Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Variation’ Category


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 »

Pretty Salad

Posted by Neal on May 30, 2015


Sofra Salad, by snowpea&bokchoi, Creative Commons

“All right,” I said. “So was there anything else you wanted to ask about?”

Jenna, a student from the semantics class I was teaching, had come in with some questions about lambda calculus, and we had spent about half an hour doing some practice derivations.

She smiled as she packed up her notebook. “No, pretty salad!”

That was a new one on me. It reminded me of the expression Cool beans!, which I first heard in the late 1980s. Was this what kids were saying now? Awesome beans were out, and good-looking salad was in? This required further investigation.

“Oh, is that an expression where you’re from?”

Jenna hesitated.

“You know, pretty salad. Is that like cool beans?”

“Uh, no,” Jenna said. “I just meant, I think I’ve got it pretty salad.”

Suddenly I realized. “Wait! You’re from Rochester, right?”


“Still, that’s prime Northern Cities Shift territory!”

She hadn’t heard of it. “You mean you haven’t heard of the biggest shift in English vowel pronunciation since the Great Vowel Shift of Elizabethan times?”

Nope. So I gave her the relevant highlight: the vowel in socks sounds like the vowel in sax. In her case, working backwards, what I thought was salad was actually solid. And in fact, she did have it pretty solid; she ended up with an A in the course.

Finally, it seems that “pretty salad” really is a thing. I’m not sure I get the joke in this piece of sketch comedy I found, but pretty salad is a big part of it.

Posted in Food-related, Variation, Vowels | 3 Comments »

Getting on the Bae Train

Posted by Neal on January 5, 2015

Last March, while prowling through my son’s and his friends’ social media timelines (this is called “creeping,” by the way), I noticed the word bae starting to appear. “How long have people been saying that?” I wondered, and whenever I wonder that, it means I might have a good topic to write about for Visual Thesaurus. So I pitched the idea to Ben Zimmer; he gave the go-ahead, and over the next week or so, also provided helpful leads to follow up involving bae in several internet memes. When Ben published my column, he gave it the title I wish I’d thought of, “Bae Watch“. And having satisfied my curiosity, I moved on to other topics.

As it turns out, though, other writers on language were just beginning to get interested in bae, and Ben watched the developments with interest. In July, he sent me an email:

It’s funny … your column still gets widely shared (I think because it appears near the top of Google search results for various “bae” searches)…

He included a link to a column in Time magazine by Katy Steinmetz, who went over in much less detail both the almost certainly bogus origin of bae (it stands for “before anyone else”), and the more boring and more likely origin (it was just shortened from babe), inspired by the release of Miley Cyrus and Pharrell Williams’s song “Come Get It, Bae.” Although we covered some of the same ground, it was Steinmetz, and not me, who was targeted for criticisms like this one:

It wasn’t enough to determine the gist from the context of the sentence. Nah, she had to take it three steps further, starting with an etymology and ending with an example and her ability to use it in a sentence. With extra credit. … TIME needn’t covet, claim, or break “bae” down for us, though. We already use it, so let us have it. We got this.

Similar sentiments were expressed in this post by Yesha Callahan in The Grapevine, which went on to say

Next up, Time will attempt to explain the term “turnt up” by explaining that it’s not actually something you do to your thermostat in the winter.

A later piece in The Root took this thought and expanded it into a whole list of slang terms that Time should take on next. It was clearly a sarcastic list, but to tell the truth, I’d be interested in learning more about the origin and spread of several of these. In fact, turnt was the subject of my April Visual Thesaurus column, and I may yet write a piece on or nah?

Two days later, Ben emailed me again to tell me, “Everybody’s getting on the ‘bae’ train…” (another play on words, which I’ve stolen for this post), this time with a link to an article by Natasha Zarinsky on the Esquire website. This article was annoying. It spent a lot of time speculating about the origin of bae and concluding that no one really knows, when, it seemed to me, she could have just read my column and had her answer. So I left a somewhat ungracious comment, to which Zarinsky and some others responded:

I'm not particularly proud of this comment, but there it is.

In addition to the comment by Jacob Difiore, an earlier comment that seems to have been deleted asked me, “Sarcastic much?” before observing that I didn’t have a copyright on an idea. True enough, but I still say that after Zarinsky found and read my column, it would have been better to change the tone of her piece from “We just don’t know” to something else. (As an aside, it’s interesting that Difiore called me “that big of an asshole” instead of just “that big an asshole”. This was one of the first topics I blogged about.)

