10 March 2016

Two little words: Sisu and Sauna

Two little words, sisu and sauna, are perhaps the most meaning linguistic features signaling ‘Finnish American’. These words are what are called shibboleths—words that signal insider and outsider by way of pronunciation. For example, most people in the US who live outside of the UP and who are not Finnish American, pronounce sauna as [sanə] (san-nuh) rather than [saʊnə] (sow-nuh). Some folks don't know what a sauna is or that sauna is an important cultural practice among family and friends and that there are rules and rituals when taking sauna. In addition, most people don't know what sisu is, 'persistence in the face of adversity,' and how this little word is a significant marker of Finnish American identity. It can be seen as linguistic practices of this identity on bumper stickers, t-shirts, ball caps, baby bibs, and other objects in the linguistic landscape. So, as shibboleths, sisu and sauna represent place—the UP, ethnic identity—Finnish American, and ways of knowing—specifically, how to "correctly pronounce sauna." The significance of sisu and sauna in defining identity is reflected in the shared understanding of sisu and the pronunciation, as well as the cultural practice, of taking a sauna. Through these words emerges the idea that Finnish American identity is located in the language of a specific place—Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

04 April 2014

Axe: An Old Word with a New Meaning

In her book, English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States (2012), Rosina Lippi-Green demonstrates how linguistic subordination is at the root of social prejudice, how a direct and purposeful link exists between linguistic prejudice and social prejudice, how this link reinforces racism and values tied to what makes "proper" English, and how this link manifests as institutionalized and internalized forms of racism.

In other words, if you want to find out what groups are stigmatized in a society, look at what dialects are stigmatized and believed to be "improper," "corrupt," "slang," or unintelligible, particularly African American English. Note how most Whites do not understand this perception as racist and how the perception of certain dialects as "bad English" is reinforced by institutions, including, but not limited to the legal system, medicine, advertising, schooling, and the media. For example, when African Americans are in news broadcasts, often there are subtitles. This is not usually the case for Whites.

We also see linguistic subordination at work in this meme’s use of the variant pronunciation aks. This is what sociolinguists call a marked variant–it's noticeable, commented on, and carries social meaning. Here, the pronunciation indexes, or represents, both class and race. It's most often used by speakers of African American English (AAE), English Language Learners (ELLs), and working class Whites in the South. This index, or social meaning, is juxtaposed with "Walmart" and the image of the White man in a 1950s style suite and tie. The semiotics of the meme not only reinforces racist and classist language attitudes, but the dated image also reinforces the idea that racism is a thing of the past. Yet, this meme is current and popular—that’s what makes it a meme.

The effect of the meme is linguistic subordination: it positions working class and AAE as unintelligible and "other," and thus delegitimizes not only AAE, but those who speak it.

The use of "axe" is also an example of linguistic appropriation, where features of a dialect are used for humorous effect by those who don't speak it. Here, the appropriation of "axe" functions as what Jane Hill (2008) calls "covert racist discourse...ways of speaking that Whites typically do not understand as racist, but which work to reproduce negative stereotypes of people of color" (p. 118), and thus how language plays a central role in the processes of linguistic subordination and racialization.

These processes are part the social practices that many of us unknowingly take part in everyday through our interactions, whether we are telling a joke, sharing a meme, or correcting someone’s language use. Examples like this point to how modern-day racism is internalized—something seemingly natural, normal, a part of our culture, and a way of thinking that many of us don’t question or are even aware of. This doesn’t mean that the sender of this meme is necessarily racist, or that if the pronunciation "aks" bothers you, then you are racist. Instead, it demonstrates how you, me, we internalize racism, how it's a part of our culture and world view, how racism is institutionalized and internalized—invisible—except for those who are stigmatized. Racism is not limited to the bigots of the 1950s; it is current and often subtle.

What’s interesting, however, is that the ideology behind the condemnation of the variant "aks" is that there should be one right, White, way of speaking—that language should not vary and change, ever. And yet, ironically, "aks" is the older pronunciation of the word ask, a clipping from Old English ascian. The word was spelled a-x-e, which represented the standard pronunciation until the 1600s, and even used by Chaucer, considered by some to be the greatest English writer.

The switching of the two sounds, or metathesis, of /ks/ reflects sociohistocial factors that shaped African American English, including when AAE emerged from contact among west African languages and English in the late 1500s, early 1600s through the slave trade and subsequent isolation and social segregation of African Americans, all which led to the maintenance of the older pronunciation.

By becoming aware of the modern, subtle, indirect, and covert forms of racism, such as that represented in the linguistic subordination of "axe" and perpetuated through the recirculation of memes, such as the one above, each of us can foster positive personal and community-wide changes.

Hill, Jane. 2008. The Everyday Language of White Racism. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Lippi-Green, Rosina. 2012. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology, and Discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.

