Hey Professor

Posted by on March 15, 2011

Stephen wrote an entertaining post recently about linguistic registers. In communication, a register generally has to do with what Macmillan Dictionary defines as “the type of language that you use in a particular situation or when communicating with a particular group of people”. (It can also refer to voice quality in phonetics, which is similar to its meaning in music theory.)

In sociolinguistics, register is often about how formal your language is. By convention, there are situations where formality is expected. Introduced to someone for the first time, we might offer a casual “How’s it going?” or a less breezy “Hello, how do you do?” It depends on what seems appropriate. We tend to make this decision automatically if we are tuned in to cultural norms. In unfamiliar languages, it can be easy to forget the T–V distinction if we’re not used to applying it.

Someone I know who began tutoring in university told me something that surprised me: some of her students seem to have little or no awareness of these nuances in their correspondence. They use the same colloquial expressions and tone in emails to their professors that they use in text messages to their friends. For example, they might begin semi-formal emails with the words “Hey Professor”, and see nothing untoward about this.

In other words, they seem to lack what’s called “code switching” ability. Many people have a local dialect they replace with more standard English in certain circumstances. This is an example of code switching. Other examples are what bilingual people do when they change languages, and the way people switch between work jargon and a more everyday variety of speech.

As I wrote in a comment on the Sociological Images blog, where the subject was raised, I would have thought switching registers would come naturally to third-level students. Evidently not, in some cases. As Stephen noted, it’s a tricky area. Language usage is closely tied to cultural notions of correctness that can be outdated or dubious, and English does seem to be becoming less formal generally. (See Baba Brinkman & Professor Elemental’s popular rap about this.) I have no time for pompous formality, but I’m not sure that “Hey” is the best default address to professors unless they have indicated its acceptability. Am I getting old?

Comments (6)
  • I enjoyed the exercise Stephen presented and I agree that there might be a rise in confusion among English speakers about norms, not least because external pressure of language change and grammaticalization of features and speech patterns are ever growing in an interconnected world. I consider myself familiar with the ebonics debate as well – if you could call it a consensus among liguists there was the notion that “appropriateness” should be the more befitting category. Correctness is a concept that does not help those, whose vernacular is by comparison considered defective. But you can still teach appropriate varieties, adapting speech patterns to meet the social norms of respective speech situations. You know that Professor Higgins would have been torn a new one, had he used his pompous ass lingo in the hood. Vice versa, students who are unfamiliar with established speaking norms of academia will have a hard time succeeding in that environment without learning the sociolect.

    I do disagree with your definition of code switching btw, but perhaps the linguist terminology has been picked up by native English speakers to have broader meaning. “Less formal” however is again a concept like “correct” that misses the point if you want to convey it to students who seem to have a different understanding of formality – it is inherently ethnocentric. Instead it might be helpful to look at language use functionally. Addressing your professor with “hey” is a linguistic choice only, if you know there are alternative choices. And it surely is a bad choice, if your professor does not approve the level of social deixis that is associated with your appelation. You could teach your students about social deixis and what choices they have in their use of language that goes beyond the T-V distinction English students rarely even know.

    Check out the Japanese honorific system if you want to see some mind boggling levels of “politeness” turning into grammatical categories, even ascribing reference at times.

    Posted by Jakob on 16th March, 2011
  • Another fascinating post. Thank you. And another anecdote from my time in France in response.

    From childhood French I’d learned the safest, polite you-form was “vous”. It took me a while to realize that, as an adult, using “vous” in informal situations came across as deliberately distancing: typical, crushing, English sang-froid.

    I’d just add that in my experience “Hey Professor”, or a more England-centric variant, isn’t a very recent phenomenon. I came across is tutoring at a university in 2001 (proof, were it needed, that I’m getting old too!).

    I didn’t know Baba Brinkman rapped on language too. I met him rapping about evolution: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hod20AzYB4o.

    Posted by Pip on 16th March, 2011
  • Do you know, Pip, I had the same experience: in France as a teenager, there were times I used vous instead of tu, erring on the side of extra-polite caution, only to be (sometimes) informed that I should relax, be more friendly, or something along these lines! It took a little social learning to figure out what worked best with whom, and why. Thanks for the video link; it was fun.

    Posted by Stan on 16th March, 2011
  • Jakob: Thanks for your thoughtful comment and interesting observations. What you say about varieties of correctness is true; it’s something I’ve written about several times on my own blog. I’ve seen people criticised for using standard Hiberno-English idioms that are considered non-standard outside Ireland. This, and your points about Ebonics, relate to what Geoffrey Pullum helpfully calls “correctness conditions“.

    As for the appropriateness of “Hey Professor”: yes, it depends on the professor and the context and the relationship with students. Some professors would be fine with “Hey”; others wouldn’t. The impression I got from the person I mentioned in par. 3 was that it was considered to be too informal, as was the general tone of correspondence. I didn’t try to define code switching, by the way; rather I offered examples based on the definitions in The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar and David Crystal’s Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics.

    Posted by Stan on 16th March, 2011
  • Stan, glad I could provide some additional insight. Always fascinating to look at language from different angles. It’s bound to catch up with the correctness doctrine that prestige is shifting away from some native english standards to a world english of sorts now that second language speakers are outnumbering native speakers. Korean Airlines already uses non-native English speakers (French people in fact) for their announcements on purpose, because their English is easier to understand to the Asian customers. Very interesting to see how this comes to bear on perceived levels of politeness and how they will be codified in the future.

    Posted by Jakob on 17th March, 2011
  • ‘Always fascinating to look at language from different angles.’

    Hear, hear! Thanks for your examples of, and ideas about, international English. I agree with you about prestige. There’s a lingering belief in some quarters that standard English is innately superior to other kinds, but of course this is not the case, and the great diversity of equally valid forms of English accords with your earlier point about function. Ultimately it boils down to effective and appropriate communication. Like you, I’m curious to see what the effect will be on conventions of (in)formality.

    Posted by Stan on 18th March, 2011
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