Tag Archives: language

Mistakes, Huh?: Watching Orange is the New Black

Orange is the New Black, Netflix Promo.

Orange is the New Black, Netflix Promo.

Perusing my usual monthly reading, I found myself amazed at how many stories were about the Netflix original show Orange is the New Black – and the similarities in language used to describe the plot. I had seen a few reviews here and there, and knew the show was about a privileged white woman who spent a year in a woman’s prison.

But what stood out was how often the word “mistake” came up. I saw the term so many times, it seemed like Piper Kerman ended up in prison due to bad breaks. Mistaken identity? Wrong place at the wrong time? Get dumped via post it note and almost get arrested smoking outside of a bar? (Hey, it happened to Carrie Bradshaw.)

In a Fast Company review – where the word “mistake” appears in the opening line, and is used twice more in the next two paragraphs – I finally found out why Kerman was locked up:

Kerman fell in with people whose lifestyles seemed exciting–as much because one of them ran money and smuggled narcotics for a West African drug lord as in spite of that fact. And when she agreed to help the woman who’d brought her in to that circle usher a suitcase full of undeclared cash from Chicago to Brussels, she made what she describes now as her “biggest mistake.”

So she was banging a drug smuggler and agreed to run some money for them – yeah, could have happened to any of us really. Just minding your own business, taking a suitcase of cash on an international trip…

Anyway, despite my skepticism, I tuned into watch the show. While I’ve been intrigued and interested by the developments in episodes the first five episodes, there’s been this strange undercurrent dulling my enjoyment of the show. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, until I read an excerpt of an interview with the showrunner, Jenji Kohan:

You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals. But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water, and you follow her in, you can then expand your world and tell all of those other stories. But it’s a hard sell to just go in and try to sell those stories initially. The girl next door, the cool blonde, is a very easy access point, and it’s relatable for a lot of audiences and a lot of networks looking for a certain demographic. It’s useful.”

Fascinating – particularly since the most compelling stories to me are about the side characters. I’m not watching for Piper, though it’s been interesting to see her (and her family) coping with her new reality. I am watching to hopefully see how Sophia works out her relationships and medical needs, and to figure out why Daya and her mother have such an acrimonious relationship. But I suppose I’m not in the network’s idea of ideal demographic, and I just have to hope Piper’s development leaves a little space to revisit some of the supporting characters.

I’ll keep watching before I do a longer analysis, but readers, what are your thoughts?

The Stigma Of Immigrant Languages

By Guest Contributor Calvin N. Ho; originally published at Sociological Images

Photo by Lulu Vision (Flickr/Creative Commons)

As an undergraduate majoring in linguistics, I was fascinated with the concept of endangered languages. Colonization, genocide, globalization, and nation-building projects have killed off untold numbers of languages. As linguist K. David Harrison (my undergrad advisor) tells NPR, speakers of stigmatized or otherwise less-favored languages are pressured to abandon their native tongue for the dominant language of the nation and the market (emphasis mine):

The decision to give up one language or to abandon a language is not usually a free decision. It’s often coerced by politics, by market forces, by the educational system in a country, by a larger, more dominant group telling them that their language is backwards and obsolete and worthless.

These same pressures are at work in immigrant-receiving countries like the United States, where young immigrants and children of immigrants are quickly abandoning their parents’ language in favor of English.

Immigrant languages in the United States generally do not survive beyond the second generation. In his study of European immigrants, Fishman (1965) found that the first generation uses the heritage language fluently and in all domains, while the second generation only speaks it with the first generation at home and in limited outside contexts. As English is now the language with which they are most comfortable, members of the second generation tend to speak English to their children, and their children have extremely limited abilities in their heritage language, if any. Later studies (López 1996 andPortes and Schauffler 1996 among them) have shown this three-generation trend in children of Latin American and Asian immigrants, as well.

The languages that most immigrants to the U.S. speak are hardly endangered. A second-generation Korean American might not speak Korean well, and will not be speaking that language to her children, but Korean is not going to disappear anytime soon–there are 66.3 million speakers (Ethnologue)! Compare that with the Chulym language of Siberia, which has less than 25.

