S1 E12: Language, Race & Ethnicity – Nandi Sims

Today we are joined by Nandi Sims. Nandi is a PhD Candidate at The Ohio State University in the Department of Linguistics. Her primary interests lie in language variation and change stemming from situations of ethnic contact in the US. To explore the variation related to social identities, institutional ideologies, and the hegemonic structure of race, she has conducted research on a number of topics including historical variation in African American Language morphosyntax, English prosodic rhythm comparisons between South Florida ethnicities, and the relationship between the language, ethnicity, and social identity of pre-teens.

Her dissertation is titled “Race, ethnicity, and social groups: Social and linguistic causes of language variation among 6th grade students at a primarily Black South Florida middle school“. Join us in this week’s episode to learn more about the concepts regarding language, race and ethnicity, about African-American language, and about language variation in different populations in the US.

Listen here!

Episode Transcript

[Mariel] Hi, my name is Mariel and I’m the audio editor and guest host for today’s episode of Much Language Such Talk. But, more importantly, I am a proud Asian-American just trying to look out for communities of colour, including my own. Eva, Carine, and Brittany have very graciously given me this space to make a small statement about the temporal context of this episode before we begin. This episode was recorded prior to the airing of the interviews of Meghan Markle and Prince Harry, the trial of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, the one-year anniversary of the murder of Breonna Taylor, and the mass shooting of Asian Spas in Atlanta, Georgia. We understand that this is an incredibly trying time for ethnic and racial minority communities around the world, and hope that this conversation between the three of us — Eva, Nandi, and myself — can be used as a stepping stone to having your own conversations about how discrimination and exclusion intersect with language, race, and ethnicity. Alright, let’s get started with the episode.

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[Eva-Maria] Hello, everybody and welcome back to another episode of Much Language Such Talk.We’re glad you’ve decided to tune in for this week’s episode. You’re listening to me, Eva-Maria, and one of our volunteers Mariel. This is actually Mariel’s first time on the podcast. Would you like to introduce yourself?

[Mariel]  Hi so yeah, name is Mariel. I’m a year one PhD student at Moray House School of Education and Sport. And my research is on language teacher identity in Scottish language teachers.

[Eva-Maria] Very interesting. So welcome, and thanks for joining us for this episode.

[Mariel]  Thanks for having me.

[Eva-Maria]  Yeah, we’re very excited. And also, you know, you can contribute to today’s discussion. Today, we have a delightful guest for you, Nandi Sims of the Ohio State University. Nandi is currently doing her PhD in Linguistics. And she’s particularly interested in language variation and change stemming from situations of ethnic contact in the US. She studies the variation related to social identities, institutional ideologies, and the hegemonic structure of race. She has conducted research on a number of topics, including historical variation in African American Language morphosyntax, and the relationship between the language ethnicity and social identity of preteens, which is also the focus of her PhD. So hi, Nandi.

[Nandi] Hi, how are you?

[Eva-Maria]  Good, how are you?

[Nandi] I’m doing great.

[Eva-Maria] Thanks, Nandi, for joining us, we’re very excited to have you. And to basically dive right in, our first question that we usually ask all our guests is how did you develop your interest in linguistics and language?

[Nandi] Well, I guess it’s a kind of roundabout story. I started off in elementary education in Virginia, and I just got tired of living in Virginia. So I moved to Florida. But unfortunately, while I was there, they had a moratorium on hiring new teachers. And so I ended up getting a job teaching reading at a speech pathology center. I didn’t really understand what I was doing. And so I went back to school to take linguistics classes to understand more about the language issues that the students were having. And once I went back to school to take those classes, I was like, wow, this is a whole lot better than everything I ever thought was good. So I ended up going for my Masters in it. And yeah, now we are here, a long time later…

[Eva-Maria]  A long time later. That’s very interesting, so you have quite a range of experience working with language from different perspectives as well, you know, because, you know, reading development with like, maybe language disorders, and everything, is really interesting. So before we dive into the work that you are currently doing, and that you know, the focus of your PhD, because I mentioned that in the introduction, there were a lot of terms, ethnicity, race, and all of that. And I think before we dive into that, it would be good for us to define those terms. So what do we mean when we say race and ethnicity in this context?

[Nandi] Well, race and ethnicity, as you mentioned, are kind of complicated terms. People in different places mean different things when they say them. And this is even true in research. A lot of times people don’t define what they mean by race and ethnicity, they just assume a meaning. And that could cause confusion when somebody from a different place is reading it. So for the most part, when I use race and ethnicity, I’m using it in sort of a US centric way. In the US, race is based on a phenotype, so the way somebody looks, and it’s also based on history. So slavery in the US had a big impact on how we view race, and also the taking over of native lands had an effect on how race began to develop as a concept. Ethnicity is a bit newer of a concept. And it’s primarily to do with your cultural connection between the people around you. In the US, that’s typically depending on your country of origin, or your family’s country of origin. So, ‘oh, I’m Irish American, or I’m Hispanic, I’m Cuban.’ All of those would be thought of more as ethnicities. Ethnicities are something that you don’t necessarily need to have in order to be an American. But race is something that everyone is thought to have.

