Speak Good Singlish: A Form of Citizen Sociolinguistics

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 12.52.27 PMLast week, the New York Times published an opinion essay  by Mr. Gwee Li Sui.  In it, he suggested the Singapore govenment’s “war on Singlish,” had some problems. Singlish (Singapore English), he argued, represents Singapore well, bringing together many of the languages of that nation. Mr. G even asserted that Singlish has the power to “connect speakers across ethnic and socioeconomic divides like no other tongue could.”

He included a short glossary, illuminating Singlish’s internal variety (see sidebar).

Mr. G also pointed out that the more restrictions placed on Singlish, the more it seems to flourish: “In the eyes of the young, continued criticism by the state made it the language of cool.”

And, as his essay illustrated, individuals needn’t choose between Singlish or Standard English, as many people are aware of both (and other languages) and fluently switch between the two.

A few days later, the New York times published a letter from Li Lin Chang, press secretary to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore.

This letter emphasized that the type of creative language use that Mr.G praised was only the purview of highly educated people, not everyday people in Singapore who need “standard English” to get ahead:

Not everyone has a Ph.D. in English Literature like Mr. Gwee, who can code-switch effortlessly between Singlish and standard English.

This statement piqued my curiosity.  Using Singlish does seem complicated—as it combines so many languages and grammatical systems. But I know many code-switchers in the United States who do not have PhDs—even some toddlers! Is code-switching between Singlish and Standard English different? Something only PhD educated people can handle?

In Citizen Sociolinguistic mode, I started searching the Internet to see who (in addition to Mr G, PhD) was facile with this type of “code-switching”.  It appears there are many non-PhDs who, like Mr. G, capably code-switch between Singlish and other forms of English, as illustrated (and discussed) in this YouTube Video :

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 2.12.08 PM

In about ten minutes’ more poking through the Internet, I also learned about the “Speak Good English” campaign in Singapore and spied this logo:

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 1.34.40 PMThe Speak Good English movement also includes  post-it note style signs like this, emphasizing the edits needed to “get it right”:Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 1.08.27 PMI also started finding quite a few signs suggesting an underground “Speak Good Singlish” movement, and even a counter logo:Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 1.33.55 PM

This movement also counters the official post-it notes with deftly edited signs translating “Standard English” into “Singlish”. Here are a few Pinterest posts to illustrate:

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 1.15.16 PM

This Pinterest user seems to have a good grasp of “code-switching” between Standard and Singlish.

A Google image search illustrated many more playful post-it style notes like the following English/Singlish translations:

And this sign even merges Singlish with Shakespearean diction (lah!):

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 1.39.43 PM

“Lah” seems important:

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 1.38.41 PM

Long before Mr. G wrote his New York Times editorial, the Speak Good Singlish movement seems to have grasped the import of Singlish for Singaporean Citizens.

Who was behind this “Speak Good Singlish” counter-punch?  Does their language awareness and ability to code-switch entail PhDs?

No. They are Citizen Sociolinguists, illustrating—with humor and creativity—how language connects to social value in everyday lives.  In the process, they are building everyone’s repertoire, rather than holding up one “standard” as the only functional way to succeed.

Of course, some readers may still feel that proud Singlish speaking citizen sociolinguists are missing out on something that a more rigid “Speak Good English” regime might provide them. What’s your opinion on Singlish? Or the “Speak Good Si/English” movement? Please add your comment below!!!

 

Retweet! and Other I-Agree Signals

“Retweet!”

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 9.35.05 AM

This week, listening in on a heated high school discussion, I heard someone shout out “Retweet” from across the room. I wasn’t sure what was going on. Was our conversation being tweeted about?

Later, in another class, while gathering lists of words (using pencil and paper) for our semester-by-semester slang tracking, the word “retweet” appeared on someone’s list.

I had to ask, “Do people actually say that?”

Sure.  It means “I agree with you,” or “I feel the same way,” or “I TOTALLY AGREE!”

These kids had some pin-pointed expertise:  I couldn’t even find this definition of “retweet” on Urban Dictionary, where the only definitions offered are the literally literal

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 9.52.49 AM

and the facetious (?)

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 9.53.04 AM

Yuck!

So… here’s the scoop:  Certain teenagers say “retweet!” out loud—in the same place other people might say, “thumbs up!” “here-here!” “right on!” or even “I concur.”

Why so many expressions for “I agree”?

