Sunday, November 17, 2019

Sunday Reading

Is Thee Talking to Me? — Teresa M. Bejan in the New York Times on what Quakers can teach us about pronouns.

George Fox, founder of the Quakers

Pronouns are the most political parts of speech. In English, defaulting to the feminine “she/her” when referring to a person of unspecified gender, instead of the masculine “he/him,” has long been a way of thumbing one’s nose at the patriarchy. (“When a politician votes, she must consider the public mood.”)

More recently, trans, nonbinary and genderqueer activists have promoted the use of gender-inclusive pronouns such as the singular “they/their” and “ze/zir” (instead of “he/him” or “she/her”). The logic here is no less political: If individuals — not grammarians or society at large — have the right to determine their own gender, shouldn’t they get to choose their own pronouns, too?

As with everything political, the use of gender-inclusive pronouns has been subject to controversy. One side argues that not to respect an individual’s choice of pronoun can threaten a vulnerable person’s basic equality. The other side dismisses this position as an excess of sensitivity, even a demand for Orwellian “newspeak.”

Both sides have dug in. To move the conversation forward, I suggest we look backward for an illuminating, if unexpected, perspective on the politics of pronouns. Consider the 17th-century Quakers, who also suspected that the rules of grammar stood between them and a society of equals.

Today the Quakers are remembered mainly for their pacifism and support for abolition. Yet neither of these commitments defined the Quaker movement as it emerged in the 1650s from the chaos of the English Civil War. What set the Quakers apart from other evangelical sects was their rejection of conventional modes of address — above all, their peculiar use of pronouns.

In early modern England, the rules of civility dictated that an individual of higher authority or social rank was entitled to refer to himself — and to be referred to by others — with plural, not singular, pronouns. (A trace of this practice survives today in the “royal ‘we.’”) The ubiquitous “you” that English speakers now use as the second-person singular pronoun was back then the plural, while “thee” and “thou” were the second-person singulars.

When Quakerism emerged, proper behavior still required this status-based differentiation. As one early Quaker explained, if a man of lower status came to speak to a wealthy man, “he must you the rich man, but the rich man will thou him.”

Quakers refused to follow this practice. They also refused to doff their hats to those of higher social standing. The Quakers’ founder, George Fox, explained that when God sent him forth, “he forbade me to put off my hat to any, high or low; and I was required to thee and thou all men and women, without any respect to rich or poor, great or small.”

The Quakers thus declared themselves to be, like God, “no respecter of persons.” So they thee-ed and thou-ed their fellow human beings without distinction as a form of egalitarian social protest. And like today’s proponents of gender-inclusive pronouns, they faced ridicule and persecution as a result.

But there is also an important difference between the Quakers and today’s pronoun protesters. While modern activists argue that equality demands displays of equal respect toward others, the Quakers demonstrated conscientious disrespect toward everyone. Theirs was an equality of extreme humility and universally low status. Even the famously tolerant founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, couldn’t stand the Quakers and complained of the “familiarity, anger, scorn and contempt” inherent in their use of “thee” and “thou.”

Indeed, the trend in pronouns at that time was toward a leveling up, not a leveling down. By the middle of the 17th century, in response to increasing geographic and social mobility, the plural “you” had begun to crowd out the singular “thee” as the standard second-person pronoun, even for those of a lower social station. This meant that everyone would soon become, effectively, entitled — at least to the honorific second-person plural.

One might expect principled egalitarians like the Quakers to celebrate a linguistic process whereby all social ranks experienced an increase in dignity. But Fox and his followers looked on the universal “you” with horror, as a sign of the sin of pride. Long before he founded Pennsylvania, the Quaker William Penn would argue that when applied to individuals, the plural “you” was a form of idolatry. Other Quakers produced pamphlets citing examples from more than 30 dead and living languages to argue that their use of “thee” and “thou” was grammatically — as well as theologically and politically — correct.

The Quaker use of “thee” and “thou” continued as a protest against the sinfulness of English grammar for more than 200 years. (In 1851, in “Moby-Dick,” Herman Melville could still marvel at “the stately dramatic thee and thou of the Quaker idiom.”) But eventually, in the 20th century, even the Quakers had to admit that their grammatical ship had sailed.

Modern practitioners of pronoun politics can learn a thing or two from the early Quakers. Like today’s egalitarians, the Quakers understood that what we say, as well as how we say it, can play a crucial part in creating a more just and equal society. They, too, were sensitive to the humble pronoun’s ability to reinforce hierarchies by encoding invidious distinctions into language itself.

Yet unlike the early Quakers, these modern egalitarians want to embrace, rather than resist, pronouns’ honorific aspect, and thus to see trans-, nonbinary and genderqueer people as equally entitled to the “title” of their choosing.

To their critics, however, allowing some people to designate their own pronouns and expecting everyone else to oblige feels like a demand for distinction. Yes, some of these critics may be motivated by “transphobic” bigotry. But others genuinely see such demands as special treatment and a violation of equality. They themselves experience “he” and “she” as unchosen designations. Shouldn’t everyone, they ask, be equally subject to the laws of grammatical gender?

According to the Quakers, both sides are right: Language reflects, as well as transforms, social realities. But the dual demands of equality and respect aren’t always in perfect harmony. Sometimes they are even in conflict. Respect can require treating people unequally, and equality can mean treating everyone with disrespect.

At present, the battle over the third-person singular subject in English seems to be resolving itself in the direction of the singular “they” — at least when referring to a person of unspecified gender. (“When a politician votes, they must consider the public mood.”) Pedants naturally complain. They argue that applying a plural pronoun to a singular subject is simply bad English. But as linguists note, spoken English has been tending that way for many years, long before the issue became politicized.

If the rules of grammar are indeed an obstacle to social justice, then the singular “they” represents a path of least resistance for activists and opponents alike. It may not be the victory that activists want. Still, it goes with the flow of the increasing indifference with which modern English distinguishes subjects on the basis of their social position. More fittingly, if applied to everyone, “they” would complete the leveling-up progress of equal dignity that “you” started centuries ago.

Of course, a 17th-century Quaker would be likely to dismiss the singular “they” as diabolically bad grammar. But hey, who asked them?

Witness Clarity — David Remnick in The New Yorker.

Long before Alexander Hamilton became an icon of the Broadway stage, he glimpsed the harrowing qualities of a man like Donald Trump. He did not like what he saw. As his definitive biographer, Ron Chernow, makes clear, Hamilton was an advocate of strong executive power, yet he also envisaged the rise of a demagogue who would put liberty and the rule of law at risk, and place his own interests before those of the country. Writing to George Washington, in 1792, Hamilton seemed to anticipate our current moment and the con on the golden escalator:

When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents . . . is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join in the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.”

