Call them what they want

There was an op-ed by Abigail Shrier in the Wall Street Journal (it’s paywalled, but no need to click, I’ve copied the relevant bits below) on August 29, 2018. It’s about what a terrible thing it is to make public employees use the preferred pronouns of the public individuals that they are serving. Basically, it’s about how people should be able to call others “he” or “she” even if the person that they are talking to prefers a different pronoun, such as “they”.

I only want to point out two problems with this person’s argument. First, the writer says:

Typically, in America, when groups disagree, we leave them to employ the vocabularies that reflect their values. My “affirmative action” is your “racial preferences.” One person’s “fetus” is another’s “baby boy.” This is as it should be; an entire worldview is packed into the word “fetus.” Another is contained in the reference to one person as “them” or “they.” For those with a religious conviction that sex is both biological and binary, God’s purposeful creation, denial of this involves sacrilege no less than bowing to idols in the town square. When the state compels such denial among religious people, it clobbers the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion, lending government power to a contemporary variant on forced conversion.

But that’s not how it works. If you work for the government and you want to use slurs to refer to people, too bad. You can’t do that. I’m sure Richard Spencer (the head racist du jour) or David Duke (your parents’ racist du jour) would argue that it is part of their “worldview” to call black and brown and gay people all the horrible things that they call them. But fuck that nonsense. We don’t let them use the words that they want. We shun them for it. And if they work for the government, we penalize them for it (yeah, I know, things are pretty bad right now, but if you’re arguing that the racists currently in the US government should be allowed to keep on being racist, then you’re wrong).

Second, the writer backs up a linguistic argument* by referencing Locke. Philip Locke, you ask? The linguist who wrote University Grammar: A University Course? Haha. No. John Locke, the [checks notes] philosopher from the [checks notes again] 17th century. I wonder if anything has changed in linguistics since then. Guess not!

Here’s what it boils down to: you don’t get to call anyone anything you want without any repercussions. Sorry! (not sorry) Can’t bring yourself to use a person’s preferred pronoun because of your bigoted worldview? Change your worldview. Or just call them by their name FFS. This isn’t that difficult and you don’t need to write an op-ed about it, Abigail.

Ok, one final point. The writer says:

In most contexts, I would have no problem addressing others in any manner they chose.

That sounds an awful lot like “I’m not a racist, but…”


*Sure, the argument is about culture and worldviews and society – but wrapped up in all of that is language. And the article is specifically about words.


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”

Patriotic grammar scolds puh-lease

A recent article (blog post?) by Mary Wilson in Slate discusses the language used by the Russian trolls who were indicted for subverting the 2016 US presidential election. But perhaps unsurprisingly in an online article about grammar, the writer gets grammar totally wrong. Let’s take a look at the grammar “mistakes” that the writer points out.

One political ad placed online by the Russians apparently read, “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is.” Just a Satan, not the? Is there a class of Satans of which Hillary was just one example? If so, why capitalize the S? [italics original]

1. “a Satan”. Fine, but Mary Wilson suggests using “the Satan”. Sorry, I meant to write the Mary Wilson suggests using “the Satan”. See how weird that sounds? That’s because proper nouns do not usually take any articles. In fact, adding the definite article is what would make this construction seem like there is a class of satans. Compare: That’s not the Satan I was referring to. Maybe that’s what Wilson was going for, but I doubt it.

In one email to a Trump campaign official, a disguised Russian agent reportedly wrote: “We gained a huge lot of followers and decided to somehow help Mr. Trump get elected.” Is a huge lot a Walmart-size amount? Costco? Not to mention the awkwardly deployed somehow.

2. I agree huge lot is not a common construction, but what is grammatically wrong with it? Not to mention “the awkwardly deployed somehow” has nothing to do with grammar.

As noted in the Washington Post last year, “A revealing characteristic of the Russian language, the absence of the definite and indefinite article, is evident in statements such as ‘out of cemetery’ and ‘burqa is a security risk.’” But, the article goes on to say, these mistakes are harder to take notice of given how sloppily written the average social media discourse is.

3. This whole paragraph. A revealing characteristic of the Russian language is the Russian language. The sentence should read “a revealing characteristic of English mistakes made by people whose L1 does not have articles is the misuse of articles in English. Russian is one such language, but there are thousands more.” This one is also on the Washington Post. The next sentence describes social media discourse as “sloppily written”. This is a bunch of shit. Language written online isn’t supposed to follow standard English norms. That’s part of what makes it funner than standard written English. People know that they don’t have to follow the rules of standard English when they write online, so they don’t. But somehow – somehow! – they are still understood. Could it be that the rules of standard English aren’t as important to clarity and understanding as grammar scolds would have us believe?

The Mary Wilson tells us that these grammar “mistakes” imply “that we were wrong to ever let it become uncool to fixate on bad grammar and slack syntax, no matter what the venue”. If it’s uncool to fixate on bad grammar, that’s because many of the grammar scolds don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. They’ve commandeered the word grammar to mean “any stylistic feature that I internalized in high school, in either speech or writing, and have decided to apply system-wide across the language”. It’s a catch-all condemnation for people who want to point out their superiority. Don’t believe the hype.

Wilson ends the post by saying that paying attention to sentence fragments and dangling participles is “patriotic”. I wonder why she didn’t mention sentence fragments and dangling participles in her scolding of the Russian trolls. Is it because sentence fragments and dangling participles are not part of grammar? It is.

How do I like this language stuff?

A funny story about the Labov book, Dialect Diversity in America, which I just reviewed. When my parents were visiting last summer, my mom was looking through my bookshelf for something to read. I first gave her The 1% and the Rest of Us (or maybe Nickle and Dimed) and she burned right through it because she’s even more of a socialist than I am. Then I gave her Labov’s book. I know she has a passing interest in language and that she has read other linguistics books aimed at the general public. But while I was in the other room, and she was sitting at the table with my wife, this is what I hear:

My mom: I don’t know how Joseph likes this stuff. Phonetics…?

My wife: Yeah, but he loves it.

My mom: Yes, he does. It’s tough to get through though.


My wife and my mom: We know!


My mom read the whole book and she ended up enjoying the final chapters – which deal with history, politics, and social change – more than she did the earlier ones. She couldn’t stop talking about those chapters. I was like, “But Mom, what about that (ING) variable and that Northern Cities Shift?!”

Linguistics is for shimonrikbliks

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?

What kind of dialect do you drive?

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: The episode’s topic is the Chicano English dialect. The analogy comes about 14:30 minutes in.

What it really sounds like to be American: A response to NPR’s Code Switch

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.