From ‘Go back to China’ to ‘Where are you really from?’: Nationality and ethnicity talk in everyday interactions

This article was contributed by Professor Zhu Hua of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

perpetual-foreigner-syndromeIn his open letter published in the New York Times on 9 October, Michael Luo, who was born and grew up in the US, told of his encounter with a woman who yelled at him and his family, ‘Go back to China!’, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan when they came out of a church service.  Puzzled by the event, his 7-year-old daughter asked ‘Why did she say, ‘Go back to China?’ We’re not from China.’

What Michael Luo experienced is ‘perpetual foreigner syndrome’, a problem facing many transnational individuals in everyday interactions, especially those who may look or sound different from the local majority.  Back in 2002, Frank Wu, the first Asian American law professor at Howard University Law School, wrote specifically on how perpetual foreigner syndrome is instantiated through recurrent and seemingly innocent questions (which, admittedly, are much milder than what was hurled at Michael Luo):

Where are you from?’ is a question I like answering. ‘Where are you really from?’ is a question I really hate answering… For Asian Americans, the questions frequently come paired like that…. More than anything else that unites us, everyone with an Asian face who lives in America is afflicted by the perpetual foreigner syndrome. We are figuratively and even literally returned to Asia and ejected from America. (Wu 2002)

His point about what these questions can do strikes a chord with me. Having lived and worked in China and Britain and travelled to many parts of the world, I find questions like ‘where you are from?’ really difficult to answer. I never seem get it right and always end it up with the feeling that the self I present in my attempted answers is not real – it is fragmented some times, and rehearsed at others.  If I say that I am from London, I know that the next question will be ‘where are you really from’. I have to look apologetic and confess that I ‘originally’ came from China more than 20 years ago and have lived in Britain longer than I had been in China.  If I take the short-cut and tell people that I am from China, the next comment I am likely to hear is a compliment ‘but your English is so good!’.  For a long time, I thought that this is just me, an applied linguist who is over-interpreting language use in everyday interactions, until I read Rosina Lippi-Green’s work on language, ideology and discrimination (1997/2012) and began to make connections with my observations on these instances of discourse in daily encounters and the existing studies including one of the strands of my work on Interculturality.

I refer to this kind of discourse that evokes or orients to one’s ethnicity or nationality either explicitly or implicitly as Nationality and Ethnicity Talk (NET). It includes questions or comments which, frequently occurring in small talk, aim to establish, ascribe, challenge, deny or resist one’s ethnicity or nationality.  The questions and comments range from direct ones (e.g. ‘Where are your people coming from?’, ‘When are you going back?’, ‘Is it as hot as this where you are from?’, ‘What is it like back home?’ to more subtle ones (e.g. ‘Your English is so good!’). There is nothing inherently wrong with questions like ‘where are you from’. The question can be genuine – people would like to find out more about China, Japan or Korea or any other culture or they are simply interested in you as a person.  But problems occur when those who are asking such questions appear to look for a certain answer and appear confused or disappointed when hearing an unexpected answer and those on the receiving end of such questions might have been asked the same questions 101 times.  And of course, in Michael Luo’s case, it made him and his daughter feel like ‘foreigners’ in their own country

Despite growing acceptance of racial equality in post-industrialised societies, NET of the above kind reflects people’s hidden and flawed folk theories of race, reproduces and reifies cultural essentialism, and can result in exclusion and marginalisation of certain social groups.  Jane Hill (2008) coined the concept of ‘folk theory of race’ to describe everyday assumptions that people have about race and ethnicity. Because the folk models or theories are often taken for granted, people tend to use them to ‘interpret the world without a second thought’. Folk theory of race can be in operation subtly and, on some occasions, it is almost invisible to those who apply it and/or those at the receiving end of it. Markus & Moya (2010) have unpicked the powerful, hidden, and flawed assumptions about the nature and meanings of race and ethnicity beneath the eight common conversations about race amongst American people. These include: ‘We’re beyond race.’ ‘Racial diversity is killing us.’ ‘Everyone’s a little bit racist.’ ‘That’s just identity politics.’ ‘Variety is the spice of life.’ ‘It’s a Black thing—you wouldn’t understand.’ ‘I’m___ and I’m proud.’ and ‘Race is in our DNA’.  They argue that ‘these eight conversations give us the illusion of understanding, but they are narrowly based on limited, flawed, and of course, unstated assumptions … Also like stereotypes, these conversations are pervasive, they are difficult to change and they have powerful consequences for our actions.’

In my recently published article co-authored with Li Wei, we examine the significance of questions such as ‘where are you really from?’ in everyday conversational interactions. We discuss what constitutes NET, how it works through symbolic and indexical cues and strategic emphasis, and why it matters in the wider context of identity, race, intercultural contact and power relations. The discussion draws on social media data including youtube videos and a blog with the title of ‘It may not be racist, but it’s a question I’m tired of hearing’ by Ariane Sherine in the Guardian’s opinion column, Comment is Free. We argue that the question ‘where are you really from’ itself does not per se contest immigrants’ entitlement. However, what makes a difference to the perception of whether one is an ‘outsider’ as Michael Luo did – is the tangled history, memory and expectation imbued and fuelled by power inequality.

