Language News: “Academic Ignorance and Black Intelligence” Labov’s 1972 Atlantic Article

At one point, grammar was the center of education (think of the term “grammar school”), but we seem to have fallen from grace.  Today, linguist are more than a little horrified by what passes for grammar education in this country:  syntactic concepts defined only by semantic principles, intuition based guidance based a misguided idea that there is one proper, standard English that can be broken if you don’t follow the prescriptive rules, and the misidentification of basic structural elements.  Sometimes these show up in popular prescriptive grammar books.  Sometimes they are found in even more troubling places, like the governing agencies that oversee national education.

Since the 1960s, American sociolinguists have tried to convince educators that, even if they don’t feel the need to have their students identify the subjunctive, knowing more about the descriptive rules of grammar would better help them to identify the difference between a student who is having cognitive difficulties and a student who is simply struggling to master the language patterns expected by most schools.  This is a critical difference, but even today, verbal IQ scores are still often administered by people with mainstream expectations and very little training in the patterns of Non-Standard English varieties.

Linguists are sometimes accused, among other things, of being snarly and defensive about their work.  If we are, it’s because we understand what happens when mythologies about how a language should work are allowed to dominate the field of education while descriptive facts are considered too dull, too complicated, or too liberal to teach.  When facts are eschewed, mythologies are allowed to take root and pass for “real” (institutionalized) knowledge.

Take for example, this article by Dr. William Labov (University of Pennsylvania) that appeared in a 1972 issue of The Atlantic.  Without a basic understanding of the descriptive rules of language, an untrained educational evaluator is likely to conclude that a child is suffering from an intellectual disorder.  However, as Labov shows in the examples presented in this argument, the child has quite a few verbal skills.  Instead, the problem is that the administrator is not well equipped to recognize them.  There are two reasons for this: (1) the administrator’s mythologies about the correctness of Standard English cause him to classify any patterns that don’t match the descriptive rules of Standard English as a deficit, rather than a different pattern, and (2) the child has learned pragmatic rules of cross-racial interactions that make him reluctant to talk to the administrator.  This situation is highly problematic, but it is not cause for identifying a cognitive disorder.

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Language Fun: The Eggcorn Database

Eggcorn is a linguistic term coined by Dr. Geoffrey Pullum (a linguist who is often featured on the Language Log and the Chronicle of Higher Education).  It refers to an idiosyncratic, pun-like back-formation of a word, such as “eggcorn” for “acorn” or “old timers” for “alzheimer’s.”  If you’re interested in more of these, including the famous “Lady Mondegreen” example, you’ll be happy to know that, since 2004, linguists have been maintaining the Eggcorn Database.  It should make for hours of fun while providing an interesting set of examples for discussion when teaching phonetics.


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Resources: Reconstructing American Tongues

In 1988, the Center for New Media produced American Tongues.  Since then, this Peabody-Award-winning documentary, which highlights the range of language variation in the United States, has been a staple in American linguistic classes.  Even now, when the average 18 year old has only seen the 1980s shoulder pads in thrift stores, the film does a remarkably good job of showing both the variation and our reactions to it.

Fair warning to those who have never seen the film: the people interviewed in this documentary express very frank opinions about language, including some which are racists, classist, and otherwise shocking.  Some use profanity when doing so.  If you’re planning to show any of these in your classroom, you should probably view them first so that you’re appropriately prepared for academic discussions of these topics.  And, if you’re using this film with younger students, you’ll want to remind them that their judgments of social class may be a little off if they’re using clothing and hair styles as their primary markers.

Although the film is no longer available in its entirety, snippets of it are available on YouTube, including the following, which (we hope) are labeled in ways which will make them easy to locate for specific class discussions:

1. The “I was engaged to a Yaley” woman; Southerners are the worst cause they talk like [the n-word]; Ohio journalist reports on NY vs. OH language discrimination; Southern ladies complain about grating Northern dialects and local “blacks” and “white trash” while another Southern lady talks about the importance of using terms of endearment; /ay/ monopthongization in “ice chest” causes confusion; Molly Ivans; vignettes of media portrayals of regional accents 

2.  Molly Ivans and movie clips on portrayal of regional variation; followed by  discussion of negative stereotypes (By Walt Wolfram and Dennis Becker) and people trying to learn more standard pronunciations; intro to Boston segments

3.  Tangier Island; Roger Shuy; Cratis Williams and Appalachian English; Mike Harden and Ohio English; A. C. Green and Texas English

4.  I let them guess my dialect like they did my weight; Mary-had-a-little-lamb readings from different parts of the country; Texas cowboys; and other vignettes from the intro credits

5. Lexical Variation in the Pastrami King (Southern foods vs. New York Deli foods), Cabinet in Rhode Island; Gumband in Pittsburgh; Pau Hana in HI; Jambalaya in Lousianna; Antigogglin in South and West; Snicklefritz in PA; Schlep in NY (but not in TX).  Follow up with children playing and vintage interview with Dr. Walt Wolfram.

6.  Major dialect regions (voice over of United States map)

7.  Two Boston Brahmins discuss sex, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and their heritage.  (“My family came over with the first load of bricks.”)

