Alice Cooper’s has the cot-caught merger

Or so it would seem…

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The Alice Cooper song “Poison” features lyrics rhyming the words hot and caught:

Your mouth, so hot

Your web, I’m caught

Rhyming these words is an example of the cotcaught merger. In linguistics, a merger is when the vowel sounds of two words move together to become the same sound. If you say the words cot and caught the same way, or if hot rhymes with caught, then you have the cotcaught merger. The cotcaught merger is sometimes described as if it’s a yes-or-no phenomenon, but in reality – like in all things in linguistics – it’s more of a continuum.

Alice Cooper doesn’t really pronounce the vowels in hot and caught the exact same way. That could be because Alice Cooper is from Detroit, Michigan, a place which doesn’t have the cotcaught merger. Or maybe the other two writers of “Poison” were taking poetic license with the rhyming of these words. The other writers are Desmond Child, who’s from Gainesville, FL (a place resistant to the cotcaught merger) and John McCurry – but I don’t where he’s from. Either way, the merger is more of a yes-no-maybe-so kind of thing. That means there are speakers with the merger who live in areas where most speakers do not have the merger and vice versa. And there are speakers who have the merger only in certain words or environments, such as before nasal consonants so that the vowels in Don and dawn are merged.

Here’s Alice Cooper singing “Poison” live in 1989 (video starts at the hot/caught lyrics, but rewind it to listen to a flaming guitar solo straight outta the 80s):

You can read more about the cot-caught merger in the Atlas of North American English by Labov, Ash and Boberg (some online info here). Wikipedia also has an article on it.

Dialect Surveys of American English and World Englishes

In my review of Joshua Katz’s book Speaking American, I mentioned that a new dialect survey was up. Much of the data in Katz’s book was drawn from an online dialect survey done by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder. Here’s Ben Zimmer giving credit where credit’s due.

Vaux is now conducting the Cambridge Online Survey of World Englishes with Marius L. Jøhndal. If you’re interested in world Englishes, head on over to that site, where you can also see the results without taking the survey.

Vaux also has a new survey of American English dialects available at https://www.dialectsofenglish.com/. The survey takes about 10 minutes, depending on how many questions you choose to answer and how long you spend looking at the heat maps it shows you. There are some very fun questions in there.

Wonder Woman speaks a creole

The Amazon princess’s first language (probably) evolved from a mixture of Hellenistic, Afro-Asiatic and Slavic languages.

So, what language does Wonder Woman speak as an L1? What’s the language she spoke growing up on Paradise Island, aka Themyscira? That’s a good question and The World’s Greatest Detective™ is on the case: Continue reading “Wonder Woman speaks a creole”

K is a word now

In my linguistics classes, I ask students to define what a word is. They usually come up with some traditional definitions (more or less what you’re thinking right now). And that’s fine. This is not an easy question. Our department has a course devoted to the topic. But I’m going to start asking them if K is a word.

Consider the following exchange. It could appear on the internet or in texting.

Person 1: Maroon 5 is a great band.

Person 2: K.

Person 2’s response does not mean “OK”. On the contrary, I think K means roughly “I disagree with you but I’m not going to try to argue with you. I’m just going to drop it. My brusqueness, however, points out that your opinion is bad and I have won this battle by barely competing.” I’m not sure if the period is necessary (in written communication) or if it can be spelled in lowercase. But I’m sure these options carry meaning for some people:

Another choice is writing it with a question mark, which I think means “Do you understand? This is not up for discussion”.

K?

Naturally, the linguists over at the Urban Dictionary have this one covered. Proceed with caution to that page though.

And Twitter knows how to use it:

Book review: Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk – A Visual Guide by Josh Katz

A book review of Speaking American by Josh Katz.

Speaking American: How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk – A Visual Guide by Josh Katz is a very easy read since it is mainly colorful maps of dialect (sometimes lexical) boundaries in the US – here’s the line between people who say X and people who say Y (and occasionally there’s an island of people who say Z). The research behind the maps comes from a dialect survey that was featured in the New York Times in December 2013. It’s rather scant on details about language because that’s not really the purpose of this book. It shows, not tell.

