“Never, dear. Men don’t say that”

London Underground subway

The London Underground. Public domain photo by Maria Molinero.

A few days ago, I was on the Tube — the London Underground subway. Somewhere between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square on the Piccadilly line, I apologized to a fellow passenger for being in front of the doors when she wanted to get off at her stop: “sorry, I’m in the way.”

I wasn’t expecting her response. She put her hand on my arm and, in a North American accent, said emphatically: “Never, dear. Men don’t say that.”

It made me smile because it was one of those brief interactions with strangers that you don’t expect, and also because her words rang true. I tend to apologize a lot and I probably say “sorry” too much. But I’m not sure that it’s entirely a result of being a woman. Continue reading

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On Being “Discovered”

In the days when being Freshly Pressed was the holy grail of WordPress blogging, you’d often see bloggers proudly proclaiming “I’ve been Freshly Pressed”. Just a quick side note, in case you’re unfamiliar, Freshly Pressed used to be the section of the WordPress.com homepage where the WordPress editors chose the best of the blogosphere to be featured.

Laptop blog photo

The WordPress blogger’s native environment

Being Freshly Pressed was a huge thing to happen to a blogger. One day, you’re writing away, publishing your work and wondering what kind of reception it will get. And the next, you’re on the front page of the WordPress community. Your reader stats spike upwards so fast that they could give you whiplash and your comments section overflows with abundance. Exciting stuff!

At the end of the last year, the WordPress team gave Freshly Pressed a new look. It’s now called Discover. It’s the hot destination for editors’ picks, thought-provoking topics and recommended sites. And on Tuesday, I was Discovered! My post, talking about language and accents in Disney movies, was featured on Discover: Disney’s Loss of Innocence.

 

Discover screenshot 2

A screenshot of my post on Discover

I’ve enjoyed the lively discussion in the comments that this post prompted. Not all of you agreed with what the researchers are saying, but hearing different perspectives is all part of the fun. And I’ve realized that one of my favourite writing topics is to break down academic research — specifically related to language and linguistics — into readable, (hopefully) thought-provoking and conversation-starting blog posts.

Having made the decision to put my postgraduate academic aspirations on indefinite hold, it’s a great way to keep up-to-date with the linguistics world and to write about interesting, diverse topics without any pressure of deadlines and grades. If you’re new to my blog, you can read about my decision here. And also, welcome to all my new readers and followers!

So, you’ll see more linguistic-themed posts in the near future. I hope you’ll join the conversation!

Disney’s Loss of Innocence: language, race and gender in children’s animated movies

1024px-Disney_Orlando_castle_at_night

Disney Orlando castle at night. By Veryhuman (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Most of my peers grew up with Disney animated movies. They watched the classics — The Lion KingPocahontasBeauty and the Beast… I didn’t. To this day, I’ve seen a grand total of two Disney animations: Dumbo and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.

Yes, yes, I know. I haven’t seen The Lion King, or Bambi, which is sometimes marked out as an oddity if it comes up in conversations with friends, as though I’m confessing an eccentric habit.

Disney’s movies are a fond presence in millions of childhoods throughout the world, and beyond (last year, a friend asked me if I wanted to go and see Cinderella with her. I suggested Far from the Madding Crowd instead). But these movies aren’t as child-friendly and full of innocent wonder as they seem. In fact, they have some symbolism in them that is pretty downright disturbing.

Continue reading

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.

More linguistic discussion!

Cultural Life has become very language-focused recently. This wasn’t entirely planned by me, it simply seemed to happen! I promise I will soon start writing about something other than language because variety is the spice of life, as the cliché says, but bear with me for the moment! I’ve had a great response to my linguistically themed posts and I’m glad you’re all enjoying them. Within the next few days, I’ll publish a follow-up post discussing the results of the “How do children learn language?” poll in my previous post. If you haven’t voted yet, now is the time to vote!

Public domain image source

Public domain image source

This post is a Zero to Hero blog challenge post: day 12. It is slightly later than planned because it involved research and research takes time. But it doesn’t take very much time when you simply can’t find anything about the thing you are researching, unless you are me, in which case you are frustrated by the lack of information and persist in researching and trying to find something, even when it’s past your bedtime and you really should be turning out the light.

Public domain image source

Public domain image source

What was I researching? Let’s start at the beginning. Our day 11 Zero to Hero challenge was to leave three comments on three different blogs which we hadn’t read before. Our day 12 challenge was to take one of these comments and write a blog post about it. So, off I trotted into the great blogosphere and it didn’t take me long to find something which made me stop to investigate: this post at jblblog, about the usage of “at all” at the end of a question. For example, the author of the post, JBL, has come across this feature “in the context of a cashier or waitperson asking the question “Would you like a receipt at all?”” (quote from linked post: “At All”).

I have never heard “at all” used like this before. It interested me and I wanted to find out more about why it is being used and what (if anything) it signifies, where it is used (JBL comments that it is common in Minnesota but apparently in Arizona too) and whether there are any linguistic studies of its use.

Unfortunately, I’ve drawn a blank and found nothing. Despite searching Google Scholar and various different academic journals and trying various keywords I haven’t found a single study about this use of “at all”. I even sent an email to one of my linguistics teachers; she said that although she has heard it used in this context and suggests that it “sound[s] like something you would associate with service speech“, she isn’t aware of any papers about it.

Having thought about it, my theory is that “at all” used in this type of way could be a linguistic device used to signal politeness. That theory would fit, considering JBL’s observations of it being used by service providers such as cashiers and restaurant staff. However, for now there isn’t a concrete answer about this interesting discourse feature.

Have you heard “at all” used at the end of a question? Do you use it at the end of questions yourself? If you do use it or have heard it in use, it would be great to hear from you in the comments section.