Linguistics

American Dialect Society Names “Covid” the 2020 Word of the Year

The following is a guest post by Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. He is also the language columnist for the Wall Street Journal and a contributing writer to The Atlantic.

While the American Dialect Society has chosen a Word of the Year for three decades now, this year’s selection was—to use a popular word these days—unprecedented. Like so much else in 2020, the deliberations were moved online, and in the first-ever virtual vote, held on Thursday, Dec. 17, the winner of the Word of the Year honors was Covid. It was a highly appropriate choice, given how Covid—short for COVID-19, the name given by the World Health Organization for the disease caused by novel coronavirus—has become a stand-in for the pandemic and all the ways it has shaped our lives.

The ADS first picked a Word of the Year, or WOTY as it’s known to its friends, at its annual meeting in December 1990, after the society’s long-time executive secretary Allan Metcalf proposed making a selection modeled on Time’s “Person of the Year.” For the first time since then, the ADS was unable to meet in person for its conference, and so plans were made to turn WOTY into a virtual event that would be open to all who wanted to participate. Ultimately, more than three hundred attendees joined a Zoom webinar, where they actively participated in the discussion and cast their votes.

As the sponsor of the event, Duke University Press was essential in making the virtual WOTY a reality. The Press has had a longstanding relationship with the ADS as the publisher of the society’s quarterly journal American Speech. As part of my duties as chair of the New Words Committee, I oversee “Among the New Words” in American Speech, a feature that has run in the journal since 1941. When I took on the role in 2011, I reflected on the history of “Among the New Words” in a post on this blog, and the eighty-year tradition continues in the forthcoming Feb. 2021 issue of American Speech. The next installment, which will debut a new format for the feature, is co-authored by Charles E. Carson, managing editor for American Speech, and Kelly E. Wright, a doctoral student in sociolinguistics at the University of Michigan. Word of the Year nominees always provide fertile ground for the neologisms covered in “Among the New Words.”

When the ADS made the decision over the summer to cancel its annual meeting, which was scheduled to be held in conjunction with the Linguistic Society of America in early January 2021, that opened up the possibility of holding the WOTY vote as a free-standing event. In devising plans with ADS executive director Julie Roberts of the University of Vermont, we hit upon the idea of live-streaming WOTY and moving the date up to December. As part of the registration process, we fielded nominations for words that people wanted to see in contention. Duke University Press graciously offered to sponsor the proceedings and hosted the webinar on Zoom. The live-stream went off without a hitch, as hundreds of participants were able to join in a lively debate over which words should be recognized as best capturing the zeitgeist of 2020.

In the overall WOTY category, Covid won out over such nominees as social distancing, unprecedented, pandemic, and even 2020, which has become its own lexical item to sum up all the feelings inspired by this particularly chaotic year. Additionally, votes were made in ten other secondary categories. These included the Digital Word of the Year (doomscrolling, for the obsessive practice of scanning social media and websites for bad news), Most Useful (Before Times, for the time before the beginning of the pandemic), and Most Likely to Succeed (antiracism, the practice of actively working to prevent or combat racism).

There was no shortage of creativity in the nominated words. My personal favorites included oysgezoomt, a word formed in Yiddish that means “Zoomed out” or fatigued from exposure to Zoom, and Blursday, a useful term for when you don’t quite know what day of the week it is (a common affliction in the pandemic era). Despite—or perhaps because of—the hardships of the past year, it was a vibrant time for the creation of new words, especially in the arena of what I’ve called “coronacoinages.” While Covid, a word that was unknown to anyone a year ago, may best encompass what we have collectively gone through in 2020, it represents only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how the pandemic has transformed the lexicon. The diverse set of nominated words provides ample evidence for this flurry of linguistic activity in a year like no other.

