Professor Calvin Gidney - The Tufts Supplement
Tufts is a marvelous blend of a top-tier research university and a small, New England college.I have found that Tufts students are inquisitive, critical thinkers whose intellectual passions fuel their desire to make a positive difference in the world. They are also really smart. Tufts students are “Renaissance” women and men who are interested in exploring the world around them and creating positive change. To a greater extent than many top-tier schools, Tufts students have the chance to work closely with faculty on research and engage in activism and service. It is a pleasure learning from and with Tufts students.
There is a Quaker saying: “Let your life speak.” Describe the environment in which you were raised and how it influenced the person you are today.
As a sociolinguist, I’m interested in the complex relationships between our personal identities and language. When we speak, we communicate much more than the content of our utterances. Our speech conveys information about our social identity – our place of origin, gender identity, social class, and ethnic identity. As interlocutors, we use this information to form our impressions of others and, often subconsciously, to judge them.
These interests are a direct result of my lived experiences. I was born in the early 60’s in Washington D.C. My parents were members of the first generation of African-Americans who reached the middle class in significant numbers. They decided to send me to elite private schools located in the White section of the city. This meant crossing the cultural divide between Black America and White America every day.
In school, my friends and teachers spoke Standard American English (SAE), the dialect associated with power and privilege taught in schools and universities. In my neighborhood, my friends spoke African-American English (AAE), a variety of American English with roots in the African pidgin and creole languages. I realized that to thrive in both environments, I needed to speak one way in school and another way in my neighborhood. The consequences for not doing so were considerable. If I spoke SAE to my neighborhood friends, they would accuse me of “thinking I was White.” If I spoke AAE at school, my peers and teachers would deem me “uneducated.” Code switching became second nature to me. It sparked my interest in understanding how language works as a powerful marker of our personal identities and how it can be used to stereotype.
Of six options, Professor Gidney chose the following for the final supplemental question: C) Sports, science, and society are filled with rules, theories, and laws. Pick one and explain its significance to you.
Linguists distinguish two approaches to language norms: prescriptive and descriptive. Prescriptive approaches to language stress the rules of “proper” usage. Prescriptivists censure non-standard usage, like ending a sentence with a preposition, or ignoring the distinction between the words “few” and “less.” As a science, linguistics is descriptive. Linguists describe how people actually use language, avoiding judgment or bias. Linguists understand that language, like any living thing, changes over time, and that change is inexorable.
As a linguist, I recognize that spelling ‘rules’ such as “‘I’ before ‘E’ except after ‘C’” may serve as useful mnemonics for beleaguered writers, but they disregard the many exceptions and subtle nuances of English spelling. After all, how could linguistics, which is a science, forfeit the opportunity to point out how heinous spelling rules can be? Indeed, our language would be far more beige and bland were it not for the many foreign words and spellings that enrich it. Linguistics teaches me that variation is beautiful and worthy of study, change is inevitable, and rules can hide the wonderful lessons that society can learn from embracing exceptions.