Entitled much? The Performance of ‘Other’ Englishes

Curator's Note

English has the third largest number of native speakers and is the single “richest” language when we account for the gross domestic product of countries where it is an official language, as well as accounting for almost 25% of the international economy (Parkvall, 2006). English is a megapresence in intercultural contexts throughout the world, yet performative representations in U.S. film production continue to leverage the language attitudes of some monolingual English speakers toward other varieties of English. U.S. media representations of intercultural communication involving native and non-native English speakers frequently depict Japanese speakers of English (JSE), who “switch the r’s and the l’s,” as less sophisticated or competent than native speakers of English. Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation (LIT) (2003) makes use of the r/l stereotype to construct linguistic and cultural entitlement (Bourdieu, 2007) around a native speaker of U.S. English. The character John is a photographer on a shoot in Tokyo, working with a Japanese record label to promote a band. John is played by a young, white actor who portrays a hip professional from the U.S., caught up in his work and the values imposed on him as a consequence of working with celebrities invested in the commodification of visual images. John plays his part as a capable and in-demand professional at the same time that the audience is presented with evidence of his insecurity. John reveals his condescension for the Japanese label promoter in his reported speech about “lock and loll.” In a profession centered around the visual image, John seems to be jockeying for his own aesthetic expertise when he constructs the Japanese appropriation of the rock and roll image as “ridiculous.” John’s argument that the Japanese artists should be allowed to “be who they are,” indicates a perception of inauthenticity both for the band members and their management. This cultural attitude, shaped and, ironically, conveyed in part by the mock pronunciation of the phrase “lock and loll,” denigrates and insults the business people for daring to participate in a globalized media economy. John not only constructs the race, gender, and profession of the “label guy” and his talent as inferior, but also our understanding of what it means to be a young, white, U.S., male professional working in an international context. By using “taste” to erase his professional insecurity, John links his discourse about style to the privileges of age, race, nationality, gender, and class that he can rely on to overcome his professional insecurity and cast his colleagues as inferior. As “global citizens,” monolingual U.S. Americans reap some of the most quantifiable benefits from the neo-imperial practices of exploitation, in the first, third, and domestic fourth worlds. While representations of other languages or non-standard dialects of English in media are common, we should be critiquing linguistic representation as an index, not only of identity and not only of racist practices, but also of the cultural performance work with which racism is linked in the globalizing economy.


I love the casualness of this "linguistic marker of difference" (to borrow a term from Michele Hilmes). The perceived correct and incorrect ways of speaking English in a global context does exactly what you suggest Catie: it renders Japanese cultural expansion as inauthentic in comparison with its Anglo American counterpart. I am reminded of how American media also often uses speech acts to construct racialized differences among different Americans that not only differentiate but hierarchize. Hilmes argues that radio in the 1930s required that Black characterizations (often played by white performers) be in Minstrel dialect. The logic was to be able to distinguish according to race, but the result was often to render certain modes of speaking English bufoonish, illegitimate, and simply wrong. Are we replicating these patterns on a global scale now?

Consider Abu in The Simpsons, the scene in Lethal Weapon IV where the main characters throw down in the Chinese restaurant, or the portrayal of Kim Jong-il in Team America just for the r/l alternation. But we could easily look at portrayals of non-standard dialects within American English to see how they are being used to construct entitlement. I'll check out the Hilmes reference fa shuwah.

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