Monthly Archives: December 2013

Language Discrimination

In the last post, I discussed the controversy created by the fake sign language interpreter at Mandela’s funeral. This situation, along with many others, constitutes language discrimination.

Language discrimination is basically what it sounds like; it’s when people discriminate against other people based on the way they talk (or sign). Language discrimination is closely tied to other forms of discrimination: racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ableism, etc. In some ways, language is used as a proxy for these other types of discrimination.

The picture below an example of how language is used to reinforce negative stereotypes about African-Americans. The character in the picture is white, so language is used both to give the impression that the character is non-white, despite appearances, and to mock the speech of “ghetto” people. The language becomes a tool of racism and classism.

racist language

There are many, many examples like this on the web. Here is an example of sexist language discrimination:

sexist language

Setting aside the accuracy of the language for the targeted groups, you start to wonder why this type of discrimination seems widely acceptable, even among supposedly progressive-minded young people. One major reason for this acceptance is what linguists call Standard Language Ideology. Standard Language Ideology is the idea that there is one “real,” abstract, idealized form of English. Written language is “good” language, and written language closely mirrors the speech of the upper middle class white speakers who are in charge of standardization. Standardization is not some beautiful, flawless system. There are no respected scientists who got together to do an experiment to find out which is the best, clearest, and most logical form of English and — voila! — we have the perfect written language enforced by grammar Nazis everywhere. The choosing of the standard dialect, linguistically, is arbitrary; no one dialect is “better” than another. The same pool of wealthy white people who make decisions on virtually all things important got together and decided their way was best. If a group of rural West Virginians were in power, we would have happily adopted their dialect as the standard, double negatives and all.

The same progressive-minded young people who proudly sport their Human Rights Campaign equal-sign bumper stickers are often also the upper middle class white people who place a lot of value on a quality education. Most American high schools teach English language and literature, where the idealization of the standard dialect is a major focus. With that idealization, there is often frequent denigration of non-standard varieties – even while many of them also praise Mark Twain for using “realistic” language! Good students will tend to follow the example of their English teachers and a proliferation of pins like these show up on Pinterest:

standard language ideology

Enthusiasm for the standard dialect is also augmented by the structural inequalities in the system. If you speak a variety close to the standard at home, as many self-proclaimed grammar enthusiasts do, then school reinforces the idea of the inherent superiority of the middle and upper classes. In many places, it is socially unacceptable for someone to say “I am better than you because I am rich and you are poor,” but it doesn’t seem as bad to say “Why can’t you speak real English like I can?” In fact, the two sentences are not so different in their underlying meaning. That sentiment is an example of privilege: what one person may have spoken from birth, another has to learn explicitly, often with little or no support from the school system. The school system is aggressive about using the standard language, of course, but in general people who speak non-standard dialects are not taught to “translate” into Standard English.

Furthermore, when you mock “ghetto” speech like the imagined dialogue of “Draquesha,” you can say you are not being racist, that you’re simply defending correct speech. You don’t lack respect for African-Americans, you just have so much respect for the English language that you hate to see it “ruined.” Similarly, when you complain about the use of “like,” uptalk or vocal fry, you’re not being sexist (even though you specifically call out young girls alone for using it, even when that is not the case), you just hate to see people using our language in such an “idiotic” way.

Although I have made school out to be the “bad guy”, there is some good news about English teachers and decreasing language discrimination: there are now many teachers who are making an effort to promote language diversity and respect for all dialects. These teachers realize that language discrimination is as bad as any other kind, and they see that it both hurts students’ chances for improvement in written English and increases the education gap between the privileged and the non-privileged.

Drs. Anne Charity Hudley and John Rickford are two linguists working with those educators to change the way we treat children with non-standard dialects in the classroom. Charity Hudley and Rickford have worked tirelessly with educators to increase awareness of linguistic diversity and to implement that increased awareness in the classroom. You can hear about their work on the podcast “With Good Reason.”

If you want to avoid language discrimination in your own life, start by thinking twice about what you say and what you post on social media. Ask yourself: why do people find “Draquesha” funny? Is there a more sinister message underlying the language used in a joke? If a joke makes fun of “real” language used by real people, chances are the joke falls under the category of language discrimination. If you want to see grammar manipulated for the purpose of humor that is linguist-guaranteed to not be language discrimination, I highly recommend the doge meme.

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The Fake Sign Language Interpreter Fiasco

Fake sign language interpreter

I suspect those who are interested in a blog like mine have likely heard about the story of a supposed sign language interpreter for Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa. However, here’s a short summary: a man (Thamsanqa Jantjie) hired to do sign language interpretation completely mangled the job, and infuriated many deaf people who wished to watch the events and pay their respects to Mandela. 

Although there are many intriguing aspects to the story, including the interpreter’s claim that he suffered a schizophrenic episode, and the gruesome story of his burning two men to deathI want to talk about something that has tended to get lost in the discussion in the mainstream: the deaf people who wished to witness the tributes to a great man, and were robbed of that because their government paid a “bargain rate” for the services of a fraud sign language interpreter. Mainstream news media may make mention of the “outrage” of the deaf community, but that is a one-sentence nod to the community, whose story it is in the first place. Some people even find the story amusing, as can be seen by the SNL parody of the event.

