The Wide World of Language Diversity

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Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Hello. I’m Nicole Holliday, linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ben Zimmer: And I’m Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: And this is spectacular vernacular, a podcast where we not only explore language.

Ben Zimmer: We also play with it.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: This week, our special guest is Alison Waller, a journalist who wrote an award winning article for The New York Times about how black American Sign language has flourished online, especially on TikTok.

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Ben Zimmer: And we’re going to try to stump a listener with a wordplay quiz that has an improv comedy theme. So, Nicole, the new academic year is underway. How are things going at Penn, where you teach?

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Yeah, it’s great. It’s nice to see students again in 3-D after seeing them only in 2D last year. I have some amazing research assistants that are working on a big project that I’ve got going, and one of them was transcribing some files for me and I don’t want to put her on blast, but she’s from Philly and she said to tell me that she had completed what I had asked her to do. She said, I’m done. The files and my linguist, my social linguist heart just exploded. And I didn’t say anything to her because I found out that when you point out people’s regional features in real conversation, sometimes it makes them feel awkward. But I just started in my brain that like, she has Philadelphia features.

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Ben Zimmer: Yeah I’m done the files that that is definitely a Philly thing to say. And it’s funny when people think about dialects of English, they usually just focus on differences in accents or word choice. But regional variations in grammar like that, they often fly under the radar. And I think saying something like, I’m done the files, that’s a good example of a grammatical construction that’s totally natural for some speakers, but strikes others as pretty unusual.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Right. It really stuck out to me because I’m from central Ohio and that is not a thing that we have there. But there’s a great website for exploring North American English syntax in all of its variety. The site comes from the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, and it’s got pages on all sorts of phenomena. So there’s a page on multiple models like I might could do that, which is something you maybe hear more often in the South. Also an African American, English and a page on positive any more. So people in my family say this, but I don’t say this. You get a construction like gas is expensive anymore.

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Ben Zimmer: Yeah. And that Yale site also has a page for that Philly style construction. I’m done. Plus a noun or a noun phrase, and the page is really informative. So the Yale site, they call it the done my homework construction because I’m done my homework is a common form of it. And it turns out it’s found not just in the Philadelphia region, Philly and South Jersey and Delaware, for instance, but also other places like Canada and Vermont.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Yeah, a few linguists have looked into this and they’ve come up with some interesting findings. So for the verb, it turns out it only really works with I’m done something or I’m finished something. Though some speakers in Vermont evidently can say something like I’m started something.

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Ben Zimmer: It might seem like people who say I’m done my homework, they’re just shortening. I’m done with my homework. That might be one theory that this is just kind of a shortened or elliptical way of saying, I’m done with my homework. But there’s a paper by a couple of linguists, Joseph FRIEDWALD and Neal Miller, that shows it doesn’t really work that way because those two constructions I’m done my homework and I’m done with my homework. They actually have different grammatical patterns and they have different interpretations, too, right?

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: So when my research assistant said, I’m done the files, that meant that she had completed working on the files. But in the Philly dialect, I’m done with the files could mean something else. It could just mean that the person is finished using the files rather than completing the task.

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Ben Zimmer: Yeah.

Ben Zimmer: Nicole, when you first mentioned to me what your R.A. said, I actually went looking for examples of this, done my homework construction online, and I found a nice example of people arguing over whether it’s grammatical or not. It’s from a Facebook Live video from earlier this year that was posted by a TV meteorologist named Britney Trumpy. And she’s originally from outside of Philadelphia in southern New Jersey. But when she made the video, she was working at a TV station in South Carolina and her coworkers give her some grief. You can hear the station’s news anchor, Patsy Kelly, who’s from Indiana.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: During the show today, I was saying that it’s so nice out that when I get done work, I’m going to the beach.

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Speaker 3: Patsy What is wrong with that?

Speaker 4: Well, ordinarily normal.

Speaker 3: People would say.

Speaker 4: When I’m finished at work or when I’m done with work or when I’m done at work or when I’m done working. But she skips all of that. She just says, when I’m done work.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: I want to know if maybe it’s a regional.

Speaker 3: Thing, because I swear I can hear my mom say, yeah, when I’m done.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Work, I’ll be over. Well, Brittany, it is indeed a regional thing. Friend of the show, Cory Stamper, talks about this, too, in her great book, Word by Word The Secret Life of Dictionaries. Corey, is it from the Philly region originally, but she’s lived in South Jersey with her family for many years. In the book, she says that even though she was trained to be a careful, non-judgemental, descriptive, good linguist when she worked as a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, she still reacted negatively when she heard her daughter say, I’ve done my homework.

