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Arts & Culture

Transcript: Are You "Bad At Grammar"? Think Again

Transcript of the Where We Live show "Are You 'Bad At Grammar'? Think Again" which aired May 14, 2021.

SEGMENT ONE:

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

This is Where We Live on Connecticut Public Radio, I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil. Today we talk to a linguist about the sociolinguistic cues we rely on every day. Languages help us communicate. What's the role of grammar? Is there a tendency to put too much emphasis on what's considered proper or correct? We want to hear from you. How do you notice language changing? Or are you a stickler for grammar? If so, have you thought about why? You can join us: 888-720-9677. That's 888-720-WNPR. You can also find us on Facebook and Twitter @wherewelive. Joining me on zoom is Nicole Holliday. She's Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Nicole, welcome to the show.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Hi Lucy, it's great to be with you.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

When we talk about linguistics, tell us more about what linguistics is and what you are studying.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, so people don't think of language as a science, but linguists do, right? We take the scientific perspective on language. So looking at sort of how it exists as systems in the world. And that's everything from looking at structural elements, looking at how it operates in society, which is more what I do. So I'm a sociolinguist. So I study how language affects society and how society affects language.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

What drew you to the field, Nicole?

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

I was good at school as a kid, but never really super good at anything, right? It wasn't like a math genius or really good at writing or anything like that. And I took Spanish...and a lot of linguists will tell you that they got into linguistics via their first foreign language class. And I loved Spanish, but I also was the kid like memorizing the conjugation of every irregular verb, like I loved the grammar. I loved memorizing grammar. So I got to college. And a friend of mine said, you know, you might want to take this linguistics class, and I signed up for it. And I changed my major, like three weeks into introduction to linguistics, because it was like my true love. [laughs]

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

So you were drawn to language, you were good at it. But when we think about language, and how we rely on languages every day, there are building blocks there. So what are we talking about when we think about language?

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, so when we teach basic introduction to linguistics, a really common approach is to start from the bottom up. So for me, I would start with the sounds. So we study sounds from the physical aspects of the properties of sounds. So that's what we call phonetics, but also how science sounds are stored in the mind. So that's phonology and we build up from there. So we start with the sounds, and then the syllables and then the words and then the sentences, and then how the sentences combined to have meaning in discourse. So you can sort of think of it as you know, the the iterative process of adding more and more until you get this big structure.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

And what about tone Nicole?

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, so that's at the sound level. And in fact, that is the area that I am interested in. So I said, I'm a sociolinguist. Specifically, I'm a socio-phonetician. And I study intonational phonology. So this means, basically, how do the movements of our voice up and down, what we think of as pitch, coming together to have meaning and in my case, social meaning?

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

We'll be talking about more about tone coming up with Nicole Holliday, if you have a question about the study of languages, and we're going to talk about grammar coming up, have a number 888-720-9677, or find us on Facebook and Twitter @wherewelive. And before we get to grammar and wonder if you can drill down more when we talk about sociolinguistics, and give us some examples of the way we talk each day.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, so when we hear somebody that we have never encountered before, let's say we hear them on the phone or on the radio, right? Everybody listening to us right now is getting a mental image of who we are. And they're doing that based on information that they've gotten as people moving throughout society. So for me, I don't know what folks think about me. [laughs] But if you're listening to me, you can tell that I'm American, that's not difficult. You can tell probably that I'm likely to identify as female, which I do--because of my voice. You can probably get a good guess of my age, right? I don't sound like someone who's 12. And I also don't sound like someone who's 65, right? I'm in my 30s. So we're getting all of these pieces of information. And we make really good guesses about who people are, where they're from, you know, their age, even race and gender in general. We can be wrong. [laughs] But these are kind of things that we use as heuristics to tell us, okay, this is the kind of person that I'm interacting with. And then to give us information about how to move forward with that person based on our previous experiences. So it's just like how we do all the rest of our social processing of information.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

I think often about accents, because I grew up in the Northeast, but when I moved South for a few years, you know, to hear the Southern accent and also perceptions when you hear someone with a Southern accent, Nicole.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, absolutely. So there is sort of a cultural idea that there is a quote unquote, good or right way to speak English. I personally feel like this is receding just a little bit, which is a good thing. But you'll notice, and this is not just true in the United States, it's true in the entire world, that the people who are sort of accused of speaking the “bad language” or “ruining the language” are people that are marginalized socially in other ways. So in the United States, in the South, for example, this is really clear, right? They lost the Civil War, and have been suffering, in fact, the economic consequences of that, and there's a lot of animosity towards people from the South, for over 100 years, and in the modern era, for different reasons. So people hear that and they take all of their social judgments that may be negative about a person from the South and attach them to specific linguistic structures. It doesn't make sense, right? Like saying, y'all has nothing to do with someone's, you know, moral character. But that's how we do how we use that social information that I was talking about sometimes for negative outcomes.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

