Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Doug’ Category

Father’s Day Polysemy

Posted by Neal on June 20, 2011

Yesterday I sat and opened the Father’s Day gifts (yes, plural) that the wife and the boys had gotten me. Most of them were shirts and shorts. Doug was saying he thought at least one of those boxes would have been clothes that were just disguising the real gift, but no, every box with clothes in it was actually a gift of clothes. I explained that clothes really were a good gift.

“Do you know what happens when people don’t give you clothes as gifts?” I asked.


“It means you have to go out and buy them yourself. Or if you don’t, the clothes you have keep getting more worn out and crummy-looking, and then you have to buy more clothes yourself anyway.”

Yes, for me, a gift of clothes is as much a gift of time as a gift of stuff to wear. But as it turned out, my family had one more gift after all the clothes were stacked on the table and the wrapping was lying on the floor with cats crawling underneath it.

“Doug got annoyed with me,” my wife said, “when I kept saying things like, ‘Let’s give your dad his Father’s Day.'”

“I’d say, ‘Do you mean Father’s Day presents?'” Doug explained.

“Ah, nice polysemy!” I said.

My wife picked up again. “But Adam, meanwhile, would say things like, ‘After Father’s Day, we’re going out to lunch?'”

Wow, even more polysemy! In addition to referring to the day itself, my family was using Father’s Day to refer not only to gifts given for the occasion, but to the giving and receiving of those gifts, too. And most interesting of all, I thought, was that it wasn’t Adam, on the autism spectrum, who was insisting on the more literal meaning, but Doug. Adam was extending the polysemy even further than his mother was taking it.

Posted in Adam, Doug, Polysemy, The wife | 1 Comment »

We Don’t Speak the Same Language

Posted by Neal on March 23, 2011

Parents often complain that they and their teenage kids don’t speak the same language. They mean it jokingly, figuratively, but from a linguistic point of view it’s true in a literal way. Every generation of speakers has to create their native language anew from the little of it they hear. The language they end up with is like a starfish whose body has been regenerated from just one or two cut-off legs. (The analogy breaks down when you try to compare the language of the previous generation to the original starfish that has to regenerate its lost legs, but still.) When you think of it that way, it’s no surprise that language changes from generation to generation. The amazing thing is how close to the earlier generation’s language the regenerated language manages to come.

I’ve known this intellectually from the first class in historical linguistics I took, but it’s still disconcerting to find myself realizing that Doug and I speak different languages. Sure, I’ve enjoyed observing his acquisition of English and how it differs from what I speak, like when I heard him say, “That’s what he was like” to mean, “That’s what he was thinking”, or when he shared the reasoning he went through that led him to prefer on accident to by accident, or various other things you can read about in the Darndest Things tab. (One of these days, I’ll break it into separate tabs for Doug and for Adam.) But the differences have been building up, and when he talks on the phone with his friends, and laughs at dirty jokes I thought would go past him (all in his cracking voice that I hope will settle into its final form soon), I continually have to acknowledge how much of his language he’s getting from sources other than his family.

A couple of tweets I sent out last month:

Defiance! When I told my 10yo son singular of “biceps” is still “biceps”, my 12yo son dared to say he’d continue to call it “bicep” ANYWAY! (link)

More filial defiance! Son unapologetically says he will continue to call “(” a parenthesee. “Parenthesis, parenthesee, whatever.” (link)

Of course, these overgeneralizations are well-established in prior generations of English speakers, too, but the point is that while they’re not in my English, they’re entrenched in Doug’s.

Other differences between Doug’s language and mine reflect more recent developments in English. No matter how many times he says that something is “jacked up“, whether it’s a glitch in a video game or an unfair grade his friend got, I keep thinking of changing a car tire, and want to tell him, “Say ‘messed up’!”, or even the tabooed synonym that I’m almost certain must be the source of jacked up.

Need I even mention that he doesn’t use random the way I do?

