She is calling you “dude”

I was struck by this tweet from Lynne Murphy today:

For those who don’t know, Lynne is an American linguist who lives in England and teaches at the University of Sussex, and blogs regularly about differences between British and American varieties of English. I’ve heard women saying “dude” to each other, but I wouldn’t call it calling each other “dude.” Lynne and I went back and forth (and got some input from Sylvia Sierra, a sociolinguistics graduate student who uses “dude” this way), but it comes down to two questions:

– Are Lynne and Sylvia observing the same things I remember, or something different?
– Are all three of us using the word “calling” in the same sense?

Fortunately, back in 1974 Arnold Zwicky developed a taxonomy of vocatives (PDF). Basically, a noun phrase, or something more or less nouny, can be used for four functions that are relevant to this question:

  1. Will the owner of a red Ford Taurus, license plate number XYZ123, please pick up any yellow house phone? (referential)
  2. Sheree Heil, come on down! You’re the next contestant on The Price is Right! (vocative call)
  3. No, Mom, I can’t pause. (vocative address)
  4. Oh boy, I can’t wait! (exclamation)

Scott Kiesling, in a 2004 American Speech article (PDF), further divides the use of dude as “(1) marking discourse structure, (2) exclamation, (3) confrontational stance mitigation, (4) marking affiliation and connection, and (5) signaling agreement,” but for the question at hand they are all non-referential and do not imply that the addressee is “a dude,” so in this post I will subsume all five under “exclamation.”

Boy is one of a long series of noun phrases that have made the journey from referential noun phrase to vocative call to vocative address to exclamation. Along the way, this sense of boy has been bleached of all of its old meaning: it can be used in context that have nothing remotely to do with boys. Other examples include man, baby, dear, babe, and of course God and lord.

A tricky thing about these, though, is that the functions can overlap. For example, in (2), “Sheree Heil” is actually being used for all four functions simultaneously. This is not unusual: Elizabeth Traugott has written extensively about how meaning change proceeds through ambiguity. The result is that we often are unable to tell exactly what stage a phrase is on in the journey.

That said, there are some features that can exclude one or more readings. The pure referential sense of a word is often much narrower than vocative or exclamatory senses; for example, consider the following examples:

  1. The baby threw up all over herself.
  2. Baby, let me give you a kiss.
  3. Look, baby, we’ve been through a lot together.
  4. Baby, it’s going to be a scorcher today!

It is hard to read (5) as referring to anything but an actual infant, while (6) could apply to either an infant or any other animate object. We can tell that (7) does not support a pure referential reading, because it would be incongruous if anyone said it to an actual baby. Note also that in the referential sense in (5), the noun phrase is fully integrated into the argument structure of the sentence, while in the vocative senses in (6) and (7) there are coreferential noun phrases (“you” and “we” respectively) in the argument structure.

Many of these have come out the other side of the chute and are no longer used as vocatives at all. In the exclamatory sense in (8), there is no coreferential noun phrase, and baby does not require the existence of a baby at all, as we saw above with boy.

Also note that in (7) the noun phrase does not come at the beginning of the sentence. For both the vocative call and exclamatory readings, it almost always does, so this is a pretty strong indicator that this is a vocative address.

There is also an interesting category of vocatives that have not (and may never) become exclamations, but have nonetheless broadened their reference considerably beyond their purely referential sense. Examples include buddy (which is almost never used for brothers, let alone buddies), bro (also not used for brothers), guys (no longer gender specific), son (rarely used for sons), and my son (almost always used for metaphorical sons in a religious or spiritual context).

One of my favorite examples of this comes from a hiking trip in Iceland, where I was the only American. The guides, however, both women, were used to taking Americans on trips, and had a running joke on the phonetic and functional similarity of “Guides?” and “Guys?” in the English vocative.

So we all agree that dude can be used as an exclamation, and in that context is bleached of its masculine reference restriction. I would not think of this as people “calling each other dude,” and I don’t think Lynne or Sylvia would. As I understand it, they are claiming that dude is like guys, in that it is also bleached of its masculine reference restriction in the vocative sense.