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Ben Zimmer: Corey admits that she was concerned that if people heard her daughter say, I’m done my homework, they’d think she wasn’t smart just because she had picked up on this regional grammatical construction that’s considered non-standard.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Oh, breaks my heart because I love regional variation, but we invest so much ideological power into the idea of this invented, quote unquote standard language that anything that diverge from the mythical standard ideal is often treated as lacking intelligence or education.

Ben Zimmer: But let’s instead embrace linguistic diversity. That’s what we’re all about here at spectacular vernacular. And when we come back, we’ll find out about how dialect diversity isn’t just restricted to spoken languages. It’s true of sign languages as well. So stay tuned for our interview with Allyson Waller about Black American Sign Language and how it’s getting new exposure online.

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Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Welcome back to spectacular vernacular. Our guest today is Allyson Waller, a journalist at the Texas Tribune who has recently written about Black American Sign Language Online. Welcome, Allison.

Speaker 5: Hi. Thank you for having me.

Ben Zimmer: Well, it’s really great to have you with us, Allison. So you were recently awarded the prestigious Linguistics Journalism Award from the Linguistics Society of America for your piece for the New York Times earlier this year. And the headline was Black Death and Extremely Online. So for those who may be unfamiliar, could you give us a little background on the piece and what inspired you to write it?

Speaker 5: Like many people during this pandemic, I was really plugged into tech talk and also I was already very plugged into Twitter. And so just based on the people I follow and my free page videos started popping up related to this specific TikTok user by the name of Nakia Smith, who is deaf and was, you know, posting videos with her family members about the history of Black American Sign Language. I know Netflix. They had posted a video on their YouTube channel about, you know, Nakia and her journey. And I’d come across that. And then I just started following her TikTok account.

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Speaker 5: From there, I was very interested kind of in the history that she was explaining. I’m very plugged into black history, of course, here in the United States. And so just kind of based on, you know, seeing her story and hearing her story, I just really wanted to kind of delve a little deeper into, you know, this specific dialect, that one I never really had learned about before. And to just to, like, expose more people to, you know, there is there’s variations in language beyond just, you know, the spoken language.

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Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: And in the piece, you mentioned that although spoken African-American English has been studied extensively by researchers, but also sort of is part of the conversation online as well. Black ASL remains under described. Can you tell us some of the reasons for that and what effects you think it has on the community? Just the idea that it’s not super well understood.

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Speaker 5: There’s a history of racism and the history of segregation and a lot of times there’s not a lot of deep dives into how that forms the languages and the dialects that are formed today. Also, the population of those that use black ASL is considerably small. It’s just been really hard to get, I guess more eyes and more ears and more people reading into, you know, the importance of this dialect.

Ben Zimmer: So you mentioned Nakia Smith, who I think has 400,000 followers on Tik Tok, if I’m not mistaken.

Speaker 5: Yes.

Ben Zimmer: So you talk to her and I think also other tiktokers who are doing the work of highlighting black ASL. Can you tell us more about Nakia?

Speaker 5: So Nakia was definitely someone I feel like anchored the piece. She comes from multiple generations of deaf people and you know, in her family there have been times where she’s had to help her grandparents or great grandparents in situations where it comes, you know, translating things for them. And she’s taken notice as to how the different ways that they sign are even different in the ways that she signs and different than the way other American Sign Language users sign.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: So some of my research deals with a spoken African-American English. I met socio linguist, but I’ll admit that I also don’t know very much about black ASL. Can you tell us about some of the main differences between black ASL and of so-called mainstream ASL?

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Speaker 5: Some of the main things are, you know, black cell users. They may tend to use more two handed signs and one handed signs. They can sometimes play signs around more of the the forehead area rather than their lower body. And they tend to sometimes emote more and also use a more larger signing space. And also to their is just how it is in spoken African-American English, there are certain words that mean certain different things and that are signs differently.

Speaker 5: So for instance, the black ASL sign for tight meaning like, Oh, that’s cool. So someone says like, you know, they see someone wearing a nice shirt and says, Oh, that’s really tight. It’s not the same as a, you know, conceptual sign for what type is. So it’s definitely you see those same differences that you see in spoken African-American American English that you see that you see in black ASL. And a lot of times, too, there’s similarities in the sense that, you know, black ASL signers, they are having to code switch in the way that they sign, just like how people code switch. When it comes to, you know, speaking African-American English, they may say different things or sound differently depending on the situations that they’re in.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: I also saw this documentary signing Black in America, which was made by the North Carolina Language and Life Project at North Carolina State University. And I was struck by this clip in particular, which features. Andrea Sonnier, a black ASL user, talking about her language and we hear her via an interpreter.

