I came across this lovey t-shirt for sale on a website called Team Sarcasm Tshirts: Wielding the light of sarcasm against the dark spectrum of human stupidity for the benefit of all.

It’s unclear to me from the other t-shirts for sale what the underlying message is supposed to be. On the surface, at least, it looks as though not speaking English will result in the speaker being shot. I run into this kind of playfully extreme aggressive stance in matters of language all the time. Just one more to add to the collection.

You can edit this ad by going editing the index.php file or opening /images/exampleAd.gif

Speak White

  I have been looking for a translation of this poem for a long time, and just now came across it. It was written by Québécois  Michèle Lalonde in 1970,  and translated by Albert Herring, 2001–2012.  You can listen to the poet reading it in the original French, here. It’s a beautiful poem, powerful in its simplicity. The subject is the overt and aggressive discrimination against French speaking Canadians (Québécois) which was wide-spread and unapologetic.

The poem was written in 1970 — more than forty years ago — and in that amount of time, the tide turned and the Québécois gained political power. As was to be predicted, they began to limit discourse for English speakers, often in extreme ways. I wrote about this briefly in 2012 edition of English with an Accent.

The poem is not just about discrimination toward French speaking Canadians; it draws on language focused-discrimination in many other places and in doing so, demonstrates the power of language as a gate-keeping mechanism in the hands of the politically dominant. It was made into a short film, as well, which you can read about here.

Speak White

Speak white
It sounds so good when you
Speak of Paradise Lost
And of the gracious and anonymous profile that trembles
In Shakespeare’s sonnets

We’re an uncultured stammering race
But we are not deaf to the genius of a language
Speak with the accent of Milton and Byron and Shelley and Keats
Speak white
And forgive us our only answer
Being the raucous songs of our ancestors
And the sorrows of Nelligan

Speak white

Talk about this and that
Tell us about Magna Carta
Or the Lincoln Memorial
The grey charm of the Thames
The pink waters of the Potomac
Tell us about your traditions
As a people we don’t really shine
But we’re quite capable of appreciating
All the significance of crumpets
Or the Boston Tea Party

But when you really speak white
When you get down to brass tacks

To talk about gracious living
And speak of standing in life
And the Great Society
A bit stronger then, speak white
Raise your foremen’s voices
We’re a bit hard of hearing
We live too close to the machines
And we only hear the sound of our breathing over the tools.

Speak white and loud
So that we can hear you
From St-Henri to St-Domingue
What an admirable tongue
For hiring
Giving orders
Setting the time for working yourself to death
And for the pause that refreshes
And invigorates the dollar

Speak white
Tell us that God is a great big shot
And that we’re paid to trust him
Speak white

Talk to us about production profits and percentages
Speak white
It’s a rich langauge
For buying
But for selling
But for selling your soul
But for selling out

Speak white
Big deal

But to tell you about
The eternity of a day on strike
To tell the story of
How a race of servants live
But for us to come home at night
At the time that the sun snuffs itself out over the backstreets
But to tell you yes that the sun is setting yes
Every day of our lives to the east of your empires
There’s nothing to match a language of swearwords
Our none-too-clean parlure
Greasy and oil-stained.

Speak white
Be easy in your words
We’re a race that holds grudges
But let’s not criticize anyone
For having a monopoly
On correcting language

In Shakespeare’s soft tongue
With the accent of Longfellow
Speak a pure and atrociously white French
Like in Vietnam, like in the Congo
Speak impeccable German
A yellow star between your teeth
Speak Russian speak call to order speak repression
Speak white
It is a universal language
We were born to understand it
With its teargas words
With its nightstick words

Speak white
Tell us again about Freedom and Democracy

We know that liberty is a black word
Just as poverty is black
And just as blood mixes with dust in the steets of Algiers
And Little Rock

Speak white
From Westminster to Washington take it in turn
Speak white like they do on Wall Street
White like they do in Watts
Be civilized
And understand us when we speak of circumstances
When you ask us politely
How do you do
And we hear you say
We’re doing all right
We’re doing fine
Are not alone

We know
That we are not alone

Michèle Lalonde, 1970, translated Albert Herring, 2001–2012

Caveats: (a) I translate for a living, but more user manuals, position papers and contracts than poetry, and more often out of European French than québecois, and (b) it’s a first draft, which I am putting up for feedback, particularly in case I have misrepresented any spécificités québecoises. The bilingualism of the poem is a translation issue in itsself, particularly when working into the oppressor language. I have chosen to mark the English in the original in whatever form your browser displays the <EM> tag. “Se vendre” can be to sell (well) of an object, to sell out (like a bad punk band), or to sell oneself, which is why I took the possibly dubious liberty of using two different versions when the French just repeats itself. Thanks to Eco for the heads up about the Coke ad; /msg me with any nagging doubts or suggestions.

