Archive for the ‘English language’ Category

Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change starts off by spelling out one of the difficulties in linguistic research and communicating it to the public:

In many areas of culture or technology, some older people will embrace and welcome the new. But in thousands of sociolinguistic interviews, no one has ever been heard to say, “I really like the way that young people talk today; it’s so much better than the way we talked when I was young.” Most of us adhere to what one may call the Golden Age Syndrome: the belief that language once existed in a state of perfection, and any change is a decline from that state, to be resisted. (p. viii)

This really is the first and greatest of hills that linguists need to get over in order to talk about language to the public. I wouldn’t be surprised if linguists also have to get their undergrad students over this hill. So it’s good that Labov starts by surmounting this hill because the majority of the book is about African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and other non-standard varieties or dialects (linguistics pro-tip: non-standard does not mean substandard, it just means “not at all or not as highly privileged as the standard”). It’s also good that Labov is the one writing this book. He is a legend in the field of linguistics and his writing is clear and direct.

Cover of Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change by William Labov.

Cover of Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change by William Labov.

Chapter 1 is a bit of a primer on linguistics. It tells non-linguists what they need to know to read this book and it summarizes the arguments of each chapter. It begins with something that might be shocking to many non-linguists:

People tend to believe that dialect differences in American English are disappearing, especially given our exposure to a fairly uniform broadcast standard in the mass media […] This overwhelmingly common opinion is simply and jarringly wrong. (pp. 1-2)

I made reference to this idea in a previous post and Labov is right that (some) people think everyone sounds more similar today than they did 10, 20, or 50 years ago – even though the opposite is true. I’m happy to say that Dialect Diversity does an excellent job of showing why American dialects are diverging. The CliffNotes version is: people do speak differently than they did when you were a kid, but their dialects are actually more different than they were back then and they are different in different ways. (I’m not good at CliffNotes. Read the whole book)

At the end of chapter 2, Labov makes an excellent point about our knowledge of language and what we do with it.

Most importantly, the (ING) variable [pronouncing the g in running vs. no pronouncing it in runnin’] is a prototypical example of orderly heterogeneity. It does not interfere with communication: we know that working and workin’, dunking and dunkin’, mean the same thing. Furthermore, the variation of (ING) works for us to establish levels of formality and informality and in any given context, the level of –in’ also tells us something about the social status of the speaker. In a word, we understand (ING). That does not prevent us from attacking Sarah Palin for “dropping her g’s.” Public rhetoric about language is always several stages removed from reality. Because we understand what (ING) is all about, we can always pick it up and use it as a club to beat our opponents on the head and shoulders with, linguistically speaking. (p. 16)

So even though people understand what is being said – and why it is being said in a certain way – we still can’t get over criticizing others (especially women and minorities) for the language that they use. The (ING) variable is even more perfect because everyone – everyone? Yes, everyone – uses it in at least some cases.

I have no notes on chapter 3 except that it is very interesting. Fun even. I guess it was too fun for me to stop and take notes 🙂

Chapter 5, “The Politics of African American English” discusses the divergence of Black and White English in America and how this is affecting African American literacy (the divergence is described in chapter 4). One of the most eye-opening passages in this book comes even before Labov talks about the Ebonics controversy (which Labov was right in the middle of). Labov writes about the ways that researchers have tried to influence the methods of teaching students who are native AAVE speakers.

To do this [giving children who speak AAVE the capacity to understand and use both AAVE and standard English], it is generally agreed that contrastive analysis is helpful: putting the two systems side by side and showing the learner how they differ. […] Contrastive analysis thus depends on and develops knowledge of both systems, for both children and teachers. It is generally understood that knowledge of other groups and different cultures reduces hostility and prejudice toward them. Our sociolinguistic studies find the strongest prejudices against minority groups among those people who have had the least contact with (and the least knowledge of) them. Nevertheless, efforts to use contrastive analysis in the teaching of reading have brought forth a series of political firestorms of increasing intensity which have defeated one program after another. (p. 73, bolding mine)

The sentence I put in bold is shocking and depressing and maddening all at once. But maybe more important is the fact that contrastive analysis sounds logical. It’s no wonder that idiots killed it. Never underestimate people’s desire to force others to speak like them and only like them. Teachers have the power to accept or delegitimize students’ speech and they should be careful with how they use this power. The reason this matters is because it denies kids an education. Labov shows on the following pages that people who said AAVE is “bad English”, “slang” and “ignorant and careless speech” – that is people who did not know what they were talking about, and did not know the linguistics behind AAVE – were able to shape the debate and force unproven and unhelpful teaching methods onto already marginalized children:

The same political reaction to the recognition of AAVE by the school system can be observed in a series of controversies that followed [the negative and uninformed reaction, published in the NAACP’s The Crisis, to early research on AAVE]. In case after case, efforts to use linguistic knowledge of AAVE for contrastive analysis were reported and condemned as programs for teaching children to speak a corrupt brand of English. The idea that African American children spoke a coherent dialect of their own was consistently rejected […] (p. 74)

Labov then goes on to show how complaints about AAVE, or Ebonics, are usually thinly veiled admissions of racism. The dialect is used as a publicly acceptable way to disparage all black people; linguistic discrimination being the last allowable act of bigotry in high-minded liberal corridors. The examples he lists are vile and I don’t want to repeat them here, but in something any linguist could see coming a mile away, the people trying to satirize AAVE end up showing that they do not know how AAVE works. To these Labov only writes “Here again one can see the distance between public discussion and linguistic reality” and calls these hot takes “uninformed reaction[s] masquerading under the ‘helmet of wit’”. They are this but they are worse than that. People who stopped studying math in high school don’t make claims about how math should be taught. But people with high school English under their belt feel comfortable in pedant-splaining to others how language should be taught.

