Posts Tagged ‘Linguistics’

Since writing my post on the “rules” that some families use to decide which language to speak to their child, I’ve been thinking more about how my husband and I switch back and forth between Spanish and English.   It’s not a process that I’m normally consciously aware of, but after reflecting on it, I think we do have “norms”:

(1) When we are speaking casually, we seem to use whichever word comes to mind first.  Thus, it would be typical for me to say to him, “Me puedes pasar un napkin por fa?” [Could you hand me a napkin please?]  If I paused and thought, I would know to ask for “una servieta” instead of “un napkin,” but I usually just say whatever word comes out first.  It makes it very relaxing to talk to him.  When I am at work and I speak to Spanish-speaking respondents, I have to focus on staying “in” Spanish all the time.  Or when I speak to my parents, I can’t use a convenient expression in Spanish that would better express what I mean.  However, when I’m with him, or one of my few other bilingual friends, I can speak in a much more stream of consciousness manner that is dictated by the words on the tip of my tongue.

(2) When we speak casually, we might deliberately choose to use a word in the opposite language that better expresses what we mean.  For instance, the word “upset” in English is a bit more ambiguous than the possible translations for it in Spanish.  In Spanish, you have to commit more to whether you mean upset-angry, or upset-sad, or upset-agitated, without being able to leave it open to interpretation what kind of upset you are.

(3) When arguing, we each tend to use the language of the other.  I just noticed this last night.  In the midst of an argument, I realized that I was speaking in careful Spanish and my husband was speaking in careful English.  I think this is because we are more consciously invested in making sure the other person is hearing and understanding what we are saying.  However, when I reach a certain level of frustration in an argument, I’ve noticed that I switch into English.  In fact, I use a level of vocabulary that I’m often sure my husband isn’t familiar with, and I don’t care.  So you can actually gauge how upset I am by whether I’m arguing in Spanish or in English.

(4) When we are engaged in normal conversation, we will switch languages if the other person doesn’t understand us.  I might say something to my husband in Spanish and he will say, “huh?”  So when I repeat the sentence, I will say it in English.  It’s interesting to me that we switch repetitions of a sentence to the opposite language, even if the opposite language is not the native language of the person listening.  We have a running joke that being in a bilingual marriage means not understanding 20% of what the other person is saying.  That’s probably an exaggeration, but there’s a kernel of truth to that.  I would guess that we have a lot more “Huh?” interactions than most married couples.

(5) When watching TV or movies, we watch the show in the language it was recorded in.  This is mostly because I’m annoyed by dubbing.  I think the only exception to this is the Discovery Channel, which my husband loves to watch in Spanish and which I tolerate.

(6) When in public, we speak the language that the people around us speak, unless we are deliberately trying to say something private (usually because we are arguing about something).  That probably makes it obvious to people that we are arguing, but at least they don’t have to listen to the gory details.

(7) When I talk on the phone to him, I usually use Spanish or Spanglish, even if I’m around English speakers. So I guess my rule of sticking to the language that people around me speak in front of them really only applies if my husband is also present.

My husband and I have been together for 7 years and married for 3 and a half, so it seems unreasonable and artificial to me that with the birth of our first child, we would suddenly switch to a more ordered system in which we speak only English or Spanish to each other, I speak English to her and he speaks Spanish to her.  I think it will be very interesting to observe what “norms” we each adopt when speaking to her.

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I read an article this week by an author defending “upspeak”, which is a tendency (often shown by young women) to end a declarative sentence with rising intonation.  She notes that women are more likely according to David Crystal to be early adopters of linguistic innovation, and that upspeak can be used authoritatively (she cites a study by linguist Cynthia McLemore of sorority members that I would not have cited).

Linguistic innovation does not lead to success in the majority of workplaces.  Usually conformity increases in-group status while being different is penalized.  Maybe if I worked in a non-traditional industry (like as a tattoo artist? or an interpretive dancer?) it wouldn’t matter whether I sound “professional,” but in reality there are many linguistic tricks I’m having to master to get ahead.