There have been reports of the increase in the number of racial insults at people who look and sound different since the EU Referendum. It is important that we pay closer attention to linguistic xenophobic, but it is equally important to be mindful of the significance of the more subtle ways of Othering as exemplified in NET.

Further reading:

  • Hill, Jane H. 2008. The everyday language of white racism. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Lippi-Green, Rosina. 1997/2012. English with an Accent. Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. London: Routledge.
  • Markus, Rose & Paula Moya (eds.). 2010. Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Wu, Frank. H. 2002.  Where are you really from? Asian Americans and the Perpetual Foreigner Syndrome.  Civil Rights Journal  Winter 2002. 16-22.
  • Zhu Hua and Li Wei (2016) “Where are you really from?”: Nationality and Ethnicity Talk (NET) in everyday interactions. In Zhu Hua & Claire Kramsch (eds.), Symbolic power and conversational inequality in intercultural communication, a special issue of Applied Linguistics Review 7(4), 449-470.  The article can be accessed here.
. Read all 3 comments . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , ,

Was Adele offensive when she swore 33 times at Glastonbury?

This post was contributed by Professor Jean-Marc Dewaele from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

I was interviewed on BBC 2 this morning about pop star Adele’s swearing and the public reaction to it.  Here is the gist of it.

Adele was credited with having won over the Glastonbury festival on 26 June with a generous, celebratory set.  She did create some controversy by swearing 33 times during her performance after admitting that the BBC had warned her about her potty mouth.

How should we judge Adele’s swearing? Was it deliberate? Did she mean to offend?

Adele at Glastonbury 2016. ©Jordan Scammell

Adele at Glastonbury 2016. ©Jordan Scammell

The first important fact is that she used the word “fuck” and “fucking” rather than more offensive words. In other words, she was quite measured (in a way) and certainly didn’t mean to offend her audience.  Being a native speaker of English, Adele has perfect sociolinguistic and pragmatic competence. This means that she knows exactly what effect her words will have depending on the interlocutors and the situation. That skill is part of the reason why she is a great artist. She is able to combine the right words with the right tune and deliver them with such passion that they resonate with her audience. Her swearing is thus not a lack of competence but a different use of her communication skills: her swearwords reflected genuine emotions, she was bonding with the crowd and expressing her solidarity with them. This fits her image of being “the world’s most normal megastar – a bawdy best friend, confiding her deepest secrets to an audience of thousands”.

She did not swear to elicit laughs but to emphasise her authenticity, to boost her credibility, and to remind the audience of her working-class, Tottenham roots.  Although she sings in standard English in a relatively formal register (and there is no swearing in her songs), she speaks in a more informal register with a clear North London accent. The swearing was a way to tell her audience that she belongs to the “in-group”, in this case mostly teenagers and young adults who typically swear more frequently than older generations. She treated her audience like friends – incidentally the people we are most likely to swear with (Dewaele, 2015, 2016a) – and her banter, humour and swearing offered a welcome relief between the sad emotional songs that had her audience in tears.

The star, who famously suffers from stage fright may also have used swearwords for their cathartic effect, to allow her to vent her strong emotions. People who are more anxious and more stressed tend to swear more (Dewaele, 2016b; Jay & Jay, 2015). Another factor linked to frequency of swearing is the environment.  People who hear a lot of swearing, in the home or workplace, typically swear more across contexts and interlocutors. I wonder how much swearing goes on backstage at concerts and in studios.

So to conclude, I am convinced that Adele did not mean to offend when she swore at Glastonbury. Fans who were interviewed after the performance said it had been brilliant and very emotional, but did not mention the swearing. Of course, some curmudgeons who sat listening to the concert at home may have been offended by the swearing because they were not on the same emotional rollercoaster, surrounded by thousands of sweaty crying and yelling fans. And inevitably, the defenders of morality in public speech condemned the use of swearing on the BBC because some children might have picked up the F-words.  What these people ignore is the fact that children need to become aware that some words are taboo or “bad” words and others are non-taboo, “good” or neutral words (Jay & Jay, 2013). Most children already possess the rudiments of adult swearing when they enter school. In other words, swearing does not corrupt them. I’m of course not claiming that parents can freely swear when their kids are around or allow their kids to swear at them – on the contrary. We simply have to accept that kids will pick up this crucial aspect of pragmatic competence at some point in their life.

Another myth to dispel is that people who swear frequently have a limited vocabulary (Jay & Jay, 2015). The authors found that taboo word fluency was correlated with general fluency. Adele serves as an excellent example to counter the simplistic view that swearing is a symptom of language poverty.

