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!

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!

Language Diversity Pies

whomCBSWhat if you had to fill in a pie chart with different slices representing all the ways you speak? How many different slices would there be? Or, would you have just one whole pie called “Perfect English”? Would that be ideal?

Some news media, of late, suggest that the “Perfect English Pie” should be the goal. In this editorial today on CBS Morning, Faith Salie bemoaned the fact that many people do not follow her rules for proper “whom” usage.

Salie implies there should be only one uniform type of slice in our language pie, the one in which we are “speaking well.” This is especially true in “America,” Salie says, because according to her, most Americans only speak English:

Very few Americans, myself included, speak more than one language fluently. So, the least we can do is try and honor English by speaking it well.

Besides, she added, using “whom,” just makes you feel more special:

It’s like putting lipstick on your sentence.

The two comments posted, which don’t seem to even hint at irony, endorse Salie’s perspective:

VEGANSAM THANK YOU!

Cfc EditorTerrific vid. It’s nice to know that someone still cares.

Two days earlier, a Saturday New York Times front page story voiced another view on cleaning up language—not “who” and “whom,” but a certain way of saying “Wiscahnsin.” The headline reads:

 For 2016 run, Scott Walker washes “Wiscahnsin” out of his mouth

In this video, and the accompanying article, the author points out that Mr. Walker, now that he is running for national office, has changed how he speaks:

[Scott Walker] has left “Wiscahnsin” back home in Wisconsin. He now wants to strengthen the economy, not the “ecahnahmy.”

At the end of the essay, Jennifer Horn, Chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party remarks:

I didn’t hear it [the Wisconsin honk]. Good for him, good for him.

Both Ms. Horn and Ms. Salie voice the view that we need to avoid certain ways of speaking and use those that are proper or less local seeming. Ms. Horn admires Walker’s new Wiscahnson-free diction, suggesting this makes him more palatable as a candidate. And, Ms. Sadie tells us we need to be especially protective of English, since it is the only language most Americans speak.

But, how do “Americans” really use language? Walker may be ditching his Wisconsin “honk,” but he is not replacing it with a sublime original super-perfect “American” speech. Instead, the article suggests, he is picking and choosing different types of language, adding variety to his language pie. When addressing Republicans in South Carolina Mr. Walker told them, in a characteristically un-Wisconsin-like way, that he enjoyed “talkin’ with y’all.”

To connect with people, even as a Republican in the United States, only speaking English, Mr. Walker’s Language Pie must contain some variety. He might be using “y’all,” in South Carolina, but he probably doesn’t in New Hampshire. And he may still talk about the “ecahnomy” when he is back at the family dinner table in “Wiscahnsin.”

But let’s suppose people are not running for office. Do people in the United States still need several different slices in their Language Diversity Pie? Or should they just focus on “speaking well” as Faith Salie suggests?

Last week, exploring this angle with 11th graders and their teachers, we had them create their own language pie charts. In just a few minutes, many divided their pie up into seven or more sections, including different language for the following slices of social life:

  • Friends
  • Close friends
  • Adults
  • Parents
  • Parents’ friends
  • Home
  • Texting
  • Babysitting
  • With siblings
  • With brothers
  • With animals
  • At work
  • At school
  • With teachers
  • With sports coaches
  • Just Dad
  • Just Mom
  • Nice friends
  • Vulgar friends
  • Girlfriend
  • Professional situation
  • Writing papers for school
  • Writing sentimental texts
  • When complaining
  • When angry or snarky
  • When giddy or happy
  • When tired or depressed

Most students specified slices for “friends,” “adults,” “home,” and “school,” adding varying degrees of nuance. “With animals” was a pie slice only one student came up with at first—but after being reminded of special animal pet voices, many classmates agreed they would add this slice to their pie too. (I doubt they use “whom” with their pets.) Momentary moods were crucial to a few students—clearly different ways of speaking come out when tired or depressed, angry, or giddy.

