In Anjelah Johnson’s “Nail Salon” comedy act, which aired on the Comedy Time network in 2007, there is a deliberate use of marked language or speech markers by a speaker from outside the group in question. In fact, mocking speakers from outside her ethnic and racial group is a common theme in many of her acts. In the act, “Nail Salon” she is, in my opinion, attracting anyone that has ever frequented a nail salon where the majority of the employees were Asian. The sociolinguistic variables this paper will focus on include: the stereotypes towards Asian speech, attitudes towards code switching, and how speakers of speech communities manage their languages in socially meaningful ways.
Johnson demonstrates a common stereotype towards Asian speech, specifically Vietnamese female manicurist speech. Having grown up in Southern California, where a large Vietnamese community resides, and also where Johnson is from; I could completely relate to her comedy act. According to Ronald Wardhaugh, “To say of a member of such a group that he or she will always exhibit a certain characteristic behavior is to offer a stereotype (p.120).” Johnson reinforces the female Asian manicurist stereotype through her use of speech markers, which include, “…social categories of sex, ethnicity, social class, and situation [which are] clearly marked on the basis of speech (p.121).” Whether or not the video attracts or repels members of targeted group, Vietnamese female manicurists or people of Vietnamese origin, is questionable. According to YouTube’s statistical information about who is viewing this specific video it is evident that the group most attracted to Johnson’s act are women between the ages of 13-54 years old.
By deliberately using the speech of a working class, Vietnamese female, in the particular context of a nail salon and as a speaker from outside the group in question Johnson is sending several messages about attitudes towards Asians in general. In particular, she is sending a message about the way Asian speakers code-switch and the attitudes associated with it when it occurs in a nail salon. Wardhaugh describes code switching as having two distinct purposes: situational and metaphorical. “Situational code-switching occurs when the languages used change according to the situations in which the conversants find themselves; they speak one language in one situation and another in a different one (p.104).”
In the case of the “Nail Salon” comedy act, Johnson exemplifies the use of metaphorical code switching. According to Wardhaugh metaphorical code-switching occurs as, “…a change of topic [which] requires a change in the language used…it has an affective dimension to it: you change the code as you redefine the situation- formal to informal, official to personal, serious to humorous, and politeness to solidarity…to show how speakers employ particular languages to convey information that goes beyond their actual words, especially to define social situations (p.104).” The particular instance where Johnson demonstrates metaphorically code-switching is when she criticizes the manicurists’ work on one of her nails. The manicurist, after some debate as to whether or not Johnson’s nail was actually flawed, decides to fix the nail, and instantly begins to code-switch with another employee. It is implied that Johnson is left wondering what Tammy, the manicurist, could possibly be saying to her fellow employee. In the middle of speaking Vietnamese, almost to cover up what was really being said, Tammy says in her heavily accented English that her fellow manicurist thinks Johnson is pretty. She was, according to Wardhaugh’s definition of metaphorical code switching, using Vietnamese and English “…to convey information that goes beyond her actual words (p.104).” In other words, Johnson does a great job of showing us how quickly the manicurist went from being “all about customer service” to extremely annoyed when Johnson critiques her work and doesn’t, for the first time in the act, give in to the manicurists requests or suggestions. This leads to the final sociolinguistic variable: how speakers of speech communities manage their languages in socially meaningful ways.
Earlier I mentioned the use of speech markers as a variable. According to Wardhaugh’s description of speech communities it is, “…through speech markers [as] functionally important social categorizations [that can be] discriminated…For humans, speech markers have clear parallels…it is evident that [these] social categories of…sex, ethnicity, social class, and situation can be clearly marked on the basis of speech… (p.121).” In the comedy act, “Nail Salon” the “female Vietnamese manicurist” is obviously from a certain social class: she is an immigrant serving American standard English-speaking individuals.
The last variable, how speakers of speech communities manage their languages in socially meaningful ways, is in my opinion a mode of survival for the manicurist. At the beginning of the act Johnson mentions how the women at the salon are all about customer service. In fact, Johnson demonstrates how good they are at getting you to purchase more services repeatedly throughout the act. The manicurist has learned how to use language in socially meaningful ways. She is constantly complimenting the customer and acting very interested in her life, which is important because Asians are known to be very modest people who don’t like to bring attentions to themselves or others, but in this act Johnson demonstrates how the Asian manicurist has learned that Americans favor an individualistic perspective and the manicurist taps into that knowledge in order to get Johnson to buy more services. In other words, there is more than one stereotype being displayed.
As a Mexican-American and Native American comedian Anjelah Johnson falls under the category of being a speaker from outside the Vietnamese community. It is interesting to note whether or not the targeted group would actually repel or be attracted to Johnson’s comedy act of “Nail Salon.” After reviewing comments the video received on YouTube I could only identify one that may have been from an Asian person given his/her name, SgtTsuki’s. He/she stated, “Gahh!! It’s so wrong to laugh and feel offended at the same time!!” I am still left wondering if people who belong to the Asian community would feel offended. Maybe some members would, such as those who speak with an Asian accent, but others who are American-born and do not speak with an Asian accent may not.
Written in 2010—in rough draft form, but worth the share.
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