Author Archives: Elizabeth Pyatt

The Correct Pronoun for RuPaul?

It’s no secret that modern citizens can be confused about which pronoun to use for a transgender individual (here I mean both individuals who have received treatments to change their biological gender or individuals who may present themselves as the gender opposite of their biological sex). And even though I’m a linguist, I can don’t always have the answer in a situation like this.

So before I dive further, apologies if I get something wrong. Although I have had some interactions with transgender individuals, my experience is still mostly as a cisgender woman.

Personal Preference Counts

First, it is important to note that some linguistic usage guidelines should be based on preferences of groups and individuals and not on any sort of grammatical or semantic “logic.” For instance, speakers of the Celtic language spoken in Ireland generally prefer the term Irish over the older term Gaelic…despite the fact that the name for Irish in Irish is Gaeilge. One reason for this preference is likely to distinguish it from the Gaelic language of Scotland (a.k.a. “Scottish Gaelic”). Both Irish and Scottish Gaelic are close sister languages by the way.

As an English speaker, you may feel that Gaelic is a perfectly acceptable and “logical” alternative, but once I was corrected, I have always used the term Irish. Speaker preference here overrides other considerations.

Note: I once informed a student that the term Irish was preferred and he told me that his Irish-American grandmother always used the term “Gaelic.” In this case, I advised him not to correct his grandmother, but not to use the word Gaelic around Irish speakers.

Some Transgender Pronoun Guidelines

In terms of referring to a transgender individual you may not know personally, a good choice is likely to use the gender the person is presenting as. If you are not sure, advises you to listen or ask politely.

Note: also notes that you may not always be aware that a person is in fact transgender because you feel you can identify the presented gender. In that case, using the pronoun matching the visible gender was probably a safe choice.

Having said that, a person may still advise an alternate to your guess, including possibly a gender-neutral one. You should use that choice whenever possible and apologize for past errors.


One of the most famous transgender individuals in RuPaul who appears in public sometimes dressed in men’s clothing and sometimes in women’s clothing (and always looking fabulous). So if I’m reviewing an album like American (2017), which is the best pronoun to use?

As it turns out RuPaul has given us an answer (from Wikipedia) – “You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don’t care! Just as long as you call me.”

And in one interview RuPaul clarifies that there is a distinction between “drag” and a transgender identity. I would also note that RuPaul may what Navaho and other communities refer to as “two spirit” – a reference to individuals who may choose to sometimes present themselves in a gender opposite of their biological gender.

What about “Queer”?

Oddly, the one term I would have problems with is queer. I grew up with this term being a pejorative term for both homosexual and transgender individuals. But both communities (as well as the bisexual community) have reclaimed this term and use it in a positive manner, to the point of using the term “Queer Studies” in an academic sense. In fact, one student who noted she sometimes presented herself as masculine sincerely felt that queer was the right term to describe her situation.

Yet, as a cisgender (and white) individual, I feel uncomfortable using “queer” as I would using terms like “wop” or “spic” or the N-word even though I have heard Italian-Americans and Latinos use those terms. I am not sure it is yet acceptable to use these terms if one isn’t a member of that community.

How to Pronounce “Gal Gadot”

With the Wonder Woman movie about to come out, it’s important to review this timely pronunciation article from Vox and about how to pronounce the name of star Gal Gadot ( גל גדות‎‎). As they point out, Gadot is NOT the same as the French family name of the play Waiting for Gadot but rather an Israeli name.

So bring out that final /t/ and say something like “Gal Ga-duht” /gæl gadɔt/ (stress on the final syllable). The first of Gal is fairly close to English Short A, but the is between English “uh” and “oh”.

I Give Arrival an A-

A good friend of mine commented that he liked how linguistics was depicted in the recent sci-fi movie Arrival, so I did feel duty bound to view the movie. The good news is that yes, the mechanics of linguistics is portrayed fairly well. Still I was a tad disappointed that some clichés, particularly the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, is still being depicted as the most important thing about linguistics. To have the author Ted Chiang and screenwriters focus on this to me means he has missed one of the most important lessons of theoretical linguistics.

Spoiler Alerts – I will minimize this, but if you want to be completely surprised, watch the movie first. The first spoiler is – Amy Adams plays a linguist Louise who is asked to decipher an alien language when some mysterious objects park themselves in different parts of the world, including of course rural Montana.