References

Dewaele, J.-M. (2015) British ‘Bollocks’ versus American ‘Jerk’: Do native British English speakers swear more –or differently- compared to American English speakers? Applied Linguistic Review 6(3): 309–339. doi 10.1515/applirev-2015-0015

Dewaele, J.-M. (2016a) Thirty shades of offensiveness: L1 and LX English users’ understanding, perception and self-reported use of negative emotion-laden words. Journal of Pragmatics 94, 112-127. doi 10.1016/j.pragma.2016.01.009

Dewaele, J.-M. (2016b) Self-reported frequency of swearing in English: Do situational, psychological and sociobiographical variables have similar effects on first and foreign language users? Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2016.1201092

Jay, K. L., and T. B. Jay. (2013) A Child’s Garden of Curses: A Gender, Historical, and Age-related Evaluation of the Taboo Lexicon. The American Journal of Psychology 126, 459–475.

Jay, K. L., and T. B. Jay. (2015) Taboo Word Fluency and Knowledge of Slurs and General Pejoratives: Deconstructing the Poverty-of-Vocabulary Myth. Language Sciences 52, 251–259. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.langsci.2014.12.003.

. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , ,

On being attractive – and dumbing down the blond(e)

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Briden-Starr Aspinell (8053352575)A congress of blonds/blondes[1] is holding a maths quiz on stage, in order to show the world that blonds/es are not as dumb as they are made out to be. The first contestant has great hair but is really struggling with the question put to her: “What is 3+2?” Eventually she screws up her courage and ventures: “6?”

The audience – made up of blonds/es – starts clapping but the compere interrupts: “I’m sorry, that is not correct”. The crowd roars: “Give her another chance! Give her another chance!” But when asked the sum of 4+1, the contestant stumbles again.

“Give her another chance! Give her another chance!”, the blonds/es chant once again. Finally she cries out “I’ve got it! It’s 5!” As one, the crowd roars out, “Give her another chance! Give her another chance!”

The audience at this contest might not be the ideal candidates for a university degree, but in the struggle to sign up students in difficult economic times, universities need to make themselves as attractive as possible to all potential applicants. Many of them are of course affected by which course has the lowest fees, the best location, the most famous professors. But how can we present the actual courses as attractively as possible?

Is ‘Linguistics’ too difficult?

Free College Pathology Student Sleeping Creative Commons (6961676525)In Linguistics as in other subjects, this means keeping up with current issues and interests; for example, our department would ideally like to introduce an option on CMC[2] – not just out of a desire to be trendy, but because this is a serious issue affecting not only how we communicate but also language itself (see for example the recent Routledge Handbook of Language and Digital Communication, eds. Georgakopoulou and Spilioti).

Another aspect of being attractive is to do with what courses, and even departments, are called. Two of my earlier blogs are relevant here: one about the – almost magical – power of names, and another about how Linguistics is among the least well understood of academic disciplines. In the second one, I was thinking of the public in general rather than potential students. The latter, one would hope, might at least have looked the word up on Wikipedia. However some colleagues seem to be taking the need to be attractive to heart…perhaps too much? It has been suggested that the term ‘Linguistics’ is too difficult, too intellectual, too off-putting. We should call our department and our courses by some other name. We have already become a Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication, but that was not in order to be more attractive; it is because we are now teaching a completely different subject alongside linguistics.

The study of Communication does not require burning the midnight oil over phonetics, phonology, syntax, morphology, language change, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics, bilingualism, semantics, pragmatics – to mention but a few of the sub-categories within linguistics – and has indeed proved a crowd-puller. But does that mean we should get rid of “Linguistics”??? And that because potential students applying for postgraduate courses can’t understand what it means ?!?? Surely even in these straightened times, there are some students we actually do not want.

‘Stuff about language’

It does make you think though. How much better the History Department’s recruitment would be if it was renamed the Department of Things that Happened in the Past (or, as they define it in the History Boys, One Bloody Thing after the Other). Physics could be renamed How Objects Behave.

Why talk of Geography when you could make millions in fees by calling it Where People and Mountains Are? Economics could be How to Spend It (or Not) – though the Financial Times supplement got there first; Law could be Rules you Had Better Obey; Philosophy could be Thinking it Through, and even Media Studies could surely be made (even) more attractive by being renamed Watching the Box. Exciting possibilities.

But Linguistics? What else could we call it, with all those tiresome sub-disciplines? Stuff about Language? Suggestions from readers would be welcome – and if all else fails, I guess we could always ask a blond(e).

Find out more

[1] Linguistic fact of the day: did you know this was the only English adjective to be marked for gender?

