Language and Culture: a strange exam

Every year, my Language and Culture introductory linguistic anthropology course has a massive take-home final exam consisting of ten questions, of which students choose seven or eight (depending on class size).   The students have a month to do the exam, and are encouraged to share ideas and collaborate as long as they don’t actually copy answers from one another. You’d be surprised just how minimal a problem this is, compared to when I used to do more traditional assignments.  They know I’m looking for outright copying, and anything up to that point I consider to be salutary and valuable for learning.

Because – as you will see below – the questions are somewhat weird, to put it mildly: mostly dependent on blogs, videos, and other online sources as well as the texts and lecture materials, it’s unlike any of the exams most of the class has ever encountered.   I always emphasize that basically none of them are going to become linguistic anthropologists professionally, so their goal should be more broadly humanistic, to be able to think critically about and with the sort of material they’re likely to encounter in their lives.  I had 58 students complete exams this year (x 7 questions x 2 pages = 812 typed pages), and in the wake of my post-grading exhaustion, I thought I’d share this year’s exam questions with you.   Enjoy!

  1. Read the news article ‘How to talk like a stone-age man’ (http://tinyurl.com/nj6oard) and then evaluate its argument using material from the course about proto-languages and language evolution.
  2. The Twitter account @nixicon (https://twitter.com/nixicon) retweets people who claim that some particular word is actually ‘not a word’.   Use at least two examples of tweets retweeted by @nixicon, along with the concept of metalanguage, to analyze the social reasons why people claim that particular words that they encounter aren’t real.
  3. Watch the film ‘Marie’s Dictionary’ (http://vimeo.com/105673207) and then, with reference to chapter 7 of The Power of Babel, discuss the issue of language endangerment with relation to Native American languages. Using evidence from the film, to what degree and for what reasons is the preservation of endangered languages an important and worthwhile goal?
  4. In Portraits of “the Whiteman”, one aspect of Anglo-American speech that the Western Apache mock is the way that the word ‘friend’ and the concept of friendship are used by Anglos.   One can also find discourse about the meaning of ‘friend’ in essays about social media, such as http://tinyurl.com/cqwo97v.   Comparing these two instances of metalanguage about ‘friend’, discuss how words can challenge cultural preconceptions about social relations such as friendship.   What do you think that Western Apache would think about the concept of ‘Facebook friends’?
  5. Read the blog post at http://phoenicia.org/leblanguage.html on the difference between Lebanese Arabic and Standard Arabic. Using material from the post and from The Power of Babel, discuss this post in relation to Max Weinreich’s statement, “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”
  6. The blog post at http://www.invisibleoranges.com/2013/11/death-metal-english/ sets out some principles for a new (hopefully facetious) dialect, Death Metal English. Using specific examples from this post, discuss how language can be a tool to index particular social identities? What sorts of values and ideals are being expressed using Death Metal English?
  7. Using data from Google Ngram Viewer, discuss the changes in frequency of the terms suntan lotion, sunscreen, and sunblock.   Find a website that discusses the use of these terms and use it to analyze the significance of the choice among them.
  8. Watch the video ‘Stephen Fry Kinetic Typography – Language’ (http://youtu.be/J7E-aoXLZGY). Discuss the claims made by Fry about why people complain about language use, using the concepts of descriptivism and prescriptivism.
  9. The map at http://popvssoda.com:2998/countystats/total-county.html shows some interesting patterns in the distribution of the terms ‘pop’, ‘soda’ and ‘coke’ as the generic term for soft drinks. Identify two distinctive patterns on that map that you find interesting and speculate as to their potential origins and social significance.
  10. Ask a thoughtful question about the relationship between language and culture to which you do not currently know the answer.   This question might be related to an issue raised in class or in one of the texts. Using the analytical and conceptual tools of this course, discuss (in general) how someone might go about finding a satisfactory answer to the question.
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