Saturday, April 9, 2011

Authentic Ambiguity

by Brittney Gerald 
            Bloomfield’s article “Literate and Illiterate Speech” analyzes and challenges folk conceptions of language as “good” or “bad”, and “correct” or “incorrect”. He asserts, “we find it easy…to judge of ‘incorrect’ or ‘faulty’ locutions, ‘bad grammar’, [and] ‘mispronunciation’ (2). However, when we are challenged to explain why these accusations about linguistic incorrectness are wrong, we struggle to make sense of our preconceived notions. In the following clip from the movie Mean Girls, the principal introduces the protagonist Cady Heron to the class by mispronouncing her name as “Caddy” (with a short “a” sound):

 Cady then corrects him, saying it is pronounced like “Katie”, the normalized spelling of the name. The principal then rambles on about his anger towards his brother for naming his son “Anfrony” instead of the common name “Anthony”. When Cady makes the same name correction later to Janis, Janis blankly stares at her and declares that she will call her “Caddy” anyway, despite acquired knowledge of how to “properly” pronounce Cady’s name. These tiffs about name pronunciation draw on a number of ideological claims. Why does the uncommon spelling and pronunciation of Cady’s name provoke apparent frustration, and even resistance, for Janis and the principal? Janis’ insistence on calling her “Caddy” suggests that Cady’s claims about her name’s pronunciation are “incorrect” to Janis. Both she and the principal initially “mispronounce” Cady’s name, drawing on knowledge about English spelling and phonetics. Bloomfield declares, however, that “there is no fixed standard of ‘correct’ English” (432). Where then do our notions of “correctness” come from? Bloomfield claims, “the popular explanation of incorrect language is simply the explanation of incorrect writing, taken over…to serve as an explanation of incorrect speech” (433). Therefore, Cady’s written spelling of her name becomes the basis in which both Janis and the principal determine the “correctness” of its pronunciation. We often use writing as the basis for “correct” English, which is problematic. Writing is a social construction created after enactments of speech: “Writing is based on speech, not speech on writing” (Bloomfield 433). It seems ironic then that so many of us determine linguistic “correctness” based on written forms of language.

   The above Mean Girls clip also demonstrates other presumptions about language, particularly with respect to race and ethnicity. In Professor Rosa’s excerpt “Between Multiculturalism and Assimilation…”, he explores the ways in which “individuals come to ‘look’ like a language and ‘sound’ like a race” (3) in a Chicago high school. In the video clip, before introducing Cady, the principal announces the presence of a new student from Africa. The teacher (Tina Fey’s character) immediately says, “Welcome!”, gesturing towards the only black girl in the classroom, who then asserts, “I’m from Michigan”. The teacher, as well as many of us, assumes ethnicity based on phenotype or skin color. During a later scene in the clip, Cady greets a table of black students in the lunchroom with “Jambo!”, meaning “Hello” in Swahili. The students stare back at Cady, perplexed and offended. This is an example of “looking like a language”; Cady assumes that this group of students will know an African language, simply because they are black. Professor Rosa refers to the “racialized ways in which ethnolinguistic authenticity is assigned to various persons” (40). His work reveals how “Latinas’/os’ naturalized relationship with respect to the Spanish language manifests how ‘authenticity’ can valorize and stigmatize languages and their speakers simultaneously” (Rosa 40). Conceptions of linguistic authenticity linked to race and ethnicity become problematic. Later in the lunchroom, Karen blatantly asks Cady, “If you’re from Africa, then why are you white?” Again, she draws on preconceived notions about race and ethnicity. All of these notions assume blackness is tied to certain ethnic origins and linguistic abilities. However, this ignores the long history of African Americans and slavery, in which Africans were forcibly stripped of their culture, including proficiency in African languages.
            Although presumed links between race, ethnicity, and language become problematic throughout Mean Girls, Anzaldua offers an interesting perspective that may complicate things. In her excerpt from “How to Tame a Wild Tongue”, she explains, “Chicano Spanish is considered by the purist and by most Latinos deficient, a mutilation of Spanish” (Anzaldua 77). However, she argues, “Chicano Spanish is a border tongue which developed naturally” (77). It is interesting that she uses the term “naturally”, since language is not a natural phenomenon. In “The Queer Politics of Spanglish”, La Fountain-Stokes declares, “There is nothing intrinsically pure or impure about sexuality or language, except how they are constituted and defined in different socio-cultural and historic moments” (1). Anzaldua herself offers a socially-driven, not natural, explanation for her language development: “Chicano Spanish sprang out of the Chicanos’ need to identify ourselves as a distinct people” (77). She suggests that claims to a distinct language are necessary in order to distinguish the identity of a group of people. Professor Rosa’s excerpt describes students who also draw on linguistic practices to signal something about their identities. The Latina/o students’ “felt need to speak ‘unaccented’ English and to manifest one’s Latina/o identity by referencing knowledge of Spanish” led to enactments of “Inverted Spanglish”, the “incorporation of Spanish lexical items pronounced with English phonology into English discourse” (Rosa 5). The students therefore appropriate a linguistic practice/forms in attempts to signal levels of authenticity and counteract notions of markedness.
            The students from Mean Girls clearly express offense to presumed notions about ethnicity and language. However, Anzaldua emphatically proclaims, “Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity—I am my language” (81). Her ethnicity is closely intertwined with her language, and these two work together to encompass her identity as a whole: “Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself” (81). For Anzaldua, ethnicity equals language, which in turn equals identity and feelings of wholeness and legitimacy. What, then, is the “correct” way to approach linguistic authenticity in a world of ethnic and racial ambiguity? The term “authenticity” in itself presumes that there is a “right” way to speak a language; should determining authenticity even matter? 

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