Six Linguists of Color (who you can follow on Twitter!)

In the light of some recent white supremacist propaganda showing up on my campus, I’ve decided to spotlight a tiny bit of the amazing work being done around the country by linguists of color. Each of the scholars below is doing interesting, important linguistics research and has a Twitter account that I personally enjoy following. If you’re on this blog, you probably will as well! I’ll give you a quick intro to their research and, if it piques your interest, you can follow them on Twitter for all the latest updates.

(BTW, if you’re wondering why I haven’t included any grad students on this list, it’s becuase we generally don’t have as well developed of a research trajectory and I want this to be a useful resource for at least a few years.)

Anne Charity Hudley

Dr. Charity Hudley is professor at the College of William and Mary (Go Tribe!). Her research focuses on language variation, especially the use of varieties such as African American English, in the classroom. If you know any teachers, they might find her two books on language variation in the classroom a useful resource. She and Christine Mallinson have even released an app to go with them!

Michel DeGraff

Dr. Michel DeGraff is a professor at MIT. His research is on Haitian Creole, and he’s been very active in advocating for the official recognition of Haitian Creole as a distinct language. If you’re not sure what Haitian Creole looks like, go check out his Twitter; many of his tweets are in the language! He’s also done some really cool work on using technology to teach low-resource languages.

Nelson Flores

Dr. Nelson Flores is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His work focuses on how we create the ideas of race and language, as well as bilingualism/multilingualism and bilingual education. I really enjoy his thought-provoking discussions of recent events on his Twitter account. He also runs a blog, which is a good resource for more in-depth discussion.

Nicole Holliday

Dr. Nicole Holliday is (at the moment) Chau Mellon Postdoctoral Scholar at Pomona College. Her research focuses on language use by biracial speakers. I saw her talk on how speakers use pitch differently depending on who they’re talking to at last year’s LSA meeting and it was fantastic: I’m really looking forwards to seeing her future work! She’s also a contributor to Word., an online journal about African American English.

Rupal Patel

Dr. Rupal Patel is a professor at Northeastern University, and also the founder and CEO of VocaliD. Her research focuses on the speech of speakers with developmental  disabilities, and how technology can ease communication for them. One really cool project she’s working on that you can get involved with is The Human Voicebank. This is collection of voices from all over the world that is used to make custom synthetic voices for those who need them for day-to-day communication. If you’ve got a microphone and a quiet room you can help out by recording and donating your voice.

John R. Rickford

Last, but definitely not least, is Dr. John Rickford, a professor at Stanford. If you’ve taken any linguistics courses, you’re probably already familiar with his work. He’s one of the leading scholars working on African American English and was crucial in bringing a research-based evidence to bare on the Ebonics controversy. If you’re interested, he’s also written a non-academic book on African American English that I would really highly recommend; it even won the American Book Award!

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What’s a “bumpus”?

So I recently had a pretty disconcerting experience. It turns out that almost no one else has heard of a word that I thought was pretty common. And when I say “no one” I’m including dialectologists; it’s unattested in the Oxford English Dictionary and the Dictionary of American Regional English. Out of the twenty two people who responded to my Twitter poll (which was probably mostly other linguists, given my social networks) only one other person said they’d even heard the word and, as I later confirmed, it turned out to be one of my college friends.

So what is this mysterious word that has so far evaded academic inquiry? Ladies, gentlemen and all others, please allow me to introduce you to…

bumpis

Pronounced ‘bʌm.pɪs or ‘bʌm.pəs. You can hear me say the word and use it in context by listening to this low quality recording.

The word means something like “fool” or “incompetent person”. To prove that this is actually a real word that people other than me use, I’ve (very, very laboriously) found some examples from the internet. It shows up in the comments section of this news article:

THAT is why people are voting for Mr Trump, even if he does act sometimes like a Bumpus.

I also found it in a smattering of public tweets like this one:

If you ever meet my dad, please ask him what a “bumpus” is

And this one:

Having seen horror of war, one would think, John McCain would run from war. No, he runs to war, to get us involved. What a bumpus.

