Carrie Gillon: Hi and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.
Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa.
Carrie Gillon: And I’m Carrie Gillon.
Megan Figueroa: I was nervous that I was going to forget the introduction, even though you were doing it this time.
Carrie Gillon: It’s a new, that’s a new fear.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yeah. Hopefully this one passes. Nice to know that you can still have podcasting fears after four and a half years.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah,
Megan Figueroa: I’M sure it’s not as scary as like being video recorded or filmed, but still.
Carrie Gillon: Oh yeah, no, video’s way worse. Cause then you’re like, “what am I doing with my hands? Oh, am I moving my mouth too much? “
Megan Figueroa: And with me it’s like, “where are my eyebrows going? Like, why do they keep going so high and over there?”
Carrie Gillon: I don’t use my eyebrows as much, so I don’t worry about it.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, no, I have very expressive facial things.
Carrie Gillon: So now that makes me worry that I have dead eyebrow. There’s this podcast called Dead Eyes . I’ve been listening to it. I’m so into it. So this actor Connor Ratcliff, I think is his name. Anyway, he he’s been in some things like Search Party.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, love that.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. I use the brother-in-law of the woman they go searching for.
Megan Figueroa: Oh my God.
Carrie Gillon: So anyway, the whole premise of this entire podcast is that back in like 2000, he was fired from an acting job because supposedly Tom Hanks said that he had dead eyes. It’s bizarrely good. Cause it’s just about this one thing, this one moment in his life that kind of like blew up his life and then
Megan Figueroa: is he the host?
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Yeah. And it’s, it’s charming. He’s very charming. And somehow, it’s really interesting to listen to it. I mean, it’s all about like Hollywood and what it’s like to be an actor and like how hard it is. I don’t know. I’m really enjoying it.
Megan Figueroa: That’s interesting. No, I could see how that’d be a fun lesson and I just, I don’t think Tom Hanks would say you have dead eyes.
Carrie Gillon: Well, everyone’s surprised by it, but yeah. Yeah. He hasn’t yet spoken to Tom Hanks about it, but he has spoken to his son Colin
Megan Figueroa: Chet?
Carrie Gillon: Not an actor.
Megan Figueroa: I know. Oh. But he, so he talks to Colin about this very thing that his dad said and then other stuff, I’m sure.
Carrie Gillon: And other stuff. Yeah, it’s good. Give it a shot, but anyway.
So maybe I have dead eyebrows.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Maybe, maybe a Tom Hanks in the future will tell you that your eyebrows are just dead. They’re not conveying much.
Carrie Gillon: So, we’ve had some emails and I’m like so bad about keeping track of them, but we had a couple more recently and I thought we should address them. So,
Megan Figueroa: just to let you know, we have fans,
Carrie Gillon: I don’t know if you’ve heard, but we’ve got fans.
Okay. So this is from Angela. “Hi, I just started listening to your podcast and I’m really enjoying it. I was listening to the last episode about Galician and I love knowing that people find our minority languages here in Spain interesting. I’m from the Basque Country and he definitely hit the nail on the head when he mentioned that these languages are politicized. I can only speak to the Basque Country, but there’s a long history of Euskera of being associated with the left and separatism. Thanks to a very long, complicated history, as well as the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship. But I digress.
I just wanted to show you guys these ladies who sing in Galician just to show that these languages are used and loved. And there are people who are revindicating their mother tongue while making very cool things. And they may even represent Spain in Eurovision, which would be huge for a song not in Spanish. Hope you enjoy them
Megan Figueroa: That’s super huge. I don’t watch Eurovision, but I know how big that is because there was just a Eurovision band that won that was on SNL. Yeah. Not that that’s a marker of success, but this guy had very expressive eyebrows.
Carrie Gillon: Interesting. Okay.
Megan Figueroa: Okay. The band is Maneskin.
Carrie Gillon: Oh, okay.
Megan Figueroa: Italian rock band
Carrie Gillon: oh,
Megan Figueroa: glam rock. Yeah. So they, they won the Eurovision song contest 2021 for Italy. Yeah. So yeah, they were on SNL and I mean, not that that makes, you know, no it’s somewhat successful, but yeah. Yeah. So, no, it’s really big to have like Galician singers on your own potentially
Carrie Gillon: potentially singing for Spain. That would be big.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And it was really nice. Someone commented on or at us on Twitter saying that it is very likely that my name is from the Northern area of Spain because of the fig parts which I had suspected that my last name was related to figs. So. It’s kind of a giveaway it’s related to figs, I think.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, I didn’t know. I- sure. It sounds like it an English, but there’s so many false friends. I don’t know.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah,
Carrie Gillon: one more email. “I’m a new listener.” This is from Hayley. “I’m a new listener. I really like the show and wanted to know if you could explore the topic of glass windows and how they were used to communicate to the illiterate as I love Gothic cathedral window art.” And the answer is we’re interested, but have no idea how to explore that. So, if any listeners have any idea how to even penetrate that topic-
Megan Figueroa: yeah.
Carrie Gillon: Um, I’d be interested.
