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Pondering Pronouns . . . and Prepositions

Pennebaker, James W.  2011. The secret life of pronouns: What our words say about us. New York: Bloomsbury Press. 290 pages, plus a 9-page “Handy Guide for Spotting and Interpreting Function Words in the Wild,” as well as endnotes, bibliography, and index.


I was eager to read what Prof. Pennebaker had to say about pronouns because, over more than 30 years of teaching college-level courses in humanities, anthropology and English composition, I have become fascinated with the diverse ways students use prepositions in writing.

Now, pronouns are not, of course, prepositions. But, like prepositions, they are “function words,” short, generally two-to-five-letters, and we rarely think about them as we speak or write. Nouns, verbs, even adjectives and adverbs: these we consider carefully (or should) when we use them. Do I refer to someone I work with as an office partner? Colleague? Co-worker? Was the choir singing or chanting?  Do I check my email often? Frequently? Daily? Regularly? Hourly?

We may pause in our speech or writing to consider these choices. Rarely, however, do we even think that there might be a reason to consider pronouns or prepositions. They flow automatically, unconsciously.

Nonetheless, my students, many of them, use prepositions differently than I do. I write “about” landscapes, while my students write “of” or “on” landscapes. I go “to” a friend’s house, while they go “by” a friend’s house. They walk “in” a classroom, while I walk “into” a classroom. I regularly encounter usages like these:

“This is all the governments fault in how we eat.”

“This component within itself is not healthy.”

For my experience watching TV shows, many of them are violent.”

“These fall hand and hand.”

“The plants were grown on bad soil.”

“We want to prevent those animals for feeling pain.”

“How you eat is just as important to what you eat.”

Despite my fascination with these non-standard preposition usages, however, I have never thoroughly investigated them. I have, however, distributed lists of our 100+ English prepositions. In one class, I even devised an exercise for students to act out “on the table,” “at the back,” “into the room,” “around the table,” “in the doorway,” “over the desk,” and a few more of those 100+ prepositions.


Meanwhile, over the past 20 years, using a computer program he developed (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count, LIWC), Pennebaker has analyzed texts upside down and inside out (letters, novels, emails, and essays) to assess psycho-social differences in the use of pronouns and other words (e.g., articles, emotion descriptors, subjective tense, and multi-syllabic words. Statistically, Pennebaker has found that these (subconscious) word choices can signal differences in hierarchical status, gender, relationship status, honesty, emotion, and geographic regions.

Now, Pennebaker would be the first to agree that these differences are statistical, not absolute. So we can’t necessarily rely on pronoun analysis of a friend’s emails to assess her psychological state. But his work does grant us great insight into yet another way we send socio-psychological signals to each other. As well as signaling our statuses with our dress, posture and gestures, handwriting, and speech pronunciation, we really might want to watch our Ps and Qs—at least the Pronouns!

In the great tradition of scientists who are not reluctant to use themselves as experimental subjects (cf. Altman 1998), Dr. Pennebaker offers up some of his own emails (p. 179), asking us to note that people of lower status tend to use more I-words, and those of higher status use more you- and we-words. First, his correspondence with one of his students:

Dear Dr. Pennebaker:

I was part of your Introductory Psychology class last semester. I have enjoyed your lectures and I’ve learned so much. I received an email from you about doing some research with you. Would there be a time for me to come by to talk about this?

Dear Pam:

This would be great. This week isn’t good because of a trip. How about next Tuesday between 9 and 10:30? It will be good to see you.

But note the shift when Pennebaker corresponds with a professor of greater status and fame:

Dear [Famous Professor]:

The reason I’m writing is that I’m helping to put together a conference on [topic] . . . I have been contacting a large group of people and many have specifically asked if you were attending. I would absolutely love it if you could come . . . The only downside is that we can’t pay for any expenses . . . I think the better way to think about this gathering is as a reunion rather than a conference . . . I really hope you can make it.