And, my personal favorite, this one:

because the SUN(in that pic) is wearing GLASSES god karen ur such a bumpus

There’s also an Urban Dictionary entry which suggests the definition:

A raucous, boisterous person or thing (usually african-american.)

I’m a little sceptical about the last one, though. Partly because it doesn’t line up with my own intuitions (I feel like a bumpus is more likely to be silent than rowdy) and partly becuase less popular Urban Dictionary entries, especially for words that are also names, are super unreliable.

I also wrote to my parents (Hi mom! Hi dad!) and asked them if they’d used the word growing up, in what contexts, and who they’d learned it from. My dad confirmed that he’d heard it growing up (mom hadn’t) and had a suggestion for where it might have come from:

I am pretty sure my dad used it – invariably in one of the two phrases [“don’t be a bumpus” or “don’t stand there like a bumpus”]….  Bumpass, Virginia is in Lousia County …. Growing up in Norfolk, it could have held connotations of really rural Virginia, maybe, for Dad.

While this is definitely a possibility, I don’t know that it’s definitely the origin of the word. Bumpass, Virginia, like  Bumpass Hell (see this review, which also includes the phrase “Don’t be a bumpass”), was named for an early settler. Interestingly, the college friend mentioned earlier is also from the Tidewater region of Virginia, which leads me to think that the word may have originated there.

My mom offered some other possible origins, that the term might be related to “country bumpkin” or “bump on a log”. I think the latter is especially interesting, given that “bump on a log” and “bumpus” show up in exactly the same phrase: standing/sitting there like a _______.

She also suggested it might be related to “bumpkis” or “bupkis”. This is a possibility, especially since that word is definitely from Yiddish and Norfolk, VA does have a history of Jewish settlement and Yiddish speakers.

A usage of “Bumpus” which seems to be the most common is in phrases like “Bumpus dog” or “Bumpus hound”. I think that this is probably actually a different use, though, and a direct reference to a scene from the movie A Christmas Story:

One final note is that there was a baseball pitcher in the late 1890’s who went by the nickname “Bumpus”: Bumpus Jones. While I can’t find any information about where the nickname came from, this post suggests that his family was from Virginia and that he had Powhatan ancestry.

I’m really interesting in learning more about this word and its distribution. My intuition is that it’s mainly used by older, white speakers in the South, possibly centered around the Tidewater region of Virginia.

If you’ve heard of or used this word, please leave a comment or drop me a line letting me know 1) roughly how old you are, 2) where you grew up and 3) (if you can remember) where you learned it. Feel free to add any other information you feel might be relevant, too!

 

The problem with the grammar police

I’ll admit it: I used to be a die-hard grammar corrector. I practically stalked around conversations with a red pen, ready to jump out and shout “gotcha!” if someone ended a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive or said “irregardless”. But I’ve done a lot of learning and growing since then and, looking back, I’m kind of ashamed. The truth is, when I used to correct people’s grammar, I wasn’t trying to help them. I was trying to make myself look like a language authority, but in doing so I was actually hurting people. Ironically, I only realized this after years of specialized training to become an actual authority on language.

Chicago police officer on segway

I’ll let you go with a warning this time, but if I catch you using “less” for “fewer” again, I’ll have to give you a ticket.

But what do I mean when I say I was hurting people? Well, like some other types of policing, the grammar police don’t target everyone equally. For example, there has been a lot of criticism of Rihanna’s language use in her new single “Work” being thrown around recently. But that fact is that her language is perfectly fine. She’s just using Jamaican Patois, which most American English speakers aren’t familiar with. People claiming that the language use in “Work” is wrong is sort of similar to American English speakers complaining that Nederhop group ChildsPlay’s language use is wrong. It’s not wrong at all, it’s just different.

