Figgy, Gills & Bobby Transcript

Carrie Gillon: Hi and welcome to the Vocal Fries Podcast, the podcast about linguistic discrimination.

Megan Figueroa: I’m Megan Figueroa.

Carrie Gillon: I’m Carrie Gillon, so right before we started recording, we were watching and listening to a video of Austin Butler, AKA Elvis, before and after he worked with friend of the pod, Eric Singer, a linguist stylet coach, to get the Elvis accent and manner of speech down. And it’s kind of jarring to see before and after or to listen to before and after.

Megan: It’s interesting because at first I didn’t hear a difference, but then by the second one, I was like, “Oh wait. Yeah, no, he really sounds different.”

Megan: Yeah. Yeah. Well, so the reason why we were doing it is because Eric just shared a Vox interview that was done with him about, does Austin Butler still sound like Elvis. Let’s talk to his dialect coach and see, so in this article, they claim he sounds very SoCal before. Do you agree with that?

Carrie: Let me listen again. Okay, so in the first section, he definitely does not sound SoCal to me. He sounds like a little urban Southern, but I think in the later ones, like the other clips, he sounds more SoCal, so I’m just going to keep going. Yeah, so from like 2017, that part of the clip, he does sound SoCal.

Megan: He does.

Carrie: It’s interesting. He’d already shifted by 2019 and that was supposedly before, so maybe he’d already been working with Eric at that point.

Megan: Yeah, because 2019 he was talking about Bos. Oh, he wasn’t. He was talking about Quinton. I don’t know what he was talking about. He wasn’t talking about Elvis though.

Carrie: I don’t think so, but I think it might have been close enough to where he already knew he was going to be taking the role and so he was already starting on it. I don’t know.

Megan: Yeah, I have to think so, because in 2017 he sounds like he’s from Southern California and guess what?

Carrie: He does.

Megan: He’s from a Anaheim, so it absolutely makes sense that that’s how he would sound.

Carrie: Yeah, absolutely, but it’s interesting because I don’t know why he chose the person who created this YouTube video, why he chose that first clip from 2019 because it’s doesn’t really feed into his, , analysis at all. It’s just like, “Oh, he sounds vaguely southern.” I don’t know, so it wasn’t as big of a shift from the first clip to the second clip where he’s post Elvis as versus post Elvis going back to 2017, where you’re like, “Whoa.”

Megan: Yeah, yeah. No, 2017 was, it is market. Yeah. He sounds in 2017 exactly like kind of my generation. I mean, he’s 4 years younger than me.

Carrie: Yeah. Your generation, but also like even more Californian than you.

Megan: Yeah. Yeah. Eric points out though that Austen is 31 now, but Eric points out that a lot of what we’re noticing in his voice is that he’s matured in that it is deeper.

Carrie: His voice is deeper. That’s what I was going to say before I got to the second part where I was like, “Oh, actually it’s not just deepness.” Because that was the first thing I noticed is like, “Well his voice sounds a little deeper, but it doesn’t sound that much different.” So that is definitely a part of it, but it’s not the whole story.

Megan: Yes, but there is still some of that like Southernness that stuck with him, so Singer says there are elements in Butler’s accent that already resembled a Presley’s speech pattern. Both of them, the king and the protege possessed what linguists called price smoothing. Were the… I have never heard that. Where the vowel sound in words like price and time are reshaped to our instead of I.

Carrie: Monetization. Yeah. I’ve never heard it as price leveling before, but I knew what it was going to be as soon as you said it because of the vowel. I was like, “Oh, it’s going to be a mono thong press how you say pass press, that’s probably still wrong, but how does he have that from Anaheim?

Megan: I don’t know.

Carrie: That’s not really a thing. Right?

Megan: I don’t know.

Carrie: I don’t think so. I don’t know, someone can tell us if we’re wrong.

Megan: I mean, I don’t know. I’ve never heard of that being a thing in California.

Carrie: Me neither, but I don’t know. I’m not an accent expert. I’m not a phenologist. I don’t know.

Carrie: Yeah, Singer Eric is saying that during his acceptance speech, because in the Golden Globes, I think is what everyone’s talking about, like when he accepted for best actor or whatever is like, “Oh, my God, he’s still sounding like Elvis.” And Eric is saying that it’s possible that some of Butler’s accent training did shine through during his acceptance speech, but yeah, I got to believe that I’m just thinking about what it is to be like a human and we shift the way we talk all the time, depending on who we’re talking to, what the circumstances are. What if like he just won an award for Elvis and if his learned accent from Elvis came through, I wouldn’t be shocked at all.

Like if that was just kind of like an unconscious or even semi-conscious thing going on, but it’s more widespread than just the award ceremony. Oh, is he’s like doing it everywhere.

Megan: Yeah. Like in this video, that’s not just from Golden Globes.

Carrie: Well, I thought that he just sounded pretty deep in that 1 from 2022. Did he still have some of the Southern stuff? It did? Okay.

Megan: Yeah, so I don’t think he’s like, kept the entirety of it, but he’s definitely like settled into like halfway to Elvis accent.

Carrie: Eric says he doesn’t believe that this vocal transformation is a particularly common occurrence.

