Like It Or Not, Language Is Changing

Last night, I was idly browsing online on my phone while waiting for some friends to join me, when I stumbled across this issue which was submitted to an agony aunt column in The Guardian: My daughter sounds uneducated because she says ‘like’ so much. The parent who contacted the agony aunt is concerned that their daughter’s use of the discourse marker, ‘like’, is making her sound ‘stupid’ and ‘uneducated’.

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As a linguist, the parent’s question immediately caught my interest because it is representative of common folk linguistic judgements, i.e. “beliefs about language held by non-linguists” (Hartley & Preston, 1999: 237). Perceptual dialectology is one of the many fascinating subfields of linguistics and it elicits folk linguistic attitudes and judgements about language. Preston’s (1989) work in the U.S. found that judgements are commonly based on the ideology of the ‘standard’, in other words, correct vs. incorrect language. This type of judgement is exactly what we see in the concerned parent’s question to an agony aunt column.

It could be argued that one of the most pertinent questions about language attitudes is how these judgements are entrenched within us. No language or dialect is inherently wrong, it is simply that a particular phoneme (a unit of sound) or a word has become “enregistered” as a marker that is associated with certain characteristics. The concept of enregisterment has been discussed by Barbara Johnstone, Professor of Rhetoric and Linguistics at Carnegie Mellon University, who has focused on enregisterment in the variety of American English that is spoken in Pittsburgh (e.g., Johnstone et al., 2006; Johnstone, 2009). However, enregisterment is a concept which we can apply to any variety of language: it refers to the way in which “indexical meanings get attached to linguistic forms” (Johnstone, 2010: 31).

The use of the discourse marker ‘like’ is a prime example. Take a minute and think about the characteristics you associate with someone who uses ‘like’: “and then he was like, ‘I said no’, and then I just like laughed and it was really like awkward”.

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We know that users of ‘like’ are more likely to be young (Dailey-O’Cain, 2002). Perhaps the teenage girl in the photo is a ‘like’ user. Also, ‘like’ is commonly associated with the stereotype of the Californian Valley Girl, i.e. vapid, materialistic young women who do little more than shop and obsess about their appearance. From this, we can deduce that attitudes toward ‘like’ are often unfavourable because it has become enregistered as a marker of the speech of a social group which is considered to be young, ‘airheaded’ and unintelligent. A study by Dailey-O’Cain (2002) concludes that “the use of like is associated with more negative perceptions of the speaker” and found that “Informants perceive [people who use like] as less educated” (p. 73).

At this point, considering that studies have shown that ‘like’ is often negatively evaluated, you might think that the parent has valid cause for concern. However, if I were the agony aunt who responded to this letter, I would have answered it very differently. I would point out that language has changed for centuries and it will continue to change for centuries after you and I leave this earth. The increasing use of ‘like’ as a quotative in phrases such as “I was like…” is simply an example of language change. Next, I would suggest that if we spent less time viewing language as we think it should be (the prescriptivist viewpoint) and more time observing language as it is (the descriptivist perspective), perhaps we could attempt to sidestep these stereotypes and snobbish biases about people who use particular varieties and dialects.

We all speak differently….and that’s okay. If everyone spoke in the same way, linguists wouldn’t have any fun!

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References

Dailey‐O’Cain, J. (2000). The sociolinguistic distribution of and attitudes toward focuser like and quotative like. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 4(1), 60-80.

Hartley, L.C. & Preston, D.R. (1999). The names of US English: Valley Girl, cowboy, Yankee, normal, nasal and ignorant. In Bex, T. & Watts, R.J. (eds.). Standard English: the Widening Debate. London: Routledge, pp. 207-238.

Johnstone, B., Andrus, J., & Danielson, A. E. (2006). Mobility, indexicality, and the enregisterment of “Pittsburghese”. Journal of English Linguistics, 34(2), 77-104.

Johnstone, B. (2009). Pittsburghese shirts: Commodification and the enregisterment of an urban dialect. American Speech, 84(2), 157-175.

Johnstone, B. (2010). Locating Language in Identity. In C. Llamas and D. Watt, (eds.). Language and Identities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 29-38.

Preston, D. R. (1989). Perceptual Dialectology: Nonlinguists’ Views of Areal Linguistics. Dordrecht: Foris Publications Holland.

Book review: Into the Beautiful North

There are almost no men in the small Mexican town of Tres Camerones. They have all left to pursue dreams of wealth and a better life in the U.S.: the “beautiful north” of the title. But when the bandidos move into town, the women of Tres Camerones realize something must be done and so nineteen year old waitress Nayeli, inspired by a screening of The Magnificent Seven, sets off with three friends on a journey to el norte to bring seven Mexican men back to Tres Camerones. Interwoven with this tale is Nayeli’s personal story: her father was one of the men who left his family in order to find work in ‘Los Yunaites’ and she is determined to find him, basing her search on a treasured post-card he sent her from Kankakee, Illinois.

Luis Alberto Urrea brings Tres Camerones to life with his prose: the Mexican sun, the dust swirling from the wind and the colorful food. Into the Beautiful North is a skilfully written novel, blending social issues such as immigration and undocumented migrant workers with a mix of vibrant characters, humor and suspense. Whatever you think about illegal immigration, the novel gives a different and much more humanizing perspective than the harsh views we often hear. It is a thought-provoking, moving novel which is well worth your time.