Speaking American by Katz book cover
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2016

To anyone familiar with linguistics, the maps will look familiar, although they are much nicer looking than the average dialect map in a linguistics textbook. Speaking American is a great coffee table book and I mean that in a positive way – it’s perfect for starting conversations between people. E’rybody loves talkin’ ‘bout language. The material is presented with such great imagery and it is so simple that it makes a great springboard into talking about talking. It happened at my house too. Both of my kids were very interested in how people said different things.

I did have a few misgivings with the book, however. I would have appreciated having the words of a few of the maps written in the International Phonetic Alphabet. For example, the maps showing the various ways that people say pecan were a bit tricky to figure out (PIH-KAHN, PEE-KAHN, PEE-KAN, PEE-KAHN, and PEE-KAN, pp. 80-81). But I suppose that the dialect survey in the NY Times wasn’t done using the IPA (and I know that the general public isn’t familiar with the IPA).

The section on California was a bit unclear to me. Katz writes that “for much of the twentieth century, California speech sounded like a mish-mash of dialects from everywhere else. California was a giant blender of the rest of the country’s speech: the general American dialect.” (p. 91) I don’t think Katz means that the rest of the country speaks in the General American dialect because that would be incorrect. But it would also be wrong to say that Californians speak in the General American dialect, so this part left me scratching my head a little.

Later in the section on Katz says that “in the mid-twentieth century, though, national radio began to replace local radio for the first time. The voices in America’s living rooms were […] Californians.” (p. 91) I’m not disputing the rise of (southern) California in the media industry, but I would’ve like to have a source for this. I assumed that national radio stations were still broadcasting shows out of New York in the mid-twentieth century. Finally, Katz seems to suggest that surfer culture and valley girl speech spread the word cool out of California to other parts of the US. But that doesn’t seem right at all.

An eye-opening part of the book is where the data seems to shows that 75% of Americans have the cotcaught merger. The cotcaught merger basically describes speakers who pronounce these words identically. Since it’s two vowel sounds that are merged into one, it means that other pairs of words are pronounced the same, such as stockstalk and podpawed.

cot-caught in Speaking American page 102
Explanation of the cot-caught data in Speaking American, p. 102.

But seeing that 75% of people have the cotcaught merger is bananas! I don’t know if I can buy this. Other linguistic research on the cot-caught merger, such as the Atlas of North American English (Labov, Ash & Boberg, 2006), would probably disagree since they show that large regions in the US resist the merger (and there are degrees to the merger, rather than just a yes-no classification).

cot-caught merger in the Atlas of North American English page 60
The dialect boundaries for the cot-caught merger from the Atlas of North American English, p. 60. The green dots represent speakers who completely have the merger.

But the data presented in Speaking American shows how many people have the merger based on their age. I think we can agree that the merger has spread, and obviously that language changes over time, but I’d like to see where the younger speakers in the data grew up. It seems like there might be an over representation of speakers from places where the merger has happened. If not though, this is some huge news.

One of the best parts about reading this book is how fun some of the sections can be. For example, if you know anyone from Philly or South Jersey, you might get a kick out of this section, which shows how some speakers pronounce the word crayons:

krown crayons in Speaking American page 107
Crayons pronounced like crowns (p. 107)

You are also bound to be surprised by certain sections. For me it was just how many people say “groh-shery store” (blue regions in the map below). I don’t think I’ve ever heard that, but look at all these people. They’re everywhere!

grocery store in Speaking American page 162

grocery store in Speaking American page 163
It’s GROH-SERY, not groh-shery. What the hell is wrong with you people?!

Finally, despite my misgivings about some aspects of the book, there is a refreshing linguistic commentary at the end, especially in the last paragraph which says

Dialect variation in American English shows no sign of disappearing […] No matter how much media we consume […] our parents, our siblings, and our childhood friends have an impact that far outweighs any homogenizing effects of television, film, or the Internet. (p. 197)

It’s nice to see such sound linguistic observation in a book aimed directly at the general public.

Katz developed the questions in his survey based on the Harvard Dialect Survey (Vaux, Bert and Scott Golder 2003) and the Dictionary of American Regional English. The former one of these is back online. I’ll talk about it in an upcoming post.