The Good

Before I point out the clichés, I will point out the positives. Namely

  1. Linguist Louise (Amy Adams) is hired based on her “translation” expertise including some recent Farsi speaking terrorists (Farsi is from Iran). BUT she points out that translating a language she already knows how to speak is different from translating a completely unknown language. Therefore she will more data than a 30-sec audio clip. Duh.
    Note: The fact that she has to explain shows how little common sense some people have about how language works.
  2. When the military wonders why Louise is starting with basic vocabulary, she does a good job explaining how she needs to know basic grammar to to frame the question “What is your purpose?” To ask this question, we will need to understand how to build a sentence, make sure we pronouns correctly and more importantly, understand what they have to tell us.
    Note: This part show how linguists focus on “grammatical crap” that make other people’s eyes glaze over. But that’s because you can’t become fluent until this knowledge is automated. However you have to learn about how a grammar works to communicate effectively in a new language. Fortunately, most linguists begin life as grammar geeks, so we actually find this very interesting.
  3. Louise’s fieldwork followed by intense scrutiny of the language samples is pretty realistic. If you know nothing about the target language, it will take much time to decipher everything, even if the other party is fairly cooperative.
  4. The investigation team includes a physicist who comments “You approach this very mathematically.” Yes…linguistics is actually a science. We just use different math notation than calculus.

Clichés and Questions

It wouldn’t be Hollywood without a few of these.

  1. As usual the movie assumes a linguist can speak any weird combination of languages – in this case Farsi, Sanskrit (these two can go together) and Chinese. That’s sort of like assuming a random linguist can speak Polish and Swahili. It can happen, but since those two languages are fairly distant geographically, culturally and linguistically…it would be fairly unusual.
    Note: In addition to general geographic literacy, some linguistic/cultural literacy would be a good idea.
  2. In the beginning of the movie, Louise is prepared to lecture about the history of Portuguese to a large lecture hall. But which class is this? I would only expect this in the history of Romance languages…and that class rarely fills a lecture hall.
    Note: But bonus points for connecting the origins of Portuguese to the kingdom of Galicia.
  3. Louise also comments that the proto-Portuguese speakers valued their poetry and literary culture…But EVERY culture I have encountered has valued the poetry of their language. Even when a language isn’t written or isn’t used for education, native speakers understand their language’s unique charm – just ask any hip-hop or country song artist.
    Note: There is a paradox that many linguistics consider all languages “equal” but also each language “special”. Still it never hurts to play a little indigenous music lyrics in class.

Major Spoiler Alerts Here

And then…Sapir-Whorf Hits Us

I was disappointed that a key plot point revolved the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which maintains that language strongly influences thought. Specifically when Louise learns the alien language at a “deep level”, their different tense system causes Louise to gain the ability to see into the future. Um no.

For the record, I don’t dispute that the aliens can perceive time differently than humans. After all, they are aliens. But I don’t think learning a new language has ever affected a human that deeply. Being exposed to a new culture can be definitely life changing, and the CONCEPTS behind a foreign language’s words can be different. But grammar doesn’t have the impact people think it has.

Consider the example from my experience – I have been exposed to Spanish, a language that classifies nouns and verbs as “masculine” or “feminine”. I understand how the system works and can properly implement it (mostly), but I have never transferred the concept to English. For instance, I can’t necessarily tell you if a fan is masculine or feminine. I’m not sure a Spanish speaker could either except by knowing what the final vowel of the word is.

And in fact the original story’s author Ted Chiang uses English tenses creatively to distinguish when Louise is having a memory from the future. In other words, if people could see into the future, the language’s tense system could make the adjustment. FWIW – Since Louise was exposed to the alien’s foggy atmosphere at one point, I will assume that’s how she got her new time sense.


There are some subtle influences of language – such as an enhanced ability to distinguish red from orange if your language has those two color terms. On the other hand, other forms of training can override this default. A trained artist can distinguish lots of colors, including ones that may not have common words in a language.

Major Major Linguistic Spoiler

“Phonology” Questions

By focusing on Sapir-Whorf, the movie misses an interesting question about the alien language. Initially the scientists focus on the sounds the aliens make, but Louise wonders if we could communicate better by writing. It turns out that the aliens, which are vaguely squid like, can generate black ink circular signs from their tentacles. These signs float in their native white fog until they are dissolved.

For humans, language is normally spoken with writing learned later. Language can be combined with different gestural motions, which enhance the communication, but aren’t always consistent.