Slang expressions tend to proliferate around taboo topics like sex and drugs, or insulting remarks about men, women, race, ethnicity, religion, nationality.  We as a species seem to have an unlimited capacity to make new words for the skeezy, forbidden, or embarrassing. And it makes sense that we would want to be more creative (or secretive) about how we talk about them.

Less obvious:  Our species-wide love of agreement and new ways to do it!

Just as ways to talk about being “wasted/lit/turnt/smashed/etc” proliferate like crazy, so do ways of expressing the fact that “I feel the same way.”

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 9.32.51 AM Look around you and you will see all kinds of evidence that people like to agree!

Many of these, just like many other new words, are boring and sheep-like (think thumbs ups, viral videos, proliferations of exclamation points!!!). But others tip toward the profound, or at least show that how we agree may be a powerful glue holding us together.

Call and Response is one of the most moving forms of “retweet!” Listen to all the buzzing agreement, for example, during Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have been to the Mountaintop” speech:

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 11.07.33 AM

MLK: “Somewhere I read of the freedom of speech”

Audience: “YEAH!”

MLK: Somewhere I read of the freedom of press”

Audience: YEAH!

MLK:  Somewhere I read that the greatness of America is the right to protest FOR right.

Audience:  YEAH! ((Clapping and screaming in agreement))

Enthusiastic agreement happens when reading too. Look through a book that someone appreciated:  Underlining!  Highlighting!  Post it notes!lovingpostits

I happily notice when students show up with books like this in class.  So many post-it notes can’t simply be superficial display.  This student found a connection with Mr. Bakhtin.

Teachers also recognize when there is a buzz of agreement in a class.  When faces light up, I’ll sometimes stop and ask, “You’re smiling.  Do you agree?” Yes—and the discussion gets better.

Some teachers even use silent hand-signs for agreement.  At this website about “talk moves,” one teacher illustrates how she embeds this agreement sign in her discussions, apparently with some success:

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 10.25.02 AM

Comments on this video also enthusiastically agree that the “I agree” sign improves classroom discussions:

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 10.30.16 AM

Piling on, readers of the comments that agree with the “I agree” sign also receive “I found this helpful” agreement award symbols.Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 10.32.01 AM

People seem driven to express agreement and we keep finding new ways to do it.

As the “talk moves” teacher explains, the “I agree” sign is a way to “encourage discourse in the classroom.”  Agreement signals involvement. Humans learn and develop through interaction. But we also want to keep it real and display our unique identities: Different groups, different media, different attitudes, different styles require different agreement expressions.  I may agree with much of class discussion—but  I doubt I’ll ever say “retweet!” to express that agreement. I have my ways.  You probably have yours.  And the conversation continues…

How do you express agreement?  When, where and why? What are the effects?  Please comment here!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.   

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 7.16.44 PM

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:

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 6.20.25 PM

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 6.21.37 PM

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

Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 2.33.13 PM

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:

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 6.38.41 PM

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 6.38.58 PM

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 6.39.23 PM

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 6.39.36 PM

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 6.39.43 PM.png

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 6.40.31 PM.png

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 6.40.50 PM

Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 6.41.10 PM

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!

Talking Music and Singing Language: More is More

Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 9.23.40 AMJane Frazee (a renowned music educator who also is my stepmother) has spent most of her life teaching and writing about music and music teachers (see her latest here).  She constantly thinks about questions of music and children.  And when I talk to her about Citizen Sociolinguistics, she keeps thinking about music and children. I’ll tell her about the “Accent Challenge” or “Language Pies” or high school students’ fascination for “slang,” and she says, “that’s a lot like what we are trying to do with music!”

What’s the connection?

One of the questions Jane has been thinking about has to do with music Screen Shot 2015-12-16 at 9.29.08 AMnotation.  Why do we teach children to read music notes when their natural sense of rhythm and melody is always initially much more sophisticated than anything they can read on paper? Children who are jump-roping, hand-clapping, rapping, singing, patty-caking, Miss Mary Mack Mack Macking during recess, are looking at quarter notes and eighth notes in the music classroom and saying, in unison, “Ta Ta Tee Tee Ta.” Most children love music!  But Music Class can seem disconnected from other experiences kids have making music. And as kids get older, into their teens, they want to be playing their own instruments, in bands with friends, or socializing around music in other ways that don’t seem to connect to more formal music instruction.

