30 November 2012


Each week on Michigan Radio's "That's What They Say," linguist and University of Michigan professor Anne Curzan discusses the hows and whys of language change. Last week's episode (11/25/2012) about the shifting meanings of idioms got me thinking about yolo. I learned about yolo last spring from students in my intro to linguistics course. We were discussing morphology and word formation processes and they gave yolo as an example of an acronym for the idiom you only live once. The students reported that they say yolo (usually as an exclamation: "Yolo!") when they trip and fall down the stairs, when they burp in class, or when they otherwise do something in public that's embarrassing or dumb. They explained that by saying yolo they acknowledge their clumsiness, social gaff, stupidity, or other embarrassment, and at the same time they laugh it off and thereby laugh at themselves. But, this meaning is different than my understanding of you only live once. When I say "you only live once," I mean 'seize the day' or 'do x,y, or z right now because it might be the last chance ever to do it.'

It's clear from these different uses and meanings that you only live once is changing. However, it seems that the meaning shift is attached to the morphological shift--that 'I did something dumb, and I know it and I can laugh about it and myself' is tied to the word yolo more than to the phrase you only live once. It's also clear that this (at least right now) is an age-graded language change. I also wonder if the use is gendered since most of the students who gave examples of its use were female.

Are there other idioms you're aware of that are undergoing change?

I wonder if yolo will be a candidate at ADS's 2012 Words of the Year vote? Maybe you have a WOTY contender that you'd like to nominate?

23 April 2012


Since the pasty wars broke headline news in the UK last month, pasties have been on my mind, particularly their pronunciation. If you listen to these clips from The Spectator, you'll hear pasty pronounced in the UK, specifically Cornwall, similar to what you'll hear in the Upper Peninsula (UP) and as the image of the magnet above instructs: [pæsti].  The magnet is a good example of the commodification of a dialect feature, a bit of language that can be bought and sold. But, it's not just any bit of language–it must be a recognizable feature, one that carries meaning. And pasty does just that: it signals local identity and local knowledge. If an individual knows what a pasty is, then most likely they know how to pronounce it, both reflecting local identity. In this way pasty is a shibboleth, much like sauna, which I wrote about in a previous post. As a shibboleth, pasty signals 'local identity' when speakers pronounce it "pass-tee" and signals 'outsider' when mispronounced. However, unlike sauna, which is a common word for most Americans and has two variant pronunciations, pasty is not a common word for many people and therefore the pronunciation is often based on analogies with more familiar and similarly spelled words: pastry and pastie.

If you're not familiar with pasties, they are hand-held savory pies brought to the UP by Cornish miners who immigrated to the northwestern UP in the 1800s. The popularity of the pasty remains, so much so that it is known as a regional dish in Cornwall as well as in the UP. In the UP pasties are typically filled with beef or a beef and pork mixture, potatoes, onions, carrots, and rutabagas. My favorite pasties in the UP can be found at Toni's Country Kitchen in Laurium. And downstate in Grand Rapids every Tuesday is pasty day at Marie Catrib's, where you will find meat, veggie, and vegan pasties.

