Refining "Microaggression": a linguistic perspective


For a few years I’ve been very interested in a phenomenon that is a topic of a lot of research in the social psychology literature, and which is increasingly discussed in social media and in the news media, but which has not yet gained much attention in linguistics. The phenomenon, microaggression, is somewhat controversial. I think this is, in part, because it is a social phenomenon that often has language and language use central to it, but the discussion around microaggression is often predicated on a number of (sometimes easily challenged) assumptions, and the definitions of microaggression that are common, while intuitive, are not terribly formally rigorous — so interpretation of what is and is not a microaggression is not satisfyingly ‘objective’. 

Here I’m going to discuss some of my ongoing research project, and specifically I want to propose a tighter definition of microaggression in a linguistic domain and then argue that the unsatisfying ‘subjectivity’ of microaggression is precisely why it’s an interesting topic of study and a valid — and necessary — concept. 

WHAT IS MICROAGGRESSION?


There are a number of varying, slightly different definitions, but microaggression is usually defined as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership” (from this book). 

Earlier formulations were a bit more explicit, so people may be familiar with microaggression as the “…brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” Pretty quickly, people challenged this formulation, and I think that it's generally accepted that microaggression is about power structures and not inherently a bad thing white people do to people of color (as was more-or-less the original formulation by Sue et al). So now, people will accept that microaggression is something that say, white women can experience. I think most would accept that white men can (and do) experience microaggression in certain contexts (for instance, when I'm a non-native Chinese speaker in an exclusively Chinese space). The point is that whenever there is a power dynamic at play, microaggression is possible

There are a number of  different ways of constraining the idea, but as a linguist, I'm naturally more inclined to look at linguistic behavior in conversation, in part because that's what I feel most capable of analyzing. So here, I won't be discussing facial expressions or institutional decisions like naming a dormitory for a slave owner and insisting black students call their residence advisors "master."  Rather, I will discuss verbal behavior only.

So that's a lot of words and still it's not that clear what microaggression actually is. Most discussion of it fall back on (1) giving a bunch of examples and (2) interpreting those examples. The problem is, most take the interpretation to be obvious, uncontroversial, and the only way to interpret what was said. This is a mistake, not just because it opens up the theory to criticism like Racial Microaggression? How Do You Know?but because it misses what makes microaggression a valuable concept in the first place.

But first, some classic examples. One of the most common examples of microaggression is when an Asian American is asked "where are you from," and then pressed "where are you really from." The traditional explanation is that it's clear, especially from the second sentence, that the meaning is you can't be from here, and more broadly you're not American and even more broadly you don't belong. I'll take another example from my own experience: I went to a bookstore with a black friend, who was asked 3 times in 5 minutes to perform employee tasks at the store ("can you change the music please?" "where do I find...", "Can you just reshelf this for me, I'm not going to buy it."). The staff at that bookstore wear uniforms, and he was dressed nothing like their uniform. The traditional microaggression interpretation would be that these people mistook him for an employee despite him clearly shopping in street clothes because he is black, and they acted out of a number of assumptions based in stereotypes about black people (e.g., that they don't read, and possibly even that they shirk responsibility -- so the fact that he was obviously not working didn't necessarily suggest he wasn't an employee). Derald Sue and his colleagues have a typology of microaggressions and their interpretation in the article I linked above.

REFINING THE DEFINITION:

Many people, especially white people and especially men, react to these kinds of stories with what I (as a white man...) think is a completely reasonable question: but couldn't it have just been a misunderstanding? This is often brushed aside or ridiculed, which I think is a mistake. 

The key strength of microaggresion, and what gives the concept its 'bite' is that yes, it always could have just been a misunderstanding.

That is, my argument is that microaggression is a valid and useful tool for discussion precisely because it is not cut-and-dry. Otherwise, it's just overt aggression. Nothing 'micro' about it. If I say "your outfit looks dumb" that's just an insult. If I say "oh, your outfit is so...ethnic," that's much trickier to categorize. Is "ethnic" a codeword? Am I insinuating it's inappropriate? That I don't like it? That I think it's unprofessional or looks bad? That I think it doesn't belong? Well...maybe.

So the first part of my argument is:

Microaggression deals with a class of utterances that, given the context of their production, are ambiguous: they are potentially insulting or invalidating, but the insult is plausibly deniable.

What this means is that microaggression is strategic

More importantly, it also means that listeners, faced with potential verbal microaggression are faced with a classification problem: is this an insult, or a mistake?

Elsewhere I've written about the concept in the field of Pragmatics of Gricean implicature, and specifically compared it to the Semantic notions of presupposition and entailment. Implicature is when you say something that -- when listeners assume you're trying to maximize quality, relevance, etc. -- insinuates something beyond the literal content of the utterance. Presupposition and entailment, however, things you can read directly off the utterance.

For example, take the sentence:

  • The first democratically elected leader of the Congo was assassinated.

 

The presuppositions are things like "there is a democratically elected leader of the Congo," (namely, Patrice Lumumba). Presuppositions can cause problems, like when you say things like "the king of France is bald." It presupposes a king of France, which doesn't actually exist in the real world. The entailments are things like the first democratically elected leader of the Congo is dead and that they did not commit suicide.

Now think about:

  • Congrats, you've won five dollars!

The implicature is that you've won exactly five dollars, but this is cancellable. That means I can say: "Congrats, you've won five dollars! In fact, you've won ten!" (note that it's a "scalar" implicature, meaning I can cancel the implicature that you won exactly five dollars, but I can't say "in fact, you've won only four!" without canceling the entire utterance).

I review all this so I can now claim:

Microaggressions are unambiguously identifiable when the offensive material is encoded structurally via presupposition or entailment.

This has a more interesting inverse:

Microaggressions are NOT unambiguously identifiable when the offensive material is merely implicated.

CONVERSATION AS STRATEGY:

I am a huge fan of using the tools of Game Theory to investigate (some) linguistic phenomena. Game Theory grew out of Decision Theory, and in a nutshell is a formal (mathematical) approach to figuring out how rational, thinking 'agents' should behave when the value of their decisions depends on both (1) their own choice, and more importantly (2) the choices of other agents

Applied to pragmatics, this means people -- if we were totally rational -- would think about both what we want to say and how it will be interpreted. I think we generally do do this, but tons of research backs up that we're only moderately good at thinking about what other people are thinking. That means conversation is strategy, but we kind of suck at strategizing. 

I've got a whole complicated flow chart for speaker decisions that models the process, but it basically boils down to: you have a choice of being nice or not being nice, and if you're not nice you have a choice of either saying it outright ("your outfit looks dumb"), encoding your meanness directly in the utterance through presupposition or entailment ("Only idiots wear herringbone"), or encoding it through cancellable implicature ("your outfit is so...interesting.")

The benefit of the latter is that it's deniable and you can save face if you're challenged: "what do you mean 'interesting'?" "I mean I love how intricate it is!" 

But here's a problem: as I mentioned above, we kind of suck at figuring out what other people are thinking. We're also kind of lazy. So it's entirely possible you choose "be nice" at the first branch of your decision-making process, and then basically misfire, and say "you look interesting." You meant something like "you look good," but it just kind of came out wrong because you're socially awkward. 

The other possibility is that you misfire, but it's because you have implicit bias that you're unaware of, but which affects your worldview and which other people can recover from your speech. That is, you choose to be nice, and you say something like:

  • You're a credit to your race.

Right there you've got presuppositions that could be challenged (e.g., "race is biologically real"), and entailments that are perhaps unsavory (e.g., "people of your race are usually not good in some way."). And here you thought you were being nice.

[EDIT: Stephan Hurtubise points out in the comments below that the latter is actually implicature! The entailment is that you are a credit, the implicature we take away from that is that your race needs 'a credit,' but this is, in fact, cancelable. Another post, for another day, is going to be the conventionalization of so-called 'dog whistle.' I would argue that using terms that are conventionally used to insult (e.g., "welfare queen") affects how we interpret the utterance -- even when, as was the case a few years back with a friend of mine, the speaker does not know the conventional meaning.] 

Unfortunately, here we're moving away from Game Theory, since GT is all about agents who are completely rational, so having unconscious bias doesn't fit well -- at best, you can model it as some sort of error (these are called "shaky hand" models, usually).

THE DECISION PROBLEM:

So let's say someone says something that doesn't stand out as negative or hostile due to any presuppositions or entailments you can point to that are inherent to the utterance, but you still feel like it's a negative remark because of some implicature. You are then faced with a classification problem: was this comment aggression toward me? 

This is where most previous analyses of microaggression really fall apart, and why people get into shouting matches when the subject of microaggression comes up. Most explanations of microaggression boil down to that was obviously an aggressive statement, are you blind or are you playing dumb?! The other side, of course, being that was obviously NOT an aggressive statement, why are you playing the victim?!

My argument is that classifying an ambiguous utterance as either "microaggression" or "not microaggression" is a Bayesian classification problem.

Without getting into Bayes' Rule in depth, the basic idea is that you classify the statement based on situating it in the context, and by evaluating prior beliefs about the speaker and the situation. These priors inform your final classification. 

As an example, there's a video going around this week, of a black mother eviscerating a cashier at Target for insulting her children's clothing. In describing the situation to my colleagues, one black female, one white male (note: this is a gross oversimplification of their complex, intersectional identities), they interpreted the situation differently, because they had different prior beliefs about the context

So here's what happened: one child in question was wearing traditional African clothing, and was evidently shopping without their mother present. The cashier asked the child:

  • "Are you trick or treating?" 

Some potentially relevant context: This took place in early September. Target has Halloween decorations for sale already. 

In order to determine how that statement was meant, without further context, we have to start evaluating a handful of possibilities: was she using the narrative present for the future (i.e., did she mean "are you going to go trick or treating?") Did she mean something like "are you trick or treating this year?" so she could helpfully point out the halloween section? Or was she implicating "your clothes look like a costume" and therefore "you look ridiculous" ?

From the utterance alone, it is impossible to tell ... but people have very strong intuitions about what was meant and what is plausible. These are formed, in part, by past experience, so my black female colleague immediately reacted with the interpretation that it was probably intended as an insult (this is my intuition, too), while my white male colleague thought it was an odd thing to say, but potentially wholly unrelated to the child's current outfit. The intuitions are also formed by context. I would expect that on October 31st the statement is minimally offensive, and on April 30th it's approaching maximally insulting. But September 12th in a store that has put up Halloween decorations absurdly early -- that's harder to argue objectively. I have my intuitions, but other people may disagree.

If it was an insult, what makes it an effective microaggression, though, is the fact that the cashier can say "I don't know what you're talking about -- I was just going to point out our halloween section!" Or even slyly double down on microaggression with "I just thought you were in the spirit!" If it wasn't intended as an insult, the cashier made an unfortunate mistake, and while completely well-meaning, accidentally said something that looks like an insult. And there's an old saying about ducks that basically sums up Bayes' Rule in this case (if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck...).

THE TAKEAWAY:

In summary:

  1. I propose we limit verbal 'microaggression' to things that cannot be clearly classified as overt aggression.
  2. I suggest that ambiguity is not a bug, but is in fact a key feature
  3. I argue that people think strategically, albeit imperfectly about how we communicate with others.
  4. I argue that when confronted with an ambiguous and potentially 'microaggressive' utterance, the listener is confronted with a classification problem.
  5. I argue we use Bayesian thinking -- where our prior beliefs about the speaker and the context inform our interpretation -- to figure out what was meant
  6. Ultimately, I argue the above is probabilistic and, infuriatingly for those who may have been insulted, can never be 100% proven when the microaggression is implicature and not a 'structural' microaggression (that is, one where presupposition or entailment can be clearly demonstrated). 

