaking on the bus, or as a lawyer, a mother, a politician, teacher or poet—speaking as an individual—takes awareness and finesse. As does eating with your fingers at a Fancy French Restaurant, asking for a fork in Chinatown, or learning to use spongy bread at an Ethiopian place.

Using language flexibly and to make points, but in ways that might be unfamiliar, that may require some extra reflection, or even require our addressees to ask questions, is not the same as being ignorant or uncivilized.

Not speaking exactly like others is not “the sociolinguistic equivalent of going into a restaurant and eating your meal with your fingers.” Not speaking exactly like others can be infinitely many other things, including being

  • poetic
  • creative
  • multilingual
  • flexible
  • intelligent.

Speaking differently can also be, even when a little off-putting, a way of getting people to take you and what you have to say, seriously.

Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we are celebrating today, spoke in such a way that millions of people took him seriously, though he was also off-putting for many. He did not let others define either what he said or how he spoke. Yet, he was serious. And, he was taken seriously (in one sense, very sadly so).

How do you use language to get people to take you seriously? Are the only alternatives Offending or Not Offending? Proper or Not Proper? Correct or Incorrect? English or Not English? What other resources do you draw on? Post your responses here!