Things died down for a few months, until Steinmetz revisited bae in November to include it in a list of nominees for words to be banned, which was called racist and sexist. (The winner was feminist.)

Last month, Ben emailed me again, saying, “Your piece is still generating heated discussion!”, linking to some tweets that took me to an article in by Rhodri Marsden in The Independent, complaining about the word bae. After his article was published, Marsden got into a pissing match with a guy named Larry Fisherman (handle @eynahK) on Twitter. Fisherman seems to have removed his tweets on the matter, but from what I remember, he took issue with Marsden’s failure to do even the minimal research that would have told him that bae was an acronym for “before anyone else.” Looking for support, Marsden tweeted Fisherman a link to my column, to which Fisherman responded that that was just one source, compared to the many people who say otherwise. Then Marsden came back with two more tweets, which basically said “Oh, yeah?” and “So there!”

Next came the Dec. 27 entry for bae in the new online resource The Right Rhymes, “a historical dictionary of hip-hop slang based on a corpus of rap lyric transcriptions.” This is a great source for hip-hop slang, even better than Genius (formerly RapGenius), because it has better date citations. Their earliest is from 2007, in Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”:

Hey, bae, lately, you been all on my brain

Most recently (to my knowledge) are two pieces from last week, both on Dec. 30. First, there’s James Hamblin’s article in The Atlantic, which declares bae to have become so popular, and its meaning to have become so diluted, that it is effectively dead. Hamblin cites both Steinmetz’s and my articles, and links to an August YouTube video by William Haynes that’s still promulgating the “before anyone else” story. It’s hard to say if Haynes is serious about the origin, since the rest of the video is tongue-in-cheek.

Finally, there’s Katy Waldman’s post on Slate’s Lexicon Valley blog, talking about the Twitter feed @BrandsSayingBae, which collects all the tweets from corporations that are trying to be hip on social media by using slang such as bae.

So that’s the year in bae. Have I missed some sources? Leave a comment!

Posted in Music, Uncategorized, Variation | 5 Comments »

Interdental L for Emphasis

Posted by Neal on December 30, 2013

“Who put Blackfish on our Netflix queue?” my wife asked.

“Oh, that was me. Entertainment Weekly recommended it.”

She didn’t want to watch it, though, so I ended up watching the documentary on killer whales in captivity myself, while I wrapped Christmas presents last week. It was a well-done film, and it was short enough that I even watched the DVD extras while I finished wrapping. They included an interview with marine biologist Dr. Naomi Rose, in a segment called “The Truth About Wild Whales.”

At the end of the interview, Rose was asked whether she thought Sea World should be shut down. She finessed the answer by saying that as a business, Sea World would do what its customers demanded, and offered this advice about how customers could make their wishes known:

They have to [pause] write a letter. [pause] Change their vacation plans. [pause] Let Sea World know they changed their vacation plans.

Dr. Rose as she begins to say "letter".

Dr. Rose as she begins to say “letter”.

Dr. Rose as she begins to say "Let".

Dr. Rose as she begins to say “Let”.

I had to put down the scissors and the wrapping paper and rewind the video to the beginning of that statement to watch and listen to it more closely. There it was! In the first sentence, Rose pronounced the /l/ at the beginning of the word letter in the way it’s described in texts on English phonetics: with the tip of her tongue behind her front teeth. But in the third sentence, she pronounced the /l/ at the beginning of let with the tip of her tongue between her top and bottom front teeth, in the same position as it would be if she were pronouncing /θ/ (as in thick) or /ð/ (as in this). In other words, she was pronouncing it as an interdental sound rather than an alveolar one.

This is a pronunciation that I learned about about 10 years ago from some college students in southern central Ohio. Now that I think more about it, I imagine that probably most English speakers pronounce /l/ this way when it comes right before /θ/ or /ð/, as in healthy or all this. I blogged about this pronunciation back in 2005, and linked to a post on the Linguist List on the subject. Since that link no longer works, here’s a fresh one. In the post, Mark Jones sums up responses from other list members, some of whom note that the interdental pronunciation seems to be used for emphasis, or when a speaker is hyperarticulating. That, I think, is what’s going on in Rose’s interview. Before she says let Sea World know, she pauses slightly and leans forward; and as she says it, she speaks at a higher volume.

