Geezer talk

Yesterday’s Zits, with Jeremy on geezer talk:

(In talking this way, Jeremy is transformed into the old man in Grant Wood’s American Gothic.)

The strip raises a well-known issue in the analysis of language change: When older speakers have different variants from younger ones, are we looking at a change in progress or what’s often called age-grading? (Both things happen.)

Mark Liberman took up the issue on Language Log a couple days ago, in “UM / UH: Life-cycle effects vs. language change” (here). Mark began by noting that “In English-language conversations, older people tend to use UH more often and UM less often” and that this difference in the way the hesitation noises are deployed is a large and robust effect (though still statistical).

Mark considers

two quite different classes of explanation:

There might be a language change in progress, with older people reflecting the patterns of an earlier time and younger people showing the language of the future

[or] … There might be stable … life-cycle effects [age-grading], so that the UM and UH … age associations looked the same a few decades in the past, and will look the same a few decades in the future.

[or] … the truth might be some mixture of the two.

Joe Fruehwald [has] looked at UM and UH usage in a dataset with enough time depth that we can tell the difference between a change in progress and a stable life-cycle effect. And he found that the truth seems to be a bit of both.

Now in the Zits strip, there are four (lexical) variables: (1) y’ello (vs. hello or another opening / answering variant); (2) nosiree (vs. no or another variant of denial); (3) okie-dokie (vs. o.k. or another variant of consent); (4) mm-bye (vs. goodbye or ’bye or another sign-off variant). Scott and Borgman (the creators of the cartoon) clearly have the intuition that these days (1)-(4) are associated with older speakers, and they might be right. (I don’t know of any research on the use of these variants.)

Note that in each case, the alternative variants have been available for a long time, and still are; the change over time is in the variants available to younger speakers, who seem to have abandoned (or not acquired) some variants still available to older speakers. That’s a kind of change in progress; it’s hard to imagine that as speakers of Jeremy’s generation grow older, they will shift to using, at least some of the time, the variants in (1)-(4), as being appropriate to their age, though that’s what the strip suggests (for the sake of humor, surely). Of course, age-grading isn’t out of the question. But my guess is that (1)-(4) are variants that once were in fashion but have now fallen out of it.

 

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