Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally


Posted by Neal on March 17, 2018

Limericks have been on my mind f the last couple of months. It started when I discovered a Twitter account called @Limericking, which puts out a constant stream of limericks based on the news, usually better than the ones featured each week on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”. Here’s the limerick that showed up on my timeline in January:

So clever, and such a good illustration of the cot/caught merger, which I just wrote about in a piece I just did for Grammar Girl on vowel mergers. For me, cause and flaws both have the mid back round vowel /ɔ/, but Oz has the low back unround vowel /ɑ/. It could just be that the writer of this limerick was settling for an imperfect rhyme, but I see that @Limericking is based in Canada, one of the places where the merger is widespread, so it’s probably a perfect rhyme for them.

Then, at the end of the month, Merriam-Webster started tweeting out limericks about English usage. I particularly liked this one:

At the beginning of March, of course, it was National Grammar Day once again, with its annual limerick contest. This was the winner, and deservedly so:

I didn’t write a grammar limerick, but after I read the limericks from Limericking and Merriam-Webster, I decided to take another crack at writing a panphonic poem, within the constraints of five short lines. The first time I tried putting all the sounds of English into a single poem, I tried to work in not only all the sounds that English speakers perceive as separate sounds (in other words, all the phonemes), but also all the variant pronunciations of each phoneme (i.e. all the allophones). For example, I didn’t want to put in just the vowel [i] as in she, but also the nasalized vowel [ĩ] as in scheme. Ultimately, I didn’t succeed, so I set my sights a bit lower this time. Here’s what I ended up with:

In normal spelling, it’s

Hear in this short limerick’s strains
Every sound which my language contains.
Could it be an illusion?
Panphonic profusion?
Something linguists enjoy as a game?

I would rather have said panphonemic profusion because it’s more specific, and because the meter works better, but panphonic was the only word I had with the vowel /ɑ/. And I’d prefer sound that to sound which, but I needed a /tʃ/. Maybe I’ll try again someday, without such a meta topic.


Posted in Panphonic Phun | Leave a Comment »

Flappin’ Shit

Posted by Neal on January 19, 2018

A few years ago, I blogged about hearing some English speakers pronouncing their /t/’s as glottal stops in an unexpected place: after a stressed vowel, before an /h/. Some of the examples I talked about were a local public radio news reporter’s pronunciation of Statehouse,and Doug’s pronunciation of pothole. Another example, which I thought I’d blogged about but apparently hadn’t, is Doug’s pronunciation of warthog, which is different from the others in that there’s an /r/ between the vowel and /t/. But they’re all similar in that I would personally pronounce the /t/ as a flap [ɾ] in these words, and I heard other speakers using a glottal stop [ʔ].

Last week, I happened to think of another word with a /t/ between a stressed vowel and an /h/. It was shithole! For me, the /t/ in this word is pronounced as a flap, just like in Statehouse, pothole, and warthog: shi[ɾ]hole.

But the events of last week’s news cycle naturally got me to wondering: How are other people pronouncing shithole these days? With a flap, like me? As shi[t]hole, with an ordinary [t]–shi[t]hole? Or maybe even as shi[ʔ]hole with a glottal stop?

In this montage of newscasters reporting on Trump’s comments about Haiti, El Salvador, and (some?) African countries, I hear mostly shi[ɾ]hole, with a few shi[t]holes thrown in. No glottal-stop shi[ʔ]holes.

I also searched for shithole in YouGlish, this website I learned about in the course of teaching English pronunciation to my international students. You search for your word, and it brings you video clips of people saying that word in real contexts. Their four entries for shithole all use the flap pronunciation. (In unrelated findings, all eight of their clips of coup de grace pronounce it as if it were coup de gras.)

Among the family and friends I asked, the flapped pronunciation is also the most common. I was even surprised to find that this was the pronunciation that Doug used, when I asked him to repeat this word of the week. I wonder how he pronounces pothole, butthole, and warthog now…

Three people in my sample of 14 used the [t] pronunciation. One is a co-worker who later mentioned that he thought of shithole as two words: shit hole.

I did find two speakers with glottal-stop shithole. One was one of my in-laws, and the other was one of Doug’s floormates in his dorm. That’s right: He’s a freshman in college now, and when I called him with my linguistic question, he gave me his answer and offered to pass the phone around to the other residents in the room, and one by one they got on the line and said “shithole” to me.

UPDATE, Feb. 5, 2018

When I tweeted this post, Michael Covarrubias (@wishydog) responded, “i hear your flap and /h/. i hear a lot of glottal stops in the video. apparently, my /t/ is a glottal stop very often.” So I went back for another listen. It turns out I listened too quickly the first time. On closer inspection, and with the use of the phonetics software Praat, I have segmented out 57 tokens of shithole (or a related form, such as the plural, or the derived form shitholer), and of them, eight have the glottal stop pronunciation, for 14%. Seven tokens have the [t] pronunciation, making 12.3%. Tokens with a flap make up the remaining 73.7%.