Megan: It’s not. That’s why when you were like, “Oh, what about context?” And I’m like, “But people don’t normally do this. They normally just use their regular accent.” Like Australians just use their Australian accent when they’re accepting awards and things.

Carrie: Yeah, that’s true. Glad to see Eric Singer. I’m glad to see people interview the people they should for stories like this. It makes me happy.

Megan: Yeah, and he obviously did a good job with Austin because he stuck.

Carrie: Yeah. Oh yeah. It really did. He stuck.
Megan: Yeah. Well, it sounds like Austin reached out to him and good job Austin, because Eric is very good at his job.

Carrie: Yes. Also a good job Austin. Yeah, and if you want to stick with this accent, go for it. Who cares?

Megan: Yeah, I know. If you want to sound Southern Californian, that’s also fine. Like, but this one actually works for you, so go for it,


Carrie: It does, it does. You can switch between the 2 maybe.

Megan: Maybe. I don’t know. Do what you need to. I know it’s in his DNA now Carrie.


Anyway. Cool. Well, thank you for the update on the Elvis situation.

Carrie: On the saga.


This episode is so fun. We talk about…

Megan: It’s so much it fun.

Carrie: Much sports talk. I learned some things. I learned a lot of things. This might be the one that I learned the most.

Megan: Really?

Carrie: Because I just I’m like, no sports is just not my thing. I’m not opposed to it. Like I went to a hockey game recently, which was kind of fun, even though the Connects were already out of the playoffs, so it was like a pretty much a meaningless game, although it wasn’t for the other team, the Seattle Kraken, and they won, which helped them get into the assembly cup, but the Connects could have disrupted that for them.

Megan: Wait, did you say it’s called the Seattle Kraken? That is such a cool name.

Carrie: Oh yeah. I should show you the tentacle. There’s like this… like instead of a foam hand, you can get a foam tentacle as hilarious, and I almost kind of want it, it’s just junks, so I’m not going to buy it, but…

Megan: Right. That is amazing. I know there’s some people in the audience, or at least 1 person in the audience had it. I was just like…

Carrie: Yes. This is a fun episode with a dear friend, Bob’s.

Megan: Bob’s. Dr. Bob Kennedy we’re excited to have him as our chef for a second time. He’s a lecturer in the linguistics department at the University of California Santa Barbara with specialties in phonology morphology, phonetics reduplication, ultrasound, cross-sectional imaging, presonus dephophonology, dialects of English, and the linguistics of sports, and that’s why we are having him here today. He’s a strong interest in the form usage and social meaning of names and nicknames, especially those that function as both reference and address.

This pursuit has drawn him into a broader domain of language and sports where the study of register, and structural repertoire illustrates the effect of sporting context on linguistic structures and vice versa, and he is also the author of the paper nicknames in the Oxford Handbook of the Word. So welcome Bob.

Carrie: We’re glad you’re back.

Bob: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Yeah, so what an honor it is to be a second-time guest in the Vocal Fries.

Carrie: We don’t just do that. Willy-nilly. Anyway, so yeah, let’s talk about like, why is the linguistics of sport interesting.

Bob: I’m glad that you asked that question. I know that we were sort of spitballing a few ideas about how we could talk about it or how we could frame the discussion, and I was thinking about it and actually, I came up with 5 different answers that we could probably come to… I think that each of them will emerge over the course of our discussion, but one way that we could go with it is why did I get into it in the first place? Another way to look at it, and I think this is probably more generalizable, is what’s the value in it pedagogically? And I think that one thing I like to focus on a lot is that it’s a neat vehicle to teach about linguistics to an audience that isn’t necessarily expecting that they’re going to be learning about linguistics.

There’s a connection between a lot of these different ways of answering the question. I come at this as more of a teacher about it, although as you mentioned at the top of the recording, Carrie, I’ve done some research on some particularities of it, but I have a class on it that the timing is really good because I’m teaching it this quarter. We’re just about wrapping it up, and a lot of this stuff is really fresh on my mind because I’ve been talking about it with these undergraduates and it’s a little hyperbolic, but I like to tell the students in my class that this is the only place where they can take a class like this in the world, and I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do think it’s probably pretty rare.

There is like a subset of linguists who do focus on ways of using data from sports to look at linguistic things, but I don’t know to what extent it appears within the domain of linguistic pedagogy more broadly, so my real interest in it is using it to teach linguistics, and when I first started it, when I first started teaching this course, which was I think 2008 was the first time I offered it. I wanted it to be a class that was a way of tricking people into learning about syntax. The nice thing about this, for me at least, was that it changed the way that I taught syntax, so like I’m very clearly a phonologist by training. My dissertation was on phonology.

I’ve written a textbook and phonology everything else that I do research-wise, teaching wise is oriented to sound systems, but in this context I needed to talk about syntax in a way that wasn’t going to drive people away, and I teach intro linguistics as well, so a lot of what I do teaching wise at UC, Santa Barbara is teaching introductory courses in linguistics. 1 of the biggest domains of analysis in sports linguistics, or like the biggest subset of phenomena to look at is, the ways that journalists and broadcasters use linguistic structure to construct their narrative, and so in these kinds of illustrations, I needed to be able to talk to students not just about constituency, and that’s like such a focus of so much syntax.

