April 27, 2004

HEY, YO!!!

So often we are shown how grammar changes over time with comparisons of BEOWULF with Chaucer with Shakespeare with Fitzgerald. But here and now in America, among young African Americans (and affiliated people brown, yellow and white), an interjection has evolved into a piece of grammar under our very noses.

I speak of YO! Time was that YO! was used as in YO! GET OFF OF THAT TABLE! But nowadays, YO! has floated to the ends of sentences and lost its shouting intonation, and has become what linguists would call a pragmatic marker. Listen to young blacks talking casually and savor sentences like THE PARTY WAS REALLY OFF THE HOOK, YO or TELL HIM HE CAN'T BE STEPPIN' TO YOU ALL THE TIME, YO.

For maximal clarity, OFF THE HOOK means roughly "superlatively fantastic" and STEP TO means to initiate a physical altercation.

In any case, we must understand that this is a brand new YO! In the first sentence above, "..HOOK, YO" is pronounced with the same melody as ICE CREAM in the sentence I WAS LOOKING FOR SOME ICE CREAM. The new YO! has no accent, in other words. It has become a little marker of emphasis, also carrying a hint of vernacular warmth, as if to connote that the party was marvelous in a way that the speaker and his interlocutors particularly cherish -- just the right songs, just the right people, just the right feel, yo.

This YO, then, is no longer a call, a shout. It is a word like EVEN when it is used in a similar way. THE SENATOR DIDN'T EVEN SHOW UP FOR THE VOTE, for example. This EVEN is hard to imagine in a newspaper headline because it's too personal, too viscerally judgmental. Only in a parody in THE ONION would EVEN be used like this in a headline. This is because EVEN, here, injects a note of the intimate, foreign to the effort to render newspaper prose maximally objective.

The new YO interests me in that it is not nearly as exotic as one might think. This is how what linguists term pragmatic markers have arisen in languages worldwide. And I have reason to think that less than a century ago, a similar process occurred in a different nonstandard American variety, Brooklynese.

I have been reading through anthologies of the marvelously surreal old comic strip KRAZY KAT by George Herriman lately. Anyone who has missed this minimalist masterpiece concerning an ambiguously gendered cat who craves for scraggly mouse Ignatz to throw bricks at his/her head as a substitute for sex should run, not walk, to their laptop to order a book from Amazon.

The strip ran from the teens into the forties, and Herriman had his characters speaking in a stylized amalgam of highfalutin, Ellis Island, and New York bridge-and-tunnel. Ignatz Mouse (or "Ignatz Mice" as Krazy called him) leans towards the latter.

But now and then, amidst his Jackie Gleason-esque speech style Ignatz comes up with something like: "Hmm -- so he was trifling with me, hey?"

Now, that HEY initially seems a little clumsy. Try saying that line out loud. We imagine HMM or EY rather than HEY. The HEY seems simply unnatural, neither elegant, nor "Yiddische," nor "slangy," but just odd. One encounters that use of HEY in various stone-age American comic strips and vaguely senses that, for example, the artists back then just didn't quite know how to write realistic dialogue.

But Herriman's attention to verbal nuance elsewhere makes it unlikely that these HEYs were just the result of the clumsiness of a pre-Tune-In-Drop-Out man's unfamiliarity with putting real speech on the page. And Ignatz "Mice"'s little verbal tic brings me to mind of something I once caught in an old radio show.

Before I LOVE LUCY, Lucille Ball starred in a radio sitcom called MY FAVORITE HUSBAND, which was in retrospect a kind of dress rehearsal for the television show that would take the nation by storm. Already she was the daffy wife always giving her hubby trouble, including donning costumes and playing parts.

In one episode of the show in the late forties, for reasons I won't bother readers by recounting, Lucy has to pose as a gum-popping gal from Brooklyn. Her characterization includes postposing HEY to every second sentence: WHY DON'T WE MEET DOWN AT THE STATION, HEY? IT WAS THE ONLY WAY I COULD FIND IT, HEY. Again, the HEY has no accent. It wasn't "DOWN AT THE STATION -- HEY!!!!" Instead, "..STATION, HEY" had the melody of "OVERCOAT."

I (born 1965, and having especial occasion to hear vernacular Brooklynese daily in 1986 and 1987) have never heard anyone use HEY in this way. But it is so peculiar that one assumes that the writers based it on some kind of reality. Between Ignatz and Lucy, I hypothesize that in America before about 1950, vernacular speech in, at least, New York City included a use of HEY as a pragmatic marker in a way quite similar to the way baggy-pants teens are today using YO!

I can't help but end this by noting that apparently, Herriman had a healthy dose of African ancestry, born as a creole in New Orleans. But that's just for fun, hey.

Posted by John McWhorter at April 27, 2004 06:25 PM