[Eva-Maria]  That is very interesting, because my native language is German. And in German, we have the equivalent term for race, ‘Rasse’. But we, and I checked, because I thought that I was maybe being a bit, you know, too sensitive about this topic. But I checked with a lot of L1 speakers of German. And we just don’t use that term, because also, you know, recent history in Germany kind of taught us how to be very careful, basically. And so we do not use that word in the same way that it’s used in English. So for me, I’m, of course, you know, a proficient speaker of English, and I’m very familiar with the word. I know what it refers to, I know what it means, but I’m still quite uncomfortable using it just because of my first language. You know, reading about it, or hearing about it, talking about it will always leave a bit of a weird feeling in me…

[Nandi] Right.

[Eva-Maria] … because it has such a negative connotation in German, and I even checked with friends in you know, from other languages, it’s the same in Italian, it’s the same in French even. So, English has a really, a way more positive approach to the word, whereas in, you know, the languages that I just mentioned, we do not use that word at all, only a racist would, basically.

[Nandi] Right.

[Eva-Maria] And if you want to, you know, make the distinction, we would refer to skin color, maybe, but we would avoid that terminology, basically, which I think is very, very interesting in of itself, and we could probably do a whole episode on that (laughter), just this, you know, semantic change of words, and how maybe even historic events in recent years have kind of shaped that. But that’s, it’s really, really interesting.

[Mariel]  Yeah, I think that was a really important discussion that you guys had, like Nandi, you said earlier, a lot of people will go about using these terms without thinking necessarily about what they mean. And I think it’s really, really important that we kind of set things that we decided upon how we are going to use these terms in this specific conversation. So leading into that, how did your work in education and all of that experience lead to working with language, race and ethnicity altogether?

[Nandi] I guess. Okay. That’s also complicated. (laughter) I think once I got into linguistics, I just was more drawn to some of the issues that are less studied, as well as have large effects on the individuals involved in. So in my experience in linguistics classes, looking at sort of social constructs is secondary to looking at linguistics. So you look at morphosyntax sort of devoid of understanding anything about the social or cultural context of the people who are using those morphosyntactic features, so that ended up bothering me a bit in my core linguistics classes. It always felt like, okay, that’s ungrammatical, but that’s not ungrammatical for these people. That’s not ungrammatical for me. I don’t understand how you can say something is ungrammatical and use that to sort of as the basis for this syntactic theory. When it’s not even a universal trait of English, let alone the languages in the world. And so I think that led me more into sociolinguistics, which eventually led me into looking more at contact linguistics.

[Mariel] What exactly do you mean by morphosyntax and syntactic theory?

[Nandi] Okay, for me, morphosyntax includes a lot of the features of English, that have an effect on syntactic agreement, but are not necessarily purely syntactic. So for example, the ‘s’ on the end of third person singular, She likes Ethan. The ‘s’ on the end of that is doing something syntactically to make the whole sentence agree, but it’s just the Morpheme. I guess I’m using syntactic theory as a proxy for a lot of general linguistic theories like phonological theory, like optimality theory, anything where the theories of the language are devoid of looking at cultural and social context.

[Mariel]  Thank you, I just genuinely didn’t know what either of those things meant. (laughter) That’s a fantastic answer. Thank you for that. So what does language have to do with race or ethnicity? And why is this research important?

[Nandi] In US society, race and ethnicity are such big, important aspects of an individual. It’s very hard to disconnect them from other aspects of your identity. So the way you dress, the people you see, the way people view you, and the way you speak. It can be as simple as the fact that African American communities, for example, are often enclaved communities within a city, they’re segregated. And so a lot of the times the speech you hear in those communities is from other African Americans. It could be as simple as learning a specific language or a specific language variety, because you live in a community with other people of the same race, or ethnicity. Or it could be that since it’s a large part of your identity, you’re using language as an, a marker of your identity to separate yourselves from the other ethnicities or the other races.

[Mariel] That’s really funny, because a lot of these processes are completely like, I don’t think we’re conscious of them. Like, for example, I took my partner home with me to America a couple of years ago now. And at one point, he pulled me aside, he was like, Mariel, you do realize that you have a Filipino accent when you talk to your parents. Here’s the problem with that. I don’t speak any Filipino languages. And they’ve never spoken to me in Filipino, or like in Tagalog and Pangasinan, or Ilocano, or anything like that. So the fact that I use that with them, you know, that I’m signaling to them that I, you know, belong to them. And of course I belong to them, they’re my parents. You know, it’s a very, sometimes it’s a choice, and sometimes it’s really, really not.

[Nandi] Yeah, that’s sort of accommodation happens with a lot of speakers when they’re talking to somebody who they like, who they want to express solidarity with. Like, sometimes when I’m doing my interviews in Miami, I’ll start talking as if I have like a Cuban accent. I’m not Cuban. I’m from Virginia. (laughter) I do not have a history of speaking Spanish, but because I’m sort of interested in them and I want to know more about them. I sort of become more like them, in a way.