After this Labov shows why linguistic knowledge is important in teaching – through the efforts made by him and other researchers once they were given room (and funding) to develop successful methods for teaching children who speak non-standard varieties such as AAVE. Labov and his colleagues developed contrastive analysis books to help children learn to read. If you’re wondering why those books were written in standard English, it’s because of the teachers’ reactions. Labov says

The battle for the recognition of AAVE in the classroom […] might be won, but it would be a long and expensive battle, waged at the expense of children who could have learned to read under a more realistic approach. The approach that has been taken in The Reading Road and Portals [the material developed by Labov and colleagues] is to provide contrastive eanalysis for the teachers rather than for the students. (pp. 92-93)

Linguists who try to point out that all dialects are rule-governed and that no dialect is better than any other dialect and that non-standard does not mean substandard often receive a sneer from language peevers, “Then why did you write your book in Standard English? Hmmm?” It’s for the people who are not proficient in dialects other than Standard English. The dialect of Standard English is something people can easily acquire because there are more than enough resources out there to teach it. The materials on non-standard dialects are a fraction of what there is for the standard dialect. Books are written in a dialect, by the way. It just happens to be the slang of prigs.

The last two chapters in Dialect Diversity in America take a look at the long history of the shifting dialects in the United States, specifically the Northern Cities Shift. Labov stretches his thesis across almost 200 years of history and ties it to the political switcheroo made by the Republican and Democratic parties. I’ll admit that these chapters lost me a bit, as I found some of the claims a bit more hard to grasp than in the previous chapters. I’m not doubting that Labov has done his research, I just think that the arguments in Chapters 7 and 8 didn’t seem as iron clad as the arguments in earlier chapters. I think, however, that people who are more into sociology, anthropology, politics and/or history than they are into linguistics might find this part of the book is their favorite. This book was, after all, written for non-linguists. If anything, it takes linguistics out of the research lab and applies it to the real world.

I really enjoyed this book and I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in American dialects.

Dialect Diversity in America: The Politics of Language Change (2012) is available from the University of Virginia press for $19.50. There is apparently an online collection of audio to accompany the book, but I did not review these (I got my copy of the book from the library and I can’t remember seeing a reference to the online audio. Maybe it’s in the 2014 edition). You can find a glowing review of Dialect Diversity in America by the distinguished linguist John Baugh here. (PDF for those behind the paywall).


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This morning, my six-year-old decided he would come up with a new word. The word he invented was shimonrikblik [ ʃimoʊnɹɪkblɪk ]. I asked him what it meant and he thought for a while and said, “It’s another word for linguistics.” I love him. Then he told me I have to tell all my “linguistics people”, so I put it out on Twitter.

I started thinking about the definition he gave shimonrikblik. We already have a word for “linguistics” (hint: it’s “linguistics”). But language being what it is, this does not mean that we can’t have two words for the same thing. Many stuffy and prescriptive style guides will tell you that you shouldn’t use neologisms (new words) for things that we already have words for. Fortunately, few people read these guides and even fewer follow this particular piece of advice. What the guides usually forget to mention is that different words for the same concept can be used in different variations and registers of one language. For example:

soccer and football

regardless and irregardless

you (plural) and y’all, youse, yinz, etc.

The first of these is pretty much a difference between national variations: UK people use football, US and Australian(?) people use soccer, but there are variations within these countries. The second is a difference in register, with regardless being used in formal registers (and edited writing) and irregardless being used in informal registers (and casual spoken language). The last of these is again a difference in register, probably again mostly between formal/informal speech and writing, but this time there are many words used to address a group of people directly with a pronoun. Your choice of pronoun will depend on your regional dialect and the situation. You probably have at least two of these pronouns in your vocabulary. And I’m just talking about English. Other languages will do things differently.

For example, here’s a really interesting thing about synonyms in some of the languages of Australia.

In most [Aboriginal societies of Australia], an individual’s name would not be used after their death. Furthermore, in many of them, words which sounded similar to that individual’s name were also prohibited. This practice would clearly present many inconveniences if there were not some way of replacing the banned vocabulary. The usual practice, resting on the widespread multilingualism that was a standard feature of traditional Aboriginal society in Australia, was to adopt the translational equivalent of the prohibited word from a neighboring language, and to use it until the old word became reusable (Introducing Semantics by Nick Riemer, 2010, p. 154).

The words above are just what I was able to come up with off the top of my head. There are many more and the degree to which a pair of words is synonymous will depend on things such as context and senses. For example, football is not entirely synonymous with soccer because there is a sense of football which means the game that is played in America (FLY EAGLES FLY!!!) But maybe shimonrikblik has a chance of taking off? It’s the word children use for linguistics? It’s how linguists casually refer to their (awesome) field? It’s linguistics, but with a child-like innocence?

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I never realized this before, but Superman is an L2 speaker of Kryptonian! And in SUPERGIRL #8 we learn that he is self-conscious about his accent around native speakers, such as his cousin Supergirl.



Superman telling Supergirl that he’s shy about his dialect in Kryptonian. Source: SUPERGIRL Vol. 7 #8 by Steve Orlando (w), Matías Bergara (p & i), Michael Atiyeh (c), Steve Wands (l).

This doesn’t matter much in terms of story, but it’s representation on the page for L2 speakers. Dialect shaming still happens every day. Linguistic discrimination (of which dialect shaming is only just a part) is unfortunately still publicly acceptable in a way that other forms of discrimination, such as racism and sexism, are not. Of course, racism and sexism still happen in public, but open displays of these are largely shunned and in some cases illegal, unlike linguistic discrimination. For example, it is illegal to deny someone a job on the basis of race, gender, etc. It is not illegal to deny them a job based on their dialect.

The tables get turned later in the issue when we hear more about Supergirl’s struggles with English, her L2. For example, contractions don’t exist in Kryptonian. Uh…, ok. I can’t think of another language that doesn’t contract words, but I’ve seen enough crazy stuff about language to not be surprised by anything anymore. (Besides, Kryptonian = 100% fictional)


Contractions don’t exist in Kryptonian? Whatever you say, Super Cousins. Source: SUPERGIRL Vol. 7 #8 by Steve Orlando (w), Matías Bergara (p & i), Michael Atiyeh (c), Steve Wands (l).

