You Down with Vernacular Third Person? – Guest post by Cadwell Turnbull

Cadwell Turnbull is a Creative Writing MFA at North Carolina State University. He specializes in creative writing in vernacular dialects, specifically those narrated from a third person perspective. He received the 2014 Prize for Short Fiction at the NC State Short Story Contest for his story “Ears.”

I first stumbled across the idea of vernacular third person (VTP) when I was working on a series of stories for my MFA Creative Writing thesis. The stories were set in the United States Virgin Islands; they were all a part of an interconnected-universe where characters cross paths frequently and deal with themes of identity, race, gender, class, sexuality, orientation and mortality. Plus there are aliens.

My MFA advisors suggested some books I should read. Two stuck out to me right away: Nalo Hopkinson’s The Midnight Robber and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. What interested me about these two very different stories were their narrators. (Beware: Spoilers shall follow.)

The Midnight Robber has a Jamaican narrator in the style of an oral storyteller telling a science fiction story about a Caribbean planet named Toussaint. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao has a Dominican American narrator that shit-talks his audience and goes on interesting tangents that are expressed through massive footnotes; the novel is about a generational curse on a Dominican family.

Both of these story-tellers are third person narrators. They tell their stories as entities separate from the stories’ action. They have access to the thoughts and motivations of their characters. They are smart and captivating and powerfully vernacular. The Midnight Robber’s narrator is traditionally Jamaican, an oral story-teller that begins her story with “crick crack,” a common expression from the Caribbean oral tradition. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’s narrator code-switches between African American Vernacular English (AAVE), Standard English (SE), and Dominican Spanish. Diaz doesn’t even bother translating any of the Dominican Spanish. Decipherment is on the reader. Here is an excerpt from the novel:

Sophomore year Oscar found himself weighing in at a whopping 245 (260 when he was depressed, which was often) and it had become clear to everybody, especially his family, that he’d become the neighborhood pariguayo.  Had none of the Higher Powers of your typical Dominican male, couldn’t have pulled a girl if his life depended on it. Couldn’t play sports for shit, or dominoes, was beyond uncoordinated, threw a ball like a girl. Had no knack for music or business or dance, no hustle, no rap, noG.

Obviously I was blown away by this. I wanted to make my very own vernacular third person (VTP) narrator, one that spoke my local St. Thomas variety and could tell any person’s story, could delve into the heads of all my characters, could know history and predict the future. An all-knowing metaphysical dude that wasn’t generous with giving fucks.  Problem was, I didn’t know how to make one.

What’s interesting about those two narrators I’ve been talking about is they have their own back stories. (Beware: Spoilers are eminent.) The Midnight Robber’s narrator is a kind of super-computer implanted into the heads of the characters in the story (and most of the people on the planet). This computer/information system, Granny Nanny, has a very distinct personality. She manages the everyday lives of the people on Toussaint and she speaks the language of the inhabitants there, in this case Jamaican English since she is telling the story of Jamaican characters. We don’t know this at first, who she is or who she is telling the story to, but it is all revealed within the narrative.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’s narrator is eventually revealed in Diaz’s novel as well. He’s reveals himself as Yunior, a protagonist that has appeared in many of Diaz’s short stories. He appears two thirds in and we find out that he has had a brief but significant relationship with Oscar, the protagonist of the story. When Oscar’s brief life is cut short (not much of a spoiler there), Yunior endeavors to piece Oscar’s life together for us by researching Oscar and the fuku (generational curse) that has followed his family since the days of Trujillo, the Dominican dictator.

When I tried creating my narrator I felt a strong mental block keeping me from actualizing him. He needed to be god-like in his knowledge but also needed to have an identity (which I’d need to help me imagine him). This wasn’t common of typical third person narrators; when they didn’t take up the characteristics of the author, they typically were unmarked members of some ghost race, or to put it another way, they were Standard-English-speaking white guys–with wire-rim glasses in suits with a wall of books behind them–that had abandoned their bodies to be interdimensional story-tellers. They abhorred subjectivity (this goes back to the days of Flaubert and the rise of the objective narrator) and would not welcome my narrator so easily.

My problem was, even if I had a story and an identity for my narrator, I didn’t want to share that with my audience. In my mind, revealing the narrator was something I imagined the authors of The Midnight Robber and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao did to explain the reason why these narrators told stories the way they did. It was a practical and political choice. But because my narrator would be narrating many of my stories, many connected, and others, I decided, not connected at all, I needed to not give up the ghost so to speak. So I began looking for a different kind of third person narrator: one with secrets.


Some words on VTP’s linguistic significance:

In Norman Fairclough’s book, Language and Power, he talks about formality within discourse genres. He describes formality as a “pervasive and familiar aspect of constraints on access to discourse” (1989: 66). According to Fairclough there are three ways formality can gate-keep through subjects (who is talking and who is being talked about), contents (what can be talked about) and relations (how you can talk about things in respect to who you are and your position in the social context). He fittingly calls these formality constraints and asserts that these have everything to do with power dynamics. Exclusion is a common discrimination tactic. We are familiar with how this works in physical arenas (we look back at “whites only” signs with a kind of superior contempt) but we have less of an idea of how this works when it comes to more abstract arenas, like language. Exclusionary linguistic tactics in written genres are so naturalized (perceived as an unquestionable norm) that it is difficult to explain it to language purists and, even scarier, normal people.