I labeled each token impressionistically by hear, but then also examined their spectrograms using Praat, labeling the duration of the air stoppage for the /t/, doing my best to separate it from the pronunciation of the /h/. Sometimes I had to give up. I also tried to record whether the /t/ and following /h/ were voiced or not, but sometimes had to give up on this, too. If anyone is interested in looking at or listening to the data, you can find the WAV file, accompanying Praat text grid, and a spreadsheet with the data for each of the 57 tokens in a Google Drive folder I’ve named the Vice Shithole Corpus.

Posted in Doug, Flap (tap), Glottal stops, Politics, Taboo | Leave a Comment »

Black Deaf People

Posted by Neal on December 2, 2017

A couple of posts back, I tackled my brother’s question of whether one would say “black little people” (yes), or “little black people” (not so much). M. Makino commented,

I usually try to shorthand the order of adjectives for students by telling them that the stuff people feel is closest to their identities comes last. It seems feasible that someone whose ethnicity was of extreme importance might put it after “little”.

My response:

… Your point gives me an idea for another collocation battle to carry out in a corpus: “Deaf” vs. “black”.

So what are we waiting for? Let’s go!

Let’s start by pulling up our handy adjective-ordering template:

evaluation size shape condition human propensity age color origin material attributive noun

OK, let’s see…black is a color adjective. Deaf is a human propensity adjective (more specifically, one of physical state, as opposed to mental state or behavior). So we would expect deaf black to be the usual way of ordering theses adjectives. Now let’s see what we actually get.

Searching COCA for deaf black, I got nothing. Searching for black deaf, I got two examples, both in the same sentence:

Merriweather, a member of the Atlanta Black Deaf Advocates Board and Miss Black Deaf America 1991, is featured in the October issue of the magazine.

In search of a larger sample, I turned to the NOW Corpus. For deaf black, I got a single hit:

You can imagine the delight of students when the first deaf black woman lawyer in the US visited them last Monday.

The clear winner turned out to be black deaf, which returned the following examples, among others:

  • Childress was a founding member of National Black Deaf Advocates, and established BRIDGES, an organization assisting black deaf interpreters and their clients
  • advocate, founder, fighter and creator of things that are now part of black deaf community, as well as an interpreter, ” says Fred Beam, a deaf
  • And she particularly cared about black deaf people being able to be their best selves
  • to safeguard the general health and welfare of Black deaf and hard of hearing people
  • hiring more black deaf and hearing ASL interpreters; and hosting a public town hall to update the community
  • the hiring more black deaf and ASL interpreters and black trans women, indigenous people, and others from vulnerable
  • The son of a deaf woman and volunteer with the Detroit Black Deaf Advocates, Smith hopes to one day blend his fluency in American Sign Language with
  • So now it’s the LGBT community vs. us black deaf. Sigh!
  • the Blade expressed disagreement with this person’s claim that LGBT deaf people and black deaf people at Gallaudet were at odds with each other.
  • While at the university, Whyte also met and worked with Miss Black Deaf America 2011-2013, Ericka Baylor.

What gives? Well, with black little person/people, I concluded that whereas black person/people was an ordinary phrase, little person/people was a compound noun, and that was why it didn’t get broken up by black. Maybe deaf person/people is a compound, too. Let’s run it through the same tests we did with little person/people and black person/people in the other post:

  1. Stress shift: deaf person and deaf person have the same meaning and are both acceptable depending on context. Indication: Phrasal
  2. Idiosyncratic meaning: deaf person/people has a mostly compositional meaning here. Indication: Phrasal
  3. Suitability of other nouns: deaf men, deaf women, deaf children, deaf bakers, and deaf CEOs are all still deaf people. Indication: Phrasal
  4. One-replacement: deaf people and hearing ones is grammatical. Indication: Phrasal

No luck, then. Both black and deaf seem to form phrases with the nouns they modify, so we would still expect deaf black rather than black deaf. So does Makino’s rule of thumb about closeness to your identity may work better than the adjective-ordering template when it comes to describing people? Maybe; do black Deaf people consider deafness to be a more fundamental part of their identity than their race? I don’t know. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that some do and some don’t.

Posted in Adjective ordering, Compound words | 9 Comments »

Whoever’s Team We Like

Posted by Neal on December 1, 2017

In a post from exactly one year ago, I began with a sentence that I’d heard on the “Criminal” podcast. Here’s the original sentence, followed by the way that I would express the intended thought:

  1. I’d be whoever’s girlfriend had the dope.
  2. I’d be whoever had the dope’s girlfriend.

In the original sentence, instead of the possessive ‘s attaching to the entire fused relative whoever had the dope, it attaches just to the word whoever, and takes the word girlfriend along with it. It was so unusual that I went looking for similar examples in COCA, although I ended up noticing something even more interesting that ended up taking over the rest of the post. Now, though, I want to get back to whoever’s girlfriend had the dope. As it happens, I did find an analogous example when I searched COCA. Here it is, with my paraphrase underneath it.