For the aliens, I think it’s the reverse. The signs are the primary linguistic form with audio cues enhancing communication, but not necessarily consistently. Unlike humans, the aliens don’t necessarily need tools to “write” just as humans normally don’t need tools to speak in person. With a foggy atmosphere, I could see that hovering black circles could be more a robust signal than audio alone, so that could be the main language signal.

Eventually, the scientists create an app to replicate the circles (yeah), but I would be curious to see if the circles contain words, phrases or sentences. And you don’t need time travel to understand the shape of the circle – it could definitely be a byproduct of how each tentacle ends with multiple mini tentacles in a circular formation. Circles would definitely be easier to make than a line with that anatomy. The aliens can also create sequences of circles which shows that there is in fact a linearity in their longer utterances.

This is where the good stuff lies….

Teaching Standard English…Jeopardy Style!

Some urban (and rural) schools districts have quietly introduced a curriculum that teaches children who don’t natively speak Standard English to “translate” or “code switch” between their native dialect and standard English. One teacher has turned the grammar class into a Jeopardy style review. You can see that the kids are having fun figuring out arcane grammar rules. Generally speaking it’s a lot more motivating and effective to encouraging literacy than constantly correcting a child’s grammar.

P.S. As one educator Noma LeMoine birwa, this effort has never been about “teaching” Ebonics to students, because “We don’t need to teach African American Vernacular English…They already know it.”

Linguistics for Young Readers?

I was watching the one of the Turnitin Writing X Tech 2016 Webinars on Teaching the Writing Brain and I was shocked to see that the presentation included the words morphonemic as well as morphology and phonology. You mean linguistics might be useful for understanding how children need to learn to decode the written word? Shocking!

Spelling and Linguistics

FYI – The word morphonemic was related to the issue of teaching spelling. The presenter Virginia Berninger emphasized that children do need to understand that not only do prefixes and suffixes affect the meaning of a word, but can also affect pronunciation (as in the first vowel of nation vs. nation+al. She also mentions another controversial word, phonics, to illustrate that English spelling (“orthography”) is supposed to be phonetically based and that she recommend that children learn the phonological structure of English spelling alongside all of our native spelling system quirks (that is, orthographic awareness).

And (OMG!) you might want to consider word origin (etymology) when teaching spelling. That’s because English borrows a foreign language’s spelling rules when it borrows the words. Linguists definitely know this, but you don’t see this mentioned as a strategy except in spelling bee competitions.

Building a Communication Bridge

For me as a linguist, the idea of teaching children phonics, word structure and matching spelling quirks to pronunciation seems fairly obvious as is the idea that writing teachers should have some linguistic training. Unfortunately linguists and more traditional “English” teachers have often seen each other as the enemy, and I will admit to mocking bad prescriptive grammatical rules. As a result, I often see many language teachers (even foreign language teachers) discuss teaching “culture” or “ideas” instead of “grammar” (As if we can’t we teach both!)

While I sympathize with frustrated linguists, I have to admit we have done a terrible job of explaining how linguistics applies to real world teaching and writing situations until fairly recently. That’s why I’m so happy that a seminar for writing instructors included neurological research supporting basic linguistic analysis. Linguistics could be starting to enter the world of general academic knowledge. Even Grammar Girl sometimes even mentions linguistics in a positive light (you go girl).

For linguistics, I do think we need to work better to appreciate the role of traditional prescriptive rules. While it is important to understand the structure of non-Standard English dialects (e.g. AAVE (African American English), Southern dialects, etc), we have to acknowledge that linguists always write standard academic English in their journal articles. As with other educated speakers, linguistics have learned to write and spell in a particular fashion that is at least a little bit different from their spoken forms (unless they are speaking like Sheldon Cooper from the Big Bang Theory.)

Some traditional grammar instruction is needed, but we also need to help teachers understand the role of linguistics in teaching those who don’t speak Standard English at home or those who have a learning disability related to reading and writing. I hope research like this can help build that bridge.

BBC: Evolution of the “Queen’s English”

Fresh off the BBC – an interesting article on how the pronunciation of the Queen (Elizabeth II) and RP Standard British English has shifted over time.

You can definitely hear a difference in the Queen’s Christmas speeches over the decades. In the 1957 Christmas speech video, the accent sounds a little archaic, but by 2015 the Queen has the same charming accent as Helen Mirren. It’s still RP, but a more modern form of it.

