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:

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Language achievement: UNLOCKED!

TFW Merriam-Webster is writing about the same thing you wrote about:

It’s a discussion of no problem and other phatic expressions which are more informal than you’re welcome and also seem to imply that saying thank you was not necessary. M-W didn’t pick up on my predating of you’re welcome but that’s probably for the best. They’re the professionals, after all. Check the M-W article here.

In other news, this morning my 9-year-old texted “no problem” to me after I thanked him for something. Kids these days. Pssh.

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…”

Code-switching in the Atlantic

There’s an excellent article on the linguistic work of Prof. Julie Washington in the Atlantic. It’s about code-switching and Prof. Washington’s work in figuring out better ways to educate kids who speak African American English (AAE).

Right at the start of the article, there is a profound quote from Washington. She is talking about a 4-year-old speaker of AAE. Washington read a story to the young girl and asked the girl to recite the story, which she did in her native dialect, AAE. Then Washington says:

 “She had to listen to a story in a dialect she doesn’t really use herself, understand the meaning, hold the story in her memory, recode it in her own dialect, and then say it all back to me.” The girl’s “translation” of the book might not sound like much, but translating it? “That’s hard,” Washington said, especially for a young child.

I never thought about it like this, but Washington is exactly right. That is hard. Code-switching can be like translating one language to another.

There is an unfortunate paragraph, though, which seems to drag linguists for no good reason:

At the conference in Madison, linguists threw around phrases such as auxiliary alternation and diachronic precursor, speaking an academic code Washington avoids. She mostly kept her distance, skipping talks with boring titles; she lacks a linguist’s tolerance for obscure grammatical disputes, declaring herself more interested in “functional” matters. (“Oh my God,” she remarked after one particularly pedantic lecture.) […]

I’m willing to bet journalists have their own phrases and code that no one understands.  So why the shade? Also, everyone skips talks with boring titles. That’s how academic conferences work. Also also, not all linguists have a tolerance for obscure grammatical disputes and that’s ok. What is an obscure grammatical dispute, by the way? Does it involve auxiliary alternation or diachronic precursors? Did you maybe just make it up?

Besides that paragraph, though, the article is gold. Later on after the linguist dissing, the article has two paragraphs that are excellent in explaining the stakes of the situation.

Labov’s recommendation was largely overlooked outside his field. But last June, Washington completed a four-year study of almost 1,000 low-income elementary-school students in a southern city—the most extensive study ever of the dialect’s role in education—which led her to a similar conclusion. Strikingly, she discovered that African American students’ lagging growth in reading was accounted for almost entirely by the low scores of the students who speak the heaviest dialect. And location mattered: The majority of kids in the city she studied, Washington found, use a regional variety of AAE that is especially far from standard English. This suggests to her that children who speak one of the dialect’s “really dense” varieties are having an experience in the classroom not unlike that of, say, native Spanish speakers.

Compounding these challenges is the fact that most AAE speakers have teachers who are hostile to their dialect. In an illuminating investigation published in 1973 (but, according to several linguists I spoke with, still reflective of classroom conditions today), Ann McCormick Piestrup portrayed the AAE speaker’s experience as one of incessant interruption. Black children at the California schools Piestrup studied often answered questions correctly, only to be pounced on for irrelevant differences of pronunciation or grammar. This climate had a drastic effect: As time went on, Piestrup saw students withdraw into “moody silences”; when they did speak, their voices were soft and hesitant. The interrupted students had the lowest reading scores of any children Piestrup observed.

That is what speakers of AAE have been dealing with. It has been hard for linguists to convince schools and parents to adopt the idea of code-switching, especially when it comes to AAE. But this paragraph shows Washington’s great thinking:

A new insight of Washington’s might offer a new path forward, however. In presenting code-switching lessons as a way to ward off catastrophic reading failure, she says, advocates have failed to convey the upsides of speaking African-American English. In a recent paper, Washington points to research showing that fluent speakers of two dialects might benefit from some of the cognitive advantages that accrue to speakers of two languages. She hopes that this line of thinking might at last persuade teachers and parents alike to buy in. “We see value in speaking two languages,” Washington told me. “But we don’t see value in speaking two dialects. Maybe it’s time we did.”