Fairclough’s idea of formality constraints helps us figure out just how we linguistically discriminate against marginalized voices. Written genres are severely slanted towards Standard English and though fiction is the most liberal of written genres, it still has a lot to own up to. Fiction constrains who can tell stories and how they can do so. Marginalized voices simply don’t get the same seat at the table. If writers want to use vernacular, they have to do so in first person; it must be rooted in subjective experience. If writers want to use VTP, they must explain it.

And so my big question is: what happens when you don’t?


When I began looking for a VTP with secrets I had no idea how to find one. In fact, I wasn’t sure one existed. I googled any possible configuration of words related to vernacular and third person I could think of. At first it seemed like my suspicions would be proven right; that kind of VTP really didn’t exist.   However, I eventually stumbled upon a novel. It was older than I expected, from the 1950’s, and it had an unapologetic third person narrator.

Samuel Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners is about a group of Caribbean immigrants living in London. It is heavy with Caribbean expressions and English urban slang of the time. It’s very experimental. Selvon had tried writing it in standard for a long time but felt that it didn’t capture the experience of his characters. He eventually tried a different ghost. Selvon was Trinidadian but he created a standardized Caribbean English to appeal to a broader Caribbean audience. It’s beautiful stuff. Here is an excerpt:

On top of that, is one of those winter mornings when a kind of fog hovering around. The sun shining, but Galahad never see the sun look like how it looking now. No heat from it, it just there in the sky like a force-ripe orange. When he look up, the colour of the sky so desolate it make him more frighten. It have a melancholy aspect about the morning that making him shiver. He have a feeling is about seven o’clock in the evening: when he look at a clock on top a building he see is only half-past ten in the morning. Samuel Selvon (1956)

Notice the grammatical choices, the colloquial expressions. The whole text is a mix of poetic and vernacular language. And it never tries to explain to the audience who is telling the story. The authority of the narrator is not questioned in the text. It exists outside of an identity, except in the way it relates to the identities of others within the story. It was what I was looking for, what I was trying to create and it was over 50 years old.

I wanted to know how people responded to Selvon’s decision so I got on Goodreads. I wanted to see just how naturalized Standard English Third Person (SETP) was in the consciousness of the typical reader. Would they even notice the VTP? And if they did, would it offend them? Would they see it as an abomination?

Here’s what Emily had to say:

Extract 1: Emily: The Lonely Londoners

“Another thing I disliked was the narrative voice. I’m sure this won’t bother some people and I know why the author did it – to make it sound authentically like a West Indian speaking English when they are not that familiar with the language – but it bothered me because the novel is written in third person. If it had been written in first person it would make sense for the narrator to speak/think in this way.

Notice how she assumes that West Indian people don’t understand English fully? Putting that titillating piece of linguistic ignorance aside, we can see that she doesn’t even understand why someone would even do what Selvon did. It is not convention, but even worse, it doesn’t “make sense.” The naturalized ideology at the root of these assertions remains unquestioned.

Here is another one:

Excerpt 2: Orlando: The Lonely Londoners

“Most of the novels I have read by West Indian writers use “local” English for the dialogues and standard English for the descriptions and narration. This, in my opinion, gives novels both a sense of reality and dynamism which I really enjoy. However, in “The Lonely Londoners” West Indian English is used all over, from narration to descriptions and dialogues, and, after a while, it becametiring.”

If you are familiar with dialect in fiction you would also know of the dialect in dialogue convention. If you do write in third person (sometimes first person does this too) and you do want to preserve the authentic feel of a place, you use dialect in dialogue. This is an old tradition and lots of writers employ it to make their characters more realistic (or make them sound stupid if they are that type of writer). But this is also a formality constraint. There is a clear linguistic hierarchy and dialect is at the low end of that pole. Orlando’s snooty comment confirms it. To deviate from convention in this way is tiring. Convention itself remains unquestioned.


To be fair, all of these books were pretty well received. They are all critically acclaimed. For the average person though, when they talk about what makes these books special, they miss the radicalness of VTP. It knocks SETP off its pedestal. Ghosts are no longer white incorporeal blobs; they’ve gotten a bit of color to them. As more and more people of various ethnicities reach for fiction as a mode of expressing themselves and exploring their identities, there needs to be an omniscient voice that can speak their language.

There is not one for me yet, but I’m working on it. Right now his name is Cal. I am still trying to figure out who he is.


Diaz, J. (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books

Fairclough, N. (1989). Language and power. London: Longman.

Selvon, S. (2006). The Lonely Londoners (New ed.). London: Penguin.

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Three Things You Didn’t Know Linguists Had a Name For

Linguists LOVE slang. Nothing gives them more glee than learning about what the kids are saying these days. That’s why the Word of the Year is such a highly-anticipated event in the field. Urban dictionary is considered a valuable research tool. Even linguists in their 70s are “with it” when it comes to slang.

So I thought I’d introduce to you three linguistic constructions that you (may) use everyday, that you didn’t know linguists have names for.

Dismissive schm-

Person A: I can’t go to that concert, I have an interview that day.

Person B: Interview schminterview.

“Dismissive schm-” is a form associated with Jewish speakers because it originated in Yiddish. However, it is a feature that has spread to include non-Jewish speakers, including (I suspect) many of the readers of this blog. The basic idea is to rhyme a word with itself, using schm- instead of whatever consonant begins the word (for example, “job schmob”) — or just add it to the beginning of a word if it starts with a vowel, as in the example above.

