January 14, 2008

OK, you wireistas, listen up

Cosma Shalizi says "I'm pretty sure that some of the dialogue in The Wire uses 'yo' as, precisely, a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. Of course I'd have to re-watch the previous seasons to be sure... "

If you don't understand what he's talking about, read this. If you know a specific reference, tell me.

[Karen Kay writes:

I don't have an example of Yo as 3rd person sg pronoun, but I did notice "shorty" being used for "girl"--it's in one of the last two or three episodes of the first season. That was my first exposure to that--I'd previously understood shorty to mean "kid". In this case, it was clearly about a woman working as an exotic dancer. I had to hear it several times (in different contexts) before I understood it.

Brad Skaggs sent in two references from urbandictionary.com -- definitions #47 and #62 for yo:

#47 (by Al, Jan 17, 2003): A noun of reference to someone, usauly refering to males. Also meaning "he", "his", or "him".

Yo, come hear for a second.
Yo said he got banked yesterday.

#62 (by Dominique Sep 7, 2004): substitution for pronouns he and she

It is only used when speaking of that person to someone else.

Originates in the Maryland,DC, and Virginia area.

"Yo said he was comin and yo still ain't here!"

And I found a piece of wireology online that suggests a hypothesis. Mandel Maven's nest on The Wire says that

The actors say that their scripts came with a glossary of the Baltimore slang, so that is probably where The Wall Street Journal got this "Talk the Talk: A Wire insider's guide to the show's street slang." 12/29/2007

and reprints the WSJ's list, which includes

A CORNER BOY/YO/LITTLE HOPPER: A young kid on the street who's aware of the street (but not necessarily a dealer). A corner boy is one on a corner, working a package with a crew. A yo or yo boy is a derogative term for such, popularized by Baltimore cops. A corner boy would never refer to himself as a yo or yo boy.

As I mentioned in the earlier post on pronominal yo, there's an old and general practice of using bare descriptive adjectives or nouns -- especially derogatory ones -- as referring expressions. The use of shorty is exactly of that kind. Other words I've often heard used that way are "slim", "skinny", "heavy", "fats", "young'un", "pops", and so on.

Here's a personal example from many years ago that struck me at the time. When I was in the army, I played in an intramural basketball league. During my team's first game, I hit a hook shot, and the guy who was guarding me turned to one of his teammates and said "hey look, college got a move". (Pronounced "collitch", of course).

So if yo is a somewhat derogatory term for "corner boy" or "gofer", it would be available as one the words that could be used as a quasi-anaphor.

That's not enough by itself to explain the phenomenon that Stotko and Troyer described. (For example, they report that 10 of 51 students used referential yo in writing a conversation where two kids talk about a third --for those students, yo is apparently more than just one of a long list of possible referential epithets.) Still, this might explain how the usage got started.]

[From Matthew Stein:

In David Simon's 1991 book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, the police refer to inner-city youth as "yos" and "yoettes." (Derived from their habit of ending sentences with "yo.")

Some examples (from Amazon's search inside feature):

(p. 27) Who the fuck is this guy Worden? Is he really gonna go after a police on this Monroe Street thing? He's gonna try and fuck over another police because of some dead yo?

(p. 43)  Nicest guy in the world. Pretty long fuse. But let some yo with an attitude ride him too far, those eyeballs would roll up like an Atlantic City slot. It was a sure sign to every other cop that negoatiations had ended and nightsticks were in order.

(p. 307) At this moment, Clayvon Jones is simply a dead yo with a quality weapon he never got to use.

(p. 315) "Dead yo in a low-rise courtyard. When we rolled him, he still had his own gun in his pants."

(p. 554) And whatever else two decades in the department have done to Landsman, they have at least taught him that different between a killing and a murder. It's one thing, after all, for a detective to cut up with the uniforms when they're gathered around some dead yo; it's another entirely to behave that way when the case involves a young wife with her blouse pulled up, her throat slit open and her husband waiting in the company lot.

(p. 180) Alcoholics, dopers, welfare mothers, borderline mental cases, adolescent yos and yoettes in designer sweatsuits -- with only a handful of exceptions, those who claim a place on Baltimore's murderers row aren't the most visually threatening crew ever assembled.

(p. 332) Thick drum track, def rhythm and some sweet-voiced yoette wailing out the same two-line lyric. East side west side, and all around the town, the corner boys of Baltimore are fighting and dying to the same soundtrack.

(p. 444) Edgerton maintains his own string of informants, and more often than not they are eighteen-year-old yoettes whose boyfriends are out in the streets shooting one another for drugs and gold chains.

All of these are in quotes from cops, or free indirect style keyed to a cop's viewpoint. And none of them are close to the Stotko and Troyer pattern, or even the approach to it suggested above. But maybe the nominal usage has spread to the yos and yoettes themselves. ]

[Josh Kamensky writes:

Novelist Richard Price also writes on The Wire; his 1992 book "Clockers", though set in New York, has extensive use of the word "yo". I couldn't find it used third-person in a quick search-inside, but in the movie, a detective played by Harvey Keitel dismissively refers to the drug-runners as "yos".


[Max Heiman writes:

I don't have examples of "yo" to contribute, but it reminds me of the regional dialect in the school system in Newton, MA where I grew up. Words like "mush," "jivel," "divia," and "quisture" have been in use there mainly by high-school-age kids for a couple decades at least, yet remain mostly age-specific and extremely region-specific.

To my surprise, I found a fairly extensive commentary on the dialect here http://www.boston-online.com/glossary/lake_the.html. See especially the "dictionary" provided in a comment by "Anto" on June 20, 2006 12:48 PM.

"Mush," the most widely used idiom, is used more like "dude" than like "yo," though (e.g., "Hey, that mush got a new skateboard" and "Hey, mush got a new skateboard" both sound ok to my ear).