Again, you can join us as we talk about linguistics with Nicole Holliday, the number 888-720-9677, or find us on Facebook and Twitter @wherewelive. I mentioned we're gonna talk about grammar. But I just wanted to give another example. I've been working in public radio for some time. And when I started out, I was much younger, my voice was a little bit higher, and being trained that you have to speak lower, you need to have that “NPR voice”. I'm glad to hear that there's different kinds of voices on public radio today. But not when I started. You were--you were told to try to be--to fit a mold of what the NPR voice is, Nicole.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Absolutely. And, you know, this is a fairly transparent example. I think. I was listening recently to NPR retrospective. I think it was on “Consider This” talking about 50 years of NPR. And one of the journalists was saying that when she began, the model for a news person was like Walter Cronkite, right back in the day. And there were women doing the news at that time. And so when women started to enter this space, what the expectation was, was that they would conform to the standard at the time, and the standard was set by men. So this is a very clear case of, alright, well, we're broadening who is allowed to participate, but we're actually not allowing them to sound how they really found we're still trying to make them fit a traditional mold.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

Brett's calling in from Newington. Brett, go ahead.

CALLER:

Oh, yes I'm too early on the call because I was a first I want to be a part of this conversation. But it's about linguistics. And my first thought was more about grammar. [breathing] Sorry I'm moving at the same time. I'm kind of like a “grammar nazi” and I sarcastically make fun of people who spell things. And I--feel like I'm out of breath because--well, anyways, so I get frustrated with the common ignorant misspellings. Or, reframing my mind, it might not be ignorant, they might just be typing quick and it just autocorrect thinks it’s one thing even though it's apostrophe “you’re”, “you are”. Me personally, I spell out all contractions, so there are no contractions in my spelling, so I do not make accidental or purposeful mistakes, or ignorant mistakes. But anyway, I want to get beyond that. If the point gets across, and they have something worth sharing, that's a little bit more important than if they spell it correctly. And yes, they should all strive to be better spellers, but I should not be so…“grammar nazi”...and I do it more commonly trying to help people improve, but they don't necessarily read the “sarcasm font” as I'm texting on social media, even though I sometimes put in parentheses “officially licensed sarcasm font”.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

[laughs] Well, Brett, I'm glad you called in because we are going to talk about grammar. And Nicole, I wanted you to respond to what Brett shared and when we think about grammar and how that fits into the way we communicate, and also how we write.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, I feel like Brett has been converted to the cause here, because he's being really thoughtful about, you know, the message being more important than maybe the form that it takes in any particular moment. We think of grammar, I think most people think of grammar as, like, the set of rules that you had to be taught when you were in middle school or something like that. And, you know, don't end sentences with a preposition and all of these kinds of things. But that's not how linguists think of grammar. Every speaker of a language has a grammar that they've built in their mind, particularly this is true if it's your first language. So, in fact, we take it to be axiomatic that native speakers do not make errors. Unless there's sort of something else neurological or cognitive going on. They don't make errors in their first language. And so when people say things like "ain't" or "y'all" are in something with a preposition, it is actually grammatical. With respect to what Brett is saying about, you know, the spelling and things like that this is actually a really illustrative example. Spelling is something that we have to learn to do, right, most five year olds can't spell, but they can have a whole paragraph long conversation with you. So when we judge somebody for their spelling, for example, it's nothing to do with their language ability or their language faculty. We're judging their education, we're saying, ah, you were not educated to the same standard as me or towards the people--to the same degree as the same as the people I want to interact with. And so I'm going to sort of police that. And Brett added a really interesting element here to thinking about, okay, if we're texting if we're on social media, the phones are influencing what we're doing, right, they will autocorrect for us. I've used the quote unquote, wrong “your” before. And obviously, I know which one is supposed to be which, but, you know, I'm just firing off tweets, I'm just texting a friend, and it doesn't matter. They're getting the message anyway, which I think is where he kind of landed on, on his assessment of things as well.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

So as a linguist, their ideas of what descriptive grammar is, and prescriptive grammar, so ground rules versus how we actually talk, Nicole?

