Archive for Sociolinguistics

On when listening is better than talking: A call for contemplation and empathy

The following is a reply from Emily M. Bender, Natasha Warner and myself to Geoff Pullum’s recent posts (A letter saying they won, 12/4/2017; Courtesy and personal pronoun choice, 12/6/2017).


Respected senior linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum recently used the widely-read platform of Language Log to remark on the fact that his grammatical tolerance of singular they only goes so far (A letter saying they won, 12/4/2017). For Pullum, singular they cannot be used in reference to a personal name; example sentences such as Kimi said theyi were going to the store are ungrammatical for him. This fact is not in dispute, nor is the fact that this is a salient grammaticality judgment for Pullum. What is in dispute, however, is the appropriateness of a series of choices that Pullum has made in reporting this grammaticality judgment. Those choices have clearly hurt people. The following is an effort to explain the hurt that these choices have caused and to give Pullum — and everyone from his defenders to those who don’t see what all the fuss is about — another opportunity to respond with contemplation and empathy as opposed to defensiveness and continued disrespect.

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If you can't say something nice…

This is a guest post by Kirby Conrod.


I'm sorry to see that the venerable Geoff Pullum is so desperately behind the times. I don't mean to be snarky, I genuinely am sad about it. It's not just a matter of being un-hip to the cool new language change in progress (singular "they" is making inroads syntactically in the types of antecedents speakers will use it with), but rather a methodological and disciplinary unhipness that really makes me feel bad.

First, let me address the rudeness: if a senior colleague of mine pulled this kind of self-conscious "he is–sorry, they are" on me in a professional setting, I'd file a complaint. If they did it in a casual setting, I'd have a nasty word for them. That's the kind of snide, intentional misgendering that I am not okay with. In writing, Pullum clearly has the ability to force a use of "they" even if he finds it distasteful. To do otherwise is profoundly disrespectful and borderline hostile, even as a supposedly self-effacing joke about his own grammar. It would've been easy to make the point of his difficulty in writing that sentence without using the wrong pronoun for anyone–and Pullum should seriously self-interrogate on why he thinks "he" would have been the alternative, anyways.

With that out of the way, I'll go into the linguistics first, then the methods.

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Ask Language Log: Loud Americans?

From Federico Escobar:

An old but ongoing comment/joke among several Spanish speakers I know says that English speakers are particularly loud. It's a gross generalization, I know, but one borne out by countless times in which the voices booming over everyone else's in a restaurant comes from the one table with American tourists. A friend says that she feels that Americans can't help but shouting when they talk.

So, the silliness aside, does this hold water? Would this be, on average, true of English speakers or at least of American speakers of English? A friend theorized off-the-cuff that it may be because of the sound system in English, which perhaps needs a higher volume to tell the phonemes apart than, say, Spanish. Is that at all possible?

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"Why does Jeff Sessions talk like that?"

 

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The sociolinguistics of the Chinese script

Jonathan Benda posted this on Facebook recently:

Reading [Jan Blommaert's] _Language and Superdiversity_ in preparation for my Writing in Global Contexts course in the fall. Does anyone else think the following conclusions about this sign are somewhat wrongheaded?

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Colonialism or gas

The last three panels of Dumbing of Age for 8/10/2017, featuring Danny and Sal:

Mouseover text: "They have a similar smell."

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Polysemous Pejoratives

Geoff Pullum suggests that the flap over an MP’s use of nigger in the woodpile is overdone:

Anne Marie Morris, the very successful Conservative MP for Newton Abbot in the southwestern county of Devon, did not call anyone a nigger.…
Ms. Morris used a fixed phrase with its idiomatic meaning, and it contained a word which, used in other contexts, can be a decidedly offensive way of denoting a person of negroid racial type, or an outright insult or slur. Using such a slur — referring to a black person as a nigger — really would be a racist act. But one ill-advised use of an old idiom containing the word, in a context where absolutely no reference to race was involved, is not.