[2] Computer-mediated communication

. Reply . Category: Uncategorized . Tags: , , ,

Tripadvisor for Linguists

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

I recently returned from a trip to Southern Italy. Apart from enjoying the delights of Neapolitan pizza (3 stars), the Bay of Naples (4 stars) and Pompeii (5 stars), I also went right down to the heel of Italy on a linguistic fact-finding mission, starting in the lovely Baroque town of Lecce.

SoletoGrecia Salentina – like the smaller area of Bovesia down in the toe – comprises nine villages where, intriguingly, it has been claimed that a form of Greek (written in the Roman alphabet) may have been spoken since the 8th century BC. Others say that the Greek spoken there was brought over by refugee settlers in Byzantine times; yet others claim that at least in its current form, it has more recent origins, dating to the 19th century.

Even discounting the more ancient origins which are claimed, it is intriguing that a linguistic minority should have survived so long in this context. Having failed to find any easily accessible and up-to-date sociolinguistic studies, I wanted to carry out a quick recce, and if possible hear this dialect for myself. I therefore went round all nine villages (one of them incidentally called Calimera, or ‘good day’ in Greek), looking for evidence of Greek both in the visual (‘linguistic landscape’) sense and for potential speakers.

Seeking Greek

There was plenty of evidence in the visual sphere: street signs, shop names (some even in the Greek alphabet), explanations on various monuments – even a fully fledged parish magazine trilingual in Modern Greek, Italian and Griko. There were also some clear culinary connections, probably dating back centuries: ‘chorta’ or wild greens, boiled and served as a salad in Greece, were also on the menu here, as was twice-baked bread as found in every Greek bakery.

But what of the active linguistic scene? Italian was standardised late in the 19th century and regional dialects are still widely spoken. As in Naples, in this area many locals do not speak standard Italian among themselves.

Like other Italian dialects, Neapolitan and Salentino varieties are being eaten away by the spread of the standard variety but they are still noticeably active in the local population. Our taxi driver in Naples, assailed from all sides by motorbike riders cutting in on him – a local pastime – opened his window and screamed with ferocious irony at one of them: ‘Ha raggiu! Ha raggiu!’ (‘You are right! You are right!’).

The Italian form: ‘Ha raggione’ simply would not have carried the same impact, savour or street cred. So like many other linguistic situations, the Southern Italian one is as multilayered as the local lasagne. If Greek was there to be found, it would be vying not only with Italian but on a range of local dialects. Indeed this may have contributed to its decline, since an alternative ‘in-group’ variety, closer to the standard, was also available.

‘Relic’ languages and NORMS

Greek-italian flag combinationBut what was the evidence of the ‘Griko’ dialect actually being spoken? As all sociolinguists will know, the best hope of finding speakers of ‘relic’ languages is by interviewing ‘NORMS’ – non-mobile, older rural males. Fortunately for me, one of the principal pastimes of the ‘norms’ in Mediterranean countries is hanging out in the cafe with their friends, sipping a coffee or an alcoholic beverage, flicking their worry beads round (in Greece), and toothlessly commenting on the world going by. I therefore approached and spoke to a number of elderly gentlemen in their seventies or eighties in these villages.

I told them I was carrying out a linguistic study and was interested in whether any of them spoke Griko. All were friendly and interested, but none (save one) offered to produce any words of Griko. Their near-universal opinion, whichever village you were in, was that far more people spoke it in the next door village than in their own. In fact, on reflection, they thought it was indeed still widely spoken – only definitely somewhere else.

They also universally claimed it had been the normal means of communication between their parents, but that the latter had not passed it on to them. Finally, I was given the details of someone who definitely spoke it in Castignano dei Greci, and an appointment was made for me to meet him. I also spoke to a young family who said that certain schools taught Griko since the Italian government had declared it to be a regional language of Italy, but only as an extra-curricular ‘add-on’ on a par with folk dancing, and mainly through songs. There has therefore been a revival of sorts through this policy, and perhaps a positive change in attitudes, as Manuela Pellegrino’s doctorate at UCL recently showed, but there is Vesuvius to climb before this translates into active usage.

Sadness and elation

Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros

Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros

When I arrived in Castrignano, my 94-year-old host and his wife could not have been more charming. He had written poetry extensively in Griko and had won prizes for it in the 1970s and 1990s. He proudly allowed himself to be recorded reading it out, occasionally checking my understanding as a Modern Greek speaker.

In spontaneous speech he did not appear to be really fluent any more – his wife was not a speaker, and at 94, there was no-one else much left to speak to. Even a mother-tongue atrophies through long disuse. But he could respond appropriately to my questions as to what his mother would have said in Griko in various circumstances, the dialect being close enough to Modern Greek, despite many borrowings and much general influence from various types of Italian, for all this to be understandable to me.

I left with a signed and dedicated copy of his Griko poetry anthology, and a feeling of sadness mixed with elation: elation to have spoken to one of the last native speakers of a language, and recorded a small piece of European history; and sadness that if I go there again, there may be no-one left to record…not even if I go to the next-door village.