Nobody spontaneously mentioned anything about languages other than English. But, when I asked about multiple languages in their lives, several students had more slices to add to their Language Diversity Pie:

  • Mandarin with Mom (not Dad)
  • Danish with Mom (not Dad)
  • “Asian”-accented English with Mom, or when ordering Dim Sum in Chinatown
  • Persian with parents
  • Mix of Persian and English in general when at home

A ten-minute discussion revealed a profusion of ways of speaking, languages and “accents” that fit into any one individual’s pie.

These teens easily recognize the distinctive relevance of all the slices of their pie at different moments, or with different people, or to convey different moods. Even these young 16-year-olds, in Honors English, most of whom have spent their entire lives in one suburban community, have wide-ranging communicative repertoires, and can recognize their distinctive utility.

I hope these wise 11th graders can also address those media voices, like Faith Salie, that suggest our language goals should lean toward less language diversity in our pies. Today’s teens will need to use different kinds of language to do many things: babysit, snuggle with their cat, comfort a friend, write poetry, mediate neighborhood conflict, apply for college, be President…

One unitary language pie called “Perfect English” could never do all that.

What slices make up your Language Diversity Pie?

Word Wars: Shakespeare, Hip Hop, and the Common Core

Aesop RockEvery Wednesday morning, I visit a class of very smart, insightful, and surprisingly alert (considering class starts at 7:30 am) 11th graders during their English class. This week, they were finishing up their analyses of Hamlet soliloquies, and I took this opportunity to ask a few lingering questions about Shakespeare and Hip Hop (see previous post). What are some reasonable points of comparison?

Almost immediately, vocabulary began to emerge as the common ground.

One music fan pointed out that, like Shakespeare, the Hip Hop artist Aesop Rock commands a gigantic vocabulary, a fact documented last spring when this Shakespeare/Hip Hop infographic came out in an article by Matt Daniels (“designer, coder, and data scientist”) entitled, “The Largest Vocabulary in Hip Hop.” Daniels conveniently located Shakespeare’s relative spot in the lineup:

rapvocabinfographic

All the way to the right, sits Aesop Rock. And just to the left of him, members of Wu-Tang Clan and the Roots. These guys far surpass Shakespeare, and fans know it. Daniels writes that he originally excluded Aesop Rock (he seemed too obscure), but Reddit Hip Hop fans were insistent he be included. They knew he would shine in this comparison. So, Daniels ran the numbers and found they were right.

Voluminous Internet feedback followed the posting of Daniels’ article. As soon as Daniels’ chart came out, people began using it as a way to compare the quality of Hip Hop artists. Commenters suggested that it would follow that since Drake and JayZ are far to the left, they are obviously inferior artists to Aesop Rock or Wu-Tang. True?

Not really. Daniels quickly argued against this interpretation. First, he pointed out, vocabulary and verbal artistry are not the same. In a follow-up article, Daniels drew on a response to his first version, by Robert Gonzalez, to support his point of view. Gonzalez wrote that “On The Black Album track ‘Moment of Clarity,’ Jay-Z contrasts his lyricism with that of Common and Talib Kweli (both of whom “rank” higher than him, when it comes to the diversity of their vocabulary).” Then, Gonzalez cited these lines from Jay-Z:

Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense

But I did 5 mil – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since

Jay-Z is claiming to step down in terms of lyricism and vocabulary, gloating over his millions, but relinquishing any real claims to artistry to the hip hop artist Common. But is he really letting go of those claims to verbal art? He cleverly plays with the name “Common” and the phrase “Common sense” and in the process he implies that, in addition to doing “5 mil,” he still has some verbal skills. This suggests there is more to Hip Hop artistry than simply knowing a lot of words.

Other responses to Daniels’ Hip Hop vocabulary post point out that an artist’s “vocabulary” includes expressive devices that extend beyond words. Nathan, on Pigeons and Planes, brings this point home, when he writes:

In hip hop, and music in general, words aren’t the only thing that makes up an artist’s vocabulary.

As I followed this chain of remarks about vocabulary and Hip Hop, from the 11th grader’s comment on Aesop Rock, to the Internet posting, to the comments on that, I noticed the marked insistence that vocabulary, alone, can’t account for someone’s artistry or the extent of their communicative resources.