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Absolutely, yeah. So it'll happen to me sometimes that I'll be, you know, in a social event, and someone will say, oh, you're a linguist, like, I better watch my grammar around you. And actually, I'm the least judgmental person in this room. Because I'm a descriptive linguist, we don't really get into the business of prescribing what people are supposed to do, because we're interested in the system. And also, part of the nature of language is that it changes and that it varies, and it varies for really good, interesting social reasons. So we never want to be in the business of telling people that what they're doing is wrong.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

Yet we get stuck in our society to correct people or the again as we talked earlier,  if they speak a certain way, or maybe end their sentences and prepositions--something’s wrong with them, they're not as educated.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, absolutely. And this is where, you know, a lot of the prescriptivism can give a very thin cover to other types of social prejudices. So this is one thing I was alluding to before, whenever someone says those people are ruining the language, it's people who are seen as you know, not not good enough or not, sort of, trustworthy to be in charge of the language. And it's, you know, it's very clear, right? Lucy, your example of being taught to lower your voice, right? Well sound like a man that has more power, or, you know, you have to spell things the right way. Well, so you should be writing like someone who went to college, right? Like, it's all of the things that we put on a pedestal of the ideal social identity, the most powerful social identity. And that's what we're asking people to sort of target all the time, but it's not really fair, right? Because not everybody--first of all, like you can't physically lower your voice to the level of, you know, Walter Cronkite, probably, but also, just because somebody didn't attend college, for example, doesn't mean that they don't have a valid idea to contribute to the conversation. And if we're policing them on their grammar or their spelling, we're not actually listening to their ideas.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

You can join our conversation with linguist Nicole Holliday 888-720-9677 or find us on Facebook and Twitter, @wherewelive. Can you give us another example--you used the term ungrammatical. So how linguists think of that versus how people who aren't linguists think of ungrammatical?

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, I had a student--this is I used to teach at Pomona College, and she had a notebook and she noticed this in class one day that her notebook had on the back these, like, “grammar tips” or whatever, these things that you're not supposed to do. So it said yeah, don't in sentences with a preposition. Don't split infinitives. So that that old Star Trek example you know, you're not supposed to say, “to boldly go”, you know, don't don't use “ain’t”, stuff like that. And we were, you know, at the end of this semester and I was teaching a class called language in society. And she raised her hand; we were totally in the middle of a different conversation, because she was just looking at her notebook, and said, “Um, I'm noticing that all of the things that this notebook is telling me not to do are actually just variation, and they're not ungrammatical. They're just things that people who speak stigmatised dialects of English do.” And I said, “Yes, that's exactly right.” Because to think of something ungrammatical for someone whose first language is English, is actually really hard. Like you, I have to do something as extreme as like changing the word order. So instead of saying like, “the dog barks”, I'd have to say “barks the dog”, which everyone who speaks English as a first language would know, nobody says “barks the dog”, because we don't put the verb first in English. But that's how extreme it is to get an example of something that's truly ungrammatical.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

So when we think about the grammar rules we've learned in school, the value of them it's useful in, in communication, but not to think of it as this is what you have to do all the time. This is the proper way to speak.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

And yes, in fact, and we don't, we don't do that, right, writing and speaking are kind of separate things for linguists. So we acquire language, humans acquire language. Half of the world's languages don't have a writing system, right? So there are millions and millions, billions of people who don't read or write [their language], but of course, they use their language perfectly well. Writing is something that we learn that we are explicitly taught to do when we're older. And so sometimes what you'll see is people taking the writing conventions that they've been taught, and putting them on to speech. But even the most formal people who are professional writers who pride themselves on speaking in a very formal way, still don't follow all those conventions when they talk. We don't have the time to be revising what we say when we're speaking the way that we do when we're writing. And so the language has more ability to just move itself around in speech that it does in writing.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

We've been focused on what we've learned in school and focusing on the English language, but can you talk about how other countries and languages have an even more prescriptive approach?