But what really brought home the differences between Neal-language and Doug-language was a discussion I had with him about my most recent Visual Thesaurus column, on the possessive relative pronoun whose. Near the end, I mention the innovative form that’s, as in:

the only one that’s title has been released

That was from Doug in 2009, talking about upcoming volumes in a series of novels he was reading. I made note of Doug’s use of that’s at the time, and noticed it again a couple more times recently. And when I mentioned it to him in our conversation, did he suddenly see why that’s was so unusual? No way! He was a little surprised to learn that that’s as a possessive relative hadn’t been around for very long, but it didn’t bother him at all. He even said he’d most likely use it instead of whose in the examples I was talking about.

Doug and I are speaking different languages.

Posted in Diachronic, Doug, Pronouns, Variation | 15 Comments »

Doug Visits the Lost and Found

Posted by Neal on December 22, 2010

Last year, Doug started to get a reputation among his friends as a guy who will do crazy things. At the end-of-school pool party, his friend Ken dared him, for $5, to eat a slice of pizza that someone had dropped on the ground. Doug ate it and collected an easy $5. (When my wife found out, she was so horrified that she told him, “The next time that happens, come to me! I’ll give you $5 for not eating it!” Doug and I agreed that if that policy had been in place, he would have tried to get an offer of $20 from Ken before refusing.)

At the end of a course of eight weekly lectures on drug abuse and how to resist peer pressure, he resisted the peer pressure (and teacher pressure) to write an essay that concluded with his pledge not to abuse drugs. He wrote that the program had provided some good information, but could be improved by not glossing over issues like medicinal marijuana, and that although he didn’t plan to abuse drugs, it wouldn’t be because of a pledge that was involuntary and therefore meaningless. According to Doug, it was the only essay to get a round of applause from the students.

Last Friday, Doug came into the lunchroom carrying a green glove that his friends didn’t recognize. As he sat down to eat, Ken asked, “Where’d the glove come from?”

Doug said, “I picked it up at the Lost and Found.”

“You just took it from the Lost and Found?”


Ken began to laugh. This was crazy! He turned to the others at the table. “Hey, guys, Doug just took this glove from the Lost and Found!”

They laughed in disbelief. You just never knew what kind of random stunt Doug would pull. But after a minute or so their amusement turned to concern.

“Doug, you can’t just go taking stuff from the Lost and Found!”

“Doug, why would you want that glove?”

“Doug, this is not cool, man!”

“Well,” Doug said, “it is mine….”

I had been less than happy when Doug came home with only one of his new green gloves on the very first day he wore them. Good for him for taking the initiative to look for it at the Lost and Found. And way to violate the Maxim of Quantity for fun and laughs!

Posted in Doug, Quantity and Relevance | 6 Comments »

You Don’t Shoot ‘Em and They Fall Over

Posted by Neal on September 17, 2010

Perhaps you remember Doug’s campaign to get some rated-M first-person shooter games. Well, now he has one. He’s been playing Metal Gear Solid, and even now, with the game in his possession, he still likes to mention the game’s redeeming features. The protagonist smokes, but his health suffers for it. If you have him spend too much time in combat, he begins to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. You’re penalized if you kill too wantonly, and rewarded if you avoid doing so. And instead of always shooting with an ordinary gun, a lot of the action is done with a tranquilizer gun. Doug was telling me about what happens when you shoot enemy soldiers with a tranquilizer:

You don’t shoot ’em and they fall over. They still chase you around for a minute.

While Doug was telling me some further details, I was busy writing down the quotation I set out above. It’s another wide-scoping operator! The negation don’t is syntactically a part of just the first clause: You don’t shoot ’em. But semantically it scopes over both clauses. If this weren’t the case, and you just read these as you would any other pair of clauses joined by and, here’s the meaning you’d get:

  1. You don’t shoot the soldiers.
  2. The soldiers fall over (for no apparent reason).

But that’s not what Doug means. He means:

    It’s not true that:
  1. You shoot the soldiers.
  2. The soldiers fall over right away.

One clause can be true, or the other can, or maybe neither is true. But you don’t get both of them true. So if Doug shoots the soldiers, making (1) true, then (2) has to be false: The soldiers don’t fall over right away. And before they do, they can call for backup, which arrives in overwhelming force and always finds you. In fact, even if they don’t manage to complete the call, headquarters will send reinforcements to check things out when the soldier who made the call doesn’t respond. And most unfair of all, Doug says, is that one time there was a guy who didn’t get hit with a tranquilizer, who went around and woke the others back up!

