In recent weeks, one of the main points examined in class is cultural stereotyping based on linguistic practices. We often draw from previous assumptions and standardized conceptions about an individual or group of people in order to create a stereotype. Over time we have come to understand stereotypy as a way of representing a certain person or place with an oversimplified and fixed image or idea. For example, any given city can often be stereotyped as polluted and industrialized, even though there are many urban spaces that don’t follow these characteristics. But enough of that. Let me get to the point. I want to take a good look at the ways in which people have used language in order to mask one identity and impersonate another. Let’s take a look at Exhibit A – Italian Stereotypes. This short skit composed by a famous cast from Saturday Night Live put a funny spin on undercover FBI work with the ever infamous Italian American gangster (played by Robert DeNiro). Before I give any more description, I want you – the audience – to take a look for yourself just how the comedian tries to portray a middle-aged Italian man. Enjoy!
I’ll give you a moment to take that all in. What you just saw was acting on two different platforms: The comedian is acting as an undercover FBI agent who is then acting as your run-of-the-mill Italian American, encompassing what seems to be every aspect of a "typical" Italian. But aside from the big hair, tacky outfit, and exaggerated hand gestures, the comedian puts a huge emphasis on the way he speaks. Here, there is a “wannabe” Italian (obviously for the sake of being an undercover agent) who often drops the consonants from the ends of words and says phrases like “fuggedda bout it” and “bustin beans”. Even though this is a fictional scenario with fictional characters, we can see how the appropriation of a culture (more specifically the use of accents and phrases) brings to the surface a question of individual authenticity.
Now you might be wondering just how this relates to the material we have covered in class. What I find most interesting is the ability for someone to take on a certain identity by adopting certain linguistic practices. This adoption of specific vocabulary and terms reflects the ideal of acceptance. In the example above, it is obvious that the undercover agent tried to “blend in” with the rest of the Italians that were present at the gathering. In order to be “taken in like a son” and retrieve important information, he had to play the role of somebody who spoke and acted like one of the others. We can recontextualize the situation and look at the perspective of Desi teens in California. In Shalini Shankar’s article, “Speaking Like A Model Minority”, we can see the significant role that language plays in determining who belongs where in the social structure of a high school. We learn about a group of Desi teens who attend high school in the Silicon Valley area and we find out how the ways that they speak determine what “group” they belong to. To get started, let’s meet the two main groups that are formed based on their linguistic differences:
FOBs (Fresh of the Boat)
These teens are often considered to be of lower-middle class. They speak Desi Accented English combined with a lot of slang and hip-hop influenced terms as well as Punjabi. This group of teens is considered marginalized because of the way they speak and assert great pride over their non-American identity. FOBs consider multiple spaces to be "private", thus believing it to be acceptable to speak Punjabi. They make great efforts to differentiate themselves from their popular Desi peers.
The Popular Crowd ("Model Minority")
These Desi teens are part of the middle/upper class and usually look down upon the routine usage of the slang/Punjabi style of speaking. They are the popular students at their public school and use Standard English almost all the time in order to assimilate into American culture. Shankar observes that they code switch (use both proper English and Punjabi/slag as strategic methods).
Besides their ancestry, what ties these two groups of high schoolers together is the way that they use language to identify themselves with and from each other. It's one of the biggest factors that determines their acceptance into a certain group, just like the way our good friend from SNL used diction to fit into the Italian American "group". At the same time, language is also what puts people up for judgment of authenticity. There are numerous instances where people identify themselves with a certain culture due to their upbringing, taste in music, style, and practice of certain traditions. In the scenarios such as the ones which have been brought to the surface in this post, many use language to display a certain authenticity to their culture. I think that language is very significant to one's character and fidelity to a culture or nationality. I don't mean to say that if someone who is actually Japanese by heritage but doesn't speak Japanese isn't a "real" Japanese person. I just believe that especially in the world we live in today, linguistic practices used in our every day lives allows us to identify with and show loyalty to a culture. Staying on the same track as individual authenticity formed by use of a languge, we can analyze Spanish speakers of both “school-taught” Spanish and Spanish of regional variations and dialect in Urciuoli’s article “Whose Spanish”. In this piece, Urciuoli examines how many Hispanic students in America struggle to harmonize their use of Spanish from home with the Standard Spanish that is used in academic settings. In order to remain linguistically unmarked, many Latino/as shy away from speaking their own kind of Spanish especially when they go to college. Urciuoli describes how an intricate correspondance is formed by “the ways in which academic Spanish correctness norms play on students’ self-consciousness; and the ways in which Spanish comes to be re-imagined as an element of a globalized version of ethnic identity” (1). Once again, we see that whatever language we speak and how we speak it greatly influences our adjustment into any social settings. Whether in a public high school or private university, our relationship with the way we speak affects our association with the people we’re surrounded by as well as with our own identity.