The key here is that it's important to think about context, and that whenever we get lazy it's entirely possible to assume someone will understand "how you meant it" and be wrong about that assumption. It's also important to note that context is constantly evolving, and that interactions add to people's prior beliefs for the next interaction. This is why when Donald Trump says something ambiguous people assume it probably is microaggression, but when anti-racist activist Tim Wise says something ambiguous, he may get a pass.

Moreover, I think it's hugely important that we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak, when challenging less rigorous discussions of microaggression. People are experiencing something that is a real phenomenon. Coded racist speech exists. Dogwhistle exists. But its strength is precisely that it is so maddeningly hard to prove.

In general, my advice would be to listen when people claim they've experience microaggression, and to think about what informs their interpretation. And if you want to avoid accusations of microaggression, that means you're going to have to think about context, history, and the other person's perspective (yes, this is difficult. Sorry.), every time you go to speak.

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©Taylor Jones 2016

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Kids these days are getting "mindblown"

This is going to be a very short post, but it's too good not to share. Yesterday, I heard someone describe another person as mindblown. It was clearly a single prosodic word, and was used as a preterite adjective. It seems to have arisen the way some other adjectives do, from a participle (like "burnt" or "downtrodden"). "He was totally mindblown by what I showed him."

Keeping with English's historical roots, it's also delightfully Germanic. Phrasal verbs -- verbs like "wake up" or "sit down" are sometimes separate words and sometimes "smushed" together in Germanic languages. An example from Dutch is the word for "participate," which can be literally translated as take partdeelnemen. From deel 'part' and nemen 'take.' When you participated, you would use the single word form conjugated for tense: deelgenomen. And here's a new English one.

There are a bunch of ways this could have happened. My pet hypothesis is people reinterpreting memes with "MIND BLOWN" to be a single adjective for the image rather than a statement, from the older (in the internet sense of old) "mind: blown," meaning "my mind is blown." 

Not content to just love the shit out of this new word, I decided to look for its obvious relatives. And, lo and behold, people are saying things on social media like:

"What mindblew me the most was..."

and:

"I've got video that will mindblow all of y'all."

But don't just take my word for it! See. It. For. Yourself!

Interestingly, I see a lot of people on Twitter using #mindblown in an ambiguous way -- for many, it seems most natural to posit that it's an adjective and not a whole phrase.

It's probably also important to note that people coin and learn new words all the time. What makes this particularly interesting to me is that it's a total grammatical reanalysis, and it's at least plausibly because of ambiguous input from -- Dun dun DUN! -- THE INTERNET.

All of this has left me feeling more than a little, well:

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©Taylor Jones 2016

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The linguistics of #BLM: Scalar Implicature and Social Controversy

A linguistic controversy is raging in the US, with arguments taking place on the news, on Facebook and Twitter, and at uncomfortable family dinners across the country.  I'm talking, of course, about the interpretation of the statement "Black Lives Matter," and various responses to it -- "all lives matter," "blue lives matter," and even the more aggressive "black lives don't matter," that occasionally pops up in some recesses of the internet. I think that part of this controversy is purely social, but part of it is linguistic in nature. I've been seeing well-meaning people talking at cross purposes, and I think it arises from a fundamental misunderstanding of starting assumptions. I'm going to make a linguistic claim, and then attempt to justify it. The claim:

Some confusion, and animosity, over the statements black lives matter and all lives matter comes from different interpretations of assumed Scalar Implicature and the context of the utterance.

Obviously, the first step in justifying this is explaining what the hell Scalar Implicature is. It's two words, and we'll start with the second.

Implicature:

Linguistics is traditionally divided into sub-fields, and the relevant ones here are Semantics (the study of meaning and how we use language to 'mean' things), and Pragmatics (the study of how we do things with language -- this covers everything from making promises, christening ships, and declaring all men born equal to sarcasm, irony, and shade). Implicature is a technical term used in both. Implicature was coined by H.P. Grice, and it refers to a way of communicating something without it being strictly entailed by what was said. It will be helpful to compare the two. Let's look at a sentence:

  • Andre owns three dogs.

The entailments are ALL the logical things that 'fall out' from this sentence: Andre owns something. Andre owns three of something. Andre owns one dog. Andre owns two dogs. Andre owns three dogs. (There are also presuppositions: that there is a person named Andre, who is known to the listener, etc.). 

In some instances, an utterance is straightfoward, and all that matters is the logical structure of the utterance and it's surface meaning. However, we sometimes use language in indirect ways to communicate something beyond the obvious surface meaning. Let's put that sentence in a context:

  • [Tyrone]: Is Andre a cat person?
  • [Erykah]: Andre owns three dogs.

Did you catch it? Erykah is basically saying no. But she's doing so with an utterance that isn't directly answering the question. Rather, Tyrone has to figure out that what Erykah is saying is relevant to his question. And this isn't just applicable for negation:

  • [Tyrone]: Does Andre like dogs?
  • [Erykah]: Andre owns three dogs!

Here it's an affirmation.

  • [Tyrone]: Is Andre coming to the party tonight?
  • [Erykah]: Andre owns three dogs...

Here, it's plausibly simultaneously an answer (no) and an explanation (he has to be home to walk his dogs).  

Implicature is a way of using language to communicate something without stating it directly in your utterance.

An important element of implicature is that it is cancellable. This means you can explicitly amend what you said, which is not the case with entailment. So in the third example, the conversation could continue:

  • [Tyrone]: So he's not coming?
  • [Erykah]: No, he is. He'll just be a little late.

Note that you can't cancel entailment: Erykah can't then deny that Andre has three dogs, and claim that she never said that. But she can amend or cancel the implicature.

Great -- so what's scalar implicature? Well, the general idea is that a lot of things fall along a spectrum. For instance, <freezing, cold, cool, comfy, warm, hot, sweltering> are ordered with respect to one another. The idea is that when you specifically say something that falls on a scale, you are implicating everything below, and up to that thing, and simultaneously implicating nothing higher on the scale. An easy example is money. If I say:

  • Congratulations, you've won five dollars!

You take that to mean that you've won all amounts up to and including five dollars (because those things are directly entailed!). But you don't take it to mean you've won twenty. However, this is purely implicature, and it can be cancelled:

  • Congratulations, you've won five dollars! In fact, you've won twenty!

Similarly, if I say:

  • I did half of my assigned reading.

...It implies I did up to and including half, but also implicates that I didn't do more. Again, this is cancellable.

  • I did half of my assigned reading. In fact, I did two-thirds of it.

[EDIT: the same is true of the dog example above: it implicates that Andre has exactly three dogs and no more.] So let's think about implicature and entailment with some simple examples:

  • Pinot Noir is a red wine
  • Red wines are delicious
  • wines are made from grapes
  • grapes are fruit

As simple statements, there are couple of points to note. First, the obvious one: saying "Pinot Noir is a red wine" does not entail that Beaujolais is therefore not a red wine. Saying grapes are fruit does not entail that kiwis are not fruit.

Now for something more controversial.  Saying:

  • Black Lives Matter

...does not entail that other lives don't. Second, it is not saying that black lives matter more than other lives. Saying "Pinot Noir is a red wine" does not entail that it is inherently more red wine-y than Beaujolais although there are contexts where this interpretation -- via implicature -- could be valid:

  • [Virginia Madsen]: Beaujolais is a great red.

  • [Paul Giamatti]: no, Pinot Noir is a red wine.

The implicature is that Beaujolais is lacking some property that therefore makes it not really a red wine, or a defective one at best. Among the people I know who have good intentions, the reactions to Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter seem to be about what kind of context you put these utterances into. So my black friends are all claiming:

  • Black Lives Matter [too!]

...but some of my white friends are interpreting that as:

  • Black Lives Matter [more than others/white lives/your life!]
  • [Only] Black Lives Matter!

Already, there's a fundamental misunderstanding here, which is exacerbated by the response:

  • All Lives Matter!

Often, I think they're trying to respond to a perceived "black lives matter more than others" with "all lives matter equally!" But it's missing the point because they're having two different conversations. More importantly, given the context -- black people being executed by agents of the state, with a complete disregard for due process -- and it's hard to understand why people leap immediately to the interpretation that there's a "[more]" there.

The way most people use it, there's a (silent) scalar implicature: Black Lives Matter [As Much As Others]. This does not make for a good chant, and is hard to fit on t-shirts, though. Note, though, that the most natural reading is not to assume "more than others," without a context that would suggest that implicature.  

Perhaps most interesting to me is that people are having a reasonable conversation with normal use of pragmatics -- but backwards. That is, it would make sense if the order were:

  • all lives matter!
  • no, (just) black lives matter
  • [angry grumbling]

But that's not what's happening. That's precisely backwards. BLM is not restricting which lives matter, they're focusing on precisely those that are not treated like they matter as much as others.

Unfortunately, some people, often those who have limited real life contact with black folks, are taking the statement "black lives matter" to be restricting the class of lives that matter. That is, they're interpreting it as:

  • In the set of all lives, black lives, and only black lives, matter.

Even more unfortunately, the most natural interpretation of the response "All Lives Matter" is that it is dismissive. If I really, really liked the movie Ferris Beuhler's Day Off and I have the following conversation:

  • Ferris Beuhler's Day Off was a fun movie!
  • All movies are fun.

It would seem like my interlocutor was challenging what I was saying. They're saying, in effect, it was not particularly fun. They might even be implying I'm silly for getting so excited about it, or I have bad taste in films, or that I should shut up about movies and read a book for once.

Ultimately, I think the response "All Lives Matter" comes from assuming a different focus for scalar implicature:

  • Black Lives Matter [as much as others], versus:
  • Black Lives matter (and by implicature, not White ones or Asian ones.)

The reasons for these differing starting assumptions, are, of course, not linguistic. If you believe that affirmative action is just black folks "getting one over" on white America, as roughly 30% of Americans do, or you think that black people receive more government services like food stamps than other groups (they don't), then you may think that the implicature in "Black Lives Matter" is that "[only] black lives matter" or "black lives matter [more than others]." If you are outraged at police brutality against black people in particular, and your context for the statement is 400 years of state sanctioned violence against black people, then you may be more inclined to interpret the statement as "black lives matter [as much as any other, damn it]." And of course, if you think that it's "[only] black lives matter," and you're a cop who isn't black, then you may reflexively respond "Blue lives matter" assuming an implicit "too," at the end, and maybe even feeling like you've made it more inclusive.

When 3/4 of white Americans have friend groups that are 99% white, however, is anyone really surprised that what we've got here is a failure to communicate?

 

So let me end this by saying that [while, yes, all lives, including police officers matter] Black Lives Matter [too]. Or for short:

Black Lives Matter.

 

 

 

 

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[EDIT: I was asked why "Andre has three dogs" entails that he has three dogs, but "you've won five dollars" implicates winning five. The answer is that "Andre has three dogs" entails that he has three dogs, and implicates that he has exactly three dogs (not, say, five dogs). This difference is the fodder for stereotypical jokes about software engineers, or Data on Star Trek, Dr. Sheldon Cooper, or any other overly linear/literal thinkers: they'll miss how we use implicature and give technically correct but misleading answers, like the classic "does your dog bite?" joke.]

 

 

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Copyright Taylor Jones, 2016.