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yes. Um, so there are, in Europe, there is the Real Academia Española, the Royal Academy of the Spanish language. There's a French one as well. And the French Academy periodically will make headlines for prescribing something that people cannot do in French. So my favorite example is a few years ago, they said, Oh, no, we don't want French speakers to say, le weekend. They can’t they can't say le weekend; that's a corruption from English. Did it stop anybody on the streets of Paris from saying, like, “Oh, I'm going to go to the party on le weekend”? Like, no, it didn’t. You don't get to sort of prescribe for people how they're going to do this. And there are even more egregious examples. In Singapore for a long time, and I think maybe even still, there's a campaign called “Speak Good English”. Singapore English has a lot of influences from different communities that have immigrated to Singapore. And this is sort of a top down government effort to try to get people to speak what the Singaporean government thinks of as “good English”, but at the same time, it's, it's kind of stigmatizing the rich cultural heritage of the place and the fact that it's a beautiful system where all these people came together and created something that is specific to them and their culture. So when you say something like “speak good English”, you're really trying to flatten and take away a part of their history and their culture.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

When we look at these less prestigious dialects, they also have rules. Can you talk about what linguists observe and describe some of them?

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, absolutely. So I study African American English. In the 70s through the 90s, this is what people were calling Ebonics. We don't call it Ebionics anymore, because the term itself is so stigmatized. However, I wish we could because it comes--it's a portmanteau of “ebony” and “phonics”. And I just think it's so cute. But of course, like it's gotten this negative connotation. So African American English is a rule governed system--this is the first thing we teach students--with its own grammar. And I know this because I have taught mainstream English speaking kids about the grammar of African American English and watched them fail grammar exams [laughs]. In African American English, for example, you have an “optional copula”, which means that you don't necessarily need to have an overt expression of the verb “is” or “are”, so you can say something like, “he funny”, instead of “he's funny”. You can do that in other languages as the way the grammar is set up. So in Russian and in Arabic for everyone, the copula simply does not exist. In Arabic, you say “he funny”, and that's fine. The only reason that this is stigmatized as a structure in African American English is because it's an optional feature, and it's in comparison to the mainstream variety, which has “obligatory copula”. So this is just an example of, there's a structure here that exists in this variety, of English that exists in many other languages that no one would ever say, “Oh my gosh, Arabic speakers don't know how to use their language because they don't have is or are,” no one would ever say that right? It's just by comparison, because English speakers are used to there having to be an overt expression of a copula. But structurally, one system is not better than the other.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

This is where we live on Connecticut Public Radio, I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil, my guest today is Nicole Holliday, Assistant Professor of lLnguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, as we learn about the study of languages and how they work. We're gonna keep talking about that after the break, and take your questions, too: 888-720-9677. That’s 888-720-WNPR or find us on Facebook and Twitter, @wherewelive.

[MUSIC OUTRO]

SEGMENT TWO:

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

This is where we live on Connecticut Public Radio, I’m Lucy Nalpathanchil. My guest today is linguist Nicole Holliday. She's Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, as we learn more about languages, how they work in the sociolinguistic cues we all rely on every day. And Nicole, you touched on this earlier, that to be fluent speakers of a language, you can't just know grammar. You have to have that sociolinguistic competence. You use a really fun example to describe this based on, I think, something you worked on in college?

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah. So it's so interesting that I was telling you like, you know, I took this intro to linguistics class and changed my major and loved it so much. And my very first, you know, final paper about a linguistic topic was about this issue of sociolinguistic competence. Because I'm also, like, a pop music nerd. And I'm just, you know--it's 2007, and I'm just like listening to the radio and stuff. And “My Humps” was popular, the song. And I was like, man, this song is really not at all clear to anybody who does not speak English as a first language, first of all, or like, even to my grandmother, right? Like, it's very, very specific. Because it relies on all these allusions to things that you may or may not know about. So like, it's, you know, it's--I'm the target audience, I understand the song. But there's a lot of social information required for you to get the full interpretation. So I wrote a paper about how sociolinguistic competence works in popular music. And I still use these examples to teach students whenever I teach a class like this.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

So we're going to play a little bit of the song I was surprised, thinking back, Nicole, this song is from 2005. My humps by the Black Eyed Peas. Let's listen to a little

[MUSICAL CLIP OF “MY HUMPS” BY THE BLACK EYED PEAS]

LYRICS: 

I drive these brothers crazy; I do it on the daily; they treat me really nicely; they buy me all these icies. Dolce and Gabbana, Fendi and Madonna…