Oh, dear. As usual, Geoff's logic is impeccable, but in this case it's led him terribly astray.

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Strong /t/

Peter Serafinowicz has created and uploaded to YouTube several dozen videos in the "Sassy Trump" series, in which he revoices Donald Trump's words in a stereotypically gay manner. One example:

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The languages of India

At several stations on the commute from Swarthmore to University City station, around half of the people who get on the train are Indians.  Usually they are happily conversing with each other in one or another South Asian language.

Today the train was packed, and I was sitting on the aisle seat next to four Indian men who were talking to each other in Tamil.  I asked them, "When you meet other Indians, how do you know which language to speak to them?"

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German in America

There's a Germantown in Philadelphia and a German Village in Columbus, Ohio.  in Fredericksburg (the birthplace of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz) and in New Braunfels, they speak Texas German, and in Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities in many states, they speak  Pennsylvania Dutch / German (Deitsch, Pennsylvania Deitsch, Pennsilfaanisch Deitsch, Hinterwäldler-Deutsch).

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Age, sex, and f0

I've recently been working with Naomi Nevler and others from Penn's Frontotemporal Degeneration Center on quantifying the diverse effects in speech and language of various neurodegenerative conditions. As part of an effort to establish baselines, I turned to the English-language part of the "Fisher" datasets of conversational telephone speech (LDC2004S13, LDC2004T19, LDC2005S13, LDC2005T19), where we have basic demographic information for 11,971 speakers, including age and sex. These datasets comprise 11,699  short telephone conversations between strangers on assigned topics, or 23,398 conversational sides, with a total duration of 1,958.5 hours. The calls were recorded in 2003.

For this morning's Breakfast Experiment™, I took a look at age-related changes in pitch range, as quantified by quantiles of fundamental frequency (f0) estimates. We have time-aligned transcripts, so after pitch-tracking everything, I can extract the f0 estimates for each speaker, combine them across calls if the speaker was involved in more than one call, and calculate various simple statistics. Here are the median values for the 90th, 50th, and 10th percentile of f0 estimates by decade of age from 20s to 70s. Values for female speakers are in red, and for male speakers in blue:

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The accommodation

Yesterday in phonetics class we were discussing accommodation — the way that people adapt the way they talk depending on who they're talking with — and I noted that broadcast interview programs are a natural source of evidence, since the same host speaks at length with many different guests. Previous posts have looked at accommodation in a couple of features on the Philadelphia-based broadcast interview program Fresh Air ("UM/UH accommodation", 11/24/2015; "Like thanks", 11/26/2015). During yesterday's class, it occurred to me that it would make sense to look at accommodation in the use of the definite article the, since the is one of the commonest words in English, and yet the rates vary surprisingly widely across time, registers, genders, moods, and individuals.

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Trevor Noah reflects on language and identity

In my introductory undergraduate course on English words, and in most undergraduate introductory courses on linguistics, students are invited to reflect on language and identity—how the way you speak communicates information about who you are—which they are typically very interested in. This isn't my beat, professionally speaking, but as a linguist I have a duty to help my students think through some of these issues (and, if they get interested, point them in the right direction to get really educated). To get started, I often play this one-minute clip of a Meshach Taylor Fresh Air interview from 1990, which is usually a good starting point for some discussion.

But Fresh Air (yes I'm a Terry Gross fangirl) also recently ran an interview with the biracial South African host of the Daily Show, Trevor Noah, which contained this ten-minute motherlode of a reflection on multilingualism, language choice, racism, acceptable targets of mimicry, vocabulary size, Trump's communicative abilities, resentment of accented speech… whew. I'm just going to leave it here for your edification and enjoyment. Maybe one of our more sociolinguistically expert Language Loggers will provide some more detailed commentary later. For my part — well, I just invite you to think about what kind of 500-word essay you'd write for a Ling 101 class with this 10-minute clip as your prompt.

To hear the whole interview, or read the transcript, visit the NPR Fresh Air page.

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