I have seen the positive aspects of AAE spoken of before, such as in McWhorter’s book Talking Back, Talking Black (review coming soon) and on his show on Lexicon Valley, as well as in the work of Walt Wolfram, most recently his film Talking Black in America (see the website here). And we have all seen the articles about how bilinguals are super smart and they live longer and they never get dementia and all the other claims made about what comes from speaking two languages. But I’ve never thought about code-switching as being the same thing as speaking two languages, even though it pretty much is.

Great article. You should read it. You can find it here.

I, me and Oxford Dictionaries

I’m sure I’ve tweeted about this already, but the Oxford Dictionaries’ advice on the usage of pronouns just came across my interwebs again (they sent out this quiz in their email newsletter). It’s hard to imagine how a dictionary’s website gets this so wrong, but let’s go through it to see what’s up.

In their advice article “‘I’ or ‘me’?”, Oxford Dictionaries claims that in coordinated constructions where a pronoun and a proper name form the subject of a sentence, the pronoun used must be the subjective form of the pronoun (also called the nominative form). What this means is that in a sentence like “John and I went to the GWAR concert”, it is incorrect to use me instead of I. Let’s leave aside the fact that everyone everywhere naturally uses me in sentences like this. Let’s instead think about the advice that Oxford Dictionaries is giving. We’ll use the sentence that they use: Clare and I are going for a coffee. According to Oxford, it’s not just the subjective pronoun I that must be used in this sentence, only subjective pronouns must be used when the pronoun helps form the subject of a sentence. But how does this work? See if any of the sentences below sound odd to you.

  1. Clare and I are going for a coffee
  2. Clare and me are going for a coffee
  3. Clare and you are going for a coffee
  4. Clare and you are going for a coffee
  5. Clare and she are going for a coffee OR Clare and he are going for a coffee
  6. Clare and her are going for a coffee OR Clare and him are going for a coffee
  7. Clare and they are going for a coffee
  8. Clare and them are going for a coffee

If you’re like me, the first four sound fine (obviously, there’s no difference between the subjective and objective form of the 2nd person pronoun, they’re both you). The fifth one, however, sounds a bit stuffy compared to the sixth one (stuffy is a totally legit linguistics term). And the seventh is bordering on unacceptable. Does Oxford really think that Clare and they are going for a coffee is correct, while Clare and them are going for a coffee is not? Maybe? They didn’t use that sentence as an example. They focused instead on the 1st person pronoun – where there is more variation.

This topic boils down to a few things. First, English tends to favor me as the default pronoun in all cases except for when the pronoun stands alone as the subject. There is such a strong tendency to use me in all cases that this form is sometimes referred to as the oblique form, meaning that in addition to being the object, it fulfills other roles in sentences. And so English quite naturally uses the me form in coordinated structures, or phrases where there’s a pronoun and something else joined together with the word and:

John and me went to the GWAR concert.

Me and the bouncer got into an arm wrestling match.

Me and this other guy partied with GWAR after the show.

Second, using the subjective pronoun I in coordinated constructions isn’t wrong. English allows for both constructions and the choice of which one to use usually breaks along formality of the occasion – John and I seems more formal, while John and me seems more informal. But there is evidence of both structures throughout history in many different styles of writing. The John and I form is dictated by prescriptivist grammarians (and apparently some dictionaries), while the John and me form is proscribed, despite being used by everyone. In constructions with the first person singular pronoun, you can’t go grammatically wrong choosing I or me. But notice, however, that me is more versatile in where it can be placed:

Clare and me are going for a coffee

Me and Clare are going for a coffee

Clare and I are going for a coffee

*I and Clare are going for a coffee

As we have seen, in constructions with the 3rd person pronouns, things are potentially more cut and dry. With the 3rd person singular, it seems we should use the subjective forms (him, her) for all but the most formal registers. With the 3rd person plural, however, it seems we should always use the objective form them.

Finally, there is a piece of advice out there that I’ve seen in a lot of places. It goes like this:

In coordinated constructions (noun + pronoun), take out the noun and leave the pronoun. This will show you which case you want.

This advice is dumb. Why would I take something out of a sentence to decide how I should say the rest of the sentence after I put that thing back in the sentence?! This makes no sense at all. This advice is only given with coordinated subjects because it makes it seem like the subjective pronoun is always correct. Here’s Oxford using it at the end of their article:

An easy way of making sure you’ve chosen the right pronoun is to see whether the sentence reads properly if you remove the additional pronoun:

I am going for a coffee. ✗ Me am going for a coffee.