And there’s the problem. The fact is that grammar policing isn’t targeting speech errors, it’s targeting differences that are, for many people, perfectly fine. And, overwhelmingly, the people who make “errors” are marginalized in other ways. Here are some examples to show you what I mean:

  • Misusing “ironic”: A lot of the lists of “common grammar errors” you see will include a lot of words where the “correct” use is actually less common then other ways the word is used. Take “ironic”. In general use it can mean surprising or remarkable. If you’re a literary theorist, however, irony has a specific technical meaning–and if you’re not a literary theorist you’re going to need to take a course on it to really get what irony’s about. The only people, then, who are going to use this word “correctly” will be those who are highly educated. And, let’s be real, you know what someone means when they say ironic and isn’t that the point?
  • Overusing words like “just”: This error is apparently so egregious that there’s an e-mail plug-in, targeted mainly at women, to help avoid it. However, as other linguists have pointed out, not only is there limited evidence that women say “just” more than men, but even if there were a difference why would the assumption be that women were overusing “just”? Couldn’t it be that men aren’t using it enough?
  • Double negatives: Also called negative concord, this “error” happens when multiple negatives are used in a sentence, as in, “There isn’t nothing wrong with my language.” This particular construction is perfectly natural and correct in a lot of dialects of American English, including African American English and Southern English, not to mention the standard in some other languages, including French.

In each of these cases, the “error” in question is one that’s produced more by certain groups of people. And those groups of people–less educated individuals, women, African Americans–face disadvantages in other aspects of their life too. This isn’t a mistake or coincidence. When we talk about certain ways of talking, we’re talking about certain types of people. And almost always we’re talking about people who already have the deck stacked against them.

Think about this: why don’t American English speakers point out whenever the Queen of England says things differently? For instance, she often fails to produce the “r” sound in words like “father”, which is definitely not standardized American English. But we don’t talk about how the Queen is “talking lazy” or “dropping letters” like we do about, for instance,  “th” being produced as “d” in African American English. They’re both perfectly regular, logical language varieties that differ from standardized American English…but only one group gets flack for it.

Now I’m not arguing that language errors don’t exist, since they clearly do. If you’ve ever accidentally said a spoonerism or suffered from a tip of the tongue moment then you know what it feel like when your language system breaks down for a second. But here’s a fundamental truth of linguistics: barring a condition like aphasia, a native speaker of a language uses their language correctly. And I think it’s important for us all to examine exactly why it is that we’ve been led to believe otherwise…and who it is that we’re being told is wrong.

 

There, their and they’re: linguistics style!

The most frustrating homophone triplet in English is there, their and they’re, which are all said [ðɛr]. They’re a pain, and one that I’ve found that even really smart adults struggle with. And, frankly, I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they’re not usually taught in a very linguistically sophisticated way. Luckily for y’all, “linguistic sophistication” is my middle name*. And, like all good linguists I’ve got some tests to help you figure out which [ðɛr] you need.

googleChart

If tests aren’t your style and you just want to play the odds, though, guess “their”, “there” and “they’re” in that order. According to Google’s n-gram viewer (click the chart to go play around with it) “their” is the most common [ðɛr] in writing, followed by “there” and then “they’re”.

  • There. So the confusing thing here is that there are really *two* there’s in English and they play really different roles.
    • Pleonastic there. So in English we really need subjects, even when we don’t. Some sentences like “It’s raining” and “There’s no more ice-cream” don’t actually need a subject to convey what we’re getting at. There’s no thing, “it”, up in the sky that is doing the raining like there’s a person throwing a ball in “They threw the ball”. We just stick it up in there to fill out our sentence.
      • Test: Can you replace [ðɛr] with “it”? If so, it’s probably “there”.
      • Test: If the sentence has “[ðɛr] was/were/is/are/will” it will almost always be “there”.
    • Locative there. So “locative” is just a fancy word for “relating to a place”. Are you talking about a place? If so, then you probably need “there”.
      • Test: Is [ðɛr] referring to a place? If so, it’s probably “there”.
  • Their. So people tend to use a semantic definition for this one; does it belong to someone? It’s way easier to figure it out with part of speech, though. “Their” is part of a pretty small class of words called “determiners”– you may also have heard  “articles”. One good way to test if a word belongs to the same part of speech as another is to replace it in the sentence. You know “snake” and “pudding” are both nouns because you say either “My snake fell off the shelf” or “My pudding fell off the shelf”. So all you have to do is swap it out with one of the other English Determiners and see if it works.
    • Test: Can you replace [ðɛr] with words like “my”, “our”, “the” or “some”? If so, it’s “their”.
  • They’re. This is probably the easiest one. They’re is a contraction of “they” and “are”. If you can uncontract them and the sentence still works, you’re golden.
    • Test: Can you replace [ðɛr] with “they are”? If so, it’s probably “they’re”.

