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!

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!

 

 

The Linguistic Color Line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please comment!

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?

New Uses for Old (Linguistic) Tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Untranslatable and Multilingual Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qichin 8 Untranslatable words … and their translations.

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

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

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

Yzeed Az no it means beautiful bird 😛

Business Andbusiness is is bird with melodious voice

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

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

Bulbul bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the response came:

ThePolocatfan276 I think that’s called “slang”

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

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

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

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

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

Drawin’ (drawing a picture or being annoying?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All communication involves translation.

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

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