Whether or not you’re interested in Dr. Rose’s interdental and alveolar /l/s, I recommend watching Blackfish. I wish I’d seen it before taking Adam to Sea World in San Antonio when we went down for my sister’s wedding in May.

Posted in Movies, Variation, What the L | 3 Comments »

What’s Happening with Because?

Posted by Neal on July 12, 2013

My brother Glen send me a link to this article on the best Disney Pixar movies as rated by children. He’d noticed something about the kids’language, and was wondering if I would notice it, too. I did. It had to do with their use of because. Here are all the children’s comments that used because:

  1. “Because there’s bad guys, and Mater, and Lightning McQueen, and SPIES!” (Max, 5)
  2. Elliot, 4, disagreed, saying, “I didn’t like it, because it has rats, and I don’t like rats.”
  3. Max, 5, said it was one of his favorites, “Because Evil Emperor Zurg!”
  4. [T]hey liked it “because there’s a turtle that’s so funny, it swims away” (Lily, 6)
  5. Some younger viewers took the opposite view, giving high ratings because “race cars are funny” (Wilson, 4), and “because they race” (Gideon, 4).
  6. Gideon, age 4, gave it his highest rating “because I like Mike Wazowski,” while Franny, age 8, did the same “because I like Sully.”
  7. Others, like Madison, 4, liked it for different reasons: “Because the day care. I like the day care parts.”
  8. Alex, 5, listed Up as his favorite, “Because Russell throws his GPS out the window and he’s so funny and he can make birds with his hands.”
  9. Reasons included “Because Sully can really roar” (Max, 5), “Because Mike has braces in his teeth” (Alex, 5), and “Because it was funny and a monster fell off a bed” (Harry, 4).
  10. Liam, 6, agreed about the roaring, listing Monsters U as his favorite “because the part where Sully has the big roar and scares all the policemen.”
  11. Franny, 6, gave it a high rating “because I like the dad.”
  12. Elliot, 4, said, “I didn’t like it, because Sid is mean and he smashes all the toys.”

Did you notice it? Items 3, 7, and 10 had because followed by a noun phrase, and nothing else; in other words, used in the same way that Glen, I, and most other English speakers would use because of. Although I can use because to introduce just a noun phrase, for me it’s a metalinguistic use. For example, if I were fumbling for words, I might say something like

…because, you know, the thing you were talking about.

It seems to me that somewhere a few years ago, when a long-awaited new release of the video game Skyrim had just come out, I saw an xkcd comic, or a tweet from Ed Cormany, saying something about not doing what they should have been doing, “because Skyrim.” I was unable to find the comic or tweet or whatever it was, but again, the impression I got was that the speaker didn’t have available the working memory needed in order to construct a full clause to explain, because they are so engrossed in thinking about or playing their new game, and they figure that’s all the explanation their audience really needs anyway.

Glen brought up some other metalinguistic examples in which because introduces a single-word or single-phrase exclamation. He quoted one from a reviewer’s synopsis of the TV show he used to write for:

The Fringies arrive at a giant hanger on a military base where they are waved in by some soldiers after a meandering exchange between Bishop and one of the soldiers regarding grape bubble gum because MAD SCIENTIST!

Simply saying “Mad scientist!” all by itself is an acceptable utterance. Although it’s not a complete sentence, it tells the listener, “Look, a mad scientist!” As a complement to because, it seems to say, “…Bishop is a mad scientist, as we regular viewers well know, and has a powerful sweet tooth, for milkshakes, red licorice, and other hip and quirky candy, and by now I shouldn’t even have to tell you this.” The because plus just the noun phrase, uttered with excitement, conveys sarcasm or disdain, too, it seems. Glen says that this particular reviewer uses this particular phrasing a lot. From the same review:

Bishop just goes ahead and snorts one of the serums without knowing which it is, because MAD SCIENTIST! … There is also some chimpanzee-related wackiness on Bishop’s part. Because MAD SCIENTIST!

Here are a couple of examples with NPs other than mad scientist; namely, cocaine and science, both from the same blog post, and both conveying sarcasm or disdain:

He makes her nervous. But then he offers her cocaine, and hey, cocaine! She sets aside all her misgivings, and gets in the car with a guy she doesn’t know, who makes her nervous and who is “disconnected”.