Into the Beautiful North at www.luisurrea.com

The rebirth of the dystopian novel

The Hunger Games front cover - image source: Wikipedia. No copyright infringement is intended and all rights belong to their respective owners

You’ve probably heard of The Hunger Games. You might even have read The Hunger Games trilogy of books or gone to see the recently released movie adaptation. And to you, it might be just another mainstream franchise which pulls in big money at the box office. There is no disputing the fact that it is mainstream: The Hunger Games spent over 100 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and the film is now at the top of movie charts worldwide. But just because it is turning into a franchise to rival Harry Potter and the like doesn’t mean that it should be viewed as trivial. Sure, I would be among the first to admit that, as with all pop culture phenomenons, there is too much hype surrounding it in my opinion. But I think it is unique compared to most other big-name pop culture trends and media franchises because Suzanne Collins’s writing actually portrays a meaningful message.

The trend for dystopian literature is rising and rising; the worldwide success of The Hunger Games exemplifies this. I find it interesting that there are currently so many recently published dystopian novels on the market. It makes me wonder whether global reading trends are influenced or perhaps driven by world affairs; socially, culturally and economically. Is it a coincidence that dystopian fiction is experiencing a revival when the economic situations of many countries are so bleak?

In a quote from their dystopian fiction page, Utopian and dystopian fiction, Wikipedia says that “Dystopias usually extrapolate elements of contemporary society”. And that is exactly what the author of The Hunger Games has done. Part of the acclaim which surrounds the series relates to the key focal points of the books; Suzanne Collins takes current societal and cultural issues, presenting them using stunning yet subtle comparisons which remind us of our frequently inconsequential ‘First World problems’. I can see significant parallels between the fictional world of Panem – a futuristic United States as portrayed by Collins – and the state of our world. For example, the stark contrasts between the wealthy Capitol and the impoverished Districts whose inhabitants work to provide goods, gadgets and fuel for said Capitol reminds me strongly of low-paid factory workers toiling to churn out the latest gadgets and cheap clothes for spoiled, privileged Western consumers.

There are several other instances where Collins made me stop and think, especially surrounding the issue of the desensitization to violence. Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard it all before; there’s too much violence on TV and in video games etc. But that is precisely the point. When something is omnipresent it loses some of its initial bite, like a threat which is repeated but is never actually carried out. This is one of the themes of The Hunger Games. The Capitol citizens are so desensitized to violence that they are happy to watch reality TV shows based on shocking brutality. Of course, this is not a new concept: violence was a spectator sport in Ancient Rome and Suzanne Collins has said that “the world of Panem, particularly the Capitol, is loaded with Roman references” (source: A Conversation with Suzanne Collins) as well as being based on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Nevertheless, it is a point worth thinking about.

And to conclude, another one of the reasons why I am a fan of THG is because of the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. After a certain other pop culture trend which I feel slightly embarrassed to mention in the same sentence as THG, it is refreshing to read something mainstream which has such a strong central female character and which does not have a ‘girl meets boy’ story as the plot.

I look forward to seeing the movie this week so expect another Hunger Games themed post very soon. I have doubts about the casting (President Snow in particular is different from how I imagined him) and the way in which the subtle themes from the book will be portrayed on-screen but we will see…

The Hunger Games official trailer – linked from YouTube.

And I got through a whole discussion of The Hunger Games without once attempting to compare it to Twilight…until now. Oops! Just one sentence: it isn’t Twilight, no matter how much people keep comparing it, and Katniss is the complete opposite of insipid Bella.

See you next time!

9/11: 10 years on

Light

In remembrance of the victims and of those who died, in memory of the innocent people who have lost their lives in the wars across Iraq and Afghanistan. R.I.P.

“That Love is all there is,
Is all we know of Love… ”
Emily Dickinson

It wasn’t you, it wasn’t me,
Up there, two thousand feet above
A New York street. We’re safe and free,
A little while, to live and love,

Imagining what might have been –
The phone-call from the blazing tower,
A last farewell on the machine,
While someone sleeps another hour,

Or worse, perhaps, to say goodbye
And listen to each other’s pain,
Send helpless love across the sky,
Knowing we’ll never meet again,

Or jump together, hand in hand,
To certain death. Spared all of this
For now, how well I understand
That love is all, is all there is.  

Poem by Wendy Cope, copyright 2006. I do not own any rights to this poem. No copyright infringement is intended.

Public domain image source: Power Of Light by Nat Sakunworarat

Audio: My favorite podcasts

I started listening to podcasts last year and I have become hooked on a few specific podcasts which I often listen to.

The #1 position has to go to This American Life (http://www.thisamericanlife.org). You might have heard of TAL before as they have a TV show as well and their podcast is often in the number 1 spot on the iTunes popularity list. If you haven’t, This American Life is a 60 minute podcast with a different theme each week and stories (usually non-fiction) are presented, which relate to that theme. Some weeks are more interesting than others but I always love downloading the latest TAL podcast every Monday.

Not long after I started listening to TAL, they aired a fascinating program called The Invention of Money. I remember I was washing dishes while listening and it probably took me twice as long as it normally would, because I was so enthralled by the program! It revolved around a central premise that ‘money is fiction’. Yeah, it sounds crazy, but listen to the podcast and see….

Here’s a link to that particular episode in their archives: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/423/the-invention-of-money

#2 Freakonomics (http://www.freakonomics.com/). A podcast with the tagline “the hidden side of everything”. I enjoy the Freakonomics podcast because you’re never sure what they are going to talk about each week and because of the range of subjects they cover.

#3 The New York Times Front Page podcast. Basically, this podcast presents the top news stories in a quick podcast: perfect for getting the day’s news in a short space of time.

These are the podcasts which I frequently listen to and they are my current favorites. If you have any favorite podcasts, let me know by leaving a comment on this post as I always like to hear about different podcasts.