These include avoidong upspeak, apologizing less and not talking too much when I’m nervous.  (Sometimes you just need to “land the plane.”  And then stop talking.)  People who end sentences with a declarative tone, are unapologetic, and are not afraid of silence are viewed as authoritative.  These are arbitrary rules, and I think it’s bigoted for people to make judgements about the intelligence of a speaker because of their accent or speech habits.  However, I spent a lot of money learning fancy terminology for linguistic phenomena so that I can feel guilty in an existential sense for selling out when it comes to respecting linguistic diversity.

At work this week it came to my boss’s attention that some emails had not been sent out that should have been sent out.  Both my boss and I manage this project jointly, so when my boss told me in a stern way that these emails should have gone out sooner, I apologized and noted that I should have remembered this.  Then I paused because I expected her to apologize back.  (No, I’m sorry too.  I don’t know why I forgot that part of the contract…)  She said nothing, which irked me because it was every bit as much her fault as mine.  When I recounted this episode to my friend, she scolded me for apologizing because it made me sound weak.  I believe that’s why my boss didn’t apologize, but I also think I should take responsibility when I manage a project (as should my boss).  I don’t think that shows weakness – I think it actually protects the people who work below me.  The buck stops here, etc.  My friend was right when it comes to getting ahead, but following that stupid rule of not wanting to look sorry toasts me.  Hopefully I’ll be independently wealthy and able to quit any day now.  In the meantime I’ll be apologizing less.

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I got an interesting comment from CM in response to my post on linguistic prejudice, below:

I think you’ve left out the fact that your native dialect of English is virtually identical with Standard English, so you’re approaching this problem as an outsider. Also, we correct kids behavior all the time based on our fear that others will judge them. I bet you don’t think twice about telling him to stand up straight or stop slouching. What if there were a community of people that identified as slouchers? And they had an army and a flag? Just like there’s nothing inherently special about Standard English, why assume that there’s something inherently special in Spanish-English or Peruvian Spanish?

I think kids his age are a little young to explain the “why” of what’s going on. Maybe you should continue to correct his English and when he becomes a teenager explain why Standard English is no more special than the language he speaks at home. At the end of the day it’s going to be up to him what language he uses at work, just like it’ll be up to him how he combs his hair or what clothes he wears in public (I notice your conscience doesn’t bother you when he wears American clothes in public instead of traditional Andean village attire).

Yes, my native dialect of English is very close to Standard, but there are several changes I make to conform to “professional” English.  I avoid ending sentences with an upward lilt because it sounds uncertain (to men?)  in the workplace.  I avoid using the word “just” or exclamation points in emails or other language that downplays my position as an authority figure.  I don’t use terminology that would identify me as young for a project manager like “sweet.”  I make several conscious changes to my natural variety (young and female) to sound more “professional” (middle-aged and male).

Additionally, my brother-in-law wouldn’t naturally wear Andean garb, but he does naturally speak a variety of Spanish-influenced English.  I’m not going to force him to be more traditionally Peruvian than he is, but there is a sense in which I am standardizing his dialect in opposition to his Peruvian heritage.  I like your point about the community of slouchers.  My background in linguistics makes me sensitive to linguistic hegemony, when in truth we crush children’s eccentricities all the time in an effort to make them more acceptable to society and more likely to succeed.   This seems more benign to me when they are behaviors that are not associated with a cultural identity, but you are correct that a cultural identity is just a set of behaviors backed up by a flag.

It is true that there isn’t much utility in talking about this issue with him now, particularly since he is bored by discussing language and the languages he speaks.  I think the most important thing is for me to refrain from poisoning his brain with ideas like, “People will think he’s poor!”  Hopefully later on we can have the meta discussion about language and the beauty of variety, and in the meantime I can refrain from filling his brain with ideas about language as a marker of socioeconomic position.

At the core of this issue is the notion that I don’t think any variety of language is superior to another and that we should not have to suppress our natural variety to succeed.  Despite believing this to be right and true and knowing that change will not happen until people are willing to speak in different varieties at work, I choose not to do so.  I also choose to standardize my brother-in-law’s dialect.  Apparently I think linguistic tolerance is an excellent idea, but not one that I’m willing to sacrifice for in order to make it a reality.