Hamilton also paid close attention to the crimes and misdemeanors that such a scoundrel might commit, and how the country could protect itself from them. He wrote two Federalist essays about impeachment, and, as Chernow noted recently in the Washington Post, he would “certainly have endorsed” the current inquiry in the House. Only willful resistance to fact can obscure the reality that Trump, with the help of his lawyer Rudy Giuliani and various others, tried to extort a vulnerable ally in order to gain an advantage in the 2020 election campaign. The White House finally released three hundred and ninety-­one million dollars in defense funds to Ukraine on September 11th—not owing to a fit of moral reconsideration but, it would appear, because two days earlier the House had launched its inquiry into allegations that Trump had tried to press Ukraine into investigating a political opponent. Given the abundance of documentary evidence, testimony from high-ranking public officials, and self-incriminating public statements by Trump, Hamilton would have seconded the sentiments expressed by Adam Schiff, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, who gavelled open the public hearings on impeachment on Wednesday, saying:

If we find that the President of the United States abused his power and invited foreign interference in our elections  . . . must we simply get over it? Is this what Americans should now expect from their President? If this is not impeachable conduct, what is?

The first day of the hearings was notable for the sobriety, clarity, and unshakable dignity of the witnesses. William B. Taylor, Jr., a decorated Vietnam War veteran and the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, who oversees Eastern European and Eurasian affairs, provided, as they had earlier in closed hearings, detailed testimony that the President of the United States sought to pressure the beleaguered President of Ukraine to sully the reputation of a Democratic rival, Joe Biden, in exchange for a meeting at the Oval Office and the release of the defense funds.

According to Taylor, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, spoke with Trump by cell phone from a restaurant in Kiev; the President’s emphasis was single-minded. After finishing the call, Sondland told one of Taylor’s aides that “Trump cares more about the investigation of Biden” than about the fate of Ukraine. The date was July 26th––the day after Trump issued his now infamous demand that the Ukrainian President do him a “favor.”

Taylor and Kent were impassive, formal witnesses, but they were direct about their sense of dismay. Essential questions emerged from the stories they told: How could a President engage in such brazen self-dealing? How could he play games with the security needs of a state that had been invaded by Russia, first in Crimea and then in the Donbass? “To withhold that assistance for no good reason other than help with a political campaign made no sense,” Taylor said. “It was counterproductive to all of what we had been trying to do. It was illogical. It could not be explained. It was crazy.”

The President dismissed the hearings as a “hoax.” He insisted that he was “too busy to watch,” although he retweeted more than a dozen video clips, articles, and commentaries in his putative defense. Conservative media outlets, from Fox News to Breitbart, declared the hearings “boring” and hoped their audience, the Trump base, would remain unmoved. Republican members of the Intelligence Committee, led by Jim Jordan, of Ohio, and Devin Nunes, of California, made every attempt to confound voters with misdirection and conspiracy theories. Nunes warned obscurely of the prospect of “nude ­pictures of Trump.” The Republicans ­complained that Taylor and Kent didn’t even know the President—their testimony was so “secondhand”—and yet these same legislators are in no rush to have the White House lift its block on witnesses with distinctly firsthand access—including Giuliani and the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.

As Hamilton, Madison, Adams, and their colleagues were drafting the founding documents of the country, they expressed concern about “foreign influence” on the Presidency. The sources of their anxiety then resided mainly in France and England. It was therefore powerful to hear Kent compare the plight of the American colonists in their struggle against the British crown to that of the post-Soviet Ukrainians as they have struggled against the Putin regime in Russia. Trump favors Moscow. He has repeatedly dismissed the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russians interfered in the 2016 election. As President, he has made it plain that he welcomes outside interference again, if it helps him win reëlection.

The President and his confederates have warned of the consequences of impeachment. In 2017, the self-described “dirty trickster” Roger Stone, who is now on trial for lying to Congress, issued a characteristically Trumpish threat:

Try to impeach him. Just try it. You will have a spasm of violence in this country, an insurrection like you’ve never seen. Both sides are heavily armed, my friend. This is not 1974. The people will not stand for impeachment. A politician who votes for it would be endangering their own life.

Impeachment is a grave business, and the risks are manifest. But no democracy can overlook evidence of abuse of power, bribery, and obstruction in the hope that an election will set things right.

These hearings and a potential Senate trial will never get to the full range of Donald Trump’s corruptions, be they on Fifth Avenue or Pennsylvania Avenue, in Istanbul, Moscow, or Riyadh. But the focus of Congress is on this particular and outrageous abuse of the public trust, and for now that must suffice.

Doonesbury — Immigration status.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Sunday Reading

David Remnick in The New Yorker on what Toni Morrison understood about hate.

In December, 1993, Toni Morrison flew to Stockholm to deliver the lecture required of those awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her subject was the power of language. Words, she said, have the capacity to liberate, empower, imagine, and heal, but, cruelly employed, they can “render the suffering of millions mute.” Morrison was unsparing in her depiction of people who would use language to evil ends. Pointing to “infantile heads of state” who speak only “to those who obey, or in order to force obedience,” she warned of the virulence of the demagogue. “Oppressive language does more than represent violence,” she said. “It is violence.”

Morrison died on August 5th, at the age of eighty-eight. Her novels and essays, exploring black communities with intimacy and imagination, took in the legacy of slavery, the rejection of Reconstruction, the brutalities of Jim Crow––the whole of American history. Even in her final years, her political sense remained unerring. Just days after the 2016 election, writing in this magazine, she sensed the arrival of a troubling era, one centered on a callous and cunning confidence man:

So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.

On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated—embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

Donald Trump is far from the first President to express rank prejudice. Thomas Jefferson, in “Notes on the State of Virginia,” maintained that black men and women had a “very strong and disagreeable odor.” Woodrow Wilson screened the Klan-glorifying film “The Birth of a Nation” at the White House. As we learned recently, Ronald Reagan, in a telephone conversation with Richard Nixon, referred to Africans as “monkeys.” And so on.

But what is unique about Trump, at least in modern times, is the extent to which bigotry is his principal means of rousing support. Trump backers who aren’t drawn to his bigotry choose to tolerate it. Ours is a country that could elect a black President preaching unity; it is also a country where tens of millions of Americans continue to say that they will vote for a man whose platform is nativism and division.