I wanted to not really worry about that, not worry about trees and abstractions and not worry about grammatical judgments of all the kinds of things that show up as the foreground of a syntax course. I wanted to be able to talk more about the nature of the verb phrase, the nature of the auxiliary structure, what happens when we reorder things, what makes an inversion different from a passive, and what other types of constructions are really salient in the register, and a lot of them have these very technical terms like clefts and pseudo clefts and so forth.

I still don’t understand the origins of those terms, but they don’t play a big role in syntactic pedagogy otherwise. We spend so much time learning about anaphora and bless anaphora, but it’s like there’s a lot more that I as a non-syntactician found curious about syntax, so it was a great way to talk about it and get those things out there for the students to be drawn into as well, so that was 1 of the primary motivations in the first place was to be able to talk analytically about syntactic structures in a way that wasn’t really obscured by so much of the abstractions of constituent based and tree-based analysis of syntax.

Megan: Just for our listeners, just in case they don’t know what is an anaphora

Bob: Oh, of course, so anaphora I mean, you might be asking the wrong person, but the way that I think of it, is that it’s a technical term that has a multitude, at least 2, you could say interpretations, and within syntax itself that relates particularly to the relationship between a pronoun and a sentence, and whether it has some other noun phrase in the same sentence that it co refers with.

Carrie: Listen, I actually liked all that nerdy stuff about syntax. I got into linguistics and thought syntax was really cool, but anaphora took me, several classes, to understand, I so grateful that there’re people like you who are doing this because who knows who’s going to be a linguist when they walk into a class, and so to have something like the linguistics of sports, and then having like these real-world connections can really be like, “Ah, I was just taking this because of sports.” But also I’m a linguist or maybe I’m a linguist. Like I just love the idea that it’s opening the door to future linguists.

Bob: Yeah, it’s great to hear about that kind of thing, and like that was the intent of the class. 1 of my unwritten responsibilities is to attract potential students to the field who wouldn’t otherwise think of themselves as interested in linguistics, and the onus of that is now more on my introductory classes, rather than on this course, so I’ve been able to make this course more of an appeal to our population of majors who have already figured out that they want to be a linguist, and so we can go deeper and we can be more specialized with that group.

It’s flattering. Thank you for saying so, it’s cool to hear.

Megan: Yeah, I was just thinking there’s very little that we talked about in terms of sports when I was doing my undergrad or grad work. The only thing I can think of is the, he shoots he scores.

Bob: Can you clarify how that is like, because I can think of something how that is relevant, but I’m curious what role that item played in…

Megan: Right, so it’s a good question, so it has to do with tense, so English doesn’t really like the plain present tense for most verbs, and so usually you would say he is doing something, he is doing something, but in the sports use, just say the plain present tense.

Bob: Yeah, so like simple present tense, right? And actually, it is a really salient aspect of the register of sports announcer talk. The use of this simple present tense, and I use it as a way of demonstrating like the difference between the form of aspect, and the interpretation of aspect, and how in most other contexts when you have a simple verb, you still get this special interpretation of a habitual actually, so if you say, I walk to school, or she walks to school, it gets a habitual interpretation, and to talk about something in the moment, we need that progressive construction.

Like the progressive is the name of the structure, but the interpretation of the aspect is something entirely different, and that separation of form and function is such a recurrent lesson that I think needs to be taught and retaught and retaught, and it applies to singular reference they likewise, when I discussed this and it comes up in nearly every class that I teach, I point out like, look it’s still grammatically presented as a plural item, but it has this singular interpretation in some contexts, and that’s not at all unusual because that happens in a lot of different ways, where the form and the function are they go together, but they are not the same thing.

They’re just different dimensions and they can pattern differently like this, so it’s a good opportunity to bring back in a discussion of pronoun use like this in the same way.

Megan: Same with you too. You has plural agreement no matter if it’s a plural or a singular reference.

Bob: Exactly. Yeah.

Megan: Okay, so what else can sports teach us about language and linguistics

Bob: With nearly the same reading list that I constructed for the class in the first place, in which I’ve added to in the years since. With nearly the same reading list, you can likewise use this pedagogical model to have students or put students in a situation where they’re going to be learning about language ideology when they weren’t expecting to learn about language ideology, and it comes up in a couple of different ways, but again, because of the fact that we’re looking at some fairly specialized contexts of usage, we can find examples of language behavior that’s observable, but which people who are either not participants in it themselves.

Or they might buy into it even if they are participants, end up thinking like a particular type of language behavior or a typical type of construction is somehow just ideologically inappropriate, or bad behavior or even ungrammatical behavior, and actually, these types of judgements that of course we’re all aware of in this kind of context, right? These type of judgements are all over the place, and so every time they come up, it’s a good chance for me as instructor to say to the students, people can be judging you about this, but they’re not even necessarily aware of the nuance that’s behind or underneath the language behavior that people are looking at in the first place.

Carrie: This gets repackaged over time, right? Like you think of like Al McCoy and like basketball or like different people. I mean, I only have…

Megan: I’m sorry, who?