On Stank Face

Normally I can keep a cool head about language and keep scientific, descriptive detachment. However, today I saw something deeply perplexing to me, as a musician who plays music in the tradition of Black American Music (jazz, funk, etc.): A kitty litter company has taken the term stank face redefined it, and used it as the main hook for a large scale advertising campaign. Elsewhere, I've written about imagined Black English, and borrowing of terms. This is not borrowing. Rather, whoever does marketing for Tidycat has chosen to simply take and redefine an existing term.

So today, on television, I saw this:

No.

No.

Now, why was this horrifying to me? Well, musicians have used stank face for decades to refer to something completely different. More importantly, this is not natural borrowing and reinterpretation; this is corporate.

First, it may be helpful to discuss the origin: stank comes from a stereotypically black/southern pronunciation of "stink." What stinks? Thinks that are funky. Things that are nasty. Filthy McNasty. There's a long tradition of reacting to something particularly funky with stank face. It's a sign of respect, and for musicians like me, a sign that you're doing it really right. When I first heard Vulfpeck's "Funky Duck" the musician who put the recording on for me knew I liked it because of my reflexive stank face (not duck face!).

 

Let me reiterate: he knew I LIKED it because of stank face. LIKED IT!

The thing is, the above ad is so close as to be almost right, and then it's just very, very wrong. And it's wrong at the expense of a community of musicians who tend to come from marginalized backgrounds. It literally takes something that musicians -- in primarily black styles -- use, and declares it to be something completely different, for the purpose of selling kitty litter to middle class, white women. And make no mistake, it's very explicitly targeted to middle class, white, female cat owners:

Where is the funk?

Where is the funk?

Moreover, it is asking if they're at risk of doing something associated with black cultural styles, assuming you have ever heard of stank face before. Which it's hard not to have. Outkast's André 3000 is stanky enough to say "stank you smelly much" on the regular. I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that even if you aren't the kind of fan who saw the movie Idlewild  in theaters, you probably still know who Outkast is. And of course, A3K's use is a nod to George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, which brings me to my second point, one which is way more hilarious to me than the first.

Clinton for President 2016.

Clinton for President 2016.

 

Another thing that's stereotypically stank ain't kitty litter, it's marijuana:

 

So we've got a cultural mode of expression tied to musical styles (and often associated with marijuana) that's now being (1) explicitly portrayed as negative (no surprises there), and (2) used to sell kitty litter to the group least likely to participate in the culture it's from (although equally likely to participate in drug use -- see, for instance this ACLU report. The sociology of drug use and arrest rates is a fascinating topic, but one for another day, and maybe another blog). Note that this is not to say there aren't some funky white housewives (great band name!), they're just not really the target audience here.

So, I've given two examples of not-quite-stank-face above. What's real stank face look like? This keyboard player listening to another member of Snarky Puppy tear up the keys:

In fact, if you'd like to experience stank face firsthand, you can listen to the track here, and stank along.

Another example is the drummer for the Roy Hargrove Quintet, listening to the pianist while they're playing "Strasbourg St. Denis":

And here's the full recording:

I mentioned "Funky Duck," and it turns out I'm not the only one who finds it funky enough to trigger stank face -- the singer is so nasty he can't help but react to his own funk:

The most ironic thing about all of this, for me, is that it's taking (sometimes) drug-related and always funk related slang and using it so innocently and wrong, while trying to be cool, or as cool as you can be while still being a suburban cat owner. It's reminiscent of the Kyle & Kyle (Kyle from SNL) YouTube sketch in which the character desperately wants to be seen as a stoner, but doesn't know quite how to use any of the words, so claims his toddler is dealing, and suggests "we should box hot the place." (instead of "hot box").

Now, it should be noted that stank face is distinct from a number of other possible faces, including the ill grill:

or the mean mug:

Lastly, there's something ironic about using stank face to sell kitty litter, since it's the cats (yes, musicians still say this) who like it stanky. So while I won't go so far as sayin "somethin' stank and I want some," since I'm not about that life, I will say that I wish they'd stop marketing me whatever funk comes with their kitty litter, and just make my funk the P-Funk.

 

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©Taylor Jones 2016

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Tweets As Graffiti

I recently received word that an article I wrote was accepted for (peer reviewed) publication in the book English in Computer Mediated Communication, edited by Lauren Squires, and published by De Gruyter. I'm very excited to be included, and the book is going to be extremely interesting, with chapters on things like the social meaning of Scottish accents on Youtube, and word formation in Cyberpunk discussions, marginalized voices in The World of Warcraft, and stylistic variation on and off screen among Real Housewives, among other topics. You can pre-order the book here

My chapter is called Tweets as Graffiti, and in it, I argue that we can learn a lot about how people actually speak from how they write on social media. More importantly, I argue that how people write on social media is not terribly different from how people have always written, especially when it's informal writing, and especially when the writing system doesn't well represent the sounds of the language. 

The main thrust of my argument is that Historical linguists have long had the tools to analyze text for clues about sound, and that we can just as easily apply those tools to tweets as to graffiti. I explicitly compare Vulgar Latin graffiti and African American English on Twitter to look at the written representations of speech, but I could have just as easily compared Attic Greek and French tweets, or Middle English and Zulu tweets (now's a good time to mention the best Middle English-y twitter feed ever, Chaucer Doth Tweet). 

I first summarize how we know what we know about Vulgar Latin pronunciation, which is interesting in its own right. In the article, I discuss the obvious things: puns, rhymes and meter, borrowings into and from other languages (and how things get spelled), but I also discuss Roman grammar snobs (great band name) misheard prophecy (great band name), dirty puns on the senate floor, medieval scribal shenanigans, and that one time Cicero accidentally said landicam ("clitoris"). Did I mention you can pre-order the book?

Then I point out that things we assume are super modern and totally the fault of "computers" "cell phones" and "kids these days" are totally...not. Rebus spelling ("C U L8r!")? Yeah, Pompeiians were doing that 2,000 years ago, with things like <krus> for the name Carus. In fact, in recent talks I gave at U Penn and at Gettysburg College, I played a game with the audience that I like to call Social Media or Pompeiian Graffiti? Think it sounds easy?

Instagram or Pompeiian Graffiti? "[April 19th] I made bread!"

Yelp or Pompeiian Graffiti? "Two friends dined here and had terrible service."

Twitter or Pompeiian Graffiti? "If you stick your dick in fire, you're gonna get burned."

Yelp or Pompeiian Graffiti? "The food here is poison."

Which of those were bad Yelp reviews and which were graffiti? Not so easy (spoiler: they were all Pompeiian graffiti. Further, different kind of spoiler: given where it was found [a bathroom stall], the "bread" one might have actually been about a turd.).

Finally, I apply the same tools to basilectal (~ "divergent") AAE tweets. Elsewhere, I've discussed Imagined Black English, and that sometimes it's hard for people who don't know AAE to fully get the nuance of the way some words are used. What I'm talking about here is not that. I'm talking about tweets like:

  • he fahn dinnamug
  • ioneem b doin nun!

If you speak or understand AAE fluently, your response to the first might be "sholl is," and if you don't, you're probably scratching your head trying to figure out what it could possibly mean (hint: dishware is not involved. The <g> in <mug?> is not usually pronounced, or even always written with a <g>). I'll have an explanation at the bottom for those readers. The point is, these are very divergent from classroom spelling, but they more clearly communicate both spoken pronunciation, and something about the person doing the "speaking." In the chapter, I then go through two case studies, one on what linguists call liquids (/r/ and /l/), which frequently disappear or change in AAE, and one on the glottal stop (the sound in the middle of "uh-oh"), which is used in different places in AAE. For both, I give detailed descriptions of what happens in speech, and what happens in informal writing.

The thing is, like I wrote above, the same tools are applicable to a variety of different languages. The way historical linguists make hypotheses about pronunciation, and then rigorously check them against many different types of sources are just as applicable to modern languages as to ancient ones. And the fact that people make spelling mistakes based on "sounding it out" or, more importantly,  intentionally "misspell" things for effect means that we can use social media to do the same kinds of things as historical linguists: we can make and assess hypotheses about how people speak. The only difference is that we have the added benefit of being able to corroborate it, since not all the speakers are dead. Take that, historical linguistics.

So, rather than rehash what's in the chapter, I'm going to demonstrate the approach I argue for, drawing on Scots English, French, and Zulu. 

Here, aside from using words and phrases from Scottish English (e.g., fae "from", the now "recently"), the author specifically indexes their (stereotypically) Scottish pronunciation of the vowel in words like "how" -- Scottish English changes from /aʊ/ to [ɐʉ] ~ [ɜʉ] ~ [əʉ] -- by specifically writing <the noo> (the now) and <aboot>. Similarly, he changes the diphthong in "I" and "myself", and does so by writing <am> (I'm), and <maself> (myself). An that's ignoring that he drops the <g> on "adding" and changes the spelling of "hundreds" to better reflect pronunciation. The result is that you practically hear the tweet in the right accent. Moreover, this isn't just some one-off tweet from some rando who has a great ear and too much time on his hands. Instead, tons of people converge on similar approaches to represent how they speak, which you see when you search for <doon the> or <cannae> or <the noo>.

And this is by no means remotely limited to English. So for instance, one of my favorite facebook groups to follow for idiomatic French is Codes De Meufs, but you can also find plenty on Twitter. For instance, ignoring the content of the tweet, the spelling here is A.MA.ZING.

 

 

  • Mdr = LOL (literally, mort de rire 'dead from laughing'). 
  • Ça me fais rire is rendered as <sa m'fais rire> which is exactly how it sounds when spoken fast (the e in me disappears, and the <ç> is pronounced like an S.) 
  • Same for <jcommence> to represent je commence ("I begin"). 
  • My favorite here? <J'c> is pronounced exactly the same as je sais ("I know")and the whole thing relies on you knowing that no one ever uses ne in the spoken language, so <J'c mme pas> is equivalent to Je ne sais meme pas ("I don't even know").

As a last example, word final vowels in Zulu often disappear in fast speech (usually, they precede a following word that has a word initial vowel, so they just kinda make way for the next vowel [this is not the technical term]). Similarly, some vowels in some words may also disappear. This does not happen in formal writing in Zulu (for those of you with preconceived notions about "tribal" people, yes, there is formal writing in Zulu, and yes, the Zulu are on Twitter). So in this tweet:

  • The word <ukuth> is ukuthi ('that')
  • <abant> is abantu ('people' whence bantu lanuguages -- the languages people speak),
  • <kmina> is kumina ('to me')
  • <kuyangphoqa> is kuyangiphoqa ("it forces me").

(The whole tweet is about how he feels compelled to dress a particular way to be taken seriously.) Lest you think it was just that he was running out of characters, go on and search for <ukuth> on Twitter.

The point is, as I'm fond of reminding everyone, people tweet how they speak. I'm not the first person to say this (I have a pretty decent literature review in the book chapter, but I'm sure there are even more articles and presentations I'm missing), but I think it's important to bear in mind, and it opens up a lot of possibilities for linguistic research. For instance, Gabriel Doyle has demonstrated that unique grammatical patterns in some dialects show up just as well on maps of Twitter data as in the Atlas Of North American English, which uses much more traditional methodology for Dialect Geography.  Jacob Eisenstein has demonstrated that people delete the <g> in word final -ING (<workin> vs. <working>) at about the rate you'd expect based on who lives where the tweets are from AND morphosyntactic constraints in those people's spoken language. Jack Grieve has a book mapping syntactic variation, in part drawing on the Twitter data he used to make those heatmaps of favored swearwords by region. And of course, I've been using Twitter and other social media sources to do things like demonstrate that there are patterns present in African American English -- that appear on social media -- that are related to The Great Migration.

