“Said” for 2016 Word of the Year

I just got back from the American Association for Corpus Linguistics conference in Ames, Iowa, and I’m calling the Word of the Year: for 2016 it will be said.

You may think you know said. It’s the past participle of say. You’ve said it yourself many times. What’s so special about it?

What’s special was revealed by Jordan Smith, a graduate student at Iowa State, in his presentation on Saturday afternoon. said is becoming a determiner. It is grammaticizing.

In addition to its participial use (“once the words were said”) you’ve probably seen said used as an attributive adjective (“the said property”). It indicates that the noun it modifies refers to a person, place or thing that has been mentioned recently, with the same noun, and that the speaker/writer expects it to be active in the hearer/reader’s memory.

Attributive said is strongly associated with legal documents, as in its first recorded use in the English Parliament in 1327. The Oxford English Dictionary reports that said was used outside of legal contexts as early as 1973, in the English sitcom Steptoe and Son. In this context it was clearly a joke: a word that evoked law courts used in a lower-class colloquial context.

Jordan Smith examined uses of said in the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) and found that attributive said has increasingly been used without the for several years now, and outside the legal domain. He observes that syntactic changes and increased frequency have been named by linguists like Joan Bybee as harbingers of grammaticization.

Grammaticization (also known as grammaticalization; search for both) is when an ordinary lexical item (like a noun, verb or adjective, or even a phrase) becomes a grammatical item (like a pronoun, preposition or auxiliary verb). For example, while is a noun meaning a period of time, but it was grammaticized to a conjunction indicating simultaneity. Used is an adjective meaning accustomed, as in “I was used to being lonely,” but has also become part of an auxiliary indicating habitual aspect as in “I used to be lonely.”

Jordan is suggesting that said is no longer just a verb or even an adjective, it’s our newest determiner in English. Determiners are an exclusive club of short words that modify nouns. They include articles like an and the, but also demonstratives like these and quantifiers like several.

Noun phrases without a determiner tend to refer to generic categories, as I have been doing with phrases like legal documents and grammaticization. That is clearly not what is going on with said girlfriend. Noun phrases with said refer to a specific item or group of items, in some sense even more so than noun phrases with the.

Thanks to the wireless Internet at the AACL, I began searching for of said on Twitter, and found a ton of examples. There are plenty for in said examples as well.

It’s not just happening in English. The analogous French ledit is also used outside the legal domain. Its reanalysis is a bit different, since it incorporates the article rather than replacing it. Like most noun modifiers in French it is inflected for gender and number. I haven’t found anything similar for Spanish.

In 2013 the American Dialect Society chose because as its Word of the Year. Because is already a conjunction, having grammaticized from the noun cause, but it has been reanalyzed again into a preposition, as in because science. Some theorists consider this to be a further step in grammaticization. And here is a twenty-first century prepositional phrase for you, folks: because (P) said (Det) relationship (N).

After Jordan’s presentation it struck me that said is an excellent candidate for the 2016 Word of the year. And if the ADS isn’t interested, maybe another organization like the International Cognitive Linguistics Association, can sponsor a Grammaticization of the Year.

Including linguistics at literary conferences

I just got back from attending my second meeting of the Northeast Modern Language Association. My experience at both conferences has been very positive: friendly people, interesting talks, good connections. But I would like to see a little more linguistics at NeMLA, and better opportunities for linguists to attend. I’ve talked with some of the officers of the organization about this, and they have told me they welcome more papers from linguists.

Photo. Sean Weidman

Photo. Sean Weidman


One major challenge is that the session calls tend to be very specific and/or literary. Here are some examples from this year’s conference:

  • The Language of American Warfare after World War II
  • Representing Motherhood in Contemporary Italy
  • ‘Deviance’ in 19th-century French Women´s Writing

There is nothing wrong with any of these topics, but when they are all that specific, linguistic work can easily fall through the cracks. For several years I scanned the calls and simply failed to find anything where my work would fit. The two papers that I have presented are both pedagogical (in 2014 on using music to teach French, and this year on using accent tag videos to teach language variation and language attitudes). I believe that papers about the structure of language can find an audience at NeMLA, when there are sessions where they can fit.

In contrast, the continental MLA tends to have several calls with broader scope: an open call for 18th-Century French, for example, as well as ones specifically related to linguistics. When I presented at the MLA in 2012 it was at a session titled “Change and Perception of Change in the Romance Languages,” organized by Chris Palmer (a linguist and all-around nice guy).

