How ’bout them Cubbies?

Today’s Zippy:

So the strip is “about” hair(s), but it’s also “about” How ’bout them Cubbies?

(On a personal hair and holiday note: I’m watching Hairspray for Mothers Day.)

1. Speech acts. Let’s start with How about those Cubs? — illustrating an idiomatic construction in which a sentence in the form of an information question (in how about) functions as mild exclamation about the focus of the sentence (the Chicago Cubs baseball team) and an invitation to the addressee to talk about that focus. This a conventionalization of a specific question form for a specific speech act — something that you have to learn if you are to be competent as a speaker of vernacular American English.

2. Background knowledge. If you don’t know about the Cubbies, then the question will misfire. Apparently Zippy (“Are they imaginary?”) and San Bruno (“I don’t care for synchronized diving”) don’t get it.

3. Social context. Things are more complicated than that, since the question is usually addressed by men to men, typically in an attempt to initiate a conversation between guys who are not socially close. Neither of these clauses is a rigid condition on use, but follow from the social fact that sports talk is stereotypically a “masculine” province and so can serve as neutral social grease for men without much shared experience.

4. Cubbies. Then there’s the affectionate diminutive for Cubs — conveying an emotional attachment to the team.

5. ’bout. And the casual-speech reduction of about to ’bout — further marking the sentence as informal, vernacular.

6. Demonstrative them. But the big point — note Glutina’s “I don’t think that’s grammatical” — is demonstrative them in them Cubbies (instead of those Cubbies). This is a very widespread non-standardism.

MWDEU has a nice entry on demonstrative them (pp. 897-8), though it doesn’t solve the puzzle of the form’s source. It’s attested since the end of the 16th century and is pretty clearly not a continuation of the Old English definite article.

It went largely unnoticed for about a century, and then began appearing in literary texts in the 19th century, but almost entirely in representations of speech. By the middle of the 19th century, it was regularly criticized in schoolbooks as a barbarism. Then:

Perhaps because of the efforts of two centuries worth of schoolmasters, the demonstrative them is now largely restricted to the speech of the uneducated and the familiar speech of others. It has been in use for four centuries, and has still not reached respectability.

But where does it come from?

A number of syntacticians have pointed out that for 1st and 2nd persons, the pl personal pronouns are used as demonstrative determiners: we linguists, (vernacular) us linguists, you linguists, (dialectal) youse linguists. Then, on the model of the vernacular us linguists, we get vernacular  them linguists.

Then, given the vernacular and informal features of how about questions, it’s natural to use them as a demonstrative in them. How (a)bout those Cub(bie)s?  isn’t infelicitous, but it’s on the stiff side; them is more colloquial.


One Response to “How ’bout them Cubbies?”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    This leaves me wondering why, given “we linguists”, “you linguists”, etc., we didn’t get “they linguists”.

    Also, “us linguists” doesn’t have to be vernacular; it could simply be objective: “To us linguists, this is an interesting topic.”

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