Sweet, Sweet Addiction

Can you be addicted to learning languages? If that's a thing, I think I am. Are there like, language houses, where you can go meet immigrants and stealthily feed the habit until you pass out? La Casa Lingua...? Because that seems like a really healthy alternative to ACTUAL addiction things. 

Here's the thing: I like learning, I like immediate gratification, and I like seeing the results of my learning in action. I'm an impatient person trying to do something that takes a long time, so it's nice to have other motivating factors, such as competition, and a numerical measure that tells you you're doing better than other people. If there's one thing I love, it's feeling superior (jk kind of). 

So in an effort advance my Memrise scores enough to beat the user immediately in front of me, I reviewed all my current languages and added on a couple more. And it's really irritating in a way, because once you know enough about one and can see a linguistic relationship between that one and another one, it's like, well, might as well learn that one too! (Looking at you, French, Spanish, and Italian). And then it's like, well, might as well learn German, since I already speak English! 

After reviewing all my languages (Arabic, Italian, German, Spanish, Flemish, Akan-Twi, Slovenian, Russian, Hindi, and this nifty polyglot course designed by one of Memrise's top users who they discussed in a recent blog post), I still wasn't past my nemesis. I only need 90k points to catch up though, and I have all night, so that's probably exactly what I'll do. Once that happens, I'll be in third place among my followers, 4 million points away from second place, and a small 12 million away from first. The guy in first place has almost 24,000,000 points, and I've kind of given up on trying to catch up to him, since he's lived all over the place and is a professional translator. I see his points go up every day, so it's enough for me if I beat him weekly on occasion. Clearly the dude isn't slowing down.

Anyway, I need some more points, and while I love the languages I study, I need a change of linguistic scenery, if you will. I find it keeps my mind a little fresh if I switch languages, because I usually want to be learning languages, but I don't necessarily want to be learning the same one all the time. After a while they kind of blend together in my mind. So I added a couple more: Scots Gaelic and American Sign Language (ASL). 

I added Scots Gaelic for a few reasons: 1. I'm Scottish, so it makes sense. 2. I want to know how to pronounce my family motto. 3. When I go to Scotland, I want to be able to speak the language, even though I know a lot of them speak English, but the accent will take some getting used to and I want to be able to say something other than "get tae fook" if someone pisses me off. All credit for that one goes to my long-lost English lover. We obviously kept it classy.

I added ASL because we tend to think of language as a spoken phenomenon, when it's actually something everyone uses in one way or another, even if they can't speak or hear. Kind of like how I enjoy switching from Slavic to Romance to Germanic, I'd like to switch from spoken to silent. Also, the "Where Are Your Keys" method of language learning utilizes sign language, and I'd like to be able to use it when learning other foreign languages in order to activate my spatial mapping brain region and aid in long term memory. 

These probably won't be the last of the languages I add to the Memrise list, which will make my New Year's resolution difficult ("finish all the courses you started on Memrise"). Next up are Ukrainian and Yiddish. Ukrainian because I grew up in a Ukrainian pocket of Manhattan and it feels like a very personal language to me for some reason (maybe because the writing system was introduced to me in congruence with English?). Yiddish because so many words have snuck into the American English vocabulary, it was the language of the Ashkenazi Jews (so again with the ancestral ties), and last but not least, it's endangered, so I'd like to help it not become extinct.

Language learning is my new sport. I spend hours practicing, and I don't always love it, but it's become the thing I do competitively with the hope of achieving a long term goal. It's been a while since I've been this dedicated to something, so it feels really good to get into such a healthy habit. 

Meanwhile, I'm going to return to La Casa Lingua and try and catch up to my nemesis before midnight.



Language As Culture

In the SLA (second language acquisition) class I took last year, we talked a lot about why people would want to learn another language, how language relates to culture and identity, and whether or not they're the same thing. The motivation is different for people: some choose to learn a language out of academic obligation, others for religious reasons, others out of necessity, and others because they have a romantic notion of what their life could be if they were to live somewhere else (see the 2004 published study by Celeste Kinginger, "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore"). Here's a brief recap of that study, in case you don't want to read the entire academic research report: Alice had a rough life, was abused, dated an older guy who took advantage of her, had a kid out of wedlock, lived in a car, was a stripper for a bit... blah blah blah. For a while there, everything that could go wrong did. But she studied French, and had big dreams of the shining city of love, and what she could make of herself if she only spoke French, etc. She went to college, got into a study abroad program, and proceeded to live her dream, except it wasn't as easy as she thought, because no one wanted to talk to her. She was even suicidal for a bit because of her feelings of isolation. She eventually worked through it and grew to love French again, and is now a professor somewhere at some fancy schmancy university. Woo, go Alice! Essentially, Alice viewed herself differently when she spoke French. Her identity changed. I can empathize with that. When I speak Italian, I'm louder. It's such a vibrant language that it's hard to do anything but shout when you speak it. When I speak Arabic, I'm more reserved. I can be sarcastic in English, but I can't be sarcastic in Arabic or Italian. That pragmatic function isn't there yet, so obviously, I lack not only vocabulary, but the knowledge of how to adjust my tones and inflections in order to make a joke. They don't teach you sarcasm online, or in a classroom, so it's hard to be my sarcastic self in another language because the capability isn't there for me yet. Even if I tried, at this point, it would sound sincere and I'd probably offend a lot of people. 

In addition to language having an impact on identity, there is much debate about the relationship between language and culture. Some people say that you can't truly be fluent in a language until you've experienced other aspects of the culture. Others say the opposite, that you can't truly know a culture if you don't know a language. As someone who wants to experience many different cultures, the latter is disappointing, because I can only learn so many languages. Although because I agree that you can't know a culture if you don't know a language, I'm trying not to limit myself. Why stop at 10 languages? How long does it take to be truly fluent? Benny Lewis, the Fluent in 3 Months guy, lives somewhere new every three months and learns the language. While that's cool, and I'm sure he's had a ton of unique experiences, I find the title misleading, since 3 months is an awfully short time to consider anyone fully "fluent".

A friend of mine posted this video on Facebook, and I loved it so much I had to share. It's a polyglot talking about why he started learning languages and the value he finds in knowing so many, and it struck a chord with me, since our reasoning is much the same. I love the idea of being able to communicate with anyone, and having a door open to several different cultures. 

What a cool dude. 

And how lovely it is that he had someone close to him who encouraged his language learning because she knew it was more than a fun hobby or standard academic pursuit. 

Yet some of the comments on the video seem to indicate that 15 languages don't matter if he doesn't speak the language of the commenter. "Try Arabic, then you're a master." "But can he speak Welsh?"  "No Irish." "No Asian languages." And then a guy aptly named "Psuedo 'dumb guy' intellectual" wrote, "I bet he wants a cookie." 

So can you really win? Frankly I think he's pretty damn close.