Ultimately Twitter is just one platform among many, and social media are just one source of data among many. Ideally, good research using social media data will corroborate it, not just with other social media, but with more traditional sociolinguistic methods (eg., ethnographic research, interviews, etc). However, I think when we write off social media as frivolous (which happens surprisingly often), or as "not speech" (as one anonymous reviewer for a different article helpfully pointed out multiple times), we miss that it is in fact related to speech, and is a valid source of data that can corroborate other forms of evidence, and can even help inspire new avenues of research.

Finally, as promised, for those confused by the above AAE: <fahn> is fine and <dennamug/dinnamug/dennamuh/> are than a mu... which is short for "than a motherfucker." The meaning is "he is extremely attractive."

 

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©Taylor Jones 2016

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A Primer on Imagined Black English

Frequently, new slang terms catch on in the (white) American mainstream that originates in slang from African American English (AAE). Sometimes it's not even slang, but is the result of the phonology of AAE being reanalyzed by people who do not speak the dialect. I recently found myself explaining the difference between white and black meanings for fuckboy, ghost, bae, and a few others, and realized it might be good to set down some thoughts on this. 

Appropriation and Borrowing

What is Appropriation?

There's a lot of discussion lately about appropriation, which I won't wade into beyond discussing the idea that appropriation is more or less the same thing as linguistic "borrowing" -- a term I've never quite understood since it's not like it'll be given back -- except that appropriation occurs when there's a power difference, and the source of the lexical item (or clothing or whatever) is stigmatized, persecuted, or otherwise "lower" class. I highly recommend reading up on cultural appropriation, but I won't be explaining it much here.

What is Borrowing?

Borrowing, the way we teach it in say, Introduction to Linguistics, is when one language acquires a word or phrase from another language. Examples in English are panini (a type of grilled sandwich, from Italian panino), pork (from French porc, cf. swine), ketchup (ostensibly from a dialect of the Yue language, one of the sub-families of Chinese), and otaku (from Japanese "shut in"). 

Borrowing can happen across dialects. For instance, I have terribly posh friends who, while American, choose to talk about how they'll put their mackintosh (raincoat) in the boot (trunk) if it rains. I know people who say lass (Scottish English), and people who suggest we prepone (Indian English) meetings. 

Borrowing isn't always strictly correct in the source language. In French, you may attend a dinner party where you should wear un smoking. While this is clearly from (British) English smoking jacket, the meaning is a tuxedo. Panini is the plural for "sandwich" in Italian.

Similarly, borrowing isn't necessarily always actually from the source language. A perfect example of this is the French word, borrowed from English, for a makeover. You'd be forgiven for logically guessing that the word is makeover, but in fact, in French, it's un re-looking. Similarly, in German, a cell phone is a handy. From English, but... not really. 

Imagined Black English

I read an excellent article a while back on Online Imagined Black English, and a couple of pieces building on it, and while I don't necessarily agree with everything, I think these authors are discussing some very important points. Moreover, Imagined Black English is a perfect term for some of the borrowing I see, and how white, mainstream slang ostensibly borrowed from African American English is about as AAE as re-looking is English.

Examples

To better understand what I'm talking about, I think it's prudent to introduce a handful of terms and compare, in broad strokes, how they're used by different communities I interact with. My discussion of AAE is primarily from my circle of family and friends, so mostly East Coast and the South (sorry Oakland). Although most of the material I'm discussing seems not to be region specific, there may be nuances that differ from place to place.

Fuckboy (fuccboi, etc.)

How the white mainstream uses it: A boy-toy. That is, a guy who's good in bed, but not good for much else. You might hate yourself for sleeping with him. See this thinkpiece in Slate, for example, or this one in Thought Catalog.

How it's used in AAE: This is tricky, because I don't generally hear it except as taboo avoidance when people intend to say fuck nigga. More broadly, here, fuck functions as an adjective, meaning "illegitimate," "useless," or "trifling." So you could just as easily say that fuck bitch stay on some fuck shit, meaning "that trifling bitch is always concerned with nonsense."  As far as I can tell, it went fuck nigga ---> fuck boy ("triflin' boy") ----> fuckboy ("boy-toy, fuckable douchebag").

Spelling note: Crips and crip sympathizers, among other things, sometimes avoid writing <ck> (brackets indicate we're talking explicitly about spelling), because it ostensibly can stand for "crip killer." This avoidance applies to all <ck> clusters, not just fuck so you also get things like <blacc> ,<locc>, and <cocc bloccer>.  Bloods have similar, but different spelling superstitions. Not sure about other gangs, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear they do too. People not associated with that life have borrowed those spellings, evidently because they look cool. So obviously, just because a journalist at Jezebel writes fuccboi, this does not mean the author is a crip.

Ghost (verb)

How the white mainstream uses it: to break up with someone or otherwise end a relationship by refusing to answer phone calls, and blocking the other person on social media. A freeze out. See this discussion in the Huffington Post on The Psychology of Ghosting: Why People Do It And A Better Way To Break Up, or GQ's Gentelman's Guide To Ghosting or Psychology Today on Why Ghosting Hurts So Much. 

How it's used in AAE: To leave. As long as I can remember I've had friends who announce their exit with a peace sign and the declaration "I'm ghost." Think classic Warner Bros. cartoons where the character runs away so fast their entire outline is left, like the starving, ship-wrecked sailors chasing after Bugs Bunny in Wackiki Wabbit.

Yes, not responding was an extension of the meaning, but at most it was just generally not being around, and not specifically "breaking up with someone by abruptly stopping responding to their texts and calls." It could just as easily be "I went to the bathroom and when I got back she'd ghosted." That is, it has become more specialized.

Bae, and being bae

How the white mainstream uses it: (1) equivalent to "cool," "good," or "desirable." The white mainstream uses it as a predicate adjective, so you see things like "Coffee is bae!" 

(2) one's significant other in a longterm, committed, romantic relationship, as in "Bieber is my bae."

 

How it's used in AAE: The same way babe is used. Because it's literally the same word. It has been use this way for a long time, and will likely continue, despite white people declaring in 2015 that "bae is dead." It is not an acronym for Before Anyone Else any more than shit is an acronym for Ship High In Transit. Which it's not. Granted, there's not actually consensus on my proposed etymology, so I'm going to make a case for it:

A coda consonant is any consonant that happens after the vowel (the "nucleus") in a syllable. So the /t/ in cat is a coda consonant. AAE has a number of phonological processes that allow for the deletion or reduction of coda consonants. Some are well described, like -t/d deletion, which gives rise to pronunciations like "pass" for "past" or "han" for "hand." Another is r-less-ness, which is how you get brotha from brother. Another is l-vocalization which means turning L into a vowel (so all three would be she juss a go' digga "she's just a gold digger"). Another phenomenon that is not as well described, and which I'm working on, and will likely write a blog post about shortly, is that pretty much anything after the vowel that is not p, t, or k can be deleted. Technically p, t, and k can too, but they also are usually accompanied by a secondary glottal stop (the sound in the middle of uh-oh). b, d, and g can get a glottal stop, but don't have to, and they can also be deleted or reduced to just sounding like the vowel that came before.  The bottom line is that b can be deleted after vowels if it's not the onset of a syllable

This means that when my friend Christian's grandmother talks to her, she calls her bae, not because she's imitating teens these days, but because it's how she's always said it in her variety of AAE. It's also pretty well established that contemporary white bae (CWB) caught on after the instagram post where a woman pretended to be asleep and pretended that her boyfriend caught her sleeping, and commented bae caught me slippin ("babe caught me sleeping"), only to be betrayed by the mirror behind her. 

Of all the recent borrowings, this is the one that most consistently pisses off my female friends. Imagine the pet name your grandparents called you becoming this weird thing that a bunch of random white teenagers use really weirdly (for me, that'd be "coffee is peanut!" or "IHOP pancakes are tiger!").

Cray cray

see bae. Note that the white mainstream use favors reduplication (so cray cray) whereas the AAE use does not (tha shi cray "That shit is crazy"). 

Turnt (up)

How the white mainstream uses it: to get crazy, likely at a party or social gathering, and more than likely under the influence of drugs and alcohol. See this terrible shitpost of an article, for instance. (Note to self: write a post about how Urban Dictionary is not a reliable source and if you unquestioningly cite it, you should never be allowed to write anything ever.)

How it's used in AAE: turned, the past participle of to turn. There is the metaphorical meaning of "wild and crazy" as in to turn up but turnt not a special word for it distinct from turned. Word final -ed in past participles in AAE frequently devoices (meaning d becomes t). So turnt is no more special than killt (he damn near got his ass killt!) or other participles in mainstream white English that this has already happened to (burnt, spilt, dreamt, etc.) 

Gramatical note: For the last year or so I've been informally questioning white people who use turnt in conversation, and who do not otherwise indicate familiarity with AAE. They tend to treat it as an adjective, and do not conjugate it in the past and future, so while most of my AAE speaking friends would say "we're turning up" or "we gonna turn up later tonight" most of the non AAE speakers said "we're getting turnt up" and "we're gonna get turnt up," for present and future respectively. 

Bye (Felicia)

How the white mainstream uses it: (1) a way of dismissing someone. (2) a neutral way of saying "goodbye." In both cases, the name Felicia is obligatory. 

How it's used in AAE: dismissive bye is something that has been around a long time in AAE, but is used either on it's own, or with the name of the person you're addressing. If I say something stupid to Erica, she can (and does) say "Bye Taylor." If I say "no, wait, what I meant was..." She can cut me off with an emphatic "BYE." 

So where did Felicia come from? There's a movie, called Friday that came out in 1995, which features a character named Felicia, who is constantly being told off. Sometime around 2015, somebody somewhere started quoting the movie to people who hadn't seen it, and it caught and spread like wildfire. Recently, @linguistopher was told Bye, Felicia! by a white male (non AAE speaking) acquaintance who's over 40 and who had never seen nor heard of the movie Friday, and he had to ask a few clarifying questions to avoid miscommunication ("Are you intentionally being dismissive? Why are you quoting the movie Friday? Were you aware that that is dismissive in my speech community? Oh, well, cool. I get it now. Aight, I'm ghost.").

Fun fact: in order to get images of Felicia, you have to google both Felicia AND Friday.

Fun fact: in order to get images of Felicia, you have to google both Felicia AND Friday.

Basic (bitch/betch)

How the white mainstream uses it: bland, normal, run-of-the-mill, shallow. It is now associated with the stereotype of the white girl in Uggs and yoga pants, drinking a pumpkin-spice latte. When you google it, wikipedia legit redirects you to "airhead." It's almost always used with bitch or the taboo avoidance form betch, and its principle meaning seems to be "shallow." It also seems to be gendered, specifically referring to women, and raced, generally referring to white women.

How it's used in AAE: Stupid. Brain dead. "You got a pulse and that's it." The idea is you're still stuck on the basics (like 2+2 = ?). It is not gendered, so you will hear things like "tell his basic ass to shut the hell up." It is not something anyone would dream of calling themselves, because it's emphatic and negative, and doesn't lend itself to self effacing behavior (unlike "I'm just being stupid"). Compare what you get when you search for "I'm so basic" on Twitter to "basic ass" for instance (where ass in an intensifier). Roughly once a week I imagine the first person who was called basic and was so basic she thought it meant "totally normal" and I crack the fuck up.

Becky

How the white mainstream uses it: (1) a short form of Rebecca, currently being eclipsed by Becks. (2) It should never be used because it's a slur against white people, equivalent to the n-word. I'm not kidding, this seems to be a popular view. It's not clear whether, following Beyoncé's Lemonade, the mainstream is aware that "Becky" is not a new term.