That raises another point – Krypton seems to have been a planet with one language. One language! That’s even more bananas than the “no contractions” thing. I can’t remember any other languages being mentioned (help me out, fellow comic nerds!). They do have dialects though, as Supergirl explains to Batgirl. But one language?! Bonkers.


Super-linguistics is one of Supergirl’s lesser known superpowers. Source: SUPERGIRL Vol. 7 #8 by Steve Orlando (w), Matías Bergara (p & i), Michael Atiyeh (c), Steve Wands (l).

I wonder if Supergirl is the only person that Superman is self-conscious around with his Kryptonian. I mean, she is also his older cousin (who ends up being younger than him when she gets to Earth – comics are weird), so maybe he’s worried about her kidding him. What a boy scout. There are approximately 4,576 other living Kryptonians who speak Kryptonian as their first language, but I think 99.9% of them are super evil, so Superman probably doesn’t care what they think of his accent. There are also a handful of Kryptonian animals, who don’t speak. Or haven’t spoken yet. Comics are weird/awesome. Give ’em time and we’ll get there.

Update: Steve Orlando, the writer of the Supergirl comic in question, hit me up on Twitter and said that the language stuff in the story was intentional:

That’s awesome! Language is a recurring theme in the story before and after this issue (issues also written by Steve). Supergirl’s foster parents are trying to learn Kryptonian and it’s going… about as well as learning Finnish did for me. And Supergirl’s trouble with contractions coming from the influence of her first language is actually quite clever – speakers of one language often encounter similar problems when they are learning language (say, Finnish L1 speakers learning English). The difficulties can be phonetic or syntactical, but they are commonly due to an interference from the speakers’ native language. The cause of the difficulty isn’t important here (Kryptonian is made up, after all), but it’s neat to see the problem echoed by Superman who went from English (has contractions) to Kryptonian (doesn’t have contractions). Comics are awesome!

Update 2: Important info here. According to Darren Doyle over at Kryptonian.info, Krypton does indeed have only one language. This language, Modern Kryptonian, was created by the government in order to promote planet-wide unity. Before this, there were five languages on Krypton – all of which belonged to the same language family. That’s crazy, I hear you say. Nothing shocks me, I say…


Update 3: Reader fidelita chimed in below to note that this isn’t the first time Supergirl has commented on Superman’s accent. Indeed, In SUPERGIRL Vol. 6 Issue 2 (from the New 52 run), Supergirl has this to say after meeting Superman for the first time:

This guy’s accent sounds like he learned Kryptonian from a textbook. No way he’s from Krypton.


Source: Supergirl, Vol. 6 #2 by Michael Green and Mike Johnson (w), Mahmud Asrar (p), Dan Green (i), Dave McCaig (c) and John J Hill (l).

For some background: In this version of Supergirl, she has just crash landed on Earth and she has no memory of when or why she was sent there. She doesn’t even know that she’s on Earth. She is already a young adult (she doesn’t speak any Earth language yet) and her powers have manifested all at once and overwhelmed her. On top of that, she was attacked by some government(?) people in mech suits right after she got out of her spaceship. Supergirl knows no one, has no idea where she is, and doesn’t understand what’s happening to her. And then Superman shows up speaking Kryptonian… but not like the people from Krypton. Superman says he’s Kryptonian, but he doesn’t sound like the people from Krypton. So she’s understandably a bit put off by everything. And Superman probably did learn Kryptonian from a textbook. Or a robot or a hologram – he’s got some pretty wild technology up there in his Fortress of Solitude.

But wait, there’s more! In issue #14, Supergirl again comments on someone else’s Kryptonian. This time it’s Dr. Shay Veritas, a super-genius scientist who helps out the good guys. Supergirl says that it’s strange to hear a human speak Kryptonian and that both Superman and Veritas have the accent of someone who hasn’t lived on Krypton or wasn’t raised there. At this point in the story, Supergirl still doesn’t know much about the other characters and she’s very skeptical of everyone (because everyone she meets tries to kill her). She’s not even sure Superman is her cousin, partly because he was a baby the last time she saw him and now he’s older than her. See? Even Supergirl thinks comics are weird.


Source: Supergirl, Vol. 6 #2 by Mike Johnson (w), Mahmud Asrar (p & i), Dave McCaig (c) and Rob Leigh (l).

Then on the next page of issue #14, Supergirl speaks Kryptonian with Siobhan Smythe, aka Silver Banshee. Because of Smythe’s “special talent with sounds” (she’s literally a super-banshee), her accent is more Kryptonian-like (more like Supergirl’s?) than Superman’s. No word on how Smythe picked up the vocabulary so quickly.


Source: Supergirl, Vol. 6 #2 by Mike Johnson (w), Mahmud Asrar (p & i), Dave McCaig (c) and Rob Leigh (l).

That’s all for now. If I come across some more characterization using native/non-native Kryptonian accents, I’ll make a separate post. Again, language plays a role in the current Supergirl series (Volume 7).

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On the Vocal Fries podcast, Professor Carmen Fought made a wonderful analogy about accents. Prof. Fought said:

Everybody who speaks a language speaks a dialect of that language. So you speak a dialect, I speak a dialect; a dialect is not a bad thing, it’s something you can’t help. It’s like the make and model of a car: like, you have a Honda, but then it has to have a model like a Civic or an Accord. You can’t just say, “Oh no, no, no, I just have a Honda. It doesn’t have a model.” It’s the same thing. You can’t say “I speak a language. I don’t speak a dialect.” No. Everyone speaks a dialect.

I really like this analogy and I’m going to use it in the classroom. You should go listen to the whole episode (and all the other episodes!) here: https://vocalfriespod.fireside.fm/9. The episode’s topic is the Chicano English dialect. The analogy comes about 14:30 minutes in.