Man Seeking Woman

Lately I've been a little jaded about my love life (or lack thereof). I've tried OKCupid, I'm on Tinder and Bumble, but nothing is panning out, and I'm like 96% sure that I've seen every attractive dude within a 50 mile radius. Mostly I don't even talk to people. There's an overabundance of guys holding out fish of various sizes, like some sort of ritual offering, and they're not even smiling, they're just like

Needless to say, things aren't looking very promising for this Manhattanite trapped in suburban hell.

So my friend suggested I try JDate. JDate, for you goys unfamiliar with it, is a dating site aimed at singles of Jewish descent. There's an option for culturally Jewish but not practicing, which is accurate for me, so I stupidly decided to go for it. (My username? "ChallahAtMe".)

If I thought attractive, single guys were in short supply in my area, I should've known that attractive, single, JEWISH guys were in short supply in my area. Indianapolis is bordering on Bible Belt in some places, and to say that Jewish culture isn't exactly thriving here would be a gross understatement. I think I was the only person even a little bit Jewish that I knew of after I moved out of New York, and when people here found out I was even slightly Jewish, they kept bringing it up in really weird ways. Even after I made it clear that my family doesn't practice it, and instead we mostly use that time to celebrate our Ashkenazi ancestors by eating the food of our people (which is delicious, by the way), people would see me eating a cheeseburger and accuse me of not keeping Kosher. No disrespect to my Kosher-keeping brethren, but meat and dairy is delicious, and I'm not about to increase my electric bill by having two different ovens. 

Anyway. I signed up for JDate. I think there were maybe 20 single Jewish guys in my area, if that gives you an idea of the drought we're going through here in the Midwest.

When I signed up, it was midnight, and I was tired. That's one of two excuses I can think of for what happened. 

Before you set up your profile, it asks you who you are and what you're looking for. In my sleepy haze, I selected "Man seeking woman" and proceeded to fill out all the info about my ideal first date (pizza), favorite foods (pizza), and things I do for fun (eat pizza). Pretty typical experience so far. Then I decided to see my matches.

Women. Women everywhere.

Which isn't what I signed up for. I'm a woman! One who likes men! Why am I seeing all these women when I, myself, am a man-seeking woman?

I told my friend to log in as me and see if she could change the settings. She couldn't. So I had to go back in and select "woman seeking man" and rewrite everything (pizza, pizzapizza, pizza).

Somehow, I still wasn't convinced that "woman seeking man" was correct until I finished my profile and saw that my matches were all men. Because what if it HAD been "woman-seeking man" like I read the first time? Would I be stuck with a lot of female matches again? I'm a man-seeking woman, dammit, SHOW ME THE MEN (DJ, please cue up "Bring On The Men" from the Jekyll & Hyde musical). 

Well, "Man Seeking Woman" can be read one of two ways:

  1. Man (noun) Seeking (verb) Woman (noun)
  2. Man Seeking (adjective) Woman (noun)

I originally read it the second way. Now that I'm awake, it's clearly the first. 

But perhaps this confusion could be alleviated by the insertion of a plural. Instead of "man seeking woman," maybe it could be "man seeking women". As briefly touched on in the entry about morphemes, a single thing can't be indicated with a plural, so I would be sure that "man seeking women" is not for me, since I'm not a women. Likewise, "woman seeking men" would be a tad more clear.

At any rate, once that ambiguity was cleared up (or once I stopped being confused for very little reason), I was met with a whole selection of guys who are practically guaranteed to be nice to their mothers. By "whole selection" I mean the entire male Jewish 20-something population in this state, which again totals approximately 20 people.

That said, I think it's time to disengage myself from "swipe culture," which means getting off my phone and meeting people in real life. I'm a man-seeking woman, and a woman seeking men, and these pixels are making the man-seeking really annoying. For now, I'm going to go eat a not-so-Kosher sandwich and look for a yente. Mazel tov, y'all.



Comfortable Pie

An acquaintance wrote me today with a question about English. She was working on grading papers and was stuck on whether or not to give extra credit to a student who tried to identify an example of personification. 

The question I got was "Is 'comfortable pie' an example of personification?" 

To which I said, "Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh......... Can I get some context?"

"The pigeons were snugly put to bed in a comfortable pie and tucked in with a coverlet of crust."

I realized this was slightly semantically ambiguous. In other words, you can interpret it in a couple ways: either the pie was comfortable in the same way a bed is comfortable, or the pie has feelings and is currently feeling comfortable (until this pigeon decided to use it as a bed and peel back its pie-skin for selfish reasons). I made the following illustration for my acquaintance to show to her student and encouraged her to give the student at least some credit, and to also use it as a teaching moment.

So the pie isn't being personified so much as it is being bedified, if you will, because in order for it to be personified, the pie would have to be the one feeling the comfort. Which is not the case, because it has the dove's trailer park cousin using it as an all-in-one mattress-comforter combo that one might only otherwise see on TV.

Below are a couple more illustrations I did to illustrate semantic ambiguity. They can be found on my Instagram (@talkingsmac).

In English, sentences are made up of noun phrases (NPs), verb phrases (VPs), and prepositional phrases (PPs). There are also "determiners," such as "the" and "in." In the first example, "the girl hit the man with the balloon," she either has a balloon and she uses it to hit an innocent man, or the man has a balloon and the girl uses her fists and does her best Muhammad Ali impression.


In the second example, "I saw her duck," the girl is either witnessed ducking behind a wall, or she has a duck for a pet and is flaunting it around town because she lacks any other hobby. You can almost split this up in your head to figure out how it should be interpreted: [I] [saw her] [duck], or [I saw] [her duck]. The context of the conversation plays a major role in the interpretation of a sentence, but sometimes things like "comfortable pie" are ambiguous and require more thought.

I was talking to a couple friends yesterday, and I was calling one of them a princess and joking about putting a pea (n., round green legume that comes in a pod) under his mattress, a la "The Princess and the Pea." In American English, some deletion occurs, and a lot of people say "want to" or "want a" as "wanna". Said friend turned to me and said, "Yeah, I wanna pea under my mattress." My other friend and I laughed because that could be taken two ways: "I want a pea under my mattress," referring to the legume, or "I want to pee under my mattress," referring to... not the legume.

Semantic ambiguity is all around us, and whether it affects someone's decision about whether or not to mark an answer correct or just provides endless entertainment in social settings, it leads to many misunderstandings that we might not even realize. Whatever you do, don't pea under your comfortable pie.





Trump's Continuing Trumpery

Donald Trump, currently making headlines frequently due to hateful rhetoric, continues his trumpery (n., bullshit) as we begin to make our grand entrance into 2016. As much as it disappoints me to give him more attention, I feel like he recently said something that requires linguistic scrutiny.

Trump recently used the term "schlonged" to describe Hillary Clinton's loss to then-senator Barack Obama in 2008. Critics claim that this term is vulgar. Critics are correct. 

