Archive for Sociolinguistics

Cow dialects: They're back!

Kat Chow, "Make It So: Sir Patrick Stewart Moos In Udder Accents", NPR Code Switch ("Frontiers of Race, Culture and Ethnicity") 12/30/2013:

Cow-d it really be? Have our ears herd this correctly? (Sorry, I can't help myself.)

Patrick Stewart — ahem, Sir Patrick Stewart — mooed up a storm on the podcast, How To Do Everything, impersonating cows from various regions. You might even say Stewart was code-switching.

A listener who says she moos with "kind of an American, Nevadan accent" posed the question: Just how would a person moo in a British accent? (And, by the way, it's true: cows do moo in regional accents.)

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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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History of Philadelphia vowels

A couple of days ago, Joe Fruehwald and Bill Labov were on WHYY, the local public television station, in a NewsWorks Tonight segment about "How the Philly accent is changing". The text version on the web site is nicely presented, with illustrative inline sound clips. You should read (and listen to) the whole thing!

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Transit is departing

The electric train that runs between the different parts of Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow Airport insists on referring to itself as a "transit".

What's more, the remarkably annoying female voice that tells you needlessly that the doors are closing and that the train is about to start moving says "Transit is departing."

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The he's and she's of Twitter

My latest column for the Boston Globe is about some fascinating new research presented by Tyler Schnoebelen at the recent NWAV 41 conference at Indiana University Bloomington. Schnoebelen's paper, co-authored with Jacob Eisenstein and David Bamman, is entitled "Gender, styles, and social networks in Twitter" (abstract, full paper, presentation).

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Benjamin Franklin medal for Labov

Recently announced, a 2013 Benjamin Franklin Medal for William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania. The citation:

For establishing the cognitive basis of language variation and change through rigorous analysis of linguistic data, and for the study of non-standard dialects with significant social and cultural implications.

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Corpus-Wide Association Studies

I've spent the past couple of days at GURT 2012, and one of the interesting talks that I've heard was Julian Brooke and Sali Tagliamonte, "Hunting the linguistic variable: using computational techniques for data exploration and analysis". Their abstract (all that's available of the work so far) explains that:

The selection of an appropriate linguistic variable is typically the first step of a variationist analysis whose ultimate goal is to identify and explain social patterns. In this work, we invert the usual approach, starting with the sociolinguistic metadata associated with a large scale socially stratified corpus, and then testing the utility of computational tools for finding good variables to study. In particular, we use the 'information gain' metric included in data mining software to automatically filter a huge set of potential variables, and then apply our own corpus reader software to facilitate further human inspection. Finally, we subject a small set of particularly interesting features to a more traditional variationist analysis.

This type of data-mining for interesting patterns is likely to become a trend in sociolinguistics, as it is in other areas of the social and behavioral sciences, and so it's worth giving some thought to potential problems as well as opportunities.

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Thought experiments on language and thought

Keith Chen's recent proposal that the grammar of tense marking in a language has a causal effect on future-oriented financial and health behaviors is too intriguing to resist talking about. In fact, it reminds me of the words of a prominent linguist who once announced during his talk: "The explanation in question is almost certain to be false. However, if it were true, it would be incredibly interesting, so we have no choice but to explore it."

I'm not sure that this is the best argument for, say, how research funding should be allocated. At least, I've never had the guts to put that in a grant proposal. But if Language Log isn't the place to explore almost-certainly-false-but-incredibly-interesting-if-true ideas, then I don't know what is.

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DRESS-raising in New Zealand

For a recent story on the arrest of Kim Dotcom, The World's Lisa Mullins turned to Georgina Ball from Radio New Zealand ("Cyber Tycoon Wanted for Internet Piracy Arrested in New Zealand", 1/26/2012). One of the things Ms. Ball says is this:

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they're worried he'll flee to Germany which is where he's from
which doesn't have an extradition treaty with the U.S.

