English and the EU

Theresa May

Theresa May: No Brexit negotiations in French

One of the interesting questions surrounding Brexit is the status of English in the EU. This was raised in an article in the Guardian yesterday in which it was reported that the EU’s chief negotiator has indicated that he expects the talks to be conducted in French. The British Prime Minister, Theresa May has said that will not be the case. Just in case, the Guardian has published a tongue-in-cheek guide for the PM, Le Brexit: a linguistic guide for Theresa May. Included are French translations of such helpful phrases as “Brexit means Brexit. How many times do I have to say it?” or “Can I interest you in a some tea and biscuits? I also have some very innovative jam to sell you”. The latter phrase is in connection with a recent tweet from the British trade secretary, “France needs high quality, innovative British jams & marmalades”.

The unhappiness in the EU over Brexit may be reflected in the recent comment by Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Commission President, that he will no longer speak English in public. According to the article, “Speculation that English would be abandoned by Brussels emerged on the day after the referendum when the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, who is fluent in English, conducted his Brexit press conference in French”.

With Great Britain leaving, Ireland is left as the last native English speaking EU member. Irish Gaelic is one of the 23 official EU languages, so if English were to go, Irish officials may need to brush up on their likely rusty Gaelic (spoken as a mother tongue by less than 1% of the population). In reality, it’s not likely that there will be a change in the status of English, as it is widely used as the lingua franca in the EU, as it is elsewhere in the world.

As it happens, I am currently in London, having come over for a conference at the Open University on “MOOCs, informal language learning, and mobility”. Brexit was something which came up frequently, as a number of the projects presented at the conference were funded by the EU. For language educators, Brexit is unfortunate not just due to possible loss of project funding, but also for the isolationist message it sends. Of course, the kind of nationalism Brexit represents is not just to be seen in Britain, it’s been on full display in the US presidential campaign. I’ve had frequent pub conversations in the last few days about the election, with most Brits expressing incredulity over Trump and how far he’s gotten. Yesterday I was asked in separate conversations the same question: “Aren’t you ashamed?” Being in this situation as a US citizen abroad takes me back to the conversations I had in Europe during the Vietnam war and the war in Iraq – like the Trump candidacy, events that don’t show the US in the best light. However, during one conversation last night, “Tangled up in blue” played over the pub’s sound system, so I was able to say, there are things about the US I’m proud of, like our newly minted Nobel Laureate in literature!

Who owns music?

Australian rapper Iggy Azalea

Australian rapper Iggy Azalea

One of my rock heroes died this week. Jack Bruce was the bass player for the super-group Cream from the 1960’s. When I was an undergraduate, my floormates and I had endless conversations about who was the essential member of the group. The obvious choice was Eric Clapton with his soaring guitar solos. Others argued for Ginger Baker, a brilliant drummer – amazingly athletic despite looking like he was on his death bed. I – and others – argued for Jack Bruce, whose inventive and pulsating bass lines seemed to me to be the real heart of Cream’s music. Cream’s favorite musical genre was blues-based rock, often covering the songs of black blues artists such as Robert Johnson. By the late 60’s there was no controversy about white Brits playing such music. That was not the case earlier in the decade, however, when British invasion bands like the Rolling Stones were not just playing blues songs but imitating singing styles from black blues singers. What right did privileged white boys have to play music born out of the life struggles of poor black singers? To be fair, Mick Jagger and others recognized and admitted their debts to blues and R & B singers like Muddy Waters and helped in some cases such singers to be appreciated by their young white audiences. But the issue still remained for some critics that young whites had no right to appropriate the cultural capital of the African-American community.

Such controversies re-appear with some frequency. White rap singers like Eminem initially faced similar criticism. Now that hip hop has representatives all over the world and has in effect become indigenous to a wide variety of cultures, such views seem irrelevant. Still there are arguments to be made about cultural appropriation, such as Brittney Cooper did this summer in a piece in Salon about Australian white teenage rapper Iggy Azelea:

I resent Iggy Azalea for her co-optation and appropriation of sonic Southern Blackness, particularly the sonic Blackness of Southern Black women. Everytime she raps the line “tell me how you luv dat,” in her song “Fancy,” I want to scream “I don’t love dat!” I hate it.

For Cooper, Iggy’s use of black vernacular English is an affront to the struggles of the African-American community – and specifically black women – to be accepted by the white mainstream:

She does not understand the difference between code-switching and appropriation. She may get the science of it, but not the artistry. Appropriation is taking something that doesn’t belong to you and wasn’t made for you, that is not endemic to your experience, that is not necessary for your survival and using it to sound cool and make money. Code-switching is a tool for navigating a world hostile to Blackness and all things non-white. It allows one to move at will through all kinds of communities with as minimal damage as possible. But it is also rooted in a love and respect for one’s culture and for the struggle.

