Monthly Archives: January 2012

I Might Could Have Something to Say About This

I was trying to write a sentence containing a double modal today, but unfortunately I’ve had pretty much zero exposure to this dialect feature. So of course I turn to the Internet to get a sense of its usage from real-world samples and I was pretty surprised by what I found. There are scads of blogs and forum postings about this structure and people get pretty fired up over it. So I took a moment to write up my sentence and proceeded to get sucked into reading people’s opinions on double modals.

Here are some things I noticed.

It provided some good insight into how people understand the word grammatical. Here are some of the lines of thinking I saw provided by nonlinguists, language lovers and linguists, writers, etc. regarding defining grammaticality.

  • Double modals are not valid grammatical constructions because they violate some rule of English grammar.
  • Double modals can be idiomatic but that doesn’t make them grammatical.
  • Systematic, prevalent usage does not make double modals grammatical.
  • Just because double modals are used in other languages does not make them grammatically acceptable in English.

There were many comments that suggested that double modals may be grammatically sound structures in certain dialects of English, but that it’s wrong or not a wise idea to use nonstandard dialects in the first place.

  • Although a lot of people may use double modals, they shouldn’t because they’ll probably be judged for it.
  • It’s not necessary to use a double modal like “might could” when you can just say the more acceptable “might be able to”.
  • Even though double modals are fine to use in dialects of English, there’s a reason why they’re not used in Standard English.

Finally, and to me most fascinating, people who do use double modals are typically proud of it, their dialect, and their linguistic heritage. Here are some of the ideas I found shared.

  • Using double modals allows for richer expression of nuanced meaning.
  • Some users of double modals argued that their ability to switch between standard and nonstandard English is an asset.
  • There was strong indication that users of double modals felt a lot of solidarity with others sharing their dialect.

I was shocked to see that double modals catalyze such great division among people. Either you’re a double-modaler or you’re not! And it’s apparently a big deal. Though there is probably a lot at play here, I want to point out one reason for this that I perceive as particularly salient. There is apparently a geographic delineation that separates those who use double modals from those who don’t. This makes the difference physically real and means that people like me (I’m from Minnesota) will rarely if ever hear this variant. To demonstrate this, I used SeeTweet to plot the geographic distribution of “might could” using data from Twitter.

As you can see, “might could” is pretty well restricted to the South and Appalachia. I’ll point out that the red dot in Eau Claire, Wisconsin is actually me tweeting about double modals earlier today. Funnily, the tweet from Milwaukee, Wisconsin is someone complaining about double modals as a syntactic abomination. And the tweet from Toronto is actually an instance of “might/could”.

Knowing that those who do use double modals see them as a means to demonstrating their social  and regional allegiances (e.g., I am from North Carolina and we use double modals!), it’s possible to argue that this is an example of in- versus out-group bias. For those who use double modals, it’s a point of solidarity. For those who do not, it’s a tool for identifying an out-group member. As I saw some people admitting, you are likely to be subject to discrimination for using a nonstandard dialect. All very interesting to me! As someone who grew up in southern Minnesota, I’m proud to say “duck, duck, gray duck” instead of “duck, duck, goose”! But I’ve also been criticized for this quirk by non-gray-duckers. Ridiculous example, I know.

And of course, this just reaffirms for me why it’s important to study folk perceptions of sociolinguistic variation and even linguistic principles like grammaticality. I’ve made it obvious before already, but I’ll say again that I love to see that people are talking about language and can be at times very opinionated. However, I would love more to see this energy translated into curiosity and appreciation. A huge part of this will be understanding things like language as a social identity and in-/out-group bias.

Megan L. Risdal

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People Don’t Like to Say “Forewent”

Every time I’m about to say forewent, I put on the brakes & grope for a way to recapitulate my utterance sans this awkward word. Not that this happens often, but I’m still curious — do other people feel as uncomfortable using this word as I do? Why can’t you be a regular verb, forego! Something wrong happened when intransitive go inspired the transitive forego. That’s my theory, at least. So I’ll be using the Corpus of Contemporary American English to compare frequency of usage between forego, foregone (v.), & forewent. & Google NGrams to see historical trends of usage.

Anyway, here are the numbers:

Forego

COCA hits: 381

Foregone (v.)

COCA hits: 86

Forewent

COCA hits: 5

And here’s a 3-Gram mapping historical trends of usage of each verb form.

Judging by the path traced by forego (in blue), I’d say that this verb is becoming increasingly disfavored in general. Keep in mind that the NGram of foregone includes its adjectival use, for which there are 303 COCA hits, so it doesn’t mean a whole lot to see that it’s risen in usage since the 1800s. And forewent has always been pretty much at a flat-line. Here’s forewent alone so we can get a better sense of how it’s trended over time:

Not a popular word today & it seems to have been that way for a while. I can’t conclude from any of this that people tense up like I do when they have this word on the tips of their tongues, but it’s still entirely possible. Anyone else out there have any particular sentiments about this word or other ones like it?

P.S. I think after writing this I’ve become a bit more comfortable with it.

Megan L. Risdal

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Some Language Humor

I was in Duluth, MN this past weekend & I was watching King of the Hill in my hotel room & heard this great line which I promptly copied into a notebook for later blogging usage. It’s Peggy Hill talking about herself, or trying to, anyhow.