8.  Comedian Robert Klein imitates the intonation patterns of Southern dialects (“Charge?”)

9.  Boston’s North End Dialect–variation within one family

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Tools: Sign Linguistics Corpora Network

Computer-aided technology has allowed considerable corpus research in linguistics that would not have been available just a few decades ago.  However, many of these corpora are geared towards written language.  Corpora for spoken and singed languages require considerably more effort to construct.  Therefore, it’s always exciting to find just such a resource.

The link below will take you to the webpage for a group that is working on a major corpora project.  Based at Radboud University Nijmegen and led by Dr. Onno Crasborn, thi site aims to compile data and research on sign languages from across the world:   Faculty of Arts – SLCN – Sign Linguistics Corpora Network.

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Tools: “Do-It-Yourself” State Maps

“Do-It-Yourself” State Maps. Texas A&M offers a website that might be useful for those who do geographically-based sociolinguistic research.  The link above takes you to this site, which allows you to build your own state map, modifying it to suit your own  needs.

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Resources: Ambiguous English Pronouns and Prescribed Reading

Many prescriptivists fear that the use of singular they  (as in, “A student should take their time when considering prescriptive rules.”) is incredibly problematic.  They are dissatisfied with the lack of plural agreement, though evidence suggests that the traditionally prescribed replacement (so called generic he) has ambiguous properties that are considerably more problematic.

Interestingly, there is no concern among prescriptivists that English you can be both singular and plural, but there are strong negative reactions among prescriptivists to regional attempts to clarify this pattern (e.g. y’all, all y’all, yous, yous guys, yinz, and yinzers).

Also ignored are ambiguous uses of we.  Many languages have inclusive we (as in “We [=you, me and that other person in the room] should go”) and exclusive we (as in “We [=that other person and I, but not you] should go”).  English doesn’t, and sometimes that seems like a real shame.

Initial attempts to change the generic he prescription (that which said one should use “A student should take his time considering prescriptive rules,” instead of the alternative sentence above) were initially met with strong resistance.  However, accusations of political correctness gone amuck ignore controlled tests of the effect of this language pattern on both men and women.  What’s more, complaints about wanting to maintain historical consistency (“that’s the way we’ve always done it”) ignore historical facts about the English language that most prescriptivists are unaware of.

For those who are interested in a more informed historical perspective on English personal pronoun usage, I recommend reading  Sylvia Adamson’s research essay on English pronouns in the 18th Century and digging around for other linguistically informed histories of the English language.

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Resources: Origins of Nursery Rhymes

English: Illustrations from the novel A Book o...

English: Illustrations from the novel A Book of Nursery Rhymes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A culture’s stories can tell you a lot about their values.  Sometimes these are transparent, sometimes they require a deeper understanding of subversive story telling practices.  Many people don’t realize how many English nursery rhymes have (often disasterous) political origins.  Here’s a collection of some of those, which could be used as a bridge to larger literature discussions or to lessons about ambiguity and subversiveness in language:

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Resources: Americas Highway | Oral Histories of Route 66 – Google Maps

No guarantees about sound quality, but an interesting collection of oral histories complete with a map of where they were collected along the historic Route 66 is now available online.  For your sociolinguistic pleasure:

Americas Highway: Oral Histories of Route 66 – Google Maps.

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Language News: The Subtleties of Marketing Beer to Latinos

Quite often, news-stories about beer commercials focus on the objectification of women.  While such objectification is certainly an important topic, the meta-discussion of beer commercials on NPR last August offered a refreshingly new topic: the ethnic patterns of beer marketing.  As part of a series on our country’s largest ethnic (but not racial) group, NPR aired The Subtleties of Marketing Beer to Latinos.  Stories like this one–albeit about an adult beverage–offer a number of avenues for discussion about these critical issues in the social sciences.

As NPR points out, Latinos are not a unified group.  This is sometimes a difficult concept for academics to explain to thier students, who don’t always realize that education level varies widely based on national origin.  For example, the Cuban American immigrant population is largely composed of highly educated political refugees.  Meanwhile, immigrants from other Latin American countries are often fleeing war or poverty and other kinds of political oppression that prevent them from receiving a formal education.

Ethnographers often focus on national origin differences in the Latino population, and traditionally research has suggested that national origin played a critical role in the identity of American Latinos–some of whom are not descended from immigrants.  However, the importance of national origin among Latinos may be diminishing.  As this story highlights, advertisers have learned that national origin is not as important to their campaigns as other demographic characteristics–many of which probably have ties to the kinds of behavior that social scientists usually use to determine socioeconomic status.

This story raises interesting questions for social scientists.  Sure, our goals are very different and (I hope) more altruistic than those of advertisers, but our research needs often overlap.  

Stories like this one also allow us to introduce conversations about the contrast between research on the behavior patterns of different groups and the kinds of social stereotypes that students have been taught to avoid.  Noticing differences in the behavior of two groups is not an inherently racist activity.  If used appropriately, these judgments can help us to better understand one another.

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Conferences: VirginiA Language, Linguistics, and Education (VALLE)

Students at George Mason University are hosting a conference next spring. VALLE: VirginiA Language, Linguistics, and Education symposium. Details are forthcoming, but save the date! Friday, April 27, 2012

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