I ventured to Love Island…as you do

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Many TV shows have promoted and propagated catchphrases and slang: ‘Luvly jubbly’ from Only Fools and Horses, ‘Cowabunga’ from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for example,  but probably the first reality TV series to lodge words and phrases in the British consciousness was T.O.W.I.E – ‘The Only Way is Essex‘ – source of ‘wel jel’, ‘reem’ and more. Love Island, now in its second series, also features a similar demographic – young adult, not necessarily highly educated, extrovert, fit (in both senses) and narcissistic.

As a linguist studying slang, I’m used to having to listen to and interact with criminals, social deviants and other ‘unsavoury’ characters, but one of the most painful experiences of all for me is the obligation to watch reality television. This is not mere linguistic snobbery – though that is certainly a factor – but, if I am honest, because I would never even in my youth have been selected to take part in these beauty contests cum dating games on account of my physical shortcomings. Nevertheless, I have been dutifully tuning in to Love Island recently and trying to come to terms with examples of what linguists call a ‘restricted code’, that is a limited vocabulary and limited grammatical repertoire of made up of simple structures and colloquialisms. This can reflect the limitations of speakers’ communication skills and literacy-levels, but does of course result from the very restricted environment in which participants are placed and the simple, repetitive actions and interactions they have to perform.

You might say, uncharitably perhaps, that the contestants on Love Island are also infantilised by being coerced into playing out simple and repetitive relationship games for the benefit of a voyeuristic audience. The words and phrases which result, and even the intonation and tone of voice that emerges is a weird mix in which the young ‘stars’ alternate attempts at complex formulations when describing psychological pressures with frivolous slang when flirting or teasing, all delivered in the rushed and breathless accents of toddlers.

Psychologists talk about the act of ‘mirroring’ whereby people imitate subconsciously the speech, gestures, mannerisms of others, either to ‘honour ‘ them (if they are seen as high-status or admirable) or to show solidarity and empathy. There is a neuron in the brain that triggers this mimicry in sharing emotion, reinforcing relationships and bonding. Mirroring is contagious like yawning and, again, inside a closed and comparatively claustrophobic environment, its effects are intensified.

The slang used on Love Island may be part of what linguists call a ‘stigmatised’ variety of language – i.e comprising linguistic features that are disapproved of and usually considered substandard in normal society,  but slang is at the same time what linguists call a ‘prestige variety’ within the in-groups or subcultures where it originates and where it is exchanged, in other words it confers status on the user and excludes the outsiders who aren’t cool enough to understand it and deploy it convincingly. So for the island community slang helps to reinforce identity and for their fans provides an opportunity to identify with them and emulate them.

The Radio Times has supplied a helpful glossary of the words and phrases in question:

https://www.radiotimes.com/news/tv/2019-06-06/love-island-glossary-slang-words-meaning/

Despite all my misgivings I agreed to speak to journalist Ralph Blackburn about the programme. Ralph had been intrigued by the way the contestants increasingly adopted one another’s language mannerisms just as their vocabularies seemed to reduce as the series progressed. His article appeared today in the Daily Mail:

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-7112087/Why-Love-Islanders-forced-copy-language.html

 

Love Island villa

 

The Sunday Times has also investigated language use on the show, and reactions from some schools to it:

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/like-it-or-not-they-cant-stop-saying-it-on-love-island-zc8dtpkfs

Finally, for a different perspective, on Love Island as a media and pop culture phenomenon, here is Charlotte Rogers‘ article in Marketing Week:

Charlotte Rogers: Love Island may be a ratings hit, but it’s a brand risk

 

CODESWITCHING, STYLESHIFTING – AND STEPPING OFF

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I first encountered codeswitching when as a very young boy I watched the movies of Satyajit Ray, the Indian auteur whose dialogues featured Indian families interspersing their conversations in Bengali with words and phrases in English. In those days the technical term for this, the concept too, was rarely if ever treated by linguists, let alone understood by the wider, overwhelmingly monoglot UK and US publics.

Codeswitching, which is actually commonly practised, usually in less formal settings, in many different societies and multilingual communities, did subsequently become the object of enquiry by language experts, and theories were generated to account for the phenomenon and to analyse its various manifestations (you can find a summary of these on Wikipedia).

More recently in the United States a particular manifestation, that of African American citizens moderating their language to cope with different speech environments, has helped ‘codeswitching’ to begin the crossover from technical terminology into everyday conversation. More recently still, in the last two weeks, the word has featured in a political and cultural cause celebre

She didn’t grow up in the Bronx. She moved out when she was 5. Saying she grew up around the language is misleading; it’s the very reason why it was so cringe-inducing to hear her say it. There was no flava, no swag, no essence. She didn’t pull it off.

‘From Westchester and Boston U who has never before been seen on any video (and she got lots of those!) speaking in this weird, constrained accent that was a person’s idea of what they should sound like. Leftists don’t get a pass on their racism.’

It’s “cultural appropriation.” It satisfies EVERY SINGLE definitional predicate thereof: She is not Black, not poor, and left the Bronx at age 5. She was pandering for political purposes. Not a debatable point.’