Rather than seeing Iggy’s popularity as a sign of the irrelevance of race in today’s society, Cooper sees it as an indicator of the different kinds of treatment of white and black women in US society.

The ability of Blackness to travel to and be performed by non-Black bodies is supposed to be a triumph of post-racial politics, a feat that proves once and for all that race is not biological. Race does not have any biological basis, but I maintain that there is no triumph and no celebration when we embrace a white girl who deliberately attempts to sound like a Black girl, in a culture where Black girls can’t get no love. How can I “love dat,” when this culture ain’t never loved us? Iggy profits from the cultural performativity and forms of survival that Black women have perfected, without having to encounter and deal with the social problem that is the Black female body, with its perceived excesses, unruliness, loudness and lewdness.

Trapped by language

Rachel Jeantel620x408In the past month there have been several big media stories in the U.S. dealing with language. One was the use of racist language (and behavior) by Paula Deen, the celebrity Southern cook, which has resulted in her losing most if not all of her business contracts. The other was the use of English by a witness in the Travon Martin case, 19-year old Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Martin’s who had been on the phone with him just before he was shot by George Zimmerman. As detailed in a post on Language Log, her use of vernacular Black English was widely reported with a number of negative and offensive comments. There was a view expressed that Jeantel was just being lazy or contrary in not speaking standard American English and that she was using English incorrectly with random grammatical mistakes. As linguists pointed out (including John McWhorter on the Time web site in a segment on the NPR series “Here and Now“), she was not willfully distorting standard American English, she was speaking a version of English well known in linguistics and usually called African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Ebonics. As John Rickford points out in his post, AAVE has rules and patterns that are fixed, giving the following examples from her testimony:

  • Stressed BIN, as in I was BIN paying attention, sir, meaning, “I’ve been paying attention for a long time, and am still paying attention.”
  • Preterit HAD, ax, and inverted did in embedded sentences, as in He had ax me did I go to the hospital “He asked me whether I had gone to the hospital.” [The use of the pluperfect form where other varieties use a simple past or preterit was first discussed by Stanford undergrad Christine Theberge.]
  • Absence of auxiliary IS: He ø trying to get home, sir.
  • Absence of possessive and third present s, as in “He a momma ø boy” and “He love ø his family.”

The defense attorney expressed at times difficulty in understanding Jeantel’s testimony, although it is unclear whether that was indeed the case, or whether this was being used as a strategy to discredit the witness. If the latter was the case, it seems to have worked, as one juror afterwards commented:

Juror B37 said Jeantel was not a good witness because the phrases used during her testimony were terms she had never heard before. The juror thought the witness, “felt inadequate toward everyone because of her education and her communication skills. I just felt sadness for her.” [from the cnn blog post]

Ironically, it turns out that Jeantel’s mother is a native speaker of Haitian Creole and that Jeantel speaks Creole and Spanish and thus in terms of speaking skills, has more language skills than most Americans.

German rock


Dieter’s dance party on Sprockets

Story today on NPR about German pop singer Herbert Grönemeyer, one of the more popular singers in Germany in recent years.  He has a new album in which he sings some of his best known songs in English.  This has always been a dilemma for German singers, whether to record in English, so as to reach a larger audience.  Even within Germany there have been periods when radio stations would be more likely to grant air play to German singers if they sang in English, as the overwhelming number of songs played were in English, building that expectation for listeners.  Of course this has been in issue in rock music not only in Germany but for all rock singers whose native language is not English.  Interestingly, hip-hop, has gone mostly native in non-English cultures, as can be heard in popular German, French, Turkish, etc. hip-hop groups.

Predictably in the NPR interview, Grönemeyer had to address the perennial question from the US when it comes to popular artists in Germany:  what about David Hasselhoff,.  American journalists may know very little about contemporary German music, but they do know that David Hasselhoff has been very popular in Germany, not just for Bay Watch, but for his singing, hard for Americans to understand.  Scott Simon in the interview also brings up the old stereotype chestnut that in Germany there is “taste for some of the darker material than we do in this country or they do in the U.K.”  You need only consider the popular SNL skit Sprockets, in which Mike Myers played the very dark and eccentric Dieter (“Touch my monkey!”) to see this idea perpetuated.

Crazy English

Li Yang, the infamous Chinese English teacher

Li Yang teaching “Crazy English”

Story on NPR today about Li Yang (李阳), the originator of the unusual language learning method called Crazy English.  It’s a method that’s enjoyed considerable popularity in China and involves shouting out English, either alone or, preferably in a group (the normal Chinese way to do things).  His main motto is “To shout out loud, you learn”.  Another of his sayings is “I enjoy losing face” – pointing to the need for Chinese English leaners to overcome their shyness and fear of making mistakes.  It’s not a method that differs very much from the traditional learning techniques in China, namely repetition and memorization.  According to Wikipedia, there are some 20 million practitioners of Crazy English. The New Yorker had an interesting article about the method just before the 2008 Olympics, as it was being widely used in China in preparation for the Games. There’s also a 1999 documentary entitled Crazy English by Zhang Yuan (张元).

