Archive for Language change

Gender bending

There's a guy with brown hair who has worked as a checkout person at a store I go to regularly.  He's been there for about five years.  Of the 20 or so checkout persons at the store, all of the others except one are female, mostly between 18 and 25.

Over the course of the last year or so, I noticed that this fellow became increasingly girllike.  Finally, last week when I went to the store, there was a new checkout girl with straight, long blonde hair.  It turned out that I was next in line to go to her counter.  She was wearing a name tag that said "Karen".  I really didn't know this person, but when she spoke to me I realized it was that guy, though his / her (–> their) voice was much higher, and manner even more feminine than before, and he / she (–> they) was (–> were) wearing a skirt.  I really didn't know what to do or say.  My overall reaction was to accept her as a new hire.

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Reversal of meanings

From Cecilia Segawa Seigle (9/18/15):

Yesterday morning's Asahi Shinbun reports that some Japanese words (or argot in certain cases) seem to be changing (reversing) meanings.

For example "yabai" (やばい), originally an argot used by criminals (thieves) meaning "not good" or "not propitious," seems to have changed its meaning among teenagers. 90% of the teens use the word "yabai" to express "wonderful," "good," "delicious," "smart-looking."  Only 5% of the people above 70 years of age used "yabai" for positive meaning; in other words the older people still use the word for negative situations.

For the word "Omomuroni" (おもむろに), an adverb meaning "unhurriedly," "slowly," 44.5% answered with the traditional meaning "slowly." 40.8% answered that "omomuroni" meant "suddenly."

This is only a small part of the phenomena revealing the breakdown of the Japanese language according to the recent survey made by Bunkacho (文化庁), Japanese government's Agency for Cultural Affairs.

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Cavemen and postmen and explanation

For those who were interested in Mark's post on the curious question of when the -man suffix gets a reduced vowel (woman, fireman, madman, milkman, gunman, batman, Batman, caveman, postman, weatherman, etc.), and especially for those who commented on it, Ben Yagoda has now written insightfully on the topic over at Lingua Franca.

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"Language cancer"

David Bandurski has posted a fine article about "The 'cancer' of all things Western" on the website of cmp (China Media Project), at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of The University of Hong Kong.  (3/24/15)

Bandurski draws the inspiration for the title of his article from a February piece in the Beijing Daily, in which the Taiwanese poet and critic, Yu Kwang-chung, is quoted as warning against a yǔyán ái 语言癌 ("language cancer") eroding Chinese literacy through èxìng xīhuà 恶性西化 ("malignant Westernization").

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UH / UM in Norwegian

A short summary of the filled-pause saga so far: If we call nasal-final filled pauses UM and non-nasal varieties UH, younger people use UM more than older people, and women use UM more than men. We've found this to be true in several varieties of English (sampled all over the U.S., sampled all over the U.K., from Philadelphia, from Glasgow) and in several other Germanic languages (Dutch and German). In addition, in the Philadelphia Neighborhood Corpus, where we have interviews gathered over four decades of real time as well as interviews with speakers of different ages, it appears that there is a historical trend as well as a life-cycle phenomenon. Contributions to this work-in-progress have come from Mark Liberman (University of Pennsylvania), Martijn Wieling (University of Groningen), Josef Fruehwald (University of Edinburgh), and John Coleman (University of Oxford), among others.

For more detail, here's a chronological list of past posts: "Young men talk like old women", 11/6/2005; "Fillers: Autism, gender, age", 7/30/2014;  "More on UM and UH", 8/3/2014; "UM UH 3", 8/4/2014; "Male and female word usage", 8/7/2014; "UM / UH geography", 8/13/2014; "Educational UM / UH", 8/13/2014; "UM / UH: Lifecycle effects vs. language change", 8/15/2014; "Filled pauses in Glasgow", 8/17/2014; "ER and ERM in the spoken BNC", 8/18/2014; "Um and uh in Dutch", 9/16/2014; "UM / UH in German", 9/28/2014; "Um, there's timing information in Switchboard?", 10/5/2014; "Trending in the Media: Um, not exactly…", 10/7/2014.)

Below is a guest post by Martijn Wieling, adding one more Germanic language to the list.

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ER and ERM in the spoken BNC

From John Coleman:

Inspired by your recent Language Log pieces, I tried an analysis of "er" vs "erm" in the Spoken BNC. These are the two main transcriptions for filled pauses labelled as "UNC" in the Claws-5 tagset and also "UNC" in the richer set of pos labels used in BNC. I.e. they are distinguished from items labelled as ITJ / INTERJ, in which the few tokens of "uh" and "um" are classified. These "uh"s are almost all in "uh huh" meaning "yes", and many of the "um"s and "mm"s are also in contexts where the "yes" sense is clear. So I disregarded the ITJs and restricted the analysis to UNC "er" and "erm", which are far more numerous in any case. As these are mostly nonrhotic dialects one can interpret "erm" as just schwa + nasality, with no implication of rhoticity; ditto for "er".

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UM / UH: Life-cycle effects vs. language change

In English-language conversations, older people tend to use UH more often and UM less often. And at every age, men tend to use UH more than women, and women tend to use UM more than men.  These effects are large and robust – they've been documented in at least five independent datasets, from both North American and Great Britain — for details, see the links at the end of this post.