29 March 2014

"Yooper" Gains (More) National Recognition


Surely, this week's hottest news for Yoopers, Yooper-wannabes, dialectologists, and lexicographers alike, is the news that Merriam-Webster will include Yooper in its collegiate edition later this year. Little do folks know, however, that the word has existed in the American Heritage Dictionary since 1999 and was included in the Dictionary of American Regional English's Volume 5. Ben Zimmer writes about the debut of Yooper in Wall Street Journal's "Word on the Street" column and Ann Curzan discusses its emergence on Michigan Radio's "Stateside." For me, a linguist who has studied the connections between language, place, and identity in Michigan's Upper Peninsula (UP), to see a regional term--one that I hold near and dear, and that I use as a prefix to "-wannabe"--become (more) nationally recognized is really cool stuff. It's such a fine example of how social factors from language attitudes, to dialect contact, tourism, and media affect our language use and awareness. I write about this in more detail in "Everyone Up Here: Identity and Enregisterment in Michigan's Upper Peninsula" and with Joe Salmons and Luanne VonSchneidemesser in "Revised Perceptions: Changing Dialect Perceptions in Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula."

This history of Yooper is not very old. It emerges through a variety of factors, including increased tourism to the UP. The following list of archival evidence from the Marquette County Historical Museum demonstrates Yooper's recent birth:

· 1972 “Uppenites”: Artist Eugene Sinervo, Sand River, self publishes U.S. map distorting the size of the U.P and Great Lakes.
· 1978 “Yoop”: First known printing of the word “Yoop” by Detroit News journalist Jim Treloar, an Ishpeming and Marquette native.
· 1979 Escanaba Daily Press holds contest to name the people of the Upper Michigan. “Yooper” is declared the winner.
· 1982 Sociologist Michael Loukinen attempts to make a documentary about the cultural phenomenon of “Yoopers” but receives widespread criticism from older members of the community and instead releases “Good Man in the Woods.”      
· 1983 “Say Ya To Da U.P. eh?” Bumper sticker printed by Jack Bowers of Marquette in response to the “Say Yes to Michigan” tourism campaign.
· 1986 Da Yoopers band is formed bringing wider exposure to the term.  (Originally called the Yoopers).

To this list of regional evidence of the emergence and recognition of Yooper as a "real word," we can add the popular TV game show, Jeopardy's use of Yooper in 2003, 2005, and 2014 (according to http://yoopersteez.com/post/yooper-dialect-on-jeopardy). This, and the dictionaries' entries might appear to make Yooper a "real word." But, despite this authoritative nod to the authenticity of Yooper, we must remember, as Ann Curzan says that "if we're all using a word and know what it means, then it's an actual word."

31 July 2013

Accent as a Political Statement in "Elysium"

Although Elysium sounds like a movie I don't want to see (post-earth apocalypse one more time), I'm curious about the film for two reasons--how (and if) it addresses real-world problems and its use of accents. According to Sharlto Copley, who plays a maniacal South African assassin, the film  takes on real-world problems, in part by using accent as a political statement. He's quoted in an article in today's New York Times, "Trying to Spice a Recipe for Cinematic Popcorn": “Our movie is a political statement,” Mr. Copley added. “It doesn’t shy away from controversial ideas. No studio person was saying, ‘Oh, people won’t understand that accent you’re doing, so you had better do half of that.’ Or if there was, we didn’t listen.” I'm also curious as to how someone does "half" an accent.

22 February 2013

Mediating the Academic Blogosphere: Listing a Blog Your CV

I just debated whether or not to list my blog on my cv, and decided to list it. My blog is a variety of my scholarship, writing  and publishing, and more importantly, it brings my work out of the tower and into the town. 

I'm wondering what the rest of you think--do you list your blog on your cv? Why or why not? 

You might be interested in this read this post by Mark Carrigan on mediating the academic blogosphere,

19 January 2013

Word of the Year Update

While yolo wasn't voted as the Word of the Year, it was voted as Most Useful. The Word of the Year for 2012 is #hashtag. For all of the nominations and category winners, visit the American Dialect Society's announcement of WOTY 2012.

30 November 2012


Each week on Michigan Radio's "That's What They Say," linguist and University of Michigan professor Anne Curzan discusses the hows and whys of language change. Last week's episode (11/25/2012) about the shifting meanings of idioms got me thinking about yolo. I learned about yolo last spring from students in my intro to linguistics course. We were discussing morphology and word formation processes and they gave yolo as an example of an acronym for the idiom you only live once. The students reported that they say yolo (usually as an exclamation: "Yolo!") when they trip and fall down the stairs, when they burp in class, or when they otherwise do something in public that's embarrassing or dumb. They explained that by saying yolo they acknowledge their clumsiness, social gaff, stupidity, or other embarrassment, and at the same time they laugh it off and thereby laugh at themselves. But, this meaning is different than my understanding of you only live once. When I say "you only live once," I mean 'seize the day' or 'do x,y, or z right now because it might be the last chance ever to do it.'

It's clear from these different uses and meanings that you only live once is changing. However, it seems that the meaning shift is attached to the morphological shift--that 'I did something dumb, and I know it and I can laugh about it and myself' is tied to the word yolo more than to the phrase you only live once. It's also clear that this (at least right now) is an age-graded language change. I also wonder if the use is gendered since most of the students who gave examples of its use were female.

Are there other idioms you're aware of that are undergoing change?

I wonder if yolo will be a candidate at ADS's 2012 Words of the Year vote? Maybe you have a WOTY contender that you'd like to nominate?