With all that in mind, if you are considering attending next year’s NeMLA in Baltimore, I would like to ask the following:

  • Would you consider submitting a session proposal by the April 29th deadline?
  • Would you like to co-chair a session with me? (please respond by private email)
  • What topics would you find most inviting for linguistics papers at a (mostly) literature conference?

I recognize that I have readers outside of the region. For those of you who do not live in northeastern North America, have you had similar experiences with literary conferences? Do you have suggestions for session topics – or session topics to avoid?

Radical categorization and the difficulty of doing justice

In my last post I mentioned three caveats that I wanted to add to Miriam Posner’s keynote address to the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference, and I discussed the fact that the categories we use to organize our lived experience are slippery and problematic and just as reified as the ideological categories employed by researchers.

In this post I want to address some of the difficulties of doing justice, which are intertwined with those difficulties of categorization. Here’s a quote from Posner that gets to these difficulties:

Of course, we can’t capture these experiences without the contributions of the people whose lives we’re claiming to represent. So it’s incumbent upon all of us (but particularly those of us who have platforms) to push for the inclusion of underrepresented communities in digital humanities work, because it will make all of our work stronger and sounder. We can’t allow digital humanities to recapitulate the inequities and underrepresentations that plague Silicon Valley; or the systematic injustice, in our country and abroad, that silences voices and lives.

There is a perception that the world is divided into oppressed and oppressors, and that if we can just restore the balance of power, oppressors will no longer be able to oppress and justice will prevail. In language this finds its expression in “say this, not that” documents like the language guide produced by staff at University of New Hampshire that claims to offer “Bias-Free Language.” In the digital humanities setting that translates into the idea that if we can just include all the relevant underrepresented communities our work will be pure.

I don’t think that Posner had anything so simplistic in mind, but there’s a good chance that several people in the room, and some more people reading the written version, came away with just such a simplistic reading. To me this spells trouble, of a kind I’ve encountered before. Here are some further cautions based on my experiences when advocating for myself and people who are kind of like me in transgender communities.

One source of trouble is the idea that oppressed groups are monolithic entities. Categories are messy and slippery, and that especially goes for categories of people, like the ones we’re trying to include. What if we include an underrepresented community, but we use the wrong definition for that community and wind up excluding an even more underrepresented subgroup? I’m serious, it happens all the time.

And it gets worse, because the oppressed can oppress. Being a member of an underrepresented community does not make anyone a saint, and it does not give anyone an omniscient view of the community. People can, and do, exclude and silence segments of their community, out of greed, fear, hate and even simple ignorance. And they often do it by manipulating those slippery categories.

It’s important to remember that collective decision-making is problematic. In the trans community we don’t hold elections, whether to name our “community leaders” or to decide which words are taboo today and which words every right-thinking ally is required to drop in their conversation before they can be invited to the cool parties.

Finally, nobody is completely honest, either with themselves or with you. Sometimes we repeat what others say without giving it much thought. Sometimes we have a nagging feeling there’s some big logical disconnect in what we’re saying but we don’t have the time to rethink it all. Sometimes we live in a fantasy world because the real world is just too painful. And sometimes we have a hidden agenda that we’re not going to share with you.

I say this as someone who’s had to sit and listen as my transgender “community leaders” regurgitated dismissive characterizations of my subgroup in radio interviews. As someone who’s read blog posts claiming that we don’t belong in the community, even though the same bloggers are happy to claim us at fundraising time. As someone who has read dozens of tweets and Facebook posts on transgender topics by outsider “allies” – friends, neighbors, colleagues, students – that center the noisiest subgroup in our community and erase the group that I belong to.

You can’t include me by hiring that genderqueer kid who gave the cool speech at campus Pride last year. You can’t include me by co-authoring a paper with the late transitioner who bent your ear about access to hormones at the Decolonizing Culture Conference. You can’t include me by interviewing the director of the local Gender Authenticity Center, or by reading the book by that woman who was on Oprah.

In fact, if you hadn’t read my blog or my Twitter feed, you might not even know that I exist to be included. And even if you find me and manage to include me, that’s no guarantee that you haven’t missed some equally important, unrepresented segment of the transgender community that I’m also completely unaware of.

You can’t include everyone. It’s just not going to happen. We need to be mindful of this and set our expectations accordingly about what we know, and how far we can generalize that knowledge.

This is why in the question and answer period, I asked Posner if she would accept my interpreting her speech as a call for humility. She responded by saying that it was actually a call for hubris on the part of the excluded and silenced groups. Later at the reception I proposed a synthesis where hubris was called for on the part of those less powerful, and humility on the part of those with more power.

