Me no likie?

Ann Burlingham wrote me on March 28th about an on-line argument about the expression me no likie, which she saw as racist (based on a stereotype of Asian English), but which others defended as childish language (as the sort of thing their 3-year-old niece says, and the like), some citing Urban Dictionary, which attributes the expression to the animated tv comedy The Family Guy. Other discussions cited Gullah [Sea Island Creole] and Jamaican Creole, and some writers saw me no likey X as an annoying webism:

Which demon-spawn, script-kiddie coined this baby-talk phrase, which I see plastered all over UBB systems every week? Who is he and what’s his address, because I’m going to beat him to death with a Nerf Bat. (link)

which brings us back to baby-talk.

This is a case in which everyone might be right, to some extent. We’re dealing with what we might think of as “imperfect English”, which can arise in several different contexts — child language acquisition, adult language learning, language contact — but can also deployed in intentional mockery of the English used in those contexts, either playfully or disparagingly.

The result is that different people will have different associations with expressions in imperfect English, depending on their experience.

First, there’s a formula no X, no Y, used as an ethnic slur for a long time:

No ____, no ____ predates the origin of Chinese Pidgin English, but is also a notable example of fabricated pidgin English: (沒 no  票 ticket 沒 no  襯衣 shirt ) meaning “If you don’t have a laundry receipt, I won’t give you your shirts”, said to be a fabricated pidgin English unfairly attributed to the Chinese laundry proprietors. In 1886, a New York City bill cited this phrase in reference to Chinese-owned dry cleaning establishments. [There was a comedy short of 1915 entitled “No Tickee, No Washee”.] In 1921 a movie titled “No Tickee No Shirtee” further popularized the saying. Another famous use of this phrase is “No money, no talk”), which simply means “If you don’t have the money, don’t bother talking to me”. [Also: “no tickee, no laundry” and other variants.] (link)

On the scholarly front: Wolfgang Mieder’s

“No Tickee, No Washee”: Subtleties of a Proverbial Slur

in Western Folklore (1996).

One web commenter explicitly connects me no likey X to no X no Y:

To me, use of the phrase perpetuates the stereotyped portrayal of Chinese immigrants, used in old movies and shows… In my experience I haven’t heard it used enough to feel it is “diluted”, and it may very well be that people around me (I am Chinese American and live in a very multi-cultural community) assume I may find it offensive and don’t use it enough for me to pass it off as just unfortunate mass usage. But I don’t see it flung around in the vernacular of sitcoms (maybe I don’t watch enough “mass market” TV). Even if it is commonly used, that takes me to the issue of “is it OK for me to become accustomed to something that mocks my cultural heritage?” I cringe when I hear “no tickee no laundry”, which I’ve heard used in business meetings and I just hold my tongue. I don’t think anyone that uses it means to be offensive, but does that make it OK? I’m actually not sure, but I know it doesn’t make me feel OK. It actually bothers me more that people don’t know about its origins, though I am glad that is because those stereotypes are not used much anymore. (link)

The stereotype package isn’t dead yet, although an NPR story in 2008 suggested that it’s pretty much dead in Hollywood, with Long Duk Dong, an exchange student from an unidentified Asian country in Sixteen Candles (1984), as the end of the line:

Long Duk Dong — portrayed by actor Gedde Watanabe — lies splayed out in his host family’s front yard. When they discover him, the inanity continues: “Oh, no more yanky my wanky,” he moans. “The Donger needs food.”

An extension with /i/ is one way of coping with English words that end in consonants, for speakers with a phonological system that has few or no final consonants — like speakers of Chinese, Japanese, most English-based pidgins and creoles, and child English. Then, of course, this extension is available for imitating these speakers, whether playfully, gently, or mockingly.

Then there’s subject me and clausal negation with no, features of both contact languages based on English and child English. Jamaican Creole, for instance, as in the reggae song by Cocoa Tea, “Me No Like Rikers Island” (lyrics here) and this video of a Jamaican woman ranting “me no like lesbian, me no like batty boy [homosexual]”. The usage has been taken into rap, as in Method Man’s “Me No Like”:

Me no like, Fake niggas that aint got the game tight,
Me no like, When yall killas pop shit and can’t fight. (link)

Similar examples in other English-based pidgins and creoles, from the Sea Islands to Cameroon to Papua New Guinea (Tok Pisin, from PNG: mi no laik i ‘I don’t like it/her/him’; note that Tok Pisin has a phonologically transparent writing system and doesn’t use “funny” spellings of English).

But then there are deliberately playful instances of me no likey/likie/likee X, as in this loldog:

and this photo of a little kid, captioned “Hotsauce, me no likey!”:

And see this review of Cavemen, entitled “Urgh, me no like”.

The formula is available for play, along with other verb negations with no (as in X no workie ‘X doesn’t work’ in computer contexts). These are mock-infantile or Tarzan-talk.

As for Family Guy, I haven’t been able to find Me no likey you or anything similar on sites for the program — except in critical comments about the show. [Now see Ben Zimmer’s comment, with link.]


17 Responses to “Me no likie?”

  1. Ben Zimmer Says:

    The Family Guy reference is probably “Me likey bouncey.”

  2. Joe Says:

    Connect also the famous line in Full Metal Jacket (?), sampled in 2 Live Crew’s parody of Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman.

