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!

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!

Reactions to an Increasingly Diverse English: “Google My Bulbul”

funzoaPlease watch this video before reading the post.

Warning: this song WILL stick in your head—possibly for days.

Created by the famous Youtuber Funzoa, “Google My Bulbul” is, at the most basic level, a video of an adorable teddy bear singing a song that praises the utility of Google. Why many find the video funny (it has almost 2 million views and a 13-1 like-to-dislike ratio) can be dissected from a variety of angles: music, visuals, cultural references, etc., but for the sake of this post I will focus on the use of language in it.

In following with Betsy Rymes’s concept of “Citizen Sociolinguistics,” my hope is not to analyze the video from a traditional linguistic point of view. Instead, I will look at viewers’ comments posted on the video’s Youtube page and dissect how they reacted to the use of language. As you will see below, what’s particularly interesting about this video is that the creator himself has responded to some of the most interesting and often most negative comments about language.

So, to start with a simple description, in what interesting ways does Funzoa use language in “Google My Bulbul”? Here are some fairly objective characteristics that immediately jumped out to me:

  • Adding an “uh” to the end of lots of words
  • Inversion of word order that sounds odd to an American English speaker
  • Nonstandard use of the progressive tense–“All the information it always giving free,” “It never getting lost,” “It helping download any file”
  • Extremely high pitch

This is not an exhaustive list, rather just a few main things will stand out to most people watching the video. So how do viewers react to the mimicry of this, as the creator puts it, stereotypically “South Indian” accent? Some of the most interesting comments arose out of replies to the following statement (all spelling is written exactly as it appeared on the video’s Youtube page; my translations from Hindi are in brackets):

Lukas Hettieratchi: This is the stupidest thing ever!!!!!!!!!! What is the world, it sucks!!!!!! F**K THIS!!!!!!!

Funzoa @Lukas Hettiaratchi: The pun in this has a certain cultural connotation, u wont understand it if you dont see it. So u r right from your POV. But im sure u shall find smthing interesting from my othr videos

syawkcab @Lukas Hettiaratchi: The video makes fun of how desi [Indian] aunties talk. If you’re not desi, you won’t understand references.

Chakravarthy Kalyan @Lukas Hettiaratchi: lukas,just because u come from different culture does not give you artistic authority to pass stupid comments.This is an adaptation in karnatic classical  south indian music.This culture itself dates back to 1500 years.Learing classical music is a lifetime experience.This person beautifully adapted english into karnatic music and rendred a perfect song.If you cant appreciate some thing atleast have an heart to encourage.

The first two comments, including a comment from Funzoa himself, hint at the belief that the use of language in this video is closely tied with ethnic or cultural identity. According to syawkcab, in order to understand the video’s mimicry, viewers must be Indian. The final commenter finds the video “beautiful” because of Funzoa’s “perfect” integration of “English into karnatic music.”

Many viewers, such as Reeta Sood, simply find the use of accent humorous:

Reeta Sood: Funny Funzoa…really mazedaar [funny]…keep up your good work, accent n all…some morons won’t get it becoz of they un-evolved understanding … 😉

Other viewers, however, found the video annoying and even offensive:

Mohammed Almansour: Wtf is wrong with the writer of this song ??? And he used the freakin indian s**t accent f**k off!! Stupidest song ever

Hamzah Patel: Stop this horrible song funzoa is stupid. This is offensive to English people

I wonder what Hamzah Patel would consider as “English” people? Only British people? The traditional Anglosphere (UK, US, and other English-dominant former British colonies)? Anyone who speaks English at all? It’s worth noting that several hundred thousand people speak English as their first language in India and might use some of the phonetic or lexical features in this video that sound “odd” to an American English speaker.

One interesting exchange between Funzoa and a viewer highlighted different attitudes towards what counts as “correct” English:

Zarin Mansur: silly grammar error!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Funzoa @Zarin Mansur Hi, I dont do grammer errors. You may check my other content. The error was intentional. Like how sometimes, people from a non-english region in India, use broken english to convey a message. And you somehow fathom whats being said. So thats a pun intended, whether you get it or not.

Viewer Zarin Mansur calls the use of Indian Englishisms and non-standard English grammar wrong, whereas Funzoa sends a comment (apparently filled with non-standard English to prove his point) that argues that the lyrics he wrote are not full of errors; rather, they strategically deploy language in a way that represents how some Indians speak. Funzoa believes that he doesn’t “do grammar errors” because he is simply representing how English is actually spoken.

