Bilingual Celebrities (Video of the Week)

One of the challenges of dealing with the concept of multilingualism is that people living in monolingual culture such as the U.S. can’t fathom that a person can be fluent in multiple languages. That’s where videos such as “Bilingual Celebrities” comes in handy.

Not all celebrities are native in both languages, but you will be surprised at the different languages some celebrities do speak.

The Swedish interview with Malin Äckerman (3:03) is also a bonus intersentential code switching video because she actually mixes in English at one point. The social context is interesting because she assumes (probably correctly) that the Swedish audience will understand the English. English language instruction has long been part of the Swedish curriculum and many science courses at Umeå University are taught in English. Äckerman also grew up in Canada with a Swedish mother which is a classic code switching environment.

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.

“Ancient U.S. Weapon”? How old can that be?

The meaning of words can vary from context, and this article about an “Ancient U.S. Weapon” in Syria brought home this point to me.

If you consider that ancient often means “the earliest recorded memory” or sometimes “before our civilization as we know it began”, then definitions can vary across disciplines. In historical linguistics, “ancient” is usually no later than the Roman Empire (at least in my estimation), yet the Academy of Ancient Music is playing pieces by Handel from 1685, which is about the time period when known compositions can be firmly reconstructed. Another semi-amusing case is the PBS program In Search of Ancient Ireland – which apparently ends with the Norman invasion in the 1100s (well into the Middle Ages again). I suspect that any era when Wales, Ireland or Scotland was still under the control of a Celtic language government will be “ancient”.

Still the words “Ancient U.S.” really gave me pause. I know that pre-European history is “Ancient”, although it generally ends between 1492 to 1900 depending on location. But the U.S. itself as “ancient”? That is a new concept for me. Especially since the artifacts were weapons from the 1970s used in the Vietnam War. I actually remember when the troops left Saigon, so definitely in my lifetime.

Brandi on Bilingualism

Reality TV is probably bad for your overall mental health, but it truly is a wonderful source of material for the instructor in sociolinguistics. For example, in the latest spat between Real Housewives of Beverly Hills chicas the very Anglo Brandi and former Miss Puerto Rico Joyce, Brandi has been saying some very non-enlightend things about Latino culture.

A particularly choice example is her complaint about Joyce spwitching to Spanish when she realizes that Jennifer also speaks Spanish.

Jennifer and Joyce start immediately speaking Spanish, and, while I know it’s not an actual secret language, I’m annoyed and almost feel like I want to pee on Jenny to mark my territory. I have no problem being cordial to someone I am not fond of for the sake of the situation.

I think most linguists would agree that Brandi’s comment is a bit extreme. Brandi has been accused of being a racist, but I think the problem is more subtle than that. Brandi is just not used to living in a multilingual context and apparently didn’t do that well in high school Spanish either. If she had taken LING 100, she would know this was perfectly appropriate behavior. f you do bother to watch the video (with Spanish translated), you will see that 1) the conversation is short and 2) it was obviously a “look at what we have in common” conversation.

I will admit that there are times when having two people converse in a language not everyone understands is potentially awkward and can be bad manners. For instances, in the Real Housewives of Miami has featured Spanish conversations whose sole purpose was to insult a non-Spanish speaker. If you do this though, you do have to make sure that the other person is NOT a Spanish speaker or you will be caught.

Analyzing Facebook Posts

The MIT Technology Review published an article about a Penn study analyzing Facebook posts to find correlations betweeen words/phrases and your demographic and personality profile. The actual study is available at the PLOS One Website.

There are lots of interesting correlations for posit, including ones for age predictors. Below are some keywords which are associated with some age groups.

“Words, phrases, and topics most distinguishing subjects aged 13 to 18, 19 to 22, 23 to 29, and 30 to 65. Ordered from top to bottom: 13 to 18 19 to 22 23 to 29, and 30 to 65. Words and phrases are in the center; topics, represented as the 15 most prevalent words, surround. (N~74,859; correlations adjusted for gender; Bonferroni-corrected pv0:001).