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Ed McBain, Long Time No See, 1977 (the 32nd of the 87th Precinct novels):

“Mrs. Harris,” Carella said, “there are some questions we’d like to ask about your son and daughter-in-law.”

“Yes, certainly,” she said. “I’ll try to assist you as best I can.”

She was adopting the kind of formal speech many blacks used with whites, especially when the whites were in a position of authority. [...]

“Mrs. Harris,” Carella said, “did your son and daughter-in-law have many friends?”

“Some, I believe.” Still the phony speech. Carella guessed she would use the word “quite” within the next several sentences. “Quite” was a sure indication that someone was using language he or she did not ordinarily use.

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Language and emotion on the Costa Concordia

[This is a guest post by Bob Ladd.]

Following the wreck of the Costa Concordia last weekend (one Italian comic suggested it should be renamed Costa Codardia, where codardia means "cowardice"), I've been temporarily taken on as a correspondent by Language Log's Italian desk in order to report on a few linguistic aspects of the already notorious telephone call between the Coast Guard captain De Falco and the ship's much criticized captain Schettino.

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Jafaican doesn't exist

To answer the many critics of his "whites have become black" diatribe, the Tudor historian and obnoxious TV personality David Starkey published an article in The Telegraph on August 19 defending his stance on the way Jamaican linguistic patterns are allegedly implicated in the cause of the English riots. The linguistically relevant point is that he has now shifted his reference away from "Jamaican patois", which is a synonym for Jamaican Creole, Ethnologue code JAM, henceforth JC (see my article in Times Higher Education on this). He now cites a "mixed race" critic of "ghetto grammar" to back up his condemnation:

Lindsay Johns, the Oxford-educated mixed-race writer who mentors young people in Peckham, argues passionately against "this insulting and demeaning acceptance" of a fake Jamaican — or "Jafaican" — patois. "Language is power", Johns writes, and to use "ghetto grammar" renders the young powerless.

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Don't read this post: Be a Language Log reader!

The big deal in a new paper "Motivating voter turnout by invoking the self" (see also the official PNAS site, or e.g. this Discover magazine article "The power of nouns….") is that people can be manipulated into voting simply by clever use of nouns instead of verbs in a questionnaire. In each of several studies, potential voters were split into two groups and given (amongst other questions which didn't vary by group) one of two questions to answer:

Group 1 question: How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?

Group 2 question: How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?

Turned out that Group 1 turned out. Really. In one of the studies an amazing 95.5% of them actually turned out to vote, whereas only 81.8% of Group 2 voted. That's obviously a huge effect on voting behavior. And it appears to be caused by the use of a construction with the nominal "voter" instead of the verb "vote".

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A Rejection of the Power Semantic

It has been over fifty years since Roger Brown and Albert Gilman published their classic article "The pronouns of power and solidarity" (American Anthropologist 4/6:24-39, 1960), analyzing what they called the T/V distinction. The letters refer not to a device on which one views reality shows, NOVA, soap operas, etc., but to the familiar (T for Latin or French tu) vs. formal (V for Latin vos/French vous) pronouns used to address someone. To oversimplify somewhat, reciprocal T expresses solidarity, and reciprocal V may also do so; non-reciprocal usage — using V to someone with superior status and receiving T from that person, or vice versa to someone of inferior status — expresses what Brown & Gilman called the power semantic. English, of course, can't express this difference with pronouns, because our only second person pronoun in general usage is you. But English does have address forms that capture the basic social distinction: reciprocal first-name (or sometimes last-name) usage for the solidarity semantic, non-reciprocal first-name vs. title plus last name for the power semantic. So, for instance, my formidable sixth-grade music teacher called me Sally, and I called her Miss Boe. Anything else would have been unthinkable.

All this is very old news. But I just ran across an interesting example in a terrific book I've been reading — David Halberstam's last book, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.

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Tsunami variation

Bill Poser's post on the English onset of (the word) tsunami provoked 99 comments so far, many of them of the form "I'm from X and I say Y". One of the things that we've learned in the past 50 years is that the "I say Y" part of such statements is almost always false.

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