Speaker 3: Growing up, I knew how we communicated using fine, but we didn’t know. What we did naturally was considered a language. But when I first saw the term black ASL, I thought, it’s like Ebonics. We use the bombings within the black deaf community. We have our own version of Ebonics.

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Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: So she uses the term Ebonics, which is a portmanteau of ebony and phonics, a combined word. But that’s kind of fallen out of favor with socio linguists and the public. So people will say now African American English or African American vernacular English. But the point that she is making is kind of, as you said, Allison, that she sees these parallels between black ASL and spoken African American English. And I think that’s awesome. Right?

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: So the first time that I was learning about Black ASL was actually I talked to the people that were making this documentary. And the first thing that somebody told me was, Oh, they use a larger signing space, which is what you had mentioned. And I study intonation. And so I was like, Oh my God, it is intonation. They’re doing more variability in the way they move their voice up and down. And that is the parallel to the signing space being a little bit larger. So I think those parallels are really interesting and probably speak to the contact between black ASL and spoken Amy over time.

Speaker 5: Yeah, I would definitely, definitely agree with that.

Ben Zimmer: So Allison, you mentioned that black ASL developed as a distinct dialect of sign language because of this history of segregation. Could you tell us a bit more about what you learned about the whole history and origins of black ASL.

Speaker 5: After the Civil War? And according to research from Black ASL project team at Gallaudet University that I talked to, there are about, you know, 17 states and the District of Columbia that had black deaf institutions or departments. Many of them were of course, segregated from white institutions. And so really at white institutions, there was an emphasis on more oralism, auditory speaking and lip reading. So not so much focus on sign language, actually. You know, Oralism was thought as something more superior. And so of course, unfortunately, black institutions, they were not given, of course, the same attention when it came to Oralism. So they really had to find a different way of communicating. And so, you know, sign language became that way of communicating these black institutions. A lot of times they focus on sign language and more vocational training. So through all of that, there were able to, you know, come up with this specific dialect.

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Speaker 5: And so it wasn’t until, of course, you know, around the 1950s and things like that, integration started and you start seeing, you know, more black students being integrated into these white deaf schools. And when I was speaking with Dr. Carolyn McCaskill from Gallaudet University, she told me about, you know, her experience as someone that, you know, attended a school in Alabama specifically for black children and was later integrated into Alabama’s White School for the Deaf. And how she had realized when she first got there that people definitely did sign different than her. And it was something she had to get used to and kind of learn how to fit into this new environment.

Ben Zimmer: It’s fascinating. Well, Allison, thank you so much for joining us today.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: We really appreciate having you. Thank so much.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: And after the break, it’s time for some Wordplay. Welcome back. Now it’s the time in the show where we play with language.

Ben Zimmer: And as usual, we’re bringing on a listener to join in the fun. And for our Wordplay Quiz this time, we’re joined by Ben Snitkoff, coming to us from the Boston area.

Speaker 6: Welcome, Ben. Thank you.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: So I understand you’re an attorney by day, but you’ve also been quite active in the improv comedy scene up there in Boston, right?

Speaker 6: Yeah, that’s correct. I performed with Improv Boston for almost 12 years before the pandemic shut everything down.

Ben Zimmer: And I learned that we have an interesting connection besides just having the same first name. We have a mutual friend, Steve Klein Adler, a lexicographer who was formerly the executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, who you’ve performed with in the Boston Improv comedy scene. Is that right?

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Speaker 6: Yeah, I performed with him for several years in a team at Improv Boston. He taught one of my first improv classes, and when I was becoming a teacher, I was a TA under him for one of the first classes that I was leading as a teacher myself.

Ben Zimmer: And Steve has a very interesting tattoo on his back. It’s a vowel chart, right, of valid chart showing all the English vowels using the international phonetic alphabet.

Speaker 6: He does, yeah. And I took a picture of that for your brother’s book, Science Ink, which is a wonderful book. If anyone has seen it, it is just filled with great tattoos of or relating to the sciences.

