Archive for Sociolinguistics

Trevor Noah reflects on language and identity

In my introductory undergraduate course on English words, and in most undergraduate introductory courses on linguistics, students are invited to reflect on language and identity—how the way you speak communicates information about who you are—which they are typically very interested in. This isn't my beat, professionally speaking, but as a linguist I have a duty to help my students think through some of these issues (and, if they get interested, point them in the right direction to get really educated). To get started, I often play this one-minute clip of a Meshach Taylor Fresh Air interview from 1990, which is usually a good starting point for some discussion.

But Fresh Air (yes I'm a Terry Gross fangirl) also recently ran an interview with the biracial South African host of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, which contained this ten-minute motherlode of a reflection on multilingualism, language choice, racism, acceptable targets of mimicry, vocabulary size, Trump's communicative abilities, resentment of accented speech… whew. I'm just going to leave it here for your edification and enjoyment. Maybe one of our more sociolinguistically expert Language Loggers will provide some more detailed commentary later. For my part — well, I just invite you to think about what kind of 500-word essay you'd write for a Ling 101 class with this 10-minute clip as your prompt.

To hear the whole interview, or read the transcript, visit the NPR Fresh Air page.

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Ultimate language threat

The news these days, I find, seldom merits a smile. But at one news story I heard at lunchtime today I actually laughed out loud, alone in my kitchen. Michel Barnier, charged with heading the EU side in the complex forthcoming negotiations that will set the terms for the UK's exit from the European Union, has found a way to hurt the British more deeply, and put them more at a disadvantage, than I ever would have thought possible. It is so fiendish it ought to be illegal, yet it violates no law or basic principle of human rights. It is simply wonderful in its passive-aggressive hostility. I take my hat off to him. He has announced that he wants all the negotiations with the British team to be conducted in French.

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RBG: THOUGHT-raising and r-vocalization

Katy Steinmetz, "How Ruth Bader Ginsburg found her voice", Time Magazine:

For three years, NYU linguistics professor emeritus John Victor Singler, along with researchers Nathan LaFave and Allison Shapp, pored over hours of audio of Ginsburg’s remarks at the Supreme Court. They used computer programs to analyze thousands of vowel and consonant utterances during her time arguing cases in the 1970s, and then from the early ’90s onward, after she returned to the court in robes. While one can hear flecks of classic New York features in Lawyer Ginsburg’s remarks—like the pursed, closed-mouthed vowels—her Brooklyn roots are more obvious in the speech of Justice Ginsburg, they found.

Their theory, reported here for the first time, is that “conscious or not,” the lawyer was doing something everyone does, what is known in linguistics as accommodation: adapting our ways of communicating depending on who we’re talking to. Accommodating can be done through word choice, pronunciation, even gestures. A common example would be when someone returns to the town where they grew up and their accent comes roaring back as they talk to friends and family who sound that way, too.

This is the first time that I can recall having seen embedded Soundcloud audio clips in a publication of this kind.

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Talk amongst yourselves

Please, talk to each other. It's important to linguists that there should be plenty of chat. We need language live, on the hoof. Millions of spoken word tokens everywhere, so that we can (for example) compare Donald Trump's amazingly high proportion of first-person singular pronouns to the average for non-narcissists like typical Language Log readers. tubechat

However, beware of engaging in chat to strangers on the subway if you are in London. A new campaign for people to wear a "Tube chat?" button when traveling on London Underground trains, intended to provoke random conversation with other passengers, has been met with horror and disdain by the misanthropic curmudgeons who use the services in question. No chat please; we're Londoners.

[Comments are turned off out of respect for readers in London.]

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Vaina == jawn?

Philly has jawn — see Ben Zimmer on "The Etymology of Jawn", or listen to this story from WHYY:

According to Philly native Mary Seaborough, who works at Cook-Wissahickon elementary, where my kids attend school, "It really can mean anything you want it to mean."  Seaborough grew up in South Philly. She uses "jawn," and she helped me understand the word's versatility. It is used mainly to refer to places and things, but it can even be a person, specifically a pretty woman. "A guy might say, 'Man, did you see that jawn over there?'" Seaborough said.

Or there's Dan Kelley's article "Jawn — it's the new 'Yo'", Metro 12/1/2015:

“Creed might be the movie that introduces jawn to the rest of America,” said Taylor Jones, a linguistics graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania who uses social media to study how words, and slang, change.  In the film, “Jawn” is introduced by actress Tessa Thompson, who plays the Philly-born female love interest opposite Michael B. Jordan, who plays the film’s title character, Adonis Creed.  She drops the j-word, while ordering a cheesesteak — “put some peppers on that jawn.”

But according to Joanna Hausmann, Venezuela has vaina:

Some of the many other meanings of vaina in other places (sheath, scabbard, husk, shell, problem, snag, nuisance, bore, fluke, piece of luck, swindle, screw, twit, nitwit, dork, …) are listen here.

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Philly accent

"An earful of that unmistakable Philly accent", CBS This Morning 7/26/2016:

Featuring Meredith Tamminga!

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Scotty: Sexist or just Scottish?

Wells Hansen writes:

I recently heard some grumbling at the local pub over the new Star Trek's "Scotty" referring to Lt Uhura as "lass" or "lassy". Have the writers of the most recent iteration of the ST franchise created a sexist or dismissive Scotty  …or just a Scottish one?