[Eva-Maria] Yeah, I think there’s a lot of research on that, especially with people that you like, and that you maybe have a close relationship with, or even people that you meet for the first time, but have a, you want to make them more comfortable, that it’s not even, like it’s not a choice, really, it just happens kind of naturally, but you kinda accommodate to the way they speak, to make them feel welcome or to make them feel comfortable. So it’s really interesting how that, how that kind of clicks, and I actually have a similar experience, or people have told me because I didn’t really notice. But I’m from Northern Germany. And apparently, when I go home, I speak differently, like I have a more Northern accent than when I speak German to my friends here that are not from the same place. So it’s, you know that it does happen.

[Nandi] I might also say some of the language choice is not just to do with identity and solidarity, but to do with the way races and ethnicities interact with each other. So having a Southern accent, for example, which I naturally have. And sometimes you can tell, sometimes you can’t. In the US, that’s seen as very negative, if you have a Southern accent, you’re a hillbilly, you’re stupid, you’re racist, you’re all this kind of stuff. And if you don’t want to be seen like that, you change your speech so that other people won’t see you negatively. And I think that’s important too, when thinking about subtle shifts in your speech when you’re talking to different people.

[Eva-Maria] So now that you kind of mentioned that it’s sometimes even a conscious choice to kind of escape a certain bias that people might have, you know, regarding the way you speak, your accent, I, for one, actually really love the Southern accent. I used to live in the South. So thinking of all of that, like in the classroom, and maybe even outside the classroom? How do different accents affect different students, or people?

[Nandi]  Like I said, with a Southern accent, accents have different meanings. Not all accents have meanings, but some of them do. So having a Southern accent, for example, shows everyone that you’re dumb. In a classroom, that might not matter so much, because usually, if you have a Southern accent, you’re in a school where everyone else has Southern accents. But something like African American Language also signals to people that you are dumb or ghetto, or just don’t know how to speak real English. And given that there’s sort of subsections of the population in many cities that speak this way, you end up having teachers who hold those negative ideologies. And that, for obvious reasons can negatively affect a student’s grades, the way they’re seen in the classroom, and all that sort of thing. Iit may be unclear to the student, what they’re reading, because what they’re reading is not in the variety of English that they speak. It might not be unclear to the teacher what the student is trying to say. But they might mark it down because it’s not the way it should be said, and should in like quotes. A lot of teachers need more training on language variation and why language varies, and things like that. I’d also say though, that some of the discrimination in classrooms is not just based on the language variety the student is actually speaking, but the teacher’s perception of the variety that they’re speaking. So there was a study where college students were placed in a like virtual classroom, I had to listen to a professor. And it was the same voice but a different picture of a professor. And in this study, they thought the one with the picture of a white face was clear. Everyone understood what he was saying. And then when they put on a picture of an Asian face, everyone said, Oh, his accents too strong, I don’t know what’s going on, he shouldn’t be a professor. And so it’s not just the language itself, or the features you’re actually using. It’s what people think you would use based on how you look.

[Mariel] It’s actually really funny, because I was just talking about that study yesterday, and I’m so glad you brought it up. Because these things aren’t subtle. And one of the first fights that my parents had, you know, just let me spill all of my dirty laundry everywhere. (laughter) But one of the first fights my parents had was whether or not to teach me their native languages. And the reason why they chose not to, was because they knew that people would already assume things about me because they would already super impose these ideas of what I sounded like, the moment they saw my face. And so, if you’ve never met a Filipino, when you see, like, either their name or their face, or the way that they speak, if they happen to be like me, like, just let me take myself as an example here. It feels like a little bit of an ethnic conundrum, you know, I have a Spanish last name, I have a very, very Asian face. But I sound like this, you know, and when you don’t have any one of those three things as part of the picture, then you are already making assumptions that are going to be incorrect. And that has always impacted my life. It has always impacted the way that people see me, the way they interact with me, no matter what country I am in.

[Eva-Maria]  Yeah, that’s very important. And I cannot stress this enough. At Bilingualism Matters, we I think it was last year in November, we started a campaign called Accent Positivity, just to talk about exactly that. The solution is not getting everybody to talk the same. Like that’s a not achievable. And because I mean, language will always change. Right. But it’s also it shouldn’t be the goal. And the campaign basically just aims to challenge people’s prejudices. We, we all have these prejudices and misconceptions. Once you notice that you have them, just like actively remind yourself, that it’s not okay. So, you mentioned African American Language. And that’s also to do with the terminology, because in my undergrad, which was about a million years ago, we learned that the right terminology would be African American Vernacular. But in other instances, I’ve heard Black English. And I know that you use the term and also, you know, in your research, you use African American Language. Is there a difference, you know, what do these terms mean, and which ones are used more often? Or is that also circumstantial?