  1. I mean we want to have whoever’s team we like to win so that we can get lucky later.
  2. I mean we want to have whoever we like’s team to win so that we can get lucky later.

Looking at these two examples, one explanation that comes to mind is that it’s just easier to go ahead and put the possessive marker on whoever right away, and postpone saying the rest of the clause until it’s not breaking up a determiner-noun cluster. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to check for counterexamples on COCA, because searching for whoever’s is not going to bring you any examples of whoever+[some clause]+‘s.

So instead, I did some ordinary Google searches for a few whoever clauses I made from scratch. I started with whoever as a subject, and found these examples:

  1. The picture itself wasn’t scary but it would strike fear in whoever saw it’s hearts.
  2. When we did have the odd beer thrown up on stage I just wish I could go to whoever did it’s place of work, if he actually had a job, and tip it over his head and think, ‘what do you reckon? Is it funny?’
  3. Dirt Clod, just lay off if you dont like it dont buy it, its whoever buys it’s deal
  4. Well sure, but then it’s still your (or whoever bought it’s) land, so you just turf them off.

Then I created a few with whoever as an object, and found more examples:

  1. You just closed your eyes and guessed the amount of cash you put into whoever you bought it from’s hand?
  2. Yeah like /u/cmedrano said you’d just need to add your vehicle to whoever you bought it from’s account.
  3. They’ll be signed on to the alliance in a day, and then we can track down whoever you saw’s planet.
  4. Whoever you saw’s gembox spawned in the 2 hours they were able to spawn.
  5. There is an upper management level above customer service, whoever you talked to’s boss would be in that level, but they don’t generally speak directly to customers.

Evidently, some speakers are not put off by the inconvenience of putting the possessive ‘s at the end of a clause instead of directly on the whoever. How about you?

Posted in Ambiguity, Fused relatives, Pronouns | 1 Comment »

Grammar Girl episode on Proto-Indo-European

Posted by Neal on November 3, 2017

Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl) asked me to write a script about Proto-Indo-European, so I did and here it is. It ended up being my longest script for her to date, except for a two-parter I once did on active and passive voice.

Posted in Diachronic | 1 Comment »

Black Little People

Posted by Neal on October 19, 2017

My brother Glen is a fan of Game of Thrones, and recently he came across a this blog post by Adrienne Marie Brown, where she proposes an all-black cast for GoT. However, when Glen reached the bottom of the list, he realized that one important character was missing: Tyrion Lannister. For non-Thronie readers, Tyrion Lannister is played by Peter Dinklage, who before GoT was best known to me from his scene-stealing role in Elf:

You’ll have noticed that Dinklage is a little person, which is why Glen found himself wondering (in his words), “What, you couldn’t think of any black little people… um, little black people… no, black little people actors?”

His question had run him straight into the old adjective-ordering issue. According to this table that I copied from my 2011 post on this topic…

evaluation size shape condition human propensity age color origin material attributive noun

…we would expect little black person. But it’s not what we get. To find out whether little black person/people or black little person/people was more common, I had to leave the curated corpora and venture out into the larger internet, since neither phrase appeared in COCA or the NOW Corpus–with the exception of a single sentence in the NOW corpus that contained little black person twice:

I remember friends of mine saying, “yo soy negrito, pero un negrito fino,” which literally translates to “I am a little black person, but a fine little black person.”

(As it turns out, this use of the diminutive negrito in Spanish to refer to black people is a different rabbit hole to fall into, so those who are interested can start with this article.)

Doing an ordinary Google search, the only examples I found of little black person/people were translations of negrito. But searching for black little person/people, I quickly found examples such as:

  • Cara Reedy is an actor, writer, comedian, and blogger with achondroplastic dwarfism. … Reedy explains that as an individual with dwarfism, “I have to do everything everybody else does, but better. I have to be a better writer, I have to tell better jokes. I have to do everything better because everyone already believes I can’t do it. I’m a female, black, little person. It’s a lot.” (link)
  • Before she was on Little Women: LA, [Tonya] Banks was an actress. … Banks joined the entertainment industry in 1984 as an actress and stuntwoman. …
    Banks wants to be the first black little person woman to win an Academy Award. She overcame difficult odds to become the only black little person in Hollywood. (link)
  • Have seen Black little person of both sexes here in DC – one fellow who also appears to have additional handicaps, and a woman who seems otherwise unaffected by handicaps (I hesitate to use the word “normal” since I don’t want to imply anything negative about her physical appearance). (link)
  • I was also “friends” with a black little person when I worked in a pharmacy in Macon, GA. (link)
  • … notorious pinhead who inspired Verdi’s Rigoletto; and the black little person, only thirty-four inches tall, who was very happily married to a 264-pound woman. (link)
  • The black little person in the Nexium commercial (link)
  • The Midnight Thud, a “demonic” black little person dressed in S&M gear who smokes crack and knows martial arts, dwells in the bowels of the eponymous penitentiary, forced there by unknown circumstances (link)

So where did our nice adjective-ordering chart go astray?