Try out these tests next time you’re not sure which [ðɛr] is the right one and you should figure it out pretty quickly. Of course, there are some marginal cases (like when you’re talking about the words themselves) that may throw you off, but these guidelines should pull you through 99% of the time.

* Not actually my middle name.

Book Review: Punctuation..?

So the good folks over at Userdesign asked me to review their newest volume, Punctuation..? and I was happy to oblige. Linguists rarely study punctuation (it falls under the sub-field orthography, or the study of writing systems) but what we do study is the way that language attitudes and punctuation come together. I’ve written before about language attitudes when it come to grammar instruction and the strong prescriptive attitudes of most grammar instruction books. What makes this book so interesting is that it is partly prescriptive and partly descriptive. Since a descriptive bent in a grammar instruction manual is rare, I thought I’d delve into that a bit.

User_design_Books_Punctuation_w_cover

Image copyright Userdesign, used with permission. (Click for link to site.)

So, first of all, how about a quick review of the difference between a descriptive and prescriptive approach to language?

  • Descriptive: This is what linguists do. We don’t make value or moral judgments about languages or language use, we just say what’s going on as best we can. You can think of it like an anthropological ethnography: we just describe what’s going on. 
  • Prescriptive: This is what people who write letters to the Times do. They have a very clear idea of what’s “right” and “wrong” with regards to language use and are all to happy to tell you about it. You can think of this like a manner book: it tells you what the author thinks you should be doing. 

As a linguist, my relationship with language is mainly scientific, so I have a clear preference for a descriptive stance. An ichthyologist doesn’t tell octopi, “No, no, no, you’re doing it all wrong!” after all. At the same time, I live in a culture which has very rigid expectations for how an educated individual should write and sound, and if I want to be seen as an educated individual (and be considered for the types of jobs only open to educated individuals) you better believe I’m going to adhere to those societal standards. The problem comes when people have a purely prescriptive idea of what grammar is and what it should be. That can lead to nasty things like linguistic discrimination. I.e., language B (and thus all those individuals who speak language B) is clearly inferior to language A because they don’t do things properly. Since I think we can all agree that unfounded discrimination of this type is bad, you can see why linguists try their hardest to avoid value judgments of languages.

As I mentioned before, this book is a fascinating mix of prescriptive and descriptive snippets. For example, the author says this about exclamation points: “In everyday writing, the exclamation mark is often overused in the belief that it adds drama and excitement. It is, perhaps  the punctuation mark that should be used with the most restraint” (p 19). Did you notice that “should'”? Classic marker of a prescriptivist claiming their territory. But then you have this about Guillements: “Guillements are used in several languages to indicate passages of speech in the same way that single and double quotation marks (” “”) are used in the English language” (p. 22). (Guillements look like this, since I know you were wondering;  « and ». ) See, that’s a classical description of what a language does, along with parallels drawn to another, related, languages. It may not seem like much, but try to find a comparably descriptive stance in pretty much any widely-distributed grammar manual. And if you do, let me know so that I can go buy a copy of it. It’s change, and it’s positive change, and I’m a fan of it. Is this an indication of a sea-change in grammar manuals? I don’t know, but I certainly hope so.

Over all, I found this book fascinating (though not, perhaps, for the reasons the author intended!). Particularly because it seems to stand in contrast to the division that I just spent this whole post building up. It’s always interesting to see the ways that stances towards language can bleed and melt together, for all that linguists (and I include myself here) try to show that there’s a nice, neat dividing line between the evil, scheming prescriptivists and the descriptivists in their shining armor here to bring a veneer of scientific detachment to our relationship with language. Those attitudes can and do co-exist. Data is messy.  Language is complex. Simple stories (no matter how pretty we might think them) are suspicious. But these distinctions can be useful, and I’m willing to stand by the descriptivist/prescriptivist, even if it’s harder than you might think to put people in one camp or the others.

