Ann Burlingham wrote me on March 28th about an on-line argument about the expression me no likie, which she saw as racist (based on a stereotype of Asian English), but which others defended as childish language (as the sort of thing their 3-year-old niece says, and the like), some citing Urban Dictionary, which attributes the expression to the animated tv comedy The Family Guy. Other discussions cited Gullah [Sea Island Creole] and Jamaican Creole, and some writers saw me no likey X as an annoying webism:
Which demon-spawn, script-kiddie coined this baby-talk phrase, which I see plastered all over UBB systems every week? Who is he and what’s his address, because I’m going to beat him to death with a Nerf Bat. (link)
which brings us back to baby-talk.
This is a case in which everyone might be right, to some extent. We’re dealing with what we might think of as “imperfect English”, which can arise in several different contexts — child language acquisition, adult language learning, language contact — but can also deployed in intentional mockery of the English used in those contexts, either playfully or disparagingly.
The result is that different people will have different associations with expressions in imperfect English, depending on their experience.
First, there’s a formula no X, no Y, used as an ethnic slur for a long time:
No ____, no ____ predates the origin of Chinese Pidgin English, but is also a notable example of fabricated pidgin English: (沒 no 票 ticket 沒 no 襯衣 shirt ) meaning “If you don’t have a laundry receipt, I won’t give you your shirts”, said to be a fabricated pidgin English unfairly attributed to the Chinese laundry proprietors. In 1886, a New York City bill cited this phrase in reference to Chinese-owned dry cleaning establishments. [There was a comedy short of 1915 entitled “No Tickee, No Washee”.] In 1921 a movie titled “No Tickee No Shirtee” further popularized the saying. Another famous use of this phrase is “No money, no talk”), which simply means “If you don’t have the money, don’t bother talking to me”. [Also: “no tickee, no laundry” and other variants.] (link)
On the scholarly front: Wolfgang Mieder’s
“No Tickee, No Washee”: Subtleties of a Proverbial Slur
in Western Folklore (1996).
One web commenter explicitly connects me no likey X to no X no Y:
To me, use of the phrase perpetuates the stereotyped portrayal of Chinese immigrants, used in old movies and shows… In my experience I haven’t heard it used enough to feel it is “diluted”, and it may very well be that people around me (I am Chinese American and live in a very multi-cultural community) assume I may find it offensive and don’t use it enough for me to pass it off as just unfortunate mass usage. But I don’t see it flung around in the vernacular of sitcoms (maybe I don’t watch enough “mass market” TV). Even if it is commonly used, that takes me to the issue of “is it OK for me to become accustomed to something that mocks my cultural heritage?” I cringe when I hear “no tickee no laundry”, which I’ve heard used in business meetings and I just hold my tongue. I don’t think anyone that uses it means to be offensive, but does that make it OK? I’m actually not sure, but I know it doesn’t make me feel OK. It actually bothers me more that people don’t know about its origins, though I am glad that is because those stereotypes are not used much anymore. (link)
The stereotype package isn’t dead yet, although an NPR story in 2008 suggested that it’s pretty much dead in Hollywood, with Long Duk Dong, an exchange student from an unidentified Asian country in Sixteen Candles (1984), as the end of the line:
Long Duk Dong — portrayed by actor Gedde Watanabe — lies splayed out in his host family’s front yard. When they discover him, the inanity continues: “Oh, no more yanky my wanky,” he moans. “The Donger needs food.”
An extension with /i/ is one way of coping with English words that end in consonants, for speakers with a phonological system that has few or no final consonants — like speakers of Chinese, Japanese, most English-based pidgins and creoles, and child English. Then, of course, this extension is available for imitating these speakers, whether playfully, gently, or mockingly.
Then there’s subject me and clausal negation with no, features of both contact languages based on English and child English. Jamaican Creole, for instance, as in the reggae song by Cocoa Tea, “Me No Like Rikers Island” (lyrics here) and this video of a Jamaican woman ranting “me no like lesbian, me no like batty boy [homosexual]“. The usage has been taken into rap, as in Method Man’s “Me No Like”:
Me no like, Fake niggas that aint got the game tight,
Me no like, When yall killas pop shit and can’t fight. (link)
Similar examples in other English-based pidgins and creoles, from the Sea Islands to Cameroon to Papua New Guinea (Tok Pisin, from PNG: mi no laik i ‘I don’t like it/her/him’; note that Tok Pisin has a phonologically transparent writing system and doesn’t use “funny” spellings of English).
But then there are deliberately playful instances of me no likey/likie/likee X, as in this loldog:
and this photo of a little kid, captioned “Hotsauce, me no likey!”:
And see this review of Cavemen, entitled “Urgh, me no like”.
The formula is available for play, along with other verb negations with no (as in X no workie ‘X doesn’t work’ in computer contexts). These are mock-infantile or Tarzan-talk.
As for Family Guy, I haven’t been able to find Me no likey you or anything similar on sites for the program — except in critical comments about the show. [Now see Ben Zimmer's comment, with link.]