So, why are we teaching “Music” when they already know it?

And, here’s the connection to Citizen Sociolinguistics: Why do we teach children—and young adults—“Language Arts” as if they don’t already know how to use language?

How can music and language teachers capture the knowledge and joy their students have for music and language without stifling it?

Many kids in music class –at least in the Ta Ta Tee Tee Ta style music class— have no idea they could make connections to what they may have been doing five minutes ago, singing with friends, before they walked into class.  In part, this is because the sophisticated musical things that kids do together without any teacher around –the moves they easily make rhythmically and melodically as they syncopate hand claps, lyrics, or jump-rope steps–take a long long time to learn formally and to put on paper.  Jane’s work explores how to give children the tools, gradually,  to represent and build on those rhythmic and melodic inclinations in notes, on a score.

From a Citizen Sociolinguistics perspective we can do something similar.  We’ve got the tools to explore what students know about language.  But students need permission to “count” what they are already doing as important knowledge about how language works.   When we talk about language from a Citizen Sociolinguistics perspective in English class, students reveal things that have never come up before:  “My mom sounds so formal whenever she is on the phone!”  “My mom uses a Chinese accent when ordering dim sum in English.” (Moms come up a lot.) “My teachers have no idea how emojis work!” “What would you call the store Five Below in Spanish? Cinco Abajo or still just Five Below?” “What are “salty looks”?”  Like kids playing with music and rhythm on the playground, these kids continually play with language, exploring different accents, languages, meanings, phrases, and creating new words and ways of speaking daily.

But if kids already know and love music, know and love language, what are teachers supposed to do?  Should we just give up and let them do their thing?  Is there no point to teaching music and language arts?    As music teachers and music lovers, as language teachers and language fanatics, music speakers and language singers, lifelong students and teachers, Jane and I would agree: No! We don’t stop teaching, but we don’t discount the richest foundation for what we teach: the music and language kids already make everyday.

We build connections:  That music you love on the playground? That counts as music in class too! That language you’ve noticed in that rap song that sounds amazingly cool? That counts as “Language Arts”!  Now let’s start thinking about how those daily discoveries you make about language relate to music notation, to English literature.  In music, this is called “improvisation” “song-writing,” or “composition.”  In English, “creative writing” or –hey- “composition.”   These are the most sophisticated skills musicians and language users can get –and teachers  can help them get there.

For me, Citizen Sociolinguistics provides a framework to gather everyday language knowledge and legitimize its role in the language arts classroom so that students’ language awareness and creativity grows.  For Jane, her half-century of experience with music teaching and teachers has given her a massive repertoire of music projects that build on students’ knowledge of music and connect it to the techniques of improvisation and composition.

Sure, there are musicians out there who never took music class, who never learned to read notes.  There are brilliant story-tellers who never wrote down a word of their stories.  As Jane and I agreed yesterday, “More is more–Not either/or”  (and hey! that makes a nice poem, or song!). So lets develop ways to make the connections that make the most of language and music in and out of class.

How do you make connections from language to language arts?  From music to music lessons?  From music to language and back? What do you think music notation and the written word have done to build language and music awareness? What are some of the ways we can concretely build these connections—in classrooms and out?  Please comment below!

Crossposting—Dumb or Delightful?

Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 8.07.40 PMHave you ever tried crossposting?

Most literally, crossposting is the practice of posting the same message on two or more of your social media accounts.

For a while, this was happening to me by accident when, unbeknownst to me, my Twitter account was linked to my Facebook account. It was dumb—and delightful at the same time.

Dumb—because suddenly all my nerdy language tweets, focused on an audience of students and colleagues were now posted to my family and friends from across the myriad phases of my life.

But also delightful! Suddenly unlikely friends from high school started tagging me on language related posts on Facebook, or sending me breaking news about the Word of the Year, or drawing on my expertise (“What is dabbin’?”).

Eventually, I figured out how to unlink the two, and I unlinked them, probably saving the majority of my Facebook friends from a lot of spam.

Through this accidental experiment, the value of crossposting came through to me. Not only did I discover Facebook friends who cared about language like I did—I also became more careful about the kinds of language posts I was making on Twitter. Would my mother be offended by this post? As long I was crossposting to Facebook and Twitter, that question always had to be in the back of my mind.