Ben Zimmer: Yes, my brother’s name is Carl Zimmer. He’s a science writer. And one of his books is this book, Science Ink with tattoos of people getting science related tattoos. And so Steve’s tattoo, which was photographs by Ben Snitkoff, is in that book.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Oh, I didn’t even know. I always wondered if there was someone with APA tattoos and I considered getting some myself. But I just have a I have a babble fish from Hitchhiker’s to the Guide Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. So if your brother ever makes another book, then tell him to hit me up. Okay, so other Ben player.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Ben, since you’re big into improv, could you explain what yes and means?

Speaker 6: Oh, yeah. So one of the tenets of improv is to accept what your partner is offering you and to build on that. So to take their idea accepted by saying yes and then build on it to help create a more detailed scene, a more in-depth universe for you to to play in and for the audience to watch.

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Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Well, we’re going to do some improv with you, and we hope you will. Yes. And our suggestions. Here’s how it works. We’ll give you clues for two words. The shorter word can be made into the longer word by phonetically adding a foreign word for yes to the beginning. If that sounds tough, don’t worry. We can spot you the language of the yes word if you need a little assistance.

Speaker 6: Okay.

Ben Zimmer: Okay. So here is your first example. There is a word that’s used for a famous time traveling doctor. Add a foreign word for yes to the beginning. And it sounds like a shout. That’s also the name of a popular web portal.

Speaker 6: Okay. Okay. Okay. I got it now. I see how this works. I was, uh.

Ben Zimmer: Yeah. I mean, you don’t even need to know the language. You figured it out without the extra hint.

Speaker 6: That’s great. I have. Yeah. Excellent. First I timed time, Lord, but that didn’t work. I believe it is. Yahoo!

Ben Zimmer: That’s right. So, yeah. In what language would you say that is?

Speaker 6: That would be German.

Ben Zimmer: The German word for yes is yeah. Plus Hu equals Yahoo! You got it. Good job.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Good job. Here’s another one. We’re looking for a word that could refer to a shaving mishap or a jolly old saint. Add a foreign yes word to the beginning. And it sounds like a word describing a picturesque view.

Ben Zimmer: Do you need the language for this one?

Speaker 6: Yeah, I think so.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Spanish or Italian will help you here.

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Speaker 6: Oh, okay. Okay. I got it. I was going with the Russian and Japanese first, but those were not helping. Okay, so I believe this is C Nick. Nick is a Sunday shaving mishap and C is Spanish for gas.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Or that famous Christmas dude, right?

Speaker 6: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Ben Zimmer: Well done. Well done. Okay.

Ben Zimmer: Next up, we’re looking for a word for uncertainty. That’s also the title of an award winning play and movie that takes place at a Catholic school at a foreign word for yes to the beginning. And it sounds like a secret place for bandits.

Speaker 3: Now.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Hello. I’m Nicole Holliday, linguistics professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Ben Zimmer: And I’m Ben Zimmer, language columnist for The Wall Street Journal.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: And this is spectacular vernacular, a podcast where we not only explore language.

Ben Zimmer: We also play with it.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: This week, our special guest is Alison Waller, a journalist who wrote an award winning article for The New York Times about how black American Sign language has flourished online, especially on TikTok.

Ben Zimmer: And we’re going to try to stump a listener with a wordplay quiz that has an improv comedy theme. So, Nicole, the new academic year is underway. How are things going at Penn, where you teach?

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Yeah, it’s great. It’s nice to see students again in 3-D after seeing them only in 2D last year. I have some amazing research assistants that are working on a big project that I’ve got going, and one of them was transcribing some files for me and I don’t want to put her on blast, but she’s from Philly and she said to tell me that she had completed what I had asked her to do. She said, I’m done. The files and my linguist, my social linguist heart just exploded. And I didn’t say anything to her because I found out that when you point out people’s regional features in real conversation, sometimes it makes them feel awkward. But I just started in my brain that like, she has Philadelphia features.

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Ben Zimmer: Yeah I’m done the files that that is definitely a Philly thing to say. And it’s funny when people think about dialects of English, they usually just focus on differences in accents or word choice. But regional variations in grammar like that, they often fly under the radar. And I think saying something like, I’m done the files, that’s a good example of a grammatical construction that’s totally natural for some speakers, but strikes others as pretty unusual.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Right. It really stuck out to me because I’m from central Ohio and that is not a thing that we have there. But there’s a great website for exploring North American English syntax in all of its variety. The site comes from the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, and it’s got pages on all sorts of phenomena. So there’s a page on multiple models like I might could do that, which is something you maybe hear more often in the South. Also an African American, English and a page on positive any more. So people in my family say this, but I don’t say this. You get a construction like gas is expensive anymore.