But beyond being an interesting study in language attitdues, it was a fun read. I learned lots of neat little factoids, which is always a source of pure joy for me. (Did you know that this symbol:  is called a Pilcrow? I know right? I had no idea either; I always just called it the paragraph mark.)

What’s the best way to teach grammar?

The night before last I had the good fortune to see Goeff Pullum, noted linguist and linguistics blogger, give a talk entitled: The scandal of English grammar teaching: Ignorance of grammar, damage to writing skills, and what we can do about it. It was an engaging talk and clearly showed that the basis for many of the “grammar rules” that are taught in English language and composition courses have little to no bearing on how the English language is actually used. Some of the bogeyman rules (his term) that he lambasted included the interdiction against ending a sentence in a preposition, the notion that “since” can only to refer to the passage of time and not causality and the claim that only “which” can begin a restrictive clause. Counterexamples for all of these “grammar rules” are easy to find, both in written and spoken language. (If you’re interested in learning more, check out Geoff Pullum on Language Log.)

Evaluarán las distintas estrategias para enseñar a leer en los establecimientos subvencionados chilenos

“And then they python ate little Johnny because he had the gall to cheekily split his infinitives.”

So there’s a clear problem here. Rules that have no bearing on linguistic reality are being used as the backbone of grammar instruction, just as they have for over two hundred years. Meanwhile, the investigation of human language has advanced considerably. We know much more about the structure of language now than we did when E. B. White was writing his grammar guide. It’s linguistic inquiry that has lead to better speech therapy, speech recognition and synthesis programs and better foreign language teaching. Grammar, on the other hand, has led to little more than frustration and an unsettling elitism. (We all know at least one person who uses their “knowledge” of “correct” usage as a weapon.) So what can be done about it? Well, I propose that instead of traditional “grammar”, we teach “grammar” as linguists understand it. What’s the difference?

Traditional grammar: A variety of usage and style rules that are based on social norms and a series of historic accidents.

Linguistic grammar: The set of rules which can accurately discribe a native speaker’s knowaldge of their language.

I’m not the first person to suggest a linguistics education as a valuable addition to the pre-higher educational experience. You can read proposals and arguments from others herehere, and here, and an argument for more linguistics in higher education here.

So, why would you want to teach linguistic grammar? After all, by the time you’re five or six, you already have a pretty good grasp of your language. (Not a perfect one, as it turns out; things like the role of stress in determining the relationship between words in a phrase tend to come in pretty late in life.) Well, there are lots of reasons.

  • Linguistic grammar is the result of scientific inquiry and is empirically verifiable. This means that lessons on linguistic grammar can take the form of experiments and labs rather than memorizing random rules.
  • Linguistic grammar is systematic. This can appeal to students who are gifted at math and science but find studying language more difficult.
  • Linguistic grammar is a good way to gently introduce higher level mathematics. Semantics, for example, is a good way to introduce set theory or lambda calculus.
  • Linguistic grammar is immediately applicable for students. While it’s difficult to find applications for oceanology for students who live in Kansas, everyone uses language every day, giving students a multitude of opportunities to apply and observe what they’re learned.
  • Linguistic grammar shows that variation between different languages and dialects is systematic, logical and natural. This can help reduce the linguistic prejudice that speakers of certain languages or dialects face.
  • Linguistic grammar helps students in learning foreign languages.  For example, by increasing students’ phonetic awareness (that’s their awareness of language sounds) and teaching them how to accurately describe and produce sounds, we can avoid the frustration of not knowing what sound they’re attempting to produce and its relation to sounds they already know.
  • Knowledge of linguistic grammar, unlike traditional grammar, is relatively simple to evaluate. Since much of introductory linguistics consists of looking at data sets and constructing rules that would generate that data set, and these rules are either correct or not, it is easier to determine whether or not the student has mastered the concepts.

