Literally cray: A linguist’s attitude toward speech errors and slang

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In a recent Lyft Line, it surfaced that the other rider in the car with me also had a linguistics background. Our driver was a non-native English speaker (from his accent maybe Russian) – although his English was pretty fluent. As he was deciding whether to make a left turn at a chaotic, construction-clogged intersection, he stuttered a bit and said, “well, it’s not not allowed”. Then, making the turn, he followed that with, “oh boy, and making these language mistakes with two linguists in the car…” The driver was assuming, as many do, that we would be more critical than the average person of said language “mistakes”.

First off, the driver’s statement wasn’t even a real speech error. Although slightly harder for us to process cognitively because of the two negatives, it’s not not allowed is in fact a perfectly grammatical sentence of English. A similar utterance might be said that avoids the duplicated notit’s not illegal, for example. But what’s going on here is this:

It’s [not [not [allowed1]2]3].

Between each opening and closing bracket is a structural unit, called a constituent in syntax. (The sentence as a whole is also a constituent, but I didn’t want to blind you with brackets.) So, allowed by itself is a constituent (subscript 1). The inner not negates allowed; together they’re a constituent (subscript 2). The outer not negates not allowed, and becomes a larger unit of its own (subscript 3). In the end, this structure has a very nuanced meaning – more nuanced than just it’s not illegal – which is something like, “this action is not necessarily encouraged and may even be frowned upon, but it’s not against the law”.

Second, even if the driver had made a speech error, linguists as a group are much less inclined to judge than the average person. There is a prevalent misconception that linguists and English teachers are siblings in a “grammar nazi” family.  This is untrue. Indeed, just as biologists thrill in discovering some new mutation in a species, linguists are generally delighted by speech errors and seek them out as important material to study; they give vital insights into how human language and the human brain function.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that a couple of my colleagues and I have had fun collecting both native and non-native English speech errors we’ve encountered over the past year. Here is a sample:

Actual speech Intended speech Speaker’s native lang Type of error
“thinking loudly” “thinking out loud” Farsi Idiom
“cross the finger” “fingers crossed” Farsi Idiom
“stepping over their toes” “stepping on their toes” Farsi Idiom
“thank you for fast react” “thank you for the fast reply/response Korean Dropping definite article; Wrong word
“confusication” probably “confusion” or “miscommunication” Hindi Blend
“decrepit rules” “deprecated rules” English Wrong word
“laids norm” “Lord’s name” English Metathesis[1]
“my tights are hip” “my hips are tight” English Metathesis

 

Of major relevance to the speech attitudes topic are two concepts, flip sides of a coin: descriptivism and prescriptivism.

Descriptivism is a process which attempts to objectively describe actual language usage, as well as speakers’ basic and intuitive linguistic knowledge. From several centuries of descriptive investigation, researchers have concluded that all languages and dialects are complex and rule-governed. No clearly superior or inferior languages/dialects exist.[2] The judgements we, as members of a society have about a particular language or dialect are inextricably influenced by sociological factors.

Prescriptivism, on the other hand, is a process which attempts to prescribe, subjectively, what should happen in language. You are familiar with this from years of English/grammar classes and from style guides mandating rules for spoken and written language. What you may not know is that many of these rules are arbitrary, based on personal taste and accidents of history.

A few of the most common “rules” that persist today are actually confused English misappropriations of Latin by pompous old men playing king-of-the-intellectual-castle games. One example is preposition-stranding, which dictates: Do not separate a preposition from its noun, leaving it at the end of a clause. Say “To whom did you talk?” instead of “Who did you talk to?” Seventeenth century poet John Dryden made this up (misapplying Latin, where preposition-like pieces attach to nouns and truly cannot separate from them) in order to disparage the work of Ben Johnson. Other examples include the predicative nominative, split infinitives, and the count–mass noun distinction (less vs. fewer).

English teachers are not alone in their prescriptivist tendencies. People generally are rather opinionated about language. Certain “errors” even become so despised as to prompt real-world action. Take the word literally. A New York City bar now has signage banning its use and warns that offending customers will be kicked out. Countless online articles and forums bemoan the word’s ubiquity with the rationale that speakers are using it to mean its opposite (figuratively). A bit of history and context, however, lend perspective.

Literally has been used as figuratively, or more precisely, as an intensifier, for over 300 years. Such literary greats as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and James Joyce (among others) have used it in this emphatic way. And the adverb’s paradoxical plight is similarly shared by a whole cast of terms, known as auto-antonyms. Interestingly, none of the other English auto-antonyms get the attention that is lavished on “literally”.