Expletive infixation

Three Things You Didn't Know Linguists Had a Name For

Example: Abso-fucking-lutely.

Infixes can happen in other languages, but in English they only occur in one situation – when we put swear words in other words. The swear word has to be added before the primary stress of the word. So you can’t say “wa-fucking-ter” for “water,” because the stress is on the first syllable. By contrast, we frequently do this with words with stress later in the word – “abso-fucking-lutely,” “in-fucking-credible,” “un-fucking-believable”, etc.

Three Things You Didn't Know Linguists Had a Name For

For the record, this would be “ri-fucking-diculous.”

-ass intensifier

Example: I’m really tired so I’m going to need a big-ass cup of coffee.

The -ass intensifier is added to adjectives to emphasize them. It’s not just a big cup of coffee, it’s a big-ass cup of coffee. It’s not just a boring meeting, it’s a boring-ass meeting, etc.

Three Things You Didn't Know Linguists Had a Name For

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In an earlier post, I introduced the notion of linguistic relativity, or the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. Linguists who argue for the hypothesis posit that language affects the way that we think and see the world. Studies like the ones I mentioned in that post (that grammatical gender has an affect on the way we describe inanimate nouns) are frequently used to support the hypothesis. This week’s post will discuss another often-cited aspect of language considered to influence people’s worldview: how we give directions in language.

In English we have a number of different ways to express directions. We have what are called egocentric directions, where the main point of reference is (generally) the speaker. Because of this, we often have to ask people “my left or your left?” We also have cardinal directions, which are the geographical terms North, South, East, West. We tend to only use these when we know an area well, or when we are looking at a map. Cardinal directions are part of a larger system of reference known as an absolute frame of reference, where the things being referred to do not change based on the position of the speaker.

When A is fairly far away from B (say, half a mile, or 20 miles, or 300 miles), we are more likely to use the cardinal directions, for example “He lives 50 miles west of Chicago.” If we want to describe something nearby, we use egocentric directions, or relative directions, like “The book is to your right,” or “You turn left at the next block over.”

Relative directions are part of a larger system of what linguists call deixis. Deictic words require some context in order to be understood. For instance, if you use the word “he,” you need to have introduced some specific person earlier in the conversation for your listener to know who you’re talking about. There is a general sense of proximity in time and space for most deictic words in English and other European languages. The graphic below is from Wikipedia, and illuminates some of the concepts behind deixis and reference in English.


from Wikipedia

However, there are other languages that use linguistic directions differently. In the Australian language of Guugu Yimithirr, speakers do not use egocentric directions, and instead use cardinal directions to describe situations where English speakers would use “right” or “left.” It would not be considered bizarre in this language to say “Watch out for that pile of dog poop north of your foot,” or “Could you please hand me the book that’s east of the globe?” Another language, a Mayan language called Tzeltal, uses a similar system, referring to North as “uphill” and South as “downhill”.

One could imagine, in a Whorfian view (that language affects thought), that this would affect the way that speakers of Guugu Yimithirr perceive the world. Their language requires them to know where North is in a situation where an English speaker wouldn’t, so we could reasonably predict that they might be better at knowing where the cardinal directions are than a speaker of English. And that turns out to be true.

Cardinal directions are not the only way of expressing an absolute frame of reference. In Balinese, a language of Indonesia, directions are expressed not with reference to the cardinal directions, but in fact with reference to a single volcano in the center of the island, called Gunung Agung. A Balinese speaker giving directions would have to know where this volcano is, anywhere in the world, like a Muslim praying towards Mecca. And like Mecca, this is not only the geographical and referential center of Bali, but it is also the spiritual center of Bali. Gunung Agung is where the Hindu gods of Bali are said to reside.

Again, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is not something that is 100% proven by any of the evidence, but these studies give us some insight into some of the ways that language may affect thought.

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Explore Language on the Internet

Hello again, readers! It’s been a while, I know, but that’s only because I’ve been settling into my new home in Raleigh, North Carolina where I am starting the fantastic MA program in Linguistics at North Carolina State University! I don’t normally like to inject anything personal into my posts, but I figured this tidbit was linguistics-related so I thought I’d let it slide.

A poster for NC State’s Language Diversity initiative. Cool, right?

In this post I decided I’d do something a little different and invite you, my readers, to become real linguists. No PhD required. There are some incredible resources on the internet where you can dabble in the type of research that linguists do everyday, and where you can answer some of your burning questions about language. And best of all, anyone can access these tools; you don’t have to be affiliated with a university to use them. Here are some of my favorites:

WALS: the World Atlas of Language Structures

This was the first linguistic tool introduced to me in my very first linguistics class. This blog focuses mainly on features of English, but if you want to find out about the languages of the world and compare them to each other, WALS is your site. For example, perhaps you really enjoyed my post on grammatical gender, and you want to learn more about grammatical gender and how languages compare on issues of gender. So you search grammatical gender on WALS, and voila! You get a map like the following:

Grammatical Gender

And a key like this:

Key for Grammatical Gender

You now know which languages have how many genders, and where they are distributed on the map (language families tend to be geographically close, so clusters are natural). Perhaps you didn’t expect that some languages had four or five genders! A linguist here may be asking: if languages with two or three genders describe inanimate objects with gender-biased adjectives based on their grammatical gender, how does grammatical gender affect those descriptions in a language with five or more genders?

With WALS, you can search for specific features you’re interested in, or you can just browse the existing categories that people have created. I’d recommend trying both — just don’t be intimidated by the names of some of the features! You can always look them up or just skip them to find something that interests you.