27 March 2012

Yoopers, Trolls, and Detroiters: Perceptions of Michiganders' Talk

Where in Michigan do you think people speak best? Why? Where in Michigan do you think people speak worst? Why? These are questions that Angela Tramontelli are investigating. We're curious as to where Michganders think the best and worse English is spoken in our state and who they think speaks the best and worse English. 
Perceptual dialectology studies the beliefs that non-linguists have about language variation, the ways that language differs from place to place and/or group to group. While sociolinguists (those who study language variation and change) typically categorize regional dialects according to bundles of linguistic features (pronunciations, vocabulary, grammatical structures), perceptual dialect studies have found that non-linguists determine dialect boundaries not only by linguistic features (e.g., Mase 1964; Lance 1999; Benson 2003; Evans 2012), but also along political and civil boundaries (e.g., Sibata 1959; Preston 1986; Inoue 1996; Lance 1999), and according to cultural differences (Preston 2002). Most importantly, previous research (e.g. Lambert, Hodgson, Gardner & Fillenbaum 1960; Giles 1970; Giles & Ryan 1982; Niedzielski & Preston 2003), has demonstrated that speaker attitudes of dialects directly correspond to attitudes about groups of speakers. These beliefs play a critical role in understanding the effects of linguistic and social prejudices on language change: speakers of stigmatized dialects are often pressured to change the way they talk. Therefore, these perceptions and attitudes are important to an understanding of the factors that affect language change, the relationship between language variation and groups of speakers, as well as the relationship between linguistic prejudice and social prejudice. 
Our study contributes to a growing body of research in this area. We are conducting surveys with Michigan residents to investigate these beliefs and are analyzing the data for patterns in how respondents divide the state into dialect regions and the social characteristics they attach to the speakers who live there. Perceptions such as these within one state can reveal local social categories, including urban/rural distinction (Evans 2012) or the belief in the absence of dialect in a particular state or region (Preston 2002).
Our study further contributes to research on Michigan dialects (e.g. Remlinger 2006; 2007a, b; 2009; Remlinger, Salmons, & von Schniedemesser 2009; Simon 2005) and would add to existing research that examines language attitudes within an individual state (Benson 2003; Bucholtz et al. 2007; Evans 2012), rather than the majority of perceptual dialect studies which focus on regional boundaries within an entire country. A focus on Michigan is particularly significant because unlike most states, it has two main regional dialects so distinct that residents separate the two areas linguistically and socially, as reflected in the labels Yooper and Troll and web pages such as "Michigan Accent: Pronunciations Unique to Us" (www.michigannative.com) and "Yooper Dialect" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yooper_dialect).
Our study also builds on research that demonstrates that the attitudes people hold towards regional dialects are often representative of attitudes about the speakers of those dialects (Preston 1989, 2003; Benson 2003; Bucholtz et al. 2007). The project relies on a language ideology framework (e.g. Lippi-Green 1997; Irvine & Gal 2000; Silverstein 2003), which explains how these attitudes and resulting prejudices reside within the association of particular linguistic features with certain social characteristics. Our goals include creating awareness of this association, examining the relationship between perceptions of and attitudes towards language use and local social categories, furthering the understanding of dialect boundaries in Michigan, examining factors that affect language change, and investigating the common belief that English in the Lower Peninsula is standard and English in the UP is non-standard. 

Benson, E. (2003). Folk linguistic perceptions and the mapping of dialect boundaries. American Speech, 78 (3): 307-330.
Bucholtz, M., Bermudez, N., Fung,V., Edwards, L., & Vargas, R. (2007). Hella Nor Cal or Totally So Cal?: The Perceptual Dialectology of California. Journal of English Linguistics, 35: 325-352. DOI: 10.1177/0075424207307780
Evans, B. (2012). "Seattletonian" to "Faux Hick": Perceptions of English in Washington state. American Speech 86, 4: 383-414. 
Giles, H. (1970). Evaluative reactions to accents. Educational Review 22: 211-227.
Inoue, F. (1996). Subjective dialect division in Great Britain.” American Speech
71: 142–61.
Irvine, J. & Gal, S. (2000). Language ideology and linguistic differentiation. In P. Kroskrity (ed.), Regimes of language: Ideologies, politics, and identities, pp. 35-84. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.
Lambert, W., Hodgson, R. Gardner, R. & Fillenbaum, S. (1960). Evaluations reactions to spoken languages. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 60: 44-51.
Lance, D. (1999). Regional variation in subjective dialect divisions in the United States. In Preston 1999, pp. 283–314.
Lippi-Green, R. (1997). English with and accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.
Mase, Y. (1964). Hôgen Ishiki to Hôgen Kukaku. Gengo Kenkyû, 36: 1–30. Repr. in English as Dialect Consciousness and Dialect Divisions: Examples in the Nagano-Gifu Boundary Region. In Preston, D. ed., Handbook of perceptual dialectology, pp. 71-99Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Niedzielski, N. & Preston, D. (2003). Folk linguistics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Preston, D. (1986). Perceptual dialectology. Dordrecht: Foris.
———. (1993a). Folk dialectology. In D. Preston, ed., American dialect research, pp. 333–77. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
———. 1993b. Two Heartland perceptions of language variety. In Frazer, T., ed., "Heartland” English: Variation and transition in the American Midwest, pp. 23-47. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
———. 1996a. “Whaddayaknow?" The modes of folk linguistic awareness. Language Awareness, 5: 40–74.
–––. (1996b). Where the worst English is spoken. In Schneider, E., ed., Focus on the USA, pp. 297–360. Varieties of English around the World 16. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
—–, ed. 1999. Handbook of perceptual dialectology. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
–––. (2002). Language with an attitude. In Chambers, J. et al, eds., Handbook of language variation and change, pp. 40-66. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
—–. (2002). Perceptual dialectology: Aims, methods, findings. In J. Beerns and J. Van Marle,  eds., Present-day dialectology, pp. 57–104. Berlin: de Gruyter.
Remlinger, K. (2009). "Everyone up here": Enregisterment and identity in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. American Speech, 84 (2): 118-137.
–––. with Salmons, Joseph and von Schneidemesser, Luanne. (2009). Revised perceptions: Changing dialect perceptions in Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. American Speech, 84 (2):176-192.
–––. (2007a). The intertwined histories of identity and dialect in Michigan's Copper Country. In A. Hoagland, E. Nordberg, & T. Reynolds, eds., New perspectives on Michigan's Copper Country, pp. 62-84. Houghton, MI: Quincy Mine Hoist Association.
–––. (2007b). Newfies, Cajuns, Hillbillies, and Yoopers: Gendered media representations of regional dialects. Linguistica Atlantica, Journal of the Atlantic Provinces Linguistic Association, 26-27: 96-100.
–––. (2006). What it means to be a Yooper: Identity, language attitudes, and variation in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. In M. Filppula, M. Palander, J. Klemola and E. Penttilä, eds., Topics in dialectal variation, pp. 125-144. Joensuu, Finland: University of Joensuu Press.
Sibata, T. (1959). Hôgen kyôkai no ishiki. Gengo Kenkyû 36: 1–30. Repr. In English as “Consciousness of Dialect Boundaries” in Preston, D., ed., Handbook of perceptual dialectology, pp. 39-62. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Simon, B. (2005). Dago, Finlander, Cousin Jack: Ethnicity and identity on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In D.Preston and B. Joseph, eds., Language profiles: Michigan and Ohio. Ann Arbor, MI: Caravan Books.
Silverstein, M. (2003). Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language and Communication, 23: 193-229.

