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.

 

POSH?!

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In November 2002 the Sun newspaper reported that footballer’s wife ‘Posh Spice’ Victoria Beckham had launched a legal bid to stop second division football club Peterborough United from registering its nickname Posh as a trademark. The former Spice Girl claimed the word had become synonymous with her. ‘Sun readers, the paper affirmed, ‘back the club, which has used the name for eighty years.’ This little word epitomises both the English obsession with status distinctions and the jokey tone in which such a contentious subject is often addressed.

Fictional characters in the novel Diary of a Nobody, published in 1892 and the musical Lady Madcap, playing in London in 1904, sported the name Posh, and in a 1918 Punch cartoon a young swell is seen explaining that it is ‘slang for swish’. The first use of the word in the Times newspaper was in a crime report from May 1923, headlined ‘The Taxicab Murder’. ‘A walking stick was left at the scene of the crime, which the murderer left behind after shooting the driver, which belonged to his friend Eddie Vivian. He said…that he went out with Eddie’s stick because he wanted to be ‘posh’.’ In 1935 in the same paper the use of the word, which still appeared between quotation marks, was excused as ‘inevitably the idiom of the younger generation creeps in’.

The popular derivation, from the initial letters of ‘Port Out, Starboard Home’ allegedly affixed to the cabin doors of first-class passengers on P&O Orient Line steamships, is certainly false, as demonstrated by, among others, word-buff Michael Quinion in his 2005 book which took the phrase as its title. Posh seems to have been used in low-life slang for some time before it was first recorded in a dictionary of 1889 with the principal meaning ‘money’ and the subsidiary sense of ‘dandy’. It may be the same word, in the form ‘push’, meaning ‘swanky, showy’, that featured in Edwardian upper-class student slang (‘quite the most push thing at Cambridge’ was P.G Wodehouse’s description of a fancy waistcoat, from 1903). The ultimate origin, then, is obscure: in the Romany language which was a rich source of pre-20th century argot, posh could mean ‘half’, often referring to half a shilling/crown/sovereign, etc. so may have come to denote money in general, then the trappings of wealth.

In 1966 Michael Aspel was carpeted by the BBC for selling records of elocution lessons featuring his voice and that of  Jean Metcalfe (whose obituary in 2000 noted her ‘deep, cultivated voice’, the ads for which implied, the corporation said, that broadcasting required a posh voice. Like class-consciousness itself, and like the assertively upper-class accents it often described, the word posh seemed to fall out of fashion after the end of the 1960s,  only to reassert itself at the new millennium. At the end of the ‘noughties’, it took on a renewed importance with David Cameron’s accession to the leadership of the Tory party and fellow Old Etonian Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson’s election as London mayor. As a literal synonym of privileged/wealthy/upmarket it is usefully inoffensive. Very frequently, however, it is used ironically, as in references to ‘posh nosh’ (typically very expensive sausages), and what online gossip site Popbitch dubs the ‘too-posh-to-push brigade’ – pampered mothers who opt for caesareans at private hospitals rather than natural births.

Reviewing Joanna Lumley mocking her own accent in a 2005 TV commercial, the Independent on Sunday commented, ‘In the 1960s, After Eights, Harvey’s Sherry and Cockburn’s Port were sold to Mrs Bucket’s everywhere on class – the idea that posh people bought them…if you want to do posh now it has to be spoofy and retro.’

In pop culture contexts posh has proved to be handy as an antonym of chav, especially in the numerous test-yourself quizzes in tabloids and online claiming to assess the underclass/toff-factor. From around 2000, ‘posho’ in UK campus slang has denoted a fellow-student perceived as from a wealthy or privileged background, while the litigious Victoria Beckham should note that in the same circles ‘Posh ‘n Becks’ is rhyming slang for sex.

Where accents are concerned the tide has seemed to flow in only one direction: in 2013 another broadcaster, the Radio 4 announcer Charlotte Green, accepted voluntary redundancy, declaring ‘received pronunciation, or accent-less accent [sic], is on the wane. The BBC’s days of employing people who sound like me are more or less over.’ She had once been voted the most attractive female voice on radio, that voice described as ‘a marvel, something to make one feel safe and secure, like being tucked up in bed with a hot water bottle.’ These days Cameron and Johnson play down their patrician tones to some extent, but fellow OE Jacob Rees Mogg incorporates a mannered, punctilious accent into his repertoire of self-presentation, adding to what the Sun terms ‘his ultra-posh exterior’ (the p-word is routinely applied to him by all sections of the media) and signalling to some the resurgence of a fogeyism that is either picturesque or (‘Please-Flog’ was one of the least offensive nicknames suggested in a Twitter poll) unsettlingly sinister.

 

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SHARP NUMBERS AND STATUS SPHERES

 

I’m interested in the extent to which the trendy jargon of business and lifestyle really is transient, as it’s often presumed to be. Many of the buzzwords which I discovered and tried to analyse back in the noughties decade are no longer current. Some of them never managed to escape the rarefied circles in which they were invented and briefly exchanged. Others, however, still resonate  – and still, remarkably, are seen as innovative and novel. Here are two examples of what I mean: can you decide in which years the following words were written?