Joshua Katz’s Dialect Survey Maps

This one is really fun to browse. Joshua Katz made interactive dialect maps of the continental US based on certain variable lexical items and sound differences from the Harvard Dialect Survey.

Maps range from the classic questions — like “What is your generic term for a sweetened carbonated beverage?”

Pop Soda Coke


— to some dialect terms you may not know. For example, what do people call it when rain falls while the sun is shining?

Devil's beating his wife

Katz has maps of over a hundred different dialect survey questions. Go through them and see what people say in other parts of the country.

Google NGram

See language change in progress! Google’s NGram viewer uses data from Google Books to graph any word you might like to search. (I apologize for the large margins, I did what I could to reduce it.)

You can see which words are on the decline, like “whom” —

— and which are very new and rising in their usage, like “URL.”

This one comes with a caveat though. Because its source material comes from books, the effectiveness of the search for newer, more informal words may be limited. Although we may use words like “humblebrag” in speech and on social media, chances are it won’t be as popular in a published book. So this one is cool, but doesn’t deal so much with the real meat of what linguists study, which is more natural speech.

Happy exploring!


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“Like” has often been described as a filler. It’s a brainless way to fill space in a sentence, we’re told, and that its use as anything other than a comparative or a verb indexes a speaker as stupid or absent-minded. And while I could go on and on about how this interpretation is an arbitrary, prescriptivist point of view and that it has sexist implications, I am instead going to spend this post showing you all the ways in which “like” is actually quite meaningful outside of the standard, English-teacher-approved usage. I’m drawing many of these definitions and descriptions from the introduction to Chris Odato’s dissertation, “Children’s Development of Knowledge and Beliefs about English ‘Like’,”1 which is an interesting read in itself.

It turns out that “like” is in fact not a mindless filler, but instead has grammar and meaning as does every other part of speech. The following are innovative uses of like (not necessarily new, just outside current Standard English usage). Some sources claim that some uses may be over a hundred years old.

Discourse Like

There are two types of discourse “like”:

1. Like, he’s really trying to work on it.
2. It’s, like, a big deal.

The first example is one that occurs before a clause2 (discourse marker like) and the second example illustrates one that occurs within a clause (discourse particle like).

There are two theories for why people use “like” in this way. One argument is that discourse “like” is used as a “focuser”; it signals to the listener that the content of the following phrase is important. It has also been posited that discourse “like” can be a qualifier, meaning that the speaker is not sure about the truth of the content that follows the “like.”

Quotative Like

Quotative like is when we use the verb to be + “like” in place of “he said” or “she did this.”

1. And he was like “whoa!”
2. She was like [does interpretive dance]

This to be + “like” construction can only be used for direct quotes. For example, with the word “said”, you can say “She said that she’s coming,” or “She said ‘I’m coming.’” However, “like” can only be used with the second (direct) quote. So, you can say: “She was like, ‘I’m coming!’” but “She was like she’s coming” would sound pretty weird. Perhaps the fact that “She said ‘I’m coming’” sounds pretty strange outside of the context of written language might have created a need for a quotative that accounts for direct quotes, but I’ll admit that’s largely speculation on my part.

Approximative Like

“Like” is also used for approximating expressions.

1. She was stuck there for, like, three hours.

In this case, “like” is essentially a synonym for “approximately.”

As you can see, there are real, meaningful uses for the word “like” in spoken language.. Many of those uses of “like” in the ad above are not something you’d hear in the real world. For example, “I, like, don’t want, like, people to, like, make fun of, like, me.” In what scenario would you hear someone say “make fun of, like, me?” Think about the way that sounds — would any of your friends legitimately say that? There is no need for a qualifier, because if people were making fun of you, you probably would not be unsure who it is they’re making fun of. And there’s no need for discourse like as a focuser, because you’re highlighting the fact that you get mocked, not that you are mocked as opposed to someone else. And there’s no approximative need — you are not more or less “you.” So not only is the ad insulting; it’s also just wrong. Although the people who made this ad may understand how “like” is used intuitively as native speakers; (many of them probably use it on a regular basis themselves), they manipulate the language and take advantage of its stereotyped role as a “filler” to create an exaggerated caricature of a young woman.


1Unless specifically mentioned, this information all comes from that dissertation.

2A clause is very similar to a sentence. If you can state whether a string of words is true or false, then it’s a clause. For instance, if you say “It’s raining today,” you can say whether that statement is true or false. However, if you say “to the store,” we do not have enough information to be able to say whether it’s true or false.

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Word Crimes

I wanted to do a post on “Word Crimes,” Weird Al’s new prescriptivist anthem based on the song “Blurred Lines.” I then realized that no matter what I said about it, I would not have been as thorough and as eloquent as Ohio State English professor and linguist Lauren Squires. I have copied the text of this post from her guest post on Language Log.

While “grammar nerds” are psyched about Weird Al’s new “Word Crimes” video, many linguists are shaking their heads and feeling a little hopeless about what the public enthusiasm about it represents: a society where largely trivial, largely arbitrary standards of linguistic correctness are heavily privileged, and people feel justified in degrading and attacking those who don’t do things the “correct” way. What’s behind linguists’ reactions are at least three factors.