Delving into language artistry—be it Hip Hop or Shakespeare or Rush (another musical group the 11th graders invoked)—seems to be a much more complicated matter than counting words. For any director adapting Shakespeare to a new stage or in a new context, choosing costumes, deciding on the pacing, delivery, voice, pitch, tone, accent, and gestures, all enter into decisions for how to make a play that communicates with its audience. These decisions seem to align with those of Hip Hop artists like Jay-Z, similarly making “Common” sense decisions about how to reach their listeners.

Recent debates about the Common Core State Standards and their requirements for “vocabulary acquisition and use” traverse the same theme. Some have been worried that the common core designates specific vocabulary to be learned, ranging from outrage that the common core designates left-wing vocabulary or overly specified “academic” vocabulary or even the teaching of “Islamic” vocabulary.

Upon closer (any) examination, the Common Core encourages reflection on vocabulary and nuances of meaning precisely along the lines of the Internet exchanges surrounding the use of Hip Hop vocabulary and its relative worth. For grades 11 and 12, standards for “vocabulary acquisition and use” include the following:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.11-12.5
Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.11-12.5.A
Interpret figures of speech (e.g., hyperbole, paradox) in context and analyze their role in the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.L.11-12.5.B
Analyze nuances in the meaning of words with similar denotations.

These standards do not focus on accumulating huge quantities of vocabulary words in isolation or determining the specific words that should be learned. Instead, these standards direct teachers and students to relish the “nuances” of word meanings, to understand that nuance “in context” and to make fine distinctions between words of similar meanings. Addressing these standards might even bridge the sophisticated types of debate that surround postings about Hip Hop and other music lyrics, and the kind of talk English teachers hope to encourage around literature like Shakespeare.

What do you view as a sophisticated use of vocabulary? How do you define “vocabulary”? Is it only words? How do you judge the relative merit of different verbal artistry? Please comment!

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!

Language “Rules” and the Common Core State Standards

CCSSImageWhat do the controversial Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have to say about language? I’ve heard teachers and students, colleagues and friends, talking about the Common Core, hinting at worries about yet more standardization and inevitable high-stakes testing. I can agree that more standardization, especially regarding language in a massively multilingual and rapidly changing educational context is worrisome. But, what do the CCSS actually say?

Anyone with Internet access can take a look and navigate through all the standards on the website (www.corestandards.org). So, I did. I had one guiding question: What are the CCSS telling teachers to teach our kids about language? I found some happy surprises.

First, I found this statement in the introduction to the “Language” standards:

Language: Conventions, effective use, and vocabulary

The Language standards include the essential “rules” of standard written and spoken English, but they also approach language as a matter of craft and informed choice among alternatives.

Those quotation marks around “rules” were my first hint of potential CCSS flexibility. Perhaps the crafters of these standards take the concept of language “rules” with a grain of salt. If “rules” are in quotes and craft and informed choice considered important, teachers could be liberated, rather than constrained by the Common Core.

Could this stance be consistently maintained from Kindergarten through Senior Year? I continued through the Language standards to see.

The word nuance in one of the Kindergarten standards (#5) caught my attention and supported my first impression that strict definitions and rigid “rule”-learning wouldn’t be the focus. So, I began there:

K5: With guidance and support from adults, explore word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

K5C:Identify real-life connections between words and their use (e.g., note places at school that are colorful).

K5D: Distinguish shades of meaning among verbs describing the same general action (e.g.,walk, march, strut, prance) by acting out the meanings.

This sounds like a nice way to learn about language and meaning in context: Walking through a school, noting places that are “colorful”–or, marching, strutting and prancing, accentuating the nuance in each gait (and word)!

But, Kindergarten is supposed to be fun. Even standards writers might think so. What happens in first grade? They must start memorizing dictionary definitions then, right? No!

In first grade, this standard remains the same:

With guidance and support from adults, demonstrate understanding of word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

Now students note “places at home that are cozy” and continue to “distinguish shades of meaning,” of verbs like look, peek, glance, stare, glare, scowl or adjectives like large, gigantic.