I haven't seen the movie, and am not competent in contemporary Scottish sociolinguistics, much less those of the 23rd century. So I'll leave this one for the commenters.

 

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Whodunit sociolinguistics

In order to pass the time on the long flight back from Paris, I downloaded a set of classic Margery Allingham mysteries. And in reading them, I was struck now and again by interesting and unexpected linguistic trivia. Thus in  Look to the Lady1931 [emphasis added]:

Mr Campion was introduced, and there was a momentary awkward pause. A quick comprehending glance passed between him and the elder girl, a silent flicker of recognition, but neither spoke. Penny sensed the general embarrassment and came to the rescue, chattering on breathlessly with youthful exuberance.  

'I forgot you didn't know Beth,' she said. 'She came just after you left. She and her people have taken Tye Hall. They're American, you know. It's glorious having neighbours again – or it would be if Aunt Di hadn't behaved so disgustingly. My dear, if Beth and I hadn't conducted ourselves like respectable human beings there'd be a feud.'  

Beth laughed. 'Lady Pethwick doesn't like strangers,' she said, revealing a soft unexpectedly deep voice with just a trace of a wholly delightful New England accent.

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"Linguistics has evolved"

From alice-is-thinking on tumblr, three weeks ago, forwarded by a 20-year-old correspondent:

http://alice-is-thinking.tumblr.com/post/145533947099/me-10-years-ago-i-never-use-online-abbreviations

The accompanying note:

this seems to be a rly common phenomenon among millennials who are especially active on social media – myself included

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Language and identity

Rebecca Tan, "Accent Adaptation (On sincerity, spontaneity, and the distance between Singlish and English", The Pennsylvania Gazette 2/18/2016:

The most difficult thing about speaking in a foreign country isn’t adopting a new currency of speech, but using it as though it’s your own—not just memorizing your lines, but taking center stage and looking your audience in the eye. It is one thing to pronounce can’t so that it rhymes with ant instead of aunt, but a whole other order to do that without feeling like a fraud. […]

Lately I’ve been wondering if I’ve taken this whole language situation a tad too personally. Till now, I have kept my Singaporean inflection close at hand, for fear that attempts at Americanisms will be wrong—or, worse, permanent. Yet I am beginning to feel myself grow tired of this stage fright, tired of this senseless preoccupation with the packaging of ideas rather than the ideas themselves. Away from all these theatrics, the simple facts are that I am 9,500 miles away from home, and will be for four more years. I came here looking for change, and the words forming in my mouth to accommodate that change are not jokes, lies, or betrayals. They are real, not strange, and they are mine.

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Stigmatized varieties of Gaelic

St. Patrick's Day was last Thursday, but this afternoon I saw someone wandering around in a sparkly green top hat.  In that spirit, I offer a post about perhaps-fictional attitudes towards a variety of Scottish Gaelic.

The content comes from Ken MacLeod's novella The Human Front, which the publisher's blurb calls "a comedic and biting commentary on capitalism and an exploration of technological singularity in a posthuman civilization". We learn that "the story follows John Matheson, an idealistic teenage Scottish guerilla warrior who must change his tactics and alliances with the arrival of an alien species". The protagonist tells us that

My mother, Morag, was a Glaswegian of Highland extraction, who had met and married my father after the end of the Second World War and before the beginning of the Third. She, somewhat contrarily, taught herself the Gaelic and used it in all her dealings with the locals, though they always thought her dialect and her accent stuck-up and affected. The thought of her speaking a pure and correct Gaelic in a Glasgow accent is amusing; her neighbours' attitude towards her well-meant efforts less so, being an example of the the characteristic Highland inferiority complex so often mistaken for class or national consciousness. The Lewis accent itself is one of the ugliest under heaven, a perpetual weary resentful whine — the Scottish equivalent of Cockney — and the dialect thickly corrupted with English words Gaelicized by the simple expedient of mispronouncing them in the aforementioned accent.

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Pygmalion updated

Peter Serafinowicz has updated George Bernard Shaw's dictum that "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him", by re-voicing Donald Trump to demonstrate that emotional reactions to British accents are easily evoked in Americans as well. There's "Sophisticated Trump", posted on YouTube 12/17/2015:

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Jeopardy gossip

The internet has been working hard at providing Deborah Cameron with material for a book she might write on attitudes towards women's voices. (Background: "Un justified", 7/8/2015; "Cameron v. Wolf" 7/27/2015.)

To see what I mean, sample the tweets for  #JeopardyLaura, or read some of the old-media coverage, like "Is this woman the most annoying 'Jeopardy!' contestant ever?", Fox News 11/24/2015:

"Jeopardy!" contestant Laura Ashby is causing quite a stir on social media. The Marietta, Georgia, native isn't getting attention for her two-day winning streak but instead the tone of her voice.  

Ashby first appeared on the competition show on Nov. 6 and when she returned this week the Internet went crazy over her voice.

Several tweeters went out of their way to exemplify Cameron's observation that "This endless policing of women’s language—their voices, their intonation patterns, the words they use, their syntax—is uncomfortably similar to the way our culture polices women’s bodily appearance":

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