Megan Figueroa: Yes, because you had me at Gothic. I love anything Gothic. But boy, do they know how to do a cathedral art. Woo!
Carrie Gillon: I mean, the Catholic churches in Europe are incredible.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, I’m sure. Yeah. Um, I enjoy it. The biggest or the most famous one that I’ve been to probably is the one in DC. And even that was like really impressive to me.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. There’s some really beautiful ones in North America as well. For sure.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. But I could imagine that the ones that are in Rome are pretty great.
Carrie Gillon: Never been to Rome, but I’ve been to other ones and yeah, they’re, they’re incredible. Like they just, they spent hundreds of years building them like,
Megan Figueroa: yes, that’s what makes it so Gothic. Oh, how many people died making this. How many hauntings are there? At least one.
Carrie Gillon: At least one. So speaking of hauntings, I can’t believe that you missed this, but this is definitely going to be a submission for Euphemism of the Year. Well, I guess by the end of this year, who knows, maybe it will be a long gone forgotten memory. But to me it’s like a really amazing euphemism. The headline is 90 Tons of US military Aid Arrives in Ukraine as Border Tensions with Russia Rise. But in the tweet about it, it’s called lethal aid.
Megan Figueroa: Oh wait. So the tweet like that summarizes the article in one sentence or whatever calls it lethal aid.
Carrie Gillon: So yeah, that’s the, that’s what the United States is calling it. Uh, they’re calling it lethal aid and then NPR just parroted it in their tweet. And people were pretty mad about that, but it is the term that the US government is using. So.
Megan Figueroa: So this is like their official term they’re going with what they sent to Ukraine.
Carrie Gillon: I mean, I don’t know about official, but yeah, it’s the term there they were using with the media and some of them, people, media were just using it.
Megan Figueroa: Oh, yeah.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah.
Megan Figueroa: I mean, it’s hard to bill. It might, it’s not going to have any staying power, but it’s a very impressive euphemism.
Carrie Gillon: I don’t know. You think it’s going to be gone? I mean, how much lethal aid does the U S give around the world? Like
Megan Figueroa: that’s true.
Carrie Gillon: Israel, for sure.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Okay. So just not using it in this context. So you think it’s going to be used in other cases where the US is doing the same thing.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. I think this is the new, this is going to be the new- unless, unless they got marked so harshly and they’re like, “okay, never mind, we can’t use this anymore.” But I doubt it. This seems exactly like the kind of terminology that the US government would use going forward. And I could be wrong. We’ll find out.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. But the fact that they use- the intentional use of it as if it makes it better. Somehow or right. Ameliorate the situation somehow.
Carrie Gillon: Right. Cause they clearly understand that giving military aid, giving weapons to another country doesn’t look great.
Megan Figueroa: Right.
Carrie Gillon: They’ve been doing it basically for I dunno, very, very long time – decades at the very least, probably longer than that.
Megan Figueroa: Oh.
Carrie Gillon: So it’s just a thing that the United States government does, but people, a lot of people find it very upsetting and that, you know, that’s not even like necessarily like on the political alignment chart. Like there’s plenty of people on all sides of the, of the, of the alignment chart who don’t want the United States government to be giving arms to other countries. Anyway.
Yeah. So today’s episode will be talk about Jessi Grieser’s new book coming, which has come out- or is it coming out? It’s coming out. It’s coming out tomorrow as of this coming out. So yeah,
Megan Figueroa: I mean, could we have planned this better?
Carrie Gillon: We could not,
Megan Figueroa: we couldn’t have and check out the book and the book cover is just so gorgeous. I am just obsessed with all these book covers of these books that we get to read.
We are so excited to have Jessi Grieser here today, fellow linguist, someone I’ve admired for a long time. Hi
Jessi Grieser: Totally mutual.
Megan Figueroa: So Jessi is an Associate Professor of Linguistics in the Department of English at the University of Tennessee. Her research focuses on the use of African-American English style and the creation and maintenance of identities, which are not necessarily ethnoracial in nature, particularly identities of place and class. Her book, which has the most gorgeous cover, the Black Side of the River: Race, Language and Belonging in Washington, DC will be out February 1st. Thank you for being here.
Carrie Gillon: Thank you.
Jessi Grieser: It is my pleasure.
Megan Figueroa: I have to ask about the cover. Did, did you have a lot of say in how that would go?
Jessi Grieser: I have no say in it whatsoever. Really hilarious part was that they asked for suggestions, what would you, should we put on the cover and the the bridge, which appears there, the Frederick Douglas Bridge, has actually just been redone in DC. And this is actually sort of a metaphor that I even use in the book is thinking about these bridges that have been remodeled in the neighborhood. And so I was like, oh, it’d be cool to like super impose the new Frederick Douglas Bridge over the old one. And they were just shot that down. And we said, “no, we want something with movement and color. We’re thinking of the roller-skating rink.” And I said, “you know, fine, whatever.” But then the Frederick Douglas bridge is what ended up on the cover, but it’s this lovely old picture from the fifties that the cover designers did. So, I’m super pleased with it. And I think it really conveys that this is a book that’s meant to be, not just for people with lots of linguistic training. It’s meant for people who are interested in this area and it’s, and it’s written that way.