I should add that the context of the Christmas speeches has changed. The 1957 speech is set up very formally with the Queen in full formal regalia. By 1968, she was dressed in a day dress and by 1986, she was broadcasting from the stables and her accent has shifted as well.

The article also points out that the Windsor social circles have become less isolated than in decades past. Thanks to the late Princess of Wales, her children and grandchildren have much more contact outside royal residences than previous royal generations did.

Even so, it is difficult for the public to truly ascertain how the Queen speaks “colloquially”. By design, she has created a very formal persona and does not normally allow the public to see her speak except in formal speeches. Even when she is interviewed, her speech remains very formal, although this 2013 clip does show her relaxing just a bit. However, she still uses the impersonal one very frequently to describe her own daily duties.

Speeches Over the Decades

Overly Detailed Facts about the Welsh Word for corgi

As a reader of this blog, you need to know that 1) I wrote a dissertation on Celtic mutations and 2) I own a Welsh corgi (see below). His name is Owain Glyndwr Alan Jackson Cooperlee Corgi McCay Pyatt (or Glyndwr for short). Over the years, I have become aware of the meaning of the word corgi and some related words that linguists, Indo-Europeanists, Celticists and corgïsts may appreciate. The rest of you may want to move on.

extremely fluffy corgi with paws pushed out

Corgi is a Compound

Most corgi owners are aware that corgi is from Welsh and literally means ‘dwarf dog’ (cor ‘dwarf’ + ci ‘dog’), a reference to the short legs. In fact corgis literally have dwarfism in their legs which is why you have to be careful how much they bound about, especially as they get older.

You may have noticed that although corgis are a type of ci ‘dog’, they are not a *corci. The ci ‘dog’ element undergoes the Welsh soft mutation changing c /k/ to g /g/. How Welsh!

Corgis have an /n/-Stem plural option

The most common plural of corgi is corgwn /korgun/ which basically incorporates the plural cŵn /ku:n/ ‘dogs’ (note that Welsh w is always the vowel /u/ when not with another vowel). The plural shows that the Welsh dog word is actually related to Latin canis, French chien and even English hound. The root also appears in part of the name for yoga downward dog which is a svanasana (śvan- + asana, lit. a ‘dog asana’). What about the Celtic language Old Irish? The word for dog in Old Irish is , but in other case forms it is con-, a common name element in Irish.

But…Welsh plurals are not always regular. The singular corgi can also be plural corgïaid, at least according to the Geriadur Prifysgol Cymru. Because you can’t pin a corgi down.

Don’t Forget the Ladies

Female corgis have their own Welsh words too. The word for a female dog (or “bitch”) in Welsh is gast, and sure enough you can own a corgast or a coriast. Or if you object to the term “bitch”, you can have a corgïes /korgiɛs/ where -es is a generic feminine ending. By the way, this ending makes me an Americanes “American woman”.


I have determined that corgine should be used to indicate the high state of being a corgi. Not that being an ordinary canine is a bad thing, but not all English speakers understand the specialness of being a dog. We should not forget that legends tells us that corgis were ridden by fairies but given to humans in gratitude to a human who fixed a carriage (and other dog breeds have similar origins I assume).

In any case, the adjectival form of corgi is corgïaidd /korgiajð/ (not to be confused with the alternate plural corgïaid /korgiajd/. The dd is “soft th” or /ð/ in Welsh.

Other Little Things

The prefix cor can be found in other Welsh words notable corgoed ‘dwarf tree’ and coriarll ‘viscount’ or literally ‘little earl’. The Welsh are very productive and clever compoundists.

One Could Use Singular They, You Know

A question that I am sometimes asked as a linguist is why English can’t adopt a gender neutral pronoun alongside he, she and it. The irony is that English actually already has two options available, but they are rarely mentioned as being acceptable alternatives.

Singular Impersonal They

Any linguist worth their while will tell you that colloquial English widely uses singular impersonal they as common substitute for an unspecified person of any gender. This version of they shows singular agreement as can be seen in the examples below.

  • “A football player with a head injury must be cleared by a doctor before they can return to the game.”
  • “A person who doesn’t watch the news has only themself to blame if they are caught in the rain without an umbrella.”
  • “A person can’t help their birth” (Vanity Fair, William Thackery, 1848)
  • “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me As if I were their well-acquainted friend” (Shakespeare, The Comedy of Errors, Act IV, 1594)

The examples, which include Thackery and Shakespeare, show that this construction has been in the language for many centuries, yet few advocate its use in Modern English.