I am not ruling out this possibility; I know both Lynne and Sylvia to be astute observers of language. But I have not seen any evidence of it, and here is the kind of thing that would convince me: an example of dude in an unambiguous vocative address context. The easiest is one where it is not at the beginning of a sentence, for example:

  1. So, dude, what are we doing tonight?
  2. Before you go, dude, show me that picture.
  3. I am not impressed, dude.

If we can find examples of women using dude to address each other in contexts like that, to me that would count as them calling each other dude. What do you think?

Both of them?

When I wrote about my son’s use of “they” pronouns to refer to a single, specific person, I mentioned how there are people who want to be referred to with “they” or another set of gender-neutral pronouns because they don’t want to be identified by a gender. This change is also happening, but it’s not as straightforward as it sounds.

A few months ago I got into a small argument on Facebook. A former student of mine had posted something about transgender issues, and two of his Facebook friends disagreed with a comment of mine.

A few days later I ran into my student on campus, and he mentioned that one of the friends was his partner. “They just came out, so they get a little excited about these issues,” he said. This often happens to people when they come out, so I was not surprised.

At the time I assumed my student was saying that both of his Facebook friends had just come out. Two people coming out at about the same time? Well, it’s college, and my student is one of the officers of the campus LGBT group.

It was only later that it occurred to me that my student might have been talking about a single person (his partner) who had come out as genderqueer, and thus used “they” pronouns.

A few weeks ago I organized a karaoke event for members of my transgender support group, which is open to all genders. I was presenting as a woman, so everyone called me Andrea and referred to me with “she” pronouns. Another member of the group was presenting as a man but had asked us to use a feminine name and “she” pronouns, so we did.

At the event there were a few people who hadn’t shown up yet. I asked about one person, and the answer was, “They said they weren’t feeling well, so I don’t know if they’re going to make it.” Now, I knew that this person identified as genderqueer, and had complained that their boyfriend was reluctant to use “they” pronouns, and still my first thought was, “Oh, was the boyfriend planning to come too?”

I tell these stories to show that, at least for me, if I hear “they” in a specific context, I expect it to be plural. But hold on! This is not going to be some reactionary rant.

I don’t think it’s impossible for me to understand “they” as referring to single, specific people. I don’t think it’s impossible for entire communities of English speakers, or even the whole population, to make that shift. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask me or anyone else to try.

I do want to point out that these are pronouns, part of our entrenched, high-frequency core grammar, so it’s not going to be as easy as shifting from “stewardess” to “flight attendant.” On the other hand, using “they” pronouns would be easier than adopting any of the pronoun sets that have been specifically invented for gender-neutral use.

It would actually be easier if we used “they” pronouns for everyone, like my son may be doing part of the time. We’d have to come up with some way to specify plurality then, like “those people.” Let me know if you hear anything like that…

That guy and their red face

Today I was walking with my son, and we passed two men going the other way. I said to him, “Did you see how one of those guys was really red in the face?”

“No, what’s so special about them being red in the face?”

“I think he was drunk. Sometimes when people get really drunk, their faces get red that way. Not every red face means the person is drunk; sometimes it could be windburn-”

“So they might just have windburn?”

“Well, no, it’s a different pattern of redness…”

The conversation went on like that, with me using he pronouns to refer to the man, and my son using they pronouns. And no, he wasn’t talking about both of the men, he was talking about the one with the red face. I know this because he’s used they pronouns to refer to classmates in his all-boys gym class, and to his teachers who take the “Ms.” honorific and wear makeup and high heels.

I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, but I figured tonight is a good night to post it, since the lexicographers are talking to the copy editors about singular “they.”

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I grew up using “singular they” for generic referents: “If anyone needs help with this reading, they should talk to me.” I was familiar with the “the pronoun game,” as it was called in Chasing Amy, where the lesbian and bisexual characters obscured their sexuality by using “they” to refer to their (specific) partners. Being transgender and a linguist, I’m familiar with a relatively new use of “they” pronouns: for specific genderqueer or agender people who don’t want to be identified with any gender.

My son’s use of “they” doesn’t fit any of these established uses. He is using it for specific individuals whose gender is either male or female, and already known to us. I asked, and none of these people asked to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns. I don’t have the impression that this is a conscious effort on my son’s part, either. It just seems to be the third person pronoun that he uses for everyone.