Posted in Doug, Pop culture, Wide-scoping operators | 5 Comments »

I Fruck Out

Posted by Neal on August 13, 2010

If you’ve clicked over here after reading my guest script for Grammar Girl on swearing, thanks for visiting! You might enjoy browsing the categories Taboo and Potty On, Dudes!

It’s funny that that episode should have gone out today, in light of a turn the conversation took at lunch today. Doug was telling Adam about making his way past some guards in a videogame, and mentioned how he “snuck” past them. That reminded me of various discussions I’ve read about the word snuck, like this one at Language Log, and this one from Sentence First (which I linked to a few months ago). The interesting thing about it, I told Doug and Adam, is that it’s a verb that started out with a regular past tense, sneaked, and recently developed an irregular one, instead of the more usual opposite direction.

“The subject came up on Twitter,” I said, “and one guy said something like…”

Turns out ‘snuck’ is a relatively recent Americanism. When I learned that, I totally fruck out.
(From dbarefoot)

“That sounds too much like the F-word,” Adam said.

“You’re right. Maybe that’s why it hasn’t caught on,” I said. In writing the Grammar Girl episode, I wanted to say something about this phenomenon of taboo words contaminating phonetically similar but semantically and etymologically unrelated words, such as feck, niggardly, or Uranus, but had to cut the material for length considerations. It’s interesting that taboo can have such an effect, but it doesn’t always take, as attested by the continued use of words such as ship, sheet, puck, fact, fax, flack, flak, and fleck. (Although the phonetic resemblances have certainly served as the basis for taboo-related puns, like “Let’s make like a hockey player, and get the puck out of here!”) As far as I know, no one has a good explanation for the occasional absence of this taboo effect.

In the same vein, if a word’s multiple meanings include a taboo meaning, that meaning can come to drive out the non-taboo meanings. This can happen whether the word in its taboo sense is actually considered vulgar (for example beaver), or socially acceptable (for example, arouse). Linguistics textbooks will sometimes point out the case of cock and ass, whose jobs had to be taken over by rooster and donkey. But on the other hand, hello, dam, damage and damp haven’t suffered.

The ironic thing is that even people who have no problem with using actual cuss words will often avoid taboo-contaminated words. Are there words you won’t use because they sound too close to an obscenity, a profanity, or even an acceptable word for a taboo topic?

Posted in Adam, Doug, Irregular verbs, Taboo | 10 Comments »

I Need Addictionary!

Posted by Neal on July 14, 2010

Doug has been pushing for us to let him play rated-M first-person shooter video games. It’s not enough that he gets to play these games when he visits his friends, whose parents (he has often told us) almost all let their kids play them. No, he wants them here in our house, where he can play them any time he wants, and where they’ll generate new conflicts when it comes to whether Adam can play them too.

Ah, the good times he and his friends have had playing these games! There was that sleepover birthday party he went to last month, when they played video games, drank Mountain Dew, and watched Jackass on TV all night. (Literally: There was no lights-out time, not even an exhilaratingly late one like one or two AM.) It was so funny when his character managed to sneak up behind another one and shoot him point blank in the head! And when they threw a sticky grenade at one of the characters and he couldn’t get rid of it in time, watching the expression on that character’s face as he died on the instant replay cracked everybody up.

Details like these weren’t helping Doug’s case, so now he talks more about how some game has killing, but not so much blood. And how he’s learned from a friend that the only reason some other game got an M is a single sex scene. And how you automatically lose some games if you kill an innocent character or someone on your team.

And why is it that rated-M games have become so important to Doug? Well, he’s just discovered, through playing them at friends’ houses, that he really likes first-person shooters. “They’re addicting games,” he says.


In several conversations about video games, the word addicting has come out of Doug’s mouth, so I finally had to ask: Did some of his friends say addicting and others addictive, or did most of them say addicting? Doug didn’t have to think about it: “They all do.” He added that there was also a popular web site called

I was curious how long addicting had existed alongside addictive, so I did some Internet searching, and one of the first things I found was that Grammar Girl (aka Mignon Fogarty) had done an episode on this topic. Go ahead and read it or listen to it. I’ll wait, and pick up where she leaves off. (But don’t make me wait too long. If you want to read or listen to the episode I wrote for her that came out last Friday, do that some other time, OK?)