Even if they’re not endangered per se, I would argue that they are in danger. While attitudes towards non-English languages in the U.S. seem to be improving, at least among wealthier and better-educated people in some more diverse cities and suburbs, the stigma of speaking a non-English language still exists.

How many of you have:

  • been embarrassed to speak your heritage language in front of English speakers?
  • been reprimanded for speaking your heritage language in school?
  • been told to “go back to [country X]” when someone overhears you speak your heritage language?

I’ve heard innumerable stories about parents refusing to speak their native language to their children. Usually, the purported rationale is that they do not want the child to have language or learning difficulties, a claim that has been debunked over and over again by psychologists, linguists, and education scholars.

I’m sure that these parents truly believe that speaking only English to their children will give them an edge, though the reverse is true. What I wonder is how much this decision had to do with an unfounded belief about cognition and child development, and how much it had to do with avoiding the stigma of speaking a language that marks you as foreign, and as “backwards and obsolete and worthless”?

Calvin N. Ho is a graduate student in sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles studying immigration, race/ethnicity/nationalism, and Asian diasporas.  You can follow him at The Plaid Bag Connection and on Twitter.

Grammar, Identity, And The Dark Side Of The Subjunctive: Phuc Tran At TEDxDirigo

Presented by Guest Contributor Phuc Tran

I am total a geek. Who’s a geek here? That’s probably a rhetorical question at a TED conference, right? I love Star Wars, I collect action figures, and my favorite biography is the biography of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style–for God’s sake, I read a book about the writing of another grammar book. How about those geek credentials?

I’m here today to talk about grammar, but not the “gotcha” grammar of split infinitives and the misuse of “whom” because frankly, I hate it when grammar is used to belittle others. I am here to talk to you how grammar is a tool, to be used like a pair of glasses. When employed at the right time, grammar can bring the world into sharp focus, and when used at the wrong time, it can make things incredibly blurry. And this all starts with the subjunctive. I remember talking to my dad about the subjunctive, and because he wasn’t a native English speaker, he didn’t understand all the nuances of the subjunctive. “Listen, Dad. You can say something like ‘If it hadn’t rained, we would have gone to the beach.’” And his response? “That’s a stupid thing to say. Why are you talking about something that didn’t happen?” (A staunch reader of non-fiction, my father has a similar opinion of fiction. “Why do you want to read books about people who never existed doing things that never happened?”)

Here’s a quick refresher of the subjunctive: in English, we have three moods: indicative, subjunctive, and imperative. If we use the indicative mood in writing or speaking, we view the verb’s action as factual: “I am talking at a TED conference.” And the subjunctive mood is used when we view the action as nonfactual: “I might shit my pants.” The imperative mood is used when we view the action as a command: “Bring me a change of clothes.” The subjunctive comprises all the nuances of non-fact: potentiality, possibility, and contrafactuality.

The subjunctive mood allows us to look into the future and see multiple, highly nuanced possibilities with just a little sprinkling of could’s, would’s and might’s. Similarly, it also allows us to look into the past, to envision a world that didn’t happen but could have happened. The subjunctive is the most powerful mooda time-space dream machine that can create alternate realities with the idea of “would have been” or “should have been.”

And within this idea of “should have” is a Pandora’s box of regret and hope.

Growing up in Pennsylvania as a Vietnamese refugee, I would sometimes think about what would have happened if my family hadn’t escaped Saigon in 1975. Would we have been imprisoned like my father’s cousin, who spent years in re-education camp being tortured and sentenced to hard labor, or would we have been killed like countless other South Vietnamese unable to escape that April? The night we were fleeing Saigon, my entire family–grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles–were scheduled to board a bus. As the bus was loading passengers to go to the airport, I begin crying, shrieking uncontrollably–so much so that the entire family decided to wait for the next bus. And as that bus pulled away, it was struck by artillery fire, exploded, and killed everyone on board. As a young kid, I thought a lot about our good fortune and about what could have happened. I didn’t know it then, but I was pondering things that my parents couldn’t ponder–all because of the English subjunctive. Continue reading

For Your Women’s History Month: Loretta Ross on the Origin of “Women of Color”

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid

Full disclosure: I met Loretta Ross at a Women’s Media Center’s media workshop for progressive women last summer, and we’re connected through the New York City chapter of SisterSong, which reshaped the reproductive-rights fight to reproductive justice. And I just think she is an incredible activist and living historian.