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

Okay, so describe what we're hearing, exactly.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, okay. So she says, “I do it on the daily”, so like you might be able to get that right, like every day, but that's not something that most people go around saying all the time. It is more common in African American English to have a structure like that. She said, and this is you know, it's kind of weird, pseudo hip hop pop combination. So it makes sense. She says, “they treat me really nicely. They buy me all these icies.” That is really tricky. Because now, thinking--this song is 16 years old, oh my goodness. Um, at the time, there was a popular slang term for jewelry called “ice”. This is also from African American English. So diamonds look like ice, right? So people would say “ice” to refer to bling, or things like that. But she doesn't say “ice”, she wants to rhyme with nicely. So she says “icies. You've got to go all the way back from icies to ice, knowing that that's a slang term for jewelry knowing that this is a kind of hip hop approximation. And this makes sense right? And then she goes to talk about the brands so she says, “Dolce and Gabbana, Fendi and Madonna”. If you did not grow up in a place where fashion and designer brands are something that's discussed. You're like why is she saying all these names right? What is Fendi? What is Dolce and Gabbana? The point of her saying all of this is “I'm a very attractive woman. Men buy me all of this jewelry. And many designer brands that are very expensive.” That's the interpretation, right? But I'm not sure that my grandma would hear this song and be able to take any of that apart, let alone someone who's just learning English.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

So I'm thinking--so young people back in 2005, I was much younger back then. But not in high school like our tech producer Cat Pastor.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, I was in high school.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

All right. So if young people are listening to this song today, maybe they'll get it?

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, I think they'll get a lot of it. Obviously, they're gonna think it's, they're gonna think It's “cheugy”. That's, like, the new word that the media is reporting on a lot. It's kind of like, cringe or like basic or like outdated. So the kids using like, Ugh, “My Humps”, so cheugy. But they'll still understand a lot of what she's saying. Because these are patterns that occur, right? There are many rap songs where they talk about ice. And also they'll get that they're talking about brands, these are still brands that we talk about.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

So let's go a little bit more into the song I here's a little bit more of “My Humps”.

[MUSICAL CLIP OF “MY HUMPS” BY THE BLACK EYED PEAS]

LYRICS: 

I keep on demonstratin’ my love. My love, my love. You love my lady lumps. My hump my hump my humps. My humps they got you… [BACKGROUND VOCALS]: She’s got me spending…

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

Okay, so--this again, is a nine o'clock morning show here, but describe a little bit more about what Fergie singing about.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, so we'll keep it PG. The whole song is her bragging right about how she is so hot. And so when we get to the chorus, she's making a, sort of, not very thinly veiled allusion to her body, and her body being curvaceous. So lumps and humps is very strange. But you kind of get what she's alluding to, right, if you if you're able to think about it a little bit further. So she is she is actually keeping it PG instead of explicitly discussing her anatomy, but you are be you are able to put together the image of what she's trying to claim her body it looks, like anyway.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

Another example of what we've been talking about sociolinguistic competence: Over this last year in the pandemic, all the vocabulary around COVID, which we're all just, you know, saying every day.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Oh, my goodness, yes. So people might have seen--every year, towards the end of the year, all of the dictionaries will pick their word of the year, you know, the word that was really popular and prominent. But linguists do this too. I'm a member of the American Dialect Society. And we met over Zoom in December to discuss what our word of the year would be for 2020. We landed on “COVID” as the word of the year, unsurprisingly, but there was much discussion of all of the Zoom terms, right? Like Zoom Fatigue, Zoom Bombing, also of all of the the COVID terms itself. One thing that I was a fan of that people discussed was “2020”, like as an adjective. So just to say that something's really messed up like, “Man, that's so 2020” because the whole year was like, you know, throw out the year, we're done. But there's also been a lot of really creative things going on with talking about COVID itself, so we could not decide when it first came to prominence, like, Do we call it Coronavirus? Do we call it COVID? Do we call it COVID-19? And you still see variation in how people use those things, even in writing. Online. I spend time on Twitter and on TikTok. And people will African American speakers started calling it Miss ‘Rona. And that spread on Twitter. And then particularly on TikTok, with the word “pandemic”, there started to be a meme that was circulating around TikTok, where you don't even need to say “pandemic”; any multisyllabic word or phrase that starts with P will work. So you ge, like, “They're out here going to a party in a Panini Press?!” “They're out here in this pan-Demi Lovato!” “They're out here in this Panda Express!” instead of saying “pandemic”. So it's allowed for a lot of--the understanding that we're all in the pandemic has allowed for a lot of linguistic creative creativity around it.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

I love calling COVID ‘Rona as if this is a person that has crashed our good time over the last year, Nicole. You’re hearing linguist Nicole Holliday here on Where We Live as we talk more about languages and how they work. Rob's calling in from Glastonbury. Rob, you're on the show.

