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.”