Dear Jamie:

Good to hear from you. Congratulations on the conference. The idea of a reunion is a nice one . . . and the conference idea will provide us with a semi-formal way of catching up with one another’s current research . . . Isn’t there any way to get the university to dig up a few thousand dollars to defray travel expenses for the conference?


Of course, the most fascinating applications of Pennebaker’s computer-aided analyses are to discover the true identity of anonymous writers, and to separate out liars from truth-tellers. And, can pronoun analysis help with these questions? Yes, it can. Is it 100% fail-proof? No.

And, for the rest of the story, you’ll have to read the book. But you will find it, I assure you, an enjoyable experience!


African by Any Other Name? A Note on Origins

Over the past few days, one of my facebook friends has been delving into the study of African textile arts, after years of loving, wearing, and creating the beautiful headwraps used by African and Islamic women throughout the world. Zarinah also teaches women how to create the incredible cloth crowns, a modern Michigan Johnny Appleseed, enthusiastically sowing the seeds of this ever-changing and beautiful women’s art.


Women praise-singers, La Lutte, Dakar, Senegal, 2009

On reading a well-researched article by Julia Felsenthal on Slate, The Curious History of “Tribal” Prints, Zarinah was crushed. What? All those lovely African printed fabrics are not really African? Instead, they are Indonesian! Or are they? Perhaps they are Dutch? Or Anglo-Indian? Or Chinese? Or all of the above, and more?


At the Mayor’s election party, in the suburbs of Dakar, 2009

It is exactly that multiplex, tangled, snarled, inter-woven history that makes these cloths such an apropos metaphor for artist Yinka Shonibare.


As Duryodhana says of Kano in the Mahabharata: “Birth is obscure, and men are like rivers, whose origins are often unknown.”

How can we, in the United States, speak of origins, we whose ancestors all but eliminated the original custodians of this land? We whose antecedents tore millions of Africans from their homes, insisting they “forget” their origins? We who laugh and sneer at  people desperately seeking to come here to work without forgetting their families, their homelands, their origins? We who refuse to study “history” and who prize today’s three-letter text message over dusty old books or sitting at an elder’s knee? We who would rather spend $10,000 on Disneyland than on a trip to Morocco or Nigeria or Mexico or France? We who refuse to memorize ancient poetry, or learn even one other language? We who have no idea that the very chocolate and tomatoes and corn and potatoes we eat were planted, developed, and named by the earliest Americans thousands of years ago?

Does that history make cornbread, hoe cakes, or spoon bread any less traditional Black Southern food?  Does that mean the fresh-roasted ears of corn I buy in the markets of Cotonou are not “African”? Since Coca-Cola has (or used to have) kola nuts in it, does that make it “African”?


Coca-Cola sign, Ile de Goree (Dakar, Senegal), 2009


Selling kola nuts in Dakar, 2009

Perhaps kente cloth itself is not “African,” since cotton (named from an Arabic word) was first cultivated in India (although most kente today is made of European-manufactured rayon). The bright-colored silk in older kentes was unraveled from cloth imported from China since about 1500 CE (original kente was only white and indigo blue). As for looms, a “loom” can be as simple as a tree-branch to hold tight the warp threads, with the other end tied at a person’s waist (a simple backstrap loom). We have several drawings of both horizontal and vertical looms from ancient Egypt, the earliest, from the tomb of Chnem-Hotep, is dated about 4500 BCE. But we have no idea if either horizontal or vertical looms were invented once (it’s unknown where) or in many places and times.


Drawing of Egyptian (KMT) loom from tomb of Chnem-hotep


Model weaving studio, tomb of Meketre, ancient Egypt (KMT), 1975 BCE

So, is cotton African? Are looms African? The idea to dye with indigo & other natural plant and mineral colors? Certainly modern aniline dyes and rayon are manufactured, not “traditional.” But, ironically, the word aniline, coined in 1843 by a German chemist to name the chemical base used to manufacture artificial dyes, is a loan word from Portuguese anil for the indigo-bearing shrub, from the Arabic word an-nil (indigo), taken from the Persian nili, and ultimately from the Sanskrit  nili, indigo, and nilah, dark blue.