First, while Weird Al talks about “grammar,” most of his prescriptions do not pertain to what linguists consider the “grammar” of English, and this reflects a widespread divide between the use of the term “grammar” in everyday language and “grammar” by linguists. This divide frustrates linguists, because it makes them feel like everyone misunderstands the very substance and nature of their field of study.

Second, a little rumination on Weird Al’s violent reactions against “bad grammar” raises deep and longstanding questions of social equity regarding class, education, race, age, ethnicity, gender, and how these relate to languages, dialects, and social registers. There is ample research on these issues (which any sociolinguist could point you to), but the upshot is that the notion of “Proper English” typically serves to prop up the already-privileged speakers whose native language variety it is (sort of) based on. This puts speakers whose native language variety does not approximate “Proper English” at an immediate disadvantage in society, the same way that privileging Whiteness puts those who are not White at an immediate disadvantage in society. It is not the linguistic differences themselves that do this (just as it is not the racial/ethnic difference themselves that determine privilege), but the *attitudes* about them. This is why many linguists are having a hard time laughing with Word Crimes: to do so feels like complicity in an ongoing project of linguistic discrimination that intersects with class, race, and other kinds of discrimination.

Third—and the motivation for this post—is that the view of “grammar” as “you must learn the rules or else be ostracized” just makes grammar no fun at all! Studying language—really digging into it, uncovering its remarkably complex yet orderly structure, investigating what makes it different across speakers and communities—is SUPER FUN! Giving people a list of rules of things to do in order to not be criticized is NOT FUN! I want my students to think language is FUN, and to have FUN thinking about language!

So as a teacher, I want to say: Weird Al can think what he wants about language, and you the audience can laugh along or not, depending on your views on language or taste in music or whatever. But please do not mistake the video itself for an educational video. It will not teach students about language. It will not teach students about grammar. I’ve seen many comparisons to Schoolhouse Rock, but would any student who didn’t already know what a “preposition” was leave Weird Al’s video understanding it? No. Rather, on its face, this video teaches people that there is a right way to speak/write, and if you don’t do things that way, you’re a bad person (or a sewer person? or a person with a disability?) who should not breed. Nothing about how language works, or why these “rules” are what they are.

There are certainly valuable linguistic lessons that can be taken from Word Crimes, but not without a teacher encouraging students to think beyond the video itself, to ask questions about the rules Weird Al wants us to abide by. In this spirit, I worked up an off-the-top-of-my-head list of questions for teachers considering using this video in the classroom. I teach college English linguistics classes, so that’s the audience I’m familiar with, but I think these questions could be useful for teachers at any level to think through for themselves and maybe modify for earlier grades, different subjects, etc. Some are questions about language/grammar, while some are discussion questions to spark class conversation about some really important issues. Whether you like these questions or not, I hope that if you do use this video in teaching, you work up your own list of questions, rather than letting the video stand on its own. Have fun!

25 Questions for Teaching with “Word Crimes”

  1. What is the difference between “spelling” and “grammar”?
  2. What is the role of words in grammar?
  3. What is the function of dictionaries in society?
  4. Who makes dictionaries? Why? How do dictionary makers decide what a word means?
  5. What is the difference between “language,” “English,” and “literacy”? How does “literacy” relate to spelling and/or grammar?
  6. Weird Al points out that nouns can be divided into mass nouns (which are typically modified with “less”) and count nouns (which are typically modified with “fewer”). Can you think of other sub-categories of nouns (that is, nouns that behave in different ways from other nouns)?
  7. When someone says “I could care less,” do you interpret it as Weird Al says (that they DO care), or do you understand their intention? If you understand their intention, why would it matter which way they say it? Can you think of other examples when what someone says may be ambiguous, but their meaning is clear from context?
  8. Who decides what is “the right way” to say things?
  9. Why do you/we trust some people, but not others, to decide what is “right”?
  10. Weird Al discusses the difference between “it’s” and “its.” He says people need to use “the right pronoun” in deciding when to use one or the other. Are “it’s” and “its” actually different pronouns, or the same pronouns with different functions? (not as easy as it may seem!)
  11. What is the difference between a “possessive” and a “contraction”? Give more examples of each.
  12. What is a “participle,” and what would it mean for a participle to be “dangling”? Why do writers sometimes want to avoid “dangling participles”?
  13. What is an “Oxford comma”? Some professional editors use the Oxford comma, and others do not. Come up with an argument to support each rule.
  14. Weird Al claims that “B” “C” “R” and “U” are “words not letters.” Do you agree? Can you make an argument that these ARE, indeed, words?
  15. Weird Al says you should NEVER write words using numbers (like “WORD5”). But people DO write words using numbers, sometimes (otherwise Weird Al wouldn’t need to tell them not to!). When do you think people might choose to spell words this way? Are there times when it might be appropriate to do so? Are there times when it would be completely inappropriate to do so? Does the spelling affect how the words convey their meaning?
  16. Weird Al says it’s ok to write words using numbers if you’re 7 years old (or if your name is Prince…you probably don’t get that joke). What do you think is behind his acceptance of spelling this way for children? Do you think 7-year-olds spell this way?
  17. Weird Al mentions “Proper English.” What do you think he means by this term? What does this term mean to you? How do you think you learned the meaning of “Proper English”? Do you think you speak “Proper English” all the time? When do you or don’t you?
  18. Do you use the word “whom”? (advanced: Do a search using an online corpus for “to who” versus “to whom” and see what you find. Is “to whom” in as widespread usage? If not, should we be worried? Why or why not?)
  19. Weird Al makes sentence diagrams! Try to diagram this simple sentence using Weird Al’s system (which are Reed-Kellogg diagrams): “Weird Al hates bad grammar.” What do you think the purpose of sentence diagramming is?
  20. What IS the difference between “good” and “well”? Would you say “I’m doing good” or “I’m doing well”? Why?
  21. Weird Al doesn’t like people “misusing” the terms “literally” and “irony.” Can you think of words that you and your friends use to mean something different than what other people might mean by them?
  22. Weird Al singles out emails and blog posts as places where particular bad grammar resides. What do you think is behind this? Do you think YOUR emails, blog posts, or Facebook posts contain different grammar than your school papers, texts, or spoken conversations?
  23. What do you think the function of emoji are is in online communication? Do you or your friends use them? Where do they usually go in a message (beginning, middle, end)? How does their position relate to their function?
  24. Weird Al seems to think that preschool is where proper grammar education begins. Do you remember learning about grammar in preschool? What are your first memories of learning about grammar? Do you feel satisfied with the amount of formal grammar instruction you have had in school? Why or why not?
  25. Weird Al says some pretty mean things about people who don’t use “proper English.” Where do you think his negative attitudes about such people come from? Do you think he’s justified in his beliefs? Why or why not?
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More Fun Facts About Sign Language