First, notice that the final item is “attributive noun”–in other words, the first noun in a compound noun, such as table tennis. In other words, we could shorten the list by lopping off “attributive noun” and noting that compound nouns don’t get broken up.

Second, remember that ordinary adjectives can still become part of compound nouns. This happens in well-known pairs such as black bird (which could be a crow, a raven, a grackle, a black vulture, a flamingo dipped in tar, or any other bird that happens to be black), and blackbird (which has to be one of several specific species of birds). It seems that little person/people is a compound, whereas black person/people is not–or at least, not as much of one as little person/people is. So how do we know this, other than the fact that people actually use the term black little person, but by and large avoid little black person?

First of all, there’s the stress shift. Many (maybe even most) compounds in English are stressed on their first element. So for example, we have black bird, but blackbird; green house but greenhouse. (You can hear a lot more about this “backshift” in this episode of the Lexicon Valley podcast hosted by John McWhorter.) And in the case at hand, it’s little person/people. If you say little person, I’ll assume you’re just talking about some small person.

And speaking of small, notice that you pronounce small person with the stress on the noun: small person. If you said you’d seen a small person, I wouldn’t know what you meant, even though I know the meanings of small and person. This brings us to the second property of compound words: They have idiosyncratic meanings that you don’t arrive at by putting together the meanings of the individual words. A small person is just a small person, but a little person is someone with achondroplasia or some similar disorder.

This idiosyncratic meaning also reveals itself when you try replacing person/people with another word, even if it’s a word for another kind of human being. Little men, little women, and little children are not the same as little people. The reality show Little Women mentioned above, which centers on women who are little people, gets its cleverness by playing on this expectation. Note also the phrase black little person woman in that same example: Tonya Banks said this instead of the seemingly more concise black little woman. Furthermore, even if a little person is an actor, an engineer, or an asshole, calling them a little actor, little engineer, or little asshole doesn’t convey that meaning.

A third piece of evidence is the one-replacement test. Noun phrases like white cats and black ones are fine, indicating that white cats is a phrase instead of a compound. But if you try to do this with cat people and dog people, you get the ungrammatical *cat people and dog ones, which indicates that cat person and dog person are compounds. In our case, cat people and little ones won’t fly. It’s grammatical, but it doesn’t mean people who love cats and people with achondroplasia; it means people who love cats, and people who are children. Even big people and little ones doesn’t work: little is now just an antonym to big, with its ordinary meaning.

Here’s a quick comparison to see how black person/people fares with these tests:

  1. Stress shift: black person and black person have the same meaning and are both acceptable depending on context. Indication: Phrasal
  2. Idiosyncratic meaning: black person/people need not actually be the color black, so there is some idiosyncratic meaning here. Indication: Compound
  3. Suitability of other nouns: black men, black women, black children, black bakers, and black CEOs are all still black people. Indication: Phrasal
  4. One-replacement: black people and brown ones is grammatical. Indication: Phrasal

So with all these facts favoring black little person over little black person, its seeming violation of the adjective-ordering rule isn’t such a mystery after all. But getting back to the task of casting a black Game of Thrones, Glen had a more practical question: “Linguistics aside, I wonder why that website didn’t go with Tony Cox, the black little person from Bad Santa?” Why not, indeed?

So to Adrienne Marie Browne, courtesy of my brother Glen, here is the latest proposed addition to your #blackGOTcast:

Posted in Adjective ordering, Christmas-related, Compound words, TV | 3 Comments »

Another Thought Coming

Posted by Neal on April 19, 2017

Last weekend, I spent part of my Saturday afternoon marching from the federal building to the Statehouse and back with a few hundred other people demanding that Donald Trump keep his campaign promise of releasing his tax returns. There were a few hundred in the Columbus Tax March, but nothing like the thousands in the marches elsewhere across the nation. I read about them the next day in the paper, where I learned this about the Tax March that happened in Washington, D.C.:

One of Trump’s sharpest critics in the House spoke to protesters at the U.S. Capitol just before they set off on a march to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, of California, said there’s nothing to prevent Trump from releasing his income taxes.

“If he thinks he can get away with playing king, he’s got another thought coming,” Waters said.

At once, I remembered a handful of blog posts from Language Log years ago (almost ten years, it turns out). It started when Mark Liberman wondered which expression came first: to have another thing coming or another think coming. The latter has going for it the fact that another think echoes the earlier think in the idiom: If he thinks…. In other words, think again. ‘ Mere hours later, Ben Zimmer explained why the OED listed think as the earlier version, but had thing in its earliest citation, from 1919. They simply judged that think was the original, but hadn’t gotten around to finding citations to prove it yet. Ben helpfully took on the job right there, producing citations from 1897 and 1898. For those really interested in the phonetics of thing coming and think coming, Mark wrote a full-on phonetic analysis the following year. Since then, Ben’s 1898 attestation has made it into the OED, and is cited in several online discussions of another think vs. another thing. (I don’t know why his earlier example didn’t make it.)