In conclusion, a quick scan-through of comments has revealed a surprising array of attitudes towards the use of the language in one of Funzoa’s most popular videos. On one hand, some reacted to the use of accent extremely negatively, finding the video either offensive, annoying, or simply incorrect. Others reacted more positively, praising the author’s effective deployment of language for humorous effect.

What do you all think of the video? Do you think Funzoa is right when says he doesn’t “do grammar errors”? Do you find the video offensive as some viewers did? I’d love to hear your comments.

Jacob is a first-year undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Linguistics. His interests include bilingualism, second language acquisition, code-switching, Bollywood movies, and taking walks around Philly.

Shakespeare or Hip Hop?

wutang  Shakespeare

Last week in an 11th Grade English class, the English teacher and I started a discussion of language in Hamlet by presenting this poetic musing from D.H. Lawrence:

When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder

That such trivial people should muse and thunder

In such lovely language.     

Then we asked students about their experiences reading Shakespeare’s language so far. They shared frustrations (Too repetitive! Confusing word order!) and doubts (No way could one man have written so much!). Nobody fully embraced the idea that Shakespeare was a creative genius.

Nor did anyone take issue with Lawrence’s glib use of the phrase “trivial people” or the condescending tone he took toward them. Why shouldn’t everyone muse and thunder in lovely language?

Then, we trotted out this Shakespeare versus Hip Hop quiz (one I also shared with my Facebook friends, thus the 79 responses).

The questions and answers (quiz adapted from Ammon Shea’s book Bad English (2014)):

Quote Answer % Correct (n=79)
1.   The music, ho! 1.     Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra 78%
2.   But if you don’t, I’ll unsheathe my Excalibur, like a noble knight 2.     Gangstarr, “Step in the Arena” 66%
3.   Holla, holla! 3.     Shakespeare, King Lear 62%
4.   This is the proper way man should use ink. 4.     Big Daddy Kane, “Taste of Chocolate” 45%
5.   Welcome, ass, Now let’s have a catch. 5.     Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 68%
6.   The money that you owe me for the chain. 6.     Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors 48%
7.   Pay me back when you shake it again. 7.     Nas, “You Own Me” 67%
8.   Holla, ho! Curtis! 8.     Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew 60%
9.   Sabotaged, shellshocked, rocked and ruled, Day in the life of a fool. 9.     Public Enemy, “Brothers Gonna Work it Out” 70%
10.          Every square inch of it, that he chose for himself, is the best part. 10. Wu-Tang Clan, “Wu-Revolution.” 37%
AVERAGE PERCENTAGE CORRECT:       60%

People seem to get the right answer an average of about 60% of the time. Just barely a collective D-.

As some astute 11th graders pointed out, they were able to choose the “right” answers by second-guessing the test, not by deciding whether the language represented the “essence” of Hip Hop or Shakespeare.

Number 1 (78% correct!), for example, seemed to point to Shakespeare only because it sounds obviously like Hip Hop. Typical test-designers, students speculated, would include “ho” just to trick people.

Number 9 (70% correct) includes the word “shellshocked,” which another student pointed to as a giveaway, since that word didn’t exist until after the First World War. Shakespeare didn’t have any shells of that kind!

So, unless you know the exact lyric or play, or recognize testing tricks or oversights, the average person seems to have about a 50/50 chance of correctly guessing whether these quotes come from “Shakespeare” or “Hip Hop.” What does this tell us? Perhaps Shakespeare’s forte was not in his isolated mastery of “The English Language.” Instead, he may have been capturing exactly what “trivial people” said. Their wondrous language (including “ho” and “holla holla”), gleaned from Shakespeare’s active life in the pubs (so we’ve heard), may be precisely what Shakespeare wrote down.

What does that tell us about literary language? About Hip Hop? About our collective language resources? Do you know some “trivial people” that “muse and thunder” in lovely language? How do today’s artists—musicians, screen-writers, poets, playwrights—take up the talk of everyday people and use it for effect?   Please comment!

Frank Underwood Versus the Accent Commandos

spacey

Is Kevin Spacey’s accent as a South Carolina politician in House of Cards any good?

After Season 3 debuted this week, a posting by VOX took him through the wringer. In a little over three minutes, this YouTube video presents a history of Southern accents and intro linguistics, explaining how Spacey’s accent misses the mark. The narrator asserts, “R-dropping probably can’t be the shortcut that actors use in the future to sound Southern.” The video advises, instead, actors try “/ay/-ungliding.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mgCeH3xovDw

But, the viewers don’t buy it! A revealing critique of this perspective on Kevin Spacey’s performance comes from the citizen sociolinguists who comment on this video. 53 comments have already piled up.