Because cocaine? [NW: notice the parallel with the earlier hey, cocaine! standing in for an entire clause.]

Women don’t lie about rape because SCIENCE!

Glen speculated that the children in the article heard metalinguistic usages of because, and learned the syntax without the sarcasm. I don’t have enough data to know, but I wouldn’t be surprised. It reminds me a lot of how duh started out as an imitation of stereotyped inarticulate phonation from a mentally handicapped person, and didn’t really sound like a word, but now is uttered with the same intonation as any old interjection: Duh! It also parallels other, well-known linguistic processes: Stronger and more specific meanings become weaker and more general over time; and words that express content get “grammaticalized” until they have only functional meanings. The metalinguistic-to-ordinary progression is something that I haven’t read about in textbooks or the literature–though relevant sources are welcome in the comments! So are your own encounters with because+NP.

Posted in Diachronic, Kids' entertainment, Movies, Syntax, TV, Variation | 6 Comments »

Gay or Shtraight?

Posted by Neal on July 2, 2013

One of my posts from 2011 has been gathering some new comments recently, and not spam comments, either. The post was about the pronunciation of “str” clusters as [ʃtr], and a reader named Andrew Leitch left this comment earlier this week:

I first noticed it when my sister in law returned to Canada from grad school at Purdue and work in New Jersey more than ten years ago. It took a while but now I’m hearing it everywhere. Recently I heard it from a middle aged, white, Canadian, male, construction superintendent. That was the most surprising.
When movie characters, such as those described above, use it, I think they are saying: Only pussies and mamma’s boys would say straight when you can say shtraight. Straight is for fastidious librarians; shtraight is for guys who know how to load a gun and stuff a 20 down a shtripper’s g-string.
It’s an anti-lisp. It says: Not only am I not gay, but I’m almost unbelievably shtraight.

This is getting us in to sociolinguistics territory, a topic I didn’t get into when I reported the findings of a study by David Durian in that last post. One main idea (maybe the) main idea in sociolinguistics is that there are layers of meaning in what we say beyond the actual compositional meaning of the phrases. That’s also the main idea in pragmatics; the difference is that sociolinguistics is more specifically about layers of meaning that signal things your relationships with others. For example, y’all doesn’t mean just “second person plural”; it could also mean, “I am (or wish to be perceived as) a Southern American.” Sociolinguists refer to very specific kinds of variation, such as use of y’all, as variables, and say that they index various characteristics. Durian found that [ʃtr] indexed urban-ness, at least in central Ohio.

Leitch’s claim, then, is that [ʃtr] indexes heterosexuality; indeed, a kind of hyper-heterosexuality. So I asked my followers on Twitter:

Josef Fruehwald tweeted back that Campbell-Kibler (2011) had found that “speakers with backed /s/ were rated more masculine and more "country."” More on that later. Douglas Bigham responded with a personal observation:

Gay hicks use /shtr/ all the time; I've noticed it all over the country, too. That doesn't make it NOT hetero, tho.

A good point. Just because you are gay doesn’t mean that you’ll use the behaviors (linguistic or otherwise) that index gayness. A follower named Derron Borders offered a clearer counterexample, in himself:

I am completely and utterly gay (not uber masc[uline]) and am from Circleville, Ohio and definitely say /shtr/.

He followed up with a note of caution:

It's hard to say any phonetic item indexes a particular gender or sexuality, b/c of variation in the pop[ulation].

Moving away from the question of whether [ʃtr] indexes heterosexuality, Lucy Fisher and Lauren Squires offered some other observations of people with this pronunciation. Fisher noted that [ʃtr] was “quite downmarket” in the UK, while Squires reported hearing it in The Real Housewives of Atlanta and in the speech of NPR announcers.

Moving back to the issue of heterosexuality-indexing, I read the paper by Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, who found that /s/-backing (in other words, pronouncing /s/ further back in the mouth, as [ʃ]) interacted with other speech variables she was investigating (pitch, and pronouncing the -ing suffix as -in). For example, if a male speaker doesn’t already have an obvious Southern (American) accent, /s/-backing will make him sound more “country”–an interesting contrast from Durian’s findings. In addition, it affects perception of three other characteristics, as it

shifts the relationship between competence, sexuality and masculinity, by increasing perceptions of the complex style “masculine, unintelligent, straight man.”