Trump claims that he used the term to mean she got "beaten badly" in the election. However, "schlong" is a vulgar Yiddish term which means "penis" (origin: German, schlange, meaning "snake"). As someone who has lived for many years in the Empire State, he probably knows this. I've discussed before the merging of Yiddish words into colloquial New Yorker speak, so Trump using Yiddish words is no surprise, albeit slightly (ok, extremely) ironic since Yiddish is spoken primarily by Jewish people, and Trump seems to be tearing pages left and right out of Hitler's playbook, but he's taken an American English phrase and translated it.

Saying Hillary got "schlonged" is the Yiddish lexical equivalent to saying she got "fucked," "shafted," or "dicked," all relatively common vulgar phrases in colloquial American English. At this time, I'm unsure if "getting schlonged" is a common colloquial Yiddish phrase, but since "getting snaked" sounds weird in any language, I kind of doubt it. At any rate, Yiddish has transferred to Trump's use of American English, which brings us to this point. While he is apparently familiar with colloquial American English terms for saying someone got "ripped off" or "lost badly," and also familiar with Yiddish terms like "schlong," Trump is also evidently blissfully unaware that "schlong" means "penis" and that discussing genitalia of either gender when describing political events is perhaps not the best way to go about it (unless you're discussing how what people do with theirs is their business, and their business only).

So perhaps the next time he wants to use vulgarities when discussing his political opponents, perhaps the classless, goyish, meshuggah schmuck can schlep his schnozz out of his tukhus and kvetch about something more kosher.

Oy vey. I'm all verklempt ova here.

Edit: Here is Washington Post article about the same topic that I saw after I posted this. The idea they propose is that he merely mixed up Yiddish words, and meant to say the word for "messed up." I respectfully disagree. While I hold The Washington Post in high esteem, this explanation seems quite lacking and does not account for linguistic equivalents in English.



Under Pressure

So I've been utilizing the resource I posted about on Saturday, the website where you can write journal entries and get feedback from native speakers. So far, it's pretty awesome. I've met a couple of people who I've started to have really good conversations with, but only in English. One of them, Maddy, is a 19 year old girl from Italy who wants to go to school in England for nursing and mental health. She's very interested in anthropology and sociology, and we discussed and compared politics and healthcare and university life in our respective countries. 

And then it dawned on me:

She is totally equipped to have these discussions in English. 

I am totally not equipped to have these discussions in Italian. 

*Cue freakout*

Not only is she equipped, but she speaks English at a fairly high level. There's some searching for words, and she's anxious about taking the IELTS test next Saturday, but honestly, she seems to speak and write better than a lot of native speakers. While she assured me that some of my issues are ones that plague native Italian speakers, I can guarantee that I do NOT speak or write better than a lot of them. 

And I get it. Logically, I know that the process of learning a language is a U-shaped curve of accuracy (more about that later), and that it depends a lot on input, and they get more English input in Italy than I get Italian input here. I know these things. And I'm not going to get down on myself for not being some kind of language savant.

But it is an interesting phenomenon that because I now know a couple people who are capable of getting on Skype at any time and talking to me with no notice, I now feel more of a sense of urgency when it comes to upping my Italian game. This is similar to a case study done by Belz and Kissinger with speakers of English and German working together via the internet on a project. An American, Joe, had an interest in a German girl, Gabi, and he didn't grasp an element of German until she told him very directly how it was supposed to be. Because of his affection for her, that correction stuck in his head in a way that it hadn't before. He, too, felt more urgency in his learning.


Here we go.



New Resource!

So I was reading the Memrise blog today, and they interviewed a polyglot. She discussed some of the resources she's used, and mentioned a website called Lang-8. The premise of the site is that you write journal entries in the language you're trying to learn (aka Target Language, or TL) and then native speakers of that language correct you. You can also correct them using your native language, so it's basically a system of everyone helping each other out! It's awesome! I posted one journal entry so far in Italian, and I already have a few friends, one of whom I added on Skype because she has exams for English proficiency fast approaching and would really like help with conversing. I'm really glad about this, because I've been finding it difficult to get opportunities for valuable Italian output here. Reading is fine, listening is ok, but when it comes to making up unique sentences, that's a little more difficult. Reading and listening are both considered input, while speaking and writing are considered output. 

For a while, there was a popular theory going around from linguist Stephen Krashen that said you basically just needed consistent input in order to gain fluency. This has been questioned heavily by a number of case studies. Because it's now a commonly held belief that a learner needs more than just simple consistent input from the TL, I've been hunting for opportunities to produce TL output. Bingo, found the opportunity, and also new friends.

Here's my first journal entry in Italian, as well as a transcript of what I intended for it to say in English.

Ciao! Mi chiama Sarah, ma mia amici chiamare me "Smac." Vengo dagli Stati Uniti in New York City, New York, ma abito in Indianapolis, Indiana con mia madre. 

Mi piace libri, musica, cani, e cuocere. Sto imparando l'Italiano da sei mesi. 

Mi piace visitare mia parenti in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, perché vengono dagli Cairo, Egypt, e penso loro sia molto interessante. Ho anche imparando Arabic perché voglio parlare con loro. Egyptian parenti vengono in Italia, troppo.

Sto studiano in scuola psicologia e linguistica. Mi più piace linguistica. 

Ho lavoro per due aziendi: Barnes & Noble, e Indiana Connected By 25. Lavoro in del cafe, sono barista. Libri economico! E fantastico. In Indiana Connected By 25, noi aiutare bambini. 

Questo paragrafo mi ha preso troppo tempo! Scrivere in un'altro lingua e molto difficile, ma mi piace molto l'Italiano. 

Grazie mille!

The intended meaning:

Hi! My name is Sarah, but my friends call me "Smac." I'm from the United States in New York City, New York, but I live in Indianapolis, Indiana with my mother.

I like books, music, dogs, and cooking. I have been learning Italian for six months.

I like to visit my relatives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, because they are from Cairo, Egypt, and I think they are very interesting. I am also learning Arabic because I want to talk with them. I also have Egyptian relatives in Italy.

I'm in school studying psychology and linguistics. I like linguistics more.

I work for two companies: Barnes & Noble, and Indiana Connected By 25. I work in the coffee shop as a barista. Cheap book! It's fantastic. At Indiana Connected By 25, we help children. 

This paragraph took me too long! Writing in another language is very difficult, but I like Italian a lot.
Thank you!

Below are pictures of corrections made by my new friend Maddy:

So I've got some work to do. But to paraphrase some old dead guy, "You don't know what you don't know."





There are many many MANY subtopics in the field of linguistics. Semantics, syntax, morphology, metaphor, the list goes on. Probably forever. But possibly my favorite field to think about when dealing with people (I am a psychology major, after all) is pragmatics. Unlike semantics, which focuses mainly on what was said, pragmatics also focuses on context. The basic question asked in pragmatics is, "what did the speaker hope to accomplish by saying what they did?"

According to Roman Jakobson, there are six functions of speech:

Referential Function - Descriptive statements ("It's cold outside.")

Expressive Function - Adds information about the speaker's state ("Ugh, it's cold outside!")

Conative Function - Engages the addressee directly ("Baby, it's cold outside.")

