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Semi-Rehabilitation of "Queer"


As noted in my last post on Paula Deen, the use of the N-word has been debated recently, particularly because some members of the African-American community are trying to "reclaim" the term or at least make public use possible. So far, I would say this has had limited success although Jamie Foxx and Samuel L. Jackson sure used it a lot in Django Unchained.

On the other hand, the term queer when used to refer to someone in the LGBT community HAS become semi-respectable. This was always a negative, but then groups like Queer Nation began to appropriate the term for their own usage chanting "We're here. We're Here....Get Used to it".

Next came shows like Bravo's Queer Eye (for the Straight Guy) . In this case, being a flamboyantly fashionable gay male was considered a positive because they were able to give fashion and cooking advice (for the record, not all straight men are unfashionable and not all gay men can dress).

But lately I've noticed that the term queer and Queer Studies (or LGBT Studies) is a serious academic term used by such notably enlightened indivduals as danah boyd . It's even a major in places such as the University of Oregon.

This is truly an amazing turnaround, but maybe not fully complete. I notice that Yale and University of Maryland are more conservative in preferring the term "LGBT Studies" in their programs. So I don't think I will be commenting that "Bill is part of the queer community" anytime soon.

Considering Paula Deen


Paula Deen is the latest celebrity to be caught by the N-word bomb and she is paying a price although many argue that she shouldn't be penalized for a single use over 30 years ago. But she may be paying a price for some unsavory thoughts much beyond any usage of a derogatory

I've written my opinion about N-word controversies with Dr Laura and John Mayer, but Paula Deen's situation is different in some interesting respects.

Should the One Use Be Penalized?

During a 2013 deposition, Deen admitted to using the N-word once over 30 years ago (ca 1983) right after a criminal encounter with someone who happened to be African-American. Some people have argued that a single use decades ago should be pardoned. (BTW, the lawsuit filed by employee Lisa Jackson alleges that Deen used the N-word again (see below), but since Deen has denied this it's somewhat of a he said/she said situation.))

Based on her testimony and multiple apologies, Deen clearly does know how offensive the word, and the scenario is one in which she was in extreme emotional distress. Although I would not use the N-word in that situation (I truly know that) and wouldn't recommend it, I can see how that situation would bring out the worst thoughts in Deen. I believe even the most racially tolerant amongst us would have been calling the criminal nasty names.

And to be honest, I believe that all of us have thought or said things in a politically incorrect direction. For instance, when I hear a rural white American saying something blatantly racist, I can't help it that the word "red neck" comes into my head. Do we want to be judged for every thought or action we did? I think that can lead into dangerous areas of "thought policing" which is not always fair or even helpful for true understanding of diverse points of view (Anne Rice agrees).

I'll also say that I have used phrases in the past that I don't now because I have rethought the context. One I still hear a lot is "he went off the reservation." But if you think about it, it is probably referring to the forced relocation and control of Native Americans - kind of a sore subject. I'm trying not to use it and this might also be considered pretty bad form some day...but not this day.

And yet, the Paula Deen situation is not that simple

Uncle Ben Gone Bad

One of the topics of the deposition is an overheard discussion in which Deen speaks fondly of a restaurant in which the wait staff were all African-American men. She then expressed a desire for her brother to have an authentic "southern plantation wedding" with exactly this type of wait staff. This is where she lost me and perhaps a few of her corporate sponsors.

The whole entire wait staff was [made up of] middle-aged black men, and they had on beautiful white jackets with a black bow tie. I mean, it was really impressive. And I remember saying I would love to have servers like that, I said, but I would be afraid that somebody would misinterpret.


The lawsuit alleges that Deen uses the N-word to refer to the waiters, but she denies it because she admired their professionalism. I personally wonder if the word "Negro" was used (which was once the proper word for African-American not so long ago).

But that's aside the point. The entire line of thought is just addled. Some might say flaky, but I say it's unconsciously racist. She can't see that 1) an African-American might not want a white woman to have THIS kind of plantation wedding or 2) you really shouldn't try to mix and match employees anymore based on skin tone and that 3) it would be breaking all sorts of non-discrimination laws. Imagine if her dream wedding staff were all white!

I think it's important to respect Southern tradition (and the tourist dollars it can bring), and equally important that African-Americans be able to have the opportunity to find a decent-paying job such as working in a high-end restaurant (yes, that kind of job can pay well).

But there is that fine line between participating in a fuzzy plantation fantasy and making it so literal that we also bring in references to slavery. I'd like to think that persons of all backgrounds are capable of filling the "Uncle Ben" fantasy or at least serving a really good mint julep. Oy. This does remind me of the a friend's mother who purportedly didn't see anything wrong with those statues of the little black boy holding a lantern. Ahhhh!

