Yo, Eigo, Stay the Way You Are

Scott Gardner

Earlier this year I was observing a student teacher giving a lesson to a junior high school class as part of her practicum. The lesson was based on the following dialogue:

Ms Erable: What is that?

Mijime-kun: It’s an old fiddle.

Ms Erable: A fiddle?

(Note: Names and artefacts have been changed to protect the mundane and unfunny.)

At some point in her exegesis of this exchange, the student teacher asked the kids to help her “fix” the grammar in Ms Erable’s final line. She ultimately led the entire class (with the exception of myself, biting my tongue at the back of the room) to the conclusion that the grammatically correct, intended meaning of the woman’s response was “Is it a fiddle?”

Which is, of course, pure fiddle. By this same logic, Sylvester Stallone’s impassioned cries to his girlfriend from the boxing ring, after barely losing the title fight at the end of Rocky, would have been intended to mean: “Yo, you are Adrian!” If this is Chomskyan deep structure, it’s pretty much just lapping around the ankles.

A few of my students have been doing research along similar lines, namely trying to determine specimens of good “spoken grammar” in Japanese EFL textbooks. Among the many reasons they chose to research this topic (besides the fact that I told them to do so) is that they had noticed some glaring differences between the grammar appearing in the textbooks and the grammar spoken by characters in some of their favorite English language songs and movies. Take the following lines from a recent Ariana Grande song:

Every look, every touch

Makes me wanna give you my heart

I be crushin’ on you, baby

Stay the way you are

Let’s set aside “wanna” for another discussion and focus here on “I be crushin’.” Grande’s use of a colloquial, cute and endearing grammar structure is entirely cool with me. But it’s not likely to appear very soon in any Monkasho-approved junior high textbooks. (There is an obscure policy directive that says trend-setting linguistic phenomena must be at least 40 years out of date before they are “gnarly” enough to merit inclusion in the curriculum.)

On the other hand, anyone who thinks that Ariana be droppin’ the newest, chillest English on us through her hip-hoppy millennial-friendly R&B should do more research themselves. Let me introduce to you one of my favorite American actors of all time, Bugs Bunny, who in a classic animated Western from way back in the 1940s was facing down red-bearded bad guy Yosemite Sam on a train that Sam was trying to rob:

Sam: Be you the mean hombre that’s a-hankerin’ for a heap of trouble, stranger?

Bugs: I be.

As you can see, B. Bunny was crushin’ on hip English slang long before Ariana made it grande.

As part of my students’ research project I asked them to check out some English slang online (and of course I claimed “no fault” on what they might end up finding), to see if they themselves could “fix” the textbook dialogue above to sound a little more natural. This is what they came up with:

Ms Erable: What is that?

Mijime-kun: It’s an old fiddle.

Ms Erable: Get outta town!