Ben Zimmer: Yeah. And that Yale site also has a page for that Philly style construction. I’m done. Plus a noun or a noun phrase, and the page is really informative. So the Yale site, they call it the done my homework construction because I’m done my homework is a common form of it. And it turns out it’s found not just in the Philadelphia region, Philly and South Jersey and Delaware, for instance, but also other places like Canada and Vermont.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Yeah, a few linguists have looked into this and they’ve come up with some interesting findings. So for the verb, it turns out it only really works with I’m done something or I’m finished something. Though some speakers in Vermont evidently can say something like I’m started something.

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Ben Zimmer: It might seem like people who say I’m done my homework, they’re just shortening. I’m done with my homework. That might be one theory that this is just kind of a shortened or elliptical way of saying, I’m done with my homework. But there’s a paper by a couple of linguists, Joseph FRIEDWALD and Neal Miller, that shows it doesn’t really work that way because those two constructions I’m done my homework and I’m done with my homework. They actually have different grammatical patterns and they have different interpretations, too, right?

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: So when my research assistant said, I’m done the files, that meant that she had completed working on the files. But in the Philly dialect, I’m done with the files could mean something else. It could just mean that the person is finished using the files rather than completing the task.

Ben Zimmer: Yeah.

Ben Zimmer: Nicole, when you first mentioned to me what your R.A. said, I actually went looking for examples of this, done my homework construction online, and I found a nice example of people arguing over whether it’s grammatical or not. It’s from a Facebook Live video from earlier this year that was posted by a TV meteorologist named Britney Trumpy. And she’s originally from outside of Philadelphia in southern New Jersey. But when she made the video, she was working at a TV station in South Carolina and her coworkers give her some grief. You can hear the station’s news anchor, Patsy Kelly, who’s from Indiana.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: During the show today, I was saying that it’s so nice out that when I get done work, I’m going to the beach.

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Speaker 3: Patsy What is wrong with that?

Speaker 4: Well, ordinarily normal.

Speaker 3: People would say.

Speaker 4: When I’m finished at work or when I’m done with work or when I’m done at work or when I’m done working. But she skips all of that. She just says, when I’m done work.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: I want to know if maybe it’s a regional.

Speaker 3: Thing, because I swear I can hear my mom say, yeah, when I’m done.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Work, I’ll be over. Well, Brittany, it is indeed a regional thing. Friend of the show, Cory Stamper, talks about this, too, in her great book, Word by Word The Secret Life of Dictionaries. Corey, is it from the Philly region originally, but she’s lived in South Jersey with her family for many years. In the book, she says that even though she was trained to be a careful, non-judgemental, descriptive, good linguist when she worked as a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, she still reacted negatively when she heard her daughter say, I’ve done my homework.

Ben Zimmer: Corey admits that she was concerned that if people heard her daughter say, I’m done my homework, they’d think she wasn’t smart just because she had picked up on this regional grammatical construction that’s considered non-standard.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Oh, breaks my heart because I love regional variation, but we invest so much ideological power into the idea of this invented, quote unquote standard language that anything that diverge from the mythical standard ideal is often treated as lacking intelligence or education.

Ben Zimmer: But let’s instead embrace linguistic diversity. That’s what we’re all about here at spectacular vernacular. And when we come back, we’ll find out about how dialect diversity isn’t just restricted to spoken languages. It’s true of sign languages as well. So stay tuned for our interview with Allyson Waller about Black American Sign Language and how it’s getting new exposure online.

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Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Welcome back to spectacular vernacular. Our guest today is Allyson Waller, a journalist at the Texas Tribune who has recently written about Black American Sign Language Online. Welcome, Allison.

Speaker 5: Hi. Thank you for having me.

Ben Zimmer: Well, it’s really great to have you with us, Allison. So you were recently awarded the prestigious Linguistics Journalism Award from the Linguistics Society of America for your piece for the New York Times earlier this year. And the headline was Black Death and Extremely Online. So for those who may be unfamiliar, could you give us a little background on the piece and what inspired you to write it?

Speaker 5: Like many people during this pandemic, I was really plugged into tech talk and also I was already very plugged into Twitter. And so just based on the people I follow and my free page videos started popping up related to this specific TikTok user by the name of Nakia Smith, who is deaf and was, you know, posting videos with her family members about the history of Black American Sign Language. I know Netflix. They had posted a video on their YouTube channel about, you know, Nakia and her journey. And I’d come across that. And then I just started following her TikTok account.

