Wednesday, October 18, 2006

There's no Lyon in Baseball!

I know, I know -- It's "Lyons."

So if translating perceived attitudes into unattested linguistic patterns is to "linguify" then what do we call translating a linguistic behaviour into a claim about attitude? I'm not talking about translating a word into its classical semantic components - denotative and connotative. I'm talking about reading a decision about grammar as a comment on culture. Let's get past the obvious argument that language is a cultural phenomenon and it reveals much about the user. Let's look specifically at the recent firing of Steve Lyons for on air comments that have been called "racially insensitive" (Janie McCauley - AP) and "ethnically inappropriate" (Paul J. Gough - Hollywood Reporter).

According to McCauley Lyons was commenting on Lou Piniella's heritage. Gough doesn't identify any agenda in Lyons' speech. Here are some slices of the mini-corpus being autopsied.

Piniella compared the likelihood of an average player repeating a quality performance to "finding a wallet on a Friday night and looking for one on Sunday and Monday, too." He then described exceptional play as "en fuego" and poor play "frio." The stories I found disagreed about which players Piniella was describing.

Lyons, who apparently doesn't speak much Spanish, said that Piniella was "habla-ing Español" and added "I still can't find my wallet." He further said "I don't understand him, and I don't want to sit too close to him now."

Of his ungrammatical Spanish McCauley says Lyons was "butchering the conjugation for the word 'to speak'." Is it even more disrespectful if Lyons pronounced the "h"? G-d forbid that he go so far as to add a disrespectful English pronunciation to his insensitive English morphology. What's next? Racist syntax?

Well sort of.

Lyons put a joke in the wrong spot. Piniella made a common but weak analogy from athletic performance to material serendipity and then started speaking a language other than English for some vague effect -- a practice canonized by those linguistic-prophet sportscasters at ESPN.

I'm guessing that the controversy stems from the uncomfortable juxtaposition of a linguistic observation and jocular utterance. Or the merging of them with "habla-ing." The anger - or remedial action - directed at his comment must come from some belief that a comment about language (in the form of his Spanglish word) right next to a comment about a stolen wallet equals his equation of an ethnicity with a proclivity to steal.

The plot has its antecedent action as well. Lyons has a history of saying silly things that might show disrespect. That history includes questioning one player's commitment to Jewish traditions, commenting on an unfamiliar sight-aid he noticed in the crowd, and claiming that English was another player's second language.

How dare he mention L2 in a beisbol game?


  1. I just like the idea of autopsying a corpus.

  2. I heard an interview with Lyons on Mike and Mike in the Morning on ESPN Radio. (It might be mentioned that he also pulled down his pants on the field as a player.)

    Lyons explained/defended each of the comments he was reprimanded/fired for. He tested his Jewish joke with other Jewish friends, and they didn't mind. The cameras/director of the broadcast continued showing the gentleman with the big dark glasses, and no one in the booth understood why or what they were, so as color commentator, Lyons commented. Just so happens the spectator was kinda blind.

    And he was looking for an opportunity to bring back Pinella's analogy, and Pinella wasn't offended and actually felt that was one of their better games in the booth together because of their teasing banter. Of note also, the LA Dodgers, who have a fairly large Hispanic population in their demographic zone, are keeping Lyons on as a radio/TV man.

    I'm conflicted personally, because I don't think Lyons should have been fired, but I agree with the firing of Lamar Thomas, the former player qua commentator, who embraced the actions of the Hurricane players in the "riot" going so far as to challenge FIU to another brawl after the game.


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