Friday, 16 October 2009


Every day on my way to the office, I pass a Big Issue salesperson. In traditional hawker fashion, he can be identified by his unique holler. However, he has prioritised a good sounding phrase over good grammar. A while ago he was shouting:

"Can I interest you to buy the Big Issue!"

I would usually use 'interest you in ...', but I was saved the possible embarrassment of correcting a homeless person's grammar because last week he had changed slightly:

"Can I interest you in the Big Issue!"

However, perhaps he thought that the hard-sell had gone out of the phrase, because he changed it again to:

"Can I interest you in buying the Big Issue!"

However, now he had ruined the neat rhythm of his initial chant and also lost the internal rhyme between 'I' and 'buy'. The next day he was back to his original call, albeit with a few 'in' variation slips. This pedaler is not alone in his tinkering with syntax, however. George Taylor writes about the old cries of Hawkers in London (here). Some include:

Swepe chimney swepe

Then shall no soote

Fall in your poridge pot.

A good sausage, a good,

Why do hawkers' cries take on these weird, ungrammatical forms? Imagining yourself as a Hawker, what you want is a phrase which is distinctive (to distinguish yourself from other competitors), easy to pronounce (you'll be saying it hundreds of times a day) and informative (so people know what you're selling). The last condition is perhaps the least important, since people will become familiar with your wares over time. This linguistic convention allowed the street hawkers of Damascus to use more elaborate calls (also from Taylor's article):

Appease your mother-in-law - Flowers
In the moonlight she stretched; she is cold - Cucumbers
From under the dew I gathered them! - Grapes

From these strange statements we understand that 'I have sausages/flowers/cucumbers to sell', also perhaps '... and mine are better'. The reason that good grammar seems to be abandoned is that language is primarily for communicating. People use what works.

Indeed, I was waiting for a bus in Swansea once when I noticed that a noise which I previously thought was a problem with the air conditioning was actually an old woman. She let out short wails, starting quietly then rising and stopping suddenly. After about ten minutes, I figured she must have shortened "Western Mail and Echo" (the newspapers she was selling) to just the final hiccup of the phrase. This seems like the ultimate pragmatic use of language. All she was doing was getting people's attention, since it's pretty obvious what a woman in front of a large pile of newspapers is doing.

I've been a salesperson myself and some of my pitches atrophied so much that sometimes I gave said it wholesale to friends instead of 'hello' ('If you spend more than a fiver, you can get one of these fantastic DVDs for only ...').

I'm wondering if there's been any work about how street hawkers influence language. To start with, the rate of change of a word has been liked to word frequency (see Bybee, 2000, although there is evidence against this, e.g. Pagel, Atkinson & Meade, 2007). As Jurafsky (2003) points out, production and comprehension frequencies may not be the same, and one would expect an imbalance in hawkers.

In certain cities, hawker's calls must be a significant contributor to the input for children - I can still remember the scrap metal collector walking the lanes behind our house shouting 'Any old Iron', with a strange upward intonation at the end. How did this affect my language acquisition? Are there traces of French structure in my grammar from the onion sellers that used to call to my house?

Also street hawkers could act as accelerators or preservers of language change. The bottleneck of declaring your services in a short phrase in a noisy environment, coupled with constant repetition, could lead to a much higher rate of innovation and refinement of the linguistic code. At the same time, however, whole phrases are being protected from change by linguistic convention.

And as I'm thinking all this, I sail past the Big Issue vendor, lost in my own thoughts as he screams in my ear ...

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