And in second grade, students must demonstrate their recognition of nuance without “guidance and support from adults”:

Demonstrate understanding of word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

In third grade the standard adds “figurative language” but maintains the need to find nuance.

Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

This standard remains exactly like this through 12th grade. Children go from marching, strutting and prancing around school to analyzing the shades of meaning of hurl versus throw to identifying hyperbole and paradox. Students’ understanding of word nuance consistently grows along the way.

But by starting with the “nuance” standard, I may have created a biased impression.  What about other standards? Are the rest more “rule” bound, standardized and lacking in nuance?

I started over in Kindergarten, this time with the most boring looking standard I could find, 1A. No nuance there:

Print many upper- and lowercase letters.

1A progresses to first grade like this, with even less nuance, as many changes to all:

Print all upper- and lowercase letters.

To second grade:

Use collective nouns (e.g., group).

And third grade:

Explain the function of nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs in general and their functions in particular sentences.

And, Common Core State Standard 1A continues in the same vein from 4th to 10th grade:

4th: Use relative pronouns (who, whose, whom, which, that) and relative adverbs (where, when, why).

5th: Explain the function of conjunctions, prepositions, and interjections in general and their function in particular sentences.

6th: Ensure that pronouns are in the proper case (subjective, objective, possessive).

7th: Explain the function of phrases and clauses in general and their function in specific sentences.

8th: Explain the function of verbals (gerunds, participles, infinitives) in general and their function in particular sentences.

9th and 10th: [in an abrupt and ironic break with previous grades] Use parallel structure.

Grammar rules seem to be piling up.

But I also noticed a healthy pattern of explanation of rules of “proper” usage (grade 6), interspersed with the slight concession to context, noting these features may function differently in “particular” (grade 5 and 8) or “specific” sentences (grade 7). But where does this all lead? What happens in 11th and 12th grade. Certainly you can’t be teaching more grammar points to 17 and 18 year olds?

Nope! In 11th and 12th grade, rules become “rules,” or, more explicitly, a “matter of convention” that “can change over time” and be “contested”:

11th and 12th: Apply the understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested.

After this dip into the Common Core website, following the ripples of a couple standards through the grades and into adulthood, I began to feel reassured that the CCSS (on their own) will not doom us to decades of robotic teaching and learning.

Understanding nuance is officially Language Standard #5. Nuance also infuses these standards and their interpretation. Like so many educational tools, they can be used and abused. I’m hoping to use them to support more critical thinking about language in classrooms, among students and their teachers, the community, and beyond. I’m also hoping that when students are exploring “shades of meaning,” (CCSS language standard 5D) those who speak several languages, or varied dialects, will be invited to share those shades of meaning too. (See Nelson Flores’ post on Multilingualism and the CCSS). Ideally, up to and beyond graduation, students will engage with the nuance of language, knowing they can also be the ones who change language “rules” and contest conventions.

What have your experiences been with the CCSS? Have you been aware of them as a teacher, a professor, an administrator, policy-maker, or a parent? As a citizen who consumes media about education policy? What do the CCSS ignore or leave out? How are they constraining? How might they be liberating?

Language Diversity Laugh Tracks

Laugh tracks, those recordings of canned laughter that at one time predictably accompanied all TV comedies, are supposed to cue an audience response, anointing certain comments, actions, or dialogue as funny. The laugh track says: It’s good to laugh now.

FreshOfftheBoat     laughingpeople

Laugh tracks also suggest we are similar. We are all part of an audience that laughs at the exact same things. One reason laugh tracks were originally created was to provide that feeling of shared laughter—the pleasure you get in a movie theater or a live performance when the entire audience is laughing together.

But, usually in life, we don’t have laugh tracks to cue that laughter. And, increasingly, we don’t have that shared background with those in the theater, or even in our living room. As audiences become more diverse, who laughs (at what and why) becomes more divided.

This becomes especially apparent when comedy lampoons different ways of speaking. A lot of humor depends on stereotyped portraits of speech-types. These depictions can be hilarious at times, offensive at others—and often simultaneously so to different groups of people. So, creating one unified laugh track would be impossible.