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NPR’s Code Switch did an interview about language a few months ago and it stayed on my mind because of how bad it was. I gave it a re-listen and I’d like to point out just why it’s so bad. You can listen to the episode below. It’s episode 42 and it’s called “Not-So-Simple Questions From Code Switch Listeners”. The interview in question starts at the 14:47 mark. The hosts, Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, talk to Brent Blair about what it sounds like to be American. I couldn’t find a transcript of the interview, so I made my own, which you can find here. I’ll summarize Blair’s points below and briefly point out why they are wrong. The linguistics behind each of the topics that I discuss below is complex, but I will try to keep things simple in order to keep things short.

1. We understand this quote unquote “American dialect” or “Received American Pronunciation” based on culture and media: what sells.

No, we don’t. We (I mean linguists, people who study dialects) understand American dialects (plural) based on how the dialects sound. Non-linguists (and linguists when they’re not studying dialects) understand dialects through an array of socio-economic and linguistic factors.

“Received American Pronunciation” is not a thing. Blair is mixing up General American and Received Pronunciation, the accents with the highest prestige in the US and the UK, respectively. Many national newscasters in the US use General American on air (for example, Brian Williams). In the UK, Received Pronunciation is used by the Royal Family and members of parliament (with exceptions, of course). Mixing up the names of these two dialects is so incredibly basic that it’s hard to believe someone would make it. It’s like someone talking about the Boston Yankees baseball team. Or the band Led Sabbath. Or President Abraham E. Lee. The term General American is not without its problems.

2. What we understand as the American dialect comes from the West Coast, specifically Hollywood, and what Hollywood has considered the standard American dialect. This dialect is “vanilla” – its features do not include “twisty or harsh R sounds or twangy stuff or dropped AH” (quotes from Blair).

It’s probably not surprising that a theater professor would think that Hollywood is responsible for our thoughts on American dialects. Blair is almost correct on this – the dialect used in many popular movies is indeed General American. It doesn’t come from Hollywood, though. The dialect known as General American comes from the eastern part of the US, and it is often considered the dialect of the Midwestern region of the United States, not California. General American is believed to not have any regional or ethnic features, but obviously this is nonsense. It is a mish-mash of various dialects. It’s also (as far as I can tell) not really used in dialect studies anymore.

Map of the dialects of North America. From The Atlas of North American English by Labov, Ash and Boberg (2006; Map 11.15).

Map of the dialects of North America. From The Atlas of North American English by Labov, Ash and Boberg (2006; Map 11.15).

The terms “vanilla”, “twisty”, “harsh R”, “twangy”, and “dropped AH” are not used in dialect studies. These terms are problematic. For example, the dialect that Blair is calling standard, the one from Hollywood, uses an R sound. This is one of the ways that linguists describe dialects: whether they include a post-vocalic R or not. Linguists use the terms rhotic to describe dialects which pronounce the R when it comes after a vowel, and non-rhotic to describe dialects which do not pronounce post-vocalic Rs. The Boston dialect is classically non-rhotic, with Hahvahd Yahd (Harvard Yard) being a common term used by people imitating the dialect (Notice that the Boston dialect doesn’t drop all of its Rs, just the ones which come after a vowel and before a consonant. No one in Boston goes to watch the Pat_iots or B_uins play). So, do rhotic dialects have “harsh R sounds”? I don’t know because I don’t know what the hell that means. What does “twangy” mean? What dialect sounds “twangy”? Does Nelly sound “Twangy” (he’s from St. Louis)? Does Taylor Swift (she’s from eastern Pennsylvania)? Can I say that this whole interview sounds “twangy” or should I use the more technical term: shitty?

3. Regionalisms in dialects are disappearing rapidly. Today a person from Atlanta, Georgia, sounds like a person from California. You can’t tell the difference between people from Houston, Chicago and New York. On the contrary, dialects in rural areas are still diverse.

Blair couldn’t be more wrong about this. Literally the first page of William Labov’s Dialect Diversity in America says “People tend to believe that dialect differences in American English are disappearing, especially given our exposure to a fairly uniform broadcast standard in the mass media. One can find this point of view in almost any discussion of American dialects […] This overwhelming common opinion is simply and jarringly wrong.” THE FIRST GODDAMN PAGE. Of a book that is sure to turn up in any Amazon or Google search on dialects in America. There is no way that Blair’s name showed up in a Google search of dialects in America.

Even though the Code Switch hosts didn’t need to read past the second page of Labov’s book to get better info than Blair gave them, if they had made it to page 35, they would have read “The dialects of Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles are now more different from each other than they were 50 or 100 years ago […] On the other hand, dialects of many smaller cities have receded in favor of the new regional patterns.” Again, exactly the opposite of what Blair told them. Labov also does something which Blair does not: he backs up his claims with (decades of) research. I guess they do linguistics differently in the field of theater studies.

As if that wasn’t enough, here’s a story from NPR about dialects NOT disappearing!

4. Globalization, commercialism, and our careers have made us say “We all want to sound the same”.


5. This “vanilla” Californian dialect, or this blending of dialects, and/or the disappearance of regionalisms is not due to class or race, but access and power. (It’s hard to tell what they are talking about here. They use the term “placeless”.)

Things kind of break down around point 5. Blair has dug himself into a hole and he can’t get out. He talks about how people of color are only allowed to use the Vanilla-fornian dialect based on the culture that is employing them and their relationship to systems of power, but it is unclear what he means and he is unable to explain. He only offers an immediate anecdote – the interviewer Meraji is able to say “Latino” with a Puerto Rican accent on NPR, so maybe she would allow herself to use more Spanish on air in the future. But Spanish isn’t a dialect. Meraji would allow herself to speak Spanish on NPR if she knew her audience would understand her. Blair wraps it all up with something truly bizarre when he says, “So for me, when we’re accent stereotyping, it just means we haven’t fallen in love enough with that community to understand its diversity and its complexity”. I don’t know what the hell this guy is talking about.

Pointing fingers

So who’s at fault here? I think partial blame falls on both sides.