How it's used in AAE: A generic white girl. That is, the AAE meaning of Becky is almost exactly the white mainstream meaning of basic betch. It's not clear whether the Iggy Azaleas of the world are aware that Becky has ben around for at least 20 years.

"Becky" in 1992, on the right. Left, suspected Bridget.

"Becky" in 1992, on the right. Left, suspected Bridget.

What's more, Becky is not the only term, it's just the most salient and popular right now. For instance, notorious flat-earth conspiracy theorist and rapper B.o.B., when discussing white girls, refers to Becky, Suzie, Bridget, and Kelly

Note: I have not heard AAE speakers ever say "Bye, Felicia" when not quoting Friday, but I absolutely have heard AAE speakers say "Bye, Becky," when dismissing a basic Becks who has said something insensitive and uninformed, and maybe more than a little racist.

Where do these differences come from?

My Hypothesis: Segregation and Context Clues

We still live in a very segregated society. By and large, white and black don't interact much, and by and large AAE speakers are black and non-speakers are white. Without getting too far into it, white and black Americans tend not to live in the same neighborhoods (due to redlining, block-busting, and federal housing policy that promoted racial segregation), tend not to attend the same schools (due to the failures of desgregation discussed here and here), and tend not to interact much with one another socially. Recent polls have shown that 3/4 of white people don't have any black friends. So, we're just not interacting much in person.

That said, mass media has always given a window into other people's lives (this borrowing is not new: look at hip/hep, for instance). Social media, and the internet more generally, have made it so people who do not interact much in person are exposed to the language and culture of people they don't otherwise interact with, and on a much larger scale than before. 

My hypothesis is that the mainstream is exposed to language they otherwise wouldn't be (for instance by reading the formerly trending #invitedToTheCookout), and they do their best to interpret new things using context clues. Some things are easy, and don't require any thought at all ("Ain't nobody got time for that!") whereas others seem obvious, but maybe aren't as transparent as they seem at first glance ("He ghosted"). So people see new things, and use context clues to interpret them. But their context -- their lived experience, their frame of reference -- is entirely different. For instance, watching an hour-and-a-half movie about a black barbershop is different than sitting for 2 hours in a black barbershop every week (#integrateTheBarbershops).

Who owns this language? Is it Appropriation?

This is really tricky. A close friend of mine who doesn't speak AAE recently argued "these terms belong to the internet now. They belong to everyone." To a certain extent I agree. I also agree when people say "you're using that wrong!" It's complicated.

The thing is, the mainstream uses are different than the uses that have been around for a while in AAE. And it's clearly the same pattern as linguistic borrowing everywhere. So does that mean it's not insensitive appropriation, even when it's Iggy Azalea? Is it being used wrong when it moves from 10% of the population using it one way to 80% of the population using it another, or do we just say there are two terms?

What I do know is that people won't be convinced that coffee is bae is the wrong way to use bae any more than the French are going to be convinced to stop having re-looking specials on TV or the Germans will stop placing calls on their handys. And while I want to argue that people should think about context when they choose whether or not to use terms borrowed (taken? inspired? learned? ) from AAE, I realize that this would require people to already know what terms people they don't generally interact with are already using and using differently. And of course, the problem is that with French re-looking it's just a "fun fact!" whereas with AAE in the US there's a long history of struggle and oppression. AAE was first recognized as a valid dialect in the late 1960s. Black children are still referred to speech pathologists and special education in shockingly large numbers, and it's frequently because of the dialect they speak, and no actual pathology or learning disability. Not only has AAE been historically stigmatized, but it's also been the subject of mockery and parody for centuries. So its understandable that bae and ghost may be seen as evocative of Amos 'n' Andy level mockery, or of theft of culture. At the same time, nobody is accusing teenagers imitating what they see on The Gram of intentional cultural appropriation. And if advertising execs are just imitating the (white) teens they're trying to market to, this gets really murky really fast, since it's totally plausible and reasonable to argue that they genuinely don't know that it's not just teenspeak or millenial slang. And that's how you end up with a young black woman inventing the phrase on fleek (we know exactly who and when!) and not seeing a dime from companies that use it in advertising -- and how you get a Taco Bell exec attempting to "borrow a millenial phrase" and saying on cleeck. Multiple times. 

Personally, I try not to judge and to keep an open mind when I come across people who 'misuse' the above terms, since I realize they just want to stay fresh, and decided to give their vocabulary a re-looking.

The guy on the right had a relooking involving a smoking. Très tendance.

The guy on the right had a relooking involving a smoking. Très tendance.

 

 

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©Taylor Jones 2016

Have a question or comment? Share your thoughts below!

 

 

 

Some Observations about Zulu (and French!)

In a previous post, I promised a tinfoil-hat crazy theory about French and Zulu. I decided to tone that down a bit, since I don't actually hold crazy beliefs about a relationship between the two. Instead I have a few observations about similar patterns of linguistic behavior, and speculation as to why linguists sometimes treat these similar patterns quite differently. The first half of this post will be a few observations about unexpected (to me) similarities between Zulu and French, and will be slightly but hopefully not too technical. The second half is some musings on why these similar patterns are treated as different things, the history of linguistics, and triumph of modern linguistics.

I've been studying Zulu because (1) Penn has amazing language resources that I would be hard pressed to find elsewhere, including a native speaker of Zulu from kwaZulu Natal who also happens to have a PhD in linguistics, and (2) It's Zulu. why wouldn't I?!

For those unfamiliar with Zulu, it is a Bantu language spoken in South Africa. It's got everything: ejectives, ingressives, clicks, tone -- you name it. It's also got some very interesting syntax, with a lot of stuff all directly attached to the verb. So a given verb might have a root (say, -fund- 'learn') but it will also have subject and object markers; tense, aspect, and (/or) mood markers; applicatives which may change the meaning (e.g., the causative -is- which changes the verb to -fundis- 'teach', there are also benefactives for when you do something for someone's benefit, among others),  passivizing morphology (e.g., 'the ball was hit' as opposed to 'I hit the ball'), reciprocal markers ('we will see each other' the 'each other' is realized on the verb)...like I said, a lot of stuff.

This means that some things that require sentences in English can be expressed entirely with one verb. For instance:

  • babhaliselwani? 
  • "why are they being made to enroll?"

 

In general, for simple things, the sentence constituent order is Subject-Object-Verb ("I it eat"), or Subject-Auxiliary-Object-Verb ("I it will eat.").

I was having a very hard time with this, for the first few weeks of class, until I had a realization: most verbal complexes in Zulu have the exact same constituent order as modern colloquial French (that is, not classroom French), which I don't find daunting. Below are some examples (top is Zulu, then French, then a word-for-word gloss for both Zulu and French, and finally a translation --  Zulu is not written with the dashes; those are to clearly separate the constituents for easy comparison. Any mistakes are my own!):

  • ba-phuza-ni aba-ntwana
  • ils boivent quoi, les enfants
  • they drink what the kids
  • "what are the kids drinking?"

 

  • u-si-letha-ni?
  • il nous apport quoi?
  • he us brings what?

 

  • i-bhubesi li-dla ezi-nye izi-lwane
  • le lion, il mange les autres animaux
  • the lion, he eats other animals
  • "Lions eat other animals."

This even works for more involved examples:

  • um-fundisi u-ba-bona abantwana
  • le prof, il les voit, les enfants
  • the prof he them sees the children
  • "the professor sees the children"

For the above, French requires special prosody, with pauses. It is also considered a "lower class" and stigmatized way of speaking. That said, it's completely grammatical in the spoken language, and the kind of thing I hear frequently. In fact, I recently heard my uncle, a professor and notorious language stickler say il faut y penser á ça ("one must think about that"), where both y and á ça refer to the same thing. When I asked later about it (after hearing him and others do the same thing multiple times), he flatly denied saying it...before going on to use the same structure later without noticing.

I find the parallel between French and Zulu here striking. So why then, despite having very similar constituent order (in the handful of carefully curated examples I presented here), are these considered completely different things in Zulu and French?

Well, for starters, there's the fact that in French the auxiliaries (vais 'going' in je vais le voir 'I'm going to see him.') behave like their own words. While the order of constituents is the same, in Zulu it behaves like one prosodic word, in French you need at least two "words" as soon as there's an auxiliary. Then there's the fact that Zulu has its own pronouns separate from the markers (mina, ngizokuthi... me, I'll tell you... )  although you could make that argument about French (moije vais te dire...).  There's the fact that when you start adding more and more stuff to the sentence, the parallels kind of break down, especially around negation or where the subjunctive is marked, etc. 

That said, there's also the fact that French and Zulu have been analyzed, historically, by very different kinds of linguists following very different traditions, with very different terminology. And on some level, the people who first described a lot of African languages (in the academic literature) had a vested interest in them being different.  It's a lot harder to justify genocide, extraction of resources, and apartheid when you recognize that the language of the people you're oppressing is remarkably similar to the language you think of as the international language of diplomacy, philosophy, and thought -- precisely how French was imagined in the popular European consciousness in the 1700s and 1800s. To some extent, there's still historical baggage. And to some extent there must be a founder effect, where we still talk about similar things with very different terminology just because the terminology is inherited. Many of the academic books I have checked out to do research on Zulu end up being about Bantu, and they divide up the languages by region and number, so Zulu is in the S "zone" (for Shona, another language, spoken in Zimbabwe), and is numbered 42. So I've read texts that don't even bother treating quite different languages as different, or even worthy of their own names. Having to do research by scouring texts on the language family for mentions of S42 is like if you were interested in French, but all you could get is books on European, and had to just find Romance language number 14 or something.

This points, then, toward one of the great strengths of modern approaches to linguistics. We've made huge leaps in dispassionately describing the facts, and the starting point for most modern theories is that languages are using the same structural tools -- with slightly different parameter settings -- to do the same kinds of things. An analysis that can describe French and Zulu with the same conceptual toolkit is now privileged over one that posits some fundamental, irreconcilable difference. Gone are the days of describing Bantu languages as the cursed languages of the descendants of Ham (I'm not kidding).

To be fair, though, I'm also not claiming a real connection here, at least in terms of historical contact or anything 'external.' To the extent that there's a connection, it's the shared conceptual architecture that's available to all humans, and that French and Zulu make use of in similar ways. Seeing such similar manifestations across such obviously unrelated languages is one of the payoffs of studying linguistics. Studying (modern) linguistics is like learning to see the Matrix. Suddenly, things that seemed very complex and wildly different reduce to minor variations on the same highly structured conceptual architecture, and that, for me, is one of the real payoffs of studying linguistics.

 

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©Taylor Jones 2016

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A Deep Dive into Mansplaining

Since shortly after Rebecca Solnit penned Men Explain Things to Me in 2008, people have been using a new coinage to describe a phenomenon English lacked (and desperately needed) a word for: to mansplain.  Here, I discuss everything you ever wanted to know about mansplaining  but didn't know to ask, hopefully while avoiding mansplaining myself.

[CONTENT WARNING: I will be using potentially offensive language below, including brief discussion of pimps, violence, and novel sex acts.]

 

What is mansplaining?

For those who are unfamiliar with it (all 12 of you), the difference between mansplaining and explaining is primarily that in mansplaining the person doing the -splaining (1) assumes that they know more about the subject than their interlocutor, and (2) is probably wrong, both about knowing more, and about the subject in general.  In both instances, someone is explaining something to someone else, so mansplain seems to be a strict subset of all possible instances of explaining, just one in which the explainer is wrong, and pompous.

