Monday, August 30, 2010

Slang Bangers

In case you haven’t heard, across the pond, the DEA is looking for nine translators for African-American Vernacular English/AAVE/Ebonics, saying
Without addressing whether or not it considers Ebonics a true language, the DEA acknowledges that the phenomenon is crippling its ability to understand some of its own secret recordings.
There have been two basic reactions, titters
Yes, it was as wonderfully train wreck-esque as you’d imagine two well-educated, grown men describing what “frontin’” means would be.
and sneers
Ebonics, depending on who you ask, is either a real or a completely imagined thing. Proponents argued that some black people were speaking a whole different language independent of English. Other's argued that augmented or "bastardized" English is not a whole other language. For example, I don't always understand what British people are saying because I don't understand most British slang, but I still agree that British people obviously speak English and I would be able to communicate with a British native without too much difficulty. Slang is slang. Colloquialisms are colloquialisms. But it's all still in English, just with a different accent, different idioms, sayings and affects.
What you notice about both of these is the subtle snobbery – it’s ludicrous to have an academic discussion of the language of the uneducated, and slang, unlike real languages, is unworthy of translation. Black Snob’s disdain even extends as far as anyone even capable of understanding it – more like gangsters than translators
they need you, slang bangers, to tell them what these so-called "Ebonics" spouting linguists are saying.
Motivated Grammar gets it right though:
Believing that a language isn’t really a language doesn’t make it magically comprehensible to you, nor incomprehensible to its users. We could argue whether AAVE is a language or a dialect, whether it should be treated as a second language for instructional purposes, or how exactly one proves proficiency in AAVE. But it is an indisputable fact that AAVE exists, and that it must be converted to SAE for judges, juries, and investigators to understand it.
Nonetheless, some comment-monkeys still think, because Ebonics is the language of simpletons, it is simple, and therefore any idiot can translate it with the help of Urban Dictionary:
I remember learning about ebonics in my English class it sounds like tons of coded slang but if you take the time you can surely translate it out
Oddly enough, just as I'd been reading about this, Tracy-Ann Oberman, on The Wright Stuff (Channel Five's showcase for tedious, ill-informed waffle), used 'Ebonics' to refer to the entirely new linguistic phenomenon of words changing. There seems to be this idea at the centre that Ebonics = trendy black slang.

There's way more to it than that though. It’s got a whole different set of grammar, which isn’t unheard of with English dialects: Americans use the past simple with ‘yet’ where British people could only get away with present perfect, and with different regional dialects the verb ‘to be’ conjugates differently. AAVE grammar’s a bit more drastic though, test yourself:
Try putting the following sentences in order from earliest to most recent:
(1a) I been seen him.
(1b) She do see me.
(1c) The dog done seen her.
(1d) We did see the dog.
The correct order is been seen (pre-recent), done seen (recent), did see (pre-present), do see (past inceptive). There is a similar structure to the future, with a-see indicating seeing in the immediate future, a-gonna see indicating seeing in the near future, and gonna see indicating seeing in a far future.
Yay grammar!

So here’s your language-geek speculation titbit: the whole Kanye West “Imma let you finish but...” thing, I reckon is probably politer to AAVE speakers than it is to non-speakers. Standard English organises the future by strength of intention, and doesn’t really have this way of conveying “this won’t take long” through grammar. Doesn’t make Kanye any less of a helmet, but still.

By the way, did anyone mention that scene in Airplane!?

Monday, August 23, 2010

I Wish She'd Bloody Mentioned Having a Friend

A civilised lesbian's conundrum with the concept of facebook wives reminded me of an immensely disappointing confusion I had learning German.

Basically I fancied this Austrian girl to bits. Took me a while to realise that, every time a female German speaker says "mein Freund" (as opposed to "ein Freund von mir"), she doesn't mean "my friend [male]". She means "my boyfriend". Quite annoyed when I clocked that one, I can tell you. These things tend to work both ways, though, and teaching English to Germans, I gradually discovered they would say "a friend from me" rather than just "my friend". This was when they were men talking about men they got on with. Girls talking about girls, it would always be "a girlfriend from me", or else "my girlfriend", in the baffling American finger-wagging sense.

This is a whole new set of distinctions to learn with each language: we don't distinguish the platonic word by gender, they don't distinguish the masculine or feminine word by whether or not they've snogged. And when Germans use English words, they tend to use them in rather German ways. So a German website "friendscout24", though it uses "friend", which would be an emphatically fully-clothed relationship in English, has obvious connotations of romance for Germans.

This stuff is weird. And I've not even thought about how it must go once you chuck in homosexual relationships. In fact, the entire language of boyfriends and girlfriends is euphemistic to the extreme. Firstly, it's more than just a boy or girl (or lady or gentleman, once you reach a certain age) that you're friends with. Then you've got 'relationship', which is also stupid. I've had a relationship with every student I've ever taught. I was their teacher and they were my student. 'Dating' is even worse, and 'sleeping with' and even 'shagging' are just as incomplete. So no wonder it's just as weird and confusing in other languages.