First, Blair should be blamed for not saying no to the interview. If NPR called me up and asked me to talk about theater studies, I would say no. Because I’m not a theater scholar or professional. If someone called you up and said “Hey, we want to talk about theoretical mathematics on the radio,” would you say “Sure! I took math in high school. Let’s do this.”? No, of course you wouldn’t. But they called Blair up and he said, “Ummmm, I speak a language. Get me on the phone!” And then he proved that he knows about as much about language and dialects as I do about theater studies. It’s not that Blair can’t know anything about dialects in America, it’s that he showed he doesn’t know anything about dialects in America. If he had gotten everything right, I wouldn’t be writing this blog post.

Some of the blame also goes to the people at Code Switch though. If they wanted to talk about language and dialects, why didn’t they call a linguist? Why did they think calling a theater professor, who as far as I can tell has not written anything on language, would be ok? In an earlier part of this episode, the hosts have a discussion about the magical negro and they talk to Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, a professor and researcher who has published on representations of people of color in various media. Thomas is at the University of Pennsylvania, the same university as Labov, who I quoted above. She literally could have transferred them over to his office. Or they could have talked to Walt Wolfram or Natalie Schilling or John Baugh. Any of these people would have been far better than Blair.

Ok, I’ve been pretty hard on everyone in this interview. You may be thinking, jeez, this guy just doesn’t like it when people talk about language. That’s not the case. I don’t like it when prominent news organizations talk about language and get it so wrong (I see you, The New Yorker). If you want to hear a really great interview on language and linguistics, go listen to this Top of Mind interview (download it here). The host, Julie Rose, and the guests talk about filler words (um, uh, you know, etc.), which is – like dialects – a linguistic topic with a divide between what the public thinks and what linguists have discovered. To discuss this topic, the host invited two linguists who have researched filler words, Alexandra D’Arcy and Jena Barchas-Lichtenstein. I hope other interviewers listen to this and learn how to discuss language on air.

If you are interested in learning more about dialects in America and/or dialect discrimination, follow the links behind the researchers’ names in the previous two paragraphs. Most of them have written books and articles aimed at the general public. Walt Wolfram even has a movie about African American speech coming out and it sounds amazing. I’m not saying that all of the things you will read are going to be positive – discrimination based on language happens and it is terrible. But the research put out by these and other linguists is fascinating and it can actually do what the NPR Code Switch interview attempted to do: make you more informed about language.

Hat tip to Nicole Holliday on Twitter for pointing me to this Code Switch episode. Holliday would also have been good for this interview.

Update 14 June 2017:

Almost immediately after posting this article and sharing it on Twitter, Gene Demby reached out. Gene is one of the hosts of NPR’s Code Switch. According to him, this episode “was the source of much consternation”. Gene wanted to talk to a linguist but was overruled by an editor. He has also said the Code Switch will do better in the future and that they have an episode about African American Vernacular English (AAVE) coming up. I’d like to thank Gene for clearing things up and I look forward to that episode.

Also related to this post, Kevin Calcamp reached out to say that Blair’s views are not representative of the study of linguistics in theater and performance studies. Kevin says that theater/performance scholars have a good understanding of linguistics. I believe him. He also pointed out the complicated nature and the various ways of incorporating dialects into theater/performance studies (follow the tweet below to see more). Thanks, Kevin, for explaining things.

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Mary Norris’s book Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2015, Norton) is part autobiography, part style guide. Norris has been an editor at The New Yorker magazine for many years and her voice can be heard through the text, which makes parts of this book an enjoyment to read, especially when she tells stories about her life. She says in the intro that her book is “for all of you who want to feel better about your grammar” (p. 14), which is an unfortunate dedication since the book goes off the rails when Norris discusses grammar and linguistics. In these sections, Norris doesn’t just make herself look bad, but she also ropes in the rest of the editorial staff at The New Yorker.

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris (2015, Norton)

Early on, Norris discusses the importance of dictionaries to editing. She also, however, walks right into a mine field when she discusses her and The New Yorker’s preference for a dictionary published in the 1930s over nearly all others:

If we cannot find something in the Little Red Web [Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 2003], our next resort is Webster’s New International Dictionary (Unabridged), Second Edition, which we call Web II. First published in 1934, it was the Great American Dictionary and is still an object of desire: 3,194 pages long, with leisurely definitions and detailed illustrations. It was supplanted in 1961 by Webster’s Third, whose editors, led by Philip Gove, caused a huge ruckus in the dictionary world by including commonly used words without warning people about which ones would betray their vulgar origins. (p. 18)

Norris is selling Gove and the other editors of Merriam-Webster’s short here. Gove actually wrote that “We must see to it that a mid-twentieth-century dictionary gives evidence of having been written by editors who lived in the twentieth century” (quote from The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner, p. 205) and what Gove did (besides dropping sick burns) was help systematize the way that dictionaries qualified words for their “vulgar” natures. Gove also saw to it that the quotes used to illustrate the meanings of words were neither archaic nor unnatural, i.e. contemporary quotes rather than contrived sentences written by the dictionary makers. But Gove’s actions caused a lot of uptight social commentators to get their knickers in a bunch, as Norris briefly explains:

On the publication of this dictionary, which we call Web 3, a seismic shift occurred between prescriptivists (who tell you what to do) and descriptivists (who describe what people say, without judging it). In March of 1962, The New Yorker, a bastion of prescriptivism, published an essay by Dwight MacDonald [who was not a linguist, nor a language scholar – JM] that attacked the dictionary and its linguistic principles: ‘The objection is not to recording the facts of actual usage. It is to failing to give the information that would enable the reader to decide which usage he wants to adopt.’ (p. 18)

It is no more surprising that Norris sticks by MacDonald’s essay than it is that MacDonald went to The New Yorker to voice his complaint. But romanticizing the fact that Norris and her fellow editors use a dictionary from the 1930s (Webster’s Second) over more modern ones doesn’t look prescriptivist, it looks downright foolish. Norris drives the point home:

Since the great dictionary war of the early sixties, there has been an institutional distrust of Web 3. It’s good for some scientific terms, we say, patronizingly. Its look is a lot cleaner than that of Web II. Lexicology aside, it is just not as beautiful. I would not haul a Web 3 home. You can even tell by the way it is abbreviated in our offices that it is less distinguished: Webster’s Second gets the Roman numeral, as if it were royalty, but Webster’s Third must make do with a plain old Arabic numeral. (p. 19)

This is nonsense. The editors at The New Yorker are prioritizing a dictionary from 1934 because it “enables the reader to decide which usage he wants to adopt”. Think about that for a second. Who in their right mind wants their writing to sound like it was published in 1934? The New Yorker is not a “bastion of prescriptivism”, it is an ancient ruin of unfounded notions about language.