But this got me thinking about communication and social boundaries Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 8.08.53 PMmore generally. Crossposting—and its ramifications—as a metaphor for communication seems worth considering. What happens when you “crosspost” across the various social groups you are part of? Being completely oblivious of the participants and audience in each of these groups seems socially naïve—at best. And, this seems to be what happened at Yale last month, when professor Erika Christakis notoriously posted, to a college house e-mail listserve, the idea that Halloween is a chance to be “a little bit obnoxious,” countering the campus-wide e-mail suggesting students be sensitive about Halloween costumes (and, for example, avoid blackface). Bringing up the value of obnoxious Halloween costumes might be a nice debate on one of prof. Christakis’ “social media platforms”—say dinner with like-minded colleagues—but, as it turns out, it may be a dumb thing to crosspost to hundreds of Yale freshmen.

These days, social media may be making us more aware of the ramifications of crossposting in real life. People who use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., tend to mindfully tailor their messages to whomever they imagine is listening/reading/over-hearing on one of those apps.

Highschool students I work with, for example, know a lot about mindfully crossposting. As a way of exploring language in their lives, we have had them represent the various sectors of their lives as pie charts (see previous post on language diversity pies) and talk about the language they use differently in each of those sections. Many students list a dozen or more sections in their pie, making fine-grained distinctions, for example, between language used with one’s own parents, other adults, and one’s girlfriend’s parents. They include “slang” in some sections and not in others. Sometimes they include named languages in certain sections, including separate spots for “Chinese,” “Chinglish” and “English.” They seem intuitively aware that certain ways of speaking work well in some slices of their daily language pie, but that it would be very dumb to speak that way in others.

But, this does not mean students don’t engage in some forms of delightful “crossposting.” These same high school students have also mentioned that, sometimes, the most fun people are the ones who don’t keep their language rigidly aligned with a certain slice of their language pie–instead, mixing slang with formality, French with English, or purposely mispronouncing certain words.

Still, students also admit, part of the joy of this kind of language crossposting is the inherent risk involved. The danger of overstepping remains—crossposting might be dumb or delightful. It might be offensive and even incite mass protest (as in the unfortunate case at Yale). It might be hilarious and spark new ways of thinking (think Key and Peele style humor). In either case, “crossposting” reveals the borders we cross repeatedly in our everyday lives. When we start crossing those borders, we are taking risks. But they may be worth it.

Apparently, the Christakis professors are now encouraging Yale students to join them in further discussion. And, already, the general public has been made more aware of a variety of student voices on Yale’s campus. Let’s hope this leads to more crossposting across social groups there and even some new discoveries about each other. I would hate for it to lead to “delinking” our social circles permanently.

What social media do you crosspost too? How selective are you about what you post to which platform? In which sections of your life have you done more radical crossposting? What have been the effects? Please comment below!

 

 

Getting It Wrong and Having No Point: Brain Damage or Brilliance?

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 6.45.40 PMSunday afternoon conversations, at their best, tend to be luxuriously meandering. Such was case last Sunday when the topic turned to memories of a friend’s Grandfather. I had been admiring the old and crotchety orange cat strolling under the kitchen table, when my friend mentioned that his grandfather had always referred to that cat as a dog. Even in grandfather’s more youthful prime, “He tended to name things randomly and incorrectly a lot.” That was just the kind of person he was.

I had to mull that over for a while.   What kind of person, a super-competent English speaker, mind you, incorrectly labels things? The recalling of grandpa calling a familiar housecat a dog, drew a picture in my mind of a bemused, quietly confident man, pleased with his place in the world. Judging by the affectionate tone of this story, his grandson would love him anyway.

Later, in Citizen Sociolinguistic mode, I began to wonder: How else do people seize the language and playfully make it their own—metaphorically “calling the cat a dog”? And what happens when they do?

In contrast to my impression of grandpa as a creative, bemused man, comfortable in his own skin, a quick Google search for “saying words wrong” primarily yielded sites discussing dementia, aphasia, multiple sclerosis, learning disabilities and speech disorders. Some long discussion boards feature people anxiously recalling when they told their children to find a dish “in the oven” when they meant “dishwasher,” or calling their children by the dog’s name! (Nota Bene: I’ve never done that.) Many responses speculate these people have brain lesions. All these sites frame misusing language as a health problem.

But a search for “intentionally saying words wrong” leads to a much more fanciful set of examples. The Wikipedia entry for Malapropisms comes near the top of the list, and highlights a few of the more entertaining literary versions. Authors put the “wrong” words into certain characters’ mouths to bring out their whimsical or quirky nature.