Nowhere in that Language Log discussion was the possibility of another thought, which, as I considered it, made the most sense of all: Thought is the usual noun form of the verb think, rather than think itself pressed into service. This possibility has been batted about in various grammar discussions, such as this one from the Word Detective:

So why not just say “thought” in the first place? Because it would have ruined the symmetry of the phrase, which depends on the first “think” (“If that’s what you think”), a verb, matching the second “think” (“…you’ve got another think coming”), a noun. That’s what gives the phrase its zing.

There are also plenty of other examples of people simply using the expression another thought coming, as Rep. Waters did, without commenting on it at all.

So how far back does another thought coming go? Far enough to possibly be the original formulation of the idiom?

Well, no. The best I can do is this example from 1907, in a book called The Cho-Fur, by one Harry Morris Gordon, found in the Google Books corpus:

Interestingly, this example has thought instead of think as the antecedent, which according to the Word Detective should be the best place to find another thought instead of another think. (The passage even has another token of the word thought, which I took to be a mistake in spelling the word tough, made more likely by the tokens of thought before and after it. Doug, however, suggests that thought shell is a kenning for skull.)

In any case, I wasn’t satisfied with my Google Books example, so I headed over to the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA) to see what I could find there. Still no luck finding a pre-1897 example of another thought. The only hit was from 1942; note that the antecedent is thought instead of think(s):

an’ if Top Zuber thought he was scaring him, he had another thought coming.

Before I left, though, I also searched for another think, and was surprised to find a 30-year antedating of Zimmer’s find. Who’d’ve thunk it? I’ve included a bit more context than usual, so that the example itself makes sense:

No one looking like either was to be seen, and Tom’s mind at once went back to the vacant seats at the table. “By Jove, Ned!” he exclaimed. “I believe I have it!”
“Have what–a fit of seasickness?”
“No, but these empty seats–the persons we saw you know–they belong there and they’re afraid to come out and be seen.”
“Why should they be–if they’re not the Fogers. I guess you’ve got another think coming.”

Unlike the 1907 example from Google Books, this one doesn’t have think or thought as an antecedent. It has no antecedent verb at all, only a context that shows us someone’s thought process. Of COHA’s other 26 hits for another think coming, 15 had think(s) as an antecedent. Of the remaining 11, which I’ve listed below, seven had thought as the antecedent; two had other verbs (reckon, expect); and one had no antecedent at all, like the 1866 attestation above.

  1. And if she thought he was going to hot-foot it over to her mother’s and whine around and beg her to come home, she had another think coming. (1918)
  2. if any young college boy thought he could interfere with her career he had another think coming. (1936)
  3. And if she thought he would stay around only to hear her start tuning up, she had another think coming. (1949)
  4. If Capitol Hill newsmen ignored the story because they thought Metcalf’s resolution had no chance of being approved, they have another think coming. (1974)
  5. But if they thought they could change Moe Bernstein, they had another think coming. (1995)
  6. If this young woman thought she was going to be any luckier than the other one at slapping a paternity suit on him, she had another think coming. (2003)
  7. No sirree, if that old fool thought I was aiming to contract for a hundred chicken gizzards, he had another think coming. (1961)
  8. “If you’re reckoning to move in on this, my lad,” Peter said as they went down the veranda toward the nearly empty bar, “you have bloody well got another think coming.” (1955)
  9. If you expect me to be the little gentleman about it, you’ve got another think
    coming. (1958)
  10. And why do you look at me like that? As if I had something for you tonight! Well, sir, let me tell you, you have another think coming. (1964)

As for another thing, COHA’s earliest example of that is only from 1993, which is decades after its first known use. So it looks like another think still stands as the earlier form, with another thought arriving about 40 years later.

Now I thought I had one more thought about the Tax March before wrapping up this post. What was it? Wait, I think I feel a think coming. Closer … closer … ah, good, it’s here! So the day after the Tax March, I also read that Donald Trump had tweeted, “Someone should look into who paid for the small organized rallies.” Boy, I’ll say! I still haven’t gotten my money! Maybe I missed the organizer handing out the envelopes of cash.

Posted in Consonants, Diachronic, Ohioana, Politics | 3 Comments »


Posted by Neal on March 16, 2017

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton hit it big last year. I gradually became aware of it during the winter and spring, and eventually bought the original cast recording for my wife. The songs soon made their way onto all of our mobile devices, and the CD itself stayed in our car player for at least a month. Like any respectable musical, Hamilton has an “I Want” song near the beginning. It’s called “My Shot,” and the chorus goes like this:

I am not throwing away my shot!
I am not throwing away my shot!
Hey yo, I’m just like my country,
I’m young scrappy and hungry,
And I’m not throwing away my shot!