[Nandi]  Right, so I’d say a lot of it is historical. It started off being called maybe Negro English or Black English. And then those terms become not necessarily negative terms. So I think Ebonics is the clearest example, where Ebonics is a term that was developed by academics to be the term to describe this language variety, or this set of language varieties. And then eventually, the public took up the word Ebonics, and superimposed onto it the negative ideologies they already have to that variety. And so it ends up that now this new term had the negative connotation. On top of things like that the term has changed, because, so from talking about it, as a variety of English, to language is sort of standing against claiming English as a part of African American identity. The differences between using Black and African American are often depending on the researchers, ideologies on what those terms mean, I say African American Language, as opposed to like Black English or something like that because I’m trying to signal that this is a variety that was developed by Africans in the US, African Americans, it doesn’t mean that other people who aren’t African American don’t speak like that. It also doesn’t mean that people who are African American necessarily have to speak that. On top of that, I might say that it has to do with culture. In the past, linguists would use African American Vernacular English, mainly because it is different from mainstream, or standard Englishes. And a lot of academics now, we really don’t like to compare this variety to mainstream, because it’s a, it’s a variety in its own right. To talk a bit as a Vernacular English, sort of minimises it as its own entity.

[Eva-Maria] Yeah. So the term that you’re you’re using now, African American Language, the way you define it is more inclusive, basically.

[Nandi] Yeah, it’s more inclusive. It also is thought of more as a continuum. So calling it African American Vernacular English, is usually talking about the variety that’s the most different from the mainstream. Whereas not all of the African American varieties are that variety. Some are basically the same as mainstream, some are mainstream, some are in between. And to call it Vernacular erases a lot of that variation.

[Eva-Maria] Right.

[Mariel] That’s, that’s so interesting. And just thinking about that along that spectrum, in what ways are these different varieties of African American Languages similar or different across America? Like, are regional variations of African American Languages more similar to their non-African American regional counterparts? Or are they more similar to other African American Languages that are farther from them and across the country and stuff?

[Nandi] If we’re talking about the varieties that are least like mainstream varieties, usually, they’re more like other African American Language varieties than like the mainstream varieties of the places that they’re spoken. And that’s because African American Language migrated from the Southern United States, to all the other cities that it’s now spoken in. So African Americans in Detroit have ancestry from African Americans in Mississippi. So a lot of the times they’re more similar to each other. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have contact with the other varieties spoken in their geographic area that have had an effect on the vowels or the morphosyntax, or any of the aspects of it. You can often find similarities between the other varieties in the city and African America language, but also similarities between that African American Language variety and the diasporic African American Language varieties. Yeah.

[Eva-Maria] That’s, that’s really interesting. Especially talking about the, you know, migrational patterns, and you can kind of trace that. Now that we’ve kind of talked about all of all of this, because you do research in this field, I think it would be really interesting to know how you conduct the research, like, what are the methodologies you use? Do you do more interviews? Or do you do like actual, like experimental settings? Can you just tell us a bit more about how you do that?

[Nandi] Right. So I dabble in a lot of methods. My dissertation research was an ethnography, where I spent all day every day in this middle school in sixth grade classrooms and lunch with the middle schoolers, basically hanging out and being a sixth grader.

[Eva-Maria] Fun. (laughter)

[Nandi] Yeah, it’s a lot more fun than it was when I was actually in sixth grade. (laughter)

[Eva-Maria] I can totally imagine.

[Nandi] But that’s not the only method that I’m drawn to. Most of my methods involve some sort of interview, because I’m interested primarily in analyzing their speech. So of course, I need samples of their speech. But I’ve also worked on projects that have been perception. My historical project used corpora. Essentially, my, I am not married to any type of methodology. I just want to answer interesting questions. And so whatever method answers that question is the method I like to do.

[Eva-Maria] Okay, so with your experience with different methodologies, and we’ve also talked about like, how language shapes identity at the beginning. So you’ve done research on prosody and rhythm in African American Language and how does that differ from other varieties of American English? And how would you define an identity marker?

[Nandi] Rhythm as we use it in prosody is sort of the relationship between the duration of speech segments, so it could be the duration of syllables, for example. There are differences between languages that are sort of well-known and well-studied. English for example, has a lot of variation between the durations. There’s some very short syllables that are almost nothing and there’s some that are incredibly long in comparison. Whereas a language like Spanish, all of the syllables are generally the same duration. Varieties like African American Language that historically developed due to contact with other languages and other varieties of English often have a rhythm that differs from mainstream American English. Saying that though, regional varieties also differ in prosody, and rhythm. Let’s take the Midwest, for example, because of their Scandinavian migration patterns, there’s a bit of a different prosody than there is in the Southern US with their British, and German ancestry. I’d say rhythm in African American Language can differ from the other varieties of American English in that the durational segments are more similar to each other. So it’s not like Spanish, where the segments are pretty much the same. But it’s not like the sort of prototypical English, where the segments are all the way different all the time. An identity marker is something about an individual speech that tells another person something about their identity. For example, I do a lot of up talk and creaky voice. I don’t mean to, but I guess sometime when I was developing my identity, I decided I was a cool young person. And I ended up using these a lot. And now they’re sort of in meshed in my regular speech. Those things tell other people that I think I’m a young, cool person. (laughter)

[Mariel] But you are, you are.