The 2020 Word of the Year nominees will be considered in a future installment of “Among the New Words” in the Duke University Press journal American Speech. In the meantime, you can peruse the full list of nominated words in the press release on the results of the WOTY voting. Additionally, the entire live-stream has been archived on the American Dialect Society’s YouTube channel.

Exploring African American Language in the Nation’s Capital

asp_94_1_coverThe most recent issue of American Speech, “Exploring African American Language in the Nation’s Capital,” edited by Tyler Kendall and Charlie Farrington, is now available.

This special issue brings together a wide range of scholars of African American Language (AAL) who explore aspects of the new, openly accessible Corpus of Regional African American Language (CORAAL). Each examining the same data from different perspectives, contributors offer new insights on AAL and offer initial thoughts on what CORAAL can offer for both the studies of AAL and for sociolinguistic research more generally.

Browse the table of contents and read the introduction, made freely available.

Speaking from the Heartland

pads103_coverSpeaking from the Heartland” by Christopher Strelluf, the newest Publication of the American Dialect Society, is now available.

Drawing on acoustic measurements of more than 140,000 vowels recorded during interviews with 50 English speakers from Kansas City, Strelluf rigorously examines the vowel systems of those living in this large metropolitan area and traces a half-century of sound change from 1955 to 1999.

The results reveal a series of recent innovations that challenge Kansas City’s characterization as a Midland dialect city—or more broadly challenge the characterization of the Midland dialect. By examining these features in Kansas City, this volume updates knowledge about one speech community as well as contributing broadly to studies in the phonetics and phonology of American Englishes.

Read the first chapter, made freely available.

Now Available: First Issue of English Language Notes Published by Duke University Press

ELN_561-cov_early_for-JmktWe are pleased to announce that the first issue of English Language Notes published by Duke University Press, volume 56, issue 1, “Critical and Comparative Mysticisms,” is now available.

A respected forum of criticism and scholarship in literary and cultural studies since 1962, English Language Notes (ELN) is dedicated to pushing the boundaries of scholarship in literature and related fields in new directions. Broadening its reach geographically and transhistorically, ELN opens new lines of inquiry and widens emerging fields. Each ELN issue advances topics of current scholarly concern, providing theoretical speculation as well as ptractical interdisciplinary recalibrations. Offering semiannual, topically themed issues, ELN also includes “Of Note,” an ongoing section featuring related topics, review essays or roundtables of cutting-edge scholarship, and emergent concerns. ELN is a wide-ranging journal that combines theoretical rigor with innovative interdisciplinary collaboration.

“Critical and Comparative Mysticisms” contains essays on mysticisms through a critical lens. This rarely, if ever, articulated vision of mysticisms juxtaposes them with other disciplinary and epistemological avenues of critical thought, such as historical, political, and literary studies. Mystical traditions, which often lie at the margins of institutionalized religions, tend to break down the boundaries that develop within religious contexts over time and offer syncretic alternatives to them. Mysticisms also offer alternative versions of knowledge seeking, being, and experience that contribute to a distinct and compelling branch of contemporary critical theory, intervening in current ideologically loaded discourses of religion and drawing on the vast archive of mystical thought, writing, and art from around the world in all periods. This special issue also contains a roundtable section with brief interventions concerning various angles of mysticism.

Read the introduction, made freely available, and browse the table of contents.

Speech in the Western States, Volume 2: The Mountain West

ddpads_102The most recent Publication of the American Dialect Society, “Speech in the Western States, Volume 2: The Mountain West,” is now available. This collection is an exhaustive treatment of Western vowel patterns and serves as a unique resource to dialectologists, sociolinguists, and students of language.

Filling the void in our knowledge of the development and diffusion of the vowel features that define Western States English, this companion volume which examined speech in the coastal West now turns the lens toward speech in the Mountain West. The inland states of the Western U.S. offer a varied history, geography and population that contribute to a rich linguistic landscape. This volume, for the first time, brings together work on the vowel patterns found in Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Montana, showing diversity while still offering some evidence of the formation of a supra-Western pattern.

