Monday, July 30, 2007

A Desperate Blogger

I suggest that you take a look at the link associated with the title of this blog. I found the phrase "sloppy speech" on the site's first example of an "error" in the use of English, namely the claim that "It is nonstandard and often considered sloppy speech to utter an “uh” sound in such cases." The cases concerned uses of "an." Does anyone actually use "uh" for "an"? Usually, it is used for cases of "a" as in "a boy." Interestingly this highly prescriptive site doesn't comment on this sort of usage. I find it hard to avoid and I am a speaker of academic English. I am just not a prig.

The phrase "sloppy speech" is a pejorative way to refer to what linguists call "casual speech," speech that we all use, including our prescriptivist I suspect, in casual or informal speech contexts including intimate speech contexts. We say things like "lesko" for "Let's go" when talking to friends. When the two words collide we have the intolerable sequence "tsg," which is basically not a possible consonant cluster. So, we delete the "t" and turn the voiced "g" into its voiceless counterpart thanks to the "s." No one has any trouble understanding us when we say that. Partly that would be due to context -- two or more people have been talking about going somewhere, most likely.

I am struggling to come up with Blogs, as the beginning of this blog may have suggested to someone. It seems that I have touched on an enormous number of topics, almost all of which involve language. That restriction is somewhat limiting. I cannot, of course, talk about Clinton vs Obama unless I have something they said or that has been said about them to deal with. Actually, I do have my good friend, Ralph's, renaming of "Obama" to "Obambi." If that caught on, Obama would be toast, partly because it seems apt.

One reason I am struggling is that I am spending a lot of time trying not to think too much about the fact that I am going to be a grandfather tomorrow with any luck. I notice that no matter what I do, I cannot refer to this possibility (note the use of "possibility" and the earlier use of "luck") that I will soon be a grandfather. My son-in-law said something like he doesn't want to jinx the pregnancy. I asked him if he really believed in jinxes and he said he didn't but he didn't want to tempt fate. I quit bothering him since I have been doing the same things verbally.

If any of you have any topics you want me to discuss that I feel competent to write about (no guarantee that I am competent to do so), please suggest them in the comment area. I need some help, much like the women of Desperate Housewives.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The "N" Word

Years ago, Dick Gregory, a comedian of some fame, published a book called, "Nigger." His thought was that if this word was brought out of the closet and into the light, it would lose its sting. Naturally, his plan didn't work. It continues to be used. It is difficult to change verbal habits but even harder to change human prejudices.

Currently, according to the Houston Chronicle, Tammie Campbell
is making an effort to "bury" the "N" Word. She is leading a diverse Houston-area group focused on eradicating the term's usage and teaching its history. They are hosting an unusual event at 9 a.m. today at a Pearland cemetery to ''bury the N-word" in a coffin.
I wish her luck. She is going to need it. The Chronicle article says says that various communities have in one way or another tried to forcibly reduce use of the "N" word by making it a misdemeanor crime or passing nonbinding resolutions banning the word. The problem here is that anything with teeth would surely run afoul of the First Amendment right to free speech. The only way these efforts can succeed, in my view, is in connection with a systematic push to make the word "politically incorrect" along with encouraging people to shun anyone who uses it. That too would probably not work but just that sort of action did cause people's attitudes and behavior in regard to smoking to change.

The word "nigger" continues to be widely used by African Americans addressing other African Americans either as an insult or as a way of signaling solidarity. This "paradoxical" use is like one White friend meeting another he hasn't seen in a long time saying, "You SOB, where have you been keeping yourself?" Talibah Newman is quoted at Taylor Siluwe's web site as saying
Many would say that it is wonderful that blacks as a race can take something so negative and turn it around. I say why bring something so demeaning back into the African American community and tempt some Caucasians to the point to where they think it is ok to say it. As always African Americans then believe that they reserve the right to get angry with whites for using the word as a racial slur.
Fighting against this sort of usage is like trying to stop a moving train with one's body. The fact is though that there are Whites who say they believe that the use of this word by African Americans does legitimize its use by Whites. This is nonsense in my view, a purely sophistical defense of its use. The fact is that an African American male who addresses some stranger who is also African American as "Hey, Nigger" to get his attention and in a less than friendly tone of voice is likely to be going in for dental surgery very soon thereafter. The paradoxical uses of "nigger" will normally be used by friends with friends or in rap music.

There is a very interesting analysis of the various uses of this word can be found at a web site page written by Mike Daley
Black semantics are highly context-bound. A notable example, and one which will be applicable in a study of rap lyrics, is the use of profanity. It is used in both negative and positive ways, depending on context. Sometimes it has no "meaning" at all, and functions as a kind of rhythmic/semantic filler in speech contexts. Smitherman gives an example of "multiple subjective association process" in the use of the word "nigger/nigguh". She lists four possible meanings of the words, depending on context:

1. personal affection or endearment
2. culturally Black, identifying with and sharing the values of black people, as opposed to "African-Americans", which has a more middle-class connotation
3. expression of disapproval for a person's actions
4. identifying Black folks - period (Smitherman 1994:62)

Anthropologist Claudia Mitchell-Kernan further comments on the context-bound meaning of "nigger": "The use of 'nigger' with other black English markers has the effect of 'smiling when you say that.' The use of standard English with 'nigger,' in the words of an informant, is 'the wrong tone of voice' and may be taken as abusive (Mitchell-Kernan 1973, 328)."
The only thing I would quarrel with here is the apparent presumption that "nigger" is unusual in being context bound. All language is context bound.

