Opinion Matters: What Can We Learn from Opinions People Have about Language?

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I am willing to bet a Wawa Hoagie that you (or your “close friend”) have a strong opinion about some aspect of language.  By simply googling a bit, browsing through urban dictionary, or candidly recalling a conversation you’ve had recently, some opinions like these might surface:

  • If you live in the USA, you should speak English.
  • The way people from Philadelphia speak is completely different from the way people from New York speak.
  • The Welsh language is amazing.
  • The street spelled “Passyunk” should be pronounced “Peah- Shunk.”
  • “Jimmies” NOT “sprinkles.”
  • People SHOULD NOT use “literally” in a figurative way
  • “Ain’t” is not a word/ “Ain’t is a word.”
  • Everyone SHOULD learn another language.
  • Irregardless is a pretentious way of saying regardless!!!

People have their opinions.

Despite my career as an “Applied Linguist,” I don’t feel that my job is to have strong opinions about language.  Nor do I feel it is my professional role to resolve differences of opinion that inevitably arise about language, or to “debunk” certain opinions out of line with research-based studies.   I am fascinated by other peoples’ opinions!  And, I do care about people and what those opinions say–good and bad–about our society. Why are opinions about language so strong? What compels people to spend so much time and energy opining about, for example, the pretentiousness of “irregardless,” the dictionary-status of the word “ain’t”, the “ugliest” regional accent, or the proper way to speak “English” and when and where it should be used?

Even the most accomplished linguist cannot resolve these debates—at least not in their role as linguist. Why not? Isn’t scientific research the best way to seek truth, to push the world forward, and to promote progress and change for the better?  Don’t linguists have the data that could resolve language debates? Yes and no.

While linguistics is sometimes categorized as a “science,” it differs in at least one important way from more prototypical scientific fields. Human language use (unlike our bio-chemical composition) is affected by opinions humans have about it.  My cells are organized in a certain way that, as far as I know, will not be affected by what my opinion is about them.  My own mother will always be my biological mother no matter what I think of her. But the way I speak—whether I call my mother “Mom,” “Ma,” “Mother,” or “Gretchen,” for example—is inevitably affected by my own opinions, my mother’s opinions, and the opinions of people around me, who hear me use those terms of address.

So, if peoples’ opinions about language affect how we talk and our opinions of other people’s talk, we probably can learn something about society by investigating those opinions more carefully—but what exactly can we learn?  Let’s think that through.

First, take a basic opinion:  English only!

As discussed in a previous post, statements about when and where English should be spoken might pose as reasonable requests for communicative clarity—but when looked at more carefully in context, they can also be a form of anti-immigrant racism, linguistic border patrol masquerading as reasonable opinions on language.

Language opinions also patrol less high-stakes borders.  Consider, for example, the opinion that “the Philly accent is not the New York accent.”  There are precise linguistic methods for measuring such a claim.  However, stating this as an opinion may be more about establishing an identity as a Philadelphian than the phonological distinctions between a statistically significant sample of New Yorkers and Philadelphians—the opinion itself acts as a form of linguistic border patrol. And again, language itself may be a stand-in for other identity features that matter more.

Sometimes, the linguistic border patrol sets up finer-grained distinctions, not about race, immigration status, or location:  Consider the opinion, “Irregardless is not a word.”  Whether or not this is a “word” matters far less to the person stating this opinion than the picture this word paints of the user.  This “defininition” on Urban Dictionary provides a useful synopsis of what using “irregardless” might mean about someone:

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The important border being guarded here seems to be between “educated” and “uneducated.”

Another entry provides this useful clip from the movie “Mean Girls” to precisely illustrate a different type of person (one of the uncritical followers of the high school’s lead mean girl) who might use the word “irregardless”:

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Views on languages, language varieties, and words like “irregardless,” (often fleshed out with supportive examples and illustrations) may start as “mere opinions” from “lay people” about language—but as they become conversations including more and more people (as tends to happen on the Internet), they also build knowledge about language.  This knowledge isn’t validated through scientifically measurable accuracy of these descriptions—instead, this is a socially constructed accuracy.  Language types called “English,” “Philly,” “New York,” or “Educated” become understood as these labeled entities because these opinions and conversations build portraits of language users as social types. The categories these citizen sociolinguists set up can act as self-fulfilling prophecies—building communities, setting up distinctions, or breaking them down.