MacDonald can maybe be excused for the incorrect ideas in his article. They were, after all, popular at the time. But Norris doesn’t get off so easy. She wrote her book in the 2010s, well after the ideas in MacDonald and W2 were shown to be incorrect. Think about what she is doing here. She using a 50-year-old article with incorrect ideas about language to defend her use of an 80-year-old dictionary. If your doctor recommended that you start smoking Camels because a commercial in the 1950s said they activate your T-zone, you would find another doctor.

Later in the book, Norris visits the offices of Merriam-Webster and says “These people are having far too much fun to be lexicographers” (p. 29). This is perhaps true, and she might even believe it, but I doubt she likes any of the advice that the MW editors give online or in their videos.

Bad Grammar

Every chapter in Norris’s book starts with a personal story and moves into a topic of English grammar or style. In Chapter 2, titled “That witch!”, Norris discusses relative clauses. She gives some OK advice about how to distinguish whether the clause is restrictive or non-restrictive, but then makes some major mistakes on what to do after that:

If the phrase or clause introduced by a relative pronoun – “that” or “which” – is essential to the meaning of the sentence, “that” is preferred, and it is not separated from its antecedent by a comma. (p. 40)

I suppose Norris means that that is preferred in The New Yorker, but it sounds like she means that is preferred across the English language, which simply isn’t true. Anyone who has spent any time hanging out with the English language would know this. Perhaps she means that that is preferred by people (such as editors at The New Yorker?) who wish they could dictate which relative pronoun should be used in all cases across the English language. Norris then gives us a half-baked explanation of what’s going with that and which in relative clauses:

If people are nervous, they sometimes use “which” when “that” would do. Politicians often say “which” instead of “that”, to sound important. A writer may say “which” instead of “that” – it’s no big deal. It would be much worse to say “that” instead of “which.” Apparently the British use “which” more and do not see anything wrong with it. Americans have agreed to use “that” when the clause is restrictive and to use “which,” set off with commas, when the clause is nonrestrictive. It works pretty well. (p. 41)

What? No. There is so much wrong with this paragraph. First, what the hell does Norris mean by the first two sentences? Is she a professional on spoken English now? The third sentence gives it away – writers don’t “say” things, they write things. But Norris doesn’t realize that she has blurred the line between spoken and written language so much that she’s erased it. This paragraph means that an admittedly prescriptivist editor of written language – who prefers a dictionary from 1934 – can’t tell the obvious difference between spoken and written English and that we are supposed to take for granted her claims about ALL spoken English, based on… something. Another thing that is wrong with this paragraph is that it is demonstrably wrong that Americans have “agreed to use ‘that’” with restrictive relative clauses. This was dictated by copy editors in the beginning of the 20th century! This hope/wish/desire to separate which and that comes from Fowler (1926), who wrote “The two kinds of relative clauses, to one of which that and the other to which which is appropriate, are the defining [restrictive] and the non-defining [non-restrictive]; and if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun, and which as the non-defining, there would be much gain both in lucidity and in ease. Some there are who follow this principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is practice either of most or of the best writers.” (Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th ed., 2015, edited by J. Butterfield, p. 809) Even Fowler gave up on this that/which nonsense. You would think Norris would recognize this because of her preference for early 20th century English reference works. No one cares about this that/which distinction anymore, if they ever did. It wasn’t just the British who saw nothing wrong with using which in nonrestrictive relative clauses. Americans have also never cared about this when they were speaking naturally*.

Norris also has a chapter on pronouns, in which she wastes four pages (pp. 60-63) blabbering about pronouns before we get to the point of the chapter, i.e. the (supposed) problem of English’s (supposed) lack of a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. The chapter ends with a heartfelt and well written personal story about Norris having to switch the pronouns she used for a family member who transitioned. Norris quite deftly shows how personal our pronouns can be and this part of the chapter is definitely worth reading. What comes before it, however, are a bunch of pronoun howlers.

One of the stranger ones is when Norris claims that “There is only one documented instance of a gender-neutral pronoun springing from actual speech, and that is “yo,” which ‘spontaneously appeared in Baltimore city schools in the early-to-mid 2000s.’ (p. 66) What? Does Norris actually believe this? The research cited on yo is from Stotko and Troyer, but they do not claim that yo is the only documented instance of a gender-neutral pronoun springing from actual speech (Stotko, Elaine M. and Margaret Troyer. 2007. “A New gender-neutral pronoun in Baltimore, Maryland: A preliminary study”. American Speech 82(3): 262–279. https://dx.doi.org/10.1215/00031283-2007-012).