Selling hand-dyed indigo cloth in the HLM market, Dakar, Senegal, 2009

So does that make kente cloth not “African”? All humans are ultimately African, and it is inherently human to travel far distances to find new things, to learn from each other, to pass on wisdom, knowledge, and skills not only within our own families and communities, but all over.  In brief, over my lifetime, I have learned not to romanticize “origins,” especially since that quest often implies a search for something that is aboriginal, unsullied, pure and pristine but also primitive, archaic, or undeveloped. Instead, I revel in untangling and following, at least for a while, the amazing pathways people, ideas, and things take as we re-create ourselves, our ideas, and our societies over and over.

On Death and Dying

Jack O'Lantern, 2008


Written October 22, 2011

For the past week, I have been teaching a unit on festivals of death: beginning with Hallowe’en, that strange mash-up of the ancient cross-European Celtic Samhain farmers’ new year/harvest festival with odds and ends of other harvest festivals like the Roman Pomona and the perhaps universal practices of small-scale personal divination (fortune-telling), global masking and role-reversal traditions. And, most of all, our intense need to remember, honor, and call on our dead ancestors for

Sincerely dead!

their ongoing advice, protection, and love, without, of course, having them return as ghouls, since they are, as the people of Oz declared of their wicked witch, “ Morally, ethically, spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably and reliably dead . . . and she’s not only merely dead, she’s really most sincerely dead. ”

Oh, and, lest we forget the water we swim in—this strange amalgam of global and local Hallowe’en heritage come to us all tied up in a package of opportunistic capitalist marketing of everything scary, or playful, or merely  orange and black, from jelly beans to kitchen towels.

This week, the class will explore a few of the world’s many festivals of death: the Mexican Dias de los Muertos, the Haitian Ghede festival, the Nigerian Yoruba Egungun ancestor masquerades, and the northern Michigan Odawa ghost suppers.


Kanaval, Jacmel, Haiti, 2012


Now, amidst this focus on the annual death of our brief summer luxuriance, and the forever deaths of humans, friend and foe, came a death. A death of a man not so very close to me individually or personally, but close to many people who have been close to my husband and me for the past 15 years.

So, yesterday and today, I have been participating in our own received rituals of death: the funeral home rites, church services, graveside prayers, and communal feast—all in honor of a gentle man, an ordinary man, a man like my own dead mother and father, an ordinary man and woman. A man who lived, worked, loved, and died, doing his school lessons and his work, caring for his wife and children, loving his homeland, loving his coffee, his cigarettes, his music, his dancing, his impassioned political discourses, doing the best he could.


I have cried a lot this past week, and I think: I am crying for my own losses. For my father’s joyful intelligence, his self-absorbed internal conversations, our comradely swims and sails, our shared tasks and disputations, walks up and down hills, into woods and quarries, through cemeteries. For my mother’s shrewd, sharp sarcasm, barely suppressed, her quick wit, her wise words, her quiet queenly sedentary ways, our shared coffees and teas and word games, our silently shared uncertainty about life’s truths.

Yes, I know that I am crying, too, for more losses yet to come: the day I bury my brothers, my husband, my friends. And so I talk with my husband about this: don’t bury me—burn my bones into ashes, and scatter them where you will. Or grant my body to a medical school. Or, if you cannot, if you must bury me, bury me in a simple pine box, and give a big party, in a big empty space, so everyone can dance.

golden grove unleaving


In my own internal conversations, I hear Gerald Manley Hopkins’ words repeated over and over throughout these past days, words penned in Lancashire in 1880, 131 years ago, but published in 1918, the year my father was born:


Spring and Fall

to a young child
Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving? 
Leaves, like the things of man, you 
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you? 
Ah! as the heart grows older 
It will come to such sights colder 
By and by, nor spare a sigh 
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie; 
And yet you will weep and know why. 
Now no matter, child, the name: 
Sorrow’s springs are the same. 
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed 
What heart heard of, ghost guessed: 
It is the blight man was born for, 
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Tamboula Afro-Haitian Dance Company

This afternoon, as we left the post-funereal communal meal, one of my favorite dance partners took my hand, and said, “We must dance.”