10 Words You Should NOT Delete from Your Vocabulary

Don’t believe the hype. There’s nothing wrong with these words.

Based on a little Twitter rant of mine…

and the fact that I felt like I’ve seen this article online before, I decided to go looking for around for advice about which Words You Should Not Use Ever™. It turns out, the Time article I was ranting about was actually written by someone at Muse. My social media slaying of that article unfortunately didn’t keep Time from tweeting it out again less than a month later. I know, I was as shocked as you:

Some things never die.

That Muse article which appeared on Time has also appeared on the websites of Forbes, USA Today, Federalist Papers, Business Insider, and Mashable. Talk about mileage. I was able to find 12 other articles slinging the same snake oil. I don’t have the time or space to go over all of the words on each of the listicles. Let’s just go over the ones that appear on three or more lists instead. They are: actually, but, honestly, just, literally, maybe, never, really, should and very. You can see a spreadsheet of the entire word lists here (I am not including one list which turned up in my search because it’s actually honest advice on how to be a better person, rather than a language shaming trash piece like the other listicles). Here we go!

Actually

Appears on 3 lists: Inc.com, Diana Urban and Dictionary.com

Dictionary.com calls their banned words “crutch words”, invoking the idea that a sentence isn’t strong enough to stand on its own without them. But then removing them would mean… I don’t understand the metaphor. They say about crutch words that “crutch words slip into sentences in order to give the speaker more time to think or to emphasize a statement. Over time, they become unconscious verbal tics. Most often, crutch words do not add meaning to a statement.” What is curious about this is that they list a meaning for each of the crutch words that they list. Maybe these are just the meanings that they don’t like? Besides, emphasizing a statement is a perfectly fine and natural thing for some words to do. Not every word has to bring some definition of content along with it. If it did, we wouldn’t be able to use words like if and not.

For actually, Dictionary.com says “Actually is the perfect example of a crutch word. It is meant to signify something that exists in reality, but it is more often used as a way to add punch to a statement (as in, “I actually have no idea”).” Ok, so what’s wrong here? We’re not allowed to add punch to our statements? Why not? And wouldn’t that make our language blander? I don’t think the bloggers at Dictionary.com have thought this one through. (The lexicographers over there are off the hook, though. They know what’s up and they have nothing to do with this clickbait nonsense.)

Inc.com’s problem with actually is that it will put distance between sales people and their customers, especially in phrases like Actually, you can do this under “Settings.” The idea is that the actually implies the customer was wrong and that’s a no-no in bidness. So it should be replaced by something like sure thing. So their problem isn’t with the word actually, it’s with the sentence adverb actually. But Inc.com hasn’t picked up on the fact that actually might have more than one meaning and more than one use in a sentence, so they’ve banned it from all sentences everywhere. Somebody should put them in touch with Dictionary.com.

Diana Urban says only that actually doesn’t “add information” and that it should be removed if the sentence makes sense without it. Ok, let’s pretend that actually doesn’t add information to a sentence (even though it totally does). Why stop with removing actually? Articles (the and a) don’t add information to a sentence and many languages do not have articles. So should we remove them? No, because there are other things that words besides pass along pieces of lexical information. Words can allow speakers to relate their feelings about the information. Like, I actually want to punch my screen when I read these banned words lists.

But

3 lists: SelfGrowth.com, Inc.com, Forbes 10; Also appears on the Forbes 7 as “I’m no expert, but”
Inc.com says this about but:

As for “but,” look at the difference removing it makes, she* points out.

I really appreciate you writing in, but unfortunately we don’t have this feature available.

I really appreciate you writing in! Unfortunately, we don’t have this feature available.

It’s a subtle fix that makes your message more positive.

* The advice on actually and but in the Inc.com article actually comes from this post by Carolyn Kopprasch.

Hold the phone. You didn’t just remove the word but, you changed it to an apostrophe. Am I supposed to always do this? [Song lyrics, poems]

Over on Selfgrowth.com, it’s all about removing obstacles to achieve your dream:

When used as a conjunction, “but” negates whatever statement that precedes it. “I want to study law, but it will take a lot of hard work.” Your mind does not focus on your desire to become a lawyer or judge; it only sees the hard work you will need to perform. Replace “but” with “and.”