Now that I’ve outlined descriptivism and prescriptivism, I would like to add two final clarifications. First, being a descriptivist does not mean throwing out the idea of spelling conventions, or tossing aside standard education. Linguists of course recognize the utility of teaching standardized writing and speaking for particular contexts (school, job, etc.) for purposes of clarity, versatility, and social mobility. Language is rich and its uses are necessarily multifaceted.

All of the above also does NOT mean specific words or expressions or ways of speaking never make linguists cringe. (Enjoy that double negation?) We’re human after all. Despite knowing the full historical and linguistic context of “literally”, I still grind my teeth hearing it many times in succession. I have other personal struggles with clippings (cray, totes, obvi) as well as with internet chat-cum-speech acronyms and initialisms (lol, idk, wtf, omg). Simultaneously, I view them as fascinating lexical change phenomena. And I never take my individual tastes to mean that the language is somehow “degrading”. Languages don’t degrade; they change, and have been changing ever since our ancestors began to talk. If not for such constant metamorphosis, we wouldn’t have the enormous linguistic diversity – the thousands of languages and dialects – that exists today.

 

[1] Where sounds, syllables, or words are switched.

[2] It has been an oft-repeated creed in linguistics over the last few decades to make the stronger claim that “all languages are equal”. However, the statement has not been scientifically proven, as researchers have not yet determined the precise criteria by which languages are to be measured, much less figured out how to measure and compare such enormous complexity. This thought-provoking topic will be the subject of at least one future post.

What is linguistics, and what do linguists do?

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I love patterns. They’re how we learn and evolve, and they’re everywhere.

Here’s a pattern for you.
When I tell someone new that I do linguistics, their response often goes like this:

Nod and/or smile and/or give small verbal acknowledgment.
Slight awkward pause.
“And what is linguistics again exactly?”[1]

People know that linguistics has to do with language, but beyond that, things get fuzzy. My goal with this post is to unfuzz (defuzz? disfuzz?) the basics of the field.

Most succinctly put, “Linguistics is the scientific study of language”. Like all sciences, linguistics is about patterns. Identifying them, analyzing them, making generalizations about them, making predictions (or hypotheses) from the generalizations, and then testing the predictions. What does that mean more specifically?

Well, what is language? Language is a conventionalized and arbitrary pairing of form and meaning. The form is usually sound, but it can also be gesture – in the case of sign language. There are many levels at which we might observe and analyze such form-meaning pairings, and these levels comprise the main subfields of the linguistics discipline. I’ll introduce each subfield through a couple of questions:

  1. How do our mouth, tongue, and throat produce consonants versus vowels? How do we segment a continuous stream of speech into words, so that we may understand it? How do we perceive sounds as belonging to our native language(s) versus other languages?

The study of speech sounds is Phonetics, and speech patterns, Phonology.

  1. What is going on when we add the prefix un- to the word happy, and the resulting word (unhappy) means the opposite of happy? How do words like steampunktoberfest, appletini, or totes come about? Why is the plural for cat cats, while the plural for mouse is mice?

The study of word structure and formation is Morphology.

  1. Why do we say the red car in English (with the adjective before the noun), when French has la voiture rouge and Spanish el coche rojo (both with the adjective after the noun)? Why is the interpretation of John saw the man with a telescope ambiguous?

The study of sentence structure is Syntax.

  1. How do we know that a poodle is a type of dog, or that if something is alive it cannot also be dead, or that Maddie plays the drums like a rock star must imply that Maddie plays the drums?

The study of meaning is Semantics.

  1. Why do we understand that it is annoying to say “Yes” (and take no subsequent action) in answer to your dinner partner’s question “Can you pass the salt”?

The study of discourse in context is Pragmatics.

 

Once we’ve discussed what linguistics is, the question that inevitably follows looks something akin to: where does studying language patterns get you in the real world? What do linguists actually do for a living? Until more recently, linguists were generally constrained to teaching and researching within academia. Many still do follow that path. However, in the last couple decades, various industrial sectors have realized the necessity of employing people with serious language knowledge. Here is a short list of possible careers outside of academia for those with a linguistics background:

  • Computational Linguist (works on improving computers’ ability to “understand” and generate human language – often in machine learning contexts)
  • Conlanger for Movie/TV Industry (invents new languages based on attested linguistic principles)
  • Data Scientist (statistically analyzes large amounts of data to provide business insights)
  • Field Linguist/Researcher (documents endangered or dying languages – although often from a university position)
  • Forensic Linguist (analyzes legal and judicial language; provides linguistic evidence in legal proceedings)
  • Lexicographer (builds dictionaries)
  • Naming/Branding Consultant
  • Nonprofit sociolinguistic research
  • Second or Foreign Language Instructor
  • Speech-Language Pathologist (diagnoses and treats communication, voice, and swallowing disorders)
  • Translator & Interpreter

Here are a few cool examples of actual people using their linguistics training in the real world:

One of my acquaintances is an interactional sociolinguist at the FrameWorks Institute, a nonprofit organization that conducts research on sociopolitical and scientific topics like aging, criminal justice, and climate change. FrameWorks investigates the language used in talk about these subjects, and teaches ways of reframing each issue. The woman I know manages the Institute’s Learning Unit, where she organizes professional learning events for advocates who want to change particular social dialogues.

