Posts Tagged slang

Mother language, slang, grammar, and other driftwood

February 18. That’s when I last posted. And much water has passed under the bridge since then. Mother Language Day, for one, which passed by on 22 February. Not uneventfully, for I got my kid to promise early that morning that he would henceforth speak only his mother language at home.

So I waited eagerly for him after school that day, hallucinating fondly about how he would say “Hi Mom! I’m back!” in his mother language.  I held my breath as he kicked the door open in his usual filmy style. And this is what he said:  “Do you know the opposite of ‘It rocks’?”  My breath froze.  He continued relentlessly, “It’s ‘It sucks'” The breath went into rigor mortis. (The kid often puts me in a spot with his questions, which I’ve written about before, here.)

Quite dispassionately he proceeded to illustrate the expressions (got teaching blood in his veins, does the little man) by listing out things that rock and things that suck (according to him). My breath thawed as I heard me mentioned in  his list of things that rock. As for what else figured on that list, well suffice it to say I wasn’t in very good company. The good company was all in his list of things that suck. The breath vaporized.   

I’m not against slang. In fact, I’m aware that ‘sucks’ is not even considered a swear word in the US where it’s used even by children. 

When Electroluux first marketed their vacuum cleaners in the US, their slogan was, “Nothing sucks like an Electroluux!” Apparently, the Swedish-speaking people who created that slogan didn’t know that in American slang, “suck” also means “to be bad”. (Source) Or maybe they did know, and it was meant to be a joke!!

The origin of this slang use of ‘sucks’ is imitative in nature, according to the OED, and I’m sure it’s obvious what it ‘imitates’, so I won’t mention it. I really don’t think it’s possible to use the word without evoking the reference; even my son giggles when he uses it, though he doesn’t know the actual reference. I hope!

More driftwood that floated by was National Grammar Day in the US on March 4. An occasion that most self-respecting language blogs chose to treat with disdain.  There’s actually a Society for the Protection of Good Grammar (SPOGG); check it out here. Their blog is good fun: http://spogg.org/

My own attitude to grammar is ambivalent; I’m sometimes punctilious and sometimes not.  Nathan  Bierma puts it better than I can in the Chicago Tribune :

I confess: I’m one of those people who cares about the difference between a gerund and a participle, between a restrictive and non-restrictive relative clause. This puts me in a tiny minority of deranged grammatical eccentrics — people you should generally try to avoid.
But most of the time — when we’re among friends, family, or anyone we feel comfortable with — we should simply let our hair down and allow our unpolished emissions of language to burst out of us in all their untidy splendor.

A little schizophrenic  perhaps? Speaking grammar with yourself and English with friends and family. (Read the entire piece here.)

Grammar is not dead in India; perhaps it’s the only thing that’s alive in English classrooms.  Last week a friend called to ask me how I teach my kid the Future Tense. (Apparently this monstrosity was being forced upon his 7-year-old kid in school!) I don’t, I told him. My kid knows how to tell me that he’s going to watch the cricket match on TV tomorrow instead of going to school. That’s all that matters, right?

And the final piece of driftwood before I sail out of this blog – another punctuation mark, the interrobang. Unfortunately, WordPress does not allow me to type it out, so here  it is on Wikipedia; it’s a combination of a question mark and an exclamation mark, with the one superimposed on the other. Similar in function to ?!

What the  . . . ?! I’ll continue to use this, thank you. Don’t we have enough trouble with existing punctuation marks ?! 

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Yo is relieved of sex

Dennis Baron reports the arrival of a new gender-neutral pronoun, Yo.

What’s that? Well, I’ll let you read his explanation: 

Yo is a gender-neutral pronoun because it’s used both for males and females. As the name implies, gender-neutral pronouns are ones which contain no indication of the gender of their referent. In English, all our first and second person pronouns are gender neutral: I, me, my, mine, we, our, ours, you, your, yours. None of these words says anything about sex. Third-person plural pronouns are gender neutral too: they, their, theirs. Get it?

But for some crazy reason, our third person singular pronouns ooze sex: he is masculine; she is feminine; it is neuter (OK, maybe neuter doesn’t ooze sex, but it can dream, right?).

So, instead of the stylistically messy ‘He/She’ or the awkward ‘They’ to refer to humanity in general, you can say Yo.

As in:

  • Always comfort your child when yo cries. 
  • If a writer wants to avoid sexist writing, yo can.

And what’s the source of this politically correct reference to sex? A study gives the credit to teenagers in Baltimore. 

‘Yo’, as I know it, is American slang, a form of greeting among teenagers.  In fact, a quick survey of dictionaries (OED, Webster and Urban ) reveals the following meanings –

  • a contraction of ‘your’ characteristic of Black English: Here’s yo tea.
  • an exclamation/greeting akin to Hey, or even a response to a call:  Yo! wassup?/ Hey, you there? Yo!  

Although the word picked up currency during WW II when it was a common response at roll calls, it is actually older than that. It’s  a Middle English word, dating back to the 15th century! (‘Awesome’ I can almost hear the teenagers, who think they invented it, say.)

Now, am I going to start using a word in a particular way just because a bunch of teenagers in Baltimore do? Not bloody likely!

It’s not about teenagers; I think they’re a creative lot, always fashioning exciting new words. I’m just wondering whether they’re simply misusing/abusing the word. 

Call me rigid if you will, but a new word has a feel of authenticity to it that this one just doesn’t.  It rings hollow. A new word has to be spanking, squeaking new, not just a distortion of an existing one.

And to be sure there have been earlier attempts to forge gender-neutral pronouns:  ne, ip, thon, E, zie, and hiser. Failed words, all of them. There must be a reason methinks.

Could this be the reason – that as long as there is ‘male’ and there is ‘female’ there will be ‘he’ and ‘she’? That if we cannot think neutrally, our pronouns will not be neutral? 

The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. Wittgenstein.  Yo said it.

Slightly off-topic: A friend wrote in to comment on the attempted anonymity of this blog.  (I declare I’m female but refuse to reveal anything else.) “Feminine mystique” he psychoanalyzes it away, leaving me gasping for breath and frothing at the mouth. So anonymity is gender-specific, too!

If  a man were to hide his identity, he probably has professional reasons for it. But if a woman does, then she’s being a coquette, huh? Why does an anonymous female always inspire sexist notions?

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