Category Archives: Sociolinguistics

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 explains, 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.”

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.

Video of the Week: Singaporean “White” Boy

This Singaporean show interviews 16-year Tyler who has lived 9 years in Singapore, 2 years in China and 5 years in the U.S. Not surprisingly he has mastered both Mandarin and the local Singlish English based creole. The hosts Shan and Rozz challenges Tyler to a show off which he easily masters.

Interestingly, while Shan and Rozz tend to speak English closer to an UK RP standard accent, Tyler’s English is closer to U.S. English, but it looks like it’s not necessarily his default code.

Linguists will point out that there are really no physiological constraints on learning any language – it’s all about exposure to a language at the right time. But, there aren’t too many non-Asians that fluent in Chinese so it’s fun to watch. Especially as he describes overhearing Mandarin gossip about him…which the other Mandarin speakers don’t realize he can understand. Ooops.

Can Canadian Chipewian Speakers Use /ʔ/ ?

The Canadian CBC has an interesting story of a Canadian mother of Chipewian heritage not being able to use a glottal stop character ʔ in her daughter’s name.

Rather than double posting, I thought I would point you to my Unicode blog post.

Postscript: March 27

On a recent realia hunt for Canadian bilingual signs, I found this sign in British Columbia warning visitors about the local snake danger. The top part of the sign reads ḱəḱaʔlistax x̌əx̌uləxʷ. Apparently there is some support for not only “ʔ”, but also “ə”, superscript “ʷ” and a multitude of diacritics. Impressive. Photographer Heather Joan notes that the top language is the Salish language Nsyilxcen.

realia – images, video or objects that show authentic language use.

Native American Language Info

7 Things to Know About Native American Languages

In honor of Native American Heritage month, Colleen Fitzgerald, a linguist from the The University of Texas at Arlington Native American Languages Lab, has compiled some interesting Native American language resources.


For anyone really interested in monitoring the progress or lack of progress among indigenous languages, I recommend joining the ILAT Listserv. Posts literally cover the world and provides a great view in how different language preservation movements are progressing.

There are still many endangered languages, but it is heartening to see that places like Canada, Australia and even parts of the U.S. are beginning to recognize and officially support more indigenous languages. But as Colleen Fitzgerald notes, the U.S. Native American Languages Act of 1990 is up for reauthorization.

A Language Wanting to Die?

Speaking of native languages, there was an interesting story on the BBC about the Maidu community in California called The people who want their language to disappear

One quote indicates:

“Those that know the language don’t want to speak it. They associate it with difficult times. They don’t want to stir up… anything.”

The difficult times here refer to different efforts by the U.S. government to displace indigenous peoples and their languages. For the Maidu, there were “bounties” for scalps, relocation of people, and efforts to force children into English-only boarding schools.

This also echoes sentiments I have heard about the Irish language – namely that many people in Ireland associate the Irish language with a rural impoverished lifestyle that they feel is irrelevant in the modern world. This group in Ireland assumes that it is better to join the modern English speaking world. Of course, any Irish language specialist will tell you that Irish and Old Irish has lots to contribute to the modern world. But finding a bilingual accommodation is easier said than done.

Interestingly, the Maidu community has intermarried extensively with Welsh immigrants. Many people speaking the language actually have Welsh surnames. From an ethnic point of view, this community could more easily assimilate into an Anglo community more than other Native Americans.

A more interesting quote to me was:

“We believe the way you reach richness in life is through knowledge. It gives you power and it is your responsibility to use that wisely. If you pass that knowledge on, you are responsible for the outcome. If someone misuses the knowledge you give them, if they use it to hurt someone, you as the person who gave it to them, are responsible for that hurt.”

This speaks to a distrust of Anglo culture, including well-meaning Anglo linguists and anthropologists. Although many linguists genuinely want to help, they are part of a legacy of Anglo outsiders damaging communities they are trying to “help”. The wounds are deeper than I ever realized when I was studying linguistics. I now know that it takes years and patience for a researcher to build genuine trust within a community enough to provide genuine help.

In some ways though the last quote gives me hope. I don’t think the Maidu want their language to die. In fact some of the younger members of the community are trying to preserve it. But they definitely want to do it on their own terms.

Bilingual Celebrities (Video of the Week)

One of the challenges of dealing with the concept of multilingualism is that people living in monolingual culture such as the U.S. can’t fathom that a person can be fluent in multiple languages. That’s where videos such as “Bilingual Celebrities” comes in handy.

Not all celebrities are native in both languages, but you will be surprised at the different languages some celebrities do speak.