Peggy Hilli is doing things I’vei never done on heri own.

What a gem. This utterance is meaning to say “Peggy Hill is doing things [that] she’s never done on her own.” But it’s another great example of deixis gone awry. And of course it’s more evidence that the average person does delight in language & word play. I should collect more examples & do a full blog entry, or squib, on its syntax.

I used to say, only on Facebook can a third person singular be coindexed with a first person possessive. “Megan Risdal is loving my new job!” And recently I heard someone say “I’m a dreamer with his head in the clouds.”

Anyway, I just wanted to share this with you. Happy Monday!

Megan L. Risdal

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People Love Language. But Do They Know It?

I love hearing what non-linguists have to say about linguistic phenomena. It’s impossible to avoid biases when studying language; either you know too much to really comment in a fully objective manner or you’re somehow missing some information necessary to make a fully enlightened assessment. Okay, I admit. You will always harbor some ignorance somehow. But the point is, I think it’s valuable to take both positions into account when asking questions about how language is used & perceived. So while I see that the recent rash of “Shit Xs Say” videos on YouTube represent an imperfect “analysis” of the speech of groups defined by extra-linguistic variables (e.g., gender, race, etc.), I still think it’s great that this sort of thing is obviously interesting to people.

But the question I keep asking myself is this. Do people know that they’re interested in language?

I’m not really sure what’s going on — which is why I want to study it formally — but it seems like some people seem to exhibit an odd contradiction of behaviors that seem to reflect interest in (or at least awareness of) sociolinguistic phenomena paired with closed-minded, uninformed attitudes toward linguistic diversity. What’s the deal? How can people have both at once?

I think it just means that people are open to learning about language & would probably enjoy it but that just doesn’t happen in our education system — an unfortunate situation! And hopefully if they did learn more about linguistic principles, they would be more aware of their own fascination with language & eager to learn more about linguistic variation. Given that people are at present taught the rigid, prescriptive “rules” that supposedly govern language & subsequently defend them sometimes fervently, I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing would happen were they to learn about natural language use instead. A linguist can dream!

Megan L. Risdal

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Reading, First Installment

There have been a few books that I’ve read over the past few years that have had measurable impact on the way I think or rationalize the world or … Whatever, they are books that I want to share with you. I also decided to post pictures of the covers corresponding to the copies I read. I don’t know why, but there you go.

Jorge Luis Borges — Ficcionnes 

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library

I figured I’d start off with, if you didn’t guess from the anthology’s title, fiction, because I haven’t really been much of a fiction-reader as of late, yet this is still something I love. It was several years ago that I was first introduced to this work, but now that my inner-linguist has fully blossomed, I know why this book was important to me. I love the idea of reifying language. Also as someone interested in philosophy this book has really excited me. Some of my favorite short stories are Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, the Circular Ruins, the Library of Babel, & Funes, His Memory. And of course a title like the Garden of Forking Paths should make any linguist perk up.

Richard Dawkins — The Selfish Gene

Intelligent life on a planet comes of age when it first works out the reason for its own existence

I just happened to have read this book a few years ago without really understanding its importance or impact. Evolution, & human evolution, are not easy concepts but they enter public debate quite often so I think it’s a good idea to have a handle on what the theory seeks to explain & what evidence there is for it. This book is particularly significant for the field of biology because of its assertion that the gene is the unit of selection, not the group, kin, or species. Of course it also gave us the concept of social phenomena replicating as genes do which he called memes. If this sounds interesting, but you want something more digestible, I would recommend Dawkins’ The Greatest Show on Earth.

Stephen Meyer — Signature in the Cell

 

I’ve been teased for wasting my precious time on obvious garbage like Stephen Meyer’s book touting intelligent design, but I’ll remind you that there are people out there reading Twilight. But seriously, I saw this book at Barnes & Noble at the Mall of America a couple of years ago & bought it because I figured it would be interesting & possibly even intellectually healthy to expose myself to an opposing perspective. And Meyer’s voice was supposedly as sound as it could get when it came to scientifically literate arguments for intelligent design. That & it was my first exposure to information theory. Well, I guess I have to say it is indeed a horrible book with horrible arguments & I should probably find a real book to read if I want to learn anything about information theory. It’s also excessively long which is likely a symptom of its meandering, flimsy delineation of evidence for ID. But in the end it was a trip reading this & I’m glad I did.

David Foster Wallace — Infinite Jest

What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic

A man of infinite jest, indeed. I read this book on my Kindle so it didn’t exacerbate my back problems as I was traveling Europe, but I can recommend this book highly in any form despite its ‘verbal onanism’. One of the characters is memorizing the OED which is of course fantastic to me. And related to this, I guess I am glad I read this book on my Kindle thanks to its built-in dictionary which proved very useful. From a variationist’s perspective, this book is very interesting as DFW changes his voice radically between chapters depending on who’s talking. I found myself mesmerized by his language use as much as I was by the story. This is a crazy book. It’s a trip. Read it.

That’s all for now. I didn’t want this to be too long. I’ll post more recommendations later.

Megan L. Risdal

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