Is Deen a racist? This is not easy to answer. It's clear that she is sensitive to the topic, and at least one of her African American colleagues, Aaron McCargo Jr, came to her defense saying how supportive she was of his cooking career. I've also seen her on shows interacting very respectfully with African-American guests of all sorts. She knows good cooking when she sees it.

But her comments on the plantation wedding represent the kind of addled cultural baggage that can be carried around. And it's a problem that can't be fixed with a simple change in vocabulary. I hope Americans can find room in their hearts again for Deen, but I think Deen and everyone else really needs to realize that avoiding racism goes beyond avoiding the N-word.

Postscript 1: Who Should Use the N-Word? No One!

Fox News had one of those recurring discussions about whether an African-American using the N-word is different than a white person using it (YES!!!). Gloria Allred argued that an African American using it was different from a non-African American using it, but her co-panelist Ted Williams (an African American) disagreed! He felt that NO ONE should use it, not even African Americans. This word is really a long way from getting reformed.

Code Switching on YouTube


A topic that comes up in sociolinguistics is code switching in which bilingual communities switch between languages. A famous example in the U.S. is Spanglish, as seen in the movie Selena (where it ends up being a potential P.R. problem for the singer in BOTH the U.S. and Mexico).

Unfortunately, code switching is usually perceived up as being sloppy language, heavily frowned upon by monolinguals from all languages. Finding samples of authentic code switching (vs an inaccurate parody) can be tricky.

It turns the true king (raja) of code switching is probably India where code switching is completely acceptable because, as one woman explains "Hindi is a very friendly language." You can find code switching in almost any modern mode or TV show from India, including the Indian version of Who Wants to be A Millionaire (i.e. Kaun Banega Crorepati/KBC). I bet that even if you don't know a single word of Hindi you'll understand this KBC clip.

P.S. I don't want to slight other codeswitchers like the Chinglish speakers of Singapore (with this authentic sample from the subway). You all rock!

Dollars vs Sodapop Map


A colleague in another department mentioned a "Where's George" map which shows regions where dollar bills tend to circulate together. That is the blue lines on the U.S. map indicate places where bills tend NOT to cross.

Not surprisingly, not all currency boundaries correspond with state boundaries. There's a fairly large boundary running through the center of Pennsylvania and another through the western part of Wisconsin.

From a linguistic perspective though it appears that some currency boundaries correspond to certain dialect boundaries. For instance, the PA line is almost exactly where the "pop" vs. "soda" line is in PA. Looking at the Pop vs Soda map, you can also see that there are multiple places where the currency line matches a dialect line (e.g. N. California/Nevada/Arizona lines, the Ohio river valley stood out).

When you think about it, there is some logic because both currency and dialectal forms are something shared within communities (specifically community networks). But I was amazed that there was as much overlap as there was.

Bilingual Signage in State College


Despite being in the middle of Pennsylvania in a mostly rural area, State College does have some bilingual signage.

One location is in our Lowe's department store where all signs are both in English and Spanish. However, this is really part of a national policy of Lowe's stores having Spanish language materials on a national level. Even to me it does seem odd in Central PA but I also don't want anyone getting hurt because they couldn't follow the instructions correctly. Plus places like Hazleton as well as Lancaster, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and Harrisburg do have significant numbers of Latino immigrants, so the linguistic landscape continues to evolve.

The one sign that really surprised me was a bus ad for a Nationwide agent that included some Chinese on the sign. But when I thought about it, Penn State does have a have over 6,000 international students and scholars, and many bring their families to State College. There apparently is now a need that some business people are beginning to fill.

In case you're wondering though, English is still the dominant language in State College. Local Anglophones have no need to panic....yet.

Decline of East Sutherland Gaelic


The following is a very interesting documentary on how a form of Scottish Gaelic in East Sutherland has gradually declined and will probably become extinct.

Direct URL -

Linguistics....on Bravo TV


There's an excellent clip from the new Bravo show Pregnant in Heels in which soon-to-be-parents from New York request professional help to give their baby a good "brand" name. The maternity consultant Rosie Pope obliges by creating a naming panel who are "very academic" (which of course a linguist must be included).

No one has asked, but I thought I would I would offer my expert advice. The parameters the parents gave are as follows:

  • Name for a boy
  • Upper class, but ethnicity not important
  • Not "decorative"
  • Easy to spell

  • Not too popular
  • No J,E,R and no final S

To these parameters, I would add the following - "will not get you beaten up on a playground." In other words, even if the name is not common, it should have some positive resonance in multiple social settings outside of Upper East Side. Since we're talking brand, this criteria should be factored in.