And here’s the Purdue Online Writing Lab:

In compound structures, where there are two pronouns or a noun and a pronoun, drop the other noun for a moment. Then you can see which case you want.

Not: Bob and me travel a good deal.
(Would you say, “me travel”?)

But what happens when I take the pronoun out of the sentence? I’m left with Bob travel a good deal. 😐

Y U NO give better advice, grammer peeple?

Ok, I’m being awful hard on Oxford Dictionaries. The thing is, their advice column could have been cleared up with a line that explained they were talking about Standard English only. Or that outside of standard written and spoken English, people are more likely to come across the form X and me. The X and me construction is so common in informal written and spoken English that using X and I may be out of place. Non-standard and informal English are the default forms of the language, whether they are written or spoken, so users of English will hear/read these forms most often in day to day circumstances. The split in choosing I or me along formal/informal or standard/non-standard lines isn’t a lot of linguistic knowledge for people to understand. They shouldn’t be forced into thinking there is only One True Way to use pronouns in English.

I might post more on this later and include the advice given by other style guides, grammars and dictionaries. If you want to see some of them backing up my claims right now, check out:

  • Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, page 778
  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage 4th edition (edited by Butterfield), page 509
  • A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Huddleston and Pullum, page 107

A few less countable nouns

While everyone was worrying about whether less or fewer was correct in 10 items or less, another construction has been flying under the radar: a few less. I haven’t seen any style guides make remarks about this phrase, but it is an interesting one. It’s hard to search for online because there’s an Australian movie called A Few Less Men, which dominates the search results. I was able to find a WordReference forum about a few less, but it’s not much help. So let’s go to some corpora to see how a few less is used.

There are 36 hits for a few less in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which means it’s not very common (for comparison, there are 4,875 hits for a few more). All of the hits for a few less pre-modify countable nouns.

Year:Genre Concordances – link to search: https://corpus.byu.edu/coca/?c=coca&q=63419241
2016:FIC
Bk:Whites:Novel
West Twenties, one step up from a housing project, which meant a few less elevators chronically out of commission
2015:NEWS
Atlanta
But if we all drove just a few less times in the entire year, that is progress in an automobile-dependent metropolis like Atlanta
2014:SPOK
Fox: The Five
They may make a few less dollars, and they should do it.
2011:SPOK
NPR_Science
And it could be that those other services continue on – maybe with a few less people, or maybe some people will cross over.
2010:MAG
GoodHousekeeping
Move family outerwear out and add a few less flimsy hangers inside.
2001:FIC
Analog
And how does one cure a sequence consisting of ” a few less atoms every day’?
2000:MAG
Astronomy
If (Nu) had a few less zeros, only a short-lived miniature universe could exist. No creatures could grow larger
1998:NEWS
Houston
five, over a ten-year period, maybe a few more, maybe a few less, I don’t know, several times.

If you redo the search, it looks like there are 40 hits but the following do not fit the construction:

  • “Some health plans don’t cover Zyban, but a few less than forthcoming smokers have gotten around that by asking doctors to diagnose them with depression”. It’s more a few less-than-forthcoming smokers.
  • “Only a few less accessible villages have so far been spared of tourists”. This is also a case where less is modifying the following adjective and could be rewritten as a few less-accessible villages.
  • “there are always a few less visible non-tariff barriers which arise which will need to be smoothed out.” This again is a few less-visible non-tariff barriers.

There is also the concordance “Twenty years since our first date. A few less than that since I helped her pick out her first grown-up road bike”. In this construction, I would say that less is a noun and few is an adjective.

In the corpus of Global Web-based English (GloWbE), the US, UK and Australia seem to use this construction most often, although the frequency per million words (the PER MIL column) is not that different between the US, Canada, UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, and the Philippines (see the image below). The concordances also appear to show that a few less is a modifier for a countable noun, although I did not go through all of the 328 hits in GloWbE. You can re-do my search on GloWbE by following this link.

