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Language as Prestige Index

Language as Prestige

Crossing Over

Language Crossing —
Borrowing Identity
Linguists study "crossing" to understand how — and why — individuals mimic the speech of another group. "Borrowing" another language variety is often an expression of identity. Cecelia Cutler explains. Read Full Essay

Different accents, whether regional or foreign, signal different types of people. In animated Disney films villainous characters often have a British accent whereas stupid characters may have a southern accent. Robin Hood spoke with a California accent. King Louis the orangutan in “The Jungle Story” spoke with an African American accent. In action hero cartoons the enemy may have some kind of foreign accent — Russian or Arabic, (see Rosina Lippi-Green’s book “English with an Accent” for more examples). The meanings these accents carry can be used in turn by ordinary people in everyday situations, on the radio and on television to mimic, paraphrase, or mock the speech of others, or simply to have fun. People engage in this kind of verbal behavior for a number of reasons: sometimes it’s to get laugh. In other cases, we use the words of others to strengthen our own arguments. We may also imitate another group’s speech to show that we identify with its speakers. Still in other instances, we perform someone’s speech in order to mock them or to distance ourselves from their views. Linguists often refer to this kind of behavior as “language crossing” or simply “crossing.”

When crossing into a foreign, regional or social accent, the speaker may either be signaling solidarity with or distance from that group of speakers depending on how the speech is performed and what its market value is. Some foreign accents and dialects are associated with wealth and prestige (i.e. a French accent or certain British accents) and may be used in ways that play on commonly understand associations between these accents and their speakers. Some types of English have “covert” prestige for certain groups. Varieties like African American English — shunned by the mainstream — have special ingroup cachet for young people — especially young men — who affiliate with hip-hop culture. White suburban middle class hip hoppers adopt the speech patterns and lingo of their urban African American counterparts in ingroup settings. It helps them project a more urban, “street” persona in these situations than their ethnic and class status would otherwise afford them.

Other accents are arguably not prestigious and may even be stigmatized in mainstream society (e.g. a Spanish accent or “Brooklynese”).  When crossing involves these kinds of accents, it may be used to mock the speakers associated with them. It also effectively distances the speaker from the words and or message being delivered such as when people intentionally misuse Spanish expressions like “hasta la pasta” instead of “hasta la vista.” Some researchers call this “mock Spanish” and claim that it is a racist strategy employed by many Anglos in the Southwest and in California to distance themselves from Latinos. But crossing can also simply be part of the playful repertoire of a group of friends who draw on familiar pop cultural references from Monte Python to The Simpsons for humorous effect.

Suggested Reading/Additional Resources

  • Alim, H. Samy. (in press). “Hip Hop Nation Language.” Language in the USA. Eds. Ed Finegan & John Rickford. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Bauman, Zygmunt. Modernity and Ambivalence. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991.
  • Cutler, Cecilia. “Crossing over: white teenagers, hip hop and African American English.” Doctoral Dissertation, New York University, 2002.
  • Hill,-Jane-H.  "Junk Spanish, Covert Racism, and the (Leaky) Boundary between Public and Private Spheres." Pragmatics 5 (1995): 197-212.
  • Labov, William.  "Is There a Creole Speech Community?" Theoretical Orientations in Creole Studies. Eds. Albert Valdman and Arnold Highfield.   New York: Academic Press, 1980. 369–388.
  • Lippi-Green, Rosina. English with an Accent. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • Mitchell-Kernan, Claudia.  “Signifying and marking: two Afro-American speech acts.” Directions in sociolinguistics. Eds. John Gumperz and Dell Hymes.  New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1972. 161-179.
  • Morgan, Marcyliena. “More than a mood of an attitude: Discourse and Verbal Genres in African American English.” African American English.  Eds.  Mufwene et al.  New York: Routledge, 1998.  251-281.
  • Potter, Russel.  Spectacular Vernaculars: Hip hop and the politics of post-modernism. State University of New York Press, 1995.
  • Rampton, Ben.  Crossing: Language & Ethnicity Among Adolescents New York: Longman, 1995.
  • Rampton, Ben.  “Language Crossing and Ethnicity in Sociolinguistics.” Paper presented at the New Ways of Analyzing Variation conference (NWAV XXV), Las Vegas, 1996.
  • Sales, Nancy J. “Teenage Gangland.” New York Magazine  Vol. 29, No. 48.     16 Dec. 1996:  32-39.
  • Samuels, David.  “The Rap on Rap: The ‘Black Music’ That Isn’t Either.” Rap on rap: straight up talk on hip hop culture.  Ed. Adam Sexton.  New York: Delta. 1991. 241-252.

Cecelia Cutler received her Ph.D. from New York University in 2002. She is currently a visiting assistant professor of linguistics at Stony Brook University. Her dissertation explores the speech practices of white middle class hip hoppers in New York City. More generally her research focuses on the sociolinguistic aspects of individuals adopting ways of speaking that differ from those they were raised with. She has published pieces in Popular Music and Society, the Journal of Sociolinguistics, the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, and Language and Education.
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