Find out more

. Read all 4 comments . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , ,

Personal Training for your Brain: Speaking another language

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Bilingualism is one of those funny phenomena where those who experience it cannot understand why it is in any way remarkable, while those who do not find it incomprehensible and amazing. A few decades ago it was thought that being bilingual was a definite mental and educational disadvantage. The pendulum has now swung the other way and many advantages of being bilingual are recognized. These advantages, it seems, go beyond the obvious ones, such as being able to understand and relate to other cultures more easily. For example, there is evidence that bilingual children are more creative in specific tasks than their monolingual peers.

Monolingual vs. bilingual aging brain

An illustration of the monolingual vs. bilingual aging brain.

You may also have read an article in the press last week about how people who speak several languages recover better from strokes then monolinguals. A year or so ago, there were other articles saying that bilinguals suffering from Alzheimer’s showed symptoms on average 4 to 5 years later than people who only spoke one language. These hidden brain benefits are a relatively new discovery. So at this early stage, what should we make of this research? Academic research very rarely ‘proves’ things beyond the shadow of a doubt, and this area is no exception. The experimental conditions are notoriously difficult to control: ideally, you would need to find sets of monolinguals and bilinguals who learned or use their languages in different ways, but who later suffer the same brain problems and can therefore be compared.

Research on the effects of bilingualism on the brain is ongoing, and there is no clear agreement yet as to what causes the observed effects. If being bilingual does indeed strengthen certain brain functions, then how bilingual do you have to be to gain these benefits? Do you have to be bilingual from birth? Do you have to live in a bilingual society, or are the effects the same if you learn a second language at school, or as a student? What if, like many people around the world, you spoke another language in your childhood but no longer use it as an adult or in later life? Will the benefits still continue to operate? Perhaps the hardest question of all is: what is it exactly about being bilingual which causes the positive effects which are reported?

Some recent research suggests that it is possibly not the fact of knowing two languages which has these benefits, but rather the fact of switching between the two which amounts to a kind of mental workout. This finding was music to my ears: my own research is about code switching, the practice of alternating between two or more languages which characterises the speech of many – probably most – bilinguals. Code-switching arises because people interact with speakers who use different languages, for example when they are at home and when they are at work. But many bilinguals also switch languages within the same conversations, with the same interlocutors. You might hear a sentence in a bilingual family such as:

‘And there’s an airport in every country y claro, in America no tienen airports to(do) lo(s) states.’
 
(And there’s an airport in every country and obviously, in America not all the states have airports.)

(Data collected by Daniel Weston in Gibraltar)

In such conversations, speakers are making rapid choices and decisions between the words in the two languages, and it may be this rapid firing up of different pathways in the brain which constitutes the mental workout. So the actual practice of switching may build strategies for coping with strokes and dementia in later life. Others have pointed out that even when using a single language, bilinguals have to make constant choices; brain scans reveal that both languages are active in the brain even when only one is being spoken. Similar benefits have been reported from playing music or chess, doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku; but apart from professional musicians, these activities are unlikely to be practiced as intensively as talking, so bilinguals in general – and especially habitual code-switchers – probably get the most intensive exposure to this mental workout.

So we cannot say for certain yet what it is about being bilingual that builds the mental muscle, but it is fairly clear that there are benefits attached. You can gain these benefits by learning a new language now. As the saying goes, what’s not to like?

Find out more

. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy, Uncategorized . Tags: , , ,

Emphasising the Negative

This post was contributed by Dr Malcolm Edwards, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Emphasising-the-negative-webOne of the serendipitous joys of studying grammars is the occasional discovery that the seemingly duller bits of language often turn out to reflect underlying processes with wider implications for how grammars and languages work.

Negation doesn’t seem like an auspicious point of departure for a journey into the hidden life of language. It has, seemingly forever, provided an opportunity for those with prescriptivist or fascistic tendencies, combined with a taste for spurious logic, a stick to beat the rest of us with for our ignorant and wanton use of supposedly deviant and/or ungrammatical forms such as ‘I never did it’[=’I did not do it’], or (the Mark of the Beast, this one) the double negative ‘I didn’t do nothing’[=’I didn’t do anything’].

But negation left to itself -as it should be – does have an unsettling tendency to change form, and an equally unsettling tendency to make its point using expressions ranging from the comparatively mild (John Wayne’s ‘the Hell I do!’[roughly = ‘I most decidedly do not’), to the taboo ‘the f*** I will’ [unequivocally = ‘I will not under any circumstances’].

How negative constructions evolve

Nearly 100 years ago, Otto Jespersen proposed the Jespersen Cycle, a model of how negative constructions evolve. Jespersen described how changes in negation arise from a tension between expressive means and expressive needs.