In addition, since the parents are Anglo, I would also tend towards an Anglo name. I have nothing against non-Anglo names, but most "high class" names actually have some sort of family or ethnic connection, so I feel this is an important consideration.

My Choices

The trickiest part was avoiding the "E" because it is the most common vowel in English, but it can be done. These are some recognizable names I believe fit the criteria:

Donald, Nathan, Colin, Dylan, Gavin, Ian, David, Hugh, William, Karl (with a K),

There may be others that fit the criteria, but which I feel are not playground-friendly (some things are personal judgement calls).

FYI - Another option are family names as first names. A nice feature of family names is that they are both aristocratic, but authentic to the family.

Despite my earlier branding parameters, I do believe that any name can work if the parent really believes in the history of it passes it along to their children. As a child, I never really appreciated Alfred as a name, until I learned more about the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great.

Hyphen Reduction in Standard American AP English


Just found a link to a humorous piece on how the AP Style Manual recently removed mandated hyphens from their stylebook - Thanks MJ! Of course, I plan to continue to randomly hyphenate/join together compounds until a kindly spell checker tells me to knock it off.

Kate Middleton Singing in Welsh


Just ran into an article describing how future queen Kate Middleton learned the Welsh anthem enough to sing along at her recent Welsh visit. According to palace news sources, she chose to do this on her own, partly because she has been living in Anglesey, Wales

I'm sure there's more than one point of view about how integrated Wales should be with the rest of the United Kingdom (technically, this would be irrelevant in an independent Wales)...but my heart was warmed by this. First, I have to applaud anyone deciding to learn the local language. She really could get away being monolingual, even in a location as Cymrophonic (Welsh speaking) as North Wales, but she is choosing to learn more about the area she is living in.

But it's also an important symbol that members of the Royal Family are living in Wales and learning Welsh. Whether you're a Royalist or want a completely independent Wales, I think it's better for all of Britain if the former enemy nations can understand each other more. And I do believe that one role of the British Royal family can fill is to be cultural ambassadors. I'll be curious to see how the monarchy and the Welsh evolve together.

The Etiquette of Grammar Correction


A debate linguists are involved with a lot is how and when to correct grammar, especially in student work.

Traditional practice dictates that non-standard grammar should always be corrected, but linguists and others have disagreed that constant correction is necessary. So do poor spellers, and those actually speaking non-standard forms.

Non Standard Speaker in Math Class

Take a child in math class who says something like "That don't make no sense" (note double negative). Should we take the time to address the double negative issue before we address the underlying problem that the student may be having with improper fractions?

Again, the traditional answer may be yes because the question is "unclear", but if we're honest, the chances are that Standard English speakers actually understand the double negative just fine (if we didn't, we would assume that "I Can't get no Satisfaction" means Mick Jagger is 100% satisfied). FWIW - If the teacher hadn't really understood, the response would likely have been "Huh?" or "Can you repeat that?"

Another rationale might be that the student's standard English grammar is being reinforced by being corrected. I suspect that what happens is that the student is annoyed that the teacher is addressing the grammar question and NOT the math question. In this scenario, any child caught using the double negative will have to go through an additional process of hearing a lecture on "correct" negatives before his or her original question can be addressed. What a pain. And possibly discouraging more questions from that student in the long run.

Let's remember that double negative speakers are not using that contstruction to annoy teachers, but because that was the grammar they acquired in their home environment. Their parents aren't deliberately teaching it either, especially since children tend to pay more attention to what their playmates are saying rather than adults (this is one reason children of immigrant parents can speak perfect English). At this point, the double negative IS the native construction and the standard English negative is a bit like a second language.

Another Time Not to Correct

If the scenario above is not really convincing, consider this quote from the documentary Amy's Story about a woman killed by her abusive husband. As the detective recounts, Amy did go to the police at least one time:

[Amy] went and outlined the history of what had been happening. She recounted him pulling the baby out of her arms, him choking her, him breaking things in the house, [him] threatening to burn the house down, [him] threatening to kill her.

Wow - did you notice the use of non-standard "him choking her" instead of the more standard "his choking her"...or were you horrified at what this man was doing to his wife? I sincerely hope it was the latter. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter if a standard or not-so-standard construction was used, if we can understand what is being said.

When to Correct

In case you were wondering, I am not against correction, especially being proofed. I really do want my resume to be perfectly Standard as well as most promotional materials and academic articles. You will also never hear a linguistics presentation given in Ebonics/AAVE (even if the topic IS AAVE). Some social norms are just too strong to challenge.

When the discourse is more spontaneous or conversational though, I think the Standard English noose can and should be loosened. Would Bob Marley have said as much to us if he had been forced to correct his Jamaican English to Standard English all the time?