The English Language: Multifaceted & Always Evolving

Contemporary dictionaries of American English now include words such as “to google”, “photobomb”, “bodice-ripping”, and “selfie”. The editor of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary discusses the criteria by which a word is admitted into their volume. Among these criteria are a word’s wide-spread usage and its staying power over time.

The editor also explains her reaction to receiving inflammatory and threatening communication from individuals who were unhappy with the inclusion or definition of controversial or politically-charged words. Such reactions point to the power of ideologies that are in circulation in the culture that bear on English and its usage. From the perspective of the editor, the job of the lexicographer is not to police the language, but rather to document how it is actually used by its speakers.

Cleveland NBA All-Star on the Importance of Mental Health

Cleveland Cavalier big man Kevin Love penned an article on the importance of mental health and on seeking professional help after admittedly suffering from a panic attack during a game last November. Such admissions from top-tier professional athletes are few and far between, but should be welcomed in the culture: even professionally successful, young, wealthy people are not immune to issues of mental and physical health.

Everyone Is Going Through Something

Civility in the Workplace: Lessons from WBUR

This week the state of American journalism suffered a major setback in the dismissal of Tom Ashbrook as host of NPR’s radio show On Point. Coinciding with the cascade of revelations spurred by the Me Too movement in December 2017, roughly one dozen current and former co-workers came forward to detail inappropriate workplace behaviors to which Ashbrook had subjected them.

After a month-long investigation into the allegations, Boston University – which operates the NPR affiliate WBUR- announced it was terminating Ashbrook because of the toxic work atmosphere he created. Rather than instances of sexual harassment/ misconduct, it was found that Ashbrook had a history of berating and humiliating coworkers, resulting in what had been described as an “abusive work environment”.

At a time when erudite journalism is direly needed in the country, Ashbrook’s removal should remind journalistic enterprises and other organizations that excellence in the organization’s respective market must not come at the expense of its employees’ dignity. Sexual harassment and other workplace incivilities must be adequately addressed by management.

Remembering the Worst School Fire in American History: Collinwood 1908

Tragedy took the lives of 175 children and teachers on a school day in Cleveland, OH in 1908. The event shocked the nation and prompted redesigns of public buildings, specifically, to allow for multiple exits in and out of buildings, and with outwardly-opening doors. Although the Collinwood Fire is largely forgotten by most Americans and by many in Northeast Ohio, a new film and project done by Middlebury College professors recreate the ambiance of the neighborhood during the height of Cleveland’s industrial power on that fateful day. The professors will also be meeting with social studies teachers from across the Cleveland Municipal School District to offer insights into how this local tragedy can be woven into school curriculum, showing that transformative events in the neighborhood can at times be transformative for the nation.

“What Did I Just See?”

A Unique Artform: The Appalachian Ballad

Little captures the sentiment of a geographic region over the centuries as does the Appalachian Ballad. These lengthy, mournful pieces of music narrate stories of love and loss, of coal mines and cold winters, that paint a unique portrait of the Appalachian region of the country. The ballads have a distinct focus on themes of violence and hardship, which contrast with most all other genres of American folk, pop, and classical music.

They continued to be performed in institutes of higher education and culture in the region, and are shared abroad, as international audiences likewise find themselves haunted by the distinct vocals and yarns of the ballad.

The Adams Family National Monument in D.C.

The ardent advocate to fellow rebels for the drafted Declaration of Independence. The president who peacefully took over the reins of power and led the infant American nation through unpredictable, formative years. The only of the first 5 presidents who didn’t own a slave.

John Adams is an indispensable part of the history of the United States, as was his family. Among the many significant figures of the Adams family, John Quincy Adams, fifth president and secretary of state, can be considered the architect of American foreign policy. Abigail Adams, wife of the second president and mother to the fifth, profoundly impacted both presidents’ political views and actions during and after the American Revolution. Many argue she should be remembered as among the earliest examples of influential American women, but as one of the most impactful Americans to the country’s history, gender aside.

Yet as of 2018, no significant monument or edifice honors the memory of John, Abigail, or John Quincy Adams within the U.S. capital. The absence is all the more glaring given the stature and splendor of the national monuments to the first and third presidents in Washington. Because the cantankerous Bostonian Federalist lacks a modern constituency, his memory has been relegated to history texts and HBO specials, none of which sufficiently impresses upon the nation his significance nor that of the Adams family to the contemporary U.S. nation-state.