Jespersen puts it like this: ‘the incongruity between the notional importance and the formal insignificance of the negative marker may… cause the speaker to add something to make the sense perfectly clear’ (Jespersen, 2017: 4-5). If we take French as an example, the original marker of negation was ‘non’ (itself originally Latin, and still alive and well as the French for ‘no’). Over time, ‘non’ became ‘ne’ – in Jespersen’s terms, losing formal significance – a little word easily eclipsed by bigger words, but still having a big job to do.

To reinforce ‘ne’, the word ‘pas’ was introduced to the negative construction. ‘Pas’ was (and still is, when it’s not doing a bit of negation on the side) an ordinary noun meaning ‘step’. Over more time, ‘pas’ itself begins to become the negative marker. This would be of limited interest if it only happened in French, but the same process is found in other languages. In Egyptian Arabic, for example, negation is marked by ma… sh. ‘ma’ is the negative marker proper, and ‘sh’ is a vestigial form of the word shey ‘thing’. And in Egyptian, too, there are indications that ‘sh’ is encroaching on ‘ma’s’ territory.

Squatitatives

Jespersen did not discuss the role of taboo words in negatives such as ‘He doesn’t know squat/f***/s***[=absolutely nothing at all]’, but he would undoubtedly admit that they are a clear case of the speaker adding something to make the sense clear. Horn (2001) dubs these forms ‘squatitatives’, which start life as minimising negatives, with the taboo element subsequently becoming a negative item in its own right, semantically equivalent to ‘(absolutely)nothing’, as in ‘He knows squat’. Squatitatives are not negative markers as such and we can be reasonably confident that the ruder emphatics will not be taking over responsibility for negation any time soon, but like the reanalysis of French ‘pas’ and Egyptian ‘sh’, they are instances of how words originally selected to perform an emphatic role lose their original meaning and take on a grammatical function.

Find out more

Horn, L (2001): Flaubert Triggers, Squatitative Negation and other quirks of grammar. In Hoeksma, J. H. Rullman, V. Sanchez-Valencia and T. van Wouder (2001): Papers on Negatives and Polarity Items. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Jespersen, O (1917): Negation in English and Other Languages. Copenhagen: A.F.Host and Sons.

. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , ,

Saddam in Starbucks

This post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

You are probably used to it by now, but the first time you ordered a coffee in Starbucks and were asked for your name, were you a little taken aback? I certainly was.

Saddam in StarbucksWe are used to being asked for our great aunt’s middle name, when our first milk tooth fell out etc etc when contacting a bank or paying for something online. But must we really reveal our name TO BUY A COFFEE??

Of course, there is method in this madness: writing a name on the paper cup makes it easier to know who ordered a double caramel macchiato and who wanted an organic Colombian espresso at the end of the line. But for a Brit there is still something a little bit too intimate about giving a first name to a complete stranger who you will probably never see again. Deborah Cameron has written brilliantly about this ‘commodification’ of language in her books ‘Verbal Hygiene’ and ‘Talking from 9 to 5’.

Starbucks, of course, are not alone. If you phone a restaurant in London to book a table, you give your surname, but 9 times out of 10 you are then asked for your first name too. Why?! One friend systematically replies: ‘Why do you need it? We are not going on a date, are we?’

Your reaction to all this probably depends on your age. If you grew up in an age when no-one in a service industry ever addressed you with anything other than with your title and last name, this is all a big issue. On the other hand, if you are under 25, you have probably never known any other way to do business, so none of this seems at all important.

Ways of addressing have always varied according to cultural conventions, and the American culture of Starbucks is one which emphasises solidarity rather than status. These were the two dimensions picked out as most relevant to such choices in Brown and Gilman’s famous 1960 article on pronouns of address.

For different reasons, at Birkbeck, where students are often taught by lecturers younger than themselves, students and staff are usually on first name terms – and this has been so for 35 years to my certain knowledge.

But I still have students from some European and non-European countries who would never dream of calling me anything other than Professor Gardner-Chloros. To them, it would be highly disrespectful to do anything else, but I am always a little embarrassed since I call all students by their first name.

But let us return to our skinny double caramel macchiatos. I have got round my discomfort in Starbucks by giving a variety of names in Starbucks – anything but my own. Usually I choose a really appalling dictator – Hitler, Stalin etc, to make it quite obvious that I find the question a tad inappropriate.

Stalin works just as well as Penelope for identifying my coffee, after all. I also hope to raise a slightly less perfunctory smile from the poor employees who have to work all day in this artificially matey, Disneyfied ambiance. Some are so ‘well trained’ – or just plain exhausted – that they scarcely notice and just dutifully write Stalin or Pol Pot on the cup. Others give me a quick look of surprise. Very rarely is there any comment.

This week, I was Saddam in Starbucks. There was no queue so there was in fact no real need for a name at all. The assistant – sorry, ‘team member’- had more time to chat.

‘Saddam?’ she repeated, looking up. Then she smiled. ‘Why not? I have served Batman and Superman, so why not Saddam?’