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Today I want to talk about linguistic prejudice.  Many people in America live in bidialectcal households and have mastered speaking more than one dialect of English.  Most often, these people speak a more “standard”* English variety along with a “non-standard” home variety like Southern English, African American Vernacular English, New Yorker English, English that’s influenced by another language like Spanish or Chinese, or even that lilting intonation that we associate with teenage girls from Southern California.   Many successful people in America suppress accents or speaking styles that are considered “non-standard” in order to be taken seriously in the work place.  However, should the fact that this linguistic prejudice exists mean that people with non-standard dialects should change how they express themselves in order to get ahead?

My background in sociolinguistics makes me inclined to support the ideal that people should be able to speak in “non-standard” varieties without appearing less competent.  This belief is normally evident in my interactions with my husband’s little brother, who is now seven.  He comes from a monolingual Spanish-speaking household but acquired English in pre-school.  I am trying to inculcate in him pride for his native language and for the variety of English that is spoken by the bilingual members of his Peruvian-American community.

While I strive to support him as a bilingual speaker of English and Spanish, the truth is that I struggle with my own fears for him about his bilingualism and how others will perceive him.  I think I’ve done a good job of hiding from him how much it disappoints me that he’s so reluctant to speak Spanish anymore.  I know the phenomenon of language loss is very common in second generation immigrant communities.  I try to only encourage him rather than being one more voice in his life telling him that he’s speaking Spanish incorrectly or speaking English too much.  I say “try” because I know of at least one occasion when I did not succeed in shielding him from the linguistic prejudices that I carry within me.

When he was four years old I was in the car with him driving him home from Chucky Cheese and he said, “There wasn’t nobody there.”  My reaction was immediate and vehement:  “Don’t ever say that.  You meant to say that there wasn’t anybody there.”  My husband was startled because double negatives are very normal in Spanish and typify the speech of many native-Spanish speakers of English who speak a dialect of English that is influenced by Spanish.  When he asked me what was wrong, I explained without thinking, “People will think he is poor.”

In fact, people will think he is uneducated, but that is often conflated with poverty.  I was afraid for him and trying to protect him from the prejudices that I thought could hold him back in life.  What I should have said was, “No variety of English is inherently better or worse than another.”  I could have said, “You can speak that way at home or with your friends, but in school we always say….”  I missed that opportunity to talk to him about Standard English without making him feel shame for his home variety.

However, the linguist in me bristles in the notion that I would even tell him that the way we speak in school is different than the way we speak at home because it smacks of being  “complicit” in the oppression of linguistic varieties.  When I deliberately or unconsciously try to sound “standard” instead of speaking in a non-standard vernacular like Southern English (or African American Vernacular English, or California Girl English, or New York English, etc.) I perpetuate the myth that you can’t sound Southern and intelligent at the same time.  When I tell a child, “Don’t ever say that again.  People will think you’re poor,” I may be trying to protect him, but I am also telling him that the world at large has the right to judge his variety of English as inferior.

I can’t reconcile the fact that it is morally wrong to be complicit in linguistic prejudice with the role that I have been given in this child’s life to prepare him for life in a world in which people can discriminate against him with impunity because they don’t like the way he sounds.  Do you think we should teach children to be bidialectal to succeed in the work place, or do you think linguistic tolerance will not win the day until people are willing to use their variety in all situations?

*Please note that there is no such thing as “Standard English.”  America is not like Spain with the Royal Academy of the English Language arbitrating what makes up “proper English.”  When I trefer to “Standard English” I’m thinking of the variety that news anchors use on TV, or that I am careful to use in the office when I speak with clients.  This is clearly a subjective term.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “just” recently.  When we use this word, we’re often using it as a marker that minimizes whatever phrase comes after it.  For instance, if someone offers you a bag of candy and you say, “I just need one,” you’re telling this person, “I [this request is really trifling] need one.”  The way that this word is used by clients, by women at work, and by evangelicals while they pray is fascinating.

Client requests:

Nothing pisses me off more than when my clients say, “Can you just [insert crazy request here].”  It’s almost as though they think that by adding the word “just” they are somehow making their request last absurd and labor intensive.