It may also seem obvious who is doing the mainsplaining, but interestingly, people disagree about this. I was initially super excited about the word because it looked like something that's not technically supposed to happen: so-called "agent incorporation" (where the actor/agent/person-doing-a-thing gets sucked literally into the verb). However, different people have very different intuitions about whether a mansplainer (one who mansplains) necessarily must be a man. Or Male. Or cis-het male. 

Some people argue strongly that the only people who mansplain are cis-gender, heterosexual men. Others argue anyone can mansplain, since it's a way of (wrongly) explaining that's just associated with men because we do it so. damn. often. 

So mansplaining then, is:

  1. explaining
  2. that is wrong
  3. (possibly) done to someone who knows better
  4. likely done by a man (but not necessarily, depending on who is telling you about the act of mansplaining)
  5. likely done to a woman (but not necessarily)
  6. (probably) done in a pompous, self-aggrandizing way

Predictably, a number of people have railed against the term, mostly other cis-het white men (the "not all men!" rallying cry of some corners of the internet). Also predictably, the term has broadened its use, so it's entirely possible to  dismiss a man who isn't wrong by alleging he's mansplaining (insinuating he's both wrong and probably totally misogynist). 

 Mansplain is a new Germanic equivalent of the Latinate word pontificate which means "express one's opinions in a way considered annoyingly pompous and dogmatic" and which originates from the word pontiff -- historically, mansplainers par-excellence. Just as you can annoyingly pontificate without actually being a pontiff, or even catholic, some argue you can mansplain without being a man. We're just the primary at-risk population for succumbing to bouts of mansplaining.

 

How can you mansplain without being a man?

The same way you can pimp slap without being a pimp. No joke, this is how it was explained to me by a faculty member at U Penn. We can think of some of these words as incorporating either the object (meaning: the thing acted upon by an action), or the manner (meaning: how something was done). So pimp slap is to slap in the manner that a pimp would. Conversely, bitch slap is an instance of object incorporation -- it's not slapping in the manner of a bitch (is there a word for that?), but rather, how a bitch gets slapped. 

I was initially intrigued academically because I thought mansplain might be an instance where the person doing the thing gets incorporated into the verb, which would have very interesting theoretical ramifications in linguistics, but it's not clear now that this is what's actually happening. For many people, mansplaining is clearly manner incorporation: "she mansplained me my own research."

What's up with the syntax?

I'm not entirely sure. Mansplaining frequently occurs in a construction historically called the "ethical dative" which is a fancy name for the construction [verb] [indirect object] [object], as in "give me that." (fun fact: dative comes from the Latin word meaning 'give').  Often, you see constructions like: "he mansplained me my own research." Or even, "stop mansplaining me." I have no idea why this should be, but it definitely stands out as a common way of using the term. Maybe it's related to other ongoing changes in English.

[Note: it was pointed out to me in the comments that the ethical dative has a more technical interpretation -- fixed reference to the speaker -- however I have had a number of interactions where the name is used for the construction I described above, as a shorthand. Technically, there are also presentative datives and personal datives. A good read on these last two is the article on Southern American constructions like "There's you a good place to eat."]

Don't we men do all sorts of things, though?

We do, and now there's words for more of them! A sample:

  • manslamming: when a man doesn't move  for you on the sidewalk (this one seems to be intended to describe only men, and not manner).
  • manspreading: when someone spreads their legs in a public space, like uncouth men. It's well-enough known that the MTA in New York actually has (extremely ineffective) warnings against it.
  • manterrupting: to interrupt or talk over someone, in the manner of a man. For what it's worth, I'm not entirely clear on how manterrupting could be different from interrupting just done by a man, but perhaps someone will explain in the comments.
  • manscaping: trimming and shaping the hair around male genitals. By analogy with the verb landscape. This one is much older.

 

What about other people, don't they do things?

They do! We've moved from #notallmen to #notjustmen. Other words on the same model I've come across include:

  • womengineer: (1) to do engineering while being a woman, (2) to socially manipulate, in the manner of a woman.
  • dogsplain: to explain. If you're a dog.
  • GOPsplain: to mansplain while republican.
  • Demsplain: to mansplain while a democrat.
  • femsplain: (1) to explain feminism! (2) to womansplain, possibly womansplaining feminism.
  • whitesplain: same as mansplaining, but (1) you don't have to be a man, (2) the explainer is white, and possibly (3) you're talking about race.
  • whitefuck: to ruin, in the manner that white people often do.
  • baracksplain: to explain, wrong, while being Barack Obama, or in the manner of Barack Obama.
  • trumpsplain: to incorrectly explain, while being Donald Trump, or in the manner of Donald Trump.
  • Bernisplain: you get the idea.
  • Bitchsplain: mansplaining while female -- although it seems the case that people who use bitchsplain likely don't think mansplaining is 'a thing'.
  • dicksplain: mansplaining, like not just a man, but a total dick.
  • bropropriate: to culturally appropriate like a "bro" -- what older generations would call a "frat boy."
  • boomersplain: to explain, wrong,while being a baby-boomer, or like a baby-boomer. 
  • fagasm: to orgasm (possibly figuratively) over something spectacularly, marvelously gay. Google at your own risk.

And my personal favorite:

  • goysplain: when a non-Jewish person (singular: goy, plural: goyim) attempts to explain Judaism or Jewish tradition to Jews, as in: "I can't believe that goy tried to goysplain passover to me. What a schmuck."

 

Some of those look like agent incorporation. Is that a thing?

Conceptually, that may be the best way to explain why Barack Obama is the only person who ever seems to be accused of baracksplaining, and why white people are who get accused of whitesplaining, however, there are a few ways in which such an analysis would be extremely contentious.

First, given what we know about syntax now, it's a much more contentious statement than it seems, because it would have to be structurallyquite complex, and extremely unusual given the kind of structures we expect in contemporary syntactic theory. That is, treating it as agent incorporation doesn't really fit with current models.

Second, as soon as someone uses a word like whitesplain to describe white people mis-explaining race, someone else will use it to describe the things that fall out of Raven Symoné's mouth. It seems like the agent/manner line is blurry to the extent it exists at all, manner is more useful to more people in more instances, and if one were to coin something and intend it as agent incorporation it would almost immediately be interpreted and used as manner incorporation.

Wait, aren't you mansplaining right now?

I hope not! I've given this a fair amount of thought, I'm a qualified expert, and I'm not silencing others who are more knowledgeable on the subject. I welcome further discussion, and I'm pretty sure not welcoming discussion is one of the hallmarks of classic mansplaining.

Is this new word good or bad?

Neither. I think it fills a need. Let's face it: we men often dominate conversations, and sometimes pontificate about things we're not terribly qualified to discuss. The most socially inept among us will do this to women who are more knowledgeable about the subject at hand. We've all seen this.  As a guy, I completely understand the feeling when you hear accusations of mansplaining ("hey, I'm a man! What are you accusing me of? Not all men, lady!"), but ultimately, I can't argue with the fact that it's a thing that happens in our society, and mansplain gives us a quick, easy, clear way of discussing it. And yeah, men, you might be wrongly accused of mansplaining every now and then.  Sometimes, too, you might actually be doing it.

Is it just verbs that get gendered like this?

In anglophone society, male is often taken to be default. However, there are certain things that are traditionally associated with women, that men have started doing, either to intentionally dismantle the patriarchy, or for some other reason, like wanting to look like a samurai. Examples of gendered nouns of a similar form include:

  • man bun
  • man purse
  • bromance
  • mantertainment

Can you just shmush any two words together?

Yes and no. Constantine Lignos and Hilary Pritchard have done extensive work on blends, and argue that some (bromance, cronut, sexpert) are much better than others (brinkles, wegotism). Their research on the subject explicitly discusses manspreading and sharknado, and I highly recommend reading it, since it's fascinating -- it can be found here

So there you have it. Everything you ever wanted to know about mansplaining, but didn't know to ask. 

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©Taylor Jones 2016

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A "Wobbly" Start for The Undefeated, Or: We Can't Talk About Race Without Talking About Language

FiveThirtyEight just ran a piece from The Undefeated, an ESPN website that "explores the intersections of race, sports and culture,"  called ‘We Gonna Be Championship!’: A New Approach To ‘Fixing’ Sports Quotes: The cultural terrain we travel when quoting athletes verbatim.

In it, they discuss the tradition of journalists "cleaning up" quotes, and argue "This is a tradition that needs to go." They (correctly) argue:

"For one, it’s patronizing, with the implication that anything that deviates from the norm is inherently inferior and must be corrected. Black English, for example, isn’t a referendum on intelligence — it’s a reflection of centuries of segregation, just as American English is a linguistic representation of our country’s split from Britain. Passing judgment based on speech can often say more about the listener than the speaker."

However, it seems like the author has not yet really figured out how exactly they feel about African American English, Chicano English, and other non-standard or non-prestige varieties of English. Moreover, while correctly arguing that these varieties are not inferior, the author immediately launches into any linguist's least favorite argument: "Technically, it should be..." While clearly their heart is in the right place, they're actually wrong about the technicalities, likely in part because there's still almost no linguistic education at a compulsory level in the US, and we can't expect everyone to have taken an intro to sociolinguistics class.

In the interest of accuracy, I'm going to add a linguists' perspective to their discussion of language. That is, not just my own, but one I'm confident any linguist would share. These are the kind of things people interested in the intersection of [insert literally anything here], race, and culture should be thinking about.

  • They refer to Leandro Barbosa's statement "We gonna be championship!" as "wobbly" and use it as an example of where there's "no fix to be found." They're correct there's no fix, but that's because there's literally nothing wrong with it, especially if he learned to speak English from teammates who speak AAE. I can think of two possible things people might think are wrong with it, and I'm not entirely sure which one is the issue, so I'll address both:
  1. African American English allows deletion of verbal copula -- meaning the words is, are, etc. --  in the present tense, when it's not first person. That is, you must say "I'm," but you can say "we are gonna," "we're gonna," or "we gonna." The Toronto Raptors get this: We The North is their motto now.
  2. Championship is clearly functioning as an adjective here.
  • They write: "Do we consider Yoda any less wise because of his mixed-up syntax?" This is a decent argument when we're talking about non-native English speakers, like Carlos Gomez. When we're talking about native speakers of non-prestige dialects,  as is often the case, it kind of falls apart -- they don't have "mixed-up" syntax, they just speak different, equally complex and systematic dialects. It's just that the rules are slightly different, not that there aren't any.
  • Finally, they discuss someone saying "he's a idiot." The author writes: Technically, it should have been “He’s AN idiot.” This is incorrect. In the prestige dialect -- something we'll call, say, classroom English -- there should be an -n there, however I wonder to what extent the author could explain why. The word an is an allomorph, meaning it's a different shape for the same word, and it is only used before words that start with a vowel (think about it: a pie, an ice cream). Note that "vowel" has a specific meaning in linguistics, and it's not about letters: vowels are sounds that are made in such a way that there is not an obstruction of airflow in your mouth. African American English, and a number of other language varieties have a different allomorph: they have a glottal stop, represented by /ʔ/, instead of an /n/. Glottal stop is the sound in the middle of "uh-oh." Standard English doesn't have a good way of writing glottal stops, despite using them everywhere (think of Jason Statham saying "British" to Idris Elba). So both varieties use a different form of 'a' before vowels, but only one marks it in writing. Linguists avoid this by using the International Phonetic Alphabet, which has one letter per sound, and where you can see the difference (in bold) between "an idiot" and "a idiot" : [ən.ɪdiət] [əʔ.ɪdiət]. Notice that BOTH avoid putting "a" directly before a word-initial vowel.