A few agree with VOX, though on terms that wouldn’t be in an Intro Linguistics textbook:

XBLArmory As a southerner I find it interesting but by no means is it authentic; he sounds more like Foghorn Leghorn to me than any real southerner.

But many more disagree. Some point out the show is a performance. There may be deliberate reasons the accent is not right:

Nicodin Bogdan I think it’s interesting to point out that it might not be super correct geographically but maybe this is a trade-off for accuracy versus feel. We feel like Spacey comes off as an old-school, “elite” southern gentlemen and that’s what the show wants.

Echoing this point of view, another commenter suggests Spacey’s verion of “southern” relates to social class:

David Parker That is interesting, however, as a man from the Southern US, his accent is pretty accurate for the background of his character. The video really undercuts the significance of economic status and power and it’s influence on accents in the American South

As ZestyItalian points out, maybe Spacey wants the character to sound a little phony. Ahem, while Spacey is not a linguist, he is a professional actor:

ZestyItalian2… [his accent is] not “off”, per se. It’s just an older accent that’s associated with the southern aristocracy. It’s not extinct- just less common than it used to be. And considering the character background of Frank Underwood- poor boy, self-made man from the small town south- it’s not unreasonable to suggest that he affected a highborn, genteel southern accent, just as Scots and Irish of a certain generation (think Peter O’Toole) affected a semi-aristocratic RP English accent to bolster their careers and statuses.

And trust me- Spacey leaves nothing to chance- least of all something as essential as an accent. Spacey is a technician. One of the most technical of all American actors, in fact. He draws characters out as if they had blueprints or schematics. Nothing he does, physically or vocally, is an accident. And I have a very hard time believing that he didn’t do his research into the specific type of dialect Frank Underwood would have. I’ve always thought he sounded a lot like Jimmy Carter.

Another group of comments point out that labeling things with scientific terminology does not make them into an argument.

Furball Ay-ungliding. So glad I know what that phonetic mechanism is now. [I’m assuming sarcasm here]

And, as this person points out—no matter how scientific VOX attempts to appear with all their fancy sagittal diagrams and lingo, the links to “social class” are specious:

Robert Heinl Cut this out, Vox.  No one cares about you or your useless linguistics college major…. youre obviously incapable of making any substantive contribution to society whilst diagramming the posterior oropharynx and somehow linking it to socioeconomic status…

I appreciate the smart relevance of these comments that contest VOX’s sociolinguistic exegesis. Given the nuance that goes into the performance of a fictional character, the VOX video critique seems to me to be analogous to those of Grammandos who assert their grammatical expertise by criticizing people who write the phrase “comprised of” or use the word “literally” figuratively (The Language Experts).

Are Accent Commandos are now taking up that gauntlet? Fortunately, citizen sociolinguists, like these commenters, are out in force, making nuanced points revealing the complex way languages work in social life, the theater, Hollywood, politics –and Netflix.

What do you think of Frank Underwood’s accents? Or others in the public view? President Obama, for example, has also been criticized and mocked (Language Awareness or Linguistic Insecurity?) about the “authenticity” of his various performances of language variety. Why grant authority to the categorical decrees of Accent Commandos? Please comment below!

Language Diversity at the Oscars

The lack of racial diversity in the “Academy” (of Motion Pictures) was well publicized long before Oscar night. It even gave writers enough time to come up with Neil Patrick Harris’ quip about “the best and the whitest– oops brightest” to kick off the show. And, with #OSCARSSOWHITE cresting as a popular twitter hashtag, white homogeneity was in the spotlight.

But how did language diversity fare? There is no #OSCARSSOSTANDARDENGLISH or #OSCARSNOLANGUAGEDIVERSITY2015 to track on twitter. How inclusive is the Academy when it comes to different ways of speaking?

As Citizen Sociolinguists, we have the tools to investigate. First step, we can look at what people were saying then and there, at the Oscars, about language. Then we can ask our social networks: What memorable moments of language talk could people recall the next day?

People I’ve talked to immediately recalled two primary ultra-awkward moments of talk about language (and these seem to have been underlined in real time Twitter feeds too).