However, he was not in the news today because of Crazy English, but because his (American-born) wife has successfully obtained a restraining order, a first in China.  It seems that Li Yang not only shouts, but hits as well.  In fact, his wife was beaten so badly that in desperation she posted a picture of her face on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) under the heading, “I love losing face = I love hitting my wife’s face?”.  This kind of public acknowledgement of what happens within a family is highly unusual in China, and the message went viral and has led to more pubic discussion of domestic violence.

The wife, Kim Lee, is using her own story to try to raise awareness.  According to the NPR story, “Now, she wants to use her high profile to help others. She is particularly concerned about one woman, Li Yan, who is facing the death penalty after murdering her husband. She suffered years of abuse, during which her husband even hacked off one of her fingers. She went to the police, but they didn’t intervene….Beyond that case, there’s still much to do: China still doesn’t have a specific law forbidding domestic violence.”

You can watch the entire documentary from Youku, it’s in Chinese, but with English subtitles => Crazy English

A Scots Loss

Bobby Hogg, last speaker of Cromarty Scots

What’s lost when languages and dialects die out? It’s of course a sad loss for the local community – part of the cultural identity of the place is gone.  In the news recently (also: NPR) was the death of the last speaker of a Scottish dialect, spoken in a fishing village.  Bobby Hogg lived in Cromarty and spoke all his life the Scots dialect spoken there.  Scotland has a complicated linguistic heritage, with the many Scots dialects, Scottish English variants, and Scottish Gaelic  (a Celtic language).  Scots Gaelic has seen a revival of interest in recent years, witness the popularity of Julie Fowlis, who sings almost exclusively in her native Gaelic.  Her Gaelic version of the Beatles Blackbird was a surprise hit in England and she was chosen to contribute songs to the recent Disney/Pixar’s Brave.  Many English speakers find Scottish accents to be very pleasant, even though sometimes difficult for non-Scots to understand.  In an interview with Glaswegian singer Amy MacDonald, NPR’s Scott Simon told her that he found her English “utterly charming” but was “only understanding every third or fourth word”.  Scots dealing with non-Scots listeners, like Craig Ferguson or Sean Connery, have learned to “tone it down”.

How much would the typical English speaker understand of the Cromarty dialect?  Some would be understandable but sound archaic, such as the use of thou and thee.  One might figure out as well that beginning consonants were sometimes dropped, what becoming ‘at and where ‘ere.  But one might still have trouble understanding “At wid be scekan tiln ken?” (“What do you want to know?”).

What’s lost when language dies is more than just local color. Language is culture, and the Scottish culture, like that of Ireland, is so strong in its linguistic and literary creativity that we all lose something with the disappearance of Cromarty Scots, whether we’d understand Bobby Hogg or not.

“Public viewing”?

German or English?

Watching the German television news yesterday (Tagesthemen), it struck me that the use of English words stuck into the middle of German sentences is getting worse and worse.  The first was a reference in the broadcast to “der zweitgrößte airport” in Bulgaria  (second-largest), the second to a “Stasi connection“.  It’s not that there aren’t perfectly good and normal German words for airport (Flughafen) and connection (Verbindung) – it’s just that the English equivalents are used instead.  For me, the most perplexing aspect of this is that you will hear broadcasts in which an Angliscism such as “airport” will be used, then a few minutes later, the same presenter will use “Flughafen” instead – where is the vaunted German consistency?  If German TV execs like English so much, how about using subtitles rather than dubbing for the many instances in which interviewees speak English?  Or how about going further and, as is done in other European countries, subtitling all English language movies and TV programs?

It isn’t only on TV that this kind of strange and jarring code-switching goes on in Germany.  It’s particularly prevalent in advertising, where it’s maybe more understandable – use of (mostly American) English phrases gives the impression that the company or product is up-to-date.  It’s not surprising either that many Anglicisms show up in German hip-hop music.  I suppose it’s done on the news for the same reason, but I find it very annoying.  I imagine many native English speakers feel the same.

Particularly distressing are the English terms that either don’t exist in English or have a different meaning.  The German for cell phone – Handy – comes to mind as an example of the first and a term heard frequently during the recent European soccer championship – public viewing – for the second.  The phrase when used in Germany refers to an outdoor big screen set up to watch live TV (usually sports).  It’s not just nouns.  Here are some “German” verbs:  downloaden, leaken, trampen (hitchhike).  Of course, other languages import English expressions as well, especially technology terms, but I can’t imagine any others do it to the extent it’s done in German. It’s so common that there is a widely accepted word for the practice:  Denglish (Deutsch + English).  Are there reasons Germans do this more than any other culture?  Is it a sense of linguistic inferiority?