I'm glad to see that ESPN is starting to think more about race and culture. For many people, professional athletes are their only regular exposure to some of these dialects, and it's only natural that when we hear things that aren't familiar to us, we think they might be wrong, rather than just different -- especially if we don't have enough exposure to see how thoroughly systematic they are. I hope The Undefeated will take language seriously, and not rely on "common-knowledge," folklore, and common fallacies to do it. Perhaps they need a linguist on their staff?

 

EDIT: A friend mentioned that Barbarosa's native language is Brazilian Portuguese, I've made some slight tweaks to reflect that. The broader point -- that athletes speaking AAE are often "corrected" -- still stands, and there are countless examples, from the recent discussion of Marshawn Lynch or Richard Sherman, to older examples, like the fact that Oscar Gamble's "They don't think it be like it is, but it do," has become an internet meme often used when people think something is gibberish.

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©Taylor Jones 2016

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Jawn in the news (again)!

I recently had a long conversation with Dan Nosowitz at Atlas Obscura about the Philly word jawn. The full article is here.

I want to take a second to expand on a couple of points, and make a few things more precise:

  1. linguists will notice I simplified the (extremely) complicated situation with regards to tense /æ/ in Philadelphia. In particular, depending on the speaker, the direct comparison with bag may or may not be valid. The general point I was getting at was that white and black tense /æ/ systems are diverging in Philadelphia. Relevant work by Bill Labov here.
  2. The by-line is sensational, but I definitely did insinuate as much. I absolutely welcome any examples from linguists of generic nouns that can be count/noncount, human/nonhuman, concrete/abstract, etc. Jawn seems to be radically unspecified.
  3. I can't remember my exact words, but I'm pretty sure I said I suspect/hope/think Bill is enjoying his retirement. He's still doing a lot of work (we discussed a couple of forthcoming papers and a forthcoming book earlier today). I don't want to give the impression that he's dropped everything -- the context was specifically discussing talking to journalists, and whether he was currently available.
  4. With regards to diphthongs, specifically the sound in joint, here's wikipedia on English diphthongs. Words like joint, boy, toy, etc. are generally taken to have [ɔɪ̯]. More generally, here's jawn: With regards to diphthongs, specifically the sound in joint, here's wikipedia on English diphthongs. Words like joint, boy, toy, etc. are generally taken to have [ɔɪ̯]. More generally, here's jawn: /d͡ʒɔ:n/; and here's joint /d͡ʒɔɪ̯nt/ -- which is realized in the song discussed in the article as [d͡ʒɔ::ɪ̯nʔ].
  5. Finally, the PNC is not outdated, but the speakers I currently have access to, who would be relevant to AAE use of jawn are not recent.

I'm starting to think it's time to sit down with everyone who's worked on jawn and write a definitive paper, especially given the radical semantic unspecification that seems to be at play here.

EDIT:

A few more points:

  1. Plural is jawns, however, plural -s is often deleted in AAE, leaving you with just jawn. White Philadelphians have been very, very upset by plural jawn in the article. Black Philadelphians have been very upset with some of the white uses of jawn in the article. I'm bringing Philadelphians together!
  2. "A lot of jawn to do" is not universally liked, and people are very vocal about that as well. That said, I obviously did not make it up (some people think I did -- that's not how linguistics works!), and it's extremely easy to find a few tokens of it on social media, so you don't have to just go by my notes.

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©Taylor Jones 2016

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Kids Now Don't Discriminate How They Used To

In the last two years, I've graded a LOT of undergraduate assignments, and I noticed something I think may point toward a change in progress. Kids keep misusing discriminate. 

...or so I thought.

The thing is, they keep making the same mistake. And it's a mistake I had seen in grading for a number of classes over the last few years. And I'm starting to think it might not be a mistake. 

Instead of saying "he discriminated against me," for instance, they'll say "he discriminated me." They seem not to have the older reading of discriminate at all, so I'm not sure to what extent something like "he could not be discriminated from the background" meaning distinguished from here, would be used or understood by teenagers now.

A quick search reveals it's quite common on Twitter and other social media, with examples like:

  • If you flagrantly discriminate me, don't think that will deter any part of who I am. All it does is make me more determined
  • I always wonder y do ppl discriminate me about being myself
  • If u discriminate me over my sex & deprive me of my dignity & rights, fuck yes I'll sue your ass
  • he was mad she discriminated me
  • she didn't diss me.but indirectly discriminated me

And of course it's not just first person:

  • Trump discriminated her
  • obama hates him since he racially discriminated him
  • you yourself discriminated them

And it can be passivized, and occur in all tenses:

  • I was discriminated on the basis of my gender once
  • its sad because everyone with colour will be discriminated with time if trump wins
  • If Portia was being discriminated because of her gender then all the insults thrown would be focused on that
  • I never knew Asian gays had been discriminated before
  • wish I could pull the race card when my career is flopping but I can't bc im white yet my family had been discriminated for being Russian

The most interesting thing to me is that people now will use "against" as well, but to mean different things, and it doesn't seem settled what they want it to mean:

  • My height never discriminated me against anything
  • basically your staff discriminated me against an able bodied person.
  • you couldn't handle my opinion so you discriminated me against my age and gender

It sounds like whereas my generation and older would say "he discriminated against her because she is female (and he's sexist)" people are now likely to say "he discriminated her against being a woman."

Personally, I have a hard time parsing this structure -- my first inclination is to read "he discriminated her against being a woman" as trying to mean something like "he could tell that she wasn't a woman by comparing her to women" but this is clearly not what is meant. Rather, I'd translate it as "he discriminated against her because she is female." 

I'm generally a champion of language change and innovation. It's my job, after all. But with this particular structure, I think I understand -- on an emotional level -- the curmudgeonly and pedantic response everything from totes to fleek gets. But, of course, I will accept the fact of language change, and not discriminate kids these days against their language use.

 

 

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©Taylor Jones 2016

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More Jawn Jawn

Right after the Grammy Awards, CBS 3 in Philly aired a segment hosted by Nicole Brewer, called Good Question, in which I was featured (links below). The question was "What is jawn?"

I left out something unique about Philly's use of jawn that is distinct from joint, jont, or jaint elsewhere: in jawn in Philly can replace non-count nouns. That is, you can use it where you might use "stuff" whereas joint can only be used for one or more individual things.

Example (remember * means something is ungrammatical -- that is, structurally unacceptable to native speakers):

  1. That joint is dope.
  2. That jawn is dope.

 

  1. Those joints is dope.
  2. Those jawn(s) is dope.

 

  1. I got a lot of *joint to do
  2. I got a lot of jawn to do.

This is a really cool feature that further distinguishes jawn from other regional variations on the same theme.

For those interested in the segment, the video is here.

Nicole Brewer's twitter feed is here.

Jezebel coverage is here.

Philly Magcoverage is here.

And since it didn't make it into the video, I have a shout out to Abdul Kareem, manager of the Gap on Walnut & 35th in Philly, who sold me the shirt I wore in the interview. He greeted me when I walked in with "bomber and shelltops? That's my jawn!" When I left, he told me "I hope that jawn goes good for ya." More importantly, he straight up knew the history of the term ("it's our way of saying joint") and why it's special ("...but we can use it for more.")

 

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©Taylor Jones 2016

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On strolling

Recently I wrote a blog post in which I mentioned that "it makes no sense to say: I strolled you."

Mark Liberman helpfully pointed out that in certain contexts, this is not entirely true. He wrote:

But there's causative examples with a direct object and a goal -- some web examples:

 

We strolled you around the park and had a picnic.

He was the one who strolled you around the neighborhood and talked to you like you understood everything and encouraged you to have an opinion.

She immediately released Michael's hand while he just stood there in a trance, but realized he needed to be placed somewhere, so Ophelia strolled him over to a nearby chair and sat him down when she said, “You wait for me here..

 

I strolled him around and admired the beautiful trees.

 

Her reactions of surprise and delight had been repeated many times over as he strolled her through each garden 'room'

 
 
 
 
Annie strolled her empty cart straight to the produce department
 
And there's a transitive sense that the OED glosses as "To walk or pace along (a path) or about (a place)", with citations back to 1623:

 

1693   R. Gould Corrupt. Times 28   For thee the dirty Drab does strowl the Streets. 

1720   Swift Progr. Beauty 87   So rotting Celia stroles the Street, When sober Folks are all a-bed. 

a1772   Ess. from Batchelor (1773) I. 249   After strolling the Green, arm in arm with L——d M——lt——on. 

1810   Splendid Follies III. 119   [He] had been strolling the solitary path of the elm-walk. 1956   H. Gold Man who was not with It vi. 50   Her laughter rang out as we strolled a business street of the suburb. 

1974   New Yorker 3 June 76/3 (advt.)    Hike forest trails, stroll lovely gardens. 

1977   Gay News 24 Mar. 23/1   They taxi to the Toilet and stroll the dock strip at 3 am. . 

In my defense, I was grasping for a good example of a verb that doesn't transitivize well, and without a goal or a causative reading, stroll fits the bill. There are actually a ton of words like this, too (that is, that aren't default transitive, but that can receive such readings under appropriate circumstances). My first inclination was to use walk but immediately realized it had this problem.  In retrospect, I should have chosen an unaccusative verb -- a topic I'll cover in another post.

 

 

Arguments About Arguments

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about what linguists call valency. This is in part because I was recently discussing the weird privileging of some grammatical structures over others by self-appointed "grammar nerds", and in part because it's been very relevant in studying Zulu.

Valence or valency refers to the number of arguments a verb has (or "takes"). What's an argument? In this jargon, it's basically a noun or noun phrase. The idea is that different verbs require --or allow -- different numbers of nouns. The ones that are required are sometimes referred to as core arguments. For instance:

  • I strolled.

The above is referred to as intransitive, and it allows only one argument. It makes no sense to say, for instance:

  • *I strolled you.

(the * means the sentence is ungrammatical, meaning that it doesn't make structural sense.)

Similarly, there are verbs that take two arguments (transitive verbs) and verbs that take three (ditransitive verbs). Examples are:

  • he hit me.
  • I gave him a book.

Admittedly, this is not all that interesting. What is interesting, however, is valence changing operations

Different languages have different tools for taking a verb of one kind, and changing the number or structure of core arguments. What does this mean? It means making a peripheral argument into a core argument, like this (kind of cheat-y example):

  • I gave a book to him
  • I gave him a book

Or totally changing which arguments have which syntactic positions:

  • I ate a whole thing of ice cream.
  • A whole thing of ice cream was eaten.

The above example, many of you will recognize as the passive voice. The passive voice has gotten a bad rap. The passive voice is freaking cool! It lets you keep the same meaning, but shuffle around what structural role all of the noun phrases are playing. This, in turn, allows you to highlight a different part of the sentences, and shift focus away from the agent (or even refuse to name the agent). What's more, it's just one of many valence changing operations that languages make use of.

Image from the blog Heading for English.

Image from the blog Heading for English.

Other languages have more. And they're awesome. David Peterson has a great discussion of this in his book The Art of Language Invention, but his examples in that book are often created languages. Natural languages, though, were the inspiration. Zulu, for instance, has passives like English, but also has causatives and benefactives. And you can combine them. For instance:

  • fona = to telephone someone
  • ngi-ni-fona = I call you (lit. I you call)

You can make it causative by adding -isa, which then makes the verb mean to cause/make/let/allow/help someone telephone someone. Notice anything? That's right, you've added an argument. 