CALLER:

Hi, I don't have a lot of pet peeves when it comes to the way people speak. The only thing that really bugs me is when people use the word “literally”, for things that are not literal. Like when they say,  “I could literally eat a horse.” Well, probably not. I mean, horses are big. And so I'm just wondering why you think people start to do that because it's literally the opposite of what that word means.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

Very nice, Rob. Go ahead, Nicole.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, bad news for you, Rob. “Literally” means both “literally” and its opposite, now, and that's just what has happened. It's language change. So yes, it means both “literally” and “figuratively”. This happens all the time, words change meaning. So when the word nice first entered English, and we're talking about like the 1300s, it meant like “silly” or “foolish”. And obviously, it doesn't mean that now, right? It changed over time. There is--I have some ideas about why this happened with “literally”. First of all, like, a reversal in meaning isn't that unusual. Also, we have English speakers use sarcasm and hyperbole for comedic effect. And so we started using literally, in these situations where it was obvious that it couldn't be literal. So in Rob's example, I could literally eat a horse. No one could ever literally, you know, horse, right? It's comedic hyperbole. And that's what it means. So literally just means both things now. And that's, that's where the language took us.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

[laughs] I'm loving this conversation, you can join us: 888-720-9677 or find us on Facebook and Twitter @wherewelive. Mary Ellen's calling in from Cheshire. Hi, Mary Ellen.

CALLER:

Hello. Hello?

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

Yes, Mary Ellen, go ahead.

CALLER:

Well, I had a couple of comments, actually. One is the placement of the voice. And I know you were talking about that. But some people's voices are so harsh. And so, somehow, high, along with talking fast. And that's creeping into general--this talk everywhere now. I find it hard to hear people.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

Nicole, did you want to respond to Mary Ellen's point here?

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, um, well, speech rate is something that varies. So in terms of perceiving things as fast. You know, I don't--I haven't seen any documentation that speakers are speaking faster than they used to; maybe, maybe not. With respect to, you know, the comment that some people speak so high--our pitch is partially a function of our physiology, and partially a function of our style. Basically, we're instruments. So small instruments have higher pitched voices, like children are like violins and big instruments have lower pitched voices. So if you think of, you know, a man who's 6’5”, like, he's much likely likelier to have a lower voice, because he's a bigger instrument. Some of this is not in conscious control. So you might not be able to tell this from listening to me, but I actually have a vocal fold disorder, that causes my voice to be more hoarse and more raspy. That does not have a social stigma attached to it. But it is just physically how my body sounds. So, some of this stuff, we want to be conscientious. People's voices are a function, not only of what they're trying to do socially, the identity they're trying to construct, but also the bodies that they inhabit, which they don't always have total control over. The other thing I'll say is, every adult in the history of time in every language has either complained or has heard others complain about “kids these days”. It's just true that the language changes. And older people tend to reject the changes that are being brought in by younger people. So I think that might be a little bit of what Mary Ellen is perceiving here as well.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

Can you talk more about vocal fry, because there was this conversation again, in the public radio world just a few years ago, as NPR and other member stations tried to do a better job of having all kinds of different people, different journalists with different backgrounds on the radio, there was this honing in of how certain women speak. Can you talk about that vocal fry?

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, so vocal fry, if folks don't know, is a phenomenon where basically what is happening with your vocal folds--they're not cords, their folds [laughs]--in your larynx, or in the voice box, your vocal folds come together periodically on a regular cycle. And that's what causes phonation. So the the voice that we think of as the normal voice. When your vocal folds comes together aperiodically--so there's kind of air moving through them, such that they are moving, they're coming together irregularly. One effect that you can hear is [affecting voice with vocal fry] this thing called vocal fry, which is a little bit like this. [returns to normal voice] My normal speaking voice, just now, is not as extreme as that but I do have some vocal fry. It became a--just something that was more widespread in the speech of folks, particularly on the West Coast, you know, In the middle of the last century, and it's become part of a style that people do utilize for-for different, you know, social purposes. But in fact, most people who speak English creek sometimes--we call it creaky voice. So at the end of a phrase, you will hear people use vocal fry, because one thing that happens when you start to run out of air is that your vocal folds might come together aperiodically. You will hear it happen in the middle of words, in particular, like it has to happen on on vowels sometimes. But what's interesting about this is that for young people, now, there's a number of studies that found that boys and girls do it at similar rates. And the people who tend to be the subject of complaints about vocal fry are almost always women. So I know there was an episode of This American Life a few years back where I Ira Glass talked to the linguist Penny Eckert, and she's an absolute legend in sociolinguistics. She's at Stanford. And they were talking about some of these phenomena. And Ira Glass said, you know, we get a lot of complaints about our women reporters, using all this vocal fry. But Ira Glass himself is a person that uses prolific vocal fry. So this sort of betrays what's actually happening. It's a pattern that is ideologically associated with the speech of young women whether or not young women are doing it. And for that reason, it became stigmatized, because we don't give young women power, we don't tell them that they sound authoritative. And so because this is the ideological link that was made, the pattern itself became stigmatized, regardless of who is actually doing it.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