I saw this clip of her explaining to another generation of feminists where the term “women of color” came from and wanted to share.

Transcript after the jump.

Continue reading

Independent Bookstore Restricts Spanish Speaking Outside of “Dishwasher Area”

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

As if independent bookstores don’t already have enough to worry about, Fidel Martinez at Guanabee writes about a language controversy at Atticus Bookstore in New Haven:

Atticus Book Store and Cafe, located in New Haven, Connecticut, has caused a controversy over a recent policy decision to require all Hispanic employees to only speak English within a customer’s earshot.

The staff is allowed to speak Spanish, but only in restricted areas.

A document from the bookstore states:

Spanish is allowed in the prep area, the dishwasher area and the lower level. Let’s make our customers feel welcome and comfortable.

“Let’s make our customers feel welcome and comfortable”? Yeeeeouch. (And yes that stuff about “the dishwasher area” is plain unfortunate.)

I’m sure I’m not the only one on this site who feels happy, or even relieved, when I hear multiple languages being spoken in a space – even though I’m a filthy monolinguist myself.   Places where people are welcome to bring their culture with them, are places where I feel comfortable.  So you have to wonder just who Atticus is referring to, when they imagine customers who feel uncomfortable when they hear Spanish.

And despite when I might’ve been led to believe by The Great Gatsby, it doesn’t sound like New Haven is some enclave of pearl-grabbing ethnocultural anglo purists.  Martinez goes on to report:

This new directive has pissed off members of Yale University (Atticus is located next to Yale’s British Arts Center) and the New Haven Workers Association. The latter sent out an email to local community groups like the New Haven Labor Council and Unidad Latino En Accion protesting what they deem to be racism in the workplace.

Apparently though, Atticus is within their legal rights to demand its employees speak English.
Continue reading

A Tattoo’s Worth a Thousand Words

by Special Correspondent Wendi Muse

Take a look at this photo. What are your initial thoughts on this tattoo?

After being tipped by reader pinkyloveswhisky, I headed on over to the BMEZine blog to check out what all the fuss was about, and I tried to do the exercise I recommended above. What were my initial thoughts on this tattoo? First I thought, wow, this is beautiful and very well done. The colors and detailing are perfect. The necklaces are so realistically portrayed I feel like I could reach out and touch them. I thought of documentaries I had seen on television about people living in remote villages and where the origins of many of the forms of body modification we participate in today can be traced.

Then I read the statement made by the man who had requested this piece:

I, like so many of our community members, have been totally fascinated with tribal cultures and their ideas of body art and beauty. In all simplicity this tattoo is my way of paying homage and showing people what body modification means to me and showing where my roots in this industry lay.

He notes that the piece is not a reference to anyone in particular or any one specific person, but for him the piece represents a means of paying homage to the peoples to whom we owe the popularity of body modification.

I think his tattoo is beautiful and personally take no issue with it. It’s all the same if any other person got a portrait piece done of a famous entertainer or public figure. However, on the blog itself, many people took issue with Dave’s statement and his use of the word “tribal.” Continue reading

Please, take my Ethnic!

By Special Correspondent Thea Lim

ethnic

I was minding my own beeswax riding the subway when I stumbled across an ad in the free subway paper for “The Ethnic Comedy Show,” an July extravaganza of touring comics who, um, are all “ethnic”?

This Hour Has 22 Minutes star Shaun Majumder hosts an evening featuring an eclectic group of hot ethnic comics, filmed to air on the CBC. Check out special guest Frank Spadone (the Italian), Steve Byrne (the Asian), Godfrey (the Nigerian), Akmal Saleh (the Arab), Rachel Feinstein (the Jew) and more! Whatever your cultural background, The Ethnic Comedy Show will make you feel right at home.

