January 28, 2006

The dissing of hiphop linguistics

On the anthroblog Savage Minds, Kerim Friedman takes note of a recent press release from the University of Calgary under the title "Hip hop and linguistics: you ain't heard no research like it":

It's rare to use the words 'hip hop' and 'serious academic research' in the same sentence, but a University of Calgary linguistics professor has relied on rap music as source material for a study of African American vernacular English.

Dr. Darin Howe recently contributed a book chapter that focuses on how black Americans use the negative in informal speech, citing examples from hip hop artists such as Phonte, Jay Z and Method Man. Howe is believed to be the only academic in Canada and one of the few in the world to take a scholarly look at the language of hip hop.

As Friedman remarks, a little basic fact-checking would have helped here. There's been plenty of serious academic research on hiphop, including linguistic research, for quite some time now. Friedman quickly Googled up a bibliography of hiphop scholarship compiled by John Ranck of Simmons College, to which I'd add the even more extensive bibliography maintained at the Hiphop Archive website.

Linguistic research on rap lyrics and hiphop culture more broadly is certainly nothing new. The founder of the Hiphop Archive, Stanford communications professor Marcyliena Morgan, has been writing about hiphop from a sociolinguistic perspective since at least 1993 (in a paper presented at the American Anthropological Association annual meeting, "Hip Hop Hooray!: The Linguistic Production of Identity"). Geneva Smitherman of Michigan State, author of Talkin and Testifyin: The Language of Black America (1977) and Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner (1994) also has an extensive list of hiphop-related publications. Dissertations on the language of hiphop have been produced since at least 1997 (Jon Abdullah Yasin's thesis at Columbia University, "In yo face! Rappin' beats comin' at you: A study of how language is mapped onto musical beats in rap music"). Newer scholars include Samy Alim and Cecilia Cutler, both of whom were involved in the recent PBS documentary "Do You Speak American?" (Alim on "Hip Hop Nation Language" and Cutler on the "crossing" performed by white suburban teenagers using hiphop talk).

As for whether Howe is the "only academic in Canada" studying hiphop language, I sincerely doubt that. He's certainly not the first. Though no longer affiliated with a Canadian university, Awad Ibrahim wrote his 1998 dissertation at the University of Toronto on language-learning by Francophone African youths at a Toronto high school. He found that a crucial aspect of their learning process was the acquisition of Black English through hiphop, which assisted them in "becoming black." (See also Ibrahim's contribution to Black Linguistics: Language, Society and Politics in Africa and the Americas, based on his doctoral work.)

Nowadays it's not unusual to find presentations or even entire panels on linguistic aspects of hiphop at academic conferences. The range of research topics is quite broad, from deixis in gangsta rap to the self-consciousness of the hiphop register, from conversational pragmatics to copula absence, from /aw/ variation to communicative failure in freestyle rapping. But what is unremarkable in scholarly gatherings is apparently still bizarre and exotic at the University of Calgary press office.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at January 28, 2006 07:40 PM