Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

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 either 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:

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2 Responses to “Black Little People”

  1. M. Makino said

    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”.

    • Neal said

      Good point, although I think a more intuitive way to put it would be to say “closest to the noun” rather than “last.” Your point gives me an idea for another collocation battle to carry out in a corpus: “Deaf” vs. “black”.

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