Megan Figueroa: I’m in awe as Carrie and I are writing our own book. It’s just like, it is hard to write a book. Yours is beautifully written and I’m so glad that the cover worked out for you. I would just be terrible to have a cover that you didn’t like.
Um, but yeah, no, I love that you say, okay. So, the color, just like the attractiveness of the cover of the book will get people to be like, “what’s this?” And the idea that it’s not just for linguists, because I mean, the reason why we have podcasts is we think linguistics shouldn’t just be for linguists, people consider themselves linguists.
Anyway, why did you want to write this book?
Jessi Grieser: Uh, so it came out of a couple of things. So one from the very. Um, one of the reasons I went to Georgetown and did my graduate degree there was in part because I’ve always been interested in these questions of urban life and what it means to be from a city or in a city. I’ve always been fascinated by big cities. And so, that really got me interested in thinking about language in the city. And Georgetown actually has this very large project called the Language and Communication in DC project, the LCDC project, and it spans multiple generations of graduate students. It’s been going on since 2006. Um, and so I saw that project and went, “I would love to be a part of something like that.” Uh, and then I got interested in Anacostia the neighborhood that’s in the book because there was a really interesting gentrification pattern happening there, when I started the work, which was that as people were getting pushed out of the rest of the city, this area was known as it was almost entirely Black. So on the census, it’s 94, 95% Black alone. And so that’s not even counting people like me who would check more than one box on the census, but we consider ourselves Black people. Uh, but the incomes were slowly rising, even as the neighborhood was staying just as African-American and even becoming more African-American. And so this was this really unusual gentrification without race shifting pattern. Um, and I thought that’s going to be a really cool place to study language and especially middle-class Black language, which is what I was interested in at the time.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. So why did you want to study that language? The language of middle-class Black people in DC?
Jessi Grieser: Yeah, it’s really understudied. Um, and in fact so Walt Wolfram wrote a couple of pieces in 2007 and 2015, in which he talks about this as being one of the myths of of Black language study is that that it’s only a working-class variety of those were always the speakers who were privileged because they were the ones who were maximally different. And so, you have these sort of white varieties and it’s going to be the working class men who are going to have the most number of features that are different from like rural white males who had been the focus of all the dialectology studies. And so, what that led people to do is to kind of go, okay, this is a working class variety. And of course, it’s not. Um, there’s all sorts of you. There’s a reason. Why would you listen to Michelle Obama on an audio tape you know, like, oh, this is a Black woman I’m listening to. Um, but it’s not the same sorts of things that Labov and Wolfram and some of the people who were doing this work really early on were identifying as parts of African American language.
So, it’s really a new- it’s pushing us forward in our understandings in some interesting ways.
Carrie Gillon: So how does Michelle Obama sound different from like, Stereotypical idea of Black speakers that we have in our head.
Jessi Grieser: Yeah. So, one thing that is true of her speeches as she has a lot of Black intonational patterns. And so, you get different sentence contours than you would have. The one in particular that I bring up as an example because some of my work in on sociophonetic side has dealt with final consonant devoicing, which is saying something like “I lift on 14th street” instead of “I lived on 14th.” And she does that left right and center, like to the point that I have the audible version of her autobiography and I could not listen to it. I had to just turn it off and read it because I was just sitting there doing a variationist analysis. And so, one of the things that I hypothesized is going on with that feature is that people get told, ” don’t mumble. You got to say your endings.” Removing that ending, right, so final consonant deletion, is a really common feature of working class African-American language. And so middle-class, and upper-class Black people really put it in there to the point that they almost over-emphasize it as a way of responding to that, that, that sort of additional metalinguistic narrative, like, oh, “you gotta enunciate. You have to keep your endings, don’t mumble.” And so all of those things come out.
Megan Figueroa: So how does language help us create community? Um, how do your interviewees, would it be a good example since you’re here, you’re talking about your book, do this to create community.
Jessi Grieser: Uh, they do it in a bunch of different ways. So one of the things that I first started out studying we’re just straight up, what’s in the language signal. And so, I was looking at some of those working class. African-American English features. I have, again, I was interested in this class different thing. Uh, the book is really a story of me discovering “okay. It’s not about class, it’s actually about place. It was actually about how people were talking about the neighborhood.” Uh, but I did a study looking at the actual morphosyntax of African-American English. So how often do you use habitual be? How often do you use an unexpressed copula and say “we cool” or something like that. Um, and so I was counting all of that and looking at it by topic. And one of the things that people do is that they talk about the neighborhood as they talk about gentrification, they use more and more of these Black language features. Uh, which I saw were lining up with talking about Black language and talking about Blackness more generally and argue that like, this is about making these places Black. And so you don’t have to say “it’s Black.” If you sound really Black while you’re talking about it. Uh, and so these things come up this way and you actually see the opposite happened with things like work where it’s typically this expectation you’re going to use more standardized variety and people do that even when just talking about it. Even if the interview setting hasn’t changed.