I think that a particularly apt example of just how little the mainstream media cares about this linguistic minority is White House spokesperson Josh Earnest’s response to the situation: “It’s a shame that you had a service that was dedicated to honoring the life and celebrating the legacy of one of the great leaders of the 20th century has gotten distracted by this and a couple of other issues that are far less important than the legacy of Nelson Mandela.”

The other issues, mentioned in the article linked above, are the Obama selfie and the Obama-Castro handshake, which are by most accounts incredibly trivial. I am not saying that the legacy of Nelson Mandela doesn’t outshine many issues of varying sizes, but to compare the lack of respect for the deaf demonstrated in this hiring choice to a selfie is beyond insulting.

The deaf community and deaf blogs, on the other hand, tell a more complete story of the reactions of signers worldwide to the “terp” (a nickname for interpreters used on deaf blogs). In a statement, the National Director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa, Bruno Druchen said the following:

“The so called “interpreter” who interpreted at the Official memorial service for late former president Nelson Mandela at FNB stadium has been dubbed the “fake interpreter” and the Deaf community is in outrage. This man is not in fact a recognised, professional South Sign Language Interpreter. He is not known by the Deaf Community in South Africa nor by the South African Sign Language interpreters working in the field… This ‘fake interpreter’ has made a mockery of South African Sign Language and has disgraced the South African Sign Language interpreting profession. The organisers of the memorial service, and indeed any event, should have contacted organisations who coordinate South African Sign Language interpreting services to secure a professional, trained experienced interpreter.”

But I think perhaps my favorite commentary is the following statement from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights Division of Deaf and Hearing, from Sheryl Emery.

“It is an insult to people who utilize sign language, to skilled interpreters, and to the legacy of a man whose entire life’s work was based on equality and fair treatment for all people. Sign language is a human right. Every deaf, hard-of-hearing, and deaf-blind person deserves the right to communicate, to be understood, and to understand others.” (emphasis mine)

See the entire video of her statement here.

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Vocal Fry

Welcome to my blog, Beyond the Fourth Floor. The purpose of this blog is to describe linguistic phenomena and linguistic studies from the point of view of a linguist (rather than a journalist) for the purpose of making it accessible to a popular audience. For more information about the blog, please see the “About” page.

I was unsure where to start this blog, as there are many fascinating topics with which to start. However, because I am new to this, I thought I’d start on a topic with which I am intimately familiar: vocal fry.

What is vocal fry?

Vocal fry has been described by journalists as being a “guttural vibration,” a “raspy or croaking sound” or “creaky.” Vocal fry is a voicing of our words that is different from what we typically think of as normal voicing, where the vocal folds flap more irregularly, resulting in a more ragged-sounding voicing. Perhaps the most helpful thing for understanding what vocal fry is would be to simply hear it for yourself. Here is a simple example from a Youtube user. You can ignore the symbols on the screen; just listen to the sound.

Vocal fry in the media

I chose the example above because it was the simplest example of vocal fry I could find, but also because it is one of the few that don’t explicitly denigrate it. Linguists believe that there is nothing inherently good or inherently bad (or in this case, inherently “annoying”) about any given linguistic phenomenon. However, many people who are not linguists have very strong feelings about many facets of language — particularly if those facets are new, and especially if they are thought to be used mostly by young women — and vocal fry is certainly one of them.

However, as in so many other aspects of science, those who talk the loudest (or get the most hits) about a subject are frequently wrong. It’s not just bad for linguists, who love all of language, but it can be bad for everyday speakers of language.

Case in point: this article, where an employer writes that an otherwise perfectly-qualified woman was turned down for a job he was offering because of her vocal fry “problem”. Check out the picture to capture the general tone of the article.

why vocal fry is killing your job search
Hint: vocal fry makes qualified female professionals sound like teenage girls. And we all know that a teenage girl is the worst kind of person.

When professional journalists write articles with this type of vitriol about vocal fry, it is of course no surprise that the rest of us might post unkind tweets about it.
Tweets about vocal fry
(My personal favorite is that vocal fry “sounds like an exhausted British person who smokes too much.”)

Why does the media representation of vocal fry matter?

When speakers and listeners engage in a conversation, they are not merely exchanging the information in the words they say. They exchange information about their identity, whether they intend to or not. Because of the information being spread by the media about vocal fry, and the information being spread in social media, a picture of the type of person who uses vocal fry emerges. When people like the author of the Fast Company article above present vocal fry as a feature used by gum-popping teenage girls, readers of that article may think of the feature as such. Even if the user of the feature is a mature woman with a lot of experience in her field.

Another problem is that many of these associations are straight-up wrong. Most speakers use vocal fry in their speech, of any gender and any age. The physics of speaking are such that vocal fry is a natural way to end a sentence. Listen closely to the people around you; chances are, they use vocal fry at least a little bit. It is true that it’s a bit harder to hear in men, but I promise you, they’re using it too.

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