In other words, although the effect isn’t completely clear-cut or consistent, Leitch was on to something. From an articulatory standpoint, his assertion that /s/-backing is the “anti-lisp” is exactly right. Campbell-Kibler even refers to a lisp as /s/-fronting: pronouncing /s/ with your tongue a bit too far forward, so that it becomes [θ]. Unlike with /s/-backing, linguists agree that /s/-fronting has a very clear effect on listener perception, and it’s the same effect that the person on the street might tell you: It makes a man sound gay. (It’s not the only thing that does, of course, but the effect is there.) So the real opposition between /s/-fronting and /s/-backing actually does reflect to some extent the opposition between being gay and being “almost unbelievably shtraight.”

Posted in Consonants, Sociolinguistics, Variation | 3 Comments »

I Got Laboved

Posted by Neal on March 2, 2013


Bill Labov came to visit Ohio State University this week. This is the guy who, 50 years ago, began to answer what was then a 100-year-old question: What is the origin of the sound changes that run through a language, changing entire vowel systems, collapsing two phonemes into one, splitting one phoneme into two? More specifically, who starts these changes, and how, and why? With just a couple of well-known studies which are now standardly cited in historical linguistics textbooks, he changed how linguists went about researching these questions.

One of those early studies involved listening to how clerks in higher- and lower-end New York department stores pronounced the phrase fourth floor, in order to hear whether they were pronouncing or omitting the /r/ in those words. (This study was recently the subject of a two-part episode of Lexicon Valley.) The method consisted of asking a clerk where to find some item that the researcher knew to be on the fourth floor. When the clerk said, “Fourth floor,” the researcher would pretend not to have heard properly, and the clerk would say it again. In this way, Labov obtained a pair of utterances of the same phrase, said casually (the first time) and more carefully (the second time). Comparing the percentages of speakers who omitted the /r/ both times, pronounced it both times, or omitted it and then pronounced it provided interesting insights when put together with the demographics of the speakers; for a fuller presentation, listen to the Lexicon Valley podcast.

During his visit to OSU, Labov made several presentations, and tonight he and his colleague Gillian Sankoff were the guests of honor at a party at a professor’s house (his daughter’s, in fact). When I got to the party, I saw Labov talking with Brian Joseph, who introduced me.

“Neal Whitman,” I said, shaking hands.

“What was that?” Labov asked.

“Neal,” I said. It was a bit noisy, so I did my visual aid of making as if to kneel. (Get it?)

“No, your last name.”

“Oh!” I said. “Whitman.”

“Ah, you aspirate your W!” he said.

I burst into a grin. “Yes, I do!”

After that we talked for a few minutes about where I grew up, the “Cool Whip” Family Guy clip on YouTube, vowel mergers, and about sounds that persist in a language long after their reported death.

Driving home, I realized: One of Labov’s oldest tricks had taken me completely unawares.

Posted in Consonants, Diachronic, Variation | 6 Comments »

The Oral-Aural Merger?

Posted by Neal on November 24, 2012

I sent a message to the American Dialect Society email list earlier this month, about a pronunciation that I’ve begun to wonder about recently. Here’s what I wrote, but with more accurate IPA symbols inserted:

I’m sure this has been analyzed somewhere at some point, but I don’t know where. What is the dialect that has [ɔ] lowering to [ɑ] in a stressed vowel preceding /ɹ/ and an unstressed vowel? In other words, the dialect that pronounces forest as “farrest,” Florida as “Flarrida”,Oregon as “Ahregun,” horrible etc. as “harrible” etc., authority as “autharity”, but still has [ɔ] in fort, lore, etc.? What is this realization called?
I’ve been vaguely aware of it for many years, but have begun to notice it more, especially among certain NPR speakers. I even heard one guy on Planet Money talk about a “flarrist” (florist), which is right in line with the phonetic environment I described, but was still a new pronunciation to me.

