What is the Ludic Fallacy, what does it have to do with Citizen Sociolinguistics, and why does it matter?
According to Finance Philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who coined the term in his best seller Black Swan (2007), the Ludic Fallacy is the misapplication of the rules of games to real life situations.
To exemplify the Ludic Fallacy, Taleb contrasts how an imagined Professor of Statistics and an imagined Actual Gambler would act after 99 coin tosses land on “heads”: Asked to predict the 100th toss, the Professor (perpetrator of the Ludic Fallacy) asserts there is still a 50/50 chance that the coin will land on “tails.” The Actual Gambler recognizes a problem with that prediction, concluding (and I paraphrase), “Dude, the coin is loaded, get your head out of your a*s!” Taleb thus suggests that otherwise intelligent finance people ignore statistical aberrations and as a result make mistakes that lose them a lot of money; The Ludic fallacy also helps us avoid some pitfalls of the world of Sociolinguistics by drawing our attention to the knowledge of Actual Language Users, or Citizen Sociolinguists.
To illustrate, let’s bring in an Old School Linguist for the role of Professor from Taleb’s example and an Actual Speaker of Language for the Gambler: The Linguist may have noticed some statistical regularities about language and the distribution of its variations, but the Actual Speaker, who has no knowledge of those regularities, goes about their day by assessing each situation more holistically. The Old School Linguist may predict that an Irish immigrant in New York will speak one way, for example, that he would express, feeling weary, a plan to head to bed “airrly” on “Tursday”. But, more unpredictably, that same Irishman, having lived in New York for 30 years may say “Early Thursday” one moment and “airrly Tursday” another—whether he’s talking to a friend, a customer, the news media, whether he is a bit tipsy, or sleepy, or hungry, or not! Like the Actual Gambler, who may provide the best prediction for the coin toss, based on his experience with gambling, those who know the Irishman well will be able to best predict which pronunciation will emerge in any given condition.
Similarly, an Old School Linguist may predict, based on statistical regularities that have been studied for decades, that an African American child in school will speak a “well-formed” variety of African American English. This may include emblematic features of that variety like the use of double negatives (Ain’t nobody got time for that!), copula deletion (What up?), or characteristic words, like a Philadelphian’s classic use of “Jawn” to refer to a random something (Hand me that jawn over there!). But kids at school in Philadelphia today might be able to predict much more—White kids may also be using these words and turns of phrase, and many Black kids will not! Ain’t nobody got time for the Ludic Fallacy here—instead, people are learning about each other and using language to make their way from classroom to classroom, friend group to friend group, online to offline, home to work, high places and low, and back.
Now throw that Old School Linguist into any given interaction: What up playa? It’s been a minute! How you been? You finna make a couple bucks at that gig? Ask that Old School Linguist, based on some recordings played in his office: Who is talking here? What is their demographic? Age, Gender, Race, Class? Likelihood for success? An approach based on platonic ideals about how our world operates, like those enshrined in statistical models, cannot come anywhere close to modeling the way language works in any real-world encounter or predict how it will work in the future. Speakers gain such understanding through long term experience of language and life.
While Linguists may not be able to have all that experience themselves, they can ask questions and value the experience of those who use language every day, the same way a statistician in Vegas, working out the bottom line, may need to consult with some of the seasoned players in the Casino. If it looks like the dice are loaded, the Actual Gambler will be able to tell you how dice get loaded, who fixes the dice that way, where you get them, and maybe even how you can outsmart that cheater! Similarly, an Actual Language User—aka a Citizen Sociolinguist —can tell you who speaks one way or another, why and when, how and with whom. But they certainly can’t share their insight if nobody includes them in their work or bothers to ask.
Obviously, I’ve overstated the case here—as did Taleb when he exemplified the Ludic fallacy. No Statistician