Carrie: Yeah, I know. I would say my reference is for watching the Phoenix Suns growing up, but…

Megan: I’ve literally never heard that name before.

Carrie: You didn’t grow up in Phoenix in the 1990s. If you are from Phoenix or from Arizona, you definitely know the name Al McCoy, but I’m just thinking that there got to be people that are going up studying to be a sports journalist that look up to people like Al McCoy. People are just kind of modeling themselves after other people, right?

Bob: It does, it replicates in an interesting way. We don’t need to limit the discussion to sports announce or registers or sports journalism, but it is a big part of there’s just a whole bunch of data and different examples. Different users of it that we can point to as not just models, but as sources of data, and this question, I’ve never been able to answer this to my own satisfaction, but it does seem like contemporary broadcasters who use these same types of grammatical strategies. Learn it somehow by modeling themselves after prior generations, and it seems like a lot of this goes back to the radio era of baseball broadcasting and some of it survives into the modern or contemporary era.

Both in… there are still games that are broadcast over the radio. It can be a lot of fun to listen to a game on the radio, and the skillset of the radio announcer translates directly into the skillset of the television play-by-play commentator, but just with the fact that with this extra vigil medium, they can sometimes diverge away from in the moment narration more so, because there’s still the visual for the viewer to fall back on. The kinds of things that show up in the radio era stuff

Megan: Like Harry Carrie. Right?

Bob: I would include that there. Yeah.

Megan: Carrie Gillon, you’ve heard of Harry Carey, right?

Carrie: Harry Carrie?

Megan: Yeah.

Carrie: I think so, but I don’t remember anything about this person.

Megan: Okay.

Bob: Famous old baseball broadcaster, I think for one of the Chicago teams, if I’m correct.

Megan: The Cubs, I believe.

Bob: Yeah. Okay, and I didn’t want to misspeak and…

Megan: Can you imagine, can you imagine all of the hate mail, you said the White Sox?

Bob: Yes. All the letters you all would get. I have to.


Right. This brings us to talking more about identity and so forth, but I think that the thing I wanted to bring up with respect to this was, even that simple present tense that Carrie brought up earlier is something that you can attribute to some of this early radio you’re a broadcasting. Likewise with things like there’s this strategy of dropping out verbs either as a copula B or auxiliary B can go missing in live sports broadcasting. It’s actually quite widely used across the register to such an extent that people who were not sports broadcasters have enough of an intuition about it, that they projected into other types of broadcast domains, so for example, you may have watched a show called Flores Lava.

Megan: Yes, I have.

Bob: The announcer uses sports announcer talk in that. Or if you ever watch Survivor from the second season onward, during the challenges where the tribes would be competing for immunity or for a reward or something, Jeff props there onsite would or does still narrate the competition using structures of sports announcer talk, including leaving out these verbs, and I don’t think anyone’s ever gone to a journalism school or broadcast school taking a class where the instructor says, “Okay, listen, when you’re doing sports, drop out these verbs in these particular contexts.”

I don’t think they get that. I think that they learn it by watching older broadcasts and or growing up hearing older broadcasters who themselves heard even older broadcasters, and it’s like this particular register that they just absorb much like the rest of us learn language as little kids, but they absorb it and repackage it and re-perpetuate it in later generations of broadcasters.

Carrie: It’s interesting that you bring up that particular thing because my dad, who was not in sports journalism. He was just in regular journalism.

Megan: Just a regular one.

Carrie: News, news I guess he would try to ride out as many bees as he could, and once I became a linguist, I couldn’t figure out why he was doing that, but maybe it was just this holdover from the sports side because he is a sports fan, he’s always been a huge sports fan.

Megan: He also knits amazing sweaters.

Carrie: He does knit amazing sweaters.

Megan: He’s such a Renaissance man.

Carrie: Actually the CBC, like the old exploding pizza logo. He knit a, a nest… sorry, a vest with that, and then he passed it on to the next person who took his role after he retired, and now that person’s leaving and she gave it to the next person in line and it’s all on Facebook and it’s so adorable.

Megan: That’s amazing, and you see how everything’s repackaged and passed down.

Bob: We can imagine someone narrating him, knitting as if it’s a sport, and it could be like Dylan now with another crossover stitch. Dylan choosing yet another color. Dylan was the best.

Megan: Oh my God, and Carrie, I wish someone would do that.

Carrie: That’s really exciting.

Megan: That’s great. It got really more exciting.

Carrie : That would be a fun.

Megan: Wow. Wow.

Carrie: Yeah, so why is it more exciting? Is it just because we associate it with an exciting sports thing?

Bob: It seems to be that it’s gained this index of excitement, so the identification of this, like the labeling of it as a register that you would call a sports announcer talk, is something that we can, I think first attribute to the linguist Charles Ferguson, who is like big into register and 1 of basically the most seminal paper in the domain of looking at language and sports would be his identification and discussion of sports announcer talk, and in this paper, he lays out a bunch of different salient examples.

I don’t think he covers all of them that could be identified, but he at least identifies a few of them, including leaving out the verb. Including particular types of inversions, and including a few other things, but the reasoning that he gives, and I think this is a really sound explanation, is that at least some of them have their origins in the urgency of the moment, so when something is happening very suddenly, then you need to get a little bit telegraphic and speak a little bit more quickly, and take some shortcuts, but on the other hand, a lot of the data come from baseball in which to be fair, there’s not a whole lot of fast things happening.