GloWbE - a few less

The way I see it, there are two ways to analyze this construction. First, in a few less NOUNs, the words a few make up a non-exact indefinite quantifying determiner and less is an adjective modifying the noun phrase. What you have is this:

A few less NOUNs = a few (indefinite determiner), less (adjective / head of AdjP), NOUNs

Second, I suppose it’s possible to treat few as an adjective too (modifying the adjective less) and leave a to be the single-word determiner. So you would have something like this:

A few less NOUN = a (determiner), few (adjective / modifier), less (adjective / head of AdjP)

But I wouldn’t go for this analysis because the Longman Student Grammar also treats a few as a quantifying determiner which denotes a small amount (p. 75).

The interesting thing about a few less is that it easily – and quite unremarkably – modifies count nouns. People have a problem with ten less items/dollars/miles/people, but no one seems to raise a fuss about a few less items. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with using less with countable nouns, especially ones that are units of measurement and money. But I don’t think people have considered that if less really can’t modify count nouns – and that fewer needs to be used with count nouns – then the construction we would forced to use is a few fewer items. And no one wants that.

References

Longman Student Grammar of Written and Spoken English (2002) by Douglas Biber, Susan Conrad and Geoffrey Leech.

English Grammar: A University Course (2nd edition, 2006) by Angela Downing and Philip Locke. pp. 428, 433, 481, 492

 

Captain Code Switch!

On a not-so-recent episode of the Black Tribbles podcast (ep. 302, airdate: Sept. 29, 2017), the hosts were discussing the DC comics superhero Black Lightning. Host Len Webb (aka the BatTribble) mentioned that in the original Black Lightning comics, the character not only donned a mask (and fake afro) to avoid detection of his true identity, he also spoke differently. He used “slang” and “jive”, as Len put it. Another one of the hosts, Kennedy Allen (aka That Mikey Chick, aka Storm Tribble) said “He’s Black Lightning aka Captain Code Switch!” (occurs at 33:50 in the episode)

And she’s right! Take a look at the very first page of the first Black Lighting comic:

Black Lightning Vol 1_1_title
Source: BLACK LIGHTING Vol 1 #1 (April 1977) by Tony Isabella (w), Trevor von Eeden (p), and Frank Springer (i), Liz Berube (c) and P.G. Lisa (l).

On the next page, Black Lightning describes his intentional code switching as “street-style patter” in the narration and we can see some more of it in the word balloons. This is really cool.

Black Lightning Vol 1_1_cs3
Source: BLACK LIGHTING Vol 1 #1 (April 1977) by Tony Isabella (w), Trevor von Eeden (p), and Frank Springer (i), Liz Berube (c) and P.G. Lisa (l).

Black Lightning’s alter ego, Jefferson Pierce, is a teacher by day and he speaks standard (comic book) English. Tony Isabella, the creator of Black Lightning and writer of these books, puts just enough code switching into Black Lightning’s dialogue to show a difference between his personas, not overdoing it anywhere. It’s mostly slang and dropped g’s. As the issues go on Black Lightning’s code switching seems to get less detectable, but the character does talk to more non-baddies who wouldn’t know his alter ego, such as Jimmy Olsen and Superman, so the lack of code switching with these characters is probably intentional on Isabella’s part. Here’s Black Lightning speaking to Tobias Whale (the big baddie) in issue 3:

Black Lightning Vol 1_3_cs
Source: BLACK LIGHTNING Vol 1 #3 by Tony Isabella (w), Trevor von Eeden (p) and Vince Colletta (i).

The Black Tribbles have mentioned code switching in other episodes, but this time it really made me notice. I don’t know of any other superheroes who code switch to disguise their identity, so this makes Black Lightning super awesome. If anyone knows of other characters that do this, please post it in the comments below.

Black Lightning, aka Captain Code Switch, is starring in a new show on the CW (or Netflix for international people). He’s played by Cress Williams. I’ve watched the first two episodes, but there hasn’t really been any detectable code switching between his superhero persona and his alter ego. That might have to do with the fact that in the show Black Lightning is in his 40s and was retired from crime fighting. He’s getting to old for this code switching nonsense!

Finally, check out these awesome panels from BLACK LIGHTNING Vol. 1 #3. When you just spent a night fighting crime, but you still have English papers to grade. Black Lightning feels you.

Black Lightning Vol 1_3
Source: BLACK LIGHTNING Vol 1 #3 by Tony Isabella (w), Trevor von Eeden (p) and Vince Colletta (i).