[Nandi]  I man that’s what I say (laughter). And yeah, that’s generally what identity markers do. So anything about language could be an identity marker, depending on the community, something that’s an identity marker, in my community. So with the uptalk, for example, that is particular to US English, and I think it’s probably spread to other varieties of English.

[Eva-Maria]  Yeah, that’s, that’s really interesting. So just from my own experience, after I lived in the US, and also during my time in the US, I did a lot of u talk just because I guess I heard it from my friends, or whatever, and they were cool young people. And then when I came back, and especially after moving to the UK, I don’t do it anymore. But that is more of my English changing, which was not a conscious decision. So people would maybe see the way I speak English, you know, as an identity marker that I don’t do that. So maybe I’m not a cool young person. (laughs) But because, as you mentioned, speech, and language is such a vital part of who you are and how you express yourself and how you express your identity as well. Is it a conscious decision? Or is it implicitly influenced by our environment depending on what you’re exposed to as well? And also those two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Right?

[Nandi] Right. I’d say a lot of it is not conscious. You’re not usually sitting there and saying, oh, wow, I need to learn how to talk like this other person, so I can sound cool like them. It’s just sort of an automatic process that you’re doing in your mind. There could be conscious decisions, like thinking of my middle schoolers, for example, they might say, oh yeah, this cool. Musician said this word. Now I’m going to start saying this word, because I think it’s cool. But a lot of the time, it’s more subtle than that. You’ve heard people talking, you hear people talking all day, every day. And we were talking about accommodation before where you become more like the people you like, you can sort of think of changing your accent or your speech patterns when you move to different places as similar to that.

[Eva-Maria] Yeah, that makes sense.

[Mariel]  I think it’s really interesting that, especially because Eva and I have lived in several different countries, at this point we are privileged enough to have that position. That obviously we are two individuals who are doing that, but throughout history, there are patterns of migration, and I know that there is a pattern of Scottish migration to the United States. So would you mind talking a little bit more about that?

[Nandi] Right. So in colonial US times, there was, as you would expect, a lot of migration from the British Isles to the Southern colonies. And so a lot of the first migrants were from the south of England. But let’s say a few decades later, there was a large wave of migrants from Scotland. And a lot of these migrants ended up settling sort of in the land that was to be settled at the time, which is primarily the Appalachian Mountains region. And so a lot of the features you can find in contemporary Appalachian English can be connected back to Scottish varieties of English. This has to do with the development of African American Language, because some scholars think that the contact between the Scottish immigrants and the African American slaves affected the trajectory of how African American Language developed. So there’s a theory about the Northern Subjects Concord rule. So Concord, is how we were talking about earlier with morphosyntax, agreeing the verb with the subject. So she talks with ‘S’ is how in modern or contemporary American English we do concord. But historically, in the UK, there have been dozens of different concord types. There used to be concord where every person and number required an ‘S’ marker. There were other varieties that there was no concord, there was no ‘S’, there’s the one that we think of as the regular one with ‘S’ on third person. And then there’s the Northern Subjects Concord rule. A lot of the people I’ve talked to from Northern England and Scotland, say that people don’t do this anymore. And I believe them. But it’s a rule, so, there’s particular context, for example, when the verb is not next to the subject that these certain contexts cause ‘S’ to be needed. And the scholars have argued that that pattern is what we see in the earlier varieties of African American Language. In early periods of slavery, there isn’t much written down. It wasn’t until later, when we finally got recording devices in the early 1900s, that we could record the speech of African Americans who at the time were elderly, but would have spoken a variety, similar to what was spoken around 1860.

[Mariel] That was a really interesting discussion of the historical aspect of all of the linguistics. Specifically, because my focus is on what teachers are saying now, it’s really enlightening for me to be able to put this in a larger temporal context. But shifting our focus a little bit more forward. In light of the global Black Lives Matter protests from last summer, and the grassroots anti-racist activism of the last several years, decades really, but at least within recent working memory, what can people do to like mitigate their own language and mitigate their own minds, I guess, to work towards anti-racism?

[Nandi] I think the first step would be to acknowledge that it exists. So people are very aware that it’s bad to discriminate based on how somebody looks, but based on how they talk is still sort of widely accepted. I could, again, look at a Southern person, and I can’t say, I don’t like them because I don’t like Oh, that’s a stupid thing to say. I can’t say I don’t like them because I don’t like how Southern people look. But I could say I don’t like them because of their accent. And that is a lot more socially acceptable. A lot of the times, this happens without even thinking about it, where you say something like, Oh, this person used ‘aks’ instead of ‘ask’, which is a common feature of African American Language. People think of that as Oh, that’s my really big pet peeve when people say ‘aks’ instea of ‘ask’ without realizing that most of the people who say ‘aks’ are African American. And so you’re saying when you hear African Americans talk, you don’t like them. And it’s not necessarily clear to you that that’s what you’re saying. but it is. So being a little bit conscious about your beliefs, and the ideologies that you hold, and how those ideologies both came to be, and what they mean in the greater context. So it’s not just about ‘aks’ right, somebody in history decided the proper way to say it was ‘ask’, it’s not like some inherent fact to the world. And you have to think about that, and be aware of who that person was why they said that, and what effects that might have on everybody in the society.