Megan: No, so slow.

Bob: Right, right, but it can be a whole lot of fun to watch, and 1 of the things that makes it more enjoyable to watch, or enjoyable to listen to over the radio is if it’s narrated well, and so there needs to be a really good story constructed by the narrator for the game, and 1 of the things that they can do is, exaggerate the urgency by shifting into something more telegraphic. Even though there’s not really the urgency there necessitating it in the actual context, that the viewer gets absorbed into this illusion of urgency.

Likewise, it’s become so much of a typical trait of the register that if a sports announcer is not using it, it doesn’t sound like authentic sports announcing. If someone’s talking about whether it’s baseball or a truly much more fast-moving sport, if they’re using let’s say a progressive verb structure rather than simple present tense, or if they include all of their [inaudible] and don’t drop them out, then it doesn’t sound as urgent and it doesn’t sound as authentically sport-oriented, so it’s actually gained this additional indexicality of marking the register as sport-oriented.

Carrie: I love it. It’s the sports journalist that’s doing those cutesy stories sometimes, like that’s being kind of, I don’t know, put out the being folksy or even like… they’re all these things where you see like the sports journalist is being placed into these situations as if they’re the ones that can handle it.

Bob: They seem to be more relatable. The weather person and the sports person are the relatable ones on the broadcast in general.

Carrie: Yeah. Yeah. Is there something about that, about this kind of connection to the viewer listener?

Bob: I think that you’re probably onto something. I think that because of the narration style that we intuitively associate with sports, we tend to think of it as more informal also, even though it’s really hard, like it’s hard to do this well, so when they do it well, it sounds off the cuff and it also sounds really informal, so as a result, there’s a different sheen of formality or informality for that type of journalist, and so as a result, they seem folksier or homeier or something like that.

Carrie: We’re talking about informal or like the idea of folksy. How is that our ideologies playing out? Because I think about a lot of people weren’t allowed access into sports journalism. Are people that are racialized perceived differently when they do this kind of broadcast, sports broadcast talk?

Bob: I think it’s a great question. I mean, I think that we have some shared hunches about how that works out or would work out, and I think that it’s an empirical question that we could pursue in some way or other, but I think that the short blunt answer to your question is that the narrator is always a white voice in the primary role of a sports announcer paradigm where there’s a team with a play-by-play announcer and a color commentator, and then a sideline reporter, and then maybe someone else.

Like they keep adding more and more roles into the live sports paradigm, and they often use minoritized voices in at least some of these positions, particularly the sideline reporter or like the bench reporter, so they get a role, but it’s never the primary role and the primary role is the play-by-play person who narrates the game as it happens, and the color commentator is usually someone who’s not necessarily a journalist. They might be someone who’s a retired coach or a retired athlete who’s had to work in a position where they study everyone else.

A quarterback if it’s football or a goal tender if it’s hockey, makes for a good color commentator, because they can very quickly just analyze what they see and kind of reformulate an explanation of what just happened, so sometimes that particular person can be from a minoritized background, but on the other hand, like you’re saying, I think what we’re observing here is that the main person in charge of the interaction is a white voice, and on the 1 hand, they sound informal to us because they’re using a lot of things that diverge from the expectations of truly formal written language, but they’re also quite conventional and standard in other ways.

They’re typically not regionally marked, and they’re not ethnically marked either. I could imagine that a network would want to push this boundary, but at the same time they would hesitate to do so because of whatever push-back they would get from that type of approach.

Megan: I am so grateful that you’ve explained the difference between color commentator and, what was the other one?

Bob: The play-by-play.

Megan: Play-by-play. I’ve never tried to figure it out.


Bob: Okay. Well, that’s the other thing in television, they end up blurring together in that, so the play-by-play is the 1 that uses more of the register strategies because they’re talking about action as it happens, and sometimes the color commentator, especially in a television broadcast, can interject and describe something during live play, and likewise, sometimes the play-by-play person may interject into the downtime analysis that the color commentator gives, but they have different jobs, and they work together knowing that they’ve got different roles in what they do, so again, I mean, context matters so much and the role that they play is part of that context.

Megan: Okay. Let’s talk about nicknames.

Bob: Okay, sure. Yeah, sure. I mean, so 1 of the ideological things that comes up with nicknames is that you encounter people who have beliefs about the aesthetics of what makes a good nickname, a good nickname, or what they think of as a poorly formed nickname, and those types of discussions, I think are usually uninformed by, or they lack awareness of the fact that some nicknames are given. I said we dropped journalists, but some nicknames are given by journalists and they’re really descriptive and frazzle, and they’re for construction of a story.

Other nicknames are just the nicknames that people use for each other, whether they’re friends or they’re in some type of relationship that may involve equal power. It may involve a power differential, but the nicknames of that type that we see in the sports context are similar then to the way that we come up with nicknames for friends and family members, or for people that we’re not friends with either way.

Megan: Oh, so power differential.