Words vs. Age Groups
13-18 19-22 23-29 30-65
  • school
  • tomorrrow
  • homework
  • English
  • bored
  • math
  • prom
  • hahaha
  • :D
  • <3
  • (:
  • semester
  • fuck/fucking
  • apartment
  • studying
  • campus
  • shit
  • roommate
  • at work
  • enjoying
  • office
  • beer
  • drinks
  • new job
  • company
  • apartment
  • daughter
  • my son
  • my kids
  • fb friends
  • husband
  • repost
  • blessed
  • children
  • prayer(s)

On the whole, I would say that the results do have a certain validity. If you’ve ever been on Facebook, I am sure you will have seen some of these words yourself for your age group. And while I don’t doubt the methodology at all, I would be handout the usual caveats for this kind of study.


Who’s in Facebook?

My first caveat is class assumption. The 19-22 word set is dominated by traditional collegiate life with the number one word being “semester” (followed by “fuck”). Other major collegiate-specific words include “campus, studying, classes” and minor words include “papers, exams, assignments, science, professor” and so forth. The list includes recreational words which could be collegiate or not (drunk, hangover), but many students also happen to drink (or talk about drinking) at college.

To me this means that this isn’t just a 19-22 year old sample, but middle class 19-22 year old sample. As many researchers such as danah boyd point out, it is important to note that not EVERYONE is in Facebook, and not everyone is in a particular social media environment.

Personality and Community?

The article also discusses correlations between personality type and word use. For instance, people who test as introvert are apparently interested in “computers” and “anime” (vs. “party” and “boys/girls” for extraverts), while those who are “neurotic” tend to use words like “depressed”, “sick of” and “fucking” (vs “success, basketball, lakers, success” for the emotionally stable).

Again, I don’t necessarily dispute the results, but I do wonder if the notion of “performance” has been taken into account. What I mean by performance is that people may write in a certain style and on certain topics in order to conform to some social norm such as what is expected of a particular gender.

To take a personal example, my Facebook network includes a lot of co-workers and family. I don’t necessarily share everything with everyone on Facebook. I watch a certain amount of manga, but I choose to not talk about it on Facebook since it’s not usually relevant to my circle. Instead, I tend to talk about the far more socially acceptable topic of pets and babies (I have a corgi and he is soooo cute!). I would be curious if my word cloud skewed towards extrovert or not.

Facebook may truly indicate personality preferences, but it is not the same thing as a personal journal.

Pronunciation Observations from PBS Latino Americans

I’ve been watching the PBS series Latino Americans and of course paid close attention to the Spanish language. So my main observations were:

Code Switched Pronunciation

The narrator generally spoke Standard U.S. English, but most Spanish words were given authentic Spanish pronunciations, much more than I’ve seen in other documentaries on Latin American subjects. I almost felt that the narrator was the Giada de Laurentiis (famous for her authentic Italian pronunciations of all things pasta) of Latin American documentaries. Many bilinguals alternate pronunciations, but this was especially consistent.

And who was this mystery narrator? None other than Benjamin Bratt who was raised by his Peruvian mother Eldy Bratt. He’s a great example of someone who has really mastered the phonology of two languages.

Dropping Final /s/

There was a clip of a traditional Spanish language song from the Caribbean (Puerto Rico, I believe) and by gosh, the singer was often dropping the final /s/ (or changing it to an /h/). Unfortunately, I am not having luck tracking it down now, but it’s rare to hear a dialectal feature captured with such good audio.

P.S. – This was very interesting and enlightening to me both as an Anglo and an East Coast resident. I had some notion of Latin American immigration in terms of the big East Coast cities like New York and Miami, but the history of Hispanics on the West Coast is very long, much longer than most people realize. Many past events are influencing immigration politics of today.