These chapters draw attention to a number of new and less well known features that also play a significant role in defining and differentiating, at least in some areas, modern Western vowel systems. Building on earlier work, such as the broadly defined Western dialect region presented in the Atlas of North American English, we can now talk with more confidence about shared “Western” vs. more local norms, as well as discuss potential changes in progress and how long “Western” vowel patterns cited in earlier literature have been around.

To learn more, read the introduction, made freely available.

Speech in the Western States: The Coastal States

ddpads_101The most recent volume of the Publication of the American Dialect Society (PADS), “Speech in the Western States, Volume 1: The Coastal States,” edited by Valerie Fridland, Tyler Kendall, Betsy Evans, and Alicia Wassink, presents a collection of new articles investigating what is perhaps the most understudied American dialect region, the American West. In an attempt to remedy this dearth of descriptive work on Western United States dialects, this volume brings together research undertaken by a combination of established and up-and-coming scholars across the West to focus on the phonetic changes occurring in vowel systems across the coastal region, California, Oregon, and Washington. The following volume will move the lens of inquiry to vowel patterns in the Interior West.

Though pointing to several shared “Western” features, these chapters force us to reconsider the dialect uniformity often assumed for these states, pointing to key differences between California and the states in the Pacific Northwest. In contrast, surprising similarity was discovered among the vowel systems of minority and majority ethnic groups in these states. In surveying the research presented here, we come away with a sense of a region still in the process of dialect formation—a process that is creating both similarity and difference within the region—but it also seems clear that the West, at least along the coast, is not a unitary dialect region as often reported, but one characterized by features that have arisen only within the last 50 to 100 years, features that have already begun to display the local character of the people that live within its boundaries. The research presented here begins to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of what the Coastal states of the continental Western United States sound like and how they fit into the larger picture of United States dialect diversity and the studies lay the groundwork for further research on the speech patterns of the Western United States.

Browse the table-of-contents and read the preface to the issue, made freely available.

Celebrate German-American Day with American Speech

Happy German-American Day! Celebrate with two volumes of the Publication of the American Dialect Society (PADS), “Pennsylvania German in the American Midwest” and “The Life and Death of Texas German.”

ddpads_96_coverIn “Pennsylvania German in the American Midwest,” Steven Hartman Keiser studies the divisions separating the Midwestern and the Pennsylvania varieties of Pennsylvania German, demonstrating that these dialects are divided by boundaries similar to those that distinguish dialects of English in the same geographic regions. Keiser provides empirical detail on the distribution of key linguistic variants in several Pennsylvania German–speaking communities in the Midwest and explores the internal changes, patterns of migration, and language contact that have led to the current geographic and social distribution of these features. In addition, he considers the potential for future dialect divergence or convergence as he describes the links between these language varieties and the notions of regional identity in the attitudes of Pennsylvania German speakers in the Midwest and those in Pennsylvania toward each other.

asp_83_5_prThe Life and Death of Texas German” presents the first major study of Texas German as spoken in the twenty-first century, focusing on its formation and the linguistic changes it has undergone. This New World dialect, formed more than 150 years ago in German communities in central Texas, is an unusual example of a formerly high-status dialect that declined for sociopolitical reasons. An important case study for dialect research, Texas German is now critically endangered and will probably be extinct by 2050.

By comparing and contrasting present-day data with data from the German dialects brought to Texas since the 1840s, the volume offers an in-depth analysis of mutual interaction between the German-speaking community and English-speaking Texans, long-term accommodation of Texas German speakers in this new community, and language hybridization on the Texas frontier. The volume also analyzes a number of phonological, syntactic, and morphological changes in Texas German over the past century and examines sociolinguistic aspects of the Texas German community from its foundation to today, providing insight into the dynamics underlying new-dialect formation, diglossia, language shift, language maintenance, and language death. Finally, the volume investigates the rapid disappearance of languages, which has global social and cultural implications for areas beyond linguistics.