So that was really interesting and that’s one way, but then they also do a lot of really cool discourse things. And so there’s things like who gets defined as part of me. Like at one point in time one of my interviewees said specifically, his name was Gus and he said, “it’s going to become real bad for us out there.” us meaning Black folk. And just like really clarified that, like “I’m creating this big umbrella” and sometimes us was just the people from the neighborhood or us was just Black DC. It was never white DC. Um, and so white DC residents were never included in that dynamic positioning of us versus them. Right, so as we get, who gets to be part of us, we gets to be part of us, who is them, allows the residents to sort of say, “ah, you know, them are the people who are coming in.” Um, and typically those people are racialized as white.
Megan Figueroa: Will you tell us a little bit about the Anacostia to put us in the place.
Jessi Grieser: We should, we should, we should start there, right?
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Sorry about that
Carrie Gillon: That’s why I put the question earlier.
Megan Figueroa: I was so confused, but now I see it.
Jessi Grieser: Yeah. Let me tell you about the neighborhood. So, the neighborhood itself is fascinating. Um, and it is when you think about Black placemaking and Black place. Um, it is Black place. So originally it contained both white and Black DC residents. Um, actually if we go back even further, it’s really important to acknowledge that it is the land of the Nacotchtank people. Um, and they got Anglicised as the Nacostine, which then gave rise to the name Anacostia and Anacostia River. So, the area’s actually named after the Native tribe whose land everybody’s on. But then back during pre-Civil War era the white workers of DC Naval yard lived there, right across, right across the bridge in a neighborhood called Uniontown. And then after the Civil War in the Reconstruction Era the plantation that was there was sold via the Freedman’s Bureau and became a neighborhood called Hillsdale. And so, Uniontown and Hillsdale were right next to each other. Hillsdale being this freed slave community and Uniontown being this area of white workers in DC. And it really stayed that way until about the 1960s in the Civil Rights Era and then DC if you’re unaware had a major, major race riot in 1968 that just absolutely decimated huge parts of the city. Um, big parts of the existing African-American community. And in that time, DC had a lot of white flight and also a lot of educated and wealthy Black flight as well. And that was part of what created Prince George’s County, which is the to this day, essentially the biggest center of Black wealth in the country. There’s all of these DC residents who moved out in the sixties and seventies, but that left this neighborhood being almost completely Black. Um, and generally working class, lower working class. Uh, but there had always been this presence of middle-class residents and there had always been this income mixing.
Megan Figueroa: Of Black middle-class
Jessi Grieser: Of Black middle-class. Yeah. Frederick Douglas actually was one of the first really educated, respected Black people to live in Uniontown. So he actually was like move straight into the white part of the neighborhood. And so it’s this neighborhood that has had this really rich Black history over the years. And so it was a really great place to think about. Okay. How does Black language play into these Black placemaking identities?
Megan Figueroa: Right? How are they making us in Anacostia? And you’re saying that there’s this divide between neighborhood and work. And so, I wonder what kind of jobs are in the area? What are the working class jobs that people can have? And I know that they’re different, depending on what geographic region you’re in, so
Jessi Grieser: right. Yeah. So, one of the big things to know about DC is that a big reason why DC became, it was originally known as Chocolate City. That’s the Funkadelic Parliament song that came out in 1970 about it. And and so we sometimes talk about the Chocolate Cities and DC, Detroit Atlanta so that these cities that historically have had these large Black and especially Black middle-class populations, the reason DC got that reputation was because of the federal government. And so one area of jobs that people would have a, one of my interviewees, once said, “like, yeah, you know, you can finish high school in DC and you’ll get a GS3 or 4 job” and that’s the government pay scale. Um, and so you had these federal jobs that couldn’t discriminate based on race. And so, people came to DC so that they could get on the ladder and have these reasonably well-paying, but still usually sort of working class, middle working class kinds of jobs. Uh, but then from there. You start the, the generational movement where one person has been able to have a better job than they might’ve had in say North Carolina, which is where a lot of DC residents moved from. Um, and then they’re able to send their children to different schools and then their children go to Howard University, which is the big HBCU in DC. And so then this engine starts to move.
Megan Figueroa: So, with the working class and in the middle class, are we seeing the same difference in talking about work? Are they changing the way that they, their lexical items, their syntax? Yeah?
Jessi Grieser: That was actually the weird part of this study was that I went in and I’m like, oh, I’m going to look for differences in middle-class or working-class Black speech. And they weren’t there.
Megan Figueroa: really interesting.
Carrie Gillon: Do you think that’s because it’s DC and there’s like particular economy there? Or is it- would you find this across the states? What do you think?
Jessi Grieser: I think you’re trying to get across the states that it turns out that if we take sort of more of a raciolinguistic approach, and we’re thinking about the ways that language is doing racial identities in particular ways what we’re really getting into is this, the fact that what people are doing first and foremost is race because that’s how we divide our country, whether we like it or not. Right. Um, it’s a very salient part of anyone’s identity, who’s part of a minoritized race. And so it becomes a way of marking oneself as a part of that really important community and possibly even for people who are, you know, like one of the tensions of being middle-class and an African-American is often that those two things are seen as being in conflict because we have in many ways raced African-Americanness as being of lower class, uneducated and you see these things come out of the ideologies people have around African-American language. Um, and so there are these subtle ways of reinforcing “no, no, no. Like I may be married to the president of the United. I am a Black woman, first and foremost.” You see these things come out.
