Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Threads of Language and Identify

I can identify a New Yorker in conversation in a heartbeat. And it's likely that the rest of the country can as well. Residents of New York City and western Long Island (or Lung Guylan as I am apt to pronounce it—a good friend of mine from the Midwest once told me that I was the only person she knew who could produce such a hard /g/ in front of an /i/) speak a distinct dialect. The elements of the dialect contained within these statements are fairly recognizable thanks to the likes of Robert De Niro and Bugs Bunny. It is often parodied and often in the vein of the extremes apparent in the examples above, even though relatively few New Yorkers have such a hard stereotypical accent. It is also interpreted as aggressive and confrontational. Still, whether these elements are subtle and make appearances in moments of passionate debate or inebriation, or so pronounced as to make the speaker almost unintelligible, the New York dialect is a readily identifiable marker.

New Yorkers aren't forced to speak the way they do. But what if they were? What if New Yorkers had to drop their /r/s so that others could recognize them? How would their relationship to language change?

New Yorkers are not alone in possessing a specific dialect. New Englanders also have a recognizable way of speaking, as do Southerners and people from the Midwest. Language and identity have a complicated relationship. There is a lot of information that can be passed on linguistically beyond etymology. Language can reflect our social and natural environments and thus reveal a great deal about our daily lives. Linguistic anthropologists are right to view languages as rich cultural resources—and this is one of the reasons the Endangered Language Alliance has been working to collect and preserve the many "dying" languages spoken by immigrants throughout New York City.

However, languages do not constitute the whole of an identity. Languages change as we do; they are far from closed systems. In instances of colonialism and conquest, the language of the majority often absorbs any surrounding dialects or systems. There are hints of this process in the number system found on the Peruvian Magdalena document: The number system was of an unknown language but contained elements of nearby majority languages, suggesting serious contact. These traces of foreign influence tell us that the process of absorption does not occur overnight. During the periods of transition, there is a fair amount of identity negotiation that occurs among native speakers. 

Shaylih Muehlmann (2008) investigated the threads of identity negotiation during language absorption among the Cucapa of El Mayor in northern Mexico. The Cucapa practiced a semi-nomadic subsistence pattern that followed the Colorado River's flood levels until the early 20th-century (1). They fished, hunted rabbits and deer, and grew corn, beans, and pumpkins. However government restrictions on these activities—particularly fishing—limited opportunities for traditional subsistence activities, and pushed the Cucapa into alternative economic systems. Instead of fishing and hunting, they went to work in factories and in construction, and pursued other similar sorts of work. And in the process, they learned to hide traces of their "Indianness" to avoid discrimination, which meant suppressing, and ultimately forgetting, the Cucapa language (2).

However, this forgetting became problematic when the government determined that language was a primary means of establishing Cucapa identity for state benefits:
Whereas not speaking Spanish may have impeded their legal negotiations in the past, the Cucapa are now finding that a a lack of fluency in their indigenous language and traditions is increasingly delegitimizing their current legal claims. In battles for fishing rights and access to work programs and in appeals for general access to resources and support from the government, the Cucapa's claims are continually undermined on the basis of their purported lack of authenticity (3).
Not surprisingly, they are viewed as incompetent in their own language, which was discouraged during assimilation. Yet, Meuhlmann reports that the Cucapa deploy their indigenous language in ways that simultaneously challenge this assessment and demonstrate that language is a superficial identity marker.

How do they do this? Simple: they employ curses, or groserias.

When the Cucapa meet a soldier or other outsider who demands that they prove their claim to indigenous identity, the Cucapa respond by swearing. Since outsiders do not speak Cucapa and cannot translate the words, the swearwords function as both a marker of Cucapa identity and a means of subversion. A Cucapa woman explained this tactic to Meuhlmann:
Sometimes you go out in the sierra or in the desert and the soldiers are there and they won't let you pass. They stop you, pointing their guns at you and on your own land and they ask you your business. At times like this the chamacos (kids) simply say "Soy Indio" in Spanish and then in Cucapa they say "go screw yourself!" to which the soldiers say "oh," "pasale" (go ahead) (4).
Swearwords have been consciously chosen for this performance of Cucapa identity:
When obscenity features in displays of anger, as insults, or in playful vulgarity among youth in El Mayor it is always expressed in Spanish, which is indeed the “native” language of the majority of residents in El Mayor. For the youth, the use of Cucapa swearwords is less about engaging in the sociality of the obscene than about negotiating claims to indigeneity.
The Cucapa use the expectation that as indigenous people they must be able to speak a native language. It doesn't matter what is said—they could be naming colors—as long as it sounds like Cucapa, it's acceptable to the audience that just want to hear something that they believe is Cucapa. Although that's not entirely true: The Cucapa could be saying the names of colors, but by choosing swearwords the Cucapa are actually establishing the ignorance of the soldiers, officials, and any other demanding audience, and questioning their ability to authenticate identity (5). So the choice of swearwords as opposed to colors carries with it a significant meaning

Swearwords also allow Cucapa to establish boundaries of solidarity. Cursing is not the norm in speech, so a willingness to know and use these words identifies one as sympathetic to the contradictions embedded in claiming an indigenous identity. To know these words and understand the ways they are deployed means belonging to a covert group. Meuhlmann describes having to recite a number of Cucapa swearwords in order to prove that she could be trusted. Her language performance was neither a validation of identity but an expression of solidarity and a reminder that she is an outsider. The latter stems from her actual experience using the words, which generated a sense of discomfort and embarrassment as she fumbled through the recitation.