Then Norris drops the bomb:

I hate to say it, but the colloquial use of “their” when you mean “his or her” is just wrong. (p. 69)

Ugh, where to start? Literally right before this sentence, Norris said that having singular you and plural you is fine. But then she says that singular they is not because… reasons? Norris actually tries to claim that the epicene he would be invisible if we didn’t “make such a fuss” about it. Guess what? It isn’t and we do. Does Norris really think that the epicene he is only visible because people complain about it? She has it backwards. The epicene he is complained about because it is so damn visible. And are we really to believe that he would be invisible to Norris? She devoted an entire chapter in her book to pronouns. Also, singular they isn’t colloquial (although I’m willing to bet that the editors of The New Yorker have a different definition of the term “colloquial” – one from the 1930s perhaps). It has been used across all types of texts and registers and first appeared 800 years ago. (Wait, is it possible that singular they SPINGS FROM ACTUAL SPEECH?! Omg you guys!!1!) Basically, if you have a problem with singular they, maybe it’s time to get over it. Or, if you’re going to complain about singular they, maybe you shouldn’t use it in your writing. That’s right, Norris uses singular they in this book:

A notice from the editor, William Shawn, went up on the bulletin board, saying that anyone whose work was not “essential” could go home. Nobody wanted to think they were not essential. (p. 11)


The discussion of pronoun usage gets more convoluted after this. On the very next page (p. 70), after telling us that a writer was wrong for not using the epicene he, Norris says that a The New Yorker staff writer was correct in using singular they. So what the hell is going on here? I don’t know and I’m starting to not care.

Chapter 4 – “Between you and me”

This might be the most confusing chapter in terms of grammar. Norris writes:

The most important verb is the verb “to be” in all its glory: am, are, is, were, will be, has been. (p. 84)

So will be and has been are part of the verb BE? Uhh… how? And why isn’t being in that list, or (by Norris’ logic) have been? No one knows.

The rest of this chapter goes from bad to worse. Immediately after this quote, Norris discusses nouns, rather than nouns phrases, even though she uses noun phrases rather than single-word nouns (such as copy editor and my plumber). In a later admission that there are several copulative verbs, Norris says that “It is because these verbs are copulative and not merely transitive that we say something ‘tastes good’ (an adjective), not ‘well’ (an adverb): the verb is throwing the meaning back onto the noun”. What does this mean? Norris is also incorrect when she says that “nouns are modified by adjectives, not adverbs”. Noun phrases are modified by other noun phrases (a no-frills airline, sign language) as well as adverb phrases (the then President, a through road). Those examples from Downing & Locke (2006: 436), but from The New Yorker we have “Danny Hartzell backed a Budget rental truck up to a no-frills apartment building…” from a piece called “Empty Wallets” by George Packer in the July 25, 2011 issue, perhaps edited by Norris. But this isn’t even a matter of modification. In Norris’s example (“Something tastes good”), the adjective phrase good does not modify the noun phrase something, but rather functions as a complement in the sentence. Essentially, the subject (which may be a noun phrase or may be something else) requires a complement when a copulative verb is used. And there is no reason that adverb phrases cannot act as complements after copulative verbs (They’re off!, I am through with you, That is quite all right).

In the following paragraph, Norris writes “One might reasonably ask, if we can use the objective for the subjective, as in ‘It’s me again,’ why can’t we use the subjective for the objective?” But again this is confusing and it’s hard to tell whether Norris believes that me is the subject in her example sentence (hint: it’s not, it’s what some grammars call an extraposed subject, but I can see how Norris would be confused – The New Yorker has proven its ineptitude when it comes to describing sentences of this type. See Downing & Locke 2006: 47–48, 261).

In discussing grammar, Norris also tells stories about working at The New Yorker. It’s hard to describe how shocking some of these are, so I’ll let Norris tell it:

Lu Burke once ridiculed a new copy editor who had come from another publication for taking the hyphen out of “pan-fry.” “But it’s in [Webster’s dictionary],” the novice chirped. “What are you even looking in the dictionary for?” Lu said, and I wish there were a way of styling that sentence so that you could see it getting louder and more incredulous toward the end. She spoke it in a crescendo, like Ralph Kramden, on The Honeymooners, saying, “Because I’ve got a BIG MOUTH!” Without the hyphen, “panfry” looks like “pantry.” “Panfree!” Lu guffawed, and said it again. “Panfree!” The copy editor was just following the rules, but Lu said she had no “word sense.” Lu was especially scornful of unnecessary hyphens in adverbs like “feet first” and “head on.” Of course, “head on” is hyphenated as an adjective in front of a noun – “The editors met in a head-on collision” – but in context there is no way of misreading “The editors clashed head on in the hall.” The novice argued that “head on” was ambiguous without the hyphen. Lu was incredulous. “Head on what?” she howled, over and over, as if it were an uproarious punch line. Eventually, that copy editor went back to where she had come from. “It’s as if I tried to become a nun and failed,” she confided. It did sometimes feel as if we belonged to some strange cloistered order, the Sisters of the Holy Humility of Hyphens. (p. 116)

Some strange cloistered order? Jesus Christ, working at The New Yorker sounds fucking miserable. “Pan-fry” needs a hyphen because, what, the readers of The New Yorker are so fucking dumb that they would think it means “panfree”? Probably not, but what a great excuse for one of the editors to be a total dick to an employee, huh? Hahaha, good times!

Here is the sentence in question, from a 1977 issue of The New Yorker:

“It’s heartening to see that a restaurant in a national park is going to take the time to pan-fry some chicken,” I told Tom.

Whoa! Good thing that hyphen was there or I would’ve thought this guy was taking time to panfree some chicken and WHAT THE FUCK WHY WOULD I THINK THAT.

Incredibly, the hits keep on coming in the next paragraph:

The writer-editor Veronica Geng once physically restrained me from looking in the dictionary for the word “hairpiece,” because she was afraid that the dictionary would make it two words and that I would follow it blindly. As soon as she left the office, I did look it up, and it was two words, but I respected her word sense and left it alone. (p. 117)

Ok, now respect the word sense of writers who use(d) singular they.

And if you’re wondering why The New Yorker still writes “teen-ager”:

Not everyone at The New Yorker is devoted to the diaeresis [the two little dots that The New Yorker – and only The New Yorker – places over the word cooperate]. Some have wondered why it’s still hanging around. Style does change sometimes. […]

Lu Burke used to pester the style editor Hobie Weekes, who had been at the magazine since 1928, to get rid of the diaeresis. Like Mr. Hyphen, Lu was a modern independent-minded reader, and she didn’t need to have her vowels micromanaged. Once, in the elevator, Weekes seemed to be weakening. He told her he was on the verge of changing that style and would be sending out a memo soon. And then he died.