I don’t know if my son’s classmates use it this way, or if it’s just one of those quirks that comes from growing up as the child of two linguists. I haven’t yet heard him use “they” to refer to any immediate family members, or to people who are present. I’ll post an update if I hear anything like that. In the meantime, have you heard this use of “they”?

The Reduction Effect

Last week I talked about how high-frequency words and phrases resist analogical change. This entrenchment happens because analogical change is driven by forgetting, and it’s harder to forget something that you’ve said a lot. In this post I want to talk about a different effect of frequency, the reduction effect, where high-frequency words and phrases get shortened and simplified.

We see reduction in all the words and phrases we say most often. “How are you?” becomes “Hiya” and then “Hi.” “I don’t know” becomes “I dunno” and then something I can’t even write, a single “uh” vowel with a low-high-low tone pattern. “I am going to let you” becomes “I’m gonna let you,” and then, in the speech of Kanye West and Eminem, “amaletchoo.”

A lot of people find these frequency effects confusing. How can high frequency words and phrases be simultaneously the first to change and the last to change? What makes this possible is that they are two different kinds of change. Entrenchment is about forgetting, and the more we do things, the more we remember how to do them. Reduction is about ease, and the more we do things the easier they become.

Times Square Subway Station

Photo: Brian D. Luster / Flickr.


This is like any habit. Because I take the subway to Times Square so frequently, I not only never forget the way, but I do all kinds of things to make it faster and easier. I know where to stand on the platform, where to sit on the train, and when to stand up, so that I get off right by the most convenient staircase.

More importantly, I have a low-level “muscle memory” of the movements involved in the trip. Every time, I climb the stairs the same way, sit down the same way, stand up the same way. It’s the same with unlocking my apartment door or cooking a steak. My movements are all smaller and smoother. I can do a lot of it without thinking.

As with entrenchment, I learned about the Reduction Effect in class with Joan Bybee. In one of her early papers, published in 1976 under the name Joan B. Hooper, she credits Hugo Schuchardt with discovering the relationship. In 1885 (German PDF p. 28 | English translation p. 56), Schuchardt wrote, “What is more natural than making things easier whenever frequency provides the strongest impulse for this and wherever the danger of misunderstanding is least?”

I know I said I’d talk about why it’s not so surprising that we get “snuck.” I’m almost there; I wanted to get this relatively straightforward stuff out of the way first.

Forgetting the infrequent things

I’m pleased that so many people found my last post on forgetting and language change interesting. Ariel Cohen-Goldberg in particular noted this about forgetting:


Cohen-Goldberg is absolutely right, and this stems from forgetting. The more frequently we do something, the more likely we are to do it the same way, without forgetting how. I never forget which train to take to get to Times Square, which way to turn the key in my apartment door, or which spices to use when cooking a steak, because I do all these things on a regular basis.

It is the same with language: I say “I had a pen in my pocket,” and never “I haved.” I always say “there were three children,” and never “three childs.” I say “was he there yesterday?” and never “did he be there yesterday?” This is what Joan Bybee and Sandy Thompson (2000) called the “conserving effect” of frequency, and Ron Langacker (1987) called “entrenchment.”

I learned about entrenchment from Joan Bybee in a course on frequency effects. She discusses it in more detail in her 1995 paper on regular morphology. In her 1985 book, she credits Witold Mańczak (1980), but Mark Aronoff suggests that it may go back to Zipf (1949). I went to check Zipf’s book; someone has it out of the library, but I put in a request for it.

This course in frequency effects actually changed my life. My term paper for the course, on the shift from ne alone to ne … pas in French, provided a good starting point for my dissertation. In section 7.3.2 of my dissertation I look at the entrenchment of high-frequency phrases like je ne sais “I don’t know,” je ne peux “I can’t,” and je n’ose “I daren’t.”

The study of entrenchment has also brought us the Google Ngram Viewer, a tool that linguists feel decidedly ambivalent about. Earlier this month, Elizabeth Weingarten profiled the Ngram Viewer in Slate, particularly its founders, mathematician Erez Lieberman Aiden and biologist Jean-Baptiste Michel.