In a previous post, I shared with you some of my favorite fun facts about sign language that I’ve learned as a linguistics major. Some people (okay, my dad) enjoyed that post so much that I thought I’d do a follow-up. Because I’d pretty much exhausted my knowledge about sign language in the first post, I asked someone (a hearing person) fluent in Signed English who is also an American Sign Language (ASL) major to provide me with some more fun facts for your enjoyment.

The Facts:

1. In the previous post, I told you that signed languages are not based on spoken language, and that a shared spoken language is no guarantee that two countries will have mutually intelligible sign language (e.g. the US and the UK). However, there is a dialect of sign language where signers use the same vocabulary as ASL, but use a syntax more like spoken English.
2. In ASL, the alphabet is signed with one hand. But in British Sign Language and German Sign Language, it’s signed using two hands.

ASL Alphabet

American Sign Language alphabet

BSL alphabet

British Sign Language alphabet

3. In ASL and Signed English, all woman-related signs (e.g. girl, wife, daughter) are signed on the lower part of the face, usually by the jawline. All man-related signs (e.g. boy, husband, son) are signed on the upper part of the face, usually by the forehead.

4. Name signs are used to refer to a person without having to fingerspell their entire name. The sign consists of the hand shape of the first letter of the person’s name and the “sign” is something characteristic of that individual. For example, if your name is “Stephanie” and your hair is wavy you could have a name sign consisting of the letter “S” making a curl motion at the bottom of your hair. When meeting a deaf person, it is customary to tell them your name sign, to avoid the cumbersome practice of fingerspelling one’s name for each mention.

5. In some cultures, sign language consists of purely “home signs”. These are signs that people make up to use with their friends or family. Eventually, these signs become part of one’s own dialect, and are incorporated into their sign language.

6. There are five different components that make up a sign. If you change any one of these, you change the meaning of a sign. This system is how linguists can classify signs without having to show their audience a picture or a video of a sign.
a. Handshape – the general shape of the hand as it moves forms the basis of the sign.

Handshapes in ASL

Handshapes in ASL

b. Palm Orientation – the direction the palm is facing can change the meaning of the word. For example, in ASL, the difference between the signs for “good” and “bad” is mainly one of palm orientation

ASL sign for

ASL sign for “bad”

ASL sign for

ASL sign for “good”

c. Location – the same handshape in different locations can mean totally different things (as in the male and female signs discussed above.

d. Movement – one movement of a handshape and two movements of the same handshape can mean different things.

e. Facial Expressions- Your facial expressions define whether you are asking a question or making a statement. For example, furrowing your brows indicates that you are asking a WH question (who, what, why, when, where) and raising your eyebrows indicates that you are asking a yes/no question.

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What’s in a Name?

Baby names

Names are a source of fascination for many people. Perhaps it is because names are one of the most important linguistic aspect of our identities, and as such often evoke strong emotions. Perhaps it’s because there’s so much thought put into them; there’s hardly any other linguistic act that is as intentional as giving a name to a baby. We have all sorts of reasons for giving children certain names. We name them after people in our lives or book characters or celebrities. We may try to name them in a way that won’t make them conform too much but also won’t lead to bullying. We name them because we like the meaning of a name, or maybe we just like the sound of it.

The sound of names is especially of interest to me, and I seem to be in some good company. There has been some very interesting recent research on the phonetics of names. One Mental Floss article by Arika Okrent asks “Why have baby names become increasingly female-sounding?” She includes a table of a system developed by Herbert Barry and Aylene Harper to determine what makes a name sound male or female in English, which I have copied here:

Gender Score

Via Mental Floss

There are, of course, some exceptions to these rules, especially for names from certain other languages (for example, many Hebrew male names end in a schwa), but overall these rules are decent predictors of what will trigger each gender reading in English. And what Okrent found is that popular names for both boys and girls are skewing more female than they did in past years:

Why the change? Okrent posits that biblical boys’ names, those from Hebrew that end in a schwa, are having a comeback. 6 of the top 100 boys’ names end in a schwa, compared to zero in 1950. Names with six or more phonemes (individual sounds) are also falling out of favor with parents of baby boys; think names like “Howard” and “Edward” and “Leonard.” Girls’ names have also been becoming more feminine-sounding. Okrent believes that this is due in part to a decline in monosyllabic names like Gail and Joan, and an increase in names ending in vowel sounds, like Emily and Anna.