She thought again. ‘And if we can’t have a bit of a laugh, what is the point of it all?’

She was right. Saddam does not matter, and nor does Penelope, but sharing a joke is really important. The lovely thing about language is that as well as allowing us to express ourselves, it also gives us such interesting issues to talk ABOUT.

Find out more

. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy, Uncategorized . Tags: , ,

Bilingualism in Malta

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

I recently had the pleasant experience of being invited to Malta for the International Conference on Bilingualism. Not having been there before, this provided an excuse to visit the country and to find out a bit more about its fascinating history and linguistic situation. Maltese is the only Semitic language written in the Roman alphabet. It derives from the Arabic spoken in Sicily between the 9th and 12th century, but its lexical stock is largely made up of Italian/Sicilian and other Romance borrowings. As it was under British rule for more than 170 years, gaining independence in 1964, English is a co-official language with Maltese and there are now large numbers of English borrowings. Much of the population is bilingual in Maltese and English.

Maltese postboxThe photograph of a – typically British – Maltese letterbox illustrates the situation. The text in Maltese is made up of Arabic elements, including the days of the week. Blended seamlessly into this are Italian expressions which are equally integrated parts of the language: underneath ‘3pm’ we read about “oggetti ta’ valur”,  “posta registrata” and lower down “festi pubblici” – all very recognizably Italian. English is also represented, being a co-official language, resulting in a code-switched text which represents the various origins and layers of the language, viewed through the lens of officialdom. Bi/trilingual documents as such are commonplace in many countries. But here the admixture of Romance, both entirely traceable and distinct from the Arabic, is reminiscent of so-called ‘mixed languages’: due to specific historical circumstances, a few unusual languages, such as Michif (French and Cree) or Media Lingua (Spanish and Quechua) take their lexis and grammar from different sources.

Given all these circumstances, the contemporary issue of code-switching, where people alternate languages on a daily basis, is a fact of life in Malta. It was also an important focus at the conference. I myself have rarely met a non-linguist who has heard of code-switching; but on visiting a small restaurant in Malta, and explaining to the affable owner that I was there for a Bilingualism conference, she remarked casually that bilingualism was a big issue in Malta – “and”, she continued, “we also do a lot of code-switching”. Having recovered from the shock of finding a normal person who had heard of my specialism, I went back to the conference and listened to a talk by a young researcher who had carried out a linguistic survey among 120 or so Maltese informants. She reported that one sub-group – considered by others to be snobbish or show-offs – code-switched copiously. Her talk gave rise to the most impassioned and vituperative argument I have ever heard at an academic conference – so impassioned, in fact, that I found it difficult to establish the exact basis of the disagreement. Suffice it to say that it was about who code-switched to whom in Malta, why and when. One elderly participant in the discussion, somewhat alarmingly, threatened to have a heart attack on the spot.

The organisers later apologized for their colleagues’ tempestuous reaction and behaviour. But I myself came out strangely energised by the thought that my little corner of academia could give rise to such passions. Malta may be a small country, but it is a – still under-researched – treasure trove for linguists, and it is invigorating to witness a linguistic debate which so clearly carries on into the street.

Other blog posts by Professor Gardner-Chloros

Other blog posts about linguistics:

. Reply . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , ,

Call me Madame

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication.

A few days ago, I phoned to arrange a repair to my washing machine. Having got through to the relevant person – a young woman – who could arrange the appointment, I was asked, as question number one, whether I was Miss or Mrs. This question is of course a standard one in this country, where ‘Ms’ has failed to catch on, unlike the position in the United States. As someone who teaches Language and Gender, I am aware that the way you address someone not only reflects the prevalent social structures, but also shapes and perpetuates them. Classifying women from the outset by their marital status is an instance of ‘everyday sexism’, as a certain massively successful web forum is called. Honestly, why should I have to disclose whether I am married or not to someone I have never met and will never meet, just in order to arrange a washing machine repair?

So I gave my standard reply: ‘Ms’. The reply to that was that this was not a title that would allow the relevant form to be completed. Since my (then teenage) son once filled in his title from a drop-down menu as ‘the Right Reverend Monsignor’, it was not clear to me why this form could not offer this third option. Irritated, I said “In that case please use ‘Professor’ “. I don’t like using my ‘rank’ outside academia, but desperate measures were needed. Once again, computer said no. This was an academic title, and so no use on the form. My Chinese horoscope says I am a tree, and trees do not budge. For a few moments it appeared that the washing machine would just have to keep leaking.

To break the deadlock, I launched into my normal little lecture given in such circumstances, about how there was no need for anyone to know my marital status, how this would not be required if I were a man in such a context, and how this was, as another teenager once said, SO unfair. I added that the person taking my details also being a woman, she ought to understand the need for equal treatment.

