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?

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.”

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”?

Know your topics

There were a couple of years when I was tremendously confused about pragmatics and information structure. I learned a lot from reading Knud Lambrecht’s 1994 book Information Structure and Sentence Form. And one of the most useful things I learned was that people use the word “topic” to mean several different things, some of which are mutually exclusive.

Here are the words and definitions that Lambrecht used instead of “topic” for these concepts, along with some commentary:

  • topic referent. “A referent is interpreted as the topic of a proposition if in a given situation the proposition is construed as being about this referent.”
  • topic expression (also known as topic NP, topic pronoun, topic phrase, topic constituent). “A constituent is a topic expression if the proposition expressed by the clause with which it is associated is pragmatically construed as being about the referent of this constituent.” Topic expressions are what the speaker/author produces; topic referents are the actual topics that the topic expressions refer to.
  • topic-announcing expression. An expression used to announce a topic shift or promote a referent to topic status. Topic expressions simply signal what the sentence is about, while topic-announcing expressions mark a change in the topic referent.
  • subject. A syntactic role describing an argument of a verb, often referring to the agent of an action. “Subjects are unmarked topics.” In traditional rhetoric, subject (also called psychological subject) meant something very similar to Lambrecht’s topic referent: “The thing which the proposition expressed by the sentence is about.”
  • agent. A semantic role describing an active participant in an action. Agents are often topic referents.
  • theme. The element which comes first in the sentence. A Prague School term, which is also called “topic” by some. Lambrecht’s topic expressions often come first in a sentence.
  • old information. Presupposed propositions. All topic referents must be in the presupposition, but not all referents in the presupposition are topics.
  • topicalization (also called fronting). A syntactic construction where a noun phrase that is normally integrated into the argument structure of a sentence instead appears at the beginning of the sentence, before the subject. Often used as a topic-announcing expression, but also for contrastive focus.
  • left-dislocation (also called left-detachment). Like topicalization, but with a coreferential pronoun integrated into the sentence. Often used as a topic-announcing expression, but also for contrastive focus.
  • “Chinese-style” topic. Where the normal sentence structure has a place for topic-announcing constituents that are not necessarily arguments of the verb. Lambrecht’s topic expressions include these and others.
  • discourse topic. What the entire discourse is about. Lambrecht’s topic referent typically covers only a particular sentence, not the entire discourse.
  • topic/comment. One of Lambrecht’s possible sentence types, discussed in more detail in Chapter 5. Necessarily includes a topic expression.
  • antitopic (also called right-dislocation and right-detachment). A construction similar to left-dislocation, but where the noun phrase appears at the end of the sentence. Lambrecht analyzes antitopics as unaccented topic-announcing expressions.
  • contrastive topic. A construction that contrasts two propositions based on their topic referents. Typically has two accented topic expressions.
  • focus. “The semantic component of a pragmatically structured proposition whereby the assertion differs from the presupposition.” Topic expressions and focus expressions are both sometimes accented, and it’s hard to tell whether a particular accented constituent is a topic expression or a focus expression.

Hope this helps!