There is calculation behind the bigotry. Trump recognized that Obama’s ascent to the White House, in 2008, was met by a powerful racist reaction. Hate crimes and white-supremacist groups proliferated, as did threats against the President’s person. And so Trump began his political career deploying the language of conspiracy theory. First as a candidate and then as President, he spoke of Mexican “rapists,” of “caravans” filled with encroaching “aliens”; he directed invective at African-Americans, Muslims, women, and immigrants, and at legislators of color. Drawing on a long and toxic tradition, he has put forward a form of white identity politics in which violent language gives license to violent acts.

Such language is hardly a matter of thoughtless improvisation. Recently, the Times reported that the Trump campaign has seized on the imagery of “invasion”––one of the President’s favorite descriptions of immigration––as a theme for its Facebook ads. Such language is in synch with that of the mass shooter in El Paso, who, before killing twenty-two people and wounding many more in a Walmart, appears to have issued a manifesto warning that “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” And, as the civil-rights leader Bryan Stevenson says, the insistence on unfettered gun ownership is a core tenet of white identity politics.

Although the solidity of the President’s base should not be underestimated, a sense of alarm is growing. The clerical leaders of the Washington National Cathedral, where the funerals of Presidents Eisenhower, Ford, Reagan, and Bush took place, gave voice to that alarm last week. “When such violent dehumanizing words come from the President of the United States, they are a clarion call, and give cover, to white supremacists who consider people of color a sub-human ‘infestation’ in America,” they wrote, in an official statement. “Violent words lead to violent actions.” And they asked, “When does silence become complicity? What will it take for us all to say, with one voice, that we have had enough? The question is less about the president’s sense of decency, but of ours.”

After the recent massacres in El Paso and in Dayton, White House aides evidently decided that Trump needed to dial back his rhetoric. In a brief speech, he denounced white supremacy, but with the vacant affect of a hostage reading for the camera. Liberated from this chore, he soon regained his usual temper; visiting the bereaved in Texas and Ohio, he found the time to lambaste local officials, along with “Sleepy” Joe Biden, “the LameStream media,” and other customary targets.

In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt characterized the Presidency as “preëminently a place of moral leadership.” Trump, by contrast, once told his circle of advisers that they should “think of each Presidential day as an episode in a television show in which he vanquishes rivals.” In the Trump show, which will soon be up for renewal, immigrants, Muslims, and people of color are regularly cast as the villains.

Toni Morrison approached the enduring phenomenon of American bigotry and nativism from many angles. But she had a clear sense that the critical function of racism was distraction. Racism “keeps you from doing your work,” she said. “It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says that you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says that you have no kingdoms, and you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”

WTF? — Jake Cline in The Atlantic on how internet slang makes people better writers.

These are tough times for grammar snobs, those would-be avatars of flawless spelling and proper syntax who need look no further than a high-school friend’s Facebook posts or a family member’s text messages to find their treasured language being misused and neglected. Of course, split infinitives, dangling modifiers, and subject-verb disagreements have always appeared wherever words are uttered or keys are stroked. But on the internet, and particularly on social media, defenders of formal writing and the rules of language may feel as if they’ve become stuck in some linguistic hellscape littered with discarded stylebooks, the ashes of dictionaries, and a new species of abbreviations that’s tougher to crack than Linear B.

To these “grumbling” grammarians, the Montreal-based linguist Gretchen McCulloch says: Lighten up lol. In her new book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, McCulloch challenges the idea that the rise of informal writing signals a trend toward global idiocy. Instead, she marks it as an inevitable and necessary “disruption” in the way human beings communicate. “We no longer accept that writing must be lifeless, that it can only convey our tone of voice roughly and imprecisely, or that nuanced writing is the exclusive domain of professionals,” McCulloch argues. “We’re creating new rules for typographical tone of voice. Not the kind of rules that are imposed from on high, but the kind of rules that emerge from the collective practice of a couple billion social monkeys — rules that enliven our social interactions.”

Of course, the old rules of language were broken long before people went online, and McCulloch offers that the internet concludes a process “that had begun with medieval scribes and modernist poets.” She also notes how “well-documented features” of regional and cultural dialects—such as southern American English and African American English—have influenced the language of the internet, most obviously on Twitter. But in contrast to the pre-internet age, she argues, now we are all “writers as well as readers” of informal English.

Drawing from her research and that of other linguists,McCulloch shows how creative respellings, expressive punctuation, emoji, memes, and other hallmarks of informal communication online demonstrate asophisticationthat can rival even the most elegant writing. Understanding the difference between ending a sentence with one exclamation point or two, recognizing what a person is conveying when they write “dumbbb” or “sameee,” and knowing when or when not to be upset after receiving an all-caps text, McCulloch writes, “requires subtly tuned awareness of the full spectrum of the language.”

The prevalence of emoji, meanwhile, does not indicate verbal indolence or a pandemic of cuteness (though adorability is certainly part of it). Instead, McCulloch writes, emoji represent a “demand that our writing … be capable of fully expressing what we want to say and, most crucially, how we’re saying it.” She even implies that William Shakespeare, whose work in part depends on the gesticulating of actors, would have been fine with the “digital embodiment” of mental states and intentions in emoji.

All this informality may also be making people smarter, McCulloch suggests. In any case, it doesn’t appear to be making anyone dumber. “Several studies show that people who use a lot of internet abbreviations perform, at worst, just as well on spelling tests, formal essays, and other measures of literacy as people who never use abbreviations — and sometimes even better,” the author writes.

Twitter has been especially good at sharpening its users’ communication skills, McCulloch finds. Because Twitter users are more likely to interact with people they don’t know outside the internet (versus Facebook, where exchanges take place largely among friends and family), linguistic innovations—hashtags, @mentions, new words, and abbreviations — are more abundant on the site. McCulloch credits improvements in her own writing style to Twitter’s 280-character limit and the way it forces users “to structure their thoughts into concise, pithy statements.”

McCulloch doesn’t spend much time on how these innovations have been used to sow division and to spread hate speech, though she does acknowledge how memes were employed to make “abhorrent beliefs look appealingly ironic” during the 2016 election campaign. Given her profession, McCulloch is much more interested in the positives that have come from the popularization of informal writing. “As a linguist,” she writes, “what compels me are the parts of language that we don’t even know we’re so good at, the patterns that emerge spontaneously, when we aren’t really thinking about them.”

As for those dug-in, intransigent standard-bearers of formal writing who still flinch every time they encounter a face-palm emoji or the sarcasm tilde (~), McCulloch extends sympathy and an olive branch. She also suggests that those fluent in internet English should go easy on themselves and try to exorcise “the ghosts of misguided grammarians” who left “us with a vague sense of unease at the whole prospect of the written word.”