The first of these two key language awareness moments was Neil Patrick Harris’ attempt to talk about the “British Accent” with David Oyelowo, best actor nominee for his role as Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. Neil Patrick Harris jokes, “Help me prove that everything sounds better in a British Accent. I’m going to do this setup for a joke and then I’ll give you the punch line.” The joke and the punch line are not worth repeating—only barely funny, clearly tasteless. Simply the expressions on the faces of the audience were enough to indicate the sourness of this routine. And on the web, Oyelowo’s gif-immortalized gesture echoed this impression. Even British English couldn’t patch things up:

Oyelowo

The second memorable language awareness moment began when Sean Penn announced the winner of Best Picture, for Birdman, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. After the usual pregnant pause and before he announced the winner, Penn’s off-the-cuff “green card” comment—alluding to Iñárritu being Mexican—met with immediate revulsion on Twitter. As exemplified here:

Screen Shot 2015-02-25 at 12.11.46 PM

A few glum faces, even among the best picture winners, gave hints that this humor didn’t fly with everyone in the room either. Iñárritu then brilliantly stepped on stage with the cast of Birdman and took the microphone. Self-deprecatingly, he described his own English accent:

Oh my god, they want me to talk because I am the worst English-speaking guy here.

Then he proceeded to put to shame the evening’s countless scripted and non-scripted attempts at language artistry. He spoke up for Mexico and for Mexicans’ contributions in the United States, and he implicitly punched back at Sean Penn’s joke:

Finally, I just want to take one second. I want to take the opportunity to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans. The ones who live in Mexico. I pray that we can find and build a government that we deserve. And the ones that live in this country, who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country. I just pray they can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones who came before and build this INCREDIBLE. IMMIGRANT. NATION. Thank you very much.

If that is the “worst English-speaking guy” in the room, what might we call some of the other English speakers present that evening? And how well does the Academy seem to recognize the verbal artistry involved in language diversity?

What moments of talk about language did you hear at the Oscars? What do your social networks have to say about language diversity that night?

Leave your comments below!

Sociolinguistic Outtakes: Footnotes, Epilogues, Anecdotes and Asides

Have you ever indulged in a movie… outtake? The DVD ends and scenes flash beside the credits, featuring the very same movie actors you just watched–breaking character. They swear or burp or burst into belly laughs, when they are supposed to be exuding wisdom or dying or committing a felony.

 FellowshipOuttake“I’m sorry I cannot get up these god damned steps smoothly” (Ian McKellen outtake from The Fellowship of the Ring)

Even animated movies have outtakes. Toy Story outtakes, for example, proliferate on the web—as if the anthropomorphized toys are so real that they, like human movie actors, sometimes break character and burp or giggle at the wrong times.

BuzzBurp Buzz Lightyear after burping in his packaging (Toy Story outtake)

Outtakes were once perhaps simple teasers to make people keep watching during the credits after the movie ended. Now they are specially produced and sought out on the web for their own, unique merits (one Toy Story compilation on YouTube has over six million hits). Why? What makes outtakes interesting to people?

Outtakes show that actors—even the toy Pixar characters?—have lives beyond the artifice of the movie set piece. They react to situations and interact with each other in a huge variety of ways, some of which may be familiar to us, or idiosyncratic and new (like the way Seth Rogan giggles). Also, they make us feel like Hollywood insiders. Movie making isn’t as elite and exclusive a process as we may have thought. Outtakes reveal the process. They also suggest the joy in it. Maybe making the movie was even more fun than watching it.

Now, how does this citizen enjoyment of movie outtakes relate to Citizen Sociolinguistics? Think of the “research article” in place of the “movie.” The article, conference address, or book, like a Hollywood production, emerges from careful editing–the squeezing of countless interviews, observations, field notes, recordings, videos, into the professional medium of a journal article. As with moviemaking, quite a bit ends up on the cutting room floor.

But, language researchers seem to delight in resurrecting those bits that didn’t fit their professional storytelling venture (or research methodology). Just as movie producers (and viewers) delight in replaying Ian McKellen swearing about his robes in The Fellowship of the Ring, language researchers (and readers) relish the unexpected stories that emerge inevitably when doing research with our fellow humans.