Bob: Power differential is really big here. Yeah, so when I first started getting into nicknames and when Tanya and I first started collecting data on hockey player nicknames, we had a very particular focus of form, where it’s such a minor detail, but it was really relevant in a particular way, which is that we were trying to figure out whether you could predict the presence or absence of a suffix within the nickname, so are you more likely to be… let’s say your last name is Alfredson, is your nickname more likely going to be Alf or Alfie? And when we were work shopping this, everyone kept trying to say like, maybe it has to do with familiarity or closeness or like, you’re more likely to get the 2 syllable nickname on the basis of how close you are with someone.

I think that that dimension might work or might be explanatory in other context, but I think within this context that wasn’t explaining it, because I think from our point of view or what we were seeing was that just having a nickname itself was indicative of closeness, or of just in group membership and camaraderie and solidarity, and so whether you have the suffix or not was not determined by degree of closeness. It was actually phonology that determined this, and it’s a gradient pattern in that you can find counterexamples that they’re not part of the overall generalization, but the skew is still in a very particular direction.

Which is that if you have a name that you’re working with and you’re shortening it, the processes that you shorten it to a single syllable first, and then you add a suffix strictly on the basis of what the consonances at the end of the truncation are, so really, really like nuanced detail, but for me it was really interesting. It was basically if there’s a single consonant that’s voiced, so actual like phonological voiced, or if there’s a continent cluster still in the truncation, then you add a vocalic suffix and it could be E or O or A. Then I mean, if you’re starting with a single-syllable name to create a nickname from, you have to add a suffix regardless of the consonant.

If your truncation ends in a voiceless consonant, you leave it as a single syllable, so something like a P or a K or a T, so like there was a Gold tender with a last name Kiprusoff, and so he was Kip.

Megan: I would be Figgy then.

Bob: If you and I were on the same hockey team, you would most definitely be Figgy.

Carrie: Figgy pudding.


Megan: It has to do with phonotactics, right? Just like it sounds better to us, like if we’re thinking about it like, I just sounds more English like or because I’m an English speaker, I just need this.

Bob: It’s language more generally than English in that it’s this thing where we end up preferring a combination of an inter-vocalic voiced consonant in this 2 syllable form, and a voiceless consonant at the end of a syllable for the other set, so this is why it was interesting to me, phonological, was that it reflects this cross-linguistic tendency towards voicing between vowels, and voicelessness at the ends of words.

Megan: Oh yeah. It’s so true. I love it.

Carrie: What about diminutives? How does that play in like, because I was thinking about the power differential, so when you said like Alpha Alfie, I was actually going to guess that there was some sort of like maybe, Alfie wouldn’t be used if it was like the star player.

Bob: These are both possible ways of getting a nickname out of a name like Alfred or out of Alfredson. The one player in our database with that last name, his nickname was Alfie, and the analysis led us to attribute that to the co-occurrence of an L and an F, so rendering this consonant sequence to be between 2 syllables rather than the end of a single syllable, you’re avoiding a complex coda in Alfie, whereas you end up with a complex coda in Alf, so Alf is possible, there are people named Alf, but in the particular context of this nickname pro construction system, Alfie’s just more likely.

More names go in the Alfie direction than in the Alf direction. If they keep 2 consonants. It’s not really a concern that it sounds diminutive. It’s not like the folks with the diminutive suffixes are somehow junior or less respected. There are actually more of them anyway because there are more types that end up with this suffix anyway, so it doesn’t seem to be a factor like, “Oh, my nickname might be Shelly, you can’t call me Shelly.” No, someone would end up with a nickname like Shelly if the phonotactics determined it, so there’s no concern about whether it was going to sound somehow semantically or implicationally awkward.

There was one player whose nickname was Silly. His last name was Cylinder and they called him Silly because he had this L-voiced consonant and still would be possible, but Silly worked better in terms of the phonological pressure.

Megan: Do people usually go for the last name?

Bob: For the most part when a nickname is drawn from the source formal name of somebody, most of the time it’s from the last name. Overall about 50% of the time the nickname was from something else. It was some personality trait or wordplay or they looked like someone else or that kind of thing. Or sometimes they’d actually get a nickname bequeathed to them because someone else with the same name had that nickname, and that’s part of what pushes people towards Figgy is that other people with Figueroa as their last name have that as their nickname, so it becomes like, well if your name is Figueroa you can’t but be Figgy in that.

Megan: Yeah, I think there are a lot of baseball players with a nickname Figgy.

Bob: Yeah, and then it drives the same thing like to anyone with a last name or first name. Martin is Marty and anyone with Smith is a last name is Smitty regardless, so most of the time, if it is from someone’s name, it’s from their last name. If it is from their last name, at least in this system, it’s always from the start of the word, regardless of where the stress is, so you could have these names of French or Russian background where Spanish background, where the stress shows up later on in the word.

When it’s the fully expressed last name, the nickname would always start at the beginning of the word. The thing with these other types of nicknames that don’t come from people’s names, they still reflect these same tendencies of preferring voice, consonants between bowels and voiceless consonants at the ends of words.

Carrie: Can you give us some examples of these non-last name-based nicknames?

Bob: We had this player in the database, his name was Ken McCauley, and his nickname here was Tubby, so…


Carrie: Okay.