With Because Internet, McCulloch is offering “a snapshot of a particular moment in time and how we got that way, not a claim to correctness or immortality.” And she calls for humility from those who are fluent in internet language and culture. “We don’t create truly successful communication by ‘winning’ at conversational norms,” she writes, “whether that’s by convincing someone to omit all periods in text messages for fear of being taken as angry, or to answer all landline telephones after precisely two rings. We create successful communication when all parties help each other win.”

After all, as McCulloch points out, “the only languages that stay unchanging are the dead ones.”

Doonesbury — Hey, he noticed.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Monday, July 1, 2019

Language Barrier

Steve M reminds Republicans that speaking Spanish isn’t a deal-breaker.

Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, and Joaquin Castro spoke Spanish in the first Democratic presidential debate this week. The response from Bret Stephens: Speak English or die.

Amigos demócratas,

Si ustedes siguen así, van a perder las elecciones. Y lo merecerán.

Translation for the linguistically benighted: “Democratic friends, if you go on like this, you’re going to lose the elections. And you’ll deserve it.”

Channeling Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson, Stephens continues, decribing the Democrats as

a party that makes too many Americans feel like strangers in their own country. A party that puts more of its faith, and invests most of its efforts, in them instead of us.

And who exactly are “they” and “we”?

They speak Spanish. We don’t.

Yes, it’s horrible when candidates speak Spanish in debates. Regular Americans are morally offended by it, and it instantly seals a candidate’s electoral doom. No Republican would ever do such a thing, and any Republican who did would lose the party’s nomination instantly….

And then he points out that George W. Bush spoke Spanish on a regular basis, as did his brother Jeb.  So the only people who might be turned off by those quien hablan español are those who are already pre-disposed against anyone who doesn’t talk like a real ‘Murican.

Living and working in a place where Spanish is often heard is old hat to me.  I heard it when I lived here in Miami 45 years ago and in other places as well like Denver, and of course in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.  (In New Mexico, having Spanish as an official language was part of the deal when it became a state in 1912.)  And it doesn’t scare me or put me off at all.  In fact, I admire people who have come to a place where they have to learn a new language and still make it.  I work in an office where Spanish and English are used interchangeably and we not only get our work done, we do it well.  I’ve brought in my own Mexican-flavored Spanish and picked up some frases utiles.

Once upon a time, Republicans went after the Latinx vote.  But that was before they decided it was easier to go after the xenophobes.  A white hood doesn’t need a translator.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Sunday Reading

A Small, Sure Sign of Hope — Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker on how Lucy McBath’s win in the Georgia 6th is a harbinger.

Three years ago, HBO aired a documentary called “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets,” which examined the tortured aftermath of the death of Jordan Davis, a seventeen-year-old boy who was shot as he sat in an S.U.V. parked at a Florida gas station. At the start of the film, you see Lucy McBath, Davis’s mother, sitting at a table, depleted, telling how she came to name her son after the Biblical River Jordan. “I wanted to name him something that would symbolize the crossing over and a new beginning,” she says. Later, you see a more resolute McBath seated in a Senate hearing room with Sybrina Fulton—whose son Trayvon Martin was also shot to death at the age of seventeen—giving testimony about Stand Your Ground laws and their impact on her son’s death.

The two moments are as apt an encapsulation as you’ll find of the significance of McBath’s victory last week in the race for Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, situated just north of Atlanta. McBath, a Democrat who ran on a platform of growing the economy, funding education, and addressing climate change, was inescapably wed in the public’s mind to the issue of gun reform. Her despair and her resolve are equal parts of her political identity. She narrowly defeated the Republican incumbent, Karen Handel, in a race that remained somewhat low-profile among the prognostications about which districts the Democrats might flip in the midterms. Last year, the Democrat Jon Ossoff gained national attention in his bid to win the seat, which opened after the Republican Tom Price left it for what turned out to be a short stint as the Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Trump Administration. Ossoff lost to Handel in a runoff, by less than four percentage points, with 48.1 per cent of the vote. A measure of the skepticism about McBath’s chances could be seen in the fact that, before last Tuesday, the race was being referred to in some quarters as the “Ossoff race without Ossoff.”

McBath’s victory reflects several trends: the inroads that Democrats are making in Republican suburban districts that Trump’s tax cuts and border-fearmongering were supposed to secure, the record number of women elected to public office in the face of the mainline misogyny that is a feature of the Trump era, and the fading ability of gun-rights appeals to safeguard Republican districts. It is also worth noting that nine new African-American candidates were elected to Congress in the midterms—all of them Democrats, five of them women—and that, once all the outstanding races are called, will likely bring the ranks of the Congressional Black Caucus to a record fifty-six members. All but two of them are in the House, and the majority of those members won election in majority-minority districts. The nine incoming representatives, however, were all elected in largely white districts—a fact that may complicate the calculations of the caucus and the voting behavior of its members. McBath will be the first African-American to represent her district.

There are other, subtler dynamics at play in the Georgia Sixth results. The fight over Georgia’s gubernatorial race, between the Democrat Stacey Abrams and the Republican Brian Kemp, who, until last week, served as Georgia’s secretary of state, focussed on Kemp’s record of voter-roll purges and voter suppression. Many elections come down to turnout; in Georgia, the question was how many potential voters would be turned away. Kemp, however, was just following a playbook pioneered by Handel, who preceded him as secretary of state, serving from 2007 to 2010. Early in the 2008 Presidential campaign, when it was optimistically suggested that Barack Obama’s candidacy might put Georgia in play for the Democrats, Handel engineered a purge in which some four thousand eligible voters were flagged for removal for being “non-citizens.” (At the time, I was teaching at Spelman College, and this happened to one of my students. It took, in part, the intervention of a local CNN station to get her registered; a panel of federal judges overturned Handel’s order.) The gerrymandered redistricting in the Republican-controlled state legislature was also intended to thwart Democrats.

In a sense, the race in Georgia’s Sixth District was a small-scale version of the governor’s race. McBath’s results—she won 50.5 per cent of the vote—are particularly notable, given that black voters make up roughly a third of the electorate in the state but only thirteen per cent in the district. Ossoff ran in 2017 on a platform that was similar to McBath’s on issues such as climate change, the economy, and Medicaid. Ossoff also campaigned against subsidies that made it easier for foreign airlines to compete in the United States, recognizing that Delta Air Lines is headquartered in Atlanta, and that voters employed at the nearby Hartsfield-Jackson airport were affected by the issue. (McBath worked for Delta for thirty years.) The 2017 race became the most expensive House contest ever, costing some fifty-five million dollars. McBath’s campaign spent $1.2 million, but she improved on Ossoff’s margin by more than two points.

