Language: September 2004 Archives

Go Axe Mommy

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The kids decided to empty a huge boxed filled with class notes from high school and college, along with what I have left of my role-playing game days and a bunch of magazines I collected during college. They decided it would be nice for the box to look nice and neat with nothing in it but air. (They clear tables for neatness's sake also.) Unfortunately, it meant covering our entire dining room floor with papers that were now no longer in any semblance of order. Then they took all the books off one of the bookshelves in there and spread them out over the top of the papers just for kicks. So I spent the morning sorting through all that instead of doing anything else that I might have been able to do in the time I had before coming to campus to teach at 11:30. It took two and a half hours.

While I was doing that, Ethan walked into the dining room with a pack of microwave popcorn, as he is wont to do, and tried to give it to me to show that he wanted some, which is one of his ways of avoiding asking for things. Sometimes, much more often than he used to, he will say things like, "Want some popcorn?" This, of course, is what we say to him when he wants popcorn, but he doesn't quite understand the indexical nature of personal pronouns and the fact that different sentences are contextualized to who is saying them. So he tells us what he wants by saying what we say when he wants them. I told him to go ask Mommy, because I know she wants to limit his popcorn intake but have no idea what her criteria are for when he can and can't have it (for instance, he had three bags of microwave popcorn one day, but other days he can't have it presumably because he had some the day before; sometimes he's allowed to share a whole bag with Isaiah, and sometimes they can only have half a bag). I prodded him out of the room, and I had to exile both of them at one point with the new Veggie Tales "Sumo of the Opera", which they received in the mail from my mom yesterday.

Well, after that was over Ethan came back in the room with the popcorn, not having asked Mommy anything, and he handed me the popcorn. I handed it back to him and was about to say something, when he said "Go axe Mommy", thinking he was repeating what I had said to him last time. (He does this too, saying things like "That's Isaiah's" when we try to stop him from doing something that has nothing to do with Isaiah. All he knows is that it's what we say when we don't let him do something.) Now I don't exactly know where these violent tendencies are coming from, but I told him I don't have the proper equipment for such a procedure. Well, eventually I asked her, she said it was fine, and he had his popcorn, but what struck me as interesting in this was the combination of a normal child development issue with one of his abnormal developmental issues. Not understanding the semantics of pronouns and other person-relative expressions is normal for kids learning language, but it usually gets picked up in a short time. Kids with autism-related problems take much longer to learn that sort of thing. But reversing the 'k' and 's' in 'ask' is something kids usually take a long time to get right, and there are entire dialects of English in which it's correct to reverse them from how standard English does it (in pronunciation anyway, not in spelling). But Ethan is usually extremely good at pronunciation even without knowing the meanings. He even does the accents of the Wiggles or Veggie Tales characters. So it was weird to see him flat-out saying 'aks' for 'ask' without even thinking there was a problem with his pronunciation. He usually knows when he's wrong.

Gender-Neutral 'Men'

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I've written at length about gender-neutral language with respect to pronouns (e.g. whether 'he' can be gender-neutral in some English dialects). I didn't say anything there about the gender-neutral 'man' or 'men' for humans as a whole without regard to gender, but I found a good example of how the Geoff Pullum view on 'he' can't be true of this usage of 'men'.

The Pullum view is that what we have taken to be gender-neutral language isn't really. It's genuinely sexist language in that it assumes a male person unless the context clearly indicates someone to be feminine. I was arguing that in some dialects (not mine) it might be that sometimes it's really gender-neutral, and I had to offer an alternative explanation for why certain sentences that don't clearly indicate maleness still sound wrong (e.g. 'Either the husband or the wife has perjured himself'). My explanation was that whenever anything in the context forces us to think about the gender of people, even if it doesn't say specifically what the person's gender is, then it's impossible to think of the person as gender-neutral and thus impossible in these dialects to use a gender-neutral 'he'.

Now I don't want to assume that 'man' is analogous in every way to 'he', but I stumbled across a sentence today that seems to confirm my explanation of what's going on over Pullum's at least for the gender-neutrality of 'man':

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