Speaker 5: From there, I was very interested kind of in the history that she was explaining. I’m very plugged into black history, of course, here in the United States. And so just kind of based on, you know, seeing her story and hearing her story, I just really wanted to kind of delve a little deeper into, you know, this specific dialect, that one I never really had learned about before. And to just to, like, expose more people to, you know, there is there’s variations in language beyond just, you know, the spoken language.

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Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: And in the piece, you mentioned that although spoken African-American English has been studied extensively by researchers, but also sort of is part of the conversation online as well. Black ASL remains under described. Can you tell us some of the reasons for that and what effects you think it has on the community? Just the idea that it’s not super well understood.

Speaker 5: There’s a history of racism and the history of segregation and a lot of times there’s not a lot of deep dives into how that forms the languages and the dialects that are formed today. Also, the population of those that use black ASL is considerably small. It’s just been really hard to get, I guess more eyes and more ears and more people reading into, you know, the importance of this dialect.

Ben Zimmer: So you mentioned Nakia Smith, who I think has 400,000 followers on Tik Tok, if I’m not mistaken.

Speaker 5: Yes.

Ben Zimmer: So you talk to her and I think also other tiktokers who are doing the work of highlighting black ASL. Can you tell us more about Nakia?

Speaker 5: So Nakia was definitely someone I feel like anchored the piece. She comes from multiple generations of deaf people and you know, in her family there have been times where she’s had to help her grandparents or great grandparents in situations where it comes, you know, translating things for them. And she’s taken notice as to how the different ways that they sign are even different in the ways that she signs and different than the way other American Sign Language users sign.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: So some of my research deals with a spoken African-American English. I met socio linguist, but I’ll admit that I also don’t know very much about black ASL. Can you tell us about some of the main differences between black ASL and of so-called mainstream ASL?

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Speaker 5: Some of the main things are, you know, black cell users. They may tend to use more two handed signs and one handed signs. They can sometimes play signs around more of the the forehead area rather than their lower body. And they tend to sometimes emote more and also use a more larger signing space. And also to their is just how it is in spoken African-American English, there are certain words that mean certain different things and that are signs differently.

Speaker 5: So for instance, the black ASL sign for tight meaning like, Oh, that’s cool. So someone says like, you know, they see someone wearing a nice shirt and says, Oh, that’s really tight. It’s not the same as a, you know, conceptual sign for what type is. So it’s definitely you see those same differences that you see in spoken African-American American English that you see that you see in black ASL. And a lot of times, too, there’s similarities in the sense that, you know, black ASL signers, they are having to code switch in the way that they sign, just like how people code switch. When it comes to, you know, speaking African-American English, they may say different things or sound differently depending on the situations that they’re in.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: I also saw this documentary signing Black in America, which was made by the North Carolina Language and Life Project at North Carolina State University. And I was struck by this clip in particular, which features. Andrea Sonnier, a black ASL user, talking about her language and we hear her via an interpreter.

Speaker 3: Growing up, I knew how we communicated using fine, but we didn’t know. What we did naturally was considered a language. But when I first saw the term black ASL, I thought, it’s like Ebonics. We use the bombings within the black deaf community. We have our own version of Ebonics.

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Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: So she uses the term Ebonics, which is a portmanteau of ebony and phonics, a combined word. But that’s kind of fallen out of favor with socio linguists and the public. So people will say now African American English or African American vernacular English. But the point that she is making is kind of, as you said, Allison, that she sees these parallels between black ASL and spoken African American English. And I think that’s awesome. Right?

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: So the first time that I was learning about Black ASL was actually I talked to the people that were making this documentary. And the first thing that somebody told me was, Oh, they use a larger signing space, which is what you had mentioned. And I study intonation. And so I was like, Oh my God, it is intonation. They’re doing more variability in the way they move their voice up and down. And that is the parallel to the signing space being a little bit larger. So I think those parallels are really interesting and probably speak to the contact between black ASL and spoken Amy over time.

Speaker 5: Yeah, I would definitely, definitely agree with that.

Ben Zimmer: So Allison, you mentioned that black ASL developed as a distinct dialect of sign language because of this history of segregation. Could you tell us a bit more about what you learned about the whole history and origins of black ASL.