There are a number of ways to look at this outcome. The district, despite its history as a home of G.O.P. stalwarts—it was Newt Gingrich’s seat for twenty years—was trending toward the Democrats. In 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore by thirty-six points there. In 2012, Mitt Romney’s margin of victory was twenty-three points. In 2016, Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by just a single point. It is sixteen months further into the Trump era than when Ossoff ran, and it is entirely possible that the President has worn out the grace period that moderate voters were inclined to give him last year. But, crucially, McBath represents a movement. Her son was shot by a white man named Michael Dunn, following a dispute over playing loud music, on November 23, 2012. Trayvon Martin had been shot nine months earlier, as he walked, unarmed, through a gated community where he was staying. Both deaths occurred in Florida and became central to the debate over the so-called Stand Your Ground gun laws in that state. George Zimmerman was acquitted in Martin’s death; Dunn, in a second trial, was sentenced to life without parole. The film “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets” follows McBath and her ex-husband, Ron Davis, as they pursued justice for their son over two trials. (They requested that the prosecutors not seek the death penalty.)

When I interviewed them after a screening of the film, at the Schomburg Center, in Harlem, McBath emphasized the extent to which she had channelled her sorrow over her son’s death into action with the groups Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. McBath served as the national spokesperson for both organizations and testified on the dangers of Stand Your Ground laws before the Florida, Georgia, and Nevada state legislatures. In 2016, McBath, with Sybrina Fulton and seven other women who had lost children, most of them to gun violence, appeared in support of Hillary Clinton at the Democratic National Convention, under the banner of the Mothers of the Movement. McBath’s campaign Web site carefully noted that she supports “2nd Amendment rights of Georgians,” but she also promised to “push for implementing background checks for all firearm purchases; raising the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21 years of age; working to defeat conceal carry reciprocity measures; and introducing legislation to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers and other criminals.”

McBath was elected nine months after seventeen people were shot to death at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, and a little more than a week after eleven people were killed in the Tree of Life synagogue, in Pittsburgh, and two were murdered in a Kentucky supermarket. She was also elected almost exactly six years after her own son died. The plague of gun violence and the intransigence of the gun lobby in the face of it have often seemed like an unbreakable stalemate. McBath’s election is a small, sure sign of hope.

Speaking of Oz — Julia Baird in the New York Times on how hard it is to speak Australian.

SYDNEY, Australia — Running out of gas is one of the most foolish things you can do, but I was guilty of it several times when I was a lean-living university student. That changed, though, when Hugh Jackman was hired as the attendant at my local gas station. He was older than me, clean-cut and hot, an improbably nice star of local high school musicals who was known to date unassuming women. I tried not to stumble over my feet — or, say, into his arms — as he greeted me with a big grin when my Volkswagen Beetle sputtered in: “Jules!”

That year, I never ran out of gas.

Today, Mr. Jackman, the star of films like “Wolverine” and “Les Misérables,” is widely adored in Australia, even by those who never saw him behind a cash register. He holds a special place in Australian hearts because international success has not made him pretentious. Most crucially, his accent is still intact.

Australians have a strong, often irrational suspicion of people who leave the country, succeed and change. Even Paul Hogan, the comedian and actor who played that most iconic Australian caricature, Crocodile Dundee, belied his working-class image after he found global stardom and dumped his wife for his more glamorous — and American — co-star. Occasional grumbling is heard about the model Elle Macpherson or the singer Kylie Minogue, both of whom have acquired “global” accents.

By shifting accents, Australian expatriates are seen to be shifting class and status, indicating a sense of superiority to those who remain in Australia. The quickly acquired faux-British accent in particular has been associated with pretension, or a snootiness that reveals desperation to cover a humble antipodean past, to disown a sunburned, bikini-clad family. Part of our fight against a long-held cultural cringe has been the insistence that we do not need to erase our accents to, say, host a TV show or radio program.

The problem is, sometimes we do need to adapt the way we speak. When I moved to Manhattan in 2006 to work at a newsmagazine, my accent became a hurdle. “We are cursed by a common language,” my editor was fond of telling me, a line he ascribed to some British statesman, who doubtless looked down his pince-nez at his convict-descended cousins. After he told me that he could not understand 80 percent of what I was saying, I began to emphasize my R’s and slow my speech.

We Australians are used to people being rude about the way we talk. Winston Churchill was particularly cruel about our accent. He described it as “the most brutal maltreatment that has ever been inflicted on the mother-tongue of the great English-speaking nations.” At best it’s called cute; at worst it’s dismissed as incomprehensible.

But given that it is so hard to mimic, perhaps we should be proud of its uniqueness.

What Americans — and, to a lesser extent, the British — fail to recognize is that as much as they mock us, they are almost constitutionally incapable of imitating the Australian accent, no matter how often they repeat “G’day, mate!” Even the great Meryl Streep failed to capture it when she portrayed Lindy Chamberlain in the 1988 movie “Evil Angels,” about a woman whose baby is killed in the Australian outback. The line remains famous for its melodrama — “The dingo’s got my bay-bee!” — but in Australia it’s also famous as a reminder that even Hollywood’s greatest stars cannot master our way of speaking.

Foreign media’s inability to capture how Australians really talk has been back in the news recently, thanks to the new season of the American sitcom “The Good Place,” part of which takes place in Sydney. On social media and in newspapers, Australians are baffled — if not outraged — by hearing American actors mock and mangle the way we speak. This has revived a long-held resentment about the fact that we so often appear as caricatures, fools or comic figures onscreen, with failed attempts to capture our accents that make us seem like bigger idiots.

Why are we so hard to imitate? Maybe part of it is that there’s something deeply laid back about the Australian accent. One theory suggests that this is because of our habitat: Given the swarms of flies buzzing around the outback, the legend goes, we developed a pattern of speech that would involve only opening our mouths slightly for fear of letting in insects. That’s probably not true, but we can conduct entire conversations while barely moving our lips.

In recent years, another startling theory emerged: Drunken convicts are to blame. Dean Frenkel, a lecturer in public speaking and communications at Victoria University in Melbourne, wrote in 2015: “Our forefathers regularly got drunk together and through their frequent interactions unknowingly added an alcoholic slur to our national speech patterns. For the past two centuries, from generation to generation, drunken Aussie-speak continues to be taught by sober parents to their children.” A horde of linguists dismissed this, but the theory, predictably, got coverage around the world — it’s what people want to think about Australia.

