Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Linguistic Appropriation in Mass Media

- by Whitney Childs

This week the theme of our discussions is appropriation, and the way that it has manifested into our spoken and written languages as well into cultural practices. Jane Hill begins her article by discussing the ways in which linguistic appropriation can be seen as 'thefts', where 'speakers of the target language....adopt resources from the donor language, and then try to deny these to members of the donor language community" (Hill 158). Hill points to the direct and indirect ways in which this is achieved, with the indirect described as "reshaping the meaning of the borrowed material into forms that advance their own interest, making it useless or irrelevant, or even antithetical, to the interests of the donor community" (Hill 158). These linguistic appropriations occur predominantly from three languages - American Indian languages, African American English, and US Spanish. In this posting I will focus on the prevalence of Mock Spanish in the media and then move on to the broader topic of non-standard words making the move into mainstream culture through the internet.

Mock Spanish has become a common occurrence in popular culture - Hill describes teh reshaping of Spanish lexical items being used in Mock Spanish to 'service White purposes" (Hill 170). Take the example below:

Hasta La Vista...

The teenager in the video instructs Arnold Schwarzenegger to "listen to how people talk", implying that "No problemo" is a term already assimilated into mainstream or 'standard' culture. Important to note is this apparent agreement on the deletion of the grammatically correct 'hay' in the phrase,  as well as the tendency for Mock Spanish speakers to add the 'o' to the end of words rather than sticking to the correct 'a' ending. The other examples that the teenager goes on to give are vulgar phrases, prefacing them by saying that if 'someone comes up to you with an attitude', this is what you should tell them. Association alone indicates that he places 'no problemo' in the slang category. These phrases are in a group that is separate from Standard English, within which he categorizes Arnold's 'affirmative' response.

"Hasta la vista, baby" has become iconized in American culture and is predominantly associated with teh English language, and with Arnold's character, rather than the Spanish language which it originates from. Arnold Schwarzenegger is Austrian - he makes no attempt at an accent in his speaking and adds in 'baby', an English word, at the end of his phrase. This example reaffirms Hills' argument that MOck Spanish will "draw on Spanish for humor while actively distancing the spaker form the Spanish-speaking communities" (Hill 170). No oen would ever think to make a connection between Arnold and the Spanish language community, but by drawing on teh phrase, one that is replayed time and time again and one which I know I repeated in imitation several hundred times as a child, he is taking the meaning away from the Spanish language and claiming it as his own intellectual property. "Mock Spanish forms at every level of the American mass media and continually in everyday talk convey the message that Spanish is not a serious language" (Hill 170), and one that is drawn on for comedic effect. The second time that Arnold says the "Hasta la vista" line, it is before he is about to destroy his enemy. His monotone delivery of the words indicates that he doesn't view his opposition as a threat, and the line is delivered casually, almost in mimic of the inferiority of whom he is about to destroy.

To continue with another example of Mock Spanish in the mass media, I'd like to remind everyone of this:

Most of us have seen at least one of these commercials, with the only variation consisting in the background music or the outfit that the Chihuahua is wearing, but with the same basic meaning - "Yo quiero Taco Bell". Looking at the product it is associated with - cheap, pretty low quality 'Mexican' food that has had rumors spread about its alleged use of dog food for its meat, you can see the parallels that are drawn between the language, the product, and the culture. This is an example of how language interacts with cultural products such as food, music, etc. Combining the music being played in the background, the use of a Chihuahua and the accent of the voice-over, this would lead to the assumption that two tacos for ninety-nine cents is a good representation of Mexican culture. It is also an example of the tendency to use Spanish accents for comedic purposes.

The final example that I wanted to discuss was something that I continued to be reminded of during my reading of Hill as well as the readings that were for Monday's class. Hill mentions teh tendency for Whites to draw on African American English in order to exude "toughness, urban 'street-smarts', and especially 'cool'" (Hill 166). She discusses how certain African American words have become appropriated to all audiences regardless of age, as displayed in the example of Bob Costa's use of 'props'. Hill goes onto state that "appropriations from African American English obviously are intended to recruit desirable qualities to White speakers....while they lend to White people a 'cool' idenitty, they simultaneously index dangerous negative stereotypes" (Hill 169). This portion of th earticle remidned me of a website that has become extemely popular among young people - http://www.urbandictionary.com/.

Urban Dictionary is an online dictionary of slang words and phrases. It was created in 1999 by a computer science major, with, ironically enough, the first definition being 'the man' ("the faces of establishment put in place to 'bring us down'"). There are now over 5.5 million definitions on the website, which means that an estimate 15 million users a month are instantaneously educating themselves on teh 'street slang' they come across in their day to day lives. The example I have chosen to showcase is the Urban Dictionary definition of "what's up?", a phrase we have discussed in class.

This definition showcases the frustration of the individual who composed the definition at the use of the term 'what's up' and its' commonality in everyday social situations. The second definition that caught my eye is shown below:

I took note of this definition and the inclusion of the reply that can be used in 'urban settings'. As we discussed in class, 'what's up?' is of African American origin, but has become unmarked and extremely common in all social settings, even among older individuals. This definition implies that in certain localities there are specific replies that are expected or appropriate to use upon hearing this phrase.

How many of you have relied on Urban Dictionary to clue you in on an unknown term or phrase, or do you refer to the website as a more comical culture production that has sprung up in conjunction with the Facebook/Twitter/Internet craze among young people? To refer back to the earlier examples, how many of you have used to above 'catch phrases', and how do you think its' mass popularity and use have affected further appropriation?

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