Poetic Function - Focuses on the message for its own sake, as in poetry or advertisements ("How to make below freezing temperatures work for YOU!")

Phatic Function - Language for the sake of interaction ("How's the weather?" "Cold and shite.")

Metalingual Function - Language used to discuss and describe language ("It's colder than the distancing language of a psychopath out here!") (OK that's a bit of a stretch but you get the point.)

When I started learning about pragmatics, I was pretty confused until I was able to break it down into the simple question of "what was the speaker's goal here?" And ever since then, certain things have really pissed me off. They pissed me off before, but now I have a reason: pragmatic ambiguity.

Pragmatic ambiguity arises when there's not sufficient context to unlock the meaning behind phrases. This is something to take advantage of when you wish to avoid talking to people. Here's an anecdote demonstrating that:

I once dated a guy for about a year and a half, and during that time, we had a few "couple friends," and we'd all hang out and play board games. The thing was, they were married, and talking about kids, and didn't go out and engage in cultural events, so I got very bored. We just didn't have much in common, and I didn't like them. I called them "The Domestics." So one time, we were over at someone's house, and two of The Wives were across the room discussing books. I'd already decided I didn't like them, and certain events had illustrated that the feeling was mutual, so I wasn't engaged in this discussion. Also, again, I was across the room.

It was a big room.

Anyway, one of them turned in my direction and said, "Sarah, do you read?" Now, that can be taken two ways: the way she meant it, and the way I took it. What she MEANT was, "What do you like to read? Please, join us in this literary discourse!" What I HEARD was, "Are you literate? Do u even read, brah?" So I said, "Yup!" 

Now, given the context, that wasn't a very ambiguous statement. I, however, chose to treat it as ambiguous because I didn't want to engage in that conversation. 

Something that is ACTUALLY ambiguous, however, is the following utterance: "So..."


I have a friend who, after a certain amount of silence, will just text me saying "So..."

There are three ways I can respond to this: 

  1. Say nothing.
  2. "?"
  3. Just start talking about SOMETHING.

Option 1 forces her to sit in misery and hypothesize about the various other activities I could be doing. I see it as a time-out of sorts for being so damn vague.

Option 2 forces her to explain what she meant by that. She usually either doesn't respond, or she says "I dunno, it's just been a while since I've heard from you." ("A while," in this instance, is approximately two hours.)

Option 3 seems to appease her, and I don't live to make anyone's life easier, so I usually avoid this one.

The problem with saying "So..." is that it forces me to make inferences about what you mean. If you want to talk, just talk. Start saying words. Whatever inference I make is going to be heavily influenced by my state of mind at the time.

I can interpret it as a lexical sigh of sorts. Like you're so wrapped up in ennui, staring out your window, drinking a cappuccino out of a mug that says "Gin" or something, and you just had to share that moment with me.

I can interpret it as the beginning of a story. "So... I went to the store and bought the cutest pair of shoes."

I can also, and usually do, interpret it as an expectant statement: "So... why aren't you talking to me?"

What my acquaintance hopes to achieve by this statement is a question to which I have no answer. But it's incredibly frustrating because I don't know if it's expressive, conative, or phatic.

Is she expressing frustration that she feels ignored? "So... I feel like you're ignoring me."
Is she demanding something of me? My attention? "So... talk to me."
Or is she just saying words for the sake of saying words and interacting with someone in some way? "So... I'm bored!"

Pragmatic ambiguity will never make things clear. 

Use your words.




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Secret Languages of Girlhood

So at this point, a lot of research has been done, and it's a generally accepted concept that young people are the innovators of language. Specifically, young girls. 

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across this article that explains the secret languages that young girls use, but I wanted to expand on it, as one that I used with my childhood best friend wasn't mentioned.

The article discusses a few different languages, but I wanted to focus on Gibberish and Ubbi-Dubbi, as those are the ones I'm most familiar with. All the secret languages I knew were taught to me by my best friend Simone, and we used them in our friend group probably more than was appropriate.

Gibberish is fairly simple: insert the phonetic string /ɪdɪg/ (idig) at the beginning of every syllable, after the first consonant of the syllable and before the first vowel. This would make my name "Sidigaridigah MidigacDidigougidigall." Once you get the hang of it, it rolls off the tongue pretty smoothly, and while bystanders may pick up a couple of words, they won't really understand what's being said unless they also know the language.

Ubbi-Dubbi is also pretty straightforward: insert the phonetic string /əb/ (ub) before every vowel. My name in Ubbi-Dubbi would be "Subarubah MubacDubouguball." 

Eventually, it got to a point where every girl in our class knew both Gibberish and Ubbi-Dubbi, and it was rare that you would walk down the hall and not hear someone using it. Gel pens, Razr scooters, and secret languages were where it was at as young kids, and we spent many hours sitting around the large fountain in Stuyvesant Town perfecting these skills. But Simone and I tired of every girl in the class being able to understand us, so she taught me a new language: Double Dutch. 

It seemed odd to me at the time that it had nothing to do with Dutch, but I overlooked that incongruity and participated nevertheless.

Double Dutch was by far the most complicated of the secret languages: each consonant had its own word.

B - Bub
C - Cash
D - Dub
F - Fuf
G - Gug
H - Hutch
J - Jug
K - Kuk
L - Lul
M - Mum
N - Nun
P - Pup
Q - Quack
R - Rug
S - Sus
T - Tut
V - Vuv
W - Wash
X - Zux
Y - Yub
Z - Zub

There are many variations of Double Dutch, but this one was the one I was taught. I haven't found any information on this particular variation, which leads me to believe it's not yet hit the mainstream. Because I had so much trouble finding information on it, I had to reach out to the girl who taught it to me, which was a quick flash to the past for both of us, I'm sure, as we've long fallen out of touch since my parents dragged me to this suburgatory. 

Learning to speak this way took a LOT of practice. You also had to know how to spell, so it was pretty helpful when it came to perfecting that task. Double Dutch was very time consuming; far more so than Gibberish or Ubbi-Dubbi. To give you some idea of how long it could take to get a single word out, my FULL name in Double Dutch is as follows: "Susarugahutch Vuvirugguginunia Rubosuse MumacashDubougugalullul."

It's inefficient, to say the least. But as ten year olds with some very important shit on our plates, it got the job done. We weren't talking Sartre. Let's also bear in mind that my friend and I were two kids who saw a grate surrounding a tree that had "Neenah Foundry" stamped into it, and somehow inferred from that information that if we were to walk around said tree 1000 times, we would somehow disappear to a magical place called "Neenah." Imaginative? Yes. Efficient? Not so much.

So why did we choose to speak in secret languages? Did we want to feel free to discuss our thoughts openly without worrying about eavesdroppers? Did we want to feel super awesome? Because I'm pretty sure we accomplished both. When adults would overhear and scoff and claim there was no way we could understand each other, our response was to scoff right back and say "Yubesus wube cashanun!" 