So this is one of those minor gripes – we all have them – but the word “ethnic” really gets my goat. (I mean you can tell I’m not really that mad about it, since I have now advertised this stupid show on our website. You’re welcome Shaun Majumder!)

Or to be clear, it’s not the word ethnic, but the way it’s used, that drives me up the wall.

According to my good friend Dictionary.com, ethnic means:

1. pertaining to or characteristic of a people, esp. a group (ethnic group) sharing a common and distinctive culture, religion,
language, or the like.
2. referring to the origin, classification, characteristics, etc., of such groups.
3. being a member of an ethnic group, esp. of a group that is a minority within a larger society: ethnic Chinese in San
Francisco.
4. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of members of such a group.
5. belonging to or deriving from the cultural, racial, religious, or linguistic traditions of a people or country: ethnic dances.
6. Obsolete. pagan; heathen.
7. a member of an ethnic group.

You’ll notice though, that more often than not when the word “ethnic” is dropped in conversation, it means “not white.” You know, he’s that nice ethnic fellow!

Considering that two of the comics in this show are white, we can assume that the name The Ethnic Comedy Show! means to indicate that it’s going to be a rollicking night of ethnic comedy, not necessarily comics who are “ethnic” in the, ahem, non-white sense. Which is good. AND ALSO MAKES SENSE. BECAUSE ALL FREAKING COMICS ARE ETHNIC. ALL HUMANS ARE ETHNIC.

Still, even calling it “A Night of Ethnic Comedy” rather than “A Night of Ethnic Comics” is a little off, because all subject matter that involves social mores and generalised behaviour is commenting on some kind of ethnic group – even that of white folks!

Imagine that.

For some real ethnic comedy, check out Louis C.K.’s clip on Being White, as deconstructed by the Stuff White People Do blog.

PS Incidentally that photo is just something that turned up when I Google Image searched “ethnic comedy” – it’s not the photo for The Ethnic Comedy Show this posts refers to. I guess there are lots.

Racist names, Racist Places

by Special Correspondent Jessica Yee

Savage. Squaw. Indian. Would we all agree that these are immensely derogatory names that should not be, in this day and age, still used to geographically locate places? Or even people, for that matter?

From the varying answers I’ve received when posing this question, it all really depends on who you ask and what it’s for. Percie Sacobie from the Maliseet Nation in New Brunswick, is currently lobbying the city council of St. Mary’s to change the name of “Savage Island”, located seven kilometres west of Fredericton, to something less demeaning to the Wolastoqiyik people.

He went to city council with historical documentation of its origin, and the full support of the Maliseet chiefs from Oromocto, Kingsclear, Tobique, Woodstock, Madawaska and St. Mary’s First Nations, only to be told that he has to submit some sort of formal application process, and maybe, just maybe, they might consider changing it.

The Wolastoqiyik people are recorded to have used Indian (as it’s locally referred to) or Savage Island as far back as 1762, when Surveyor General Charles Morris described it as “a place where the Maliseets held their annual council.” It was a place where disputes were settled and hunting grounds allotted to each family before they began their summer hunts.

Percie Sacobie is suggesting the island’s name be changed to “Eqpahak Island”, which means “at head of tide on river or inlet.”

This is quite a similar story to a recent number of name change requests, or challenges to the history of the seemingly racist names places have been given. In December 2000, the province of British Columbia passed legislation that removed the word “Squaw” from all public establishments where the word is used. Although the act of carrying out this legislation has been less than desirable, British Columbia followed suit from Saskatchewan, Alberta, Prince Edward Island and the Yukon, as well as a number of U.S. states who also passed similar legislation.

Yet there are some people who contest that “squaw” isn’t even an offensive word. They claim that this was an honorable word for women, before it was twisted around to mean something racist and degrading by the colonizers. Even if the word were ever to be reclaimed, it has certainly been tainted for good by its misuse. Continue reading