So now that you’re back, you know that Fogarty wrote:

Addicting is the participle adjective of the verb to addict, just as annoying is the participle adjective of the verb to annoy. I don’t think anyone would say that you can’t describe someone as annoying, and similarly it is OK to describe TV as addicting.

Right: Addicting is just a present participle, like amazing, boring, interesting, fulfilling, frightening, or Fogarty’s example, annoying. So why should there even be a controversy about it? Why should this episode have attracted comments like this one from a commenter going by Drewmass?

I love that this is debated at all, let alone this hotly! For the first twenty or so years of my life, I never heard “addicting” used as an adjective, so to me, it sounds really, really wrong. It’s like saying someone is “attracting” when you clearly mean that they’re “attractive.” I agree that language should change over time, but using “addicting” as an adjecting — uh, adjective — is a little too inventing for my taste.

Or this one from a commenter named Trish, which expresses a similar thought, but more confrontationally:

the only way the american language “evolves” is when less educated people start beginning to adopt words and misusing them. eventually become more widely accepted by an ignorant society. it’s addictive. i will say that i can see how “addicting” could be used as a transitive verb, but definitely not as an adjective.

The only reason I can see for there being any question about addicting at all is the fact that addictive was already doing the job that addicting is doing now. But why is that bad? Why isn’t there room in this town for the both of them?

There are two problems. First is something I mentioned in my column at Visual Thesaurus about awesome and awful: “Even today, when two words share just one meaning, speakers look for, imagine, or create meaning differences.” And if they can’t create a difference, it seems, then one of the words will have to go. This tendency has been even more pronounced in people who have made it their business to write about the English language. As Jan Freeman noted in a recent column, from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s,

[i]f two words overlapped in sense — admission and admittance, avoid and avert, generally and usually, hurry and hasten, partially and partly — some usage adviser would come up with a rule to guide the choice.

In fact, it has happened with addictive/addicting. A Charles Carson left this comment on the Grammar Girl episode, which posits a distinction between the two words that (I suspect) he just made up on the spot:

I would argue that “addictive” and “addicting” are both acceptable, but they have different meanings. “Addictive” is an adjective used to describe something that causes an addition to itself, as in “an additive drug” or “television is addictive.” “Addicting” is derived from the verb “addict,” which means ‘to cause someone to have an addiction to something else’, as in GG’s example “Amy was addicting Steve to Scrabble.” Therefore, “addicting” is only correct as a predicate adjective if it’s describing a person or thing that gets someone addicted to something else. For example, one wouldn’t say “Cigarettes addict children” but would say “Tobacco companies addict children to cigarettes.” Therefore, “Amy is addicting” in that “she addicted Steve to Scrabble” but “Scrabble is addictive.” It is possible that this subtle distinction will be or already has been lost.

I even entertained the idea of a meaning distinction myself, wondering if Doug and his friends might use addicting for (putatively) harmless things like video games, chocolate, or perhaps love, and addictive for drugs. But when I asked him, he said no, they’d use addicting across the board.

The other problem with addicting is what linguists call morphological blocking. If a word can be derived by regular morphological processes (affixes, compounding, etc.), but a word with the same root with the desired meaning already exists, then the derivation is blocked. For example, even though comfortable could in theory give rise to comfortability or comfortableness, it doesn’t, because the noun comfort already exists.

Make that, the derivation is usually blocked. Sometimes it goes through anyway, as addicting shows.

However, of addictive and addicting, which really came first? The source verb, addict, entered the language in the late 1500s, so it would have been sometime after that. The earliest attestation in the OED for both addictive and addicting is in a single citation from 1939:

1939 Harper’s Mag. Nov. 644 A chemico-pharmacological search for non-addicting drugs to replace morphine and the other addictive ones.