    And, see Jar-Jar Binks, “Meesa Jar-Jar!” and utterances like “No like!” were seen as either infantile or racist, depending on who heard them.

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Jean Berko Gleason on Facebook:

    Those of us of a certain age remember the story about the famous Chinese person (name inserted) who was at a big dinner, where the person next to him asked him “Likie soupie?” As it turned out the Chinese person was the speaker that evening, and when he was done he turned to that tablemate and asked “Likie speechie”?

  4. Mar Rojo Says:

    Also, from the British TV show, Take Me Out, the presenter says “No likie, no lightie”, which is an instruction to the women contestants to turn out a light if they do not like the man who is looking for a date. Racist language, or not?

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Hard to tell. In the context, it could well be that none of the participants were aware of the racist history of the formula “No X-ee, No Y-ee”; at some point, history evaporates. On the other hand, there might well be people around for whom the history is still very much alive, so the formula could be perilous.

      There’s no simple answer to these questions.

      • nick Says:

        I’m in my mid-30s and an occasional viewer of the show. My feeling is indeed that most viewers my age and younger aren’t aware of any racist undertones. I’d guess most young people would just see it as linguistic playfulness*, perhaps on the analogy of such abbreviated signs as ‘No shirt[/shoes], no service’ or ‘No ID, no entry’, which will be more familiar to them. My second example also contains the double -ee ending, which may be relevant.

        I think I most naturally parse ‘likey’ as a noun, which suggests that this is the sort of structure I have in the back of my mind.

        I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if viewers of 40+ find it a bit uncomfortable, since they might well have been exposed to more dubious uses in their childhood.

        *This is a feature of the show, another catchphrase being “If you’re turned off, turn off”. The new man-in-search-of-a-date is invariably introduced by “Let the X see the Y”, where X and Y are a random pair of tangentially related nouns (along the lines of prawn/cracker, road/runner, train/station), much parodied by viewers on Twitter (cock/condom, etc.).

  5. Den Says:

    It would be a pity if we lose phrases like this.

    Walter Kerr’s terse review of the Broadway play “I am a Camera”, was simply “Me no Leica”.

    Who’d understand now?

  6. arnold zwicky Says:

    Norval Smith on Facebook:

    I thnk it’s from Chinese Pidgin English. Was that a racist pidgin?

    Two responses from me:

    (1) Well, as a researcher in pidgins and creoles, you know that pidgins are just language-forms; the (potential) racism comes from the way others view the these language-forms and their speakers. P&C languages tend to get little respect from outsiders, especially those who speak the lexifier languages.

    (2) I’d hoped to divert readers from thinking that the usage in question has a single interpretation, or a single historical source.

  7. arnold zwicky Says:

    Addendum: it’s sometimes suggested that the -ie/-ee/-ey in “Me no likie” etc. is the final word in the relevant creole sentences (for example, the i of Tok Pisin Mi no laik i. But in the creole sentences, that last word is in fact a direct object pronoun (‘it / her /him’), while the examples in English are all understood as transitive, most of them with an explicit object. So the creole sentences can’t be directly the source of the English examples.

    Of course, English speakers could just have misapprehended the creole.

  8. the ridger Says:

    I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a child actually say “me no likee”. “Me no like”, sure, but “likee”? Then again, I never had a child, and haven’t spent all that much time listening to the presumably relevant age group.

  9. Link love: language (42) « Sentence first Says:

    […] “me no likie” […]

  10. hklang Says:

    Of course, English speakers could just have misapprehended the creole.

    And that makes iterated creole.

    I saw the phrase “No tickee, no washee” in a novel of Heinlein’s when I was a kid. It’s interesting to read of a cultural citation for this (the comedy short).

  11. Kilimanjaro Says:

    This kind of humor isn’t politically correct, but it does cut both ways
    I think.

  12. Janet Conn Says:

    Last month a local entertainment columnist (cj in the Minneapolis Star Tribune) reported that a TSA agent offended a Korean-American visitor by advising her to “drop [her suitcase] like it’s Chinese laundry.” He followed that up with “Oh Yeah, and add starch.” I feel rather dumb, but I don’t get the starch reference at all. Can you enlighten me?

  13. rlhamil2 Says:

    At what point is something as much a mockery of the original mockers as of the originally mocked?

    In other words, when does some phrase or actions age off of the list of unofficially (or officially) banned phrases or actions with a presumption that it’s no longer predominantly used with discriminatory intent?

    Because otherwise the list of banned phrases and actions will just keep growing, perhaps to the point that liberty, or even meaningful communication, becomes imperiled, not so much by any one restriction, but by the sum total of them. (similar reasoning applies to legislatures that don’t spend as much time repealing or rewriting laws as passing them, unless most of the laws have a builtin expiration)

    And as a practical matter, the threshold of abusive use probably can’t be zero, because there will probably always remain a few bigots, whether of the original sort, or backlash to it, or whatever.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Your anxieties here are misplaced: there is no legislature-like body that licenses or bans particular expressions; in effect, all speakers vote, via which expressions they use for which purposes in which contexts. Expressions disappear when people no longer use them, for whatever reason (they’re no longer fashionable, people think they’re no longer effective for their purposes, they pick up unpleasant associations, whatever).

      There is no list.

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