This is the wisdom of Haitian men and women.

We dance while we are here.

We dance.


Martha Graham

“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, the expression is unique. If you block it, it will never exist through another medium and will be lost. The world will never have it.” —Martha Graham.

Chai by Any Other Name?

homemade masala chai blend

Last year sometime, I found I had to go shopping for an inexpensive Chai mix, as my big glass jar from a now-defunct spice shop was sadly depleted. Lo and behold, I discovered that a jar of “Chinese Five Spice” seemed to have just the right mix for making Chai!

I revel in these late-life discoveries, though I always wonder why it took me so long to discover them. And I remember my mother’s joy when, pushing 90, one sunny summer day vacationing in northern Michigan, she finally gave in to my brother’s urgings to sample cappucino, and found a new minor thrill in life.

So, of course, I bought the jar of Chinese Five Spice, as it was much less expensive than any Chai mixture I’d found, and I took to scooping a teaspoonful of the mix into a pot of black tea for Chai, ready to embellish with honey and milk for a cozy treat.

Then, last month, I ran out of the Five Spice mix, and determined to make my own. Lo and behold again! In searching online for various mix proportions for Chai and for Chinese Five Spice, I discovered that Garam Masala is also basically the same spice blend. Life is sweet, indeed (and spicy).

Of course, everyone has his or her own version of these three amalgams, using different spices (even “five-spice” mixes with six or seven or eight different spices) as well as different proportions. I read up on Chai, Chinese Five-Spice, and Garam Masala, cruised a few dozen recipes, and then went shopping at my favorite spice shop (also, admittedly, my favorite shop for olives, nuts, fresh meats, and fresh fruits & veggies), Papaya Market. I needed to stock up on the ground spices I didn’t already have in sufficient supply. I didn’t want to grind my own spices this time, just in case my trusty little Braun grinder, which I use for spices and flax seeds, wasn’t up to all that work at once. I know the spices at Papaya Market are fresh and pungent.  The only change I’d like to make next time is adding a lot of star anise, which I can’t yet find locally.

Of course, once it was blended, I had to sample it as Chai (a.k.a. Masala Chai), and then package up some of it to share with five friends (if you didn’t get yours yet, just ask!). Here’s the current concoction:

Chai Masala a.k.a. Chinese Five-Spice a.k.a. Garam Masala

Make sure your spices are freshly ground and pungent. Thoroughly mix together these ground spices: 4 T cardamom, 3 T allspice, 3 T anise, 3 T cinnamon, 3 T ginger, 2 T black pepper, 2 T cloves. For Chai tea, mix with strong black tea (about one teaspoon per pot), real vanilla extract, honey (or sugar), and milk to taste. Mmmmmmmmm.

Cake by Any Other Name?

On Banana Bread:

This afternoon, stuck at home without a car, and without anywhere enticing enough to walk to through cold and snow, I decided it was time to turn those black shriveled bananas into banana bread.

As always, I first had to spend some time pondering why we insist on calling tea breads or quick breads “bread,” when they are clearly cakes, leavened with baking soda and/or baking powder instead of yeast, and concocted with prodigious amounts of sugar, honey, or other sweeteners.

To use the term “bread” for the savory variations, such as biscuits, cornbread, dumplings, fritters, beer bread, soda bread, or pancakes, would not seem out of place, as they usually contain little or no sugar—note, however, that we do say “pancake” and not “panbread,” despite the usually low sugar content of pre-syrup pancakes! Unleavened johnny cakes (a.k.a. hoe cakes) also are usually not sweetened. So–why are they cakes?