[Eva-Maria]  Yeah, that’s a very good point that it starts with the awareness that you have those, you know, prejudices or misconceptions, or attitudes towards people that talk differently from you. So speaking of that, there is a lot of research done on this right, on linguistic racism or linguistic profiling. Because as soon as you don’t conform with, well, usually white standards, you risk being discriminated against. I recently watched a video of African Americans talking about code switching, that they choose to talk or to adapt the way they speak in certain situations, for example, when applying for a job, or applying for university, to a university, or when house hunting, for example, and that they would talk very differently when they’re at home with their family or with their friends. So coming back to what you just said: How do we raise awareness that reaches people that need to hear it? Like how do we, where do we even start with that?

[Nandi] There’s a pretty big push in sociolinguistics currently, to not just do your research and talk to academics, but to be socially conscious, and even activists in your research. So you’re not only finding out stuff about their language, all the cool linguistic stuff, you’re working in the communities to help advance those people. And you’re also working to get your results out to the general public. Rather than just publishing in academic journals, we should be publishing our results as op-eds, or in some medium that the general public would be able to read and understand. Doing this would help open up some conversations about it. I feel like people do talk about language, but they don’t necessarily have all the tools that linguists have when talking about language. And getting more linguistics research out there would certainly help in making more people aware. That doesn’t necessarily mean it will help in changing their attitudes. But I think awareness is probably the first part.

[Mariel] Yeah. And I think from a personal perspective, considering the amount of privilege I have, especially, you know, being Anglophone in an Anglophone country, even if I don’t speak the same variety of English as the people here. I know that from a privileged position, I can have conversations with people I think it starts with first talking to myself, which sounds a little bit crazy, but you know, we have to ask ourselves the questions of, am I aware of the prejudices that I have within me about accents, about language varieties. And then once I start to practice, you know, social justice is a thing that you practice, it’s not something that you’re good at immediately. As soon as I start to practice, then maybe I get better. And maybe I get better at identifying when situations come up in conversations with other people. And it’s from that moment that maybe I can be brave enough to say something to somebody that I am confident already respects me.

[Nandi] Right.

[Mariel] … you know, and respects my identity as a minority.

[Nandi] Another thing that is sort of a big push right now among African Americans in particular in academia, is not to succumb to the pressure to use mainstream all the time. There’s absolutely nothing unacademic about African American Language other than the fact that somebody in the past said so. There’s no reason why I couldn’t use vocabulary from African American Language in an academic paper, there’s no reason why I would need to force my students to talk like an old white man in order to get A’s on their papers. So there’s a lot of things we in academia can do, to subtly help young people change their minds about what they’ve learned growing up.
[Mariel] So we have quite a few questions from the audience, some of which you have already answered in what we’ve discussed so far, which is excellent. But one of them is a pretty intense question, just processing that for everybody here. So it’s: How do words become slurs? Because it Uzbeks come from Uzbekistan, Afghans come from Afghanistan. And there’s a shortening of the word for people who come from Pakistan, that in the British context is derogatory. It’s a slur. And we, as non Pakistani people don’t get to decide what is or what is not offensive. So how does this happen?

[Nandi] I’d say, so I think that process happens because of the already existing ideologies towards certain types of people. So being able to say, in the US, I’m black, that’s a pretty regular thing to say. But if somebody else says something about black people or something something black, that is, I wouldn’t quite call it a slur. But it could definitely be offensive. And I think that’s because of not only the way they’re saying it, but the history around certain kinds of people saying certain kinds of things, if that makes sense. So, okay, so that’s part of it. But then the other part has to do with the existing ideologies that have been mapped onto that particular word. So obviously, the word black is just a word in English. It’s a color, but because of its historical context, because of contemporary and past ideologies, other meanings get attached to that word. And I’d say the same thing for any slur. Any slur starts off as just a word and it’s when we attach other ideologies, other social meanings to that word, that it can become a negative word to hear.

[Eva-Maria] Why, like just, you know, since we’re talking about this, why do you think it is that some people and by some people, I mean, usually white people

[Mariel] racists generally.

[Eva-Maria]  Yes… yes, actually, yes. Yeah. What I’m where I’m going. That’s yes.

[Mariel] Because I’m saying this specifically because Asians do this too. This is my calling-in moment, Asians do this too. But continue. Sorry.

[Eva-Maria] Okay. Yeah, I was just, I was just calling out all the white people as the token white person in this podcast like this (laughter) like, just stop. Why do you think it’s, it’s so hard for some people to let go of these slurs like when, when people start calling them out saying like, this is offensive, stop using that word. Why is it so hard for people to let it go? Is it just their stubbornness, is this their unwillingness to learn and to progress?