Professor Frenkel is right that our speech is lazy. He thinks we use only two-thirds of our articulator muscles. We replace T with D (“impordant”) and drop I’s (Austraya) or make them into oi’s (roight!). But we also add vowels in surprising places (future becomes fee-yu-cha).

But the people best placed to mock Australian accents are Australians. Self-parody is a national sport. On Twitter, we lampoon our country by calling it #Straya. We shorten “Good on you” to “onya” and we stretch out the greeting “mate” to “maaaaaaaate,” the length depending on the depth of affection and time of day. These kinds of joyous subtleties are lost on outsiders, though. And that’s what American television and movie producers need to understand. Next time, hire Australian actors to do Australian accents. Like, say, my mate Wolverine.

Doonesbury — Phoning it in.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sunday Reading

Everybody Has An Accent — Roberto Rey Agudo in the New York Times.

I have an accent. So do you.

I am an immigrant who has spent nearly as much time in the United States as I have in my home country, Spain. I am also the director of Dartmouth’s language programs in Spanish and Portuguese. Both facts explain, but only partly, why I feel a special fondness for the FX drama “The Americans,” in which Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, a husband-and-wife team of undercover K.G.B. agents living in suburban Washington. I can’t be the only one who nodded approvingly when they were both nominated for Emmys last week.

What interests me as a linguist is that the Jenningses are, as the pilot tells us, “supersecret spies living next door” who “speak better English than we do.” Even their neighbor, an F.B.I. agent on the counterintelligence beat, suspects nothing.

Living as I do, deeply immersed in the work of teaching and learning second languages, it was fun to watch a TV series in which the main characters’ aptitude for them was so central to the plot. Nonetheless, the premise that you can speak a language without any accent at all is a loaded one. You can’t actually do this.

Worse, when we fetishize certain accents and disdain others, it can lead to real discrimination in job interviews, performance evaluations and access to housing, to name just a few of the areas where having or not having a certain accent has profound consequences. Too often, at the hospital or the bank, in the office or at a restaurant — even in the classroom — we embrace the idea that there is a right way for our words to sound and that the perfect accent is one that is not just inaudible, but also invisible.

If you look at the question from a sociolinguistic point of view, having no accent is plainly impossible. An accent is simply a way of speaking shaped by a combination of geography, social class, education, ethnicity and first language. I have one; you have one; everybody has one. There is no such thing as perfect, neutral or unaccented English — or Spanish, for that matter, or any other language. To say that someone does not have an accent is as believable as saying that someone does not have any facial features.

We know this, but even so, at a time when the percentage of foreign-born residents in the United States is at its highest point in a century, the distinction between “native” and “nonnative” has grown vicious, and it is worth reminding ourselves of it again and again: No one speaks without an accent.

When we say that someone speaks with an accent, we generally mean one of two things: a nonnative accent or a so-called nonstandard accent. Both can have consequences for their speakers. In other words, it is worth acknowledging that people discriminate on the basis of accent within their own language group, as well as against those perceived as language outsiders. The privileged status of the standard accent is, of course, rooted in education and socioeconomic power.

The standard accent is not necessarily the same as the highest-status accent. It is simply the dominant accent, the one you are most likely to hear in the media, the one that is considered neutral. Nonstandard native accents are also underrepresented in the media, and like nonnative accents, are likely to be stereotyped and mocked. Terms like Southern drawl, Midwestern twang or Valley Girl upspeak underscore the layered status attached to particular ways of speaking.

Such judgments are purely social — to linguists, the distinctions are arbitrary. However, the notion of the neutral, perfect accent is so pervasive that speakers with stigmatized accents often internalize the prejudice they face. The recent re-evaluation of the “Simpsons” character Apu provides an important example of how the media and popular culture use accents to make easy — and uneasy — jokes.

When you are learning a language, a marked accent is usually also accompanied by other features, like limited vocabulary or grammatical mistakes. In the classroom, we understand that this is a normal stage in the development of proficiency. My family back in Madrid would have a hard time understanding the Spanish of my English-speaking students in my first-semester classroom.

Later, these same students study abroad in Barcelona or Cuzco or Buenos Aires, and often struggle to make themselves understood. But such is the privilege of English — and this is key — that nobody hearing their American accents presumes that they are less capable, less ambitious or less honest than if their R’s had a nicer trill. Yet this is exactly the kind of assumption that a Spanish accent — and many, many others — is likely to trigger within the United States.

It’s certainly true that a marked accent can get in the way of making yourself understood. E.S.L. learners and others are well advised to work on their pronunciation. As a teacher, I do try to lead my students toward some version of that flawed ideal, the native accent. One of the ironies in this is that I — along with most of my fellow teachers from the 20 countries (not counting Puerto Rico) where Spanish is an official language — long ago shed the specific regional, class-shaped intonations and vocabulary that are, or once were, our native accents. My point is not that we need to forget the aim of easily comprehensible communication — obviously, that remains the goal. But we do need to set aside the illusion that there is a single true and authentic way to speak.

English is a global language with many native and nonnative varieties. Worldwide, nonnative speakers of English outnumber natives by a ratio of three to one. Even in the United States, which has the largest population of native English speakers, there are, according to one estimate, nearly 50 million speakers of English as a second language. What does it even mean to sound native when so many English speakers are second-language speakers? Unless you are an embedded spy like the Jenningses, it is counterproductive to hold nativelike pronunciation as the bar you have to clear.

Accent by itself is a shallow measure of language proficiency, the linguistic equivalent of judging people by their looks. Instead, we should become aware of our linguistic biases and learn to listen more deeply before forming judgments. How large and how varied is the person’s vocabulary? Can she participate in most daily interactions? How much detail can he provide when retelling something? Can she hold her own in an argument?

Language discrimination based on accent is not merely an academic idea. Experiments show that people tend to make negative stereotypical assumptions about speakers with a nonnative accent. The effect extends all the way to bias against native speakers whose name or ethnicity reads as foreign. Studies show that when nonnative speakers respond to advertisements for housing, their conversations with prospective landlords are more likely to be unsuccessful, on average, than those of callers “without accents.”

So I hope you like my accent as much as I like yours.

Doonesbury — Brain cramps.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Friday, January 12, 2018

You Said It

Since no one who has been following the news for the last couple of years was surprised in the least that Trump called Haiti and El Salvador and other places with a majority of non-white citizens “shithole countries,” the fun part was watching TV or reading online and finding out which commentators or journals would actually use the word “shithole” on the air or in print.