You know what? I’m going to get behind this one. Do that hard work and become a lawyer. You got this! (The Forbes 10 list says pretty much the same thing as this)

Now, back to the grind! The Forbes 7 list says this:

Women often preface their ideas with qualifiers such as, “I’m not sure what you think, but…”

Did you think we were going to get out of this without criticizing women? Ha! Such wishful thinking…

Honestly

4 lists: Muse 15, Forbes 6, Business Insider, Dictionary.com
Honestly? Honestly.

Dictionary.com says that this word “is used to assert authority or express incredulity, as in, ‘Honestly, I have no idea why he said that.’” However, it very rarely adds honesty to a statement.” What is the problem here? Why can’t we use a word to assert authority or express incredulity? Honestly, Dictionary.com, don’t you know how language works? You’re a goddamn dictionary, fer crissakes!

Muse, the list that started this whole ball rolling, says that “the minute you tell your audience this particular statement is honest, you’ve implied the rest of your words were not”. What? No. That’s not how things work. I used honestly in the last paragraph. Does that mean that all of the other words in this post are dishonest? What kind of black magic linguistics is this? Honestly is one powerful word if it can make the rest of the words sound dishonest. Maybe you shouldn’t use honestly until you’ve received a license and the proper training.

The Forbes 6 list and the Business Insider info-tainment video both parrot the Muse advice. Or maybe it’s the other way around. I don’t really care. Moving on!

Just

6 lists: Muse 15, Forbes 6, Inc.com, Diana Urban, Forbes 7, Dictionary.com
Six lists! This word is on six lists! Way to go, just!

The Forbes 6 list goes hard on just:

Just. This seemingly simple word is often used but rarely needed. It also packs a big punch to detract from your credibility and confidence and negates from the importance of your message. Instead of sending an email that begins with “Just wanted to check in…” say “I’m checking in on X, Y and Z.” The adjustment is small, but there is a big difference in the resulting impression you leave.

How often is “often”? Don’t ask because Forbes don’t know. They just know it’s too often. But apparently using this little tiny word can make you seem less credible (for… reasons?), less confident (because… Cobra Kai, show no weakness!), and less important. That’s a tall order for a four-letter adverb.

Dictionary.com also claims that just is too common and (oddly) that overusing just makes paying attention more “effortful” for listeners. I don’t know how they come to that conclusion. They say that just is used “to signify a simple action”, so to me it would seem useful. If I introduce what I’m saying with just, it means that what I’m saying is simple. If I don’t, then you should pay more attention. If you ask me, this use of just makes language better.

Inc.com gets its knickers in a bunch over just. They say:

No matter the context, this one smacks of negativity. Consider phrases you might hear and how someone might interpret them.

“Just a minute.” Your priorities are somewhere other than helping me.

“Just do XYZ.” You think I’m having a hard time figuring this out.

“I’m just an intern.” You think your power or influence is limited, in which case it certainly is.

Blogger, speaker, and consultant Matt Monge takes special issue with the latter example. “You’re not just your position. You’re an integral part of your organization,” he writes. “You’re an individual with goals, dreams, abilities, and ideas. You can be a motivated, empowered, positive, valuable member of the team if you just decide to put forth the effort and work it takes to be those things. (bolding mine)

Again we have Inc.com outsourcing their culpability here. I notice that Mr. Monge’s qualifications do not include linguist or editor. Interesting. Is that why he uses the word just while telling people not to use the word just?! Huh, IS IT? Sometimes I wish these people would reread the brain farts that they smear across their Word docs. What are the chances that I’m going to find Matt Monge using the word just in his blog, his speech and his consultations? I’ll tell you: about 100 million percent certain.

Diana Urban goes easy on just, which is good because she uses just after her section advising people not to use just. Confused yet?

The Forbes 7 list warns that saying “Sorry, I just wanted to check in” is code for “Sorry for taking up your time”. Yep, that’s exactly what it is. Nothing wrong with that. It’s called pragmatics. You should learn about it, Forbes, before prognosticating on it. The Forbes 7 list also says that removing all of the justs from your emails and texts will make your statements sound “much stronger and straightforward”. In other words, you will sound like an asshole who has no concept of subtlety. Congratulations, you are become David Brent.