I could go on, but I think I’ll leave it here for now. The main point is this: teaching linguistics is a viable and valuable way to replace traditional grammar education. What needs to happen for linguistic grammar to supplant traditional grammar? That’s a little thornier. At the very least, teachers need to receive linguistic training and course materials appropriate  for various ages need to be developed. A bigger problem, though, is a general lack of public knowledge about linguistics. That’s part of why I write this blog; to let you know about what’s going on in a small but very productive field. Linguistics has a lot to offer, and I hope that in the future more and more people will take us up on it.

 

Ask vs. Aks: Let me axe you a question

Do you know which one of these forms is the correct one? You sure about that?

Four things are inevitable: death, taxes, the eventual heat-death of the universe, and language change. All (living) languages are constantly in a state of flux, at all levels of the linguistic system. Meanings change, new structures come into being and old ones die out, words are born and die and pronunciations change. And no one, it seems, is happy about it. New linguistic forms tend to be the source of endless vitriol and argument, and language users love constructing rules that have more to do with social norms than linguistic reality. Rules that linguists create, which attempt to model the way language is used, are called “descriptive”, while rules that non-linguists create, which attempt to suggest how they believe language should be used, are called “prescriptive”. I’m not going to talk that much more about it here; if you’re interested, Language Log and Language Hippie both discuss the issue at length. The reason that I bring this up is that prescriptive rules tend to favor older forms. (An occasionally forms from other languages. That whole “don’t split an infinitive” thing? Based on Latin. English speakers have been happily splitting infinitives since the 13th century, and I imagine we’ll continue to boldly split them for centuries to come.) There is, however, one glaring exception: the whole [ask] vs. [aks] debate.

Axt zum spalten

In a way, it’s kinda like Theseus’ paradox or Abe Lincoln’s axe. If you replace all the sounds in a word one by one, it is the same word at the end of the process as it was in the beginning?

Historically, it’s [aks], the homophone of the chopping tool pictured above, that has precedence. Let’s take a look at the Oxford English Dictionary’s take on the history of the word, shall we?

The original long á gave regularly the Middle English (Kentish) ōxi ; but elsewhere was shortened before the two consonants, giving Middle English a , and, in some dialects, e . The result of these vowel changes, and of the Old English metathesis asc- , acs- , was that Middle English had the types ōx , ax , ex , ask , esk , ash , esh , ass , ess . The true representative of the orig. áscian was the s.w. and w.midl. ash , esh , also written esse (compare æsce ash n.1, wæsc(e)an wash n.), now quite lost. Acsian, axian, survived inax, down to nearly 1600 the regular literary form, and still used everywhere in midl. and southern dialects, though supplanted in standard English by ask, originally the northern form. Already in 15th cent. the latter was reduced dialectally to asse, past tense ast, still current dialectally.*

So, [aks] was the regular literary form (i.e. the one you would have been taught to say in school if you were lucky enough to have gone to school) until the 1600 or so? Ok, so, if older forms are better, than that should be the “right” one. Right? Well, let’s see what Urban Dictionary has to say on the matter, since that tends to be a  pretty good litmus test of language attitudes.

“What retards say when they don’t know how to pronounce the word ask.” — User marcotte on Urban Dictionary, top definition

Oh. Sorry, Chaucer, but I’m going to have to inform you that you were a retard who didn’t know how to pronounce the word ask. Let’s unpack what’s going on here a little bit, shall we? There’s clearly a disconnect between the linguistic facts and language attitudes.

  • Facts: these two forms have both existed for centuries, and [aks] was considered the “correct” form for much of that time.
  • Language attitude: [aks] is not only “wrong”, it reflects negatively on those people who use it, making them sound less intelligent and less educated.

This is probably (at least in America) tangled in with the fact that [aks] is a marker of African American English. Even within the African American community, the form is stigmatized. Oprah, for example, who often uses markers of African American English (especially when speaking with other African Americans) almost never uses [aks] for [ask]. So the idea that [aks] is the wrong form and that [ask] is correct is based on a social construction of how an intelligent, educated individual should speak. It has nothing to do with the linguistic qualities of the word itself. (For a really interesting discussion of how knowledge of linguistic forms is acquired by children and the relationship between that and animated films, see Lippi-Green’s chapter “Teaching children to discriminate” from English with an Accent: Language  ideology and discrimination in the United States here.)