The Google News Archive has earlier results; its earliest attestation for addictive is from an 1853 New York Times article:

Now these truly addictive results having been so long conceded, it is not strange that good people would put an end to the iniquitous sale and abuse of …

As for addicting, it usually appears as a reflexive verb in prior to the 20th century, as in “addicting himself to opium”, in places where we’d usually use the phrase getting addicted these days. (Maybe there’s something interesting to say here about societal opinions of personal responsibility back then. Or about better understanding of addiction now.) The first attestation of addicting as an adjective that I’ve found is just a couple of years before the OED‘s, in a 1937 article in the Hartford Courant:

Of itself, Marihuana is not an addicting narcotic. (link)

Prefixed with non, it appears a few years earlier still, in The New York Times in 1934:

scientists are pushing ahead in efforts to achieve a non-addicting substitute for morphine (link)

So addicting is pretty clearly the newcomer here, as people have thought. But is it suddenly gaining popularity, and displacing addictive? The Corpus of Contemporary American English has 94 tokens of addicting from 1990 to the present. Of them, 28 are from 1990-1994; 36 from 1995-1999; 15 from 2000-2004; and 15 from 2005-2009. Addictive, for comparison, has about 300-400 hits for each of those periods, so addicting is nowhere near overtaking it. Furthermore, if anything, addicting has been used less in the last ten years than it was in the decade before that. It probably just seems like more than that because it’s more noticeable: a case of the Frequency Illusion.

Still, I’m left with the question of why speakers would have created the word addicting. Why didn’t morphological blocking nip it in the bud? Taking a wild guess, I’ll say that maybe speakers were exposed more to the word addicted than to the word addictive. With the word addicted, you can deduce the existence of the verb addict, and from there get to addicting. If you have hypotheses of your own, let’s hear them. And which word do you use? Do you use both?

Posted in Doug, Lexical semantics, Variation | 20 Comments »

Books That I Want to Come Out or Get

Posted by Neal on June 15, 2010

I was ripping sheets out of a memo pad this morning, trying to find a blank one for a grocery list, when I came across one with two quotations from Doug, dated October 18, 2008. I guess I meant to write about them at some point, so why not now? Here’s the first one, with Doug talking about a lot of books in series he was reading whose next volume was to be published soon, or was already available:

There’s quite a few books that I want to come out or get.

Let’s expand that out into two sentences. First, there’s

There’s quite a few books that I want __ to come out.

Here, want is a verb that takes an NP and an infinitive as its complements: You want something to happen. The gap I’ve left in the sentence corresponds to that NP complement of want, which has been left out in order to form the relative clause that I want __ to come out, which modifies books.

Now the other sentence:

There’s quite a few books that I want to get __.

In this sentence, want just takes an infinitival complement: You want to do something. The gap here corresponds to the direct object of get, which has been left out in order to form the relative clause I want to get __, which again modifies books.

What I find interesting is that a single token of want is used in two ways, with different syntactic requirements and slightly different semantics. I wrote about this kind of thing in my dissertation, where I had another example a lot like Doug’s, taken from a newspaper article in 2001 or 2002. It was a handwritten list confiscated from a high school girl, which got her in a lot of trouble in the post-Columbine atmosphere. The list was titled:

People I want to kill or die

That is, all persons x such that she wanted to kill x, or wanted x to die. Actually, since then I’ve realized this construction could be parsed a different way. It could also be a relative clause like the one in “things you have to do or suffer the consequences”: She could theoretically meant “persons x such that I want to kill x or die as a consequence of my failure to kill x.” But in context, it was clearly a structure like Doug’s.

The other Doug quotation was:

Here comes him.

Not much to say here except to note it’s another illustration of the colloquial rule for use of nominative pronouns: Use them only as simple subjects that come before their verb (e.g. Here he comes). Use objective in all other cases: coordinated subjects (me and him have the same teacher), standalone pronouns (Him?), predicate nominatives (It was him), and in this example, subjects that come after their verb.

Posted in Doug, Fillers and gaps, Non-ATB coordinations, Pronouns, Syntax | 10 Comments »

Or Will We Have?

