Linguistics professor uses hip hop to study the evolution of language

By Chris Adams

Ever wake up in the morning and ask yourself: is rap worth studying? Should you verse yourself? University of Calgary linguistics professor Darin Flynn thinks so.

He believes that one of the best ways to identify shifts in language is by studying rap music.

“Linguists tend to approach language from a scientific point of view. It gets a bit tedious because language is used in all kinds of really fun, creative ways,” Flynn said.

Flynn will teach Rap Linguistics for the first time in the fall semester. Citing personal favourites Eminem and Jay-Z, he said the idea for the class came from his own love of hip hop.

“I thought maybe what we could do is reverse-engineer [rap]. You find songs that are really popular, artists that are really popular and try to understand why they’re popular and why what they’re doing is so popular,” Flynn said.

Flynn credits rap with speeding up the evolution of language, citing the use of the word “literally” being used in place of the word figuratively. He used a Wiz Khalifa lyric as an example.

“When he says ‘I’m the shit, literally,’ he’s illustrating how language has changed. If you find that funny, it means you haven’t caught up and you’re not up to date on how language is changing,” Flynn said. “Rap is the cutting edge of where you find this.”

Flynn said he’ll likely get students to focus on a rapper or sub-genre that interests them, using resources like hip hop website Rap Genius to study their lyrics.

“Because it’s the first time I’m doing this course, I’m going to try to adapt it to students’ interests,” Flynn said.

Students will learn the tools rappers like Eminem use to craft their verses. Priming — setting up a metaphor multiple lines before it is introduced — is one such tool.

“So [when] he asks a girl to give him head or something, he set up the whole decapitation scene before it. So he’s literally asking her to give him her physical head. And then you look back and there’ll be four other meanings hidden,” Flynn said. “When he says something offensive, there are actually four or five other meanings that he’s primed you for.”

Rap in non-english languages will also be covered. Students will study rappers who shift from one language to another mid-verse, a technique called co-switching.

Flynn’s research includes studying endangered languages like Cree. He said hip hop has revitalized dying languages by making them cool to use.

The class will be taught in Trailer A, a secluded, essentially sound-proof room. Flynn said administration put the class there to avoid neighbouring classes hearing loud, offensive lyrics. There are only 50 seats available for the three hour Monday lecture.

So linguistics majors, don’t front, stunt. Sign up.