“Well yes”, she replied, getting tired of this difficult customer, “but it’s been like that ever since ever, so it’s a bit late to change it now”. I pointed out that in other countries, such as France and Germany, they had managed to make the change, and that now in France for official purposes everyone was “Madame” and in Germany everyone was “Frau”, the terms for “Miss” having been abandoned in both countries. I should also have pointed out that the company she was working for, Siemens, was German. On hearing this, her tone changed from one of mild irritation to an interested purr: “Oooh”, she said. “I’d rather like to be called ‘Madame’!”

A mini-triumph for the tree?

Other blog posts by Professor Gardner-Chloros

Other blog posts about linguistics:

. Read all 2 comments . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , ,

Language, identity and a political hot potato

Penelope Gardner-ChlorosThis post was contributed by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros, of Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication

Blogs do not usually start with quotations from the Bible, but this one epitomizes the link between language, identity and danger that I want to discuss:

Gilead then cut Ephraim off from the fords of the Jordan, and whenever Ephraimite fugitives said, ‘Let me cross,’ the men of Gilead would ask, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he said, ‘No,’ they then said, ‘Very well, say “Shibboleth” (שבלת).’ If anyone said, “Sibboleth” (סבלת), because he could not pronounce it, then they would seize him and kill him by the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed on this occasion.

—Judges 12:5–6, NJB

Applied Linguistics, as distinct from more theoretical branches of the discipline, addresses real-life problems in which language plays an important role. As a linguist, I can attest that no day goes by without such an issue coming up in the press. I have several box files full of cuttings of articles which I use in my teaching, on topics ranging from the apparently inoffensive – e.g. the revival of ‘dead’ languages such as Manx or Cornish, to the highly political, such as the relationship between the use of minority languages, such as Catalan, and political separatism.

All of us are identified – and often judged – on the basis of our language, dialect or accent. The gruesome ‘beheading’ videos recently released by members of Isis were doubly chilling for Londoners, because the executioners in black hoods had unmistakable London accents, and sounded like the young people you hear on the bus on the way to work.

I want to talk about another recent example which has been in the news, and which shows how language interacts with some very practical issues with serious human consequences.

No-one in the UK needs to be told that the issue of immigration has been in the news on a daily basis for the last few weeks or months. Oddly, this is not because of any drastic change in the situation, but principally because the issue has become a populist rallying cry for politicians who, though they might not put it that way, wish to convince British people that they are going to ringfence the country’s wealth for those same British people – and prevent undefined side-effects like ‘overcrowding’ in the process. This ‘promise’ has proved so popular that politicians from all the main parties have jumped on the bandwagon. Despite clear evidence that immigrants in fact contribute positively to the economy, nothing wins votes like telling people they will get a bigger slice of the cake.

The detailed arguments, and the distinctions between different categories of immigrants, become obscured in this rhetorical assault. This is not the place to rehearse them, but there is one category of (potential) immigrants who deserve some special attention: asylum seekers, i.e. people who come to this country because they claim to be in direct danger, or subject to persecution, in their country of origin. Basic humanity dictates that such cases are dealt with quickly and fairly, and that such people are distinguished from, say, economic migrants, who come for a better life but who are not actually in fear of their life.

But how do we decide whether the asylum seeker is to be believed or not? An important aspect of the decision involves finding out where they actually come from. Do they come from South Somalia, for example, in which case it is beyond question that they should be granted protection, or North Somalia, in which case protection is not automatic? Since such people rarely have any documentation when they arrive, linguistic agencies  are employed by the Government to judge their region of origin on the basis of an analysis of their speech. So far, you may think, all well and good – this could be an effective method.

Unfortunately it has now emerged that these agencies employ people who are not qualified to take these specialized decisions, and who in some cases are totally bogus. Amongst other problems, they ignore Lesson 1 in Sociolinguistics, which is that national and regional frontiers rarely coincide neatly with languages; Lesson 2, that in circumstances where they are being judged, people will speak the way they think they are expected to speak, not the way they speak naturally – so in this case, they may try to use a standard or a national language instead of their own dialect; and Lesson 3, which is that each individual has more than one way of speaking, in fact a ‘repertoire’ which may include different registers, different dialects, and different forms of mixed or intermediate varieties. In such a delicate matter, with life or death consequences hanging on the decision, a very high degree of linguistic expertise is required to do this job properly, and several other factors need to be taken into account apart from the linguistic analysis. Imagine the outcry if we employed food inspectors with bogus or insufficient qualifications to vet the food which we import.

If you would like to read more about these issues, the links below may be of interest. And next time you yourself are in some way judged by the way you speak, think of those who are being sent back to war zones, or to face FGM or worse, because a bogus or under-qualified linguistic ‘expert’ decided they did not come from the region they claimed.

Other blog posts by Professor Penelope Gardner-Chloros:

Other blog posts about linguistics:

. 1 comment . Category: Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , ,