Thursday, March 24, 2011

Verily, That's Right

by Tamara Whitehouse

I’d like to open with the Kelis parody image I mentioned in class on Monday:


These images are examples of style shifting, or a change in register.  In Kelis’s pop song, "Milkshake," the register is a ‘normal,’ ‘modern,’ relatively standard form of casual English.  In the first image here, however, the register is wildly different- it appears to be in the style of older English, such as would appear in Chaucer or Shakespeare.  (In reality, the English in this image was probably never considered ‘correct;’ I doubt that ‘they’re like’ was proper usage or even made sense in the time period the image attempts to portray, but I digress.)  In the second image, the register is not ‘old-style English,’ but rather simply hyper-standard English, with the British spelling of ‘flavored’ to boot.

This is significant because, as discussed in class, different registers can be or become associated with different categories of person.  An academic register is associated with those in academia, such as professors, while a military register is associated with soldiers, and so on. Therefore, in laughing at what seems to be an incongruous or nonsensical style shift, we can learn something about what we associate with those styles and what we associate with the original meaning of the lyrics. The language used in Kelis’s lyrics might be associated with a young, street-smart person, while the language used in these images might be associated variously with a stereotypical stuffy old British nerd or a stuffy old British medieval peasant.

What’s interesting about these is that the humor comes not just from the incongruity between what we know the lyrics actually are, and what has been written on the images.  It comes from the incongruity between the associations we have with Kelis’s register, and the associations we have with the registers in the images. It’s a conflict between our perception of Kelis, and our perception of what sort of person might speak using the other registers.

Morgan quotes extensively from a stand-up act by comedian Chris Rock, wherein he asks: “How the **** did you expect him (an educated Black man) to sound?... What voice were you looking to come out his mouth?” (Morgan, 288.)  If we were to again imagine the speakers of the registers in these images, the stuffy nerds and medieval peasants, these images would of course be what we would expect the speakers of those registers to look like.  Similarly, we might expect Kelis’s lyrics to come from someone who probably looks and speaks a lot like Kelis.  Those are the voices we ‘expect’ these characters to sound like.

As alluded to by Chris Rock, though, why do we hold those expectations and why are they so biased?  Why do we expect the hyperstandard speech from a white person, and why is it humorous when placed in relation to lyrics sung by an African American?  We expect Kelis’s lyrics to come from her; to standardize them, or to hyperstandardize them, is funny- but perhaps it is funny for the wrong reasons.  These style shifts may be incongruous partly because of the expectations we hold in mind- we are already aware of who sang these lyrics first, and for whatever reason, standardizing the words goes against our expectations. 

The images are also significant, however, because they point to something else Morgan discusses.  She argues that while the concept that someone “may be saying and meaning something more (or something else) than what is literally spoken” is common, the ability to decode these hidden meanings requires more than instinct.  She also notes that “some may recognize” these hidden meanings, “but not others” (Morgan, 283).   Related to these images, I have to ask: Do any of us really know what Kelis meant by “milkshake” and “yard” in her lyrics?  I believe I have a reasonably good idea, but I couldn’t (for example) provide an exact definition.   I have a good enough idea that I would be distressed if one of my younger cousins began singing the song erroneously believing that Kelis is literally talking about a milk product and a backyard- a mistake in comprehension that Morgan also touches upon (Morgan, 285).  This mistake in comprehension can lead to two people speaking about two completely different things, which is why it is so vital to conversation that we be able to understand when someone is speaking using double language.

In laughing at these images, we are not only laughing at something funny- we are also signaling that we know what register the words are ‘supposed’ to be in, we know what ulterior meaning the words are ‘supposed’ to have, and we believe that both of these ‘facts’ are subverted by the registers used.  We may also be laughing because, once written in a different register, the ulterior meaning of the words seems to be lost- suddenly, the lyrics really are simply discussing literal milkshakes, since we can’t seem to associate the registers used with the ulterior meanings present when Kelis sings the song herself.  And by sharing these images with others, we have the expectation and assumption that others will find them humorous, as well- that others will have the same expectations as we do, and that others will understand that the style shifting depicted is inappropriate.  I am making these same assumptions right now, as I type this- for this blog entry to ‘work,’ everyone has to understand the strangeness of the style shifting in those two images.  A lack of understanding and a conflict would both arise if anyone did not.

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