Years ago, during my first year teaching at the University of Illinois, I lived in an apartment complex with a not very well educated and not especially bright working class White guy and we fell into a discussion of his racial views. He asserted that he was better than African Americans. I, somewhat astonished, asked if he was better than all of them? He said he was. I then ran though some prominent African Americans' names asking each time whether he was better than that person. Every time he said he was. It is that sort of thing that is the problem. The working class see themselves as lower on the White totem pole than professionals, business men and women, and others who are better educated, have better jobs, and make more money. This seems to exacerbate a need to feel superior to someone so that they can maintain their own self-esteem. And, at the time, in Illinois the group that he would need to feel superior to would have been African Americans. And so long as African Americans are the ones selected for abuse there will be a need for the word "nigger" for such people.

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

Do Women Talk Too Much?

I have heard all my life that women talk too much. A few days ago, however, I watched an report on CNN of a study that showed that showed that men and women talk about the same amount, i e., use roughly the same number of words per day). Naturally, I couldn't remember the name of the researcher who was quoted, so I googled the topic. Using one set of search terms, I found references to the Brain Lady, Dr. Louann Brizendine, claiming that women talk very much more than men as well as references to the male stereotype that women talk too much.

I used another set of search terms and came up with an ABC news story citing the same research that the CNN report discussed, which was an eight year research project headed up by Matthias R. Mehl, a psychology professor at the University of Arizona. This research was based on the use of voice activated digital recorders that subjects (college students) carried around with them throughout the day. The study found that men and women average about 16,000 words per day with women having a negligible edge. The ABC story also reports that the Brain Lady herself very quickly found out after publication of her book that her claim was based on faulty research. She asked the publishers to remove the claim. Unfortunately for Dr. Brizendine, her false claim will probably live with her forever and cause people to wonder a bit about her judgment in citing research from unfamiliar fields in publications which, though not scholarly, nevertheless depend on being seen as based on sound research. In any event, it seems, we have a definitive answer to the question of who talks more, men or women. the answer being neither.

It is difficult for me to understand why anyone would actually care whether men or women talk the most. If four women going to lunch together use more words per hour than four men having lunch together, why would either gender care since it has no impact on them? What matters most is not how much men and women talk per se but such things is (a) what do men and women talk about, (b) how much they does each talk about specific topics, and (c) most of all, how much men and women do talk when they are in mixed gender groups. The stereotype is surely not based on assessments by men as to how much women talk to other women when men aren't involved since they wouldn't be in a position to know this.

So, who talks the most in mixed gender groups? Contrary to the stereotype, women do not talk more than men in mixed gender groups. They talk less. However, in every study I have read that I could take seriously, this question is extremely difficult to answer in one word, as I just did when I wrote "less." In fact, when males and females are of equal in status, there are relatively few differences both with respect to how much each talks or how they talk. One Prof. Robin Lakoff wrote a book years ago that was based on nothing more than her perceptions (prejudices) that said that there is a fundamental difference between h0w men and women talk. In somewhat more modern terms, the claim was that women used less powerful language than do men. Robin's claims were not without some justification but as I just noted, when men and women have equal status they talk in very similar ways. The problem is that for years women couldn't achieve a social status equal to that of their "bread winning" husbands.

I had the good fortune to be in a discipline (linguistics) in which there has many women members for many decades and in a department in which there were always women. Indeed, the department was founded by a woman and currently has a female chair. One result of this is that essentially every negative stereotype of females that had leaked into my brain over the years was resoundingly falsified. This education began at Rice University which though it had more men than women students, had only smart women. Unfortunately, most males do not have such edifying experiences.

In the preponderance of studies I have read over the years it has been shown that men talk more than women in informal social gatherings. Given this fact, it is difficult to see how the stereotype that women talk too much could have emerged since that would have been the sort of context that would foster such a view in men. The Brain Lady suggests that one reason men might think that women too much is that "women want to talk when [men] really don't want to listen" (taken from the ABC story). Moreover, of course, men and women tend to want to talk about different things. According to the Mehl study the ABC report cited, "men in the study tended to talk more about technology and sports, while women talked more about their relationships" (also taken from the ABC story). The fact that males and females prefer to talk about different things could lead to the perception that women talk too much because they talk about things men don't much care about.

I can't say why stereotypes emerge, but I think I know why they survive even when contradicted by experience. There are two ways that apparent counterexamples to a hypothesis can be taken. They may be taken as genuine counterexamples, that is they may be taken as facts which falsify the hypothesis forcing one to abandon it. Or they may be taken as mere exceptions to the rule, and thus as being of negligible interest. So, any man who believes women talk too much may see instances of women who are dominating a conversation as confirming their belief while seeing instances of women who say very little as mere exceptions to the rule. In any event, it is time for men to give this silly idea up.

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