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12 January 2008

If Anyone Wants to Delurk Yo Should

Two titbits (why do Americans insist on calling these "tidbits"? Is it that puritan prudishness?) of linguistics chat this week:

1. Grammar Girl, to whom I defer in many of my questions of linguistic pedantry, reports on a study of a group of kids in Baltimore who have created their own third-person, gender-neutral pronoun: yo. The abstract gives the example:

Yo handin' out papers - "She (the teacher) is handing out papers"

Sadly, I can't check out many more details but it just goes to show how rapidly linguistic innovations can spread through a speech community, particularly when the FUDGE factors are met. Perhaps what is odder, though, is the fact that we have no record of such a pronoun evolving previously. I suppose we can still communicate the same meaning using "they" to refer to the singular ("I emailed the reviewer but they have not yet replied") and we can, as Grammar Girl has suggested, rephrase, but that's a pain. (Ben Zimmer at OUPblog also reports possibly the first usage of singular they to refer to the U.S. president: "“Americans will pick the next president based on their ability to lead," sez a senior advisor to Rudi Giuliani.)

Back to yo, though: this would probably be a case of grammaticalisation, which is where content words (nouns and verbs, mainly) become function words (prepositions, pronouns, etc.) and function words lose their independence and become affixes. The classic example in English is the verb will, which comes from the Old English willan "to want" (cf. Modern German). However, if you want to go somewhere, it is only a small step for you to make a statement about something that is definitely going to take place and over time, will lost its desirous meaning in favour of the more semantically bleached, grammatical denoter of the future tense.

Yo is slightly different as it can be an interjection ("Yo, homies!") or a shortened form of your ("yo' mo's a ho, fo' sho'"). Interjections are not really full content words but nor are they purely grammatical as something more than a functional meaning is communicated; pronouns are purely morphosyntactic (grammatical) markers and so yo in this case is following the expected grammaticalisation pathway.

2.Apparently this week was Delurker Week, although it ends tomorrow (later today, now). A nice, idea, I think, and one that could potentially have been hyped up to websites other than blogs. Obviously, I'm more interested in the morphology of delurker. Google Definitions helpfully defines lurker as "one who lurks" although the primary meaning of lurker is now probably "someone who hangs about silently, without interacting, online."

The neologism delurker is, thus, perfectly logical. de-"undoing, reversing or removing" + lurker "one who lurks at online communities." I suppose it could have been anti-lurker week or contra-lurker week, but delurker seems to work; besides, like most of the best ideas, the event seems to have spread virally through the blogosphere (I read about it on the blog of a friend of a friend, where I lurk; and no, I did not delurk myself) rather than being organised formally by anyone.

Oh, and I suppose I haven't mentioned Language Log yet in this post or xkcd for a while, so:

3. Mark Liberman's post on linguistics in the funny papers today is pretty good: Google-based psycholinguistics at xkcd and management bullshit at Dilbert.

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