If I had to gloss the way they are using the word “just” here, it would be something like, “Can you [this idea isn’t insane – it’s something you should be able to do quickly and easily] send me a new dataset in the next 10 minutes?”  I’d like to forbid them from using this word because it’s insulting to those of us who are going to have to fulfill their requests.

Women in professional missives:

I often find that when I draft emails, I insert “just” liberally in places to soften the impact of what I’m requesting.  However, when I re-read my emails before sending I invariably delete out 3 or 4 “justs” because I think it makes me sound less authoritative.  There’s a whole argument here relating to whether women sounding authoritative really means women speaking like men (who traditionally dominated the work place), and the double bind of women who speak like women being weak but women who speak like men being pushy.

That topic is a post for another day, but in the meantime I can’t seem to break myself of the habit of starting an email, “I just wanted to check in and see how those updates are coming along since I haven’t heard back from you.”   In this context, I mean “I [please don’t be offended by what I’m about to say because I don’t think it’s that serious] wanted to check in and see how those updates are coming along since I haven’t heard back from you.”

Evangelicals in prayer:

I find that young evangelicals are often contemptuous of formulaic prayers.  They have a personal relationship with Jesus and they don’t need anyone to intercede for them.  They value speaking from their heart and think there’s nothing rehearsed about their style when they pray out loud.  I listen to a lot of prayer like that, and they actually all sound very similar.

“Father God, I just want to thank you for the way you’re moving in our lives.  I just pray that you would grow us as disciples. ”  Here, the repetitive (almost every sentence) “just” is marking how great we think God is and how small we are in comparison.  “Father God, I [the only thing I can offer is amazement and praise] want to thank you for the way you’re moving in our lives.  I [I’m asking for something that’s easy for you since you’re almighty and the only thing I can do is request your help] pray that you would grow us as disciples.”  And yes, “grow” is a transitive verb when you’re evangelical.

I think it’s fascinating that we’re all using this word, but that it doesn’t  have a lot of intrinsic meaning.  It’s more of a flag that says – pay attention to what comes next, and know that I’m minimizing it somehow.  Maybe I’m asking for something I think is easy, or trying not to offend you by downplaying the gravity of your oversight, or what I’m about to say comes from a humble place of recognizing your power.  It’s amazing that this one word can mark so much depending on who is using it.

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Dear FierceLinguist,

Why do you make fun of prescriptivists who write into your blog when you are a prescriptivist yourself?


Someone who knows you IRL and knows you lecture people about grammar all the time
Dear Someone,

Let’s unpack these terms.  (Isn’t discussion always more warm and welcoming when it starts with “let’s” like we’re going to do something together?  Let’s do the dishes.  Now you get started.  I’ll catch up.)  A “prescriptivist” describes language the way it “should” be and by nature judges the current usage of language according to some standard.  A “descriptivist” merely observes how language really is and makes no value judgments about language variation.  Variation and change are considered natural and beautiful and not to be feared under the descriptivist paradigm, while prescriptivists are archaic and stodgy *boo hiss*.

These are very nice ideas, and I agree in principal that the most scientific approach to studying language is to be a descriptivist.  However, I went to school for a long time to be able to more effectively mock people who disagree with me for being prescriptivists, while still enforcing grammar rules that I find relevant with the kind of pedantic zeal that comes from having a very expensive framed diploma that I’m still trying to pay off.  And that is my right.  So even if you are my brother, I will still use my lofty position as a trained linguist to tell you that it’s stupid to worry about ending a sentence in a preposition.  And that you’re using the word “peruse” wrong.  I don’t care if it’s the wave of the future.


A prescriptivist in sheep’s clothing

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Dear FierceLinguist,

Why do you feel so free to end sentences with prepositions?  Don’t you fear reprisal?


A Prescriptivist

Dear Prescriptivist,

I’m so glad you asked.  The first book about English grammar was written in Latin, because of course that makes a tremendous amount of sense.  In Latin, you can’t end a sentence with a preposition.  Early grammarians based their rules for English grammar on Latin.  That was stupid, and modern linguists don’t hold with that nonsense.  Also, modern English speakers are mostly unaware of that nonsense.



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