Megan Figueroa: And isn’t Obama. It’s just this iconic example of how he switches from so like when he’s on the basketball court or he’s like trying to he’s in the community, he will have more of this African-American language. And then we have him when he gives his speeches, which, you know, there are people that would say that he quote unquote sounds white.
Jessi Grieser: Right. Exactly. And he has some really interesting features that he uses and doesn’t use. There’s a very, very famous example. Um, that’s brought up by Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman, and their book about Obama’s speech when he was in a DC landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl. That’s one of the few Black businesses to survive the riots to survive the Big Dig, it’s that old. And so it goes away. I think it’s from the fifties, maybe late forties is when their original place opened. And he had this wonderful day, not long after he was inaugurated. He went in to get some chili and asked paid with a hundred-dollar bill for something worth like 17 bucks or something. And the person says, “oh, here’s your change.” And he’s goes, “nah, we straight.” And it’s this whole conglomeration of phonological features and morphosyntactic features. And it was really a moment when the entire country sort of went, “oh, we were really excited about having elected a Black man, but it turns out we elected a Black man,”
Megan Figueroa: right! No, I, I actually got chills when you just said that, because I think it’s exciting that these different type of languaging are in our Capitol, like, that’s exciting to me, but like you said, a lot of people were like,
Carrie Gillon: “oops”
Megan Figueroa: right?
Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Yeah. We actually talked about this example with, with Nicole Holliday too. She brought it up, cause we were talking about Obama linguistics, basically.
Jessi Grieser: I was going to bring up some of Nicole Holliday’s work because one of the things that she has found is that Michelle Obama has a little bit more of a natural African-American language style and but it’s, it’s true. Um, that’s something that I share in common with Barack Obama. Uh, we were both raised in families with relatively standardized white speakers being our primary parents. And so, for him as it is for me, African-American language is a second dialect acquisition that we got a little later in life and it shows.
Megan Figueroa: This is a good lead in to the next question we have is how do we do community via language through language?
Jessi Grieser: Lots and lots of different ways. Um, and so you get things like who gets included, who doesn’t. Like with my interviewees and their use of deixis. And do they say, is it is it us versus them? There’s the kinds of narratives and stories about your community that you push back on. And so, what do you anticipate that other people are saying about your community behind your back? For example, in my, in my book, one of the things that I discovered was that some of the stories that are being told about Anacostia, you can imagine this, right, but they were both racist and classist. Um, but people in the rest of the city you’ll see in the Washington Post, it being described of as “the basement, the stepchild, the forgotten land.” Um, there’s a joke map that I use in some of my talks that has it labeled, Georgetown labeled as “Metroless popped collar land” talking about all of the prepsters in Georgetown. Conversely, that entire area of DC that contains Anacostia is described as the “zone of perceived danger” on this same map. And so, so you get those sorts of things in circulation.
And so, what happens is even without prompting, like I’m not talking about that map, I’m not bringing up like, “oh, what do other people think of your neighborhood?” Um, unprompted my interviewees would give me evidence that the neighborhood was safe. They would talk about how beautiful it was. They would talk about how how many middle and upper-class people lived there. And you could tell, you can tell that there’re these other things circulating about poverty and about filth and about lack of safety. And you’re just automatically countering that. So that’s one way.
And you know in the end, we do community and lots of other ways too. And so sometimes the example that I’ll give it has nothing to do with my book whatsoever and everything to do with me is that I was in the marching band in college and we called people “sieves”, which came from a hockey cheer, where we talked about something falling through the goalie. So, the goalie was a sieve. If the other team’s goalie was a sieve, if the puck went through. Um, but that then becomes a word that we can use even you know, many years as I am out of college but we all still use that to, to sort of say, “Hey, we were a part of this group.” And so, you have those sorts of things too.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah, Carrie, what’s that, what’s one for you. What’s a word that marks you as from British Columbia?
Carrie Gillon: Uh, skookum would be the easiest one. Really good, really strong. Skookum.
Megan Figueroa: Is that from a First Nations?
Carrie Gillon: It’s from Chinook Jargon, which is this mishmash of different languages, including some English and some French, but it’s mostly yeah First Nations languages of the Pacific Northwest region.
Jessi Grieser: Oh, that’s amazing.
Megan Figueroa: I like that. So, some of these things are placemaking in that they’re putting us in a very, like, like people could guess pretty easily because it’s so narrow, the place that you’re indicating with something. Just like New Jersey has something about like the day before Halloween, that other people don’t
Carrie Gillon: Devil’s Night?
Jessi Grieser: Or mischief night.
Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yeah. I want to ask you about the river. So, it’s the Anacostia River. How do people on either side- so what is the difference on the other side of the river? So, we’re talking about Anacostia, which is on one side and then the other side.