Posner accepted my synthesis at the time, but thinking about it now in the light of what I just wrote about how the oppressed can oppress, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it any more. Calling for hubris from those less powerful sounds like an invitation to self-appointed “community leaders” to promote their vision of the community, without stopping to reflect on the possibility that they might be excluding or silencing others in turn.

Humility is most important for those of us with the most power. We need to keep that perspective on what we do. But it is still important for those of us with the least power. It is never not important. If Posner will not call for humility, then I will. Justice is hard. Please, be humble. Let every feeling of power be an invitation to humility. And thanks.

Challenges for radical categorization

I enjoyed Miriam Posner’s keynote address at the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference. It was far from the only talk last week that was animated by a desire for justice and compassion, and it was good to see that desire given such prominence by the organizers and applauded by the attendees.

As a linguist I also welcomed Posner’s focus on categorization and language diversity. I was trained as a syntactician, but over the past several years I have paid more and more attention to semantics, and categorization in particular. Building on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Eleanor Rosch, George Lakoff and Deborah Cameron, I have come to see categorization as a touchpoint for social justice.

I should note that for me, categorization is not just where I can advocate for others with less power. As a transgender person, the power to categorize myself, my feelings, my beliefs and my actions is denied to me on a daily basis. The main reason that I study categorization is to regain that power for myself and others.

Much as I share Posner’s passion for justice, her talk raised some concerns in my mind. First, digital humanities cannot bear the entire burden of social justice, and even language as a whole cannot. Second, categories are slippery and flexible, which is a great strength of humanity but also a great weakness. Third, there are limits to how much we can trust anyone, no matter how high or low they are in the hierarchies of power. These concerns are not insurmountable barriers to a radical approach to categorization, but keeping them in mind will help us to be more effective fighters for social justice.

I plan to address the issues of the burden and trust in future posts, and in this post focus on the slipperiness of categories. As I understood it, Posner drew a distinction between the data models used by digital humanists (among many others) to categorize the world, and the lived experience of the people who created and consume the data.

There is often conflict between the categories used in the model and in the experience, and there is often a power imbalance between the digital humanist and the humans whose data is being modeled. Digital humanists may be perpetuating injustice by imposing their data models on the lived experiences of others. Posner gave examples of binary gender forms, database fields for racial classification, and maps of places. She contrasted these models imposed from above with examples where humanists had contested those models, aiming to replace them with models closer to the lived experience of people with less power who had a stake in the categorization.

The problem is that our lived experience is also a data model. As George Lakoff and other cognitive scientists have shown, the categories that humans use to describe and interpret our experience are themselves conventions that are collectively negotiated and then imposed on all members of the language community, with penalties for non-compliance. They are just as distinct from reality as the fields in a SQL table, and they shape our perceptions of reality in the same ways.

Whether or not they are encoded in HTML forms, categories are always contested, and the degree to which they are contested is a function of what is at stake to be gained or lost from them. In my experience, categorizing people, whether by race, gender, nationality, religion or other criteria, is the most fraught, because these categories are often used as proxies for other factors, to grant or deny us access to valuable resources. The second most fraught is the categorization of place, because places contain resources and are often proxies for categorizing people. After that, food seems to be the most fraught; if you doubt me, ask your Facebook friends for the most (or least) authentic Mexican or Italian restaurant.

And yet, as Wittgenstein and Rosch have observed, it is normal for categories to have multiple, slightly different, meanings and memberships, not just in the same language community but in the same individual. In my observations it is possible for the same person to use two different senses of a word – a category with two different but overlapping memberships – on the same page, in the same paragraph, in the same sentence.

Responding to Posner’s talk, Matt Lincoln posted a recipe for using the Resource Description Framework (RDF) to describe overlapping, contrasting systems of categorization. I think that is an excellent start, particularly because he places the data models of lived experience on the same level as those imagined by the researchers. My word of caution would be to keep in mind that there is not one singular data model for the lived experience of a community, or even for an individual. As Whitman said, we contain multitudes. Each member of those contradicting multitudes has its own data model, and we should thus be prepared to give it its own entry in the RDF.

I and others brought up similar issues in the question and answer period, and in the reception after Posner’s keynote, and I very much appreciate her taking the time to discuss them. As I remember it, she acknowledged the challenges that I raised, and I look forward to us all working together to build a humane, compassionate humanities, whether digital or not. I will discuss the challenges of bearing the burden and of trusting the community in later posts.