 

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SHARP NUMBERS

I’m almost certainly in the top category – a so-called high skeptic – on Obermiller and Spangenburg’s grading of consumers’ resistance to advertising claims. I’m endlessly irritated for instance at prices that end in 95p or 99p rather than go the whole hog. This tactic is crude and familiar, but other forms of number manipulation and the quasi-technical terms describing them increasingly crop up in commercial conversation.

Theorists of customer behaviour and information load describe my bugbear as the (positive) nine-ending effect, closely related to the (negative) left digit effect – if increasing the price causes the leftmost digit to change, the sale may well be lost. In analysing consumer inference and the processing of brand information the experts cite a numerical superiority effect. This simply means that claims expressed in numbers (‘78.6% effective’) appear to be objective  – based on empirical data – while claims expressed in words (‘finished to the highest technical standards’) tend to be judged as subjective. The same distinction operates between round figures or round numbers, often suspected of being approximations or guesstimates, and sharp numbers, assumed to demonstrate verifiability. This quirk of human psychology the experts describe as precision heuristics. Round numbers incidentally don’t always have to end in zero: given our system based on tens, fives are also salient (i.e more memorable and processed more readily).

Mathematician Stanislas Dehaene highlighted these and other psychological features of number-perception a decade ago, (and Proctor and Gamble’s claim that their Ivory soap was ‘99 and 44/100 per cent pure’ is a century old), but only recently have they begun to cross over into public awareness. The housing market in particular has woken up to a related phenomenon, that buyers have an innate tendency to treat sharp numbers as lower than round ones. They may for example unconsciously perceive £725,000 as higher than £725,647. Sharp numbers play a key role, too, in the pique technique, also known as mindful persuasion, whereby a request is made in an unusual way to pique the subject’s interest, usually illustrated by the simple example of a beggar asking for 97p instead of a pound. Such requests have been shown to have a potential 60% success-rate as opposed to 10% for round figures.

In US financial journalism, by the way, the phrase sharp numbers has another, predictable, sense: it means the numbers that hurt.

 

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STATUS SPHERES

According to research by Standard Life Bank two out of three Brits in their 30s and 40s are now suffering from status anxiety about their homes, prompting TV consumer psychologist Benjamin Fry to attempt a more detailed diagnosis. They are apparently experiencing improvenza, which sounds like another affliction, but is touted not as the disease but the potential cure, involving as it does reconfiguring the work-life balance and, as often as not, renovating rather than moving. The notion of status anxiety as a defining modern malaise has been around for some time, but was popularised by UK philosopher Alain de Botton in his 2004 book of the same name. US trendspotter Faith Popcorn has since argued that it is moral status anxiety which increasingly defines our attitudes. She and others have been predicting the end of conspicuous consumption, to be replaced by conspicuous austerity (slogan: ‘less is the new more’), thrifting (opting for low-cost, low-profile living) or conscientious consumption, whereby our individual standing is defined by how far we manage to combine spending and leisure pursuits with self-improvement and charitable works.

Amsterdam-based Trendwatching.com, who also single out status as the key driver of new consumer behaviours, this year upped the stakes by coining the expression status despair to describe the awful realisation, for example, that a fellow oligarch has a more sumptuously fitted-out private jet than you. Journalists have identified other manifestations of this new angst, ranging from yacht-envy to bag-envy. The latter, according to media strategist Tracy Hofman, can be countered by what she calls status flair, ‘the thrill that resonates when you realise that the quilted Chanel handbag you acquired in 1990 is now back in fashion!’

Trendwatching claim that, in an experience economy, hierarchies based purely on spending power are outdated, supplanted by so-called status-spheres; different areas of activity such as ‘participation’, ‘giving’, ‘experiencing’ from which individuals derive self-validation and peer-recognition. In the same way those physical status symbols – visible, tangible purchases for display – are giving way to status stories, told not by manufacturers but by consumers bragging to other consumers, presumably by word-of-mouth and by way of blogging and viralling, about their personalised adventure holidays, their web-presence, not-for-profit investments, eco-credentials, etc.

 

Hierarchy Misalignment Syndrome

 

 

HMS, meaning a glaring mismatch in terms of status, is the latest mock-malady to afflict the business world. It was recently highlighted by, among others, PR and communication specialists Shine.com. It describes the awful sensation experienced when you sit down for an important face-to-face with a client or partner and find that your contact is an intern and/or someone 20 years younger than you. As Shine puts it, “It tends to mean that their organisation is taking neither you nor the project seriously – or, even more annoying, that your opposite number is a child prodigy.”

As a babyboomer I’m resigned to seniority or generational mismatches by now, though I try and check attendee status in advance of meetings. In wider contexts — company mergers, for instance — seniority integration is a priority for HR specialists. This coinage has been inspired, I suspect, not just by analogy with PMS (aka PMT) but by two genuine technical expressions: ‘hierarchy malalignment’ when mapping across databases, and ‘miserable malalignment syndrome’ — a painful result of sports injury.