It seems that the more rigidly traditional the research parameters, the more delightful the cutting room scraps. William Labov, for example, in a write up of a study that focused on five phonological features and their stylistic variation across five domains of use in New York City, honors his readers with dozens of asides and footnotes that call attention to idiosyncratic features of the humans involved. For example, the research subject Steve K draws these anecdotal descriptions from the staunchly quantitative researcher:

He studied philosophy for four years at Brooklyn College, but left without graduating; he had turned away from the academic point of view, and as an intense student of Wilhelm Reich, sought self-fulfillment in awareness of himself as a sexual person. (p. 104-5)

While Labov includes these descriptions of his subjects (and this one continues in a footnote), he concludes that they play no part in the focus of his research on stylistic variation. Yet these Steve K sorts of descriptions remain a hallmark and entertaining highlight of all Labov’s research.

Linguistic anthropologists, like sociolinguists, also indulge in the anecdote and aside. I still recall clearly the story one of my anthropology professors relayed about a white (Caucasian) anthropologist’s fieldwork. In a discrete epilogue to his book length ethnography, he revealed that, during his entire time living as a participant-observer in remote Indonesia, the community thought he was a ghost.

In the spontaneous moment of an introduction or over wine at the post-talk reception, a researcher might share something about the connection of their work to their own life. Last month, for example, an esteemed, senior sociolinguist gave a talk here at Penn, and introduced his quantitative, fine-grained analysis with a story about his own experience as a graduate student with a stigmatized North Philadelphia accent. Long after he had finished his PhD and had begun to emerge as a leader in the field, his mentor/professor confessed: From the way you sounded in class, I never thought you would really make it through.

These research outtakes reveal the artifice of the research project and even the research training process, throwing what we might have ignored into the public’s view.

What we thought was marginalia may be what drives the work.

These days, sociolinguistic outtakes need not drift into the obscurity of footnotes, or asides during the post-talk reception. The structure of social media, the networked arrangement of the Internet, digital media that hyperlinks footnotes and other information, all make asides as easily accessible as the main research article. And those who are “subjects” in that article may be reading or listening to those asides. What if they joined the conversation?

What if we focused on the outtakes? That’s a Citizen Sociolinguistic approach. Now with social media and hyperlinks to even the most obscure trivia, the institutionally sanctioned research question can easily fall to the background, and the footnote can become focal. As the Cowgirl from Toy Story says in a blooper when she accidentally pulls off part of Buzz Lightyear: Should we put this in the movie now?

OutTakeToyStoryMaybe we should put more sociolinguistic outtakes into the official research. We may discover that the new post-globalization, post-Internet language diversity (or “super-diversity”), has been here all along, in the outtakes.

What “asides” become central to you? Do they take you off-track, or show you a new perspective, something you never knew about before? Please comment below!

The Language Experts

Who are the Language Experts?

When you have a question about language, who (whom!) do you ask?

Sometimes it may seem the experts are those language bullies or “grammandos” who peevishly correct grammar no-nos. If you are not sure of the difference between “comprised of” and “composed of” (and care), the man who has spent years combing through Wikipedia “correcting” those phrases over 47,000 times may seem like the best person to explain it to you.

But what if you have a question about less rule-bound ways that people use language?boutaweekago

For example, who provides expertise on these questions about speaking English in Philadelphia?:

  • What does “Salty” (or “sawdy”) mean when used by Philadelphia second graders?
  • Who says “Ac-A-Me” instead of “Acme” when referring to the Acme grocery store?
  • Why do some teenagers start rapping and dancing whenever they hear the phrase “bout a week ago”?

Moving beyond Philadelphia, suppose you have a question about a phrase you’ve heard in Spanish. What if someone called you a “fresa” and you had no idea what that meant? Would you consult a dictionary? That couldn’t tell you, like my friend from El Paso could, that “fresa” is a word often used for slightly spoiled, entitled girls from Mexico.

What expert on language could you consult if you encountered this English/Chinese phrase:

Hold住

A language purist might despise it, a Chinese Dictionary might translate it, but a Chinese 20-something could probably provide a more robust explanation for this phrase, (which translates into something like “hang in there!” or “deal with it!”), how commonly it is used, and its connection to a certain TV character.

This phrase might lead you to questions about other Asian World Englishes. How do Koreans, Chinese, Thai, Taiwanese, and Japanese use English differently? Who holds the expertise on this massive variety? I would suggest you start by asking someone who immigrated to Singapore for High School. They might be able to explain the intricacies and irreverence of accent parodies like this one:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OiDvo_XtV4

These are all cases where non-professional-experts, that is, average everyday people who are not linguists or English teachers—Citizen Sociolinguists—have expert knowledge. These everyday citizens have the know-how they need to navigate the daily intricacies of language and communication that make up their lives. And, usually, they are happy to share it.