Literally

3 lists: Muse 15, Diana Urban, Dictionary.com
The Muse 15 list gives us the old “literally means actually, it can’t mean figuratively” mumbo jumbo. They even come right out and say that people usually mean figuratively when they write literally, thereby contradicting their own argument because if someone uses a word and you know what that word means THEN IT’S NOT THE WRONG WORD.

From Dictionary.com (WHO SHOULD KNOW BETTER!):

This adverb should be used to describe an action that occurs in a strict sense. Often, however, it is used inversely to emphasize a hyperbolic or figurative statement: “I literally ran 300 miles today.” Literally is one of the most famously used crutch words in English

The phrase I literally ran 300 miles today looks weird to me. Would anyone actually say that, i.e. use the figurative literally with an exact numeral after it? I think the people at Dictionary.com just made that sentence up and it shows they don’t know how to use the figurative literally. I mean, why didn’t they just check THEIR OWN GODDAMN DICTIONARY (their files, as it were)?

There are only 20 hits for “PRONOUN literally ran” in the 450-million-word Corpus of Contemporary American English. None of them include the figurative use of literally; they are all literal literally. So, no, Dictionary.com doesn’t know what it’s talking about. (Side note: I wonder what the ratio of figurative literally to literal literally is in the BYU corpora. Would be fun to check out.)

Diana Urban says that literally doesn’t add information to a sentence, once again completely missing the point of the pragmatic uses of hyperbolic literally.

Maybe

3 lists: Muse 15, SelfGrowth.com, Business Insider
Muse 15 thinks that maybe makes you sound “uninformed” and “unsure”. Business Insider says the exact same thing. But isn’t that the whole goddamned point? They say that you should write an informed piece, but sometimes that just ain’t possible. Maybe our universe is a tiny speck inside another universe. Maybe there are 9 dimensions. Maybe the people who write these lists didn’t do their research.

Selfgrowth.com takes the personal development angle and says that maybe should be replaced with I will or I will not because these words are more positive and they will lead to you emitting feelings of confidence and resolve. That’s a definite maybe.

Never

5 lists: Muse 15, SelfGrowth.com, Inc.com, Forbes 10, Business Insider
All of the lists argue that never (and by extension always) are discouraging because they do not allow for possibilities. The Muse 15 list has this to say about never (and always):

Absolutes lock the writer into a position, sound conceited and close-minded, and often open the door to criticism regarding inaccuracies. Always is rarely true. Unless you’re giving written commands or instruction, find another word.

I’m sorry to tell you, but never using never is not going to save you from criticism regarding inaccuracies (hint, hint: your language thinkpieces are inaccurate and they suck). Just like how you are sometimes unsure of something (maybe), sometimes you’re totes sure of it. Don’t be afraid to use always and never. Remember: Goonies never say die.

Really

6 lists: Muse 15, The Balance, Forbes 10, Business Insider, Diana Urban, Dictionary.com
We have a winner, folks! Really tops the charts by appearing on six lists! Really well done, really. Hats off.

We also see the Balance’s list for the first time in this article. Don’t get your hopes up, though. Their advice sucks as much as the rest of the lists:

In a business sense, the word “really” is a very casual expression that attempts to place extra emphasis and importance on a particular outcome, without really quantifying what exactly that extra emphasis is.

That advice is making go cross eyed. Since when do we have to quantify emphasis? And what does that even mean – do you want, like, numbers? Should I use weights – three pounds of emphasis? Or length – a 39-and-a-half-foot emphasis.

Forbes 10 (quoting someone else) says that really is a “poor attempt to instill candor and truthfulness that makes clients and coworkers question whether you’re really telling the truth.” Get the hell out. Just go. This makes it sound like there’s some conspiracy of people judging others who say the word really. Or that your coworkers are incapable of questioning people who use the word really around them. It’s nonsense. I think the people who made these lists are the only ones judging your usage of really and it’s good to remember that they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Business Insider, Diana Urban and Dictionary.com all promote the idea that really is useless. Dictionary.com’s advice on really: It’s not that bad, but you still shouldn’t use it anyway. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Really and very are bittersweet adverbs in English; on the one hand, they provide a lexical boost to the description at hand—“That was a really entertaining show,” “The talk was very interesting.” Using these adverbs helps the listener understand that the show or talk provided more-than-average engagement for the speaker.