Translation copyright Roger Hughes, 2003-1012 – I would appreciate a credit if you use it.



So finally, I’ve got around to this. Except now I can’t find the damn Audible certificates, so I’ll give away two copies of EWA. And the winners are:

Mary Ross


So please the two of you — email me your mailing addresses and I’ll get these out to you asap.

rosina (symbol) pobox (dot) com

NYT Newsflash: Young women aren’t necessarily immature and silly

Linguistic stereotypes of young women are abundant (Saturday Night Live is a good place to find them). And I confess, I laugh at this stuff myself, on occasion. But it is another example of the way language ideology works to trivialize and peripheralize young women. This seems to come as a surprise to many people, some of them at the New York Times.

An upward inflection swing at the end of a sentence may be far more complex in terms sociolinguistic marking than previously supposed.

Academic articles
  • Cukor-Avila, Patricia; (2002). She say, she go, she be like: Verbs of quotation over time in African American Vernacular English. American Speech, 77 (1), 3-31.
  • Dailey-O’Cain, Jennifer. (2000). The sociolinguistic distribution of and attitudes toward focuser like and quotative like. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 4, 60–80.




Enhanced by Zemanta

Twitter & Linguistics

I’m not a Tweeter, but I may have to change my mind on that. See the NYT article by Jennifer Schluessler:

Enhanced by Zemanta

Mocking for fun and profit: Hoekstra’s offensive ad campaign

Pete Hoekstra — a Republican running for the Senate in Michigan — has decided that mocking the Chinese and Chinese Americans is the way to beat incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow.  Have a look at his  anti-Stabenow pitch on his website. Hard to imagine a more complete collection of Asian stereotypes and cliches. Thanks to Don Davis for sending me the link.

About English with an Accent’s new edition

An article that gets the details right… I am impressed.

the n-word: I’ll say it, out loud

The n-word is this: nonstandard. To use this word is to validate the idea of a dichotomy: on one side what is good and acceptable, and on the other side what is aberrant, and unacceptable. Everyone who has been trained in linguistics — and lots of people who haven’t, but who think clearly — will tell you that this way of talking about language is a misrepresentation. It is misleading, and it validates a lot of divisive and discriminatory ideas.

Every human language is suited to its community of speakers, and every language evolves as the needs of the community evolve. The idea that speakers of Language A are better able to express themselves than speakers of Language B is based on a lot of false assumptions about the way language works. As linguists we bemoan the general lack of open-mindedness when it comes to the way people think about language.

But we are ourselves to blame, at least in part, and we are to blame because we do not practice what we teach.

At the annual conference for sociolinguists this past October, I set out to count the number of times I heard academic linguists use the words ‘non-standard’ and ‘standard.’  When I raised the subject (why are we using these terms which feed into the very inequalities we are examining?) the expressions I saw in response were irritated or clueless. The excuse I’ve heard and read in any number of peer reviewed article goes like this: The ‘standard – nonstandard’ contrast, erroneous as it is, is too deeply ingrained to change.

To this I say: bullshit.

The usage is ingrained because the underlying ideology is rock solid.  It’s too ingrained, we can’t change it: this is a rationalization, and a lazy, self serving rationalization, at that. Of course it’s going to be hard to break the habit. A Google search for the string “non-standard English” nets 2,830,000 hits; “standard English” gets 2,960,000.

The idea that some languages are bad and some languages are good is perpetuated every day. By us. And here’s a simply solution: stop using the word. Stop using both words. Bann ‘standard’ and ‘non-standard’ from your mind; take the time to express the concept you’re reaching for in other terms.

The sentence ‘non-standard languages are stigmatized’ is a tautology.Any academic worth her salt should be able to see that, and find a way to express the idea hiding there. And if not, if we  can’t give up these terms, there’s little hope that we’ll ever be able to make people understand what’s wrong with them.  Or to stop using them. Or stop acting on them.

Best laid plans and a free book

I have been absent for a while but here I am again to say that the revised second edition of English with an Accent is now on sale.

Textbooks are outrageously expensive. I wish there was something I could do about it, but as there is not, I’m giving away a copy of the softcover edition, which costs something like $45. If you leave a comment here in about a month’s time I’ll draw a name at random and send you the book. I’m leaving this open for a whole month because things are rather quiet here and I need to drum up some traffic.



Linguapax is an organization that promotes language diversity. There was a post earlier this month about discrimination against college professors with accents and steps taken to address the problem at a university in Iowa. You can read about it here.