Jessi Grieser: Um, so on the other side is DC Navy Yard and Waterfront. And so that is an area that has drastically changed. So when I moved to DC in 2008 either right then, or right after then, I I don’t remember, should look up the statistic in fact. Um, but that was right when the new Nationals baseball park opened.
Megan Figueroa: Is that on that side of the-
Jessi Grieser: that is on the other side, that is on the it’s on the white side of the river. If we think about my book as being called the Black Side of the River. So it’s on the larger part of DC side of the Anacostia it’s on the west side. And so that of course then led to a food truck park that came next door and sushi places popping up and little craft beer places and things like that. All of the things that tend to accompany places where young professionals want to go, especially young white professionals. Um, and so, that’s the opposite side and it has always, it’s always been always contained a higher percentage of white population than the other the Anacostia side of the river, the Anacostia neighborhood side of the Anacostia River. But it wasn’t quite as stuck prior to the 2000s. And in the 2000s was really when lots of parts of the city really started to take off in terms of gentrification. And it really changed who was living where and you can look at some maps of the city from that time and see these areas that have had these huge African-American populations on the Eastern side of the city. Um, the Western side of the city has always had a relatively small African-American population, except for Georgetown, interestingly, which is now known as one of the whitest areas of the city. Um, and you can sort of see the, the Black population starts to move east and south. And so then of course, they end up in Southeast. Um, by the time I was doing my research.
Carrie Gillon: So, you talk about you bring up gentrification and also in the book, it comes up a lot. So how does a gentrification impact language use in at least in DC?
Jessi Grieser: Uh, it changes the ways that people change is more of the ways that people are talking about things more than what, more than how they talk in particular. I was hoping to find like, oh, it’s going to change like how people talk. That is not what actually happens, but it does change how people need to construct their neighborhood presence.
For instance, I’ve talked about some of these morphosyntactic things that people are doing, where they’re using more features of AAL when they talk about certain topics. Um, that actually does have a teeny bit of a class element to it, which is that I, you see it happen with the middle-class residents of this neighborhood, sort of as this way of doing this really subtly, because they otherwise could be seen as gentrifiers, because they were often people in their twenties and thirties these working professionals who otherwise fit the bill. Right. But people who, you know, might not want a Whole Foods in their neighborhoods. But also, they cross the river to go shop at the other Whole Foods. Like they like Whole Foods. And so, like they’re, they’re that kind of population. And so, this really subtle use of AAL lets them do both of those identities at once and kind of say, “okay, like, yeah, I’m a lawyer and yeah, I do yoga and uh, you know, all of these other things that we associate with the kinds of people who gentrify, but I’m not a gentrifier.”
Megan Figueroa: And so, I want to go back to the “enunciate your endings.” So, you say someone like Michelle Obama is enunciating her endings. And probably because of this messaging that you’re going to have to talk a certain way to succeed or, you know, get where you need to get.
Is there an opposite effect where you may be quote unquote sounding white, but then that is kind of seen as a negative in the African-American community.
Jessi Grieser: I think it really depends from community to community. Um, so an example from the book one of my interviewees, Tana who is it’s actually really interesting, she’s now, when I met her, she was just finishing a bachelor’s degree as a non-traditional aged students. Um, and now she has a doctorate of education and so she really belongs to this middle to upper-class set population. And she said that for her, and this plays into what the two sides of the rivers are as well, for her, she would cross into the other parts of Northwest, across, across the river to go to her middle school. And her middle school was very racially diverse. And so, and she’d gotten these messages from her parents. Her mother was a teacher. Her father was an engineer. She had gotten these messages from her parents about how she was supposed to sound. Um, “we were told, ‘don’t say “ain’t”‘ we weren’t allowed to use nicknames. We weren’t allowed to use nicknames.” So, she wasn’t allowed to use nicknames and slang and all of these things. She had these very specific injunctions that, that went along with the way that she was supposed to sound.
And so she talks about having to sound one way at school and another way. And another way with her friends at home. And so, so she had three, she even calls it a different Tanas that I think, think that stayed in as a section title in my in my book, it certainly was in a couple of the drafts talked about different Tanas. And so there was a Tana that was at school with these mostly white Latinx students. On the other side of the river, there was a Tana that was at home with her parents. Keyed off of that one that was at school because it was a very much an expectation of more standardized white varieties of English. And then the Tana who was outside with her friends playing jump rope.
And so, this need to, you know, in the past we’ve used the term code switching. Uh, there’s been a lot of really good pushback on this idea of code switching as being, oh, you like reinforcing this idea that there’s a right way to sound in some places and a wrong way to sound in others. Um, like by the work of April Baker Bell, for instance recently. So, I’m trying to get away from using that term too, and really think about, instead of, she had these multiple very rich repertoires. And had the linguistic capacity to draw on those repertoires variably, depending on what community she was being a part of at the time.
Megan Figueroa: You know, this reminds me of is Angie Thomas’s YA book, The Hate You Give. The main character Star has this exact thing. Except she’s not in a racially diverse high school. She’s in a white high school.