The problem is that, like fantastic and great, really and very are terms that chain speakers to unremarkable language. To eliminate the really/very crutch and enliven your speech, select one punchy or creative adjective instead: breathtaking, provocative, knee-smacking, charitable.

I don’t understand this advice. Surely not every show can be breathtaking or provocative or whatever punchy adjective. Some shows are just really interesting, right? So why can’t we describe them that way? Why do I have to do so much work coming up with some rare adjective? Will it make my language more remarkable or will it be more work for my listener/reader to follow along? There’s a reason that really and interesting are so common – they do what’s needed and no one is asking for more. We save the words like knee-smacking for things that are actually knee-smacking (just kidding, no one use knee-smacking unironically).

Should

3 lists: SelfGrowth.com, The Balance, Inc.com
I have to admit, I had no idea why this word would be on these lists. But check out the downward spiral that will happen to you if you use the word should:

“‘I should be [doing something more]’ leads to ‘Man, I lack discipline’ which leads to ‘What’s wrong with me?’ which leads to ‘Maybe I don’t have what it takes … why do I even bother … I should just quit now …’” says psychologist and master violinist Dr. Noa Kageyama. “And pretty soon we’re sitting on the couch watching reruns of The Office and eating a six-pack of Skinny Cow ice cream sandwiches.” (from Inc.com)

Yikes! That’s fucking scary (except for watching reruns of The Office, that show was great). Who knew should is the crystal meth of language? And what the heck is a Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich? Are they like really bad? Are they what… what losers eat? What losers who say the word should eat? *shudder*.

Very

3 lists: Muse 15, Diana Urban, Dictionary.com</span>
Oh my god. This is the part of the Muse 15 article that advised using woebegone instead of very. Here’s the pic, so you know it happened:

Muse 15 very description

So now we’re not allowed to qualify adjectives anymore? Ugh. Listen, I’m going to say this again for the people at the back: Sometimes you don’t need to be specific. Sometimes you’re not ecstatic, you’re just very happy. And the fact that these kinds of articles keep getting churned out doesn’t make me melancholy or depressed – it makes me very sad. Sure, be specific. But don’t be so specific that you sound like a robot.

-zzkkt- She’s 6’3” and it’s 13 degrees below freezing -zzkkt-

Oh yeah, if you were wondering whether Muse practices what they preach, they don’t. Scroll down that article a bit and you’ll be presented with a popup that says “Answer a few (very) short questions…” BUT HOW SHORT ARE THEY? Y U NO be MOAR specific?!

Muse 15 very

We covered Dictionary.com’s bungling of very in the section on really above. Diana Urban says something about it, but who cares?

We’re done here

If you hate these words or hate people for using these words, just stop it. If you use these words, just keep doing it. If you’re an editor and you see too many of these words in someone’s article, then do what you do and take a few out.

If you are a competent speaker, then you know how these words are used – where they belong, where they don’t, where you need them, what they mean, all that jazz. So don’t take the “advice” from these listicles. Hating on people for their use of language is an old game and its siren song is so strong that people will literally tell you to stop using some of the most common words in the English language. Because they don’t know what they’re talking about and they have nothing better to do.

Mistakes will be made…

When economists do linguistics

There’s an article coming out in the Journal of Comparative Economics called “Talking in the Present, Caring for the Future: Language and Environment” (Mavisakalyan et al. 2018). The authors claim:

  • We identify future tense marking in language as a determinant of environmental action.
  • Individuals speaking such languages are less likely to behave pro-environmentally.
  • Climate change policies are less stringent in places where language marks the future.

This has my Whorfian alarm bells going off like crazy. The language I speak determines how I feel and act towards the environment?! Say what? That is just too bonkers to be true.

Because it’s not true. But let’s check out why.

Note: This article is long, so I’m adding a Read More tag here. If you’d prefer reading this as a PDF, click here. Continue reading “Mistakes will be made…”