Speaker 5: After the Civil War? And according to research from Black ASL project team at Gallaudet University that I talked to, there are about, you know, 17 states and the District of Columbia that had black deaf institutions or departments. Many of them were of course, segregated from white institutions. And so really at white institutions, there was an emphasis on more oralism, auditory speaking and lip reading. So not so much focus on sign language, actually. You know, Oralism was thought as something more superior. And so of course, unfortunately, black institutions, they were not given, of course, the same attention when it came to Oralism. So they really had to find a different way of communicating. And so, you know, sign language became that way of communicating these black institutions. A lot of times they focus on sign language and more vocational training. So through all of that, there were able to, you know, come up with this specific dialect.

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Speaker 5: And so it wasn’t until, of course, you know, around the 1950s and things like that, integration started and you start seeing, you know, more black students being integrated into these white deaf schools. And when I was speaking with Dr. Carolyn McCaskill from Gallaudet University, she told me about, you know, her experience as someone that, you know, attended a school in Alabama specifically for black children and was later integrated into Alabama’s White School for the Deaf. And how she had realized when she first got there that people definitely did sign different than her. And it was something she had to get used to and kind of learn how to fit into this new environment.

Ben Zimmer: It’s fascinating. Well, Allison, thank you so much for joining us today.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: We really appreciate having you. Thank so much.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: And after the break, it’s time for some Wordplay. Welcome back. Now it’s the time in the show where we play with language.

Ben Zimmer: And as usual, we’re bringing on a listener to join in the fun. And for our Wordplay Quiz this time, we’re joined by Ben Snitkoff, coming to us from the Boston area.

Speaker 6: Welcome, Ben. Thank you.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: So I understand you’re an attorney by day, but you’ve also been quite active in the improv comedy scene up there in Boston, right?

Speaker 6: Yeah, that’s correct. I performed with Improv Boston for almost 12 years before the pandemic shut everything down.

Ben Zimmer: And I learned that we have an interesting connection besides just having the same first name. We have a mutual friend, Steve Klein Adler, a lexicographer who was formerly the executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, who you’ve performed with in the Boston Improv comedy scene. Is that right?

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Speaker 6: Yeah, I performed with him for several years in a team at Improv Boston. He taught one of my first improv classes, and when I was becoming a teacher, I was a TA under him for one of the first classes that I was leading as a teacher myself.

Ben Zimmer: And Steve has a very interesting tattoo on his back. It’s a vowel chart, right, of valid chart showing all the English vowels using the international phonetic alphabet.

Speaker 6: He does, yeah. And I took a picture of that for your brother’s book, Science Ink, which is a wonderful book. If anyone has seen it, it is just filled with great tattoos of or relating to the sciences.

Ben Zimmer: Yes, my brother’s name is Carl Zimmer. He’s a science writer. And one of his books is this book, Science Ink with tattoos of people getting science related tattoos. And so Steve’s tattoo, which was photographs by Ben Snitkoff, is in that book.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Oh, I didn’t even know. I always wondered if there was someone with APA tattoos and I considered getting some myself. But I just have a I have a babble fish from Hitchhiker’s to the Guide Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. So if your brother ever makes another book, then tell him to hit me up. Okay, so other Ben player.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Ben, since you’re big into improv, could you explain what yes and means?

Speaker 6: Oh, yeah. So one of the tenets of improv is to accept what your partner is offering you and to build on that. So to take their idea accepted by saying yes and then build on it to help create a more detailed scene, a more in-depth universe for you to to play in and for the audience to watch.

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Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Well, we’re going to do some improv with you, and we hope you will. Yes. And our suggestions. Here’s how it works. We’ll give you clues for two words. The shorter word can be made into the longer word by phonetically adding a foreign word for yes to the beginning. If that sounds tough, don’t worry. We can spot you the language of the yes word if you need a little assistance.

Speaker 6: Okay.

Ben Zimmer: Okay. So here is your first example. There is a word that’s used for a famous time traveling doctor. Add a foreign word for yes to the beginning. And it sounds like a shout. That’s also the name of a popular web portal.

Speaker 6: Okay. Okay. Okay. I got it now. I see how this works. I was, uh.

Ben Zimmer: Yeah. I mean, you don’t even need to know the language. You figured it out without the extra hint.

Speaker 6: That’s great. I have. Yeah. Excellent. First I timed time, Lord, but that didn’t work. I believe it is. Yahoo!

Ben Zimmer: That’s right. So, yeah. In what language would you say that is?

Speaker 6: That would be German.

Ben Zimmer: The German word for yes is yeah. Plus Hu equals Yahoo! You got it. Good job.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Good job. Here’s another one. We’re looking for a word that could refer to a shaving mishap or a jolly old saint. Add a foreign yes word to the beginning. And it sounds like a word describing a picturesque view.