The accusations relate to American political Wunderkind and bugbear of the Right, Latina Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who was accused of pandering to a new constituency and assuming a fake identity in a speech to a predominantly black audience – accusations she rushed to refute, telling her critics to ‘step off’ – African American vernacular for ‘get lost’:

https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-defends-critics-say-used-fake-accent-step-right-off-223800949.html

Some members of the US public did voice their support

‘I think it’s just that most Republican house/Senate members have never talked to anyone except rich white men so they never have to switch’

 ‘Switching’ or ‘shifting’ is related to what linguists call ‘accommodation’ – altering your speech to match or to empathise with your interlocutors*. It can be simply intended to make communication faster, clearer, or it may be adopted consciously or unconsciously to establish a bond or to affirm solidarity. I certainly find myself doing it – but maybe I’m not typical as I’m a linguist. I do it and have heard it done not only with BAME interlocutors but when more neutral British accents are brought closer to those of Scousers, Geordies, Scots and, still in English, with Jamaicans, Americans and Australians. I think for obvious reasons we are more likely to engage the ’empathy’ mechanism when the conversation is in a more heightened, charged, socially sensitive setting – this of course would apply if we are more conscious of diversity, identity, inequity issues. I also have to talk a lot with younger people who are speaking street slang and MLE in their natural environment and when I do my intonation certainly shifts and I use more informal vocabulary and even slang – I modify the style of my speech in order to accommodate. They probably upscale their style for me too.

Whatever the reason for style-shifting I would say that it should generally be considered a positive rather than negative habit. In the stratified class-conscious British context it would only be questionable if it was condescending, as with a posh person adopting a ‘working class’ accent when talking to tradespeople – which I have to admit I do all the time and which Sunday Times columnist India Knight expounded on back in 2001 (thanks to Stewart McNicol for the reference):

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1yJQorfAWa3Vpj379L8nyG-23yjyeWR2AGRaeoBKopQg/edit

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Style-shifting is a positive part of being multilingual or rather ‘heteroglossic‘ – the  philosopher and literary theorist Bakhtin’s term for being able to speak in multiple voices for creative effect and in recognition of multiple contexts. The problem is that most monolingual Brits and Americans can’t do it and don’t do it. Of course the adoption of other voices can be overdone or done inappropriately. Some people have accused style-shifters of ‘appropriation’ but it depends on the speaker’s intention. If it’s to claim the other’s identity to exploit it – Australian rapper Iggy Azalea stood accused of faking a ‘blaccent’ last year – it’s bad. If it’s in order to form a bond it can be laudable. The TV comedy Phone Shop brilliantly satirised white men speaking multiethnic street slang, as did Sasha Baron Cohen’s character Ali G more than a decade earlier. DJ and hiphop enthusiast Tim Westwood has been getting away with it for years.

Following the latest brouhaha I talked to London journalist and specialist in BAME-related issues Faima Bakar about code-switching and her report for Metro is here:

https://metro.co.uk/2019/04/07/whats-the-issue-with-style-switching-when-talking-to-black-people-9128962/?ito=article.desktop.share.top.twitter

Yesterday US linguist John McWhorter joined the debate in an influential piece:

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/04/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-code-switches-black-english/586723/

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And Chandra Arthur reminded us of her TED talk on codeswitching as a strategy for underrepresented minorities in the tech industries:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bo3hRq2RnNI

Finally, in search of a personal take on the issues dealt with here, I spoke to a young academic researching at my own institution. Farhaz J told me…

‘I do find the idea of code-switching fascinating… I’ve been doing it all my life. From pronouncing English words with an Indian twang when conversing with my grandparents, to incorporating slang terms when messaging one of my primary school classmates who is currently in jail for gang crime. I’d imagine my most natural speaking style is that which I use when talking to my immediate family, with whom I’ve grown up and am most comfortable. And of course the style of language I would use in a job interview or an email to my lecturers at King’s College London might not be my most natural. It’s certainly interesting to consider motivations for code-switching.

If your natural style of speaking brings you privilege, why would you need to change it, and what does it suggest when you do? Perhaps in my case, my motivation for code-switching could either be to make myself more understandable, e.g. when adjusting my accent and grading my language when speaking to elders in my extended family, or to enhance my image – my ‘face’ – in the case of speaking to somebody who was involved in gang culture. I suppose it can be gratifying to appear trendy in how you speak – in my experience, the coolest kids in school used the latest slang, often acquired from peers or artists in UK rap and street culture. As language itself in that genre of music is regarded as much more essential than in others where there is much more emphasis on melody or vocal ability, there is probably a greater need for rappers to impress listeners with creative lexis in their lyrics.’

On a much lighter note, and lest we forget, Henry Hitchings reminds me to reference  former England managers Steve McClaren‘s spectacular act of linguistic accommodation back in 2008

 

*After this post and John McWhorter’s article appeared there were useful conversations on Twitter about which technical terms in linguistics most accurately described what AOC had been doing. US based sociolinguist Kelly E Wright commented, ‘I would consider what AOC is doing as style shifting, in a Sociolinguistic sense. To me, code-switching is intrasentential.’ She added, ‘From my theoretical background, I would characterize accommodation as happening on fine grained, lower levels. Slight vowel fronting or raising. Point being, not at the level of metacognitive awareness…We notice a recognizable, and also “foreign” (to us or to the speaker in our percept) speech pattern. That means there is much more than textbook accommodation going on.’ I noted that I had favoured ‘styleshifting’ in my commentaries but that ‘codeswitching’ had now become part of the ‘public conversation’/’sociocultural narrative’ and that ‘accommodation’, whether conscious or not, might be an appropriate term in cases of class-influenced accent moderation in a UK setting.