Tomayto, Tomahto, Potayto, PahtatoValley girls, Lucky Charms leprechauns and the Notorious B.I.G are just a few of the subjects offered up for consideration in Linguistics 80: "Dialects of English," a departmental course for those with a flair for language but with a fear of linguistics technicalities.
"It's designed to be an enjoyable introduction to one type of linguistic research," says Bert R. Vaux, assistant professor of linguistics, a course for students looking for "something interesting rather than something technical and obscure."
Instead of letting students get bogged down in technicalities, Linguistics 80 approaches language with a heavy emphasis on listening--both to native speakers who come to nearly every course meeting to demonstrate different dialects and to language variance in the pop culture Vaux frequently references in his course.
Pop culture is a useful reference, Vaux notes, because shows like "The Simpsons" and "South Park" tend to feature more language play and language variance that can be analyzed in class.
"I try to record a lot of TV and weed through it to see which language variances I can use," Vaux says.
Bill and Ted, the movie Clueless, and Tom Cruise's performance in Far and Away--which required a stereotypical Irish accent--are all points on the course syllabus, and clips of popular cartoon shows are regular features in lecture.
"Most academics assume that classical music of 19th century writers are in some absolute way superior to contemporary pop culture, like 'The Simpsons' or 'South Park,' which is just not true," Vaux says. "Both are products of their time's pop cultures."
Just as Vaux uses pop culture to bring to life dialects that may seem unbelievable or dry on paper, he also emphasizes that the native speakers who demonstrate their dialects in lecture on a regular basis are integral to the course. Dialects covered in the course include regional American, Australian, British, Indian, and Calypso.
The course will also deal with myths about language and dialects, class and gender influences on language, and language formation.
"This course will show students that most of what they believe about language is wrong," Vaux says.
--Eugenia V. Levenson
Though at first sight the course appears light-hearted, Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature Ruth R. Wisse says she hopes to seriously investigate the moral dimension of humor and the Jewish contribution to it in a small, discussion-oriented setting.
"Yiddish literature is associated in many people's minds with humor," Wisse says. "Humor is a very fundamental part of [Yiddish] literature. The humorous element is almost an unavoidable subject... It's just there."
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