Here's Anto's glossary:

Mush: (not what a dogsledder shouts, rhymes with "push") n. Dude, buddy.
Ex: Hey, mush! Come here for a minute.
Ex: He's a good mush.

Divia: (alt spelling divya) - adj. crazy.
Ex: You are a divia mush.
n. crazy person
Ex: Hey, divia! Watch where you're going!
Ex: Mush, my boss went divia on me yesterday just because I was 5 minutes late!

Overchey: - v. lie, fabrication
Ex: Don't overchey me. I know you were there.
N. lie, fabrication
Ex: He's a good mush. Overchey! (i.e., he's not a good mush)

Jivel: - n. Woman
Ex: Mush, who's that jivel think she is?
Alt: Jivella

Quisture: (sounds like kwishtya) - adj. Awesome
Spelling explanation: Think "posture" with a Boston accent.
Ex: Mush, I don't know who that jivel is, but she's got a quisture rack.

Coy the moy - shut up
Ex: Mush, coy the moy, that jivel with the quisture rack is my girlfriend.

Avray: Over there
Ex: Mush, see the quisture jivel avray?

Joll: V. Steal
Ex: I just jolled a pack of gum from Fox's.

Cory: Male genitalia
Etymology: I suspect this comes from the word "Quarry"
Ex: Ow, my cory! (After getting hit by a ball)
Ex: Mush, that jivel jolled my cory last weekend. (Note, it is unclear why joll is used here. It just is.)

And speaking of gender-neutrality, there's the famous 1987 Aerosmith song "Dude look like a lady", which is another example of the use of a bare noun as an anaphoric expression.]

[Katy Catlin writes:

I grew up in the Baltimore/Annapolis suburbs of Anne Arundel County in the 80s and 90s, and this usage of "yo" as a third-person pronoun seemed completely new and strange to me when I read your posts about it on LanguageLog.

Then I talked to my sister about it, and she reminded me that about the time we were in middle school -- the early 90s -- the kids at our school divided themselves up into "bangers" and "yos" -- my sister specifically remembers getting teased for being a "yo" if she wore a hooded sweatshirt. I was rather oblivious at the time, but once she jogged my memory, it clicked. (She also remembers "pitched battles in mosh pits" between the factions, but *that* I cannot confirm!) I'd assumed that "bangers" was short for "headbangers," and therefore that "yos" would be "people who like rap music." "Yo" was probably derived from, as one of your correspondents noted, the habit of ending sentences with "yo" among youth/rap culture, but in this case it seems to have been a self (or peer)-identification, not a label imposed by the cops. Another friend of mine who grew up in the same area but at a different school also remembers bangers and moshpit wars - and she actually has noticed "yo" as a third-person-singular gender-neutral pronoun as you describe, and assumed it was standard Ebonics vernacular.

It seems possible that this kind of group identity could easily evolve into use of the word as a third-person pronoun, from "That yo stood me up!" to "Yo stood me up!", etc. If it's derived from an exclusive cultural identity among young people, that would also explain the perception that authority figures and teachers are *not* yos. I'm not sure where to send you for independent confirmation, though - maybe some other readers from the same place and time have similar memories!

For what it's worth, my sister now substitute teaches (mostly middle school) in Anne Arundel, and reports that she hasn't observed much usage of "yo" as a pronoun among schoolkids there. Possibly it's confined to Baltimore City and hasn't made it to the suburbs. The banger/yo wars seem to have been left in the 90s. "Yo" as an attention-getter ("Yo! Wait up!") or for emphasis ("'Yo' as a pronoun? That's the weirdest thing I've heard today, yo.") is still very prevalent among most people in the region.


[Martyn Cornell writes:

"Hey, mush" sounds remarkably like the London/Cockney expression "moosh", normally found in the expression "Oi, moosh", a slightly more aggressive way of drawing a stranger's attention than, for example, "I say, you over there ...", and in existence for many decades - here's an example dating to 1975.

Wikipedia claims claims "moosh" is "an affectionate word used in Dorset (UK) given to a friend/work colleague/partner whom you consider a friend".

Curiously there is also a British slang word "divvy" meaning fool or idiot, rather than crazy ...

Peter Trudgill's The Dialects of England (Blackwell, 1999) said (p. 121) about Cockney that

Other words have been borrowed from the Gypsy language Romany, such as pal = 'friend' (= 'brother' in Romany), ... and mush, which is a term of address in Cockney but is actually from the Anglo-Romany word moosh = 'man'.

And Rosalind Fergusson & Eric Partridge's Shorter Slang Dictionary (Routledge, 1994) has (p. 65)

divvy, adj. daft, stupid, eccentric, odd. Possibly from the Romany divio, mad.

This accords with several of the comments at the www.boston-online.com page on The Lake:

Any of you divia mushes or bree know where mandi-ki can get a history of Lake language? I was born there and was told that it came from "carny talk". That might have been an overchay because I was just a chabby then. Now I have a quistia little givel and I want her to get the right education.

[Larold on May 8, 2004 03:02 PM.]

Anglo-Romani (sp?) is the actual language, and in the early 20th century, it seeped into the neighborhood (maybe the Carnies in Hawthorn Park every July brought it?).

[wicked pissah on on January 30, 2005 08:26 PM.]

I am also from a family that came directly to Newton from Italy and settled in Thompsonville to continue farming along Florence St and Dudley Rd. There were at least two Irish Traveller colonies in Newton at the turn of the last century. One in Nonantum (The Lake) and one in Newton Centre (Thompsonville.) They must have spoken in a version of the Patrin/Romany language where you can find the words mush, divja, etc.

[T on March 17, 2006 01:22 PM.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at January 14, 2008 06:06 AM