Using the word “cake” for unsweet floury lumps is not too hard to explain, given the Old Norse word for cake, kaka, seemingly a global word for lumps of shit. So, by analogy, any lump is a cake (as with mud caked on one’s boots).

Surely, though, the sweet “breads” should properly be called cakes? Some sweet yeast-less flour doughs have their own names—scones, brownies, muffins (not to mention pastas). We don’t have to fret over whether they are “cakes” or “breads.” A “cookie” is already a cake–the word comes from the same Germanic (ultimately Indo-European) root word as “cake”—in Dutch, cake and cookie are koek and koekje. But why do we say make cranberry bread and banana bread? Ginger bread and apple bread? Pumpkin bread and zucchini bread?

The most satisfying solution I’ve come up with so far is that “tea breads” are sweet because, in England, both children and adults like sweet cakes (breads?) with their afternoon tea. Thus, breads for tea, whether leavened with yeast or baking soda, are sweetened for afternoon tea.

And then, too, perhaps quick breads were all originally unsweetened breads—a simple soda bread, and the same breads, even when later sweetened, retained their original designation.

ultra-ripe bananas

In any case, I had nine nice flabby black shriveling bananas, filled with soft, mushy pulp, just waiting to be made into banana bread. And I knew exactly how I wanted to make it, since I’d previously used all whole-wheat flour, less sugar, and more fiber, and ended up with a truly delicious loaf.  I also like to use a lot of spices in cooking and baking, especially when there’s the taste of flax seeds to counteract. Feel free to use your own favorite spice mix!

So, here’s the recipe for two loaves, one of which was rapidly and ravenously devoured by friends and family:

Moist Whole-Wheat Banana Bread

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two loaf pans, 8 ½ by 4 ½. Stir together in a large bowl: 2 ½ c whole-wheat flour, 2 t baking soda, 1 t baking powder, 1 t salt, ½ t ground cinnamon, 1 t ground ginger, and ½ t allspice.

In another bowl, beat together well: 1 c unsalted butter at room temperature and 1 c brown sugar (light or dark).

Then beat in well: 2 c mashed ultra-super-ripe bananas, 4 large eggs, and 2 t real vanilla extract.

Stir in well: ½ c freshly ground flax seeds, ½ c rolled oats (not instant), and 1 c chopped walnuts (pecans are also an excellent choice, and raisins would not be unwelcome).

ready to eat!

Fold in the flour mixture until just mixed. Divide evenly into the two pans. Bake until the edges begin to pull away from the sides of the pans and a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean, Cool in the pans atop wire racks for ten minutes, then carefully turn out the loaves onto the wire racks and cool, completely. Eat and enjoy! Even better buttered, if you wish.

Joumou! Joumou!

It’s always time to think about cooking up a big pot of Soup Joumou for the New Year–or whenever the sky is grey and cold breezes blow, and we have a couple of hours to devote to soup-making! Thanks to two friends, Jacques and Kate, who brought back genuine joumou seeds from Haiti, these squash vines have commandeered our front and side yards this summer. Now, Chef Geraud is gently tucking the fruits under boxes on cold nights, and anticipating the day he can use real Haitian joumou squash in his soup joumou.

Squash joumou

Haitian joumou is a Haiti-adapted Cucurbita (C. maxima or C. moschata) that is named for and possibly adapted from the French giraumon squash, looks like a small striped green watermelon on the outside, and inside looks and tastes like a pumpkin squash or butternut squash, to which it is closely related. Normally, Haitians in the U.S. or Canada use pumpkin squash  or butternut squash for soup joumou. Here in Detroit, we can sporadically find a dried-out hunk of joumou for sale in one of the local Mexican markets, but both availability and quality are erratic. And, as they say, there’s nothing like the real thing!

And what’s so special about authentic Haitian joumou?