  • fona -> fonisa
  • ngi-ni-fona = I call you
  • ngi-ni-fon-isa umama = I help you call mama

Benefactives are similar, but they make it so you do the verb for/on behalf of/instead of someone else. In Zulu, this is done by adding -ela to the verb stem:

  • fona -> fonela
  • ngi-ni-fona = I call you
  • ngi-ni-fon-ela umama = I call you for mama.

Other languages have other kinds of things. For instance, some languages have malefactives. That is, things that are done not for or on behalf of someone, but despite someone or intending them harm, ill-will, or general bad...ness. Salish, Native American language spoken in the Pacific Northwest makes use of malefactives. English has a construction which does the same thing, but doesn't encode it on the actual verb:

  • she hung up on me.
  • he slammed the door on me.
  • she walked out on me.
  • My car broke down on me.

Imagine something like "she hung-on-up me." Notice, also, that benefactives do a weird thing to the arguments. In English, you can say:

  • I cook rice.

And that's transitive. If you add a bit about who you're doing it for, you get:

  • I cook rice for you. 

or:

  • I cook for you.

In Zulu, though, there's very specific sentence structure. I'll put the words in English, but add the Zulu morphemes, to make it as clear as possible:

  • I cook rice
  • I cook-ela you rice
  • I cook-ela you. 
  • * I cook-ela rice you.

Remember the * means "ungrammatical." This is usually discussed in terms of promotions (yay!) and obligations (ugh). That is, the benefactive in Zulu promotes the argument that is benefiting from the action, and makes it obligatory. It also must immediately follow the verb. The thing that was the object of the sentence (rice, in this case) is then an optional argument. You don't even have to say it. Or think it. Just forget about the rice.

Therefore, as valency changing operations add arguments, so too they taketh away. This is what the passive voice is doing. Whereas benefactives promote an indirect object to direct object, and then make the original direct object optional, passives promote the direct object to subject:

  • I cook rice
  • rice is cooked (by me!) 

...or, if you prefer:

  • The whole thing of ice cream was eaten. (I refuse to say by whom.)

This is why I don't understand "grammar snobbery." Your language has a syntactic tool that does a totally cool thing, and you're just gonna decide that it's somehow bad? It's a feature, not a bug! If you think calling a natural function of your grammar that's linguistically universal bad is a way of indicating how much you know about grammar, you've got weird priorities. Appreciating grammar is not a competition to see how little of your language you can use or appreciate.

Not only are valence changing operations not bad, and totally super cool, but get this: you can combine valence changing operations, so you can have a passivized benefactive in Zulu, or a passivized causative. You can have things like:

  • A cake is being baked for mama

...but they're encoded entirely on the verb:

  • (ikhekhe) li-zo-bhak-el-wa umama
  • cake      it.FUT.bake.BEN.PASS mama

Even better, you can have a causative, a benefactive, and a passive marker on the verb, so you get something like:

  • bhala = "write" or "enroll"
  • ba-bhal-is-el-wa-ni
  • they.enroll.CAUS.BEN.PASS.why = "why are they being made to enroll?"

Somewhere, there's a language that can express my desire that the passive voice be made to be used by self appointed grammar snobs, malevolently, by me, and that language can encode most of that on the verb. If not Salish, then maybe the Niger-Congo language Koalib. And that's a beautiful thing.

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©Taylor Jones 2015

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A very big weekend

This last weekend was the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America, as well as concurrent meetings of seven sister societies. It was huge, and a particularly big weekend for me.

Chris Hall (@linguistopher) and I presented a poster on Rachel Doležal's linguistic performance of her concept of 'black'-ness.

Lauren Spradlin (@lsprad) and I presented a talk on the morphophonology of totes truncation (which I previously wrote about here), which was featured in the media advisory for the LSA, and which will be written up in a number of pop publications (links as they happen).

I gave a well received talk on negation in African American English (Which I previously wrote about here), and which won an award for being one of the ten best student abstracts (number 10, to be precise, but I take what I can get!).

My current research on AAVE comprehension was mentioned during John Rickford's presidential address (!) and I was acknowledged at the end of his talk in the same line as Bill freakin' Labov (!!).

Last, but not least, the edition of American Speech that came out this week has my article "Toward a Description of African American Vernacular English Dialect Regions Using 'Black Twitter'" as the first article! 

It's been an exhausting, but great weekend, and a great way to start the new semester.

Astronomically Strange Intensifiers:

Recently, I noticed some strange uses of adverbs. Some examples:

  • "in an active shooter situation, things can get astronomically bad."
  • "I miss you unconditionally."

On the surface, these don't make a lot of sense. Astronomically generally refers to scale: astronomically large distances, for instance, are distances that are so large as to be on the same scale as the distances between celestial bodies. In general, astronomical refers to things that are large enough as to be of that scale (say, 93 million miles). However, the speaker who uttered the above had made the jump from very large to just very

Similarly, if you love someone without any conditions or expectations, it's reasonable to say "I love you unconditionally." If you don't think too hard about what this means, it could be reasonable to interpret it as meaning "I love you a lot." Of course, literally, it has some peculiar entailments, like "I miss you even when you are present, and there is no situation in which I won't miss you." 

What's happening here is the same process of semantic bleaching that gave rise to literally as an intensifier (no, it does not mean figuratively. "I'm literally starving" means the same as "I'm really starving" and does not mean the same as "I'm figuratively starving."). For that matter, it's how we got words like truly, as in "I'm truly hungry." 

All I'll say about this is that I'm literally astronomically impressed with people's ability to innovate by analogy.

 

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©Taylor Jones 2015

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Recent Interview Jawn (now with extra jont, jeent, and jaint!).

I was recently interviewed (along with expert on all things Philadelphia, Joe Fruehwald) about use of jawn in Philadelphia. The article appeared last week in Metro Philly, and then Metro New York. They even use a quick graphic I made of jawn on Twitter.

Check it out here: http://www.metro.us/philadelphia/jawn-it-s-the-new-yo/zsJola---iR0kUASCcK0nI/

 

Note, I think the author might have mixed up a quote from me and from Joe, unless Joe also has an interest in jawn-like words in other varieties of AAE (this is a possibility).

For more on DC's jont, there's the (relatively) recent article in the Washington Post on the DC local dialect (hint, Chocolate City's local dialect is local AAE).  And of course, there's some discussion of KY, TN, and (Eastern) PA jeent, online, as well as Virginia's (and basically all points south of DC) jaint. (Note to self: Virginia's Jaint sounds awful.)

NYC is still holdin' it down with the classic: joint. That said, I do increasingly hear teenagers in NYC occasionally saying jawn, though it is rare.

I'm very curious to see if the success of Creed really does cause jawn to spread. In AAE, it would be doubtful, since(1) everyone already has their own jawn-like word and (2) not everyone uses the vowel in jawn (the same as in a stereotypical New York pronunciation of coffee), or can even reliably hear or pronounce it. For non AAE speakers, I'm not sure. Inability to pronounce a word the same, or even having the same word already in your lexicon has not stopped white speakers of various mainstream varieties of English from borrowing slightly different pronunciations of words and giving them different meanings than they have in AAE: turnt (turned), bae (babe), cray (crazy) or ratchet (wretched) in the last few years, alone.

And, of course, the original Rocky introduced wider America to yo, so anything could happen.

 

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©Taylor Jones 2015

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Word Embeddings

I recently read an excellent blog post about word embedding models, something I've been fascinated by for some time now. 

To simplify some, they're vector models of word relationships in a corpus, so you can imagine relationships between or among lexical items as being situated in (some higher-dimensional) space, that you can then theoretically reduce to meaningful relationships and project in manageable dimensions. Spatial relationships among items can then potentially tell you something about both what words mean similar things (or do similar things), and about the corpus itself. Moreover, because it's all linear algebra, you can perform mathematical operations on items in the space. The most famous example of this, and one that's been going around a lot on social media lately, is:

king - man + woman = queen

For a variety of reasons (better coding skills, new familiarity with matrix algebra, interest in external computational validation of semantic intuitions), now seemed like an excellent time to level up. So, I decided to get to work in R (after some cleaning in python, with the NLTK package).

The tutorial for the wordVector package does a lot of fun things with a large corpus of cookbooks (closest words to fish: salmon, haddock, cod...), but I figured why not play around with some other things? Why not, say, tweets?

I have a corpus of ~17,000 tweets all in (basilectal) AAE that I collected for my research on geographic patterns in AAE on social media. While this definitely is on the small end, it seemed suitable as a trial run, and I'm quite pleased with the results.

For instance, among the closest words to eem are terms that are negation (don't, didn't, ain't, can't) and negative polarity items (even, much, yet, nomo, anymore, anything). Among the closest to nuttin are nuffin, and sayin. 

What I'm finding really interesting is the results of projecting the whole thing down to a two dimensional space, even before having really cleaned the data:

Things that belong together are very clearly together: happy is right under birthday (top left). Nuffin and nuttin are both in the same place, as are somebody and sumn. Talm and talmbout are right on top of one another (bottom left), and quite far away from talk and talking (middle right), with said in between (exactly what I would predict based on the material I presented at NWAV). Eem is right next to even in a cloud of negative words: ain't, don't, ion (i.e. "I don't..."), all at the bottom right. Question words all clustered together in the top (slightly left of center). Verbs (sleep, eat, talk, take give, go, hit) are all in a cluster in the middle right. Dat and doe are right by one another (top left). Hell is in the immediate vicinity of both nah and yeah.

Of course, the fact I haven't much cleaned the data means that don, can, ain are a different cluster than  dont, cant, aint, but an actual analysis would fix that (and exclude http, https, and all the floating alphanumeric bits).

Even with messy data, there are some intriguing relationships: jawn is right between miss and sombody/sumn (and forms a triangle with somebody/sumn and baby/girl). In fact, the nearest vectors to jawn include jont and philly.

 Moreover, performing vector operations like jawn - philly yields jont, the Washington DC equivalent of jawn, in the top 3 results (pragmatics: guess which rank). Nuttin - nyc yields nuffin. This is fascinating, in part because geographical variation is showing up in a very abstract high dimensional space, almost like a regional AAE translator:

jawn - Philly = jont

nuttin - NYC = nuffin  

The next step is to do some transformations of the vector space to dig into these relationships: what happens when you frame things in terms of an opposition between love and hate? Where would jawn fall relative to girlfriend?  

I have a lot of work to do to develop this, but already I can see some excellent potential for future research. 

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©Taylor Jones 2015

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NWAV! Also, more (interesting) posts coming soon.

This weekend I'm attending NWAV 44 (New Ways of Analyzing Variation), where I will be giving a talk on the African American English verb of quotation talkin' 'bout. I'll have a post on that very soon. 

I'm excited to see that it looks like someone else has noticed and operationalized the study of something I noticed a few years ago, but couldn't figure out how to get at: the interaction between affect and creaky voice. The paper is "Creak as disengagement: gender, affect, and the iconization of voice quality."

I'll have updates after the conference, as well as  ton of new posts that are in the pipeline, inlcuding a run-down of talmbout/talkin' 'bout to introduce quotation, a discussion of recent work I co-authored on reduction in Mandarin, a tin-foil hat crazy speculation about French and Zulu.

I'm also going to experiment with blogging more, but shorter. I have a problem with wanting to put up long(ish) essays on subject matter I'm very confident about, and this means that shorter observations -- but ones that are more than 140 characters -- get ignored. Insofar as I'm also in the middle of finishing up 3 publications, have two qualifying papers to write, and still have homework for my courses, this also means I just don't blog. I'm going to try and change this.

I've already got the javascript working for interlinear glosses, and a lot of material to write up. Here's to the future!