All one hundred volumes of PADS are freely available online through 2016. Browse volumes 1-100 to discover the breadth of this resource, dating from 1944 to the present. To learn more about the journal, visit dukeupress.edu/american-speech.

The Singular “They” and Trans* Studies

They used as a “gender-neutral singular pronoun for a known person” was chosen as the Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society in January 2016. The so-called singular they has been used for centuries to replace he or she when referring back to a generic antecedent, although this makes some copy editors and grammar aficionados cringe. (Did you see this row between Merriam-Webster dictionary Twitter account and Andy Smarick? It all started with this tweet.) What’s new and was recognized by the society is the emerging use of they as a pronoun to refer to a specific known person, often as a conscious choice by someone rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.

Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, explains: “In the past year, new expressions of gender identity have generated a deal of discussion. . . . While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.”

ddasp_91_1In “Singular They: An Empirical Study of the Generic Pronoun Use,” published in American Speech volume 91, issue 1, author Darren K. LaScotte presents a study that explores which pronouns native English speakers use when writing about a hypothetical person of unspecified gender. LaScotte discovered the majority of participants use singular they when referring to the indefinite, singular, genderless antecedent “the ideal student.” In an optional write-in section of the study, participants were asked why they chose the singular they. Responses included mentions that they acknowledges those that fall outside of the gender binary.

These responses in LaScotte’s study highlight the relationship between the singular they and trans* studies. In TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly’s recent special issue “Trans*formational Pedagogies” (volume 2, issue 3), two articles delve into the use of pronouns and the trans* community.

ddtsq_2_3In “Trans* Disruptions: Pedagogical Practices and Pronoun Recognition,” Tre Wentling asks, “With the increasing number of trans* people who queer the gender binary, how does language affirm or deny their personhood?” In Wentling’s study, the results demonstrate that trans* students who identify as genderqueer tended to use gender-neutral and third-person pronouns. However, educators were less affirming when it came to gender-neutral pronoun recognition. “Accurate pronoun recognition supports trans* students’ identity development and honors their personhood,” Wentling says.

Susan W. Woolley’s “‘Boys Over Here, Girls Over There’: A Critical Literacy of Binary Gender in Schools” examines the ways teachers and students enact, respond to, and subvert practices that articulate and distinguish categories of boys and girls with three years of ethnographic research in an urban public high school. From the abstract:

Dividing students according to their socially recognized sex or gender reinforces the perceived stability of binary male/female sex and binary masculine/feminine gender categories while also exceptionalizing transgender identities. Students and teachers who challenge such practices engage in critical literacy readings of school spaces and of the mundane ways binary gender and sex are read onto bodies. Critical literacy provides a method through which students and teachers may engage in reflection and critical practice to raise awareness and challenge everyday practices in schools that construct boys and girls as stable, discrete categories.

For those who embrace, or are ready to embrace, the singular they, there’s a website for you: iheartsingularthey.com.

Celebrating 100 Volumes of the Publication of the American Dialect Society

ddpads_100The most recent volume of the Publication of the American Dialect Society (PADS), “Contested Southernness: The Linguistic Production and Perception of Identities in the Borderlands,” by Jennifer Cramer, is the 100th volume of this publication.

Contested Southernness” explores the interactions between language, identity, and borders where these interactions are neither simple nor straightforward. Through the example of Louisville, Kentucky, identities at the border are shown to be fluid, complex, and dynamic, with speakers constantly negotiating their amplified awareness of belonging. Read the volume, made freely available.

In celebration, all one hundred volumes of PADS are freely available online through 2016. Titles include:

Browse volumes 1-100 to discover the breadth of this resource, dating from 1944 to the present. To learn more about the journal, visit dukeupress.edu/american-speech.

New Books in March

It is already March and Spring is on its way, but even more exciting are the new books coming out this month. And we have plenty of them!