The Washington Post, which broke the story, shocked some readers by putting the vulgar word in its headline — a rare occurrence in the paper’s 141-year history.

“When the president says it, we’ll use it verbatim. That’s our policy,” said Martin Baron, The Post’s executive editor. “We discussed it, quickly, but there was no debate.”

Such a comment made by the president, especially in front of several witnesses, is newsworthy, no matter how reprehensible it may be, said Ben Zimmer, a linguist and lexicographer who writes a language column in The Wall Street Journal.

“It was incumbent on media outlets to present what he said without extradition or euphemization,” he said.

That’s exactly what many of them did. In an unusual move, the word “shithole” was repeated in print and on air Thursday evening, in capital letters on the CNN and MSNBC headlines that appear on the lower part of the screen. Fox News censored the word with asterisks.

Lester Holt on NBC Nightly News warned viewers that the story would not be appropriate for younger viewers, while ABC World News Tonight anchor David Muir said the president used “a profanity we won’t repeat.”

But CNN’s Phil Mudd embraced the expletive in condemning the president’s language, citing his Irish and Italian ancestry and the slurs once used against immigrants from those countries.

“I’m a proud shitholer!” he told Situation Room anchor Wolf Blitzer. “In the 1940s, we called people traitors because they came from a shithole country we call Japan. And we’re ashamed.”

For those who write dictionaries, the repetition of “shithole” on television and on the Internet was “the sort of thing we call a party,” wrote Kory Stamper, a lexicographer at Merriam Webster.

You could actually see that the network news broadcasters were getting a bit of adolescent glee out of being able to say the word on the air without fear of reprisal from the FCC; it’s like they’re actually enjoying it.  (The folks on cable TV did too, but they don’t have to worry about government oversight.  They just had fun with it.)

As for the newspapers, even the New York Times, ever the Aunt Pittypat of decorum, allowed the word to be used full-tilt in the body of the story but kept it out of their headlines.  Oh my stars and garters.  (The New York Daily News didn’t use the exact word in their headline, but a picture is worth a thousand asterisks.)

It’s also fun to see how quickly he blew up all the carefully choreographed message from the White House that he was both in control and a stable genius.  The mad scramble came from people checking their betting slips on how soon he would do something to torpedo that meme: who had under 24, 48, or 72 hours?  (Meanwhile, Eric Greitens, the governor of Missouri, is sending a box of candy and a dozen roses to the White House for knocking his sex scandal into the “In Other News” abyss.)

Since it’s not a news flash that Trump is a bigot and a racist, the only thing left now is gauging the reaction to the fact that even his staunchest supporters can’t hide behind the dog whistles that he’s been hardly using since long before he emerged as a presidential candidate. He was sued for racial discrimination in housing in the 1970’s, so it’s not like we didn’t know.  Now we get to see how all the Trumpistas, especially the ones who railed about character counting during the Clinton years, explain to the rest of us that labeling entire nations as shitholes is “shocking” without alienating the base of the voters who agree wholeheartedly with him.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sunday Reading

English Rules — Ta-Nehisi Coates on the power of the common language.

My class at Alliance Française is international. The students come from Italy, Spain, Japan, Korea, Kazakhstan, Portugal, Brazil, Venezuela, Germany, China, Australia and everywhere else. Virtually everyone here is learning their third language–and many are on their fourth. There was a young lady in my class a few weeks ago who spoke Spanish, Catalan and English. All I could think about was how 10 years ago I didn’t even know what Catalan was, how I thought that all European countries were united in language. They are white so (unlike us) they must be united, n’est-ce pas?

In his lectures, the historian John Merriman said that as late as 1789, only 50 percent of the people in France spoke “French.” In the west along the Atlantic coast, it might have been Breton. In Normandy it might have been a patois. Further north it could have been Flemish. In Alsace or Lorraine, Merriman says you could have asked someone “What are you?” and they might reply “I am French”–in German. These are the sorts of things you miss when you can only picture Europe as a unified unerring mass of white folks.

I am the only person in the class who speaks only one language. I tell my friends there that I wish more people in America spoke two or three languages. They can’t understand. They tell me English is the international language. Why would an American need to know anything else? Their pursuit of language is not abstract intellectualism. A command of English opens job opportunities.
I am getting some small notion of what it feels like to be white in America. What my classmates are telling me is that the Anglophone world is the international power. It dominates. Thus knowledge is tangibly necessary for them in a way that it is not for me. Of course the flip-side of this calculus is that power enables ignorance. Black people know this well. We live in a white world. We know the ways of white folks because a failure to master them is akin to the failure of my classmates to learn English. Your future dims a little. The good slave will always know the master in ways that the good master can never know the slave.
Time-Out — Amy Davidson at The New Yorker on the GOP internal hate-fest.  Maybe it’s a good thing Congress is off for five weeks.

Congress has closed for a five-week vacation, leaving the rest of us to figure out what happened in the several days of yelling about bills that no one was willing to pass, and to ask whether there is anything left of the Republican Party. The best approach might be to put together a diagram of who hates whom in the G.O.P., except that the drawing would get too messy; you’d need an Etch A Sketch and, like Mitt Romney, after a while you’d just want to shake it.

To start simply: John McCain hates Rand Paul, so much that he suggested, to The New Republics Isaac Chotiner, that he might prefer Hillary Clinton for President. Chris Christie hates Rand Paul, so much so that he said he was not interested in having a beer with him. Rand Paul seems to hate Chris Christie, since he called him the King of Bacon and mocked him to an audience in Tennessee by saying, “Gimme, gimme, gimme—give me all my Sandy money now.” But then Christie had compared Paul to Charles Lindbergh—for his isolationism, not the aviation. What was strange about the Paul-Christie spat was that Charles Krauthammer and other observers spoke of it solemnly, as though it was the intellectual engagement on the future of foreign policy that the G.O.P. had been longing for. Really what we were talking about was Christie saying that libertarians like Paul ought to come to Jersey and sit across from a 9/11 widow before saying that the N.S.A. shouldn’t collect all the information it wants to.

The other event of the week that was spoken of in similar terms was the Senate’s collective primal scream at Rand Paul when he introduced an amendment to take away Egypt’s foreign aid and to use the money on infrastructure at home. He lost, by a count of eighty-six to thirteen, after the debate was extended so that everyone had a chance to tell him that he was awful and would destroy America’s power. The tally would have been more “lopsided,” Dana Milbank wrote, except that “in the final seconds of the roll call and after the outcome was obvious, a bloc of six GOP lawmakers led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) quietly cast their votes with Paul—not in agreement with him but in fear of the tea party voters who adore him.” So there are also the people who hate Paul because they have to pretend to like him.