Another friend of mine is a Speech-language Pathologist, or SLP. She works with veterans at the VA Hospital in San Francisco. Her patients have swallowing conditions, aphasia, and other disorders that interfere with speaking or understanding. The SLP path requires a master’s in Communicative Disorders/Speech-Language Pathology. Although it doesn’t require a degree in linguistics, my friend has this too, and she says that it has lent her a deeper understanding of the disorders she’s trying to treat, as well as the subtleties involved in clinician-patient communication.

David Peterson is neither a friend nor an acquaintance, although I wish he was one. He is a conlanger who created Dothraki and Valerian for the HBO series “Game of Thrones”. Dothraki and Valerian are not just random sets of made-up words. They are full languages, with their own phonology, morphology, and syntax. For example, to form a question in Dothraki – as in Hash yer ray tih zhavors chiorisi anni (“Have you seen my lady’s dragon?”) – one must include a word whose main purpose is to formulate questions, hash. English lacks a single separate word with just this function; instead, we use multifunctional auxiliary verbs like do, be and have, or rising intonation. French on the other hand does have a word with this unique function: est-ce que (subject-verb inversion and rising intonation are other possible strategies). Conlanging for film basically started in the eighties with Marc Okrand, the inventor of Vulcan and Klingon, used in the Star Trek movies. With sci-fi/fantasy shows becoming more and more involved these days, the opportunity for such constructed language work seems to be growing.

And then, take a watch of these videos. Anna Marie Trester, author of the Career Linguist blog, has interviewed and recorded multiple linguist folks (me among them!) working in different areas of industry.

 

I’d like to wrap up with some historical and contextual nuggets about the field.

Linguistics termed as such, and as its own independent discipline, is relatively new. It arose at the beginning of the twentieth century; the University of California (Berkeley) formed America’s first “Department of Linguistics” in 1901. Edward Sapir and Leonard Bloomfield were two prominent linguists early on. There was also structuralism or structural linguistics which dealt with signs, syntax, and other formal units of language. Main characters included Ferdinand de Saussure and Roman Jakobson. In the 1950s, Noam Chomsky devised his generative theory of language and Universal Grammar, and the discipline really took off. Chomsky is thus usually known as the “father of modern linguistics”.

Pre-twentieth century, philology (the study of ancient languages and texts), and then comparative philology (studies comparing European languages and language groups) existed from the middle ages through the 1800s. The first formal study of language comes from India; in the fifth century BC a man named Pāṇini categorized Sanskrit consonants and vowels, word classes like nouns and verbs, and other patterns.

One curious aspect of linguistics is that it has borrowed a good bit of terminology (and corresponding concepts) from biology. My brother is getting his PhD in lichenology, a little-known subfield of biology, and it’s super fun for us to chat about our respective fields because there’s an immediate overlap of understanding. For instance, linguistics uses the terms root, stem, tree to describe words and phrase structures. It adopts jargon like morphology, genealogy, diachronic, convergent and divergent evolution. A fascinating “language as organism”[2] metaphor appears frequently.

Lastly, linguistics is a small field. Even large university departments usually count no more than twenty to twenty-five graduate students at a time. Meeting another linguist randomly, outside of dedicated school or work contexts is, for me at least, a rare treat. Meeting people who want to talk about language, however, is wonderfully common! And understandably so – it applies to us all. I hope my post has provided a sprinkling of insight into this universal human subject.

 

Please check back soon for upcoming content – planned posts include a linguist’s perspective on speech errors, an explanation of the nifty phenomenon of metathesis (where sounds, syllables, or words are switched around), and summaries of Japanese and Korean writing systems.

 

[1] Another frequent response is: “So how many languages do you speak?” See this great post addressing the topic: http://allthingslinguistic.com/post/48473292525/why-linguists-hate-being-asked-how-many-languages

[2] Janse, M., Verlinden, A., & Uhlenbeck, E.M. (1998). Productivity and Studies in General and Descriptive Linguistics in Honor of E.M. Uhlenbeck. Trends in linguistics, 116, 197.