Please. These adults didn't have anything on us. What did they know? They were just large children who had less experience than we did. Just wait until we got to Neenah and came back with all that knowledge. Then, THEN, they'd see what fools they'd been!

Perhaps we wanted to be able to talk about people right in front of them. That's a unique perk of language: if you're around someone who doesn't speak it, you can pretty much say whatever you want. That's true freedom of speech. 

***Disclaimer: just because you can say whatever you want doesn't mean you should.
Don't be rude.

If memory serves, one of our friends got so impatient with us speaking Double Dutch that she would repeatedly accuse us of talking about her. We weren't, but it brings light to a certain point: using language to be "cool," as super awesome and fun as that language might be, also alienates the people who don't speak it. 

We eventually stopped speaking Double Dutch, Gibberish, and Ubbi-Dubbi, and we never got to Neenah (though we did stop walking around that tree and got lives). But the memory lives on, and I could probably call up a good handful of friends from childhood and speak a secret language that they'd still understand. But until then...

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Hearing Hands Ad

Recently on Facebook, someone posted a video about a deaf man in Turkey. This is actually an ad for Samsung, but after watching it, I may have shifted my loyalty from iProducts. 

I won't wax poetic about it for very long, as I feel it speaks for itself, but I feel like it's a really beautiful demonstration of how language dissolves boundaries and opens up opportunities to experience new worlds.

Get your tissues ready.


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Casual Ponderings on Twi Morphology

So, because I'm a masochist but also very curious, I'm working my way through eight languages on Memrise: Italian, Arabic, Flemish, Russian, Slovenian, Akan Twi, Spanish, and German. I consider Italian and Arabic to be my main squeezes, and I'm learning the others at a slower rate for two reasons: 1. my investment is lower, and 2. there's only so much bandwidth up in this brain of mine. Learning a lot of random languages might be crazy, but I'm trying to be reasonable about it.

During the second linguistics class I took, we did a unit on morphology, which deals with finding the roots and structures of words. Something that's kind of important in morphology are these things called morphemes, which, to quote my professor (Frederick J. DiCamilla), are "minimal meaning-bearing units of language." This doesn't even have to be a word, ok? Shit's crazy. It can just be a sound or a couple letters that make a word mean something slightly different. In elementary terms, we know these as "prefixes" and "suffixes." Things you attach to words are "affixes." There are other parts to morphology but in the interest of not making your eyes stay crossed forever, we'll focus on these for now, since we aren't talking about those other bits.

Here is an example:

Cat. It's a word, right? You know what it means. In case you don't, here's a picture:

But what if you add "-s"? Then it's catS. CATS. The above picture is not a picture of a cats, because you can't have one cats. You either have one cat, as depicted above in the expert drawing I just so happened to have saved on my desktop, or you have cats. But you can't have a cats. So adding "-s" changes the meaning slightly: instead of a cat, you have cats. /s/ is the morpheme that indicates plurality. Here's a picture of cats:

You're welcome.

Other examples of English morphemes include -ness, un-, -er, -y, anti-, pro-, etc.


When I learned about morphemes, I was like, "OK, cool, this seems like a simple building block that could really help me out when I'm trying to use logic in my language learning! Maybe I should pay attention to these!" And so I did. And slowly, Italian and Arabic are starting to make more sense to me. But what about a language that has pretty much nothing in common with English? Twi (chwee) is a tonal language spoken primarily in Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and Benin. There was no common orthography system until 1978. There are approximately 9 million speakers. English and Twi are very different. Obviously.

So I started learning Twi for no real reason other than it's kind of fun to learn, and it's new, and I do know a few Twi speakers, so on the off chance I know enough words to communicate with some level of competence, maybe I'll have someone to talk to. 

Here are some of the phrases I've learned, along with their definitions:

ɛte sɛn - Hello/How are you?
me pɛse - I would like
me pɛ - I like
me kɔ - Goodbye/I go
me tumi? - Can I?
wo betumi? - Can you?
sɛn? - How?
wo ka Brofo? - Do you speak English?
me ka Twi kakra - I speak a little Twi

It can be hard to tell, but there are patterns there. While it has very little in common with English, Twi is a language, engineered by human beings, and it is therefore logical.

A lot of these phrases use "me" (pronounced may). The definitions include "I," therefore, we can conclude that "me" is the morpheme for "I." Ten points for us!

Then you have "me pɛ" (may pay, I like) and "me pɛse" (may pesay, I would like). The only difference is "-se" added to "pɛ." If "me" is "I," and "me pɛ" is "I like," then "pɛ" must mean "like." If "pɛ" means "like", and "pɛse" means "WOULD like," then "-se" must be the morpheme for "would."

(We interrupt this blog post to inform you that it's 11pm and my penpal in Australia just asked if he should buy a duck. Apparently he's trying to emulate Joey from "Friends." What is life.)


Take the last two sentences: "Wo ka Brofo?" and "Me ka Twi kakra": "Do you speak English?" and "I speak a little Twi," respectively. "Brofo" means "English," and we already know "me" means "I." "Wo" is seen twice, in the only two examples that include "you" in the translation, so "wo" is the morpheme for "you." If "wo" is "you" (because we know woe isn't me, amirite? Heh.) and "Brofo" is "English," then "ka" must be the morpheme for "speak." Using the same logic, we can deduce that in the sentence "Me ka Twi kakra," "kakra" means "a little."

I'm by no means an expert on morphology or Twi, but this approach of taking definitions, finding elements in common, and then finding related bits and pieces of the target language seem to really help me reason my way through the learning process, as opposed to just learning one word at a time and memorizing the definition.

And that's my incredibly brief overview of how to apply morphology specifically to Twi.

Me kɔ!




Retail Voice

A few years ago, when I was but a naive early 20-something, as opposed to the naive mid 20-something that I am now, I worked in retail. It was a huge mistake for me, since generally speaking, I don't like working with people and selling them things, but at the time, it paid the bills. 

I started to notice that when I would approach customers, my voice would rise in pitch. I tend to have a dry, flat, quiet, somewhat monotone voice, and it's a little on the low end for a female speaker. It's been compared to that of Lauren Bacall. This all changed whenever I was in a situation where I had to sell something. I called it my retail voice.

In order to shed more light on what that is, I decided to Google it, since I'm a professional. Other than a couple of hits stating that "The Retail Voice" is a company-wide news publication at a couple places, the only first page hit was on Urban Dictionary by someone named "sarahthehammer" who I swear isn't me. According to her, the definition is as follows: 

The tone and enthusiasm in someone's voice in an attempt to be friendly while working retail. It tends to disappear if the person knows the customer.

The example provided was:

The lady at McDonald's this morning had an annoyingly chipper retail voice. I bet everyone who was as hungover as I was wanted to punch her in the face.

Sarahthehammer, we need to be friends.