Posted by Neal on April 11, 2010

Doug likes to say he has no interest in the kind of linguistic stuff I talk about, but every now and then something will catch his ear. For a while, there was a videogame that Doug and Adam had been helping each other on, and one day Adam said to Doug that after they completed their current quest, “We will have gotten all the items!” (Nice future perfect tense, Adam!)

“Yeah!” Doug said. But his confidence was quickly replaced by doubt. “Or will we?”

A pause. Then: “Or will have we? Or have we?” I was charmed by his grappling with the finer points of subject-auxiliary inversion, verb-phrase ellipsis, and perfect tenses. For the record, he should have said, “Or will we have?”

Or should he have?

Posted in Doug, Ellipsis, Inversion, Syntax | 7 Comments »

Doug and Adam Say Peyton

Posted by Neal on February 15, 2010

A couple of posts back, I wrote about my pronunciation of Peyton and similar words. My ordinary pronunciation, you may recall, was [pʰejʔtn] or [pʰejʔn], illustrated in the spectrogram below:

My ordinary pronunciation of Peyton

(Sound file: My normal pronunciation of Peyton)

My wife says it the same way. Here’s a spectrogram of her saying Peyton; note the 75nmilliseconds of silence, highlighted in orange, where she has a glottal stop:

My wife's pronunciation of Peyton

I discussed two other pronunciations as well, which I called the careful pronunciation and the weird pronunciation. Commenter Dw said:

Another possible pronunciation in words like “Peyton” is an alveolar stop with nasal release (in IPA, [pʰejtn]). That is the one I myself would most likely use in normal conversation. One could easily imagine it becoming [pʰejʔn] over the generations.

In other words, my only pronunciations where the final vowel dropped out and the final [n] became syllabic also had the insertion of the glottal stop [ʔ]. Dw is pointing out that you don’t have to insert a [ʔ] in order for that to happen. I responded to Dw:

Funny you should mention this other pronunciation. … Despite this physical possibility, I’d still thought that only people who inserted the glottal stop did the syllabic [n] … until I learned someone very close to me was an exception.

I promised a follow-up, and here it is. Take a look at Doug’s pronunciation of Peyton below. When I recorded him saying it, it sounded like he was pronouncing it the same way as I did. But when I created a spectrogram for it, I was in for a surprise:

Doug's pronunciation of Peyton

(Sound file: Doug’s pronunciation of Peyton)

As best I can tell, the ey and syllabic [n] parts are as labeled, leaving only the teeny little sliver of silence between them. I think this is where he says his [t]. In any case, there’s definitely no stretch of silence corresponding to a glottal stop like there is in my and my wife’s spectrograms. Once I realized this, I wanted to get a recording of Adam, too, to find out if his pronunciation was more like Doug’s, or my wife’s and mine. Here’s a spectrogram of Adam saying Peyton:

Adam's pronunciation of Peyton

(Sound file: Adam’s pronunciation of Peyton)

Adam’s spectrogram is even harder to read than Doug’s. There doesn’t quite seem to be an area of silence, so I’ve made my best guess at where his [t] is. But as with Doug’s spectrogram, one thing is clear: There’s no glottal stop in there.

So is it coincidence that the two adults in my house insert a glottal stop in Peyton and the two kids don’t? Is Doug and Adam’s pronunciation like those of their peers? What about when they pronounce pate? So many questions…

Posted in Adam, Doug, Phonetics and phonology | 18 Comments »

Witcha Pants on the Ground

Posted by Neal on January 26, 2010

Doug and Adam have been watching the American Idol auditions for the past couple of weeks. It was Doug who wanted to do it, but I figure it’s a good thing to do just for socialization purposes, like learning to watch football. I didn’t figure out until my first year in high school that the reason I’d come to school some week and hear everyone singing some new song was that they listened to the radio! And not just when they were in the car with their parents, but in their own rooms, on stations they chose themselves! Oh, and they also watched some cable channel called MTV or something, I came to understand.

I can just imagine if these American Idol auditions had been on the air when I was Doug or Adam’s age. For the past two weeks, I would have been wondering, “Where the hell did this ‘pants on the ground’ song come from, and why is everyone singing it all of a sudden?” But not Doug and Adam: They laughed at General Larry Platt’s audition when it came on, chanted it with their friends at school the next day, and found a dozen clips of it on YouTube the next afternoon.