The literary figure, Mrs. Malaprop (namesake of the term), most famously utters “a nice derangement of epitaphs” rather than “a nice arrangement of epithets.” The know-it-all quality of her character emerges through these silly missteps in speech. The more she tries to sound sophisticated, the more she sounds ridiculous.

That may offer insight into another great source of malapropisms: the world of politics. Wikipedia lists a few gems:

Former Chicago Mayor, Richard Daley, referred to “Alcoholics Anonymous” as

Alcoholics Unanimous

Texas Governor and one-time presidential nominee Rick Perry  once referred to states as, not laboratories, but

lavatories of innovation and democracy

Google the phrase  “political malapropisms” and even more surface, as do lengthy YouTube compilations of George W. Bush quotes, like this (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhmdEq3JhoY), including the following:

  • “a single mother working hard to put food on your family.”—Greater Nashua, N.H., Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 27, 2000
  • “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”—Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 2000
  • “Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB/GYNs aren’t able to practice their love with women all across the country.”—Poplar Bluff, Mo., Sept. 6, 2004

Obviously, Bushims are different from those malapropisms intentionally put into the mouths of literary characters. But are they as “unintentional” as someone with Alzheimer’s disease? Do these politicians have brain damage?

No. Michael Silverstein has pointed out in his “pamphlet,” Talking Politics: The Substance of Style from Abe to “W” (http://www.prickly-paradigm.com/titles/talking-politics-substance-style-abe-w.html) that Bushisms (the modern Malapropism) may even be strategic: Phrases like “a single mother with two children” working hard “to put food on your family” seem to have been a political boon for Bush. Because of the light-hearted, charmingly all-too-human light these oddities cast on him, they made him seem like good Presidential material. Strategists did not squelch Bushisms (as one might if they suggested brain damage) but encouraged the wide circulation of these malapropisms/Bushisms.

Departing further from the Internet Web for a dip into the philosophy of language, I pulled Donald Davidson off the dusty, dusty shelf, recalling his essay, ”Reality without Reference.” Davidson has captured the value of “calling a cat a dog.” Communication, he suggests, has less to do with conventions or rules than understanding one’s context and how one’s words affect it.   As he has written in that essay, “we must give up the concept of reference as basic to an empirical theory of language .” Instead, language is something we take out and play with, using what we have learned, trying new things, waiting to see what happens, acting on the world through words—in many cases ignoring their dictionary-designated reference.

The many Internet sites on dementia suggest that if we use words in new ways without meaning to, we may have a serious mental health problem. I am not denying that these may, indeed be signs of mental impairment. But “dementia” might not be the best first explanation. When the use of non-conventional language gets framed, first off, as a learning disability, speech impairment, brain damage, or some other health problem, much of the world responds by struggling hard to conform to rules of language that should be ignored.   Meanwhile, the happy few—great writers, political strategists, comfortably aging Philadelphians, teenagers around the world, hip-hop artists, university faculty—are flaunting those rules, happily using words the “wrong” way.

In a perversely malapropistic way, using words wrong(ly) doesn’t lead to the downfall of the language, but might be one of the most sophisticated things a speaker can do.

Do you know people who intentionally use the “wrong” word? To what effect? Please comment and share your examples below!

Sociolinguistic Persona Hacks: Ce n’est pas grave, mon cherri

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 11.41.07 AM

“Hacking,” as a liberating activity (see previous post on Google Translate Hacks) coordinates well with “Citizen Sociolinguistics.” Both take the tools of a highly standardized and hierarchically controlled world, and try to put them to work in new, even quirky, ways.

Combining the two yields endless possibilities for quick ‘n’ easy Sociolinguistic Persona Hacks. As a Sociolinguistic Persona Hacker, one can draw on easily accessible Internet based sociolinguistic portraits of speakers and combine those with one’s own specific language needs.

This week, I attempted such hacking with my 8-year-old daughter. She came home from Performing Arts day camp gushing: “I am going to be a Frenchman and all my lines are in French!”

Trouble.

“Cherchez la femme” being the only French phrase I know, I wasn’t sure how I was going to be a helpful mom with practicing these lines.

Fortunately, if you want to learn a few words in French to be in a play, you don’t need to absorb the three-year curriculum of French I, II, and III.