Your very own friends and acquaintances can often answer your language questions with the precise type of expertise you want. Students and children can also be prime language experts in this regard. Or, Internet sources might guide you. Look up “grammando,” “bout a week ago,” or “salty” and you’ll get some approximations of the meanings of these phrases and their social value. Google “Asian Accents” or a “Mexican fresa” and you may find some video explanations, ranging across degrees of accuracy and offense. These are building blocks to understanding; Your ever-expanding circle of Citizen Sociolinguistics experts can continue to build on them.

Language has interest and connections to social life and human relationships far more wide-ranging than could be contained in one expert’s view. Fortunately, since the survival of life-as-we-know-it depends on it, the grammando will never have the last word on language. As David Weinberger has written in Too Big to Know, when it comes to language or any sort of networked knowledge,

…the measure of one’s strength as an expert is not that you have the final word on some topic, but that you have the first word (p. 68).

When words and communication confuse you, who (whom!) do you call on as your language expert? Your children? Your students? Your parents or friends? Urban Dictionary? YouTube? Google Translate? Others? A combination of all? Post your comments here!

Language Awareness or Linguistic Insecurity?

Do you change the way you speak depending on the situation and the person you are addressing?

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May I venture… Of course you do!

Does this mean you are linguistically insecure? Or does it mean that you are a sensitive speaker with finely tuned language awareness?   Let’s consider the difference.

The ominous phrase Linguistic Insecurity probably makes intuitive sense to most people. But it is also a technical term defined in the ‘60s by William Labov as “hypersensitivity to stigmatized features which [speakers] themselves use.” For example, a linguistically insecure New Yorker who casually says they love that delicious, cocoa-bean-derived treat, “chaaaaahklit” would, in formal circumstances, pronounce this very carefully as “chocolate.”

Labov’s research indicated that, specifically (1966, p. 93):

 Lower middle class speakers show the greatest Linguistic Insecurity.

That is, in his study of people in New York City in the 1960’s, these “lower middle class” people were the most likely to alter the way they spoke (away from casual speech) when reading passages or word lists to a linguist. People of “low” and “lower class” did not show this kind of stylistic range.

Nor did “upper middle class” people. In fact, “lower middle class” people became even more “hypercorrect” (Labov’s term) than upper middle class people when speaking in very controlled formal reading situations.

Now one might chortle knowingly at the concept of Linguistic Insecurity, feeling confident that one uses language properly (though not hypercorrectly) and does not partake in such callow language performances. But: Labov made another point about this group of “lower middle class” people who exhibited linguistic insecurity. They also had the widest stylistic range of any other group. That is, they had a way of speaking very casually and a way of speaking mildly casually, a way of speaking somewhat formally, and a way of speaking very controlled English that were all distinct from one another. And they used these ways of speaking in distinct situations.

This ability to call on such a wide repertoire could be a crucial tool for someone who wants to (who needs to!) strategically, intelligently and creatively use language. Shifting one’s language from situation to situation according to perceived social value of different ways of speaking could suggest “linguist insecurity” but it might also suggest an impressive level of Language Awareness.

Today, President Barack Obama, for example, has become a model of linguistic flexibility and language awareness—even leading to a parody of his stylistic shifts by the comedians Key and Peele (an extremely language-aware duo) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nopWOC4SRm4).

So, what distinguishes the awareness and flexibility of a contemporary language user like President Obama who wields a vast communicative repertoire and uses it strategically in different situations from those “lower middle class” people of the 1960’s whom Labov referred to as “linguistically insecure”? How do we explore this question as Citizen Sociolinguists?

I have a few tentative answers:

Most obviously, we can ask people about the language they use. Instead of drawing conclusions about insecurity or hypercorrectness, we can listen to what people say about their own language.

We can watch people. Take a look at a few linguistic self-portraits posted on the Internet. Countless people record themselves these days, illustrating (or instructing about) precisely the shifts in ways of speaking that Labov was examining in others. (See for example previous post on the Konglish Accent Tag).

Or, we can scratch the cultural surface and see how creative people like novelists, comedians, and screenwriters use different ways of speaking to build portraits of stupidity, snobbishness, insanity, or brilliance. Creative productions, including parodies like Key and Peele’s, illustrate flexible use of language that illustrates not linguistic insecurity, but language awareness. These portraits and parodies also have the potential to productively expand our awareness of social nuance and distinction.

How do you distinguish between Language Awareness and Linguistic Insecurity? What exemplifies this difference for you? Is it a useful distinction? Please comment below!