Dialect, Language, Politics, Race, Uncategorized

Shh – Don’t Say ‘Speak American’ (Out Loud)

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Image credit: Christian V.

There was justified outcry this week when a New Jersey teacher reprimanded students for speaking Spanish in class. She demanded the students speak “American,” arguing that U.S. troops are “not fighting for your right to speak Spanish.”

The students staged a walk-out. There have been calls for the teacher to be censured and dismissed. These outcomes are necessary, but we must also recognize that the teacher’s rant accurately named aloud what most U.S. schools impose on students every day.

The vast majority of students in the U.S. are spoken to, taught, and assessed exclusively in English, regardless of whether English is the language through which they learn best. Whether these English-Only restrictions are actual policy, or simply monolingual inertia, students across the country are forced to “speak American” every day without anyone having to name it out loud. Continue reading “Shh – Don’t Say ‘Speak American’ (Out Loud)”

Dialect, Language, Politics

Political Correctness and the “War on Free Speech”

silence.jpg
Image Credit: Rebecca Barray, via Flickr

Political Diatribe. Trigger warnings. Microaggressions. Victimhood culture.

Being politically correct, or “PC,” has been all over the media this year. Some say this is the mark of a more conscientious and inclusive society, while others say we’ve gotten “too sensitive.” According to one recent presidential candidate, political correctness is literally “killing people.”

But what does being PC even mean? Merriam-Webster will tell you it’s about avoiding language “perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against,” which all sounds well and good. So why the dramatic outcry over a basic politeness virtue we teach kindergarteners every day?

The backlash usually arises when someone is called out for not being PC. In general, no one likes to have their language corrected. If someone points out a mistake in grammar or pronunciation (cue Chris discovering there’s no “x” in espresso), we’re briefly embarrassed, but we move past it. But if someone gets called out for being “un-PC,” prepare for words to fly.

So what is it that makes this correction strike so much deeper? Clearly, it’s something that goes beyond the words or “corrections” themselves to tap into dynamics of language and power. Continue reading “Political Correctness and the “War on Free Speech””

Dialect, Gender

‘Annoying’ Upspeak, or Policing Women’s Voices?

Women in Radio

I got my first lesson in vocal inflection from my college theatre director: “Chris, your voice is going up at the end of each sentence. It makes you sound younger than the character you’re playing. Make your voice go down to sound older.”

I had never noticed that about my voice, but I soon realized I was indeed a devotee of what has now become known as upspeak, as exemplified  by Taylor Mali, as he calls out this quality among his high school students:

“In case you hadn’t realized,” Mali declares, “it has somehow become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about… Invisible question marks and parenthetical ya know’s?… have been attaching themselves to the end of our sentences, even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions.”

Having worked to shed this quality in my own voice, I had largely forgotten about the issue. But NPR’s Fresh Air brought me back to the topic this week – with the added realization that the only people who still seem to get called out on this feature are, like, ya know, women. Continue reading “‘Annoying’ Upspeak, or Policing Women’s Voices?”

Dialect, English, Language

Math or Maths? The Definitive Answer

Math

I say tomato; you say to-mah-to is all well and good, but when I say math and you say maths, it’s going to come to blows.

So why is it that Americans tend to call it math while those from the U.K. insist it’s maths?

The main argument, according to Dr. Lynne Murphy, an American linguist living in the UK, is that both words are abbreviations for mathematics, which is plural… or is it?

In an interview with Numberphile, Murphy stated that the problem with that argument is that mathematics isn’t plural. 

“We don’t say, ‘there are two mathematics that I need to look at.’ And when you make maths or mathematics agree with a verb you make it agree with a singular verb and not a plural one. You don’t say ‘mathematics are interesting’ you say ‘maths is interesting’… so there’s plenty of linguistic evidence that it’s singular.” Continue reading “Math or Maths? The Definitive Answer”

Dialect, Language

When “No” Means “Yeah”: The Rise of “No Yeah”

question

It seems linguists are discovering what Midwesterners like myself have done for years. In a recent article for The New Yorker, Kathryn Schulz discusses the use of phrases like “No, totally” when you actually mean “Yes.” Here’s her example, from a conversation about modern art:

“MARON: They can look at any painting and go, “Eh.” They can look at a Rothko and go, “Hey, three colors.” And then you want to hit them.