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Diana Taylor’s Performance explores the multiple and overlapping meanings of performance, showing how it can convey everything from artistic, economic, and sexual performance, to providing ways of understanding how race, gender, identity, and power are performed.

In Indian Given María Josefina Saldaña-Portillo provides a sweeping historical and comparative analysis of racial ideologies in Mexico and the United States from 1550 to the present to show how indigenous peoples provided the condition of possibility for the emergence of each nation.

In The Official World Mark Seltzer analyzes the suspense fiction, films, and performance art of Patricia Highsmith, Tom McCarthy, Cormac McCarthy, J.G. Ballard, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and others to demonstrate that the modern world continuously establishes itself through the staging of its own conditions.feminist bookstore

Kristen Hogan traces The Feminist Bookstore Movement‘s rise and fall, showing how the women at the heart of the movement developed theories and practices of lesbian antiracism and feminist accountability that continue to resonate today.

Drawing on an eclectic range of texts and figures, from the Greek Cynics to Tori Amos, Nick Salvato’s Obstruction finds that embarrassment, laziness, slowness, cynicism, and digressiveness can paradoxically enable alternative modes of intellectual production.

A celebratory new edition to Jane Lazarre’s Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness, in which she, a white Jewish mother, describes her experience being married to an African American man and raising two sons as she learns, from family experience, teaching, and her studies, about the realities of racism in America.

In Cold War Anthropology, David H. Price offers a provocative account of the profound influence that the American security state has had on the field of anthropology since the Second World War by mapping  out the intricate connections between academia and the intelligence community.

diaspora and trustIn Memorializing Pearl Harbor Geoffrey M. White examines the challenge of representing history at the site of the attack that brought America into World War II, showing that the memorial to the Pearl Harbor bombing is a site in which many histories are continually performed, validated, and challenged.

In Diaspora and Trust Adrian H. Hearn proposes a new paradigm for economic development in Mexico and Cuba that is predicated on the development of trust among the state, society, and each nation’s resident Chinese diaspora communities, lest they get left behind in the twenty-first century economy.

In Sexual States Jyoti Puri uses the example of the recent efforts to decriminalize homosexuality in India to show how the regulation of sexuality is fundamentally tied to the creation and enduring existence of the Indian state.

the geographiesAntoinette Burton’s Africa in the Indian Imagination challenges nostalgic narratives of the Afro-Asian solidarity that emerged from the 1955 Bandung conference by showing how postcolonial Indian identity was based on the subordination of Africans and blackness.

In The Geographies of Social Movements Ulrich Oslender examines the activism of black communities in the lowland rain forest of Colombia’s Pacific coast to show how the mutually constituting relationships between residents and their environment informs the political process.

In Domesticating Organ Transplant Megan Crowley-Matoka examines the iconic power of kidney transplantation in Mexico, where the procedure is inexorably linked to the imaginings of individual and national identity, national pride, and the role of women in creating the Mexican state.

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In The Sublime Perversion of Capital Gavin Walker examines the Japanese debate about capitalism between the 1920s and 1950s, using it as a “prehistory” to consider current problems of uneven economic development and contemporary topics in Marxist theory and historiography.

In Motherless Tongues Vicente L. Rafael examines the vexed relationship between language and history as seen through the work of translation in the context of empire, revolution, and academic scholarship in the Philippines, the United States, and beyond.

In Tourist Distractions Youngmin Choe uses Korean hallyu cinema as a lens to examine the importance of tourist films and film tourism in creating transnational bonds throughout East Asia and how they help Korea negotiate its twentieth-century history with the neoliberal present.

Ricardo D. Salvatore’s Disciplinary Conquest rewrites the history of Latin American studies by tracing its roots back to the first half of the twentieth century, showing how its ties to U.S. business and foreign policy interests helped build an informal empire that supported U.S. economic, technological, and cultural hegemony throughout the hemisphere.