Trevor Noah reflects on language and identity

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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.


  1. Tim Martin said,

    December 2, 2016 @ 12:00 am

    Wow, great clip! Thanks for sharing!

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 2, 2016 @ 10:26 am

    I would have thought it unusual for someone growing up in South Africa to be fluent in that many different Bantu languages (since they tend to be regional in their distribution), but it may be significant that he grew up in Soweto which was a comparatively recent community largely composed of internal migrants from other parts of the country with many different ethnic/regional/linguistic backgrounds. (The wikipedia piece on Soweto gives recent census data on the percentage of various languages as the L1 of current residents, as well as the historical claim that back in the 1950's when the area was being developed under the auspices of the apartheid regime speakers of different languages were encouraged to cluster in different neighborhoods to perhaps reduce the need for multilingualism.)

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