19 March 2012

Regional Dialects in the Media

We are all familiar with media representations of regional dialects. Representations include the speech of characters inhabiting Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon books and radio shows, movies like the Coen brothers’ Fargo and Jeff Daniels’ Escanaba in da Moonlight. In music, we find representations in the songs of the UP’s Da Yoopers and Manitowoc, Wisconsin’s Happy Schnapps Combo. On YouTube we see Ken Sheldon’s character Fred Marple and his depiction of Yankee life in Frost Heaves, New Hampshire, where “you can’t get there from here.” Facebook groups based on dialect include I randomly Speak with a Southern Accent and I Know How to Pronounce Sauna. Websites such as Appalachian Dialect of Eastern Kentucky and The Gumbo Pages represent dialect with glossaries of “Mountain Talk” and “A Lexicon of New Orleans Terminology and Speech,” respectively. And poetry, such as “Vacationland” by Ander Monson (2005), relies on readers’ recognition of ‘pank’ as a word indexing Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. These representations not only reflect attitudes about US regional dialects and groups of speakers, but also shape public understanding of what makes regional speech distinctive.

Similarly, Michiganders imitate UP English by peppering their speech with eh, pank (‘to pat down, to make compact’), Let’s go mall (‘Let’s go to the mall’), yah (‘yeah, yes’), and you betcha. Wisconsinites refer to ‘Sconsin (‘Wisconsin’), bubblers (‘drinking fountains’), brats (‘bratwurst’), and say yah hey and com’ere once when they want to convey a sense of Wisconsin speech. Northerners imitate Southerners by saying y’all come back now, ya heah! While Cajuns of Louisiana are characterized by their use of yat (‘Where you at?’), dis (‘this’), and dat (‘that’). We recognize these features in relating to certain places (New England, Louisiana, Wisconsin, the UP, Appalachia) and groups of people (Yankees, Cajuns, Cheeseheads, Yoopers, and Hillbillies) because they draw on enregistered features, features that have become recognizable and that reiterate meanings that link language, people, and place. Despite the limited meanings forged within these links, in reality, variation is a matter of contextualized stylistic practice and speakers draw on a range of features in their everyday uses of language. Variationist research demonstrates that speakers rely on certain stylistic practices to index particular identities, from age, to region, to gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity. The ways in which these meanings are connected and reused rely on the recirculation of specific linguistic features: stock phrases, repeated words, and pronunciations. Individuals discursively create and recognize these links through their repeated use aligned with particular speech events and contexts. As people interact through and across various media they rely on indexicality, mediatization, and enregisterment to ensure that these meanings are recognizable and meaningful.

16 March 2012

Sisu and Sauna: In honor of St Urho's Day

Today, St Urho's Day, I have sisu and sauna (pronounced [saʊnə], sow-nuh) on my mind. Sisu is particularly significant: a Finnish borrowing that has no one-word translation in English. Terttu Leney (2003) defines sisu as "fortitudinous staying power and tenacity in the face of adversity, against insurmountable odds", in other words, 'having guts'. I named my cat Sisu. She was a stray who persisted through three weeks of cold, snow, and rain to convince me that she should live inside the house, not out in the field. Her sisu-ness won me over and got her inside, where she fattened up and now lives happily with two Labrador Retrievers and two humans. In the UP and other parts of the Upper Midwest where Finns settled, you can see bumper stickers, t-shirts, and license plates proclaiming "sisu." Sauna is also a significant dialect feature in that it functions as a shibboleth, or password of sorts. Many residents of Michigan's Upper Peninsula pronounce it as [saʊnə], whereas outsiders typically pronounce it as [sanə], (sah-nuh), thus marking them as outsiders. St Urho, today's (March 16) fictional patron saint who drove the grasshoppers out of Finland to save the grape crop, as well as Heikki Lunta,  the snow god of the UP, are also important UP symbols, both folk characters that represent local cultural practices and values. So, today in honor of St Urho wear purple and green and have some sisu to carry you into spring.