It is time for this significant oversight to be addressed.

Why Disney Villains Always Sound Foreign

New research described in the linked article sheds light on a disturbing trend impacting our children: most of the villains in animated films speak in a foreign accent. Take for the example of Disney’s smash hit of the 1990’s The Lion King– all the major characters speak in American English, with the stark exception of the villainous uncle, Scar, who speaks in British English. If a family of lions all speak like they’re from the American Midwest, why would the one character whose morals are murky speak like an aristocratic Englishman? Whether by convention or choice, the phenomenon is pervasive.

The trend of using linguistic variation as a token for badness has been found in a significant amount of films. Rather than centering on one particular accent/ dialect, the speech of villains uses an accent that merely differs from the speech of the heroes and heroines, regardless of which accent is used.

While most parents may not notice this trend, nor think it merits any parental consideration, educators and individuals invested in enhancing global cooperation should be on alert. What are the long-term effects on children’s perception of people dissimilar to themselves after years of exposure to films in which evilness is tied to dissimilarity? Moreover, what are the mechanisms that perpetuate this trend, even into the hyper-globalized 21st century? Sociolinguistic researchers have their work cut out for them.

International Tourists to the Great Lakes Region: The Ups and Downs

As reported recently by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, 2016 saw a spike in international tourists visiting the city, while the numbers dropped during the first six months of 2017. Many possible factors are causative in this drop, as cited by the article. Data is still being collected on 2017 in order to tabulate complete figures.

Noteworthy is the large drop in tourists from Mexico (9%), which annually constitutes the second largest number of international visitors to the US. Additionally, the Great Lakes region is enjoying a sizable increase thanks to the influx of Chinese students deciding to enroll in universities in the region. With the influx of international visitors and students comes revenue to all businesses and institutions of the region, along with new energy, renewed dynamism and synergies that link the Upper Midwest/ Great Lakes to the larger world.

Improv Comedy: A Uniquely American Art-form

A recent radio discussion with Sam Wasson on his book highlights the ways that Improv has shaped American comedy over the decades. The author explains how Improv emerged as an artform within the context of American multiculturalism: people from different backgrounds and languages laboring in American cities found a universally-appealing mode of entertainment. During its inception, it was important that Improv itself could be performed without the use of language, but entirely through physical gestures, thereby appealing to a vast possible audience. Moreover, the art form is accessible and inclusive of the common man since a high intelligence quotient is not a prerequisite for excellent performers. Also unique about Improv is the central role that women played in its development: American Improv is widely believed to have a founding mother, not a founding father. As made evident by the personalities that dominate American entertainment in the present day, the impact of Improv on the culture largely cannot be overlooked.

Word of the Year 2017: “Tribalism”

In a year fraught with political and social tension, linguist Geoff Nunberg selected as “tribalism” as word of the year. The selection is perfect for a number of reasons.

“Tribal” connotes an innate hostility or violence between groups, a pre-modern social grouping. 2017 witnessed a steep increase in ethno-nationalist/ independence around the globe. As such, the word seems to reflect the current global trends.

Within a given society, the use of the word/ concept itself has become a tactic in political rhetoric to describe one’s opponent as incapable of impartial, rational thought due to their unquestioning loyalty to their group. In other words, committing “tribalism” or being “tribal” has become just another insult to discredit the view of one’s opponent, discrediting their perspective not by discrediting its merits, but rather by discrediting the group from which those perspectives emanate. The latter assumes that all group members’ views are identical.

Therefore, to decide who is acting tribal is highly contested, and can be seen as a double-edged sword that explicitly defines one’s opponent but also implicitly defines one’s own sense of self in relation to prevailing groupings and preferred mode of engagement with difference.
Lastly, as Nunberg explains, the very use of the concept is contested by many indigenous groups around the US and the world whose structures of present or ancestral society are based on tribal configurations. Applying the word to societies outside their own, to many of such groups, seems an affront.

Who then is right when using “tribal”? Who has the legitimacy of deciding? “Tribalism” then, perfectly demonstrates the always-evolving nature of words, the inherently political dimensions of language, the ways that speech is an action, and the complexity of communication in already-complex societies.