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  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 6:45 am on September 25, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Arizona, dialect, discrimination, , sociolinguistics   

    Beware the accent police 

    (posted by John)

    You thought your schoolteachers were bad, but now even they aren’t safe from the accent police. An article in the New York Times today discusses allegations that Arizona engaged in ‘accent discrimination’ against teachers for whom English is a second language.  Since No Child Left Behind became law, the state has been sending “monitors” to classrooms to ensure that English is being spoken properly by teachers.

    “It was a repeated pattern of misuse of the language or mispronunciation of the language that we were looking for,” said Andrew LeFevre, a spokesman for the State Department of Education. “It’s critically important that teachers act as models when it comes to language.”

    But the federal review found that the state had written up teachers for pronouncing “the” as “da,” “another” as “anuder” and “lives here” as “leeves here.”

    Check out the “Multimedia” on the left side of the article itself, which plays audio of one teacher whose accent came under suspicion. Once the state came under federal investigation concerning allegations that teachers were transferred or even fired for speaking with an accent, it stopped sending monitors.  But still, this is kind of scary. What, after all, counts as “mispronunciation” of the language? As the lawyer who filed the complaint on the teachers’ behalf put it, we were looking at something beyond the ‘language fluency’ requirement for teachers in No Child.

    “This was one culture telling another culture that you’re not speaking correctly.”

    So does the southern drawl on some words, so prevalent among many of my friends, count as mispronunciation? What about people who “pahk the cah in the yahd?” When not in their home environs, one culture might well think this group is speaking incorrectly. And that’s all well and good until it becomes state policy that they can’t teach certain children or in certain schools or even at all.

    We all have accents–don’t those Arizona officials sound stupid saying otherwise?

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 2:49 pm on September 18, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: AAVE, colloquial, descriptive linguistics, ebonics, , , , sociolinguistics   

    Where you at, man? 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    I have a sordid confession, grammar nerds. I use the phrase “Where you at?” on a regular basis.

    That Boost Mobile commercial just got to me. And then Jennifer Hudson came out with a song called “Where you at?” and I just couldn’t resist anymore. “Where you at?” is a phrase associated with African American Vernacular English (AAVE) but plenty of my non-African American friends use it. And then there’s me, too.

    So what’s with this phrase? From a prescriptive standpoint, there are just so many grammatical issues.

    First, there’s no verb (called a copula in this instance, since we need a form of the verb “be”). But let’s give speakers a little break. Maybe the “are” just got swallowed up in the “where.” When many speakers casually say the two words “where are,” the “are” usually gets contracted into the “where,” resulting in “where’re.” That’s a pretty hard word to pronounce, so it may get reduced to a simple “where” when we’re speaking. Also, in AAVE, the copula is generally omitted altogether, anyway.

    So, okay, there’s no verb — fine. We’ll allow it.

    But what about that pesky “at” at the end? The word “where” literally means “at what place,” so saying “Where you at?” effectively results in “At what place (are) you at?” Repetition is usually no good. There shouldn’t be two instances of “at” when they are used for the same purpose.

    There’s also a prescriptive argument that a preposition like “at” shouldn’t be used at the end of a sentence. I generally avoid subscribing to that view, especially when it creates awkward sentences. There might be a case for that argument here, though: If we place the “at” somewhere else in the sentence, we see that it doesn’t really belong in this sentence. “At where (are) you?”

    But maybe that “at” serves another purpose. I find “Where you at?” to be a more useful phrase than the standard “Where are you?” because it requests something deeper than a simple GPS location. I want to know where you are, what you’re doing, whom you’re with, and whether it’s fun. Can I come to where you’re at? Can I bring friends? Maybe the simple word “at” holds much more meaning than we give it credit for.

    I also like the phrase because it’s more casual and less creepy than an out-of-the-blue “Where are you?” — it has all the functionality of the “proper” phrase and none of the stalker undertones. Maybe that reason alone is enough to welcome the sentence into my regular speech.

    In addition, the social implications of the phrase — cool, hip, urban — probably play into my and others’ decision to use the phrase. You don’t want to be lame and use “Where are you?” when a more proper “Where you at?” would do the job in certain contexts.

    Sure, I probably won’t use it when I’m speaking to my elders or in a professional context, but I like using it with my friends and peers.

    And after all, for descriptive linguists, utility and popular usage is where it’s at.

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 2:10 pm on September 4, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , sociolinguistics,   

    The tomato: fruit or vegetable? 

    posted by John

    Most of us know that the scientific classification of the tomato is that it is a fruit. But, of course, we also know that it’s not quite like an orange, an apple, or a plum. I once heard it said:

    Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is never putting it in a fruit salad.

    What does that statement actually mean? If we unpack it just a little bit, we get something like the following: that although we know technically speaking, tomatoes are the juicy, seed-bearing part of the plant, and that makes them a fruit, we nevertheless consider them to be vegetables (and thus a better part of, say, a garden salad than a fruit salad).

    It turns out that the United States Supreme Court agrees. And in 1893, ten years after the Tariff Act of 1883 was passed, they were called on to decide the question as a legal matter. The tariff was to be imposed on the importation of vegetables, but not on fruits, so when John Nix was forced to pay duties on tomatoes he imported from the West Indies, he sued. This is what the Court found:

    Botanically speaking, tomatoes are the fruit of the vine . . . But in the common language of the people, whether sellers or consumers of provisions, all these are vegetables which are grown in kitchen gardens, and which, whether eaten cooked or raw, are, like potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, cauliflower, cabbage, celery, and lettuce, usually served at dinner in, with, or after the soup, fish, or meats which constitute the principal part of the repast, and not, like fruits generally, as dessert. (NIX v. HEDDEN, 149 U.S. 304 (1893))

    What the Court took to be the true meaning of the word ‘fruit’ or ‘vegetable’ did not turn on its technical definition. It turned, rather, on its common usage: because it is widely understood to function more like a veggie than a fruit, the tomato should be considered a vegetable for the purposes of the tariff.