As the story goes, enslaved Haitians were not allowed to eat soup joumou under French colonial rule. Evidently the squash was too rich and aromatic, or too scarce, or simply too, well, French, to be considered appropriate food for enslaved African Haitians.  Ironically, of course, squashes are native to the Americas, perhaps as old as 12,000 years, and were taken to France by early returning invaders of the Americas, then returned back to St. Domingue with the French invaders of that island. During slavery, the French told the enslaved Africans that joumou was not meant for Black people—that God had given it to the French, so God would punish the enslaved Blacks if they ate it. But the slaves knew that God did not want them to be slaves, so they mounted a rebellion in 1791 that became their 13-year-long war of independence–after which Haiti became the second independent nation in the Americas (after the United States), and the world’s first Black republic.

Jean Jacques Dessalines

According to Chef Geraud, In 1804, the first year of independence, Haitian leader General Jean Jacques Dessalines said that what the French had told the Haitians was a lie—“Eat all the joumou you want,” he said (in Kreyol, of course), “Take a shower in it!” Haitians say when Dessalines read out the Haitian Declaration of Independence on January 1 in Gonaives, that everyone shared soup joumou from public kettles, as cannon boomed and bells pealed.  So, now, Haitians thank God every Independence Day, January 1, by cooking, eating, and sharing soup joumou.

In Haiti, joumou can grow in warmth until a December harvest; here, we are hoping it can conquer our cool days and cold nights through all of October. We are crossing our fingers for an edible crop. But, in any case, our Detroit-hardened plants should yield plenty of naturally selected seeds for next year’s crop.

runner tips

The thick vines and large, white-mottled leaves have long ago conquered our front and side yards, climbing hungrily up and around the lilac and spruce trees, rewarding us as well as curious, smiling neighbors and passers-by with intense yellow blossoms every sunny day. Were we living in Oak Park, surely we would have aroused the wrath of the City Officials with our vegetable-covered lawn! Chef Geraud dismisses the idea of using the blossoms as food–clearly a Mexican and European concept not a part of his family’s Haitian heritage. But, both he and our Cameroonian friend agree that the fresh runner tips make a delicious green vegetable.

Soup Joumou

  • 1 lb beef stew meat with bones, cleaned well in limes and hot water*, and cut into bite-sized pieces
  • water and 2 cubes chicken bouillon (Maggi cubes)**
  • 1 and 1/2 lbs pumpkin squash or butternut, peeled & diced
  • 2 small turnip, 2 small white potatoes, 1 malanga, and 3-4 carrots, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 1 small cabbage or ½ large, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 1 sprig parsley, 3-4 scallions, & 2 sprigs thyme
  •  4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • ¼ to one habanero pepper, without seeds, finely minced
  • 1/2 cup evaporated milk
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 3/4 cup vermicelli, snapped into 2”-3” pieces (or other pasta if preferred)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 Tbsp butter

 In large pot, cover beef generously with water and bouillon, bring to a boil  and  simmer about an hour, until tender. Bring 3-4 cups of the water to a boil;  add squash, roots, cabbage, onions, parsley, thyme, scallions, and garlic.  Simmer  until squash is tender (15-20 minutes). Roughly mash squash. Add  milk, cloves, butter, and pasta. Cook until pasta is al dente. Season with salt  and pepper to taste. Serve hot with rice or bread and fresh fruit.

* Probably because of the tropical heat spoilage risk, Haitians clean all meat thoroughly before cooking, using limes and hot water. When Chef Geraud and his friends came to the USA from Haiti, they were appalled that we often cook meats without washing them thoroughly first, or drop meat directly into a fryer, then eat it still red at the bone.

** Maggi cubes, thyme, clove, and garlic constitute the “holy quartet” of Haitian seasonings. Many recipes also include tomato paste, habanero peppers, and onions.

Tying on

Dyed wool drying in a Marrakech souk

Thanks to Christy Malmsten, Marygrove College Librarian, who helped me get going on wordpress. Now I’ll  tie on all the  threads, shiny-bright and silky-smooth findings, and interweave the rag-tag, faded & dusty remnants, and see how far I can spin them all out.