What can we learn from this?  We may not learn much about language at all—at least not the kind of learning you might expect from linguistics class or French101.  But we can still learn something important.  We can learn –through concrete discussions about language—how citizens shape distinctions between themselves and others, form local identities, create unique new identities, bond with and reject one another, and create and destroy social value.  Once we glimpse these processes (through the work of citizen sociolinguists) we might not know more about language as an object, but we do have more awareness of how language builds meaning for everybody using it.

Have you come into contact with any strong opinions about language?  What can you learn from those opinions? What social work do you think those opinions do? Please comment below.

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How Do Billionaires Speak?

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 11.41.55 AM“I wanna be a billionaire so fucking bad”—Bruno Mars

Maybe you’ve heard the above lyric from Bruno Mars’ joyously light-hearted pop song? The lyrics go on to imagine spreading money around and making friends happy–beer and scooters for everyone!

Last night during the Democratic Debates, the word “billionaire” also came up quite a few times, in not such a favorable light. At one point, Bernie Sanders even said, accusingly, that he was the only one in the debate who is not a billionaire. This came as a shock to me. Everyone seemed white, privileged, “rich” maybe, but billionaires?

What is a “billionaire” these days? Can you tell one when you see one? Can you hear it when they speak?

This brings to mind a perennial question in the world of Citizen Sociolinguistics: How do rich people speak? Decades ago, the Boston Brahmins where held up as the prototype of genteel isolated rich people who spoke in the richest of the rich type of way, as depicted in the PBS video, American Tongues.  This speaking style seemed to seep into the world of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn a la Philadelphia Story. And, look up “How rich people talk” now and you will find that guys on YouTube have clearly absorbed this stereotype:

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Last week, this same question, about the speech of rich people, came up in the 11th grade English class I frequent, in a discussion of Hamlet. Their teacher reminded them that the nobility usually speak in iambic pentameter (unless they are going crazy, which calls for prose). Here, a sane King Claudius illustrates:

“Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen”

Ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM ba DUM….

So, in the fictional world of Shakespeare, rich people speak in Iambic Pentameter (and in this case, with the royal “we”). And Boston Brahmins (and their movie star acolytes or dude imitators) speak in a  “British” sounding r-less style.

But today, real billionaires don’t seem to speak like one another at all.  Consider the obvious exemplars:

Donald Trump
Bill Gates
Bill Walton  

Donald Trump may even sound a lot like non-billionaire, Bernie Sanders.  According to this article in the New York Times, one thing Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have in common is their appealing New York way of talking.

Screen Shot 2015-10-14 at 12.34.28 PMDoes this mean we have entered an new, open-minded era in which people don’t judge each other on the basis of how they speak?

No.   People who want to move into a stereotype of white privileged society will always need to alter their speech and talk like a stereotype of white privileged society. But they will not be talking like Donald Trump. No, they will be speaking in a way that reflects an intractable language ideology: Poor, marginalized, racialized people don’t speak properly (even if Billionaires speak the same way!). From within this ideology, the necessary (though not sufficient) way to not be poor, marginalized, or racialized is to change the way one speaks.

Being a real billionaire, on the other hand, provides one with the freedom to speak pretty much any way one wants to.

So, when Bruno Mars sings, “I wanna be a billionaire, so fucking bad,” he is not talking about being genteel or enjoying tea with a Boston Brahmin while discussing Dickens. He’s talking about buying the freedom to not care about how or what he speaks about, and to spread that joy to his buddies. He may not be speaking eloquently, but he makes an idealistic point: Billionaires (and Bruno Mars may even be one at this point!) don’t need to be selfish or stuffy. They have the freedom and money to make the world a better place for more than just themselves. They don’t need to talk a certain way, and they don’t need to act a certain way.

Billionaire politicians are real. And they are precisely the ones who can talk however they want to—they are rich, and they still get along with “the people”! As these debates continue, as we find a new President, let’s see what these billionaires do with their language. And let’s see how, beyond their free wheeling speechifying, they plan to use the freedom that billionairedom buys them.

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:

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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:

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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!