    In some ways, this makes sense. The Court was deciding how the tomato should be treated with respect to a tariff on vegetable imports. Thus if something is widely treated as a vegetable in terms of its economic use (garden but not fruit salads), then perhaps it makes good sense to treat it as such within the confines of the tariff. This was the Court’s reasoning, at least, and I generally think I agree with it. But come on; in other ways, it’s utter madness! If something is a fruit, it’s a fruit. Mass misunderstanding of that fact doesn’t make it less true.

    This conflict is related to Sandeep’s earlier post about Humpty Dumpty and the meaning of language—language doesn’t mean whatever we decide we want it to. But as Nix v. Hedden shows, our opinions and common conceptions of words nevertheless matter. To some extent, conventional meaning really determines literal meaning.

    As a former anti-vegetable child, I like that, and I think it gives hope to future generations of vegetable-averse kids: with a little persistence, maybe someday apples will count too.

     
  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 8:04 pm on August 7, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , regional, sociolinguistics   

    “I don’t have an accent.” 

    What do you drink?

    No, I’m not interested in your bar habits. I’m asking about the fizzy pop in your can at lunch. The sugar-rush soda you drink to stay up late. The caramel-colored coke in your cup. Which one is it?

    According to linguistic surveys, the name of your soft drink is determined by your geographic origins. People in the Northeast and the West call it “soda”; people across the Midwest largely know it as “pop”; and Southerners call it “coke,” no matter the brand.

    (credit: Pop vs Soda)

    The emergence of a mass-market American image in the last few decades has reduced regional differences like these. With mainstream newscasters and sitcom stars speaking in essentially the same dialect and accent, successive generations concerned with embodying a normative American identity have readily adopted linguistic traits that were once confined to certain regions in the central Midwest. They created a General American standard that now defines “average” in this country. This dialect of English is so unconsciously “normal” in the U.S. that speakers of General American identify themselves in a vacuum of identity: “I don’t have an accent.”

    Please. General American isn’t a monolith; it’s a heterogeneous amalgam of related accents. Don’t believe me? Try these simple tests.

    Pronounce these words: “Mary,” “merry” and “marry.” Are they all the same? You are seemingly in the majority, at least in America. The Mary-merry-marry merger is associated with rhotic dialects—that is, those that pronounce the written “R” at the ends of words or before consonants. General American is a rhotic form of English.

    But I grew up near coastal New Jersey, and although I didn’t speak with the non-rhotic Jersey Shore—excuse me, Jersey Shwa—accent, my schoolteachers and my friends’ parents did. I was surrounded by it. Speakers of non-rhotic accents usually pronounce the three words differently—and so do I. Although neither my friends nor I speak with a Jersey accent, this anomaly has stuck with us.

    Here’s another: “cot” and “caught.” If they are indistinguishable, you’re in the same boat as about 40% of Americans and nearly all Canadians. According to linguists, you’re probably from the Midwest, New England or farther north. Most other Americans pronounce the two slightly differently. The cot-caught merger is associated with a large shift in vowel pronunciation that occurred around the Great Lakes—a transformation that gave us, among other things, the much-maligned folksiness of one Sarah Palin.

    Okay, one more: how do you pronounce the ubiquitous suffix “–ing”? Many people drop the velar closure “ng” and say “–in.” Others, like my Pennsylvanian roommate, pronounce it “een,” stretching out the vowel. Sometimes it’s situational: you’re “chillin,” but other times you’re “relaxing.”

    It can be stunning to see how different we are, even when we fall under a “monolithic” label like General American.

    It’s just the same with those accents that are associated with very broadly painted geographic regions (“Southern”), ethnicities (“African-American”) or classes (“redneck”). To ascribe a certain linguistic destiny to swaths of people based on one aspect of their identity is foolish: we all know people who break the mold of stereotypes. Everyone’s accent is formed by multiple experiences and sources. And like other traits, it can be intimate and treasured.

    When we enter a world in which our accent is unusual, though, how do we react? With exaggeration or with assimilation? When I was abroad in Australia, I swung wildly between the two. Sometimes I would find myself emphasizing my accent, amplifying my “R” pronunciation and stubbornly using American vocabulary; other days, I’d yearn to fit in, studying the bizarre intricacies of Australian vowel production. In New York City, aspeech coach market has emerged for those desperate to part ways with their distinctive accent, complaining that their “tawking” colors their professional and social relationships.

    When the General American dialect is taken as a homogeneous, normative identity, some react by emphasizing their “heterodox” accent. Others can’t hear the difference. Still others assimilate. Universities pride themselves on diversity—but in truth, to be associated with a regional linguistic idiom can be crippling because it forms a lens through which others perceive you, often to the exclusion of other aspects of your identity.

    Those who fall under the General American normative umbrella are privileged in this country to be evaluated first on non-linguistic traits. Many, if not most, other speakers are not. This discrepancy is antithetical to a mission of diversity.

    Maybe my examples of linguistic heterogeneity are just fun quizzes, but maybe they’re a little more, too. Perhaps even a small understanding of the diversity within a so-seen monolith of identity like General American gets us somewhere toward an appreciation of larger, non-standard deviations from the norm.

    It’s interesting, after all, to see how some of the last vestiges of regional linguistic idioms—minor pronunciation differences among General American speakers—are humorous, whereas bigger dialectal differences can be personal and professional handicaps.

    I do have an accent—we all do. I just hope that I’m far more interesting than my choice of soft drink. (Soda.)

     
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