It turns out that not only are names influenced by generational trends like those Okrent describes, but they can also be affected by the political ideology of the parents. To hear about these tendencies in detail, I suggest listening to this Freakonomics podcast about names. Political ideology can also skew how “masculine” or “feminine” a name sounds. More conservative parents name their children, both boys and girls, with more “masculine” names. Liberals, by contrast, name their children with more “feminine” names across the board.

The more “masculine” and “feminine” names are described by Eric Oliver, the principal investigator of the study on this topic, as containing “harder” sounds and “softer” sounds, respectively. In many ways, this ambiguous description contains many of the rules from the Mental Floss article: conservatives prefer “harder” sounds at the end of names, like the consonants listed in the last two rules on Okrent’s chart. Liberals, on the other hand, prefer vowels like schwa and the “y” in Emily. According to Oliver, liberals also prefer names with softer consonants in them, like “l” as in “Milo” for a boy and “r” as in “Carrie” for a girl.

As an example, Oliver recommends taking a look at the names of two prominent politicians from either side of the aisle. Obama’s daughters, Sasha and Malia, have almost prototypical “liberal” names. They both are heavy on the vowels, ending in the schwa sound that garners you +2 lady-points in Okrent’s chart. Both contain “softer” consonants in the middle, “sh” and “l”. Now compare Sasha and Malia’s names to Sarah Palin’s five kids: Trig, Track, Piper, Bristol, and Flapjack.* All these names end in consonants rather than vowels. Trig and Track, the two boys, both have monosyllabic names that end in “hard” consonants, what linguists would call a “stop.” Stops are the most abrupt type of consonant.

It could be that these two findings are related. In general, conservatives tend to be more old-fashioned, and therefore they may be more interested in preserving some of the old, more masculine-sounding names. Liberals, on the other hand, may be more inclined to follow more recent trends. Demographically, the “millenials” — the people who are the most likely to be naming their children in recent years — tend to be more liberal than their older counterparts, even when those counterparts were the same age as they are now.

*Just kidding. Her other child’s name is “Willow,” but that would be a pretty “liberal” name, so I’ve excluded it from the example, and used this joke from Jon Stewart instead.

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Vocal Fry and Hireability

It appears vocal fry is in the news again, popping up in the Washington Post article entitled “Study: Women with creaky voices — also known as vocal fry — deemed less hireable.” A couple of years ago, vocal fry was declared the hottest new linguistic trend, and like most trends it quickly became stigmatized, particularly because of its (alleged) strong association with young women. It was even the topic of my very first blog post. The tweets below are a small sample of people’s (frankly, irrational) dislike of vocal fry and the women who use it.


The Washington Post article summarizes a recent study by Dr. Rindy Anderson and colleagues at Duke University, in which they found that speakers who use vocal fry are considered less hireable than those who do not use vocal fry, especially the women. The study’s authors asked eight hundred people to listen to recordings of 14 speakers (7 men, 7 women) and “rated how competent, trustworthy, educated and attractive the voices sounded to them – and how willing they’d be to hire each person.” Women with vocal fry were rated worse on all of the categories than women without vocal fry or men without vocal fry.

My problem (and that of some of my colleagues who have been heatedly discussing this topic on Facebook) is with the stimuli; the vocal fry is everywhere, even in the “normal” recordings. You can open this link and listen to them for yourselves, where the audio is listed under “Supporting Information.” Compare Audio S20 to the other recordings; he doesn’t fry, but nearly everyone else does. In a study claiming to study whether the presence of vocal fry hurts job candidates, it would be ideal to test participants using stimuli that actually present that contrast, rather than to have vocal fry contained in almost every stimulus.

So if almost all of the stimuli contain vocal fry, what are the authors actually testing? It seems that the odd-numbered recordings have a bit more vocal fry, over the length of a phrase. That length is more characteristic of a stylistic, conversational vocal fry. In reading and in more formal scenarios, vocal fry generally occurs on the final syllable or two of an utterance. So if you say “I worked for three years at the company” in an interview scenario, or if you read that sentence aloud, you’re more likely to only use vocal fry on the “-pany” or “-ny” part of that sentence. This happens because we start to run out of air; because this type of vocal fry is physiological, it takes a lot of concentration to say a sentence without it. In more conversational speech, however, vocal fry can occur over an entire phrase. This usage is more stylistic than the previously described type of fry, because it won’t necessarily occur very “naturally” at the end of a phrase and thus must be used with some degree of consciousness on the part of the speaker. We don’t yet know all of the stylistic uses of vocal fry, but some examples in my research occurred when speakers were trying to be secretive, or were feeling a little uncomfortable or embarrassed for whatever reason. So someone uttering the above phrase might use vocal fry over the whole phrase in a conversation where that phrase is admitting to something embarrassing or secretive, as in “I know their products aren’t very good. I worked for three years at the company.” We don’t have any direct evidence that people don’t use vocal fry over an entire phrase in an interview, but chances are that people are a) going to be more formal and b) not going to share anything secretive and embarrassing. It could even be the case that when vocal fry is considered “appropriate” (like that in the “normal” recordings), it could be seen as a positive aspect of the interviewee, compared with stimuli that do not contain any vocal fry at all. It would be more accurate to title this paper “Stylistically Conversational Vocal Fry Undermines the Success of Young Women in the Labor Market,” than the simple proclamation that vocal fry is bad. In addition, the title downplays the fact that men are affected poorly too. It could be that since women are marked, their disadvantages are emphasized whereas men’s are ignored.