Impersonal One

Another classic impersonal pronoun is one as in “One must be careful to watch the news on a regular basis.” (Thanks Linguistics Girl for this Reminder). And yet one rarely sees this pronoun mentioned.

I believe there are some reasons why these pronouns are often forgotten, but I will address that more next week.

Habitual “Be” in W. PA

Last Friday on the local news there was a story about a meth lab in Clearfield, PA in Western PA between State College and Pittsburgh. Although I don’t remember the details, I do remember one of the neighbors describing one of the people involved saying phrases like “He be setting out when I be coming and going from work” (-0:38).

This struck me because the woman was using an AAVE habitual be form, yet she was white. Her sister mentioned that they were from Pittsburgh, so I wondered if she was exposed to the form there. Other than the habitual be usage though, there was no other AAVE features I could detect. Still this does show that linguistic features are not necessarily “Black” (AAVE) or “White” (not-AVVE). When thinking about working class forms, I am seeing crossover between communities.

Hawkeye Pierce Requests “An Harmonica”

This long explanation is going to lead to a funny M*A*S*H TV moment, but first a word about indefinite article allomoprhy.

Indefinite Article Allomorphy

A tried and true U.S. English rule I follow is that the indefinite article a become an when the next word starts with a phonological vowel (regardless of spelling). See examples below (please pardon the slightly awkward Spanish examples below).

  • an hour /ən aw.ər/
  • an hombre /ən ombre/
  • an H /ən etʃ/ (U.S.)
  • a university /ə yunɨvərsɪti/
  • a ouija board /ə widʒi bɔrd/

The examples above show that you get an before silent “h” because the word is phonologically vowel-initial. You also get an before words that are spelled with an initial vowel, but really begin with /w,y/ or some other consonant. This indicates to me that this version of the rule is very conditioned by phonology.

Indefinite Article and /h/

I was also taught and do generally follow the generalization that indefinite articles preceding words beginning with /h/ surface as a.

  • a hormone /ə hɔrmon/
  • a hat /ə hæt/
  • a jalapeño /ə hæləpenjo/
  • a hibachi /ə hɨbatʃi/

But then there are words like historic where the an historic occasion has been considered acceptable. This has never sounded great to me, but the explanation I got in LING 100 was that /h/ words with stress somewhere besides the initial syllable may be preceded by an.

Modern Day Rise of “an h-“

However in listening to the news and media, I have noticed an increase in phrases like an historic occasion and in other words, particularly Greco-Latin words beginning with “h” such as hysterical, hormonal, horrific and hilarious. In fact a Google search reveals people asking questions about which form to use before these words.

There is some confusion out there. Note that there is potential confusion in Britain as well if a dialect is dropping initial /h/.

Interestingly, most sources agree that it’s an hibachi even though the stress is not on the first syllable. This may be a sign that the “an + h” rule may apply to Greco-Roman words.

There is an interesting exception to a hibachi in the headline “How to cook with an hibachi”)). Later the article notes “You can cook almost all the foods you cook on a regular barbecue on a hibachi.” This sounds like free variation (consistent with another forum poster claiming he or she couldn’t always choose) or that the writer REALLY says a hibachi but is trying to conform to the an historic rule in the headline.

Where does M*A*S*H come in?

What inspired this post was a M*A*S*H rerun where Hawkeye Pierce (Alan Alda speaking NYC flavored standard English) is on the phone pretending to be Boston Brahmin Charles Winchester III (played by David Ogden Stiers who does affect an uppercrust FDR like accent).

Hawkeye is trying to obtain a harmonica on the black market for a local child, but as Charles he demands an harmonica. It does appear that there was a familiarity with this rule, but that the writers associated it with “snooty” aristocrats. But that was in the early 80s.

The irony here is that since Hawkeye is supposed to be born and bred Maine, his accent could be just as New Englandy as Charles Winchester. This geographic fact was sadly was never played up in M*A*S*H.

Postscript (Aug 7): Doris Kearns Goodwin

On a PBS show (JFK & LBJ: A Time for Greatness) about how President Johnson was able to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, historian Doris Kearns Goodwin made reference to it being an historic occasion, but it seemed like she was actually dropping the /h/ of historic (i.e. /əŋ ɪstɔrɨk/ or an ‘istoric). If that is this case, this would be the start of some sort of morpho-syntactic alternation where some /h/’s are dropped after the indefinite article. Very interesting.