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The Language of Hip Hop Culture

H. Samy Alim
Stanford University
Before 2005

Linguistic scholars, for the most part, have slept on hip hop culture and the innovative and inventive use of language in the Hip Hop Nation. In recent years, however, there has been a dramatic increase in sociolinguistic scholarship on the subject. The 2001 Linguistic Society of America/American Dialect Society annual meetings have showcased papers on hip hop culture. This year’s NWAV 30 Conference (New Ways of Analyzing Variation) offers an entire panel on, “The Sociolinguistics of Hip Hop: New Ways of Analyzing Hip Hop Nation Language.” The American Anthropological Association and the American Popular Culture Society meetings also offer papers on the subject.

“Hip hop” has become the buzzword in academic circles, galvanizing fields as diverse as Linguistics, English, Religious Studies, Anthropology, and Philosophy. Courses that examine the Hip Hop Cultural Movement have, of course, been offered in many universities nation-wide (and world-wide), such as Stanford University, Harvard University, University of Massachusetts, UCLA, Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania, and various universities in France, Germany, South Africa and England, among others. Few courses focus specifically on language use within the hip hop community, though language is perhaps the primary tool with which one can gain a thorough understanding of the culture. What is the relationship between language and identity in the hip hop community? Can we define a language variety known as Hip Hop Nation Language [HHNL]? How does language use within the hip hop community confirm or challenge our knowledge of African American Language, and how have other global languages and cultures been impacted by hip hop culture and communication? How does HHNL disturb our notions of race and language? What can we gain by examining the communicative modes and codes of this dynamic cultural community?

This course will explore hip hop culture through the study of language. While a background in linguistics is not required (though it may be helpful), a love for hip hop is. We will be examining this Black-street-culture-turned-global-culture through the various lenses of discourse analysis: speech act theory, interactional sociolinguistics, the ethnography of communication, pragmatics, conversational analysis, and variation analysis. Students will gain an introduction to these various frameworks in the sociolinguistic analysis of discourse, and will be expected to apply and expand these frameworks and methodologies in their own work. We will focus on both theory and field research.

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