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

‘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

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

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

“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