At my former place of employment, a high end greeting card chain where it was essentially required that I needed to be happy at all times, my retail voice was in full swing. At one point, it was something I was doing on purpose, as my five minutes of audio engineering training had taught me that higher frequencies travel faster and are more likely to bend around objects. Since I'm quiet but didn't want to talk louder, I talked higher instead, knowing that the solution was of the "six of one, half a dozen of the other" variety. I had a few friends and family members come to visit me at work, and when actual customers would come in, the people who knew me would often duck behind a greeting card shelf in a fit of laughter, since my retail voice was so different from my normal speaking voice.

What I didn't realize on my own, however, was when this same vocal trait appeared in other settings for completely different reasons. A college boyfriend (and I have to toot his horn, here, because not only is he super cool with great taste in music, but he's currently working in Harlem with underprivileged kids teaching them music and expanding their music program, which is AWESOME), once pointed out that when I talked to his parents, my voice was so much higher. At the time, I was like, "wut?" And then I realized that he had a point. So what exactly was the idea there? Why change the pitch of my voice? I wasn't trying to sell a product, like I was at my retail job. I was a little uncomfortable, because Meeting The Parents is always a little intimidating for me, but I wasn't internally kicking and screaming, wanting desperately to get out of their home. 

I might not have been trying to sell a product, but was I maybe trying to sell them on an idea? The concept that I was perfect for their son, or something? If so, why was voice pitch the thing I decided, subconsciously, to adjust? In their book "The Gender Communication Connection", Teri Kwal Gamble and Michael W. Gamble assert that "higher pitched voices are associated with femininity." They go on to say that "the prevailing gender stereotype for women is a breathy, high-pitched, hesitant voice, one soft in volume and containing a lot of inflection." So perhaps I inadvertently adjusted my tone of voice to portray a more feminine demeanor. 

This same concept is reflected in two case studies by Meryl Siegal and Yumiko Ohara. 

In Siegal's 1994 article "Second-language learning, identity, and resistance: White women studying Japanese in Japan", she focuses her attention on three women: Arina, Mary, and Karen. She was exploring the identities these women created for themselves when speaking Japanese, because often, they weren't the same identities they had when speaking English. There is a language divide in Japanese between women and men, and the gender roles seem clearly defined. The role of women is to be more submissive, less direct, and very feminine. In Western culture, women are starting to step into whatever roles they want to fill, and I've seen on more than one occasion the fetishization of Asian culture, presumably because the female role is so different. A friend of mine went through a breakup and instructed everyone else in the friend group to "hook him up with all our Asian friends." A couple of the English speaking subjects in the study refused to use the typically accepted honorifics, or would use them sparingly, due to either lack of understanding of how to use them, or because they didn't deem it necessary since they wouldn't be needed in Western culture. They also resisted participating in "kawaii culture." "Kawaii" means "cute" in Japanese, and these women often made negative judgements about their Japanese acquaintances who would adjust their speaking patterns when men were around, expressing that the extremely high pitches "weren't natural." 

Ohara's 2001 article "Finding one's voice in Japanese: A study of the pitch levels of L2 users" delves more into the auditory side of the issue, which I found extremely fascinating as someone with a music background. Ohara attempts to "describe how female learners of Japanese deal with the different cultural expectations and constraints related to the production of voice in Japanese society." In her 2001 study, she recorded speakers using both English and Japanese, and analyzed the average frequencies used in each language. She found that beginning learners of Japanese did not use significantly different pitch levels in English and Japanese, but that Japanese-English bilinguals used higher pitches when speaking Japanese. In English-Japanese bilinguals, however, the results were more mixed, reflecting results similar to both beginning speakers as well as Japanese-English bilinguals. In previous studies that she did (1993, 1997), she found that "the higher the pitch of an utterance, the more likely the producer of the voice was perceived to be cute, soft, gentle, kind, polite, quiet, young, weak, and beautiful." 

Which could at least partially explain why "retail voice" exists. Those attributes sell. People are more likely to buy from a woman who portrays those qualities. This could also explain my vocal adjustment when meeting the family of a significant other: of course I want to make a good first impression, and those adjectives are all generally socially accepted as "good" when speaking of femininity. 

On the flip side, Ohara found that the "lower pitched voices were more likely to be perceived as belonging to females who were stubborn, selfish, strong, and straightforward." No one wants to buy a greeting card from someone who is stubborn and selfish. Likewise, no one wants their offspring to date someone with those qualities. 

Interestingly enough, while higher pitched voices are perceived as being cute, gentle, and overall more desirable, in certain scenarios, lower huskier voices are perceived as being "sexier."

Additionally, other female speech patterns such as vocal fry and uptalk are coming into the limelight. These are apparently considered destructive by some, annoying by others, and women who use these speech patterns are likely to be considered less hirable and taken less seriously. Which is interesting, since some researchers have speculated that vocal fry might be an attempt by women to reach the male register, thus making them MORE likely to be taken seriously. All it takes is a quick Google search of "female speech patterns" to witness the controversy that is modern speech. It should be noted that men who use these same speech patterns are facing considerably less criticism.

I'm not here to argue one way or another that speech patterns are either constructive or destructive, just that they are present. I know that I tend to use uptalk on a daily basis simply because I don't want to come across as domineering, and I prefer to leave some room for doubt so that if I'm wrong about something, I can then be corrected and learn something new. But I also use it because I don't want to offend, and I tend to sprinkle my speech with lexically uncertain gems. An example of a sentence that wouldn't be shocking for me to say would be something like: "I was thinking we could do something more colorful, that way it would maybe be a bit more eye-catching, but I'm cool with whatever." This is in contrast to: "We need to do something more colorful, that way it would demand more attention."

While the term "retail voice" is relatively new and not yet in circulation among professional linguists, the idea of a raised pitch in female speech is not a new one. What is interesting, though, is that younger generations are perceived to be innovators in the field of speech development, and are often responsible for shaping change in this area of linguistics. Annoying or not, the patterns are taking hold and spreading like wildfire. 

In the meantime... 

Maybe Sarahthehammer and I can unite and be "Team Sarah" and talk about our retail voices? 


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Speak American

With the upcoming election, and political tension increasing, I thought it might be a fun little adventure to embark on the topic of immigration. 

First and foremost, while the subject of linguistics is not a pressing matter in and of itself for many people, I feel it's important to understand that it is quite pervasive. It's something we all do. We all speak a certain way and form judgements about people who don't speak similarly to us. I'm guilty of this as well: for a very long time, I viewed people who had Southern accents as less intelligent, because I had formed some sort of baseless equation in my head that stated "Southern = close minded and uneducated". And then, because karma's a bitch, I found myself in a situation where I was surrounded on all sides by some lovely people from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and I changed my outlook. Not only are they lovely, they are smart and talented and I'm a better person having known them. Since then, I've tried very hard not to form judgements about people before I'm aware of who they actually are.

Which is something we learn as kids, right? "Don't judge a book by its cover" (something I'm also guilty of). "Treat others the way you want to be treated." "Before you judge someone, walk a mile in their shoes, that way, when you judge them, you're a mile away from them, and you have their shoes." The list goes on and on.