Aside from the audacity of rhyming country with hungry, the line caught my attention with its double-barreled discourse marker, hey yo. The hey yo was there in every repetition of the chorus, and it always had both parts: the hey and the yo. The character of Alexander Hamilton didn’t ever, just for variety, rap “Hey, I’m just like my country,” or “Yo, I’m just like my country.” Elsewhere in the play, yo shows up by itself. In fact, just a few minutes earlier, the character of John Laurens interrupts the song “Aaron Burr, Sir” with “Yo yo yo yo yo!” A few songs later, Hamilton challenges a loyalist with “Yo!” before tearing down his argument in rap form. Later still, Aaron Burr starts off with a yo before telling Hamilton that he should try to marry one of the Schuyler sisters.

Even so, I began to wonder if maybe hey and yo had begun to coalesce into a single word. That kind of thing happens frequently in language. A great example in English is the “immediate future” construction of going to. It’s gone from being pronounced as two words to being pronounced (and even written) as gonna, and for some speakers it has even merged with I’m in the first person singular, so that instead of I am going to, or I’m gonna, we get Ima.

Evidence bearing on my question about hey yo arrived before I even finished listening to the Hamilton CD. Before the end of Act 1, the character of George Washington convinces Hamilton, by way of a rap, that his talents would be better used as Washington’s personal assistant than as a soldier. In the song “Right Hand Man,” he says:

We are outgunned, outmanned,
outnumbered, outplanned.
We gotta make an all out stand
Ayo, I’m gonna need a right-hand man!

There it was again! The same two syllables in the same order, doing the same job of telling the listener to pay attention to what comes next. But looking at the liner notes, I could see that there was a difference. This time, instead of being written as two words, the interjection was written as a single word, spelled A-Y-O. The initial H was gone, but that’s a phonetically weak sound anyway. It’s always disappearing from places where it used to be. If you’ve ever taken Spanish classes, you know this from all those Spanish words that have an H at the beginning that you’re supposed to ignore, such as hablar. You’ve also encountered this phonetic instability if you’ve ever been in an argument about whether something is a historic occasion or an historic occasion. The clincher is that the chorus from “My Shot” is repeated by the ensemble later in the song, and this time, the line that rhymes country and hungry begins with ayo, this time spelled A-Y-O.

The last of the hey yo’s or ayo’s (which from now on I’ll just refer to as hey yo, in boldface italics, to indicate its status as a single lexical item) comes in the last song of Act 1, “Yorktown.” Here, once again, the ensemble sings the chorus from “My Shot,” and this time, we’re back to the spelling H-E-Y, space, Y-O. This back-and-forth with the spelling is indicative of hey yo’s status as a primarily spoken rather than written piece of the language. As a primarily spoken rather than written interjection, hey yo has not succumbed to the pressure of standardization and settled into one accepted spelling.

I got to wondering how other spellings were out there. The writer of one definition on Urban Dictionary tried to cover all bases, by tagging their definition with eight spellings, but they underestimated. Have you ever read an entry for a word in the Oxford English Dictionary and seen a dozen or more alternate spellings from 800 years ago, from before English had a standard dialect? Of course you have! That’s what I felt like when I started looking for, and finding, different spellings of hey yo.

First there’s the choice of starting with H or a vowel; that’s two possibilities. Then there’s the choice of writing it as one word, two words, or as a hyphenated word, which gives us six possibilities. Next, there’s the choice of which letter to use to spell the first vowel: E or A? That brings us to 12 possibilities. Now, let’s talk about that Y. So…ah, forget it. Just look at the table below, where I’ve laid it all out. I come up with 64 possibilities. The two from Hamilton are spellings 15 and 33.

Highlighted in green are the spellings I’ve found attested. Some of them are attested a lot, such as the hey yo and ayo spellings from Hamilton. Others were rather thin on the ground, only appearing in, say, a single Urban Dictionary entry with no likes or dislikes. In fact, I found most of my examples in Urban Dictionary. My rule is not to accept a UD definition until I’ve found independent confirmation somewhere else. In this case, though, I accepted even the attestations that I found only in a single UD entry, if the definitions were essentially the same as those for the other spellings. Here are some of the things I’ve learned.

First, hey yo is popular in song titles. For one of them, hey yo is part of the title: “Hey Yoh, Here We Go,” using spelling number 31, released in 1993 by Technotronic. For others, hey yo IS the title. For example, in 2009, Melanie Fiona released a song simply called “Ay Yo,” using spelling number 45. In that same year, Methodman and Redman released the song “A-Yo,” using spelling number 37. That’s the same spelling that was used just last year, in the title of a song by Lady Gaga. But maybe the best-known use of hey yo is in a song where it’s not part of the official title, but is listed as a secondary title. It’s “Snow (Hey Oh),” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, released in 2006. You know this one: It’s the one with the chorus that goes, “And I said hey oh, listen what I say oh.” This one uses spelling number 23.

