Category Archives: Language in the Media

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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