Actually, this question is complicated by the fact that various historically distinct vowels have merged in various combinations in various dialects of English when they appear before /ɹ/. These include the so-called Mary-merry-marry merger, the steer-stir merger, the fir-fur merger, and others, which you can read about in this Wikipedia post. I was even surprised to learn about a horse-hoarse merger, which made me realize that my father was not joking or deluding himself when he once claimed that for him horse and hoarse were not homophones. I pronounce them both [hɔɹs], but speakers without this merger pronounce hoarse as [hoɹs]. I have a hard time even imagining this pronunciation, with [o] coming before an [ɹ] at the end of a syllable (or in coda position, as phoneticians say), and have never perceived it in Dad’s speech. However, I can definitely hear it when it comes before [ɹ] at the beginning of a syllable (that is, in onset position). If you know my father, you can hear it when he calls someone a moron, which he has always pronounced [moɹɑn]: “Mo-ron!” When he does that, I find myself imagining a Southern pair of twin boys, named Jim Bob and Mo Ron. (For more on vowels before [ɹ], see this post.)

Anyway, I got some interesting responses. Kate Svoboda-Spanbock wrote, “It is a longstanding source of amusement to my L.A.-bred children, who laugh when I say AH-rinj but who nonetheless say that they are SAH-rry.” Her post jolted me into looking at my own pronunciation, because I definitely say “SAH-rry” (i.e. [sɑɹI]), and for that matter “to-MAH-row” and SAH-row,” and find the [ɔɹ] pronunciations of these words unusual.

In fact, my “SAH-rry” might not even match that of Kate’s children, because phonetically, there is more than one “ah” sound. There’s the low back unround [ɑ] that I’ve been using in the IPA notations, but there’s also the low back round [ɒ], which might appear in cough, depending on your dialect. To tell you the truth, I’m not very good at distinguishing the low back vowels, and as far as I can tell, I might be using either of them.

Ben Zimmer wrote that [ɑɹ] instead of [ɔɹ] was common in New York City, as well as in Philadelphia and the Carolinas, and gave a link to the Wikipedia page I linked to above. Paul Johnston corroborated, citing his NYC parents’ consistent [ɑɹ] pronunciation, while also noting his own nearly universal shift to [ɔɹ] in his adult life.

Larry Horn wrote that the change is almost certainly happening via lexical diffusion–that is, somewhat haphazardly on a word-by-word basis. He recalled social pressure he experienced to change some of his pronunciations in college:

[T]ypically, whatever the shibboleths are may be under the most pressure to change, which is why I switched [to the [ɔɹ] pronunciation] on corridor and moral earlier–and more consistently than–Florida or florist.

Joel Berson confirmed the somewhat unpredictable nature of this change, writing:

[M]y vacillations and shifts are different from Larry’s…. For example, I’m sure I seldom
say “florist” but mostly “flarrist”. But I say “floral”, not “flarral”.

Eventually, the discussion wandered to some of those other pre-R mergers that I mentioned earlier. Although I excluded from my query words that had [ɹ] in coda position, some of them came up in the discussion anyway. Matt Wilson mentioned the cord-card merger, which Wilson Gray (recalling his youth in Saint Louis) might have called the fort-fart merger. In elementary school, he and his classmates preferred to avoid saying any number between 39 and 50 for this reason. I also hear this kind of merger in the speech of Jessica Lange’s character in American Horror Story: Asylum.

As the discussion petered out, Charlie Doyle brought up the knock-knock joke that depends on the [ɑɹ] pronunciation of orange, whose punch line is “[ɑɹə̃nʤ] you glad I didn’t say ‘banana’?” That reminded me of a poem composed by Tom Lehrer in response to the challenge of finding a word that rhymed with orange:

Eating an orange
While making love
would make for bizarre enj-
oyment thereof.

A couple of respondents to my post noted that there wasn’t a nice, convenient name for this particular phonetic phenomenon. Larry Horn proposed and quickly rejected “East Coast Ah-ringe”. My humble proposal is in the title of this post. If any dialectologists are reading this, what do you say? Is there a name? If not, what do you propose? Ben Trawick-Smith, and Rick Aschmann, I’m looking at you!

Posted in Diachronic, Variation, Vowels | 10 Comments »

Comparatively Well Done!

Posted by Neal on July 15, 2012

Here’s a question for the carnivores out there, in particular the steak-eaters. Suppose you like your steak cooked medium rare. Your father, however, likes his done medium well, and your mother likes hers well done. How would you sum up how your parents like their steak, compared to you?