You can join our conversation about linguistics with Nicole Holliday, she's Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania 888-720-9677. That's 888-720-WNPR. Or find us on Facebook and Twitter @wherewelive. Can we also talk about the word “um”? A listener called in about that, and that's something that we all say, can you talk a little bit more about how this has become something that people say more often and also, something that people are critical about?

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, so these types of things, “um”, and “uh”, and “like”;  “like” in particular, are what we call filler words, you will not see them in writing, because what their function is, is to give us more time to plan our speech or to think about what we're going to say. So this, I think, the stigma attached to filler words, goes back to this idea that speech is supposed to be like writing. Of course, you don't see “um”s and “uh”s and writing unless people are trying to reproduce speech, because you have the time to sit and think about what your sentence would be. But if somebody says to me, like, “oh, would you do last weekend,” I actually need a moment to think about it, because we're in a whole Panda Express and all the days are running together. [laughs] So I might have to be like, “Um, well, I went on a bike ride, um, then we got some food,” right? So I need time to actually process the memory, which--but I still need to hold the floor. Because in English, if you pause for too long, if “I say I went on a bike ride,” [pause] “I went to get food” [pause] in that intervening interval that silence someone else, my interlocutor, my listener might take that as a cue that I'm done talking, because we don't pause for long periods like that in English. So we use these fillers to say, “I need a moment to plan my speech or remember what I'm trying to talk about, but I'm not done talking. So please give me a moment to use this filler.” It's not a problem, right? Everyone does it all the time. But it's something that's seen as negative just because it's not something that you see in writing, I think.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

This is Where We Live on Connecticut Public Radio, I’m Lucy Nalpathanchil. My guest today, Nicole Holliday, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Coming up after the break, we're going to talk about how language evolves. You can join us to find us on Facebook and Twitter @wherewelive.

[“My Humps” plays as outro music]

SECTION THREE

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

This is Where We Live on Connecticut Public Radio. I'm Lucy Nalpathanchil. Today we're talking about languages, the study of languages; all the cues we pick up to understand language. But on Tuesday, we're going to talk about “digital language”. More and more of our communication is taking place online. Do emojis belong in a work email? You can join that conversation; that's Tuesday. Right now my guest on Zoom: Nicole Holliday, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Gab is calling in from Hartford. Gab, go ahead.

CALLER: Hi, I have a question about why some people are so focused on maintaining proper grammar, others are focused on creating new words even when they're not needed. I mean, we need things like “social distance”, there's a reason to create that new term. But other things like using “ice” instead of “diamond”, there seems to be an innate acceptance and sort of drive to do that. And I just wondered if that was a generational, or what are the thoughts behind why we do that?

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

Great question, Gab. Go ahead, Nicole.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, this is just a part of how language works too, right? Obviously, we, as you mentioned, we innovate when we have new concepts, right? So now it's very common to say like, “Oh, I'm just going to Google that”--not possible in 1985! Right? So here we are, or social distancing all of the COVID terms that are new. But young people in particular, are the ones who innovate, who drive language change. And if you know anything about teenagers, they tend to want to play with things and push boundaries. And as part of the developmental process of figuring out who they are differentiating themselves from their families, figuring out where they belong in a community--they do this with language, too. So you'll notice a lot of what we think of as slang, the new words entering come from young people. And this was--you know, I gave the example earlier of “cheugy”. The young woman who was quoted in the New York Times as having coined this, or she and her friends coined this, is 23. And they talked about how they used to use it back in high school to talk about, you know, people who had uncool tastes. They maybe didn't need that they were already you know, they could have said “uncool”. They said they simply could have said “cringe”, they could have said “basic”, but maybe those words weren't exactly what they meant. Or maybe they just wanted something new, right? It's a process that the language goes through of innovation, and words that we think of as, like, totally not slang or totally mainstream were at some point totally new to us, too. So cool, for example, comes from African American jazz musicians and jazz culture about a hundred years ago. And nobody would say, oh, cool, that terrible youth slang, these things come and go as part of what we do with the language and the culture.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