The Swedish interview with Malin Äckerman (3:03) is also a bonus intersentential code switching video because she actually mixes in English at one point. The social context is interesting because she assumes (probably correctly) that the Swedish audience will understand the English. English language instruction has long been part of the Swedish curriculum and many science courses at Umeå University are taught in English. Äckerman also grew up in Canada with a Swedish mother which is a classic code switching environment.

Chinese Pidgin English (Video of the Week)

This is the second “Video of the Week”, but this makes up for missing last week. This video recreates a 19th century Chinese Pidgin English dialogue from time when Hong Kong was a British colony. At this time a pidgin developed to allow the Cantonese speaking residents of Hong Kong to communicate with the English speaking British. This video is helpful because it shows the dialogue as a caption (and I admit I need it). There are some amusing phrases such as “numba wun (#1) ledda” for “your best leather”.

This video is from the University of Hong Kong, so the dialogue should be accurate. But if it weren’t, this would now be considered extremely offensive. As it turns out though, Chinese Pidgin English has given English useful phrases such as having a “look-see”, “long time no see” and “chop chop.” I didn’t realize the origin of these phrases until pretty recently.

What also amazes me is that this language has virtually disappeared from the modern U.S. landscape. For the most part Chinese Americans are depicted as being fluent English speakers with native U.S. accents (even on shows like Hawwaii Five-O. That’s a positive development in most ways, but I think Anglos have somewhat forgotten how different things were…which is why Rosie O’Donell got into serious trouble for invoking this pidgin stereotype.

In Memoriam: Constance Sutton, Ilaria Corp, Helix (Video of the Week)

It’s been a particularly violent TV season this year and no show more deadly than the SyFy Channel bizarre medical thriller Helix, the show where the CDC tries to stop another Zombie epic in a corporate research outpost in the Arctic.

As a linguist though, I have to say that the most tragic death was the loss of Ilaria COO Constance Sutton (Jeri Ryan) who ostensibly comes to facilitate the work of the CDC, but is really there to ensure that the CDC is liquidated once their work for Ilaria is complete.

As it turns out Sutton was a master of today’s modern corporate speak as exemplified in this clip below. Many of you may recognize the hallmarks of approachability combined with a masterful mix of corporate metaphors and friendly explanations as to why your requests are unable to be honored. We all know she’s up to no good, but really can’t say why.
Note: For those of you who want to skip the hook-up subplot, skip to 1:40.

In case this video is lost, let me post the highlights of Constance’s discourse:

Am I to understand that the communications satellite went down? Well unfortunately, I don’t have a magic telephone. I’m under the same constraints as everyone else.

It’s time to create a new paradigm between our corporation and the CDC. So what do you need from Ilaria?

[On the challenges of retrieving Dr. Walker out of isolation in a secret sub-basement level

Let’s square the circle here…Ilaria is about value added, If Dr. Walker is what you need, Dr Walker is what you will get.

In a later scene, Constance explains to base personnel the corporate strategy of using the disease to gain control over the world. In her words:

We just want to thin the herd a bit.

Brandi on Bilingualism

Reality TV is probably bad for your overall mental health, but it truly is a wonderful source of material for the instructor in sociolinguistics. For example, in the latest spat between Real Housewives of Beverly Hills chicas the very Anglo Brandi and former Miss Puerto Rico Joyce, Brandi has been saying some very non-enlightend things about Latino culture.

A particularly choice example is her complaint about Joyce spwitching to Spanish when she realizes that Jennifer also speaks Spanish.

Jennifer and Joyce start immediately speaking Spanish, and, while I know it’s not an actual secret language, I’m annoyed and almost feel like I want to pee on Jenny to mark my territory. I have no problem being cordial to someone I am not fond of for the sake of the situation.

I think most linguists would agree that Brandi’s comment is a bit extreme. Brandi has been accused of being a racist, but I think the problem is more subtle than that. Brandi is just not used to living in a multilingual context and apparently didn’t do that well in high school Spanish either. If she had taken LING 100, she would know this was perfectly appropriate behavior. f you do bother to watch the video (with Spanish translated), you will see that 1) the conversation is short and 2) it was obviously a “look at what we have in common” conversation.

I will admit that there are times when having two people converse in a language not everyone understands is potentially awkward and can be bad manners. For instances, in the Real Housewives of Miami has featured Spanish conversations whose sole purpose was to insult a non-Spanish speaker. If you do this though, you do have to make sure that the other person is NOT a Spanish speaker or you will be caught.