Now, the interesting thing about these forms is that they both have phonological pressures pushing English speakers towards using them. That’s because [s] has a special place in English phonotactics. In general, you want the sounds that are the most sonorant nearer the center of a syllable. And [s] is more sonorant than [k], so it seems like [ask] should be the favored form. But, like I said, [s] is special. In “special”, for example, it comes at the very beginning of the word, before the less-sonorant [p]. And all the really long syllables in English, like “strengths”, have [s] on the end. So the special status of [s] seems to favor [aks]. The fact that each form can be modeled perfectly well based on our knowledge of the way English words are formed helps to explain why both forms continue to be actively used, even centuries after they emerged. And, who knows? We might decide that [aks] is the “correct” form again in another hundred years or so. Try and keep that in mind the next time you talk about the right and wrong ways to say something.

* “ask, v.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 12 February 2013 <http://www.oed.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/view/Entry/11507&gt;.

Of cups, mugs, glasses and semantic drift

One of the more interesting little sub-fields in linguistics is diachronic semantics. That’s the study of how word meanings change over time. Some of these changes are relatively easy to track. A “mouse” to a farmer in 1900 was a small rodent with unfortunate grain-pilfering proclivities. To a farmer today, it’s also one of the tools she uses to interact with her computer. The word has gained a new semantic sense without losing it’s original meaning. Sometimes, however,  you have a weird little dance where a couple of words are negotiating over the same semantic space–that’s another way of saying a related group of concepts that a language groups together–and that’s where things get interesting. “Cup”, “mug” and “glass” are engaged in that little dance-off right now (at least in American English). Let’s see how they’re doing, shall we?

Glasses 800 edit

Cup? Glass? Jug? Mug? Why don’t we just call them all “drinking vessels” and be done with it?

Cup: Ok, quick question for you: does a cup have to have a handle? The Oxford dictionaries say “yes“, but I really think that’s out of date at this point. Dr. Reed pointed out that this was part of her criteria for whether something could be called a “cup” or not, but that a lot of younger speakers no longer make that distinction. In fact, recently I noticed that someone of my acquaintance uses “cup” to refer only to disposable cups. Cup also has the distinct advantage of being part of a lot of phrases: World cup, Stanley cup, cup of coffee, teacup, cuppa, cup of sugar, in your cups, and others that I can’t think of right now.

So “cup” is doing really well, and gaining semantic ground.

Glass: Glass, on the other hand, isn’t doing as well. I haven’t yet talked to someone who can use “glass” to refer to drinking vessels that aren’t actually made of glass including, perhaps a little oddly, clear disposable cups. On the other hand, there are some types of drinking vessels that I can only refer to as glasses. Mainly those for specific types of alcohol: wine glass, shot glass, martini glass, highball glass (though I’ve heard people referring to the glass itself just as a highball, so this might be on the way out). There are alcohol-specific pieces of glassware that don’t count as glasses though–e.g. champagne flute, brandy snifter–so it’s not a categorical distinction by any means.

“Glass” seems to be pretty stable, but if “cup” continues to become broader and broader it might find itself on the outs.

Mug: I don’t have as much observational data on this one, but there seems to be another shift going on here. “Mug” originally referred only to drinking vessels that were larger than cups (see below), and still had handles.

Mugs2000ppx

Note that the smaller ones on top are “cups” and the larger ones on the bottom are labelled as “mugs”.

Most people call those insulated drinking vessels with the attached lids “travel mugs” rather than “travel cups” (640,000 Google hits vs. 22,400) but I find myself calling them “cups” instead. I think it’s because 1) I pattern it with disposable coffee cups and 2) I find handledness is a necessary quality for mugs. I can call all of the drinking vessels in the picture above “mugs” and prefer “mug” to “cup”.

So, at least for me, “mug” is beginning to take over the semantic space allotted to “cup” by older speakers.

Of course, this is a very cursory, impressionistic snapshot of the current state of the semantic space. Without more robust data I’m hesitant to make concrete predictions about the ways in which these terms are negotiating their semantic space, but there’s definitely some sort of drift going on.