Leney, Tertu. (2003). Teach yourself Finnish. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Virtanen, Hilary. (2006). Heikki Lunta. http://csumc.wisc.edu/exhibit/HeikkiLunta/index.htm

13 March 2012

Glottal Stopping Trending?

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "The Way They Talk II," by Ben Yagoda, discusses glottal stopping. Yagoda describes the feature and explains what he perceives to be a new trend among students in New Jersey. I don't doubt that it might be new to his ears, but it's not a new feature, especially to speakers from parts of the Midwest, the dialect region that Carver (1987) labels as "Lower North." I am one of those speakers, hailing from central Ohio. For example, I pronounce mitten as [mɪʔən] (mih-en) and didn't as [dɪən] (dih-ent). So, I wonder if this is in fact a "new feature," and instead is a trending feature. I am guessing here (someone does need to follow this up with research!) but, it seems that the trend is a result of dialect contact between the East Coast varieties that Yagoda is hearing and Midwestern (Lower North) varieties, which are often perceived as more "standard" than East Coast varieties. As a result of this perceived prestige and standardness, coupled with the prestige of media personalities who have helped to spread the feature, glottalization is spreading. My anecdotal data and that reflected in the comments to Yagoda's article support the idea that glottalization is spreading from the Midwest and Manha-en to New Jersey.

Carver, Craig M.. 1987. American Regional Dialects: A Word Geography. Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press. 

08 March 2012

Enregisterment and Semiotic Mediation: The Role of Recognition in Dialect-making

 Adam Sandler’s character, Cajun Man, a feature of Saturday Night Live skits in 2003, is defined as ‘Cajun Man’ by his mock Cajun French accent, particularly its stress on the nasalization of the final syllable –tion: “onION,” “vacaTION” “hallucinaTION,” “deficaTION”. But Cajun Man is also ‘Cajun’ and ‘man’ because his talk centers a stereotype of a Cajun man: spicy food, drunkenness, and scatological humor. The accent and content of his talk, in conjunction with his appearance—straw hat, suspenders, a plaid flannel shirt with cut off sleeves over a dingy white longjohn shirt—interdiscursively combine to index ‘Cajun man.’ Meaning is communicated semiotically—through recognizable linguistic features and cultural values attached to the visual image. Similarly, we recognize the authenticity of Boston Harbor Tea in the label’s index of a Boston pronunciation: “'Bawstonaba' Registered" (‘Boston Harbor Registered’). Its authenticity is further reinforced with the intertextuality of the claim that the tea is "blended and packed for…the firm which supplied tea 1772-1774 for the historic Boston Tea Parties". The enregistered pronunciations of aw in Bawston and the (r)-less and (h)-less pronunciations of aba (harbor) along with the claim to historic events semiotically mediate meanings linking language, place, and authenticity. Likewise, no one doubts the authenticity of Pauly D as a real north shore New Jerseyan on MTV’s reality show Jersey Shore. As a prototypical Italian-American East Coast male, his character’s validity depends on what he says, how he says it (in particular his use of –in for –ing and the lack of (r) after vowels), as well as within a particular context (sitting on a tricked-out motorcycle in a working class neighborhood): “I was bon (‘born’) and raised a guido. It's just a lifestyle, it's bein Italian, it's representin, family, friends, tannin, heya (hair) gel, everything” (Jersey Shore, Episode 1). The combined linguistic features and images index 'Italian American,' 'white,' 'working class,' and 'heterosexual masculinity.' The semiotic mediation of regional dialect and speaker are recognizable in these examples through the use of specific linguistic features in given contexts, features and contexts that combine to evoke certain and specific meanings that yoke language, place, and people. Because these contextualized features are considered exemplar, their use effects the perception that best speakers are the most authentic locals. Similarly, the most authentic products, such as Boston Harbor Tea, are the best representations of localness through the use of enregistered features and intertextual links with a historic event. Moreover, used within specific contexts and juxtaposed with stereotypical images that evoke authenticity, dialect is often discursively constructed as gender-, sexuality-, race-, and class-based. Social meanings are as much a part of the semiotic mediation of ‘dialect’ as are pronunciation and word use and cultural categories: speaker authenticity relies on recognizable discursive practices, where language use is the determining factor, and indexicality, where the 'best' speakers of a regional variety are recognized as the most authentic locals. In these ways, the practice of masculinity—what it means to be heterosexual male, specifically, is tied to the practice of dialect—dialect-making.