In addition to the fact that the non-vocal fry recordings actually do contain vocal fry, there are also confounding variables in the stimuli. Compare Audio S13 with Audio S14; they’re both examples from the same speaker. Notice the lengthening of “-y” in “opportunity” (a feature linguists call post-tonic lengthening). The result is that the “with vocal fry” character sounds different from the “normal voice” character in ways that are unrelated to vocal fry. These aspects need to be controlled for, or at least discussed, or even thrown out altogether. In addition, many of the speakers use a markedly lower pitch for their “with vocal fry” stimuli. A lower pitch is natural for the usage of vocal fry for physiological reasons, but this adds another variable that participants could key in to while making judgments about the speakers. Speakers with higher pitches could be seen as being more polite and earnest, while a low pitch could indicate a bad mood or a host of other readings. Listeners may be tuning into these variables other than the vocal fry while making judgments about professionalism, which could certainly be confounding variables in this study.

While I do believe that certain styles of vocal fry may harm job candidates, especially female ones, this study leaves me less than convinced that it has tested for that. A more convincing study would take into account the stylistic patterns associated with vocal fry (and its duration within a phrase) as well as contain genuine creak-free stimuli.

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What Exactly Are Vowels and Consonants?

Almost every person who has gone through the American public school system knows the words “vowel” and “consonant.” They can recite the vowels —  “a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y” — and they know that everything else is a consonant. But can they tell you what a vowel is? And what about consonants?

In a recent episode of Jimmy Kimmel, people exercising were asked whether they abstained from gluten, to which all those interviewed responded “yes.” They were then asked whether they knew what gluten actually was. Most just listed things they knew contained gluten (bread, beer, etc.), but none of them could actually explain what it was they were actually avoiding. Our K-12 knowledge of consonants and vowels is a little bit like common knowledge of gluten. We have a vague idea what sorts of things fall into those categories,  but we don’t have a clear idea of what the words “vowel” and “consonant” actually mean. Add to that the fact that our spelling system is quite divorced from the realities of our language’s sounds, and it’s no wonder that the concept is confusing. Luckily for you, your friendly neighborhood linguistics blogger is here to clear all that up for you!

What is a consonant?

Consonants are often ignored in our elementary education. Vowels are defined by the letters which (usually) represent them, but consonants are basically left unspoken of, defined only by their existence as not-vowels. Consonants are essentially this: there is constriction in the vocal tract, resulting in the cutting-off or muting of sound. This can be a total cutting off of sound, like the English sounds k as in “key”, or it can be a more subtle constriction, like the “th” in “the.”

What is a vowel?

Whereas consonants have definite constrictions, vowels use the smallest amount of constriction possible. This leaves lots of space in the mouth for vowels to resonate. Say the sound “s” as in “sign” a couple times in a row; then say the sound “z” as in “zebra.” The only difference between the sounds is voicing; put your finger on your larynx (your Adam’s Apple, if you’re a man) and notice that it vibrates for the sound “z” but not for the sound “s.” That vibration is called “voicing.” All vowels are voiced (say “aaaaah” with your fingers on your larynx), but many consonants are not. This also makes vowels much louder than consonants.

To see this in action, take a look at the picture below. It contains what linguists call a “waveform.” The waveform basically shows us how loud each part of a word is. The word represented below is “papi.” Notice the small amplitude at the very beginning (in the first red circle), and how it grows into a much louder part of the waveform (the “a” in “papi”, represented by the green line), followed by a period of total silence, which is the closure of the second “p” (the second red circle), followed by another vowel, “i” (with a blue line). The “i” is smaller than the “a” because the sound “a” is said with the mouth wide open, whereas “i” is said with a narrower mouth opening (remember my post on sound symbolism?).


Via the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki School of English

The in-betweens

Unfortunately, the difference between vowels and consonants isn’t so cut and dry. There are a number of sounds that are a bit fuzzier. Two sounds in English — w and y — are called “glides” or “semi-vowels”, and they have vowel-like qualities while still being consonants. For example, have you ever noticed in words like “being,” we actually pronounce it like “bee-ying”? Glides connect two vowels to each other and act as consonants when we need them to, in words like “yard” and “war.”

So we have consonants that look like vowels, so what about vowels that look like consonants? The following sounds can be what linguists call “syllabic sonorants”: m, n, l, r. These sounds can function as consonants, in words like “mother” and “nose” and “light” and “rare.” However, these sounds can also be vowels, in “syllabic sonorants.” Consider the word “bird.” Try to break it down into the sounds you would expect it to have: “B” + “ih” + “r” + “d”. It’s not quite what you’d expect, right? Sounds like someone saying a weird version of the word “beard,” rather than the way you know “bird” to be pronounced. That’s because the sounds in bird are actually just “b” + “r” + “d.” The “r” is the vowel. This is also the case for the other three sounds. Think of the m in “prism”, the last syllable in “kitten” and “ladle.” All of these sounds are just vowel versions of r, m, n, and l.

It turns out that consonants and vowels are not actually as distinct of categories as we might like to imagine. Speech sounds form more of a spectrum of sounds, with some sounds between our tidy categories of consonants and vowels.

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