The Chili Peppers song actually opened up a whole new direction of inquiry. The song is believed by many to be about addiction, and possibly about addiction to cocaine in particular. (This belief is also vehemently disputed, to judge from some of the posts and comment threads I read.) Why cocaine? A commenter on a webpage discussing the song’s lyrics points out the similarity of hey oh to yeyo, which is borrowed Spanish slang for cocaine–spelled llello in Spanish. After further investigation, I learned that the word yeyo (or yayo) became popular following the 1983 movie Scarface, in which Latin American drug runners referred to cocaine this way. And completing the circle, a 2003 song by Andre Nickatina is called “Ayo for Yayo,” and is definitely about cocaine. The title seems to mean “crazy for cocaine,” which means that this ayo is not a discourse marker, but an adjective, so I’m not sure we’re dealing with the same word. Besides, searching for all the possible spellings of yeyo would have meant another 32 searches, so that’s as far as I explored the drug connection.

The next thing I noticed about the variants of hey yo was that people disagreed about its origins. Some just took it to be a concatenation of hey and yo, as I did. Comments to this effect were more common in definitions where the interjection was not simply spelled as hey plus yo (in other words, spellings 14-16). For example, one definition with the E-Y-O spelling (number 39), calls it a “fast way of sayin hey yo.” Another one, with the A-Y-O spelling (number 33), says the same thing, but with a prescriptive edge: “An incredibly poor, not to mention grammatically incorrect way to say ‘Hey, yo.’

Other definers took hey yo (or more specifically, spellings 33, 39, and 44) to be derived from hey you, which I don’t buy. If you is going to be reduced, it typically turns into ya, with that unstressed schwa vowel. Yo has an unreduced /o/ vowel. Still other definition writers (such as this one for spelling number 6) seemed unaware of any connection to hey or yo, judging it to be “just another way of saying hello.”

So it looks like hey yo has indeed become a thing in its own right, not simply a combination of hey and yo, even if it did arise that way. It’s similar to how y’all isn’t simply a contraction of you plus all anymore. If it were, phrases like three of y’all and not all of y’all wouldn’t make sense, any more than *three of them all or *not all of them all do. And once a word’s connection to its components has been lost, shifts in meaning become easier. This is happening a little bit in the use of hey yo as just a greeting, as many of the definitions classify it. But I was quite surprised to learn of a possible sex-related meaning shift with hey yo.

At first, I didn’t believe it. I figured this Urban Dictionary entry for hey-o (spelling number 8) was just a test of gullibility:

Something said after a conversational phrase that could be interpreted as a sexual reference is said.
John: “Dude, did you do the Bio assignment?”
Mark: “Yes. That was so hard, it kept me up all night!”
John: “Hey-O!”
#that’s what she said #do it big #get some #awkward #last night
by atxlonestar21 September 08, 2009

But when I found it in at least seven other Urban Dictionary definitions, for spellings 15, 16, 23, 24, 33, 48, and 51, I had to take it seriously. So I started searching for irresistible double-entendre phrases followed by various spellings of hey yo, and found some examples in the wild, including:

Being a hot gay guy is just so hard. (HEY-YO!!) Like, women have no idea how easy they have it.

I am aware that my celibacy is a slightly short month… like a February. Black history and celibacy get the short end of the stick on this one, but the symbolism of Valentine’s day to the Ides of March is too good to mess with. Tomorrow is the Ides of March. The date Julius Caesar was stabbed and killed. I don’t know about killing, but ladies, beware the Ides of March because some stabbing is bound to go down. Heyo.

MB: “I suggest you all get off—” HEYO “—this planet—” ugh “—as soon as possible.”

This sexual meaning is developing its own variant meanings. For some speakers, it’s appropriate for any sexual innuendo, but for others, it highlights a homosexual one. A couple of the definitions specifically mention its functional similarity to the heteronormative phrase no homo.

So is this sexy hey yo the same hey yo that we’ve been seeing as a discourse marker or greeting? On the one hand, it sounds the same, and exhibits the same variations in spelling. On the other hand, it occurs at the end of an utterance instead of the beginning, or even stands alone, and of course there’s a big difference in meaning. Continuing the “different items” idea, we could account for the similar variations in spelling by saying that we just have a pair of homonyms that are both informal, primarily spoken items, so spelling variation is to be expected, and since they sound the same, we should expect the variations to be similar. But if they’re just homonyms, we’re still left with the question of where the sexy hey yo came from.

When I told Ben Zimmer about this use of hey yo, he pointed me to a possible connection with Ed McMahon. I didn’t regularly watch The Tonight Show back when it was hosted by Johnny Carson, but if I had watched it enough, I might have picked up on co-host Ed McMahon’s habit of saying “Hiyo!” to draw attention to a joke or insult made by Carson. Here’s an Urban Dictionary definition that explains it:

An expression originally coined by Ed McMahon during his sidekick status on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.

These days, it now is used to follow a witty response or comment to insult someone or “zing” them…
“Dad said I should be over 6 ft tall in a few years”.
“Yeah, but he also said you were going to be intelligent, but that never happened….HIYOOOOOOO”.
#hiyo #zing #clever response #humorous #funny
by Debasser! August 23, 2010

If this connection is legit, then hiyo has gone from being a general insult highlighter, to a more specific usage of highlighting a sexual insult, to a somewhat more general usage of highlighting any sexual double entendre–and along the way got absorbed into the hey yo stream, ending up with a different vowel in its first syllable. However, I would also expect to be able to do searches like “so hard hiyo” or “go down hiyo” like I did for hey yo and find at least a few hits. So far, I haven’t gotten lucky (hiyo!).