So it's confusing to me when I hear SO MANY PEOPLE bashing immigrants for not speaking fluent American English. Sure, English is the standard language in the United States for legislation and media consumption, but, and I think this would shock some people, we don't actually have an official national language here. SURPRISE! Something about your huddled masses yearning to breathe free and maybe not really having the time or the resources to gain native-like proficiency in a Level 5 language in a super short amount of time, or whatever. What is that word, "yearning"? It reflects desperation and necessity. You can even take out "free" and it would be "huddled masses yearning to breathe." If I'm yearning to breathe, I probably don't have all the time in the world to run through Rosetta Stone so as not to irritate the culture I'm so desperate to partake in out of necessity. If someone is "yearning to breathe free," our reaction should really be more along the lines of, "oh, shit, this is urgent."

Let's be really clear on something here: learning another language is hard. It's not just learning new words. It's learning a new set of grammatical rules. It's learning how to be competent in a culture other than your own, which many would say is harder the older you get. It's like being really really great at oil painting, and then being handed some watercolors and no instructions on how to use them. Paint everywhere. Words everywhere. And in the US, the standard (although that seems to be changing, insha'Allah) is monolingualism. We learn foreign languages here because we choose to. There is nothing pushing us to learn another culture, because for the most part, we live in our little privileged bubbles. We are a large country. I can get in a car for a day and a half and drive somewhere, and still understand what people are saying. On a global scale, we are quite isolated. In places like Europe, that is not the case. Many people are bi- or multilingual, and that's the standard. 

I think something that people fail to take into account is that the US is the Land of the Allegedly Free, and there are so many promises about golden opportunities and American dreams, that of course we're going to have people come here if their home country is no longer suiting their needs. I'm using that term broadly, by the way, I'm not talking about people who don't get access to wifi everywhere, I'm talking about people who don't have the ability to feel safe when they go outside. Leaving your home country because you aren't guaranteed the right to life is not a great situation, and in that situation, people don't just learn English because it's "fun" and they "want a new challenge". Those people learn what English they can in a relatively short amount of time out of necessity. Frankly, the fact that I don't HAVE to learn another language if I don't want to is the epitome of privilege, in my mind. 

Let's take Hurricane Patricia in Mexico, for example. Apparently Mother Nature really pissed off Patricia, because she was on the war path. At work, we often have the news on one of our TVs, and one of our regulars came in last week. (Just to paint a picture for you, this woman is a career dog walker, wears soft pink sweaters and a fanny pack every day, is the embodiment of Delores Umbridge from the "Harry Potter" series, and doesn't tip well. I'm not a huge fan.) This woman looked up at the report about the hurricane and expressed how horrible she feels for those poor people down there in the path of the hurricane. Luckily, the hurricane dissipated and was downgraded to a tropical depression. While flooding and landslide concerns still remain, the damage was comparatively small. But what if it wasn't? What if it annihilated several towns, as was predicted? After the dust settled, many people would have to relocate, and the US would probably have a slightly increased amount of Mexican immigrants. Those people wouldn't necessarily speak English. For context, the same woman expressing her remorse for the potential victims of Hurricane Patricia had previously expressed her frustration and disgust that people would dare set foot in this country without speaking fluent "American". My question is, where does the remorse end and the disgust begin? It seems that this woman would feel bad about any fatalities, but the second refugees start coming in and SLIGHTLY inconveniencing her, the attitude shifts more towards one of xenophobia.

SO. On to the linguistic meat of the issue: what exactly does it mean when people say "speak American"? 

Well, what is "America"? We have North America and South America, and those are continents with several languages spoken. So let's take American English out of the equation for now: we're left with Mexican dialects of Spanish, Canadian dialects of French, South American dialects of French, South American dialects of Dutch, South American dialects of Spanish, and South American dialects of Portuguese. There are also hundreds of indigenous languages available to choose from. But for some reason, those don't fall under the umbrella term "American". 

Interestingly enough, if I speak English, which is also inherently NOT American, as it is from Europe, I'm not marked as being different from my peers. My peers do not speak Native American languages. What WOULD be odd, though, is if I started speaking Cree, or Ojibwe, or Cherokee. What if I spoke the native language of my Iroquois ancestors? Would I be told to "go back to my country", and then have to justify myself to my accuser that I AM in my country? How annoying and dehumanizing it must have been to have had to learn English in order to make things more convenient for the people invading your land. I can't imagine having someone break into my house to steal some white wine, only to ask that I refrigerate it first, and by the way, if I could just cook up a flank steak right quick, that'd be great. While Native American languages are about as American as it gets, they still aren't considered "American" by the people who claim that everyone here should speak "American". 

So what is? English? 

Well, that depends. If my Australian pen pal moved here, his English and my English would be very different. His English would likely not be considered American. However, my theory is that he would be marked as the "good" kind of different, because he's white, so his accent would be "cool" and "unique". Which it is, no doubt, but I don't think he'd be told to "go back to his country" as often as, say, someone from Paraguay or Nigeria. But his speech would still not be considered "American". Whenever we talk there are usually at least a few words that I have to ask him about. 

What if my friend from Manchester, UK moved here? It was the same situation, with yet another dialect of English. Beyond English, there were cultural differences as well, such as being presented with a list of teas at Starbucks rather than just being able to order "tea". He didn't speak "American" enough, although he did speak at an acceptable level, and I should hope so, actually, since he hails from where it all began. If anything, I spoke TOO American, and my English wasn't English ENOUGH. He would also be "good" different.

So let's look at some constraints. 

Language tends to travel with migration patterns, which are affected by geography, so linguistic lines are often drawn along mountains or rivers. I've heard people on one side of the Ohio River say they can't understand people on the other side. The English spoken by people in the Appalachians is hardly intelligible to outsiders. Creole is, again, different. 

These are all American. 

What about race? African American English (AAE) and Chicano English both exist, yet still aren't the "American" speeches that people want when they request that you "speak American". 

What does it mean to "speak American"?

It means that the person telling you to speak American is very close-minded with half a grasp on their own one language. What they want seems to be some amalgamation of standard written American English (which I would argue is its own dialect anymore) mixed with pronunciations and grammatical rules that they embody themselves, even if not technically "correct". 

So if someone tells you to go back home, or to speak American, feel free to call them a Moosh Koosh (n., Ojibwe, "dumbass") and go about the business of your life. 

Welcome to the United States.

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The Concrete Jungle Book

Since it's early days, and the only people reading this so far are my mom and my Australian penpal (Hi mom! Hi Jimmy!), I figured I'd give some background on my own language use, as it's a little less than straightforward.

For starters, I grew up in New York City. The Big Apple. The concrete jungle where dreams are made of and where Jay Z and Alicia Keys see their names on a marquee or whatever. I don't know where they were in NYC (oh wait, yes I do, Times Square), but they were NOT where I grew up. We started out in Greenwich Village, at 19 West 8th St, Apt. 1, 10001. Can I just take a moment to say that those were some sweet digs? Not only was it Audra McDonald's old apartment (we used to get her mail), but it had a fireplace that I spent many winter nights in front of reading, and it was on top of a shoe store called "Sever Boutique" which I am CONVINCED played a major role in my shoe collection problem. But I can stop any time I want. Anyway, we were situated between 5th and 6th avenues among several shoe stores and a library that looked like a Russian castle. We then moved to the East Village, 232 East 12th St, Apt. 4A (and later 4F, because we switched with a neighbor, because we are a NICE NORMAL FAMILY).