Jessi Grieser: I went to a really similar high school and I saw so much of myself in that book. It was fascinating.
Carrie Gillon: You also talked about language change. How does language change as a result of trying to show belonging?
Jessi Grieser: I mean, the really interesting thing about these sorts of questions of belonging, like one of the things I want to make sure that I talk about when it comes to like final consonant devoicing is that it ends up being a marker of Black English. And so it’s really interestingly this attempt to not use some features of Black language. And so not use this coronal stop deletion, not say your wes’ si’ [West Side] or something like that. Um, and so you get these folks who are getting this message, “oh, I need to not do that.” And so, they do this other thing, but then they do this other thing in a way that, that other thing also gets marked as part of Black language. And that’s really fascinating.
And so again, are we going to see this happening with language change because of gentrification? I would imagine that we will in certain kinds of ways, but sometimes there’s also retention as well. And so, you know, the fact that you decide to keep some of these features of Black language, even as a neighborhood starts to gentrify and starts to become a little whiter. I would imagine we’re going to see some of that as things move forward.
A study, I adore by Kara Becker. In it, she was looking at the same neighborhood that Labov looked at in his really like quintessential the foundational r-lessness studies in the 1960s. Um, and she went back in the early 2000s, mid 2000s. Study’s from 2009 and recorded people that same neighborhood and what had happened was, people had kept the r-lessness, this old sort of working class, white r-lessness that was characteristic of DC in the sixties as a way of saying that they were from the neighborhood. And so, it was this very hyper-local like, “ah, you know, the east side is gentrifying. I’m going to hold on to this thing that shows that, that I’m here.”
Um, I think it’s too early in DC’s process and particularly in Southeast DC’s process to see if something like that is going to happen. But I would suspect that it probably will.
Megan Figueroa: Is it fair to say that language change might actually look like not changing?
Jessi Grieser: Yeah. Yeah. It looks like holding onto these things of one of my favorite things that came out of my interviews was people use the word bastion which I was, maybe this is a very strange, unusual word for people to pull out of their lexical repertoire, as it were. But I had multiple people from different sub communities within the community, different ages, different socioeconomic classes. And they talked about the neighborhood as being the bastion, the last bastion of black culture in DC. And so, I think you get language playing into that when people go, “okay, I’ve got to we have to hang on to who we are” and doing that through language.
Carrie Gillon: I read that part and I was like, oh, this doesn’t seem that strange to me. And then I thought, oh, maybe like, I just have the same kind of feelings. Like I would use that word for this exact context. Like, there’s something about that context of like, pulls that word out of you.
Jessi Grieser: Exactly. Yeah. It just really does feel like, it’s, something is starting to become unstable and starting to, to change. And so. One of the things that it did not make it into the book it changed that is currently underway. And this has been one of the only upsides to the pandemic with regard to fieldwork is that there’s been a debate about whether or not to call the neighborhoods something different. Um, not the actual, like Anacostia will stay, but that side of the entire Eastern side of the river has often been called East of the River. And that’s even the name of their community newspaper is called East of the River. And there are some people who want to call it River East, and you could almost hear, you can hear the Whole Foods in River East.
Carrie Gillon: Yeah, it sounds rich.
Jessi Grieser: It sounds rich. Right. And so, there are all of these debates about this naming process. Um, and what would happen was I would go and do fieldwork and I would be in the city for three or four weeks at a time. Um, now that I’m at the University of Tennessee and having to drive seven hours to get there. And so, I would be there for a couple of weeks at a time, and I would manage to make it to like one of these discussion meetings. Maybe if I was very lucky and they didn’t get it canceled. Uh, so one of the upsides of a pandemic is that I’ve been able to attend all of these meetings on zoom regularly and listen to the debates happen. I could actually go back and get the ways that people are talking about it. So, articles in the future, they didn’t make it into the book. Cause this debate is being hotly contested right now.
Megan Figueroa: I wonder how you have tried to belong in your new to graphical region, your, your, where you are now.
Jessi Grieser: Yeah. Um, I will say that my y’alling has increased at about 600%. Um, and so for several reasons, you know, one I’m, I’ve really been trying to be much more gender neutral and I’m conscious of the full spectrum of gender in the way that I use language. And so that’s a really wonderful switch from you guys, which is my more thing that I grew up with, but also y’all is part of the African-American community and it’s part of the Southern community. And so, I get to do both of those parts of my identity by using that. I don’t sound too fake, you know, I don’t use Appalachian English phonology when I do it. So it’s not, “Hey, y’all.”
Megan Figueroa: What’s the, is it the ‘a’?
Jessi Grieser: yeah, I guess, yeah, there’s a particular ‘a’ that goes on in this region. So that’s happened a lot.