If hey yo is in your vocabulary, how do you spell it, and what does it mean to you?

Posted in Ambiguity, Lexical semantics, Music, Taboo, TV, Variation | 3 Comments »

I’ll Diagram a Sentence for You!

Posted by Neal on February 8, 2017

This is something I posted on Facebook, mainly for people who live in my adopted hometown of Reynoldsburg, Ohio. But I’m happy to extend this offer to any of my wider audience!

For the language enthusiast in your life, have a favorite proverb, punchline, or inside joke diagrammed, linguist-style. I will create a diagram like the one you see here, and email it to you for printing, framing, or social-media sharing.

The cost? A donation to Citizens To Improve Quality Of Life For Reynoldsburg, P.O. Box 1518, Reynoldsburg, Ohio, USA 43068. This is the committee that will be campaigning for an income tax increase in Reynoldsburg, which will allow the city to do some boring but essential things like repairing the sewers, and some exciting and fun things like bringing in a swimming pool and community center.

I’ve donated, and now I’m encouraging you to do the same, by adding the all-but-irresistible incentive of an enticingly visualized piece of grammatical analysis!

Suggested donation levels:

    Simple sentence, or phrase that isn’t a sentence: $20
    Compound sentence: $30
    Complex sentence: $45
    Compound-complex sentence: $60

For sentences or phrases that are particularly long, I may suggest a larger donation. For details, email me at Oh, and by the way, that node label at the top is an abbreviation for “S(entence), exclam(ative)”. Sex clam is not, as far as I know, a recognized syntactic category.

Posted in Ohioana, Syntax | Tagged: | 1 Comment »

Babbling with L

Posted by Neal on February 4, 2017


I loved this punning tweet from @ScottishScouse that ties together the Oscar-nominated movie La La Land, the Teletubbies, and Eastern Europe. It has inspired me to post another installment of Babbler’s Lexicon, featuring the /l/ series: /lala, lele, lili, lolo, lulu/.


So first off, the La La of La La Land (both the movie and the nickname for its setting) is a play on the initialism LA for Los Angeles, since la la land is also, in the OED’s words, a “state of being out of touch with reality.” Both those senses emerged at the same time: The OED’s earliest attestation for both is 1979. In fact, the Los Angeles Times is the
source of that first non-Los-Angeles-related attestation: “Heather was in la-la land after…drinking the LSD-spiked iced tea intended for Diana.” It’s also the source of an even earlier attestation, from 1925, referring not to Los Angeles, but to France; the lexicographers surmise that there’s an ooh-la-la connection in there.

laalaaIn the movie scene that @ScottishScouse used, Emma Stone’s character is wearing a bright yellow dress, just about the same color as that of the Teletubby Laa-Laa. The others, of course, are the purple one (Tinky Winky), the green one (Dipsy), and the red one (Po…get it?).

I’m actually making an exception by including Laa-Laa in this list, because these days I’m leaning toward excluding people’s names. I’m discovering that almost every sequence of two identical consonant-vowel (CV) syllables that I’m looking at has been used somewhere, at some time, as someone’s name. If I think there’s something otherwise noteworthy about a person’s name that turns up in my searches, I’ll include it, but otherwise I won’t.


After excluding several people’s names, I didn’t really find much here. A search for “lay lay” turned up an Urban Dictionary definition for a lazy person, but I haven’t found the expression used in the wild, so I’m suspicious about this one.


Not much here, either, but as for people named /lili/, there’s the actor Leelee Sobieski. Onward!


Mostly proper nouns here, too. Briefly, Lolo is the stage name for the singer Lauren Pritchard, a character in a video game, and a nickname for the founder of a chain of chicken-and-waffles restaurants. It’s also a method of birth control also known as Lo Loestrin Fe. As a common noun, LoLo refers to a kind of cargo ship that uses on-board cranes to load (“lift on”) and unload (“lift off”) the containers.

Moving on to low low is another name for a low-rider, according to a convincingly consistent collection of definitions in the the not-always-trustworthy Urban Dictionary, as well as in . Finally, on the low low is a more reduplicate-y version of on the downlow; at least it is in this video:



Lulu is a fairly common nickname (also spelled LooLoo, Loo Loo, and Lou Lou), as well as the name of a self-publishing website. According to the OED, a lulu is “A remarkable or wonderful person or thing; freq. used ironically;” a citation from 1972 goes like this: “I do hope you’re not scared of earth tremors… This one was a real lulu.”
Looloo is a travel app for the Philippines.

All in all, my /l/ series is pretty short, but not as short as my /θ/ and /ð/ series. Maybe I should get those out of the way next!

Posted in Kids' entertainment, Movies, Phonetics and phonology, What the L | 3 Comments »