Those days in NYC, especially Greenwich Village, were full of punks. It was incredibly common to see people in kilts and leather with hair colors that rivaled the beak of a Keel Billed Toucan (yes, I did Google that, and no, I don't regret it). During the summer, guys with sagging jeans would saunter by with large boomboxes resting on their shoulders, blasting rap music, while con artists would find solace in the shade of the Sever Boutique awning and scam people out of their paychecks with the cup game. Animal lovers would storm the streets with their boas around their necks, and I don't mean the feathery kind. My parents, both musicians, would cart me along to their shows at CBGBs and The Sidewalk Cafe, and when I got bored, I'd go downstairs and ask people with blue mohawks to teach me how to play pool. 

The East Village was a little less funky. We were in a comparatively small pocket of Eastern European transplants, and as a result, we spent many meals at Veselka, stuffing ourselves full of Ukrainian food. There was also a tiny Ukrainian museum tucked away in a corner behind a gate right next to our usual deli, and from there my mother and I started our annual tradition of Ukrainian egg dying. There were churches, businesses, and schools that proudly displayed their names using both the Latin script as well as Cyrillic. As a result, I got a taste of the Cyrillic alphabet relatively early in life, and could battle my way through reading it, even if I didn't know what it said. While I understand that there's more to it than this, at the time, I considered it a simple substitution cipher, where one letter just replaces another: "Veselka" became "Beceлka", so then I knew that V=B, S=C, L=л, etc.

In addition to an Eastern European writing system, I was also receiving my fair share of Yiddish input, simply due to the abundance of Jewish people not only in that neighborhood, but in the whole city. You want some cream cheese with your bagel? Just order a schmear. Some cab driver blocked the box? What a schmuck! These words worked their way into my normal vocabulary, and while I was aware that they weren't English words, I was also aware that everyone I spoke with used them. Bits and pieces of Yiddish had enmeshed themselves into my everyday lexicon. 

Aside from all the cultural arrows flying at my head, I had the typical East Coast dialect: soda. Stoop. I had an accent that still finds its way back when I'm angry, or when I return to Manhattan on one of my pilgrimages. This is also reflected in my behavior. I don't greet people on the sidewalk or make eye contact. If someone is infringing on my space, I have no qualms about angling my arms so that they might run into my sharp elbows (thanks, evolution!). 

And then, we moved to Indiana. It was, for lack of a better term, meshuggeneh (adj., Yiddish: crazy). 

All of a sudden I was surrounded by these slow walkers who all dressed the same and didn't hang out in bars before they were 12. I caught a lot of flack for not knowing what Abercrombie and Fitch was, and for walking to class so quickly that I got there five minutes before the other kids. But most notably, I got singled out for how I talked. 

I didn't understand ANYTHING these people said at first. To me, they all sounded like country dwellers from the South, like a character I would've seen in a Shirley Temple movie, on the off chance the little brat ever shut up and stopped dancing on that piano. 

It took me half an hour to figure out what a "tewer" was. It took me a week to figure out the form and function of a "pop machine". I may as well have changed my middle name to "can you please use that in a sentence?". Add that to my extreme shyness, and on a scale of 1-10, my chances of being "cool" hit right on "fuhgeddabaddit". Thankfully, I did find a merry band of misfits, and we remained in contact and lived happily ever after and they're great and blah blah blah. *Throws confetti*

Something else that threw me for a loop was the lack of cultural integration. The city needs more chutzpah (n., Yiddish: cheek, audacity). I went to Panera for the first time, and I asked for a bagel and schmear, and the Shrew of the Day behind the counter just snarled at me and said, "If you want a schmear, you gotta go to Einstein's, kid." Like, what? It's not a trademark. You dip the knife in the cream cheese, you remove a healthy chunk approximately the size of a small planet, and you put it on the bagel. You SCHMEAR it on there. And then you cut it in half, because I'm important, dammit, and I can't be expected to eat an ENTIRE BAGEL while also making my important calls and doing all the important business I had when I was an adolescent, such as texting my BFF about our other BFF's passive-aggressive AIM Away Message, and changing the song on my MySpace to reflect my current feelings about some dude who couldn't pick me out in a lineup from a pile of bricks. 

I eventually learned the linguistic rules that governed my peers, as well as the behavioral ones. I slowed my walk down. I stopped expecting medium-height buildings to have businesses inside them on a floor other than the first one. I learned that the "cool" kids all lived in one area of town, and the "ghetto" kids lived in a less affluent part, and I learned that these distinctions could also be made by skin color, because apparently it's still 1962.

But I still say "tour" identically with "tore", and I refuse to call it "pop" when it is very clearly "soda". I don't know what a "Hoosier" is, and I don't identify as one. Most of the time, I don't root for local sports teams. I don't eat the traditional breaded pork tenderloin of the Hoosier people, nor do I dip everything in ranch dressing. I've assimilated enough to fit in with my peers, but I've retained the linguistic patterns I picked up as a wee tot in the Empire State.

When it comes down to it, I'll always be a New Yorker at heart. Everywhere else seems pretty, well... Meshuggeneh. 





Thanks, Mom...

I'm currently taking a Second Language Acquisition (SLA) class in college, and in it, we look at a lot of case studies. I've noticed that in a lot of case studies, the subjects keep written records of their progress and their feelings about it, so I decided that doing something similar would help me analyze my progress. It won't just be about my progress, but I'll be looking at my own language acquisition through various lenses discussed in the field of linguistics. Hopefully this will enhance my understanding of the subject itself.

For those of you unfamiliar with the field, SLA basically looks at how people learn or acquire a second language, the challenges faced, how to make it easier, and what psychological processes are used. 

This blog won't JUST be about SLA, in fact, I suspect a lot of the material will stem from discussions I have with my professors and other people in the field, and theories or information I have about any other aspects of linguistics. What is my own language like? How does language travel? Do members of certain demographics contribute to this in certain ways? How do people with certain personality traits communicate? The field of linguistics is rich with questions and information and I want to know it ALL.


When I decided to make this blog, I needed a name for it, so I asked my mom, because "mother knows best" and all that. She tried to make a portmanteau with "blog" and "linguistics" and came up with "blinguistics", which I happen to like because it sounds way less serious than a lot of heavier reading that one might find in actual journals written by actual linguists who actually organize their research and apply for grants and do all the things that I really should be doing but am not, because I'm not a real adult. Plus, it includes the word "bling", which, while slightly outdated at this juncture, is still a relatively modern slang term, and slang is part of linguistics, so, there you go.

Buckle up, buttercup, it's time for fun.