[Nandi]  Can I say, because they’re a***hole? (laughter)

[Eva-Maria]  You’re not wrong…

[Mariel] You’re really not wrong.

[Eva-Maria] Is that your short answer?

[Nandi] That’s, I can I can definitely lengthen it. That’s the, that’s the answer. (laughs) Uhm, yes, so language changes. We know this, we being people who talk about language. The general public doesn’t seem to know this. Despite the fact that they can start using a trendy word one day, and then a year later, switch to another trendy word and never say YOLO again, they can get stuck in the idea that language, and especially English is a static thing, that all words have specific meanings. And that you’re silly for thinking another word means something else. And I find it difficult to believe they actually believe this, I think it’s an excuse to get to say the stuff they want to say, and not worry about other people’s feelings. And I’d say they, these kind of people aren’t worried about other people’s feelings, because they don’t care what those other people think. If you’re the kind of person to call someone with dark skin the n-word, then you’re the kind of person who’s also going to think negatively of dark skinned people, you’re not going to think of them as worthy of your best. And I’d say it all comes back to ideologies. There’s the ideology of standard language, that language is this thing, and this is the correct way. There’s the ideologies surrounding race and phenotype that are hierarchical, even though people would like to say they’re not. And then there’s the ideology surrounding who you’re allowed to talk to you in certain ways. A lot of these people would not say those words directly to someone’s face. There are people who will, but there’s a lot of people who won’t, because they know that that’s offensive, and that they shouldn’t do it. They just don’t care.

[Mariel]  I don’t think that was a, no, that was a really excellent answer. I think that was very thorough, and earlier, you talked about these hierarchies between language and that was such beautiful transition into a question from Dot, who asks, I’d be keen to know why bilingualism seems to be only seen as a benefit for certain European languages like French, German and Spanish, but not for other native tongues from other continents. And when Eva and I were discussing this question Previously, we also wanted to ask if this was the same for standardized dialects against nonstandard dialects.

[Nandi] A lot of that has to do with history and the way different peoples have interacted historically. So it’s very beneficial to a colonial American to think of Native Americans as not being really people. And in doing so, they have to think of their languages as not being really languages, in order to excuse all the negative, horrible things they’re doing. I don’t want to say the exact same is true right now. So not only do those ideas have to be in place, but there are also ideas of which people are awesome. Right? So the people who are like you, or the people who you think are even better than you, the way they speak, and the things they do are amazing. So if we think historically about the French, in the sort of general Western context, they were the superpower, they, they had the language that everyone would speak when talking to each other. Now that language is English, but it used to be French. Everyone would look at French and say, Wow, that’s such a beautiful language, everyone needs to learn it, everyone should speak it, because of their position politically. Everything is not necessarily political. But a lot of it is related to the different interactions between ethnicities and races and nationalities. As for standardized dialects, this is something that is a very recent concept. So when people were beginning to make things like dictionaries, they had dictionaries, and the public began to be more literate, they had to decide how do we write this word? Which one is right and which one is wrong. So standardization begins there, but it doesn’t really end there. From there, you have the people in power, who are saying, the way I speak is right, and the way everybody else speaks is wrong. And being the ones in power, they’re the ones who have the authority to say this. They’re the ones that somebody would believe, if they told them that. Let’s think historically about English. So an English teacher might say, Don’t in a sentence with a preposition, that’s wrong. Yes, that’s wrong in this written standardized variety. But it’s not wrong. It’s never been wrong in English. It only became wrong when the people in power wanted to make English sort of mirror Latin, with Latin being the language of the elite. And so once they decide on these rules, they tell you the rules, they tell you that you’re wrong, they tell you that you’re stupid for not knowing the rules, and that they don’t want anything to do with you anymore if you don’t use these rules. And so if we fast forward to today, some of those specific rules have changed. But a lot of them have stayed. And the ways that they have stayed, is because the people in the, in power say so. If the people in power decide that we can leave prepositions at the end, then all of a sudden leaving prepositions at the end is fine.

[Eva-Maria]  Actually, just that, that really ties in nicely with what you said before that, you know, how words become slurs. And with me, commenting on why people are so attached to that, I would just invite everybody to like, once you, you know, come across someone speaking differently from you, and you feel a way, or you feel the need to correct them. Just before you do that, ask yourself, why is that important? Why would that even matter? Why can I not appreciate that there are differences in language?

[Mariel] One thing that I think is really important in talking to Nandi in this specific space, and in this specific context, is that there is a historicity to these things. So not just thinking about yourself, but also thinking about yourself in the time and the place that you are the history of your own family and of the family of the person that you’re talking to. Nandi, I really appreciate this conversation just because you are such a font of knowledge of the way that the history ties into all of these things.

[Eva-Maria]  Yeah, very educational. So I hope that people are paying attention (laughs)

[Nandi] Taking notes.

[Eva-Maria] So another audience question we got is from Jen, which is also a quite intense question, but very, very important, especially, given the history of the English language in colonization. So regarding the use of English to suppress other languages and peoples in history, is language a weapon? And it’s still a weapon today to assert racial dominance?