This was in 1978. No one has had the nerve to raise the subject since. (pp. 123–124)

Kee-rist, I’m surprised they don’t write “base-ball” and “to-morrow” and “bull-shit”.

A chapter about pencil sharpening. Seriously.

Chapter 10 (“Ballad of a Pencil Junkie”) is some sort of dime store pencil porn as Norris describes pencils in such detail that only an actual pencil would find it interesting. I kept thinking that I would rather have pencils in my eyes, but then I came across the best line in the entire book:

David Rees specializes in the artisanal sharpening of No. 2 pencils: for a fee (at first, it was fifteen dollars, but like everything else, the price of sharpening pencils has gone up), he will hand-sharpen your pencil and return it to you (along with the shavings), its point sheathed in vinyl tubing. (p. 182)



The New Yorker hardly needs help in showing people that it has a very tenuous grasp of English grammar [links to LangLog and Arnold Zwicky]. They demonstrate that in their pages whenever the topic of grammar comes up). Apparently, decades of publishing some of the greatest writers has not helped anyone at the magazine to learn how English grammar works. Unfortunately, Norris’s book does nothing to help The New Yorker’s reputation when it comes to grammar. On top of that, some of the stories she tells about working at The New Yorker are pretty horrifying. If you are able to separate or skip over the discussions of grammar, this book may be enjoyable for you. It’s an easy read, but I couldn’t force myself to like it.



* Not to mention Norris doesn’t even follow her own advice –

p. 15: “It is one of those words which defy the old “i before e except after c” rule”

p. 54: “The piece also had numbers in it – that is, numerals – which I instinctively didn’t touch”

And she quotes A. A. Milne doing it: “If the English language had been properly organized … there would be a word which meant both ‘he’ and ‘she’” (p. 64)

And Henry James: “Poor Catherine was conscious of her freshness; it gave her a feeling about the future which rather added to the weight upon her mind.” (p. 143)

And Mark Twain: “It was what I thought when I stood before ‘The Last Supper’ and heard men apostrophizing wonders and beauties and perfections which had faded out of the picture and gone a hundred years before they were born.” (pp. 147-48)

You could argue that these are all old/dead writers and that no one should write like that anymore, but again, The New Yorker magazine, as well as the author of Between You & Me, prefers to use a dictionary from 193fucking4.

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The following is a sentence on an exam I gave my student this semester. It’s a lyric from the totally awesome band The Go-Go’s (who are too punk rock to care about using your lame apostrophes correctly). Read it and decide which part of speech you think sealed is: verb or adjective?

In the jealous games people play, our lips are sealed.

I first thought that sealed is clearly an adjective and that it functions as the subject complement of the sentence (a subject complement is an element required by copular verbs, such as be and seem, which does not encode a different kind of participant to the subject in the phrase in the way that an object does). But many of my students analyzed it as a verb. This calls for some weekend grammar research (while listening to the Go-Go’s of course)!

On the exam, students had to mark the function (subject, predicate, object, etc.) of each clause in the sentence. In the grammar that we’re using (English Grammar: A University Course, 2nd ed., 2006, by Downing and Locke), only verb phrases can be included in the predicate. This means that if sealed is a verb, the phrase consists of only a subject (Our lips) and a predicate (are sealed).

Two dictionaries list sealed as an adjective: the OED and Macmillan Dictionary. The OED’s citation which mirrors this construction is a bit out of date though. It comes from the 1611 printing of the King James Bible: And the vision of all is become vnto you, as the wordes of a booke that is sealed. Macmillan Dictionary only offers “a sealed box/bag/envelope” as an example. Four other dictionaries (Merriam-Webster’s, Dictionary.com, Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, and Oxford Dictionaries) do not list sealed as an adjective, only as a transitive verb (i.e. it needs an object). Strangely, Oxford Learner’s Dictionary has this example sentence under the second entry for seal as a verb:

The organs are kept in sealed plastic bags.

In this case, sealed is definitely an adjective modifying a noun (plastic bags). This must be an oversight by the editors. More importantly, though, is the fact that sealed in Our lips are sealed does not have an object. What gives?

Well, sealed is more of a participial adjective than anything else (some grammars use the terms verbal adjective or attributive verb). It’s an adjective that has been derived from a verb. Participial adjectives look like verbs but they function grammatically like adjectives. I know. Welcome to the Twilight Zone. These are the cases which really show that there are not sharp limits between the parts of speech, but rather very hazy boundaries. Sometimes it is easy to tell whether the word in question is a verb or an adjective. For example:

This is the sealed envelope that you mailed. = adjective

I sealed the envelope with a kiss. = verb

Other times – such as the one under discussion here – things are not so clear cut. Downing & Locke (p. 479) say that “past participles may often have either an adjectival or a verbal interpretation. In The flat was furnished, the participle [furnished] may be understood either as part of a passive verb form or as the adjectival subject complement of the copula was.” This means that sealed could be a passive verb that is simply missing its object. The object is presumably missing because we know that the person who owns the lips is the one who seals them, so it would sound ridiculous to say Our lips are sealed by us (although maybe not as ridiculous as the similar phrase My lips are sealed by me).

I want to argue that sealed is definitely an adjective, but like so much else in linguistics, it is hard to be definite about this. The verb analysis works just as well and sealed might be semantically closer to a verb in that we can think about the sealing of lips as resulting from an action taken. If we compare it to Our lips are chapped there isn’t as clear of an action present, except maybe the action of the weather. But I don’t like talking about verbs as action words.

For what’s it worth, 19 out of 25 people in my Twitter poll said that sealed is an adjective.

On the exam, I accepted both adjective/subject complement and verb/predicator. This made my students happy. Talking about sealed for 20 minutes in class did not make them so happy.

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