One interesting point to note that the elements of the Cucapa language that are being preserved through use are swearwords, so that in about twenty years when the last of the fluent Cucapa speakers have died, all that will remain to be transmitted to subsequent generations will be swearwords (6). The story that language can tell us is important, but we also need to consider how our categorization of languages generate meanings removed from the speakers:
The use of Cucapa swearwords also indicates how academic and state appeals arguing for the recovery of cultural wealth may sound to indigenous people. These appeals argue that cultures are important to "save," not just for the good of a specific community but also for the benefit of national patrimonies and, indeed, for all of humanity. From this perspective, it does not matter if saving the Cucapa language, for example, is a priority or even an interest in El Mayor, because it is in the interest of humanity, more generally. Neither is it relevant that people no longer speak Cucapa because of centuries of racism and marginalization that have come in the form of environmental injustice, suppressed livelihoods, and economic and social assimilation (7).
The next time an accent enters your conversation, consider the whole context of the interaction: the speaker, your response, what the language may mean to you and the speaker, and how these meanings may differ, rather than accepting the stereotypical assessment that may have branded this group.

Just because New Yawkers tend to tawk like dis—particularly before their morning cawfees doesn't make us all tough guy wannabes. But it might have that meaning if we're talking to someone from another region who seems disparaging.

Photo by Pexels

ResearchBlogging.orgMUEHLMANN, S. (2008). “Spread your ass cheeks”: And other things that should not be said in indigenous languages American Ethnologist, 35 (1), 34-48 DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1425.2008.00004.x

Ed Note: This paper was posted by a friend on Facebook who thought the title was hysterical. After actually reading it, I couldn't resist sharing it with you all.

1. Muehlmann (2008): 35 | 2. Muehlmann, 36 | 3. Muehlmann, 36 | 4. Meuhlmann, 39 | 5. Meuhlmann, 44 | 6. Meuhlmann, 44 | 7. Meuhlmann, 45


  1. Another great post, Krystal. Thanks for sharing. I like how you've tied this article on indigenous language into the dynamics of New Yawker and Lawn Guyland dialects. This is a subject close to my heart this week since I'm back home on LI.

    "New Yorkers aren't forced to speak the way they do. But what if they were? What if New Yorkers had to drop their /r/s so that others could recognize them? How would their relationship to language change?"

    Funnily enough, that's not too far removed from how it feels sometimes. I've been living abroad for years now and my own accent has changed, but I find myself slipping back into the Lawn Guyland accent and intonation when speaking with family and locals. If I don't, I constantly have to repeat stuff and people continually remark about my accent and ask where I'm from ("uh, just down the street?"). I start to feel uncomfortable and out of place and so the subtle code-switching takes over. I know my accent changes back again when I'm on the phone with my friends from the UK and my family finds that especially funny. But as you say, not everyone has the same accent in NY, depending on ethnic background, place of birth and what borough your parents were born in before they moved "out on the Island". Some people might see the hard NY accent as aggressive (thanks Hollywood), but someone once told me that you can't be a NYer without it. Is dialect so essential to our identity?

  2. And of course, New Yorkers can recognize the subtle shifts from one borough to another :)


  3. Fucking A! The nice thing about using expletives to demonstrate sociolinguistic conventions is that they are highly marked. People tend to notice. The downside is that there are some folks who are so put off by social norms of decency that they tend to not follow your argument at all. What a vicious cirlce...

    Anyway, I find this a great read, especially the solid connection between identity and dialect.

    @fran Regarding the use of accents depending on who you are talking to, apart from elements of bonding with your peers through a shared idiom there is also the phenomenon of accomodation. This identity thing and social denominators are such a wicked subject.

  4. @Fran: You make an interesting case about switching. It's something that I also do--I don't have a Trinidadian accent at all, until I go to the local roti-shop and need to order food. I'm also more aware of how "New York" I sound when I'm traveling, though when I briefly lived in the south, I would have sworn that a certain drawl snuck into my speech. I think dialects are important markers for identity in terms of how we want to be recognized, but as social scientists we need to be aware that they may be intentionally deployed for reasons that aren't readily apparent. The message in the deployment has a lot to do with the aspects of language that are preserved and how it is recognized elsewhere, which I think is partly the reason New Yorkers particularly get such a bad language rep.

    You literally are just down the street from me! Hope your stint at home is/was enjoyable.

  5. @Meg, great video! Yes, it's true that I can tell a Brooklynite from someone from Staten Island, and even true Long Islanders are totally unmistakable.

    For a more serious take on this, I strongly recommend "American Tongues," which is available for a short period from PBS. It's long but worth it: http://www.pbs.org/pov/americantongues/watch.php?sms_ss=facebook&at_xt=4d4b7fc6ef37481c%2C0

  6. @Jakob: The article actually discusses the elders' responses to the youth use of groserias. Essentially, they say that the youth are rude, etc. and then launch into a nostalgic discussion about "the good old days" when people were mannered and spoke well, etc. This sort of logic generally overlooks that people were being rude linguistically in totally different ways.