Carl Hiaasen records Edward Snowden’s first day of freedom in Russia.

An absolutely true news item: After spending a month confined inside a Moscow airport, former U.S. intelligence contractor and NSA leaker Edward J. Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.

Sweet freedom, at last!

I thought I’d never get out of that crummy terminal. After a month of gagging on Cinnabon fumes, even this sooty Moscow air smells like daisies.

Today I walk the streets a free man, accompanied by my two new best friends, Anatoly and Boris. They do NOT work for the KGB, OK? They’re professional tour guides who came strongly recommended by President Vladimir Putin.

By the way, Vlad (that’s what he told me to call him) has been a totally righteous dude about this whole fugitive-spy thing, unlike a certain uncool American president, who keeps trying to have me arrested and prosecuted for espionage.

The Russians have generously given me a Wi-Fi chip and free Internet, so I can go online anytime I want and see what the world is saying about me. A recurring theme in many blogs and chat rooms seems to be: What was that kid thinking?

First of all, I believe with all my heart that Americans have the right to know about the far-reaching surveillance tactics employed by our government to monitor its own citizens. I also believe I’ve restarted an important debate about national security and privacy.

Could I have handled this whole thing differently? Sure. In retrospect, there’s definitely something to be said for anonymity.

But, hey, cut me some slack. I’m only 29 and this was my first time leaking classified intelligence data.

I’ll be the first to admit that my plan wasn’t 100 percent seamless. For example, I should have figured out what new place I wanted to live in before I revealed my identity as the leaker. Clearly, I underestimated how difficult it would be to find a country that would welcome me, especially a country as free and open as the United States.

Doonesbury — Dumb and dumber.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Sounds Costly?

Does having an accent or a particular style of speech have an impact on your income? Apparently so, according to Steven D. Levitt.

Fascinating new research by my University of Chicago colleague, Jeffrey Grogger, compares the wages of people who “sound black” when they talk to those who do not.

His main finding: blacks who “sound black” earn salaries that are 10 percent lower than blacks who do not “sound black,” even after controlling for measures of intelligence, experience in the work force, and other factors that influence how much people earn. (For what it is worth, whites who “sound black” earn 6 percent lower than other whites.)

Shades of Pygmalion; we like to think that we are still a nation that says we’re all for equality regardless of irrelevancies such as race, color, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. But we know it’s not true, and speech is just one more barrier. I guess it’s because I live in Miami, where accents and dialects are as varied as can be, that I find this disappointing. Not surprising, though. In my current job assignment, I work with people from all over the world; Thailand, India, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Costa Rica, and even among the native-born Americans, we have people from Minnesota, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana, and Ohio. I hear all sorts of accents; upper-class Caribbean, Jamaican patois, Haitian kreyol, Southampton British, New York (several varieties, including Lon GUYland and Brooklynese), Joisey, terse New England Yankee, and I had a beloved boss with a Boston accent as thick as chowdah. Throw in my upper-Midwest (no, I’m not Canadian) and New Mexican Spanglish when I speak Spanish, and you have an office of Babel. And we all manage to work together and get our work done.

I have met an awful lot of incredibly smart people who “sound black” or “southern” or have some imagined speech pattern that is supposed to indicate a lower level of intelligence, and I’ve worked — more’s the pity — with a lot of really dumb people who are smooth talkers and bear no trace of any accent whatsoever. (As a corollary, I’ve met a lot of people who are proud of their accent and resent any suggestion that speaking more “genteel,” as Eliza Doolittle says, will help them get a better job.) I have a lot more respect for someone who cares more about what they’re saying than how it sounds when they say it.

I suppose what this research proves is that we still harbor these irrational barriers that are based on little more than prejudice and the snobbery that comes with the human nature of looking down on people who aren’t the same as we are. As Steve Levitt says, “Tru dat.”

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Chronicles of the Unhip

w00t is the word of the year.

Expect cheers among hardcore online game enthusiasts when they learn Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Year. Or, more accurately, expect them to “w00t.”

“W00t,” a hybrid of letters and numbers used by gamers as an exclamation of happiness or triumph, topped all other terms in the Springfield-based dictionary publisher’s online poll for the word that best sums up 2007.

Merriam-Webster’s president, John Morse, said “w00t” was an ideal choice because it blends whimsy and new technology.

“It shows a really interesting thing that’s going on in language. It’s a term that’s arrived only because we’re now communicating electronically with each other,” Morse said.

Gamers commonly substitute numbers and symbols for the letters they resemble, Morse says, creating what they call “l33t speak” — that’s “leet” when spoken, short for “elite” to the rest of the world.

For technophobes, the word also is familiar from the 1990 movie “Pretty Woman,” in which Julia Roberts startles her date’s upper-crust friends with a hearty “Woot, woot, woot!” at a polo match.

I’m pretty sure that’s the first time I’ve ever typed the word.

I think it’s groovy.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Tactical Retreat

John M. Broder follows up on my noting of the use of the passive voice when admitting fault… but not really.

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales fell back on a classic Washington linguistic construct on Tuesday when he acknowledged that “mistakes were made” in the dismissals of eight federal prosecutors last year.

The phrase sounds like a confession of error or even contrition, but in fact, it is not quite either one. The speaker is not accepting personal responsibility or pointing the finger at anyone else. It is a construction that other officials, from Richard M. Nixon’s press secretary to Ronald Reagan to John H. Sununu and Bill Clinton, have used when someone’s hand was caught in the federal cookie jar.

It is similar to a form of apology often heard here and in Hollywood, perhaps most memorably by Justin Timberlake’s press agent after the 2004 Super Bowl halftime incident involving Janet Jackson. “I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance,” the agent said.

[…]

The nonconfessions inspired William Schneider, a political guru here, to note a few years ago that Washington had contributed a new tense to the language. “This usage,” he said, “should be referred to as the past exonerative.”

General Peter Pace has also joined the ranks of the users of this tense in his attempt to explain his views about gays in the military; he is retreating to the safe haven of “I should not expressed my personal views on the matter.” He goes on to say that it’s not an apology, though; that keeps him in good stead with the hard-core homophobes in the service and the Congress, and he isn’t caving in on his personal views, in spite of the fact that he’s in the minority among Americans and most of the rank and file in the military. I’m sure he sees it, as Captain Louis Renault would say, as “a wise tactical retreat.”