Why can’t we all laugh together?

Sometimes, we don’t all get it. For example, a few weeks ago, a student showed me this depiction of Asian accented Englishes (including Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Cantonese, Thai, Filipino, and Indonesian):

SingaporeAccents

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

On watching this video with others in the class, half of us—those from China and Singapore—laughed heartily. The other half—those of us from the United States—just sat there, fascinated and puzzled. Not laughing. We weren’t trying to be tasteful or polite, expressing our offense at the crass depictions of stereotypes across East and Southeast Asia. We didn’t even know enough to make such judgments. We just didn’t get it.

In other cases, everyone “gets it” but in a slightly different way. Then laughing together may be possible–but complicated. Many comics build their routines through self-mocking depictions of their own (or their parents’ and grandparents’) ways of speaking English. When humor depends on this kind of linguistic self-mockery, laughing “with” someone might border on laughing at them, or at an entire imagined group.   In this clip, for example, Russel Peters imitates his dad, who moved to Canada from India, through easily recognizable stereotypes of Indian English:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63_lFztZ0rw

And in this performance, Margaret Cho mocks her mother’s Asian accent:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gevWOlEI5cc

In each of these live performances, the audience laughs with gusto. They clap and chuckle enthusiastically at Peters’ imitation of the many different ways his father says “Come!” in stylized Indian intonation, his eyes growing wide, head bobbling from side-to-side. Similarly, Cho’s audience enjoys her depictions of stereotyped guttural, r-less Asian speech. The YouTube comments immediately savor Cho’s portrait of her mother’s accent, attempting to represent it in their direct quotes:

fossilmusictv dis is da best mothas day. eva.

Ferd617…Oh, dere was one mudder day dat was a little bit bettuh.

But, this savoring of stereotyped accent, gestures and demeanor can also be troublesome. As the sociolinguist Elaine Chun points out, sometimes Margaret Cho’s depictions of Asians are such stark caricatures it seems okay for Asians and Asian Americans to laugh along, but disconcerting when white people join in. She writes of Cho’s performance at a show in Austin, TX, where more than half the audience appeared to be “European American”:

I had feelings of both pleasure and discomfort when hearing peals of laughter from non-Asians who seemed to profoundly enjoy her caricatures of Asians and Asian speech. (2004, p. 278, fn17)

For Chun, Asians’ enjoyment of Cho’s stereotyped versions of Asian speech seemed more straightforward then “out-group” laughter.

Cho’s TV show, All-American Girl, was canceled after one season, in 1995.

Now, depictions of Asian Accents are surfacing again as mainstream TV material. Fresh off the Boat, a new comedy about an Asian American family, premiered last month to mixed reviews. Many have critiqued the stereotypes and, specifically, the stereotyped language used in the show. Angela Tom, wrote:

Eddie’s mother played by American actress Constance Wu must fake a Chinese accent throughout the show. It hurt my ears even more when I heard Wu speaking in her normal, unbroken, smooth-as-silk English during a TV interview.

But other reviewers appreciate the negotiation between ways of speaking depicted in the show. Wu’s accent is not necessarily “fake,” but a performance. Like Tom, Shalini Shankar points out that the parents in the show perform stereotyped “Chinese” accents. But, she also stresses the importance of getting these performances out there:

As we get to know these more well-rounded accented English speakers as people, hopefully it will make it harder to see them as one-dimensional punch-lines.

Another critic’s list of “8 Reasons to Catch Fresh off the Boat” includes this observation:

 Fresh off the Boat is blessedly absent a laugh track.

Language variety and stereotypes of talk seem to be fodder for humor. But, the humor may appeal in different ways to different audiences, in ways the universalizing presuppositions of a laugh track could never capture. At least leaving the laugh track out of shows like Fresh Off the Boat lets the audience figure it out for themselves—and with each other.

How do you react to comedic depictions of language diversity like those in Fresh off the Boat? Have you found yourself wondering why certain accents are funny? Or whether you should be laughing at all? 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!