And that was the question that set Aiden and Jean-Baptiste Michel, another Viewer founding father and co-founder of the Culturomics field, on the path to create such a tool in the first place. Back in 2007, Aiden, Michel, and a crew of undergraduate students decided to test the word evolution hypothesis by tracking irregular verbs over the past 1,000 years. They found 177 that were traceable (for instance, go and went, run and ran), plotted them manually, and discovered that the verbs did undergo a kind of evolutionary process. “The less frequent the verb, the more rapidly it becomes irregular,” Aiden explains. “Our work became this demo of how evolution by natural selection might work in a cultural study.”

In their paper, which came out while I was examining entrenchment in my corpus, Lieberman and his colleagues cited Bybee’s work on entrenchment, but somehow Bybee didn’t make it into Weingarten’s article, just as Mańczak didn’t make it into Lieberman et al.’s paper (or my dissertation), and Zipf (if he did write about it) didn’t make it into Bybee’s book. The main thing: it came from linguists.

Entrenchment is a very important effect, but many people forget to take it into account in their studies. At the 2008 conference of the American Association for Corpus Linguistics I was That Annoying Guy who asked everyone “If you take out this handful of high-frequency items, is there any evidence in your study that the change is still happening?” The other presenters were surprisingly tolerant of these questions.

You may be familiar with another effect of frequency, what Bybee and Thompson call the “reduction effect.” I’ll talk about that in a future post. And I’ll definitely get around to analogy as well. In the meantime, don’t forget to forget your low-frequency verbs!

The power of forgetfulness

Emily Brewster remarked the other day on the emergence and resurgence of irregular verb forms like “snuck,” “dreamt” and “awoke.” Stan Carey calls these forms unusual, and they are less common than innovative regular forms, but they are not surprising if you know the mechanisms underlying morphological change, in particular the role of forgetting and how we use analogy to overcome it.

Third grade class working hard on their art history assignment. Photo: Bliss Chan / Flickr.

Third grade class working hard on their art history assignment. Photo: Bliss Chan / Flickr.


For years, many linguists assumed that all change happened in the imperfect transmission of language from parents to children, because they heard small children produce over-regularized forms like “he keeped running.” In 1982 Joan Bybee and Dan Slobin published “Rules and schemas in the development and use of the English past tense,” but I prefer the title of an earlier version they presented to the ICHL, “Why small children cannot change language on their own.”

Bybee and Slobin asked English-speaking preschoolers, third graders (ages 8-10) and adults to produce past tense forms under time pressure. They found that the preschoolers almost always made errors like “blowed” instead of “blew,” but the third graders and adults hardly ever did. On the other hand, the third graders and adults did create novel irregular forms like “glew” as the past tense of “glow” and “snoze” as the past tense of “snooze.” They concluded that changes like the rise of “snuck” can only be driven by adults and older children.

What was this condition of language change that Slobin recreated in the laboratory? Forgetting. We forget all kinds of things. We forget where we left our keys, we forget where our second cousin is going to college, we forget how to hammer a nail or how to sing “Cielito Lindo.” It shouldn’t surprise us that once in a while we forget the past tense of “dive,” or the plural of “rhinoceros.” We’ve all been there.

So what do you do when you forget? Do you stand there like a moron with your mouth open? Well, yes, we all do sometimes. But after a while, or if you’re thinking quick, you’ll improvise. You’ll think of all the similar things and do something like that. You’ll look in the places you’ve found your keys in the past. You’ll mention another, similar college. You’ll swing the hammer the way you swing a tennis racket or you’ll substitute a word that fits in the song.

That’s what we do with the past tense. We think of how we’ve made the past tense of all the similar verbs and do something like that. We linguists call that analogy.

In researching the title for this post, I discovered that it comes from Nietzsche, of all people. Funny enough, I agree with Nietzsche that cultural change comes from forgetting, but I disagree with him that it needs to be an “active forgetting.” Passive forgetting seems to work just fine.

If you want to find out how analogy leads to “snoze” and “snuck,” you can read Bybee and Slobin’s papers at the links above, or watch this space and I’ll post more about it soon.