Bob: Here’s a person whose last name was Divine. Kevin Divine Spuddy as an example.

Megan: Oh, I see, so it’s still this E, yeah, it’s still following the role.

Bob: Still showing up there. Here’s 1 Scott Gordon, his nickname was Flash. I mean, there’s another thing where anyone with the last name Gordon’s going to get called Flash, but it stays at flash and not flashy or anything else like that. I mean, you’re not going to go Flasher, but it stays at that. It keeps that voiceless fricative at the end of a syllable instead of placing it between 2 vows. We haven’t given Carrie a nickname yet.

Megan: Yeah, it’s true.

Carrie: Gillie?

Bob: I didn’t tell you about this, other part of the system is that if the last name or the source name is 2 syllables in the first place, it’s a very strong tendency just to use an S or Z suffix instead.

Carrie: Oh, Gills?

Bob: You end up as Gill’s.

Carrie: I do like that. That is much better than Gilly.

Megan: Oh I call her Gills.

Carrie: Gills’ much better, I don’t like Gilly.

Bob: Gills and Figgy are on the same team, maybe on the same line. In fact, the 3 of us could be aligned on a particular team, and if Gills and Figgy are on my team, I’m ready to scrap for them.


Megan: Then what’s your nickname?

Carrie: Is it Kenny?

Bob: I still have no real answer for this because that’s what the system predicts. There’s a very small number of people with the last name Kennedy in this database, and none of them had a name based on Kennedy, and I actually think it has something to do with the fact that the name, it is 3 syllables, but it almost sounds like it’s 2 syllables to begin with, and it seems to be the kind of last name that in that ends up encouraging people to go for some other source as the nickname, so when I played hockey recreationally, I was always Bobby, and that’s a fairly typical thing to end up with instead is just diminutive of the first name is a suitable nickname in this type of context also.

It’s underwhelming in that it doesn’t seem to be as different from nicknames in other contexts, and it doesn’t shorten the last name, but that’s something that shows up is yeah, sometimes the nickname doesn’t come from the last name, it comes from the first name instead.

Megan: What about like, just suppletus ones? There’s nothing about anything. I know that’s not the way to talk about it, but like that’s like the ones you gave me like Tubby. Right?

Bob: Yeah, no, we called those suppletus[?] in our paper.

Megan: Oh, really? Oh, well.

Bob: Yeah, because it’s directly analogous to suppletus morphology and that they end up like in the paradigm, but they’re not derived from the root, so it’s exactly like went and go. Over the years I’ve used when either presenting about this at conferences or teaching about it in my language and sports class, I used these clips of mixed up scenarios where a player volunteers to have a microphone on them over the course of a game, and you get to hear what they’re saying to each other, and so I have a couple of these. They’re from the mid-2000s, but I mean, they’re still topical and I’m certain that interaction is the same now as it was then.

They’re filled with nickname usage where you’ll see a player talking to a teammate on the bench about someone else, and they’re referring to that person with a nickname, or they’re addressing a teammate with a nickname, and my favorite is where you can overhear a referee talking to a team captain about someone else on the team using that player’s nickname, so the referee using the nickname for the player also. Which kind of suggests like this is so in group to the community of practice that everybody within it, the coaches, the officiants or the game officials, and the players, they all know each other’s nicknames.

It’s not just you get a nickname from your teammates, you get a nickname from the people in the community generally, and you take your nickname with you if you get traded.

Carrie: Oh, yeah, that’s interesting. I haven’t really thought about that, but like, yeah, you take the nickname with you, even though it may have the origin may be in that city or whatever, but it’s hard to like change what you refer to people, right? Like I think that makes a lot of sense that it would follow you.

Bob: Well, that’s where the power differential angle of this comes up in that when it’s all like these professionals, athletes and their coaches and their referees and everything. They’re all on a fairly similar level of power, but the phenomenon of nicknaming in other contexts, like in schools or in family units, is often driven by someone with more influence or power, being able to innovate a nickname that other people adopt. No one ever chooses their own nickname, and sometimes people end up with nicknames that they dislike, and the use of that nickname becomes it’s like a flex. It’s like a power move to stick with that and apply that nickname to someone else.

In the sports context, it’s interesting because of the equity of power, we get to explore dimensions like the phonology of it, but in other contexts the power differential overrides a lot of this, and the diminutive suffix does carry that additional layer of intimacy or relative power or anything else like that, and there’s also circumstances where the people giving the nickname are in a relatively weaker position, and they only use the nickname for the recipient when the recipient’s not around, so like using a mean nickname to talk about a teacher you don’t like, or soldier is using a mean nickname to talk about an officer that they don’t like.

They would never use that nickname to that authority figure, but it’s sort of like a way of bonding over, being on the suffering end of the power differential. Another way of answering the question about why we’d look at language and sports in the first place. Comes up in that I think after the last time I was a guest on your podcast, somebody wrote in to say, “Hey, if you have him back, ask him about passives, and why they use passives.” So this actually would bring us back to sports announcer talk in particular, but I mean, there is an answer that it’s a fairly straightforward answer that I can get into if you’re curious, so we can…

Megan: I am curious.