What, you haven’t heard “Pants on the Ground”? Well, watch the video! It’s a riot: a 62-year-old African-American busts out with a rap making fun of the more ridicule-worthy aspects of hip-hop culture. It’s like the kind of rant Bill Cosby sometimes does nowadays, except funnier.

So what’s the linguistic point of all this? I’ll start by writing out the first few lines, indicating the pronunciation. I don’t think I need to go so far as to use the IPA for it; I’ll just use an apostrophe to indicate a sound missing (from the standard pronunciation), and the in parentheses to indicate a nasalized vowel in pa(n)’:

Pants on the groun’
Pants on the groun’
Lookin’ like a foo’ with yo’ pants on the groun’!
With the gol’ in your mouth, hat turn’ sideway’
Pa(n)’ hit the groun’, call yourself a coo’ cat
Lookin’ like a foo’
Walkin’ downtown with yo’ pants on the groun’, get it up!

Platt’s pronunciation has a number of features typical of African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). (The following is taken from Wikipedia, in an entry backed up by many academic citations.)

  1. “Homorganic final consonant clusters (that is, word-final clusters of consonants that have the same place of articulation) that share the same laryngeal settings are reduced.” Ground is pronounced groun’; turned as turn’: [n] and [d] are both made with the tongue tip; both are voiced; and the second one in the cluster disappears. Similarly for gold with its [l] and [d].
  2. “AAVE is non-rhotic, so the rhotic consonant /r/ is usually dropped if not followed by a vowel.” Platt pronounces your as yo. (This is not exclusively an AAVE feature; other dialects of English are also non-rhotic.)
  3. “/l/ is often deleted in patterns similar to that of /r/ and, in combination with cluster simplification (see above), can make homophones of toll and toe, fault and fought, and tool and too. Homonymy may be reduced by vowel lengthening and by an off-glide [ɤ].” Platt pronounces fool as foo (or maybe it could be spelled foow, to represent the off-glide).
  4. “[F]inal consonants may be deleted (although there is a great deal of variation between speakers in this regard). Most often, /t/ and /d/ are deleted. … Nasal consonants may be lost while nasalization of the vowel is retained.” Platt pronounces sideways as sideway, and pants in what I’ve written as the fifth line as pa(n)’.

There’s also the pronunciation of the suffix -ing as -in, but that’s so common in American English in general that I’m not putting it in the above list. However, there’s one feature of AAVE that Platt doesn’t have, or at least, doesn’t use when he performs this song. As Wikipedia puts it: “Word-medially and -finally, /θ/ is realized as either [f] or [t]….” I listened to Platt’s performance on American Idol and in The View, and he’s very consistent. As far as I can tell, he pronounces mouth as mouth, not mouf, and with he definitely pronounces as with, not wif or wit.

For speakers who do pronounce with as wit, there’s an interesting consequence when it comes before a y sound. In many dialects of English, the sequence [tj] becomes [tʃ] (especially when the following vowel is [u]), an example of a process called affrication. Thus, I know what you want becomes I know whatchu want; Tuesday becomes Chewsday; and (for some British English speakers) tune becomes chune. In AAVE, wit’ you / wit’ ya becomes witchu / witcha. (But wit me does not become *witch me, and wit her doesn’t become *witch her.)

I noticed Platt’s pronunciation of with from the first time I saw his audition, because I was expecting him to say witcha pants on the groun’, and in all the times he repeated that phrase, it was always with yo’ pants on the groun’. But when Doug sings it, he puts in all the AAVE features he’s absorbed from black classmates or rap songs, and corrects with yo’ to witcha. So do all his friends, he says. “It just sounds better,” he tells me, “along with foo for fool.” He agrees that that’s not how Platt actually sings it, but suspects that most of his friends probably think it is. There are certainly lots of people on the Internet who evidently think so.

If I were a sociolinguist, I’d probably have something interesting to say about construction of identity through use of various dialect features, but I’m not. If any sociolinguists are reading this, I’m interested to hear your opinion.

Posted in Affricates, Doug, Variation | 3 Comments »


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