When we were talking about doing this show, Carmen and I, the producer, we were talking about the use of “they” and how “they” is a gender neutral singular pronoun that more people are using. But can you talk about how that even evolved?

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, so singular, they, as a referent to someone of unknown gender or kind of abstract referent is very old. I think, the OED dates it to the 14th century, maybe even? So if you say something like “someone left their water bottle,” you don't know whose water bottle, it's just belonging to a person. And that's very common and has been around for a very long time. The use that's more innovative is now we're really having discussions about how we want to think about gender, as a culture. And so if you're in a space where people are asked to share their pronouns, then you will encounter maybe somebody whose pronouns are not “he” or “she”, their pronouns are “they”. So using this for a person whose name you know, who may have a gendered name, you know, maybe their name is Bob, Bob's pronouns are “they”, so I'll be like, “Bob told me that they were talking to their sister the other day”, that is the use that is more new for many people.

And, honestly, you know, all of these conversations that we're having about like can the language change, or can we be prescriptive, or all of this, this is a place where I want to be really unequivocal, when it comes to what people want to be called, or how they want to be referred to, the basic respect is to call them what they want to be called and refer to them what they want to be referred to. You would never meet a guy whose name is Michael, and says that he doesn't want to be called Mike, and go around calling him Mike! That's disrespectful. And I think it's the same thing with this discussion about names and pronouns and even terms for groups, right? The dignity of the person supersedes however, we want to mess with the grammar.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

Nicole, great point. We have time for one more caller, Josh in New Haven. Go ahead, Josh.

[silence]

Josh, are you there? Oh, it doesn't look like Josh is there anymore. I'll take one more call. Linda, go ahead. We just have a couple of minutes. Go ahead with your question, Linda.

CALLER: 

Hi, I was wondering if you have any insight into a phenomenon that I happen to notice more and more often, which is people starting their sentences with the words “so”, and also ending with “Does that make sense?”

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Yeah, I am “so” sentence starter. I am one of these people. So I actually don't know exactly where it comes from. As far as the “Does that make sense?” though, that's a little bit more clear. When we are doing things interactionally, we want confirmation that our listeners are following us. And we do this with tone; we do this with all kinds of other strategies, but we do have this discursive way of confirming that the person understood. So “Does that make sense?” Like, “Are you following me?” We do it also with “Right?” Like, you know, “I was doing this right?” So you might be seeing these more, my guess is, in this pandemic world where people are communicating in digital spaces and on Zoom and things like that, because people are seeking more confirmation that they are being heard and understood.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

When Josh called and he wanted to bring up how y'all seems to be more common now. I grew up in the Pittsburgh area and we say “yinz”, Nicole!

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Love “yinz”, love “youse” in Philly. Yeah, “y'all”, I think--this is related to the question that you had asked about “they”, it's a gender-neutral second person plural. Which, the second person plural in English is “you” to refer to a group of people, “you”. We say “you all”; where I'm from--I from Columbus, Ohio--”you guys” was really common when I was growing up. Some people have started to want to avoid “you guys”, because they feel that it's gendered. And so “y'all” is really functional for that purpose. It's also short. It also sounds friendly, even if it carries some of what we think of as the stigmatized attachments with the South, because it is coming from Southern English. We also have positive ideas about the South too, and one of them is friendliness. So I think that Josh is correct that y'all is seeing a current expansion.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

This has been a fun hour, Nicole Holliday. Thank you so much! Assistant Professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. We appreciate your time today.

NICOLE HOLLIDAY:

Thank you, Lucy. It was so fun.

LUCY NALPATHANCHIL:

This is Where We Live; I’m Lucy Nalpathanchil. Carmen Baskauf produced today's show. Cat Pastor is our technical producer, and Hannis Brown composed our theme song. We hope you have a great weekend.

[MUSIC OUTRO]

This is a  transcript of a Where We Live show which aired May 14, 2021. Listen to the full show here.

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