The most straightforward answer seems like it ought to be My parents like their steak better done than I like mine. We’re modifying the degree of wellness, and the comparative of well is the suppletive form better; hence, better done. But that answer doesn’t sound right when I say it. The only meaning I can get for it is a steak that has been more skillfully prepared. It doesn’t get any hits on COCA, either. It does get a very, very few hits on Google, though, including:

  • Works for my wife who likes her steak better done than the rest of the family.
  • He could have ordered his steak better done.

If better done is excluded, then I guess the answer would be the default, analytic comparative form that you get with adjectives and adverbs that don’t have an -er comparative: My parents like their steak more well done than I like mine. This is definitely a more popular answer. When I searched for “more well done”, I got two hits on COCA, and 179 on Google for “steak more well done”. (That’s an actual 179, by the way. The first page of results said there were 9800 of them, but I paged to the end to get the real number.) Here’s an example from each:

  • If you want it a little more well done, you’re going to leave it on a little bit longer.
  • If you would like the steak more well done, turn the heat down on the pan and continue cooking it for a few more minutes after it has been browned.

However, neither better done nor more well done is what I’ve found myself starting to say more than once. What I’ve wanted to say has been weller done. I’m guessing that since well has a more specialized meaning here than it does in phrases like live well or speak well, or even in the British congratulation Well done!, I’m treating the two as separate but homonymous words. Those who say better done I would say still have how-do-you-want-your-steak well as the same word as the more general-purpose adverb well. Those who say more well done don’t. Instead, they consider well done something like a compound adjective, and use more to make a comparative form the same as they do with compound adjective phrases like more able to meet your needs. As for my weller done, that has something in common with each of the other solutions. Like better done, it takes well as the word to be comparativized, but like more well done, it does not consider this well and the more general-purpose well to be the same word.

One more option I thought of is doner. It seems to me that I’ve probably heard this at least once in my lifetime, but I don’t find any hits for this option, either in COCA or Google.

So I ask you again: How would you express this thought?

UPDATE, July 23, 2012: I forgot until I came across it in my Notes app on my phone that I’ve actually heard weller done in the wild. I was ordering some take-out food, including some baked-to-order cookies. I told the cashier I wanted them cooked well, not doughy in the middle, and she instructed the baker to make them “weller done”.

Posted in Food-related, Morphology, Variation | 13 Comments »

Dip Your Card

Posted by Neal on December 9, 2011

Over at Visual Thesaurus, I have a column talking about how diphthong (or dipthong) has joined a family of dip-based insults, including dipstick, dipshit, and just plain dip. When I researched the column, I was surprised to learn that my imagined chronology for these insults was backwards. I first heard dipstick in the early 1980s, as my peers picked it up from Rosco P. Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazzard. When I later heard dipshit, I figured it was some kind of folk-etymology/eggcornization of dipstick by people who didn’t understand what was so insulting about the stick part, and figured it ought to be something legitimately taboo. Then when I started hearing dip in the mid-1980s, I thought it was simply a clipped version of (depending on the speaker) either dipstick or dipshit, done by speakers who were too embarrassed to say either of the longer words. But I’ve come to find out that dip probably originated in the early 1930s; dipshit came next, in the 1960s, and at about the same time or a little later came dipstick. At least, in its insult sense. The literal meaning was in use for quite a while prior to that.

But I could still be right, you know. I really never did hear dip as an insult until after dipstick and dipshit, so I think it’s at least plausible that the dip of the 1930s died out, only to be reinvented as a clipping of one of the dip compounds.

All this writing about dips reminded me of something I saw during our family trip to New York City during the summer. We stayed in Jersey City, where we went out to eat one night with Ben Zimmer’s family, and Doug and Adam played Cut the Rope with Ben’s son on Ben’s iPad. The next morning, we took the subway into Manhattan. At the station, we were buying a fare card at an automated dispenser, and paid with a credit card. When it was time to pay, the instructions on the screen said, “Dip your credit card.” But the slot to put the credit card into wasn’t vertical; it was horizontal! At gas stations where I live, this instruction is usually rendered as “Insert and withdraw credit card in one smooth motion.” In my lexical semantics, that meaning can only go with dip if the motion is vertical. The same goes for the programmers of the credit card readers, too, I think. Otherwise, why wouldn’t they opt for the four words of Dip your credit card over the eight words that I usually see? Is this a New York thing? A generational thing? Who else has noticed this semantic broadening?

Posted in Diachronic, Lexical semantics, Taboo, Variation | 4 Comments »