Ben Zimmer: Do you need the language for this one?

Speaker 6: Yeah, I think so.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Spanish or Italian will help you here.

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Speaker 6: Oh, okay. Okay. I got it. I was going with the Russian and Japanese first, but those were not helping. Okay, so I believe this is C Nick. Nick is a Sunday shaving mishap and C is Spanish for gas.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Or that famous Christmas dude, right?

Speaker 6: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Ben Zimmer: Well done. Well done. Okay.

Ben Zimmer: Next up, we’re looking for a word for uncertainty. That’s also the title of an award winning play and movie that takes place at a Catholic school at a foreign word for yes to the beginning. And it sounds like a secret place for bandits.

Speaker 3: Now.

Speaker 6: Okay. I think I’ve got this one.

Ben Zimmer: Wow. Again, you don’t even need the test to tell you the language.

Speaker 6: That no.

Ben Zimmer: Getting these without him.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: I think this one is hard.

Speaker 6: Yeah. It helps that one of my languages that I am a little proficient in is Japanese, as I. As I was mentioning just a second ago.

Ben Zimmer: Excellent. Yes. Japanese is the right way to go with this one. So what do you have to.

Speaker 6: Hide out so high is Japanese for? Yes. And doubt is the award winning film with Meryl Streep.

Ben Zimmer: Right? Fantastic.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Wow, you’re doing great. Really knocking it out of the park. Thank you. We’ve got one more for you. We’re looking for a word, phrase, static electricity problem that may affect your laundry at a foreign. Yes. Word to the beginning. And it sounds like someone lacking strength or courage now.

Speaker 6: I’ve got the static electricity problem. I may need another second before I ask for the hint though.

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Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Okay. Let us know.

Speaker 6: Personal linking, lacking strength or courage. Yeah, I think I need a hint.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: The yes word is French. Oh.

Speaker 6: Weakling.

Ben Zimmer: Oh.

Speaker 6: Yes, that is brutal. So we use the French for. Yes. And then killing is static electricity problem.

Ben Zimmer: Exactly. We plus cling equals weakling. And you were no weakling on that quiz. I have to say, you did an amazing job.

Speaker 6: Thanks to all of that.

Ben Zimmer: And now we have a final challenge for all the listeners. Instead of a foreign word, we’re looking for something a sailor might say for yes. Add that to the name of a horror movie franchise and you’ll get the name of a cool treat. Think you’ve got it.

Ben Zimmer: Send your answer to us at Spectacular at Slate.com with Quiz in the subject line of your email from the correct entries while randomly selected winner who will receive a slate plus membership for one year. Or if you’re already a Slate Plus member, you’ll get a one year extension on your subscription and we may bring you on the show to face a new Wordplay challenge. And once again, we are looking for a sailor’s word for, yes, a horror movie franchise and the name of a cool treat. Please send your answer to this spectacular at Slate.com with quiz in the subject line by midnight Eastern Time on October 6th. And thank you to Neville Fogarty and Jeremy Horowitz, my colleagues at Beyond Wordplay, for their help in coming up with this week’s quiz.

Ben Zimmer: We’re very pleased to announce the winner of the contest from our September 14th episode. Jon Miller of Rhode Island figured out that the Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher who best fits the double Dutch theme is Bert Blyleven. He was born in the Netherlands, and of course his name is Alliterative, like Double Dutch. Some of you had other guesses like Goose Gossage or Don Drysdale, but neither of them has Dutch roots like Bert Blyleven, whose nickname is actually the Dutchman. So congratulations to John Miller for figuring that out.

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Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: Thanks to Ben Snitkoff for joining us. That’s it for this week. We hope you’ve enjoyed the show. If you have, remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. If you’re subscribing on Apple Podcasts, please read and review us while you’re there. It helps other listeners find the show and please consider subscribing to Slate Plus Slate Plus members get benefits like full access to all the articles on Slate.com, zero ads on any Slate podcast, and bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and one Year. It’s only $1 for the first month. To learn more, go to Slate.com Slash Spectacular Plus.

Ben Zimmer: And thanks again to Allison Waller for being our guest this week.

Ben Zimmer: Spectacular Vernacular is produced by Jasmine Ellis. June Thomas is senior managing producer and Gabriel Roth is editorial director for Slate Podcasts.

Nicole Holliday, Nicole Holiday: We’ll be back in two weeks with more spectacular vernacular. Thanks for listening.