Bob: All right, so it actually is embedded in the interaction between the organization of information in unscripted discourse. On the one hand, interacting with syntactic structures we projected over things that we’re trying to say extemporaneously at the same time. And I think that the question might come up in the first place and here’s the ideology part of it, so many of us have been told as writers not to use passive, right? And just it’s dumb advice and it’s an oversimplified advice, but it’s so ingrained and it goes back so far, and the reasoning, as you know comes from examples where people take advantage of the passive to obfuscate agency in something.

Like it shows up in shrunken whites elements of style, and it shows up in Orwell’s politics in the English language, right? So you can obscure the agent with a passive, but I think what people generally don’t realize is that you can obfuscate the agent without using a passive, so you can have a headline that says something like suspect dies in shootout with police. That’s active in its grammar, but the agency is obscured, and you can, you can identify the agent in a passive also when you say something like suspect shot by police, where it’s passive, but the agent is still pretty explicitly there, so the dimensions are different, but so many people just in the general public are willing to accept the idea that passive itself is just, it’s bad.

Grammar checker on Microsoft Word will flag passive for you, which is why I turn it off because it’s bad advice. Nevertheless, you see examples of passives showing up in sports announcer talk, and I think the particular reason has to do a little bit with the urgency of the moment in that. In particular game-calling contexts, the broadcaster can see that something is happening but doesn’t necessarily know who’s doing it yet, and so they may start off by describing the action, leading with the verb, and then they get to the point where they know the agent, then they can add the agents in afterwards.

1 of the ways of doing that is with an inversion of the type where the subject grammatically is at the end, so charging up the right side now with speed is Figgy or where it’s Figueroa, where either way, it’s grammatically the subject is there, it’s not passive, it’s an active verb, but the agent is at the very right edge of the sentence. Or you could do that with a passive now, like knocked down and struggling to get back up now is… yeah, knock down, anything else like that. Knockdown by Figueroa, let’s say, so Figueroa is doing the knocking knock down now by Figueroa, so Figueroa is at the end of the sentence in a by phrase, the agent, but not the grammatical subject.

The same type of thing happens. It’s like the action is identifiable first, so the discourse context allows the broadcaster to start talking about it and then plug in the agent afterwards, either by using a by phrase to identify the agent or by using 1 of these inversions instead.

Megan: Are there any other thoughts about sports before we let you

Bob: I think maybe a unifying thought about this was that coming back to your original question of like, why even look at language and sports and we talked about some really different kinds of applications of it with the intricacies of the syntax of sports announcer talk, and with the phonology and the indexical, both of nicknames. That these are all things that are big components of learning about linguistics, and I think that this particular usage of sports itself as testing ground, I think it works because of the fact that the context is fairly well defined and fairly well controlled, if you want to think about it as a naturally occurring experiment, and the context is what drives the usage of particular syntactic structures.

The context is what drives adherence to strategies of in-group indexical, or even the phonology is somehow contextually oriented, and it’s a great opportunity, I think to just acknowledge how important the context of any construction is when talking about any aspect of language behavior, and we tend to think of… I shouldn’t say we tend to, but it is a risk that when we think about like the semantics of a word or the particular limitations on some kind of grammatical structure, or something else like that.

That we don’t think about the scenarios where those may or may not be used, but in language usage, naturally occurring language behavior, the meaning of anything is always interpretable on the basis of its context. Like without context, you can’t interpret whether something means 1 thing or another, and so if you’re interested in looking at the relationship between context, extra-linguistic on the 1 hand, and language behavior on the other hand, there’s a huge range of ways that we can do that.

In this particular setting, it’s like we have the benefit of this very tightly defined little testing ground. It’s almost like a tiny little test tube where the context is pretty consistent, so we don’t have to worry about like these particularities of the context differ from 1 thing to the next. It’s like always a game being talked about, or it’s always teammates talking to each other, and that’s really constant across all of these conditions, and as a result, it lets us look at these things in deeper detail without getting thrown by having to imagine what the context would be.

Carrie: It’s kind of like an experimenter’s dream.

Megan: Yeah right. The perfect lab.

Bob: Yeah, exactly. It’s like a discourse lab, basically.

Megan: Well, this has been a lot of fun. I don’t normally think of myself as like a big sports fan, but I realize…

Carrie: You’re at least a basketball fan. My goodness.

Megan: Yeah. I grew up in Phoenix. We watched the Phoenix Suns, but yeah, so Bobby, great.

Carrie: Bob’s.

Bob: Oh my goodness. What have I done?

Carrie: Oh, that does not work. Bob’s does not work.

Megan: It works for me, but maybe I’m just too far-field from the sports.

Bob: It’s not good for the hockey context, but…

Megan: Right. No.

Bob: All right. Gills in Figgy.

Megan: All right. Well, we always leave our listeners to one final message. Don’t be an asshole.

Carrie: Don’t be an asshole.

Bob: Don’t be an asshole.

Megan: Thank you.

Bob: Thank you.

Carrie: Thanks. The Vocal Fries Podcast is produced by me, Carrie Gillen. Theme music by Nick Granum. You can find us on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram Vocal Fries Pod. You can email us at Our website is



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