The cited patterns are consistent with two quite different classes of explanation:

  • There might be a language change in progress, with older people reflecting the patterns of an earlier time and younger people showing the language of the future, while women are leading the change, as they often do.
  • There might be stable gender and life-cycle effects, so that the UM and UH sex and age associations looked the same a few decades in the past, and will look the same a few decades in the future.

And there's an independent question about the functions of the classes of vocalizations that we transcribe as UM and UH:

  • Perhaps UM and UH are simply alternative expressions of the same compositional or communicative function — say, two different (classes of) ways of stalling for time in the process of speaking — or alternatively
  • perhaps UM and UH have partly or entirely different functions, and it's differences in the frequency of these functions that are associated with age, sex, and so on.

In neither case are the alternatives mutually exclusive — the truth might be some mixture of the two.

Yesterday, Joe Fruehwald looked at UM and UH usage in a dataset with enough time depth that we can tell the difference between a change in progress and a stable life-cycle effect. And he found that the truth seems to be a bit of both.

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Taking a selfie

In front of the window of a candy store in Peebles, a small town about an hour's drive south of Edinburgh, an elderly American woman approached a gentleman she didn't know and, holding out a cell phone, asked:

"Would you please take a selfie of my friend and I in front of this window?"

She was not aware that she had approached a linguist.

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Rot and Rot (a really, really rude sex joke)

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Reaching a crescendo?

There was a language-peeve Op-Ed piece in the NYT yesterday called "A crescendo of errors", written by a violist who hates the expression "reach a crescendo". In music, a crescendo is a gradual increase, but it's widespread in non-musical contexts to use it to mean "reach a very loud state" or something like that. "But here’s the thing: as God — along with Bach, Beethoven and Mozart — is my witness, you cannot “reach” a crescendo." (Well, of course, as many commenters noted, you can reach a crescendo in the sense of reaching the point where it begins.)

Comments were closed before I saw the piece; it got 144 comments. Many applauded the author, but what struck me was how many didn't, and instead made the point that is so often made here, that languages change, and that peeving by "purists" won't prevent change. That seems heartening.

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Where did Chinese tones come from and where are they going?

Recently we've had several discussions about how tones in Sinitic languages aren't as uncomplicated or inflexible as one might imagine or as is often claimed:

"When intonation overrides tone"

"Mandarin by the numbers"

In these posts and in the comments to them, we have seen how stress and musical tune / melody often override or distort the canonical tones for given morphosyllables in sung or spoken context.  This is a completely different matter than tone sandhi, where tones are modified according to their position within a sequence of syllables (I believe that most instances of tone sandhi occur for simple physiological reasons, e.g., in normal speech it is virtually impossible to pronounce two full third tones in a row because they both dip so low in an individual's register that one needs a means for readying oneself for the onset of the utterance of the second third tone and does this by changing the first third tone utterance to a rising second tone).

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Language change in progress – us and our Red Sox buddies

Just now I was washing breakfast dishes and mentally composing a Facebook post, which started out “Last night was not a good night for Orioles – Red Sox – anti-Yankees fans! The three way tie for first place got broken in the worst direction! Us and our Red Sox buddies …” and I forget how that sentence was going to end, because I was caught up short noticing how it began. I’ve known about the ongoing spread of the ‘accusative’ pronouns forever – Sapir wrote about it (as a case of “language drift”), and Ed Klima, one of my favorite grad school professors, had worked on it and talked with us about it (we tried to figure out what kinds of rules would make ‘us’ and ‘me’ not get nominative in conjoined subjects while "I" and "we" as simple subjects are obligatorily marked nominative, and discussed similarities with French ‘disjunctive’ pronoun ‘moi’ vs. clitic subject 'je'). And it was the source of my oft-repeated anecdote about my son Morriss in 4th grade asking me to proofread a composition he had just written – it started out ‘Seth and I went to the mall’ and he pointed to ‘Seth and I’, and said to me “That’s how you spell “me and Seth”, right?”.

But none of that had prepared me for having it emerge in my own dialect. But there it was. And when I think about putting “We and our Red Sox buddies” instead, it sounds over-formal, doesn’t fit in the context of baseball buddies. So it looks like “us and …” has made the move from passive recognition to becoming an active part of my (most?) colloquial register, at least the baseball buddies register.

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The future of singular they

I've recently encountered several people in their teens or early twenties who ask, as individuals, to be referred to as  they/them/their/themself. Looking around to see how common this might be, I found an undated (?) survey reporting the following results:

All in all, over eight hundred people responded, the majority from the US and other English-dominant countries. A few were binary- or cisgendered individuals who left hostile comments (i.e., stating that there was no such thing as gender outside the binary) or answers that indicated confusion as to the purpose of the survey (i.e., identifying themselves as binary-/cisgendered and remarking that they would always accommodate the pronouns requested by another person). Others, despite describing their gender only as one of the binary genders without further comment, also indicated nontraditional pronoun preferences.  […]

“They” was the most preferred pronoun-set for 62.39% of respondents; the second and third were “he” and “she” at 31.39% and 29.73% respectively. (These numbers are not contradictory; about 48% of respondents indicated preference for multiple pronoun-sets).

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