DUNHAM: No, totally.”

See? Dunham does “totally” want to hit somebody. But she starts her sentence with “No.” If she would have said “No” on its own, the meaning would be completely different. So what’s going on here?

Schulz wonders if it’s just a younger-generation phenomenon:

“Dunham is twenty-eight years old, but the “No, totally!” phenomenon is not limited to her generation. It’s not even limited to “No, totally.” I first started noticing it when a fiftysomething acquaintance responded to a question I asked by saying, “Yup! No, very definitely.” That sent me looking for other examples, which turn out to be almost nonexistent in written English but increasingly abundant in speech. In 2001, the journalist Bernard Kalb told the White House correspondent Dana Milbank that it was the job of reporters to thoroughly investigate political candidates, to which Milbank responded, “Oh, no, yes, I agree with you there.” In 2012, Anderson Cooper, talking with the CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger, referred to Newt Gingrich as “the guy who has come back from the dead multiple times.” Borger’s reply veered toward Molly Bloom terrain: “Yes, no, exactly, exactly, exactly.”
Continue reading “When “No” Means “Yeah”: The Rise of “No Yeah””

Dialect, Language

Can you guess the accent? (Quiz)

choirA few weeks ago, Quartz writer Nikhil Sonnad wrote an article about the Speech Accent Archive – a project by Steven Weinberger, a professor of linguistics at George Mason University.

Weinberger asked people from all over the world to record themselves reading a particular paragraph (chosen because its 69 words cover most sounds in the English language) to see how English is used/pronounced throughout the world.

Quartz pulled a few of the recordings and designed a quiz. I scored abysmal 50% but, hopefully you can do better. Take the quiz here, and let me know how it goes!

It’s interesting to wonder: Why do we have this skill in the first place? Not only can we recognize accents as “not ours,” but it seems like most of us can also place these accents with relative accuracy. Why do you think our brains developed that skill? And more importantly, as indicated by my atrocious quiz score, why do I seem to lack it? 🙂

~C.B.

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Dialect, Language

“Articulate”

Jamila Lyiscott has been making the social media rounds with her spoken word piece, “3 Ways to Speak English.” It pretty much sums up my earlier posts on dialect in America (which you can read here and here).

The basic premise: Being “articulate” is not about your ability to use a particular dialect that’s arbitrarily considered to be “superior” or “standard.” Rather, being articulate means:

Continue reading ““Articulate””

Dialect, Education, Language

My English is Valid-er than Your English

I’ll admit it: I enjoy the occasional Grammar Police diatribe (especially Weird Al’s recent “Blurred Lines” parody, “Word Crimes”). Who doesn’t love hyperbolic prophecies of the demise of the English language as we know it? But I’ve recently seen this gem floating around Facebook walls, and it’s messing up my grammatical superiority buzz:

Grammar Disc 1

The post, displayed with pride (usually by teachers), succinctly expresses what many of us feel: that people who use “peopler English” seem smarter, more articulate, and more worthy of employment at my future coffee-and-catnip shop than those who do not.

As clearly explained by gems like this: Continue reading “My English is Valid-er than Your English”

Dialect, Diversity, Language

How Many Englishes Do you Speak?

It’s no secret that English-speaking Americans can sound vastly different from one another. We have different accents (Southern, Jersy, “Bah-ston”), vocabulary (pop vs. soda), and good ol’ colloquial idioms (Really New England, how can 15 minutes before an hour [e.g. 12:45] be referred to as “quarter OF?”). A grad student at N. Carolina State University created some amazing maps of some of these differences which, according to the Huffington Post, briefly “set the internet on fire.”

The levels of allegiance to this word are staggering.

We freely discuss these differences, but rarely talk about how they impact our perceptions. We know people make assumptions based on race, gender, or clothing styles, but do we judge based on dialect as well?

In my Language, Literacy, and Culture course, I used Morocco as an example of a Linguistically Stratified Society in which the language you speak strongly indicates your social class. French, for example, is more often used in universities and legal documents, while Darija tends to be the at-home language of urban communities, Tashelhit for rural areas, etc. I used the graphic below to “rank” the social status of each language.

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Note that this is NOT a comparison of the actual legitimacy, complexity, or beauty of the languages – from a linguistics standpoint they’re completely equal.

Continue reading “How Many Englishes Do you Speak?”