[Nandi] I’d argue that just about anything can be used as a weapon, especially when it comes to asserting racial dominance. So there’s not only negative things said about the way people talk, but about the way they dress. You’ll have a nightclub, for example, say, no white t shirts, and no, no work boots, knowing full well that the people who wear white t shirts and work boots are African Americans. It’s the same with language in that if you don’t speak a certain way, you are not seen as having enough prestige and enough power. And that can that can be said for any language and any variety, likely throughout history. So right now English, it’s sort of the language of the world, it’s the language that everybody needs to know in order to participate in the world market. Being that that’s the case, it is of course then, the language that is used very often to subjugate other peoples and to suppress other languages. It could be in the future that this language, or the variety of English that is at the top can be something totally different. But the issue here is the hierarchical state of society, it is not so much anything to do with language at all, it’s just anything you find to oppress somebody, you’ll use. So in terms of racial dominance, as I mentioned earlier, you can’t say that you don’t like somebody because of their color of skin. I mean, you can, but I guess it depends on who you’re talking to. Right? You can’t say on Twitter that you don’t like this person because of their skin and then get elected as a senator… well, okay (laughter) That sounds wrong.

[Mariel] For normal people, there are consequences.

[Eva-Maria] Isn’t there like in Parks and Rec, where Leslie Knope says like, I don’t suffer the consequences of my actions anymore. I’m like a white male US senator. (laughter)

[Nandi] Yeah, so, there’s a whole lot to unpack there. But I guess the basic thing that I’m saying, is that the hierarchal structure of society ensures that there’s always somebody at the top, and there’s always somebody at the bottom. And anything can be used as a weapon by the ones on the top against the ones on the bottom. And you could work as hard as you can to change your language so that they can’t use that against you, to change your, your way of dress, so they can’t use that against you. And still, for the most part, they’ll be able to find something else. In race, that could be your skin color. But other hierarchies, including class and gender also exist.

[Mariel] I think there’s a whole lot of intersectionality, in what we talk about when it comes to language, and race and ethnicity and identity, because all of those things encompass multitudes within each person. And within each community as well. Like, you’re completely right on all of this, and it is a sad thing that we have to talk about it. But you know, like we defined terms in the beginning, it’s something that needs to be outstated, that’s something that needs to be clarified, specifically in the world of linguistics and languages.

[Eva-Maria] Yeah, I definitely agree, Mariel, that, you know, you just mentioned that it’s actually kind of sad that we have to talk about this, but that just stresses that it is all the more important to talk about this, to kind of challenge everybody to update the way they use their language, because it might be offensive. Basically, just coming to the end of the episode, we’ve talked about like raising awareness and how to, how to do it best and where to start. And you mentioned that a good starting point would be to, you know, talk about it not only amongst, you know, linguists and amongst academics, and not only to publish in academic journals, but also to like, get our findings to the general public. Which I hope that this podcast is actually a good first step for that, I mean, that’s why we started this, but just using this podcast as a step in that direction, what’s, what’s the main message be that you would like to be understood by society? That’s a big question.

[Nandi] Yeah it’s a gigantic question. I think some of the main takeaways include the fact that language, race and ethnicity are not necessarily able to be teased apart from each other, they are interconnected in ways that are important not only to the individual, but their interlocutors and society at large. So in this the language someone speaks, or the variety that someone speaks affects not only how they’re seen by others, but it affects how they’re treated by others, and how far they might be able to get while using that variety. Another takeaway is to, I guess be conscious of your own individual biases and ideologies. You don’t necessarily need to understand where they came from, to understand what they are, that they exist. So despite the fact that everything has a history, we obviously can’t correct the past. And we can’t, right now, magically change the hierarchical structures of society. But we can be conscious of the way we speak, who we speak to that way, and why we’re saying it.

[Eva-Maria]  And so that rounds up the podcast for this week. That was a really great discussion. Thanks, Nandi, for your expertise and for taking the time to join us. It was a pleasure learning from you. And I’m sure our listeners will agree that it’s an intriguing topic. And hopefully, we will be a bit more mindful when discussing these topics in the future. For everyone that’s listening: Please don’t forget to subscribe on whatever platform you’re using. If you’re interested, we have the transcript for each episode on our website that is mlstpodcast.com. And in case we’ve mentioned terms you’re not familiar with, I know that we’ve mentioned morphosyntax, and prosody and all of that. So if you’re not familiar with that, we have a comprehensive glossary on the website as well. If you never want to miss an episode again, and you shouldn’t, you can also subscribe to our mailing list, which is at the bottom of our homepage. So go check that out. And on top of that, we have recently added more features to our website, you can now leave comments and reviews. So you can head there right now, as in right now, to help us grow our audience and let us know what you think. But yeah, that was it for this week. Stay well, stay healthy and…

[Nandi] Bye! (English for “bye”)

[Mariel] Unekel ak la (Pangasinense for “I’m leaving”)

[Eva-Maria] Tioraidh! (Gaelic “Bye”)


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