Using tools of the Internet, specifically YouTube and other helpful video sources, my daughter and I took a few shortcuts in language learning. We didn’t care about everything French speakers do with language. We just wanted to get the gist of how “The Frenchman” in the play Slick Macarons would say this:

“Ce n’est pas grave, mon cherri” ((while lying down))

We started by taking a look at YouTube-based French speakers and what they have to tell us about using language.

First, the basics: What does it mean and how do you say it? Drawing on my dormant French repertoire, I remembered “mon cherri” as “my darling” (maybe from cartoons? Sacre Bleu!). Here’s our first video hit for the rest of that line: “Ce n’est pas grave”:

Ce n’est pas grave (it’s no problem)

This was enough to get started rehearsing. But, I wondered, what other sorts of performances are out there that could enrich this role? As my daughter went off to practice, out of curiosity, I couldn’t help going through a few more helpful French videos.

“Allons-y” (Let’s go!) by the same performer caught my eye:

Allons-y

This seemed like a useful phrase. I thought I might suggest it to my daughter as something The Frenchman could throw in during an improvisational moment in Slick Macarons. Or maybe even use it myself with my French speaking friends!

Apparently others thought the same. It turns out “Allons-y” is all over the Internet. A very socially productive phrase. One viral pathway follows Doctor Who, using it in very silly ways, “Allons-y, Alonso!” being one of his favorite things to say, according to Urban Dictionary.

And here is a nearly 3 minute compilation of “Allons-y” tokens in Dr. Who:

Allons-y by Dr. Who

Allons-y has also been immortalized in memes like these:

Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 10.57.49 AMScreen Shot 2015-07-28 at 11.09.40 AM  Screen Shot 2015-07-28 at 10.56.55 AM

So, using “Allons-y” might not have much purchase if one is going for “French authenticity.” It might even convey something more like “Big (Anglo)Phony.”

But. It still might add something fun to the Philadelphia performance of Slick Macarons.

Moving on, I thought I would try to zero in on the more paralinguistic aspects of being “The Frenchman” and found this video on “Ten Ways to be Parisian with (“Chanel Muse”) Caroline De Maigret.”

10 ways to be Parisian

On viewing her lovingly hilarious portrait of the Parisian Woman, I thought tip #2, “Look at your phone when it rings but don’t pick it up,” might give my daughter some sense of the physical performance she could enact as The Frenchman in Slick Macarons.

In all, these few minutes of Sociolinguistic Persona Hacking gave us a lot to work with.

Sociolinguistic Persona Hacks may also  suggest a broader lesson about language. Creating a Sociolinguistic Persona ultimately has less to do with “accuracy” or “mastery” of a named language (like French) and more to do with combining languages, attitudes and one’s own personal flair. Learning a language (or to act out a language) is necessarily about learning about languages and their many ways of acting.

Ce n’est pas grave, mon Cheri!

Allons-y!

Have you ever tried your own Sociolinguistic Persona Hacks using languages you are not familiar with? Or, if you are a language teacher, with the languages you teach? Share your secrets—er, stories—below!

A World of Others’ Words

After my last post, some readers took immense issue with my use of the phrase, linguistic gentrification.

I pointed out that sometimes privileged, white people use phrases taken from the life ways of black and brown people without knowing the deeper story of that language.

So I made an analogy to “gentrification.”

I wanted to suggest that, just like neighborhoods, our words have had previous residents.

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 7.31.52 AMIronically, and perhaps too late, I realized the word “gentrification” itself has its own vivid history, of which I am only a partial witness. As the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (pictured) has stated, “We live in “a world of other’s words” (1984, 143).   And this certainly became clear when I used the term “gentrification.” Reader responses rolled in:

@grvsmth started an exchange on Twitter:

Sorry, @brymes, I find “gentrification” a really problematic term; applying it to language only muddies the waters

@nelsonlflores came to my defense with this mature formulation:

It seems very different to acknowledge its complexity than to completely dismiss as a viable concept.

But others held fast: @capntransit suggested we simply should not use the word “gentrification”:

The dehumanizing and scapegoating is so woven into the frame, I can’t see how you’d extricate it.

Any word I use, to quote Mikhail Bakhtin again, comes already “populated—overpopulated—with the intentions of others”(1981, 294). And, clearly, I had blithely used the word “gentrification,” not knowing the previous intentions of others using it. I hubristically thought I could, in a 500-word blog post, populate it with my own intentions: A useful analogy for a linguistic process. Not so?