Aside from that, not a ton. Uh, and so, you know, there is there’s a good amount of pushback. This is also a place where class and place are in conflict. And so you have this I thought when I came to the University of Tennessee, you know, I was a teaching assistant when I was in grad school at Georgetown in DC. And so, I have these students who’d come from all over the country to go to Georgetown mostly white mostly very affluent kinds of students that Georgetown attracts. And so I would teach them about language ideology and like, oh, well, all English, all Englishes, are equal. This is great. Um, all varieties like I have. So, I came to Tennessee and I was like, “yes, it’s going to be perfect. I’m going to work with students who really do speak a stigmatized variety of English and I’m going to heal them and tell them that their English is okay.”
Uh, and I’ll tell ya, students who have learned to get rid of their Appalachian English and Southern English varieties to get to a place like the university of Tennessee, they want nothing to do with you telling them that Southern English is okay because they worked real hard to not sound like Mamaw and Papaw. Um, and so it actually takes a lot of work to just say, “no, you sound fine. So do your grandparents and we’re going to honor everyone’s language and we’re going to think about the different ways we use language as our parts of ourselves and the ways that we connect ourselves to the places that we’re from and the places that we are.” um, and that’s been more of a challenge here than I would have thought it would be. Uh, but this is also a wonderful place to be studying these things. Yeah, but we’re right next to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, which is where Dolly Parton is from. And and so there’s a huge part of performativeness, of this. And so, this is deep in the Appalachian Mountains and there’s a performative nature to Appalachian English in this region. Because people are coming you know, there’s a saying “the mountains are calling and I must go.” And so, people come here to go to the mountains and they, they want the “y’all come back now, you hear.” And that’s, that’s what they’re here for. That’s what people here are here to deliver for them. And so that’s a really interesting aspect.
Carrie Gillon: Dolly Parton just keeps coming up.
Megan Figueroa: I know Appalachian, we just Papaw, like we were talking about that in another interview that we had. That’s something that places you somewhere, if you use it.
Jessi Grieser: Exactly.
Megan Figueroa: Talking about the mountains, here’s something that might be in common between DC and people in Appalachia. Might do you think the people in Appalachia also bring attention to how beautiful it is, where they are from. When other people are disparaging?
Jessi Grieser: Exactly, right. And so, the disparaging for much the same reasons, you know, this is coal country. This is you know, areas that are extreme, an extreme poverty in some parts of the country and some parts of the side of the state. Uh, in much the same way that for different reasons, you know, there, you have the intergenerational effects of slavery and racism and Jim Crow laws and things like that happening in DC. But you ended up with this cross of extreme poverty in these situ in these locations. Um, and so people go, okay, “well, the location itself is bad” and, and instead, “no, no, no, Get up here. Um, look in the mountains.”
Actually, a really strange similarity is that because of the river basin in DC Anacostia parts of Anacostia are actually very hilly. And so, you get one of the best vistas in all of DC is from the first Black Catholic church in in Anacostia, Our Lady of Perpetual Help. And it is just, if you want to take a gorgeous panorama of downtown DC, that’s where you want to go, actually. Not into Virginia and not into some of the places that other people think of as safer. Um, and so, yeah, but that same intersection happens here in East Tennessee and that same pushback happens.
Megan Figueroa: It’s so interesting to me. I could talk about this all day.
But what is something that you think maybe from your book that you want to mention, or just something that we didn’t ask that we should have what’s what do you think we need to know?
Jessi Grieser: I mean, not really from my book even, but the thrust of what I’m working on now is thinking about the multiplicity of Black identity. And and so, you know, I heard me talk in this interview about the ways that I was going in looking for class differences and didn’t find them, and instead found these questions connected to Blackness and identities of place. And so it’s really easy to think about race as being a category that you belong to. Um, and of course it was Ta-Nehisi Coates who said, you know, racism, birth, race, not the other way around race is the product of racism. And so, so are these categorizations where we think, okay, like Black people are a set of people. And then we can look at what Black people do and linguists have fallen into that trap in a big way. And Black linguists have done it and white linguists have done it of thinking about, okay, there’s a big monolithic community. Um, and instead I’ve really started to try to push back and think about race and racialization of all kinds as being something that we do and something that intersects all the other things. So, it means something different to be a Black woman than it means to be a Black man. It means something different to be Black in Appalachia, which is a sub-community that’s here than to be Black in DC. Um, and so the ways that all of these things intersect affect the way that we use language and who we are when we do that.
Carrie Gillon: What a great way to end.
Megan Figueroa: I know. I mean, I am stopping myself from asking you more things from that, because that is beautiful.
Carrie Gillon: Beautiful.
Megan Figueroa: I am so happy for you. Congratulations.
Jessi Grieser: Well, if I ever get off my butt, I’ll be really excited.
Carrie Gillon: We always leave our listeners with one final message.
Megan Figueroa: Don’t be an asshole.
Carrie Gillon: Don’t be an asshole.
Carrie Gillon: I’d like to thank the Language Guy.
Megan Figueroa: yay!
Carrie Gillon: And Diego Diaz.
Megan Figueroa: Thank you so much. I, I mean, other people can support us too: where at?
Carrie Gillon: Right. http://www.patreon.com/vocalfriespod, and we have stickers and we have bonus episodes and we have a mug.
Megan Figueroa: We do. Yeah, it’s cute and salty.