Category Archives: Video

Word Crimes & Hip Hop Battles

I confess that my personal challenge to post a linguistically interesting video every week has failed, but I thought I would end on a high note.

Despite the fact that I am not in the “grammar correction” biz, I do think that Weird Al’s recent song “Word Crimes” (based on “Blurred Lines”) makes some legitimate points on clear communication. My personal challenge is to find a way to introduce into the classroom.

Update: Read Language Log

As I suspected, I am not the only linguist who has noticed the song, and there is a thoughtful post by Ben Zimmer on Linguist List about how it could perpetuate linguistic prejudice.

FWIW – I don’t necessarily know if Weird Al means for this song to be a serious tutorial on grammar like Grammar Girl. While I’m sure he is expressing some actual language usage peeves, it’s worth noting that the same album features “Foil” (based on “Royals”) in which he advocates foil as protection from both bacteria and covert government control. In fact, he has one line about “And maybe now you find that people mock you online” that acknowledges the annoyance towards commenters who proof, but do not read or provide other constructive advice.

I do agree with Zimmer that this should NOT be used to teach “grammar” (as does Weird Al probably), but I do think it introduces some of the issues that come up in the sociolinguistics of prescriptive grammar. Zimmer has a list of questions a linguist could ask students.

Bad Grammar vs. Bad Writing

One that linguists can ask themselves though is how they could distinguish “bad grammar” from “bad writing”. While some of the diagrams in Weird Al’s songs are ridiculous, I can’t argue with the fact that some expressions like “I could care less” are overused and no longer make literal sense. This is bad writing, regardless of grammar. In fact, many books on writing do warn writers not to become trapped in jargon (good prescriptive grammar, bad writing).

What I think is missing is the idea that a colloquial language speaker CAN be a good writer (or at least use effective rhetorical techniques). For instance, many people worry about the AAVE “verbal skills deficit”, when it is partly a problem of mastering a second dialect. However AAVE speakers can clearly demonstrate verbal proficiency in hip hop lyrics and hip hop battles (spontaneous hip-hop lyric creation) as recreated in the movie 8 Mile.

I would like to see a day when dialect proficiency is really appreciated for what it is (good writing) and that Standard English is another option instead of the ONLY option.

Chinese Pidgin English (Video of the Week)

This is the second “Video of the Week”, but this makes up for missing last week. This video recreates a 19th century Chinese Pidgin English dialogue from time when Hong Kong was a British colony. At this time a pidgin developed to allow the Cantonese speaking residents of Hong Kong to communicate with the English speaking British. This video is helpful because it shows the dialogue as a caption (and I admit I need it). There are some amusing phrases such as “numba wun (#1) ledda” for “your best leather”.

This video is from the University of Hong Kong, so the dialogue should be accurate. But if it weren’t, this would now be considered extremely offensive. As it turns out though, Chinese Pidgin English has given English useful phrases such as having a “look-see”, “long time no see” and “chop chop.” I didn’t realize the origin of these phrases until pretty recently.

What also amazes me is that this language has virtually disappeared from the modern U.S. landscape. For the most part Chinese Americans are depicted as being fluent English speakers with native U.S. accents (even on shows like Hawwaii Five-O. That’s a positive development in most ways, but I think Anglos have somewhat forgotten how different things were…which is why Rosie O’Donell got into serious trouble for invoking this pidgin stereotype.

Feminist Code Switching Latina (Video of the Week)

A challenge for teaching code switching (switching languages mid stream) is to find some good examples to demonstrate to students. Code switching in terms of Spanish and English (i.e. “Spanglish”) is often seen as a sign of being sloppy…so not everyone is comfortable using it in public.

But this video shows the artistic expression of code switching for cultural commentary. Here a Latina woman uses both Spanish and English to explain that well…not all Latina women are built along the same anatomical plan as J-Lo.

This video helpfully shows the English and Spanish in the sub titles, so I appreciate the student who found this and added it to my collection.

FYI – If you need a wider variety of samples, I do recommend looking for articles on intrasentential code switching. This field of study has been become more popular is and very important for understanding how multilingual speakers process multiple grammars.

Bensonhurst Spelling Bee (Video of the Week)

One of the joys of YouTube is the wealth of linguistic data a linguist has at her fingertips. A smart linguistic instructor can even ask students to bring data to her, and the following video is a perfect example of that.

The Bensonhurst Spelling Bee comes courtesy of a student research project into Italian in America and is a parody spelling bee held in Bensonhurst (a Brooklyn neighborhood and traditional Italian-American stronghold). This spelling bee asks children to spell authentic Italian-American words like mutzadel and brahjzhoot. Check out how judge Lorraine Bracco helps with etymology and usage!

In addition to being funny, this video highlights the difference between “Italian-American” as spoken by Italian immigrants from southern Italy and educated Standard Italian based on the northern Tuscan dialect. When Mark Consuelos starts to argue that mutzadel is in fact mozzarella, you can see how much wife Kelly Ripa, a native New Jerseyan, fears for his life.

By the way, a less hostile version of this can be seen on the Food Network. Watch some episodes of different shows and compaire how Giada DeLaurentis and Mario Batali says provolone (/ with final /e/) pronounced) vs. the more home grown Rachael Ray who always drops the final vowel (i.e. /pro.vo.lon/). My Italian-American student informant told me that Giada’s authentic standard Italian is considered a great source of amusement in his family.

Mistaking an /r/ for a [d]

Speaking of mutzadel, I was interested to see that the /r/ was spelled as a “d”. That may be because Italian [r] is being mistaken for the English flap ([ɾ] also transcribed as [D]), which is the articulation of English /d/ between vowels. It’s hard for English native speakers to accept that the “d” in a word like Yoda is actual a form of “r”, but sometimes these perception mistakes happen in foreign languages.

And before I hit the Publish button, I did a quick check on Southern Italian to see if there was a change of /r/ to [l]. Neither Sicilian or Calabrese seem to preserve Italian [r].

In Memoriam: Constance Sutton, Ilaria Corp, Helix (Video of the Week)

It’s been a particularly violent TV season this year and no show more deadly than the SyFy Channel bizarre medical thriller Helix, the show where the CDC tries to stop another Zombie epic in a corporate research outpost in the Arctic.

As a linguist though, I have to say that the most tragic death was the loss of Ilaria COO Constance Sutton (Jeri Ryan) who ostensibly comes to facilitate the work of the CDC, but is really there to ensure that the CDC is liquidated once their work for Ilaria is complete.

As it turns out Sutton was a master of today’s modern corporate speak as exemplified in this clip below. Many of you may recognize the hallmarks of approachability combined with a masterful mix of corporate metaphors and friendly explanations as to why your requests are unable to be honored. We all know she’s up to no good, but really can’t say why.
Note: For those of you who want to skip the hook-up subplot, skip to 1:40.

In case this video is lost, let me post the highlights of Constance’s discourse:

Am I to understand that the communications satellite went down? Well unfortunately, I don’t have a magic telephone. I’m under the same constraints as everyone else.

It’s time to create a new paradigm between our corporation and the CDC. So what do you need from Ilaria?

[On the challenges of retrieving Dr. Walker out of isolation in a secret sub-basement level

Let’s square the circle here…Ilaria is about value added, If Dr. Walker is what you need, Dr Walker is what you will get.

In a later scene, Constance explains to base personnel the corporate strategy of using the disease to gain control over the world. In her words:

We just want to thin the herd a bit.