In my own defense, these responses also illustrate the point I was trying to make: I was “gentrifying” the word “gentrification”—attempting to people it with my own intentions, the same way people take over neighborhoods with theirs.

But in that short exchange, we also began illustrating the positive potential in such a process by constructing a new social history for the word “gentrification.” And we began to use it as a way to think about language too.

As a character in Chang-Rae Lee’s novel, Native Speaker puts it (p.46):

No matter how smart you are, no one is smart enough to see the whole world. There’s always a picture too big to see

So what do we do? Do we just stop trying to see it? As Citizen Sociolinguists, we try to assemble a bigger picture than any one person can see by putting those different perspectives together. In the spirit of Citizen Sociolinguistics, to search for more of the “world of others’ words” behind “Gentrification,” I tried a Citizen “Corpus Analysis” by googling the phrase, “Why is Gentrification…” and waiting for the autofill to happen. Here’s what came up:

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 7.00.34 AM

According to the Google algorithm, it seems that, in agreement with the Twitter responses, gentrification is a word that people associate with being “bad”—but also “important.”

When I added the word “so,” only one Google search response came up:

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 7.00.56 AM

Again, like language, gentrification seems to take on a life of its own. No matter how much we say about it—whether it is good, bad, important or controversial, it is happening. And, like language change, it is hard to stop. We live in a world of others’ words, others’ intentions, and we navigate it. As citizens, and certainly as Citizen Sociolinguists, I urge readers to explore the range of perspectives on it—and that we do it together.

Have you ever had a moment when you realized you live in a “world of others’ words”? What words have you used that – perhaps too late—you have realized are “populated with the intentions of others”? How did you learn about those intentions? Please comment below!

Linguistic Gentrification

Most people recognize the process of neighborhood gentrification: A once affordable neighborhood with character becomes transformed by wealth into a place that the very people who nurtured the character of that place can’t afford to live in anymore (or don’t even want to). With a moment of thought, you can probably think of a few examples of linguistic gentrification too: Everyday, “non-standard,” yet uniquely expressive language gets repackaged as cool, trendy, even standardized—so much so that the original users may no longer want to use it.

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 8.49.32 AM

When neighborhood gentrification strikes, features of old run-down structures originally organic to a way of life—like a breezy front stoop or an original ice box—get repurposed as signs of sophistication. Likewise, linguistic gentrification: Features of language originally part of a way of life—and some looked down on in schools or marked as “non-standard”—become markers of sophistication, local knowledge, or social cachet.

Often these gentrified features originally come from speech typified as “African American.” Those very features deemed “non-standard” resurface as expressively powerful, and get used by white people. So, while most English teachers will decry the use of a “double negative” as incorrect, students in an Ivy League University will use the phrase, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” strategically and to great effect (see previous post, Language Awareness II).

The word “finna” has also gained popularity these days in suburban Honors English classes I’ve been working in. It even appeared in a collective slang word cloud they created last semester:

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 11.10.54 AM

Finna also appears on the Internet in this official looking entry (the very first hit for a google search):

Screen Shot 2015-06-16 at 9.10.28 AM “Shawty,” “salty,” “jawn,” and the ubiquitous, “yo” are other words gentrified by suburban Honors English 11th Graders.

 But when asked about “finna,” “salty,” or “shawty,” few students can provide a sense of the social history of these words, aside from their own personal contact with them. Most assume they just were part of auto-tuned YouTube songs or funny Vine videos that somehow went viral. A few mention Kanye West as a good source of these expressions. In conversation, one student mentioned that “finna” might come from “fixing to,” a “Southern” phrase. But, others had no idea that “finna” might be parsed that way.

 Just as neighborhood gentrifiers vary in their knowledge of the history of the city they occupy, linguistic gentrifiers have varying levels of awareness of the historical foundation for these words, phrases or features of pronunciation. And, newcomers to words and phrases like “salty,” “ain’t nobody got time for that,” or “finna” use them with wide-ranging degrees of finesse. Some gentrifiers—of cities and language—surely recognize underlying character and build on that. Yes! Others might lack that sensitivity, driving away residents and speakers, losing generations of history and life ways that built the original character that drew us to those places and expressions.

Do you recognize linguistic gentrification around you? Do you partake in the process? What are the different types and what are their effects? Please comment!

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?