October 2007 Archives

Globalization and Minority Languages


You might think that the pan-global economy and culture would be dangerous for minority languages, but here's an interesting article that claims that some speakers are looking back to their roots as a way to resist globalization.


That is, the more the culture becomes "Standardized", the more people are looking for ways to create regional quirks, including resurrecting of regional languages like Welsh, Catalan and even Occitan, Walloon and Breton.

Even in the U.S. we see the development of new regional varieties such as a more pronounced versions of Great Lakes English, Canadian English, Hispanicized English and Californian/West Coast English. Given that the U.S. has been watching the same TV networks for 50 years now, this is unexpected.

I think there's something to this theory, because we are also seeing trends like regional foods cuisines (e.g. using regional ingredients) and an interest in indigenous crafts like knitting, woodworking and quilting.

I guess there are many ways to defy Gapification with both food and grammar.

Annoyingly Inconsistent "Quotation Punct."


I've never been thrilled with U.S. quote punctuation in terms of placement of commas inside quotes, and now I can pinpoint an actual grievance.

In standard U.S. punctuation, if you have a list of words in quotes (and this happens to me a lot), then the comma is always inside the right quote. Thus the punctuation of wiki is "wiki," and not " "wiki",." See example below:

I'll list random tech words like /blag/ "blog," /wɪki/ "wiki," and /padkæst/ "podcast."

U.S. editorial experts will agree that this is correct, but it's actually inconsistent with how programming syntax works (and I do that too). In this CSS declaration, the font names are in quotes, but the comma is OUTSIDE the right quote.

font-family: "Charis SIL", "Doulis SIL","Lucida Grande", "Arial Unicode MS"

Why? Because it's a list of variable names (more or less) and the quote is part of the variable while the comma indicates "Next variable, please." You don't want to split up the variable name do you? Of course not. One thing a programmer can rely on is that all syntax is "properly nested". The outer brackets always match as to the inner brackets.

Syntax like { [foo] } is OK as is [ {foo} ] or ( { [foo] } ), but put down one [ { foo ] } or even better ("foo)" and you will be seeing "Syntax error" in your debugging panel.

Linguists also rely on proper nesting. A sound is part of a syllable which is part of a word which is part of a phrase then a sentence. You don't want to mix your syllable boundaries with your sentence boundaries - trust me.

And this makes sense, you want to know whether you are referring to a variable or a command about a variable...just like you want to know which part of your taxes are going to the state, township or the feds.

A quotation mark such as in "properly nested" marks the end of a phrase. Most punctuation like periods, commas and question marks portions of an entire sentence. It really doesn't make sense to me while I would put a sentence level punctuation like a period inside a phrase like "properly nested". (oops "properly nested.")

Even worse my fingers don't like switching between code quotes and non-code quotes. It's too much thinking and slows down the typing process.

I realize this will be a losing battle with any copy editor, but one of the benefits of being a linguist is that you can make a stand against a random writing convention which is annoying you that day.

A "Wakeup Call" on Anti-Rap Outrage


If you're over 15 and have been awake in the past decade, you know that many people object to the content of many "rap" (or hip-hong) songs. Most adults who object are concerned about the overt violence, sex and sometimes gender discrimination. It's a concern that spans the mainstream political spectrum also - Both NPR and Fox News have had stories (many many stories) about this issue.

And I have to agree that in many cases that I do have the same gut reaction to many of these lyrics. I'm really not sure how comfortable I would be with my (hypothetical) teenagers listening to gangsta rap. Yet rap artists have defended themselves by appealing to "satire" in some cases and "lifestyle" in other cases.

For instance Nelson George defended Eminem's negative portrayal of the gay community as an expression of "the unease a lot of young men have about their sexual identity". Now, at first glance, it seems like a far stretch...but two recent songs have made me question this assumption.

Recently Carrie Underwood came up with a lovely country western ditty "Before He Cheats" (Second Life Version) about an angry girlfriend smashing the car of her cheating boyfriend. Of course this is nothing in comparison to Maroon 5's "Wakeup Call" the epic of a man killing the man who's been sleeping with his girlfriend. Interestingly, Maroon 5's singer "does not feel so bad" for his dirty deed.

Now here we have to non-rap artists describing second degree murder in one case and destruction of personal property in another (surely not a healthy way to resolve relationship differences).

BUT WHERE IS THE OUTRAGE? My god people, Maroon 5 is talking about murder here. Why aren't taking Maroon 5 and Carrie Underwood to task for these outrageous lyrics?

And so, I now believe that those rap artists who have been complaining about discrimination may actually have a point. For some reason mainstream American is willing to categorize these two songs as "dark humor" while a song like "Cop Killer" will evoke total outrage. What is the reason for this?

I doubt I will have a good answer, but let me speculate anyway.

1) One answer could be race, but I think that's too simplistic. Eminem is white and still targeted by criticism. Similarly, many African Americans like Bill Cosby are as concerned about gangsta rap as others.

2) Could it be that people associate violence with the inner city, but not with the country or the suburbs? That could be part of it - although it's a foolish error on the part of society. I have done my time in rural America, and there's plenty of crime and violence out there too (including a paid hit). It's not that far a stretch to imagine a country girl being "inspired" to slash a tire or a suburban boy to kill his rival in love. And remember that Columbine was a crime of the suburbs.

Yet America still tends to think of places beyond the inner city as "safer". This is, after all, the origin of "white flight" is citizens moving from the city to the suburbs or beyond. So though I don't think there's straightforward racial discrimination, I would go for inner city discrimination as part of the paradox.

3) Could it just be the sound? Carrie Underwood has a charmingly sassy but melodic delivery for her song, and Maroon 5 is known for being rock, but not "too hard." The lead singer still manages to croon more than growl.

I have noticed that pleasant or "off-track" musical delivery is a good way to send some seriously twisted messages through an unsuspecting audience. Few people in the 1980s realized that Springstein's "Born in the USA" was a Vietnam protest song - it sounded too much like a good patriotic rocker!

I don't think people are deceived by the lyrical content of Maroon 5 or Carrie Underwood, but at heart, they sound so melodic, that maybe we just can't take it as seriously as say...gangsta rap. In addition, the video of "Wake Up Call" shows the perpetrator dying in the electric chair - there is supposed an ironic message here. Carrie Underwood really describes "innocent" would-be tramps hanging out in bars with perfect detail. You know EXACTLY the kind of girl her boyfriend is sleeping with.

On the other hand, gangsta rap is musically constructed with techno loops and rough, staccato prose delivery. How many times have we heard "that's not music"? As a generalization, many people who listen to rap do NOT listen to Carrie Underwood and Maroon 5 (and vice-versa).

People who already hate the music will not be more tolerant of the lyrics.

So in the end, it may also be about musical discrimination. The mainstream audience may be somewhat "frightened" aurally by rap music because of its menacing style - so adding content about sex and violence just ups the ante. Instead of interpreting lyrics as black humor (or puerile humor), the lyrics are interpreted as a 100% serious manifesto on death and destruction.

Which brings us back to the original question? Are any rap lyrics society dislike really "satire"? Actually....yes in some cases. I remember when Two Live Crew came up with the raunchiest lyrics ever (up to that point). But once I listened to the album, I ended up laughing. Did he really expect he would pick up girls with those lines? No, I think he was expressing young horniness in it's most concentrated form (pee-ew). Plus, they had a great parody of the inane fraternity party song...that I bet was probably really popular at fraternities for a while.

A this pont, I have to confess that many of Eminem's and other rap videos have made me laugh...just like the Maroon 5 video, and I know Eminem does have songs of introspection. I also know Eminem has met would be "innocent" bar tramps, just like Carrie Underwood. Some "misogynist" lyrics are due to dumb girls being stupid (sorry ladies - I'm calling this like I see it).

Gangsta rap does rely on violence, but it also gave us the first inner city barbecue...with joints. It really may be a commentary on their lives. And if you don't think rappers aren't satiric, just read the ode to expensive sneakers on Nelly's Air Force Ones

So, oddly, I do think some of what we've been complaining about could actually be genuine satire (or at least some social commentary).

On the other hand, some of Eminem's lyrics about killing his wife will be VERY difficult to explain to his daughter when she grows up.

Multilingualism in TV Land


As a linguist it's always exciting to see when you get a snippet of non-English dialogue, but lately it seems like mulitilingualism on American television has finally come of age. My favorite examples:


The adventures of this series spans the globe and we know this because of all the language switches. Last night's episode had characters speaking Japanese, Spanish and French - fortunately all of it was subtitled. Even with the subtitles though, I'm getting some good listening practice in. The final /s/ is sometimes dropping in the Honduran Spanish; the French is taking place in Haiti; and I'm catching the fact that Japanese names are ordered family name-personal name...the opposite of English.

The Unit

I haven't had a chance watch it this season, but in past seasons, the boys of Delta Force have been known to speak any number of languages depending on the undercover mission at the time. I also respect that they managed to dig up a clock with Arabic numbers for an episode supposedly set in the Middle East. Nice global touch.

More and more Spanish

Interestingly, I see more and more snippets of Spanish dialogue. The obvious shows are CSI: Miami and the Cuban-American drama Cane, but even Latina Food TV chef Ingrid Hoffman throws out little Spanish snippets, much like Julia Child threw out French snippets.

Honorable Mention for South Park

One rerun had the boys of South Park traveling to Afghanistan to return a live goat to their Afghan pen pals. Now the writers did NOT include the Afghan boys speaking Pashto, Uzbek or Dari Persian, but it did have the young Afghanis say this classic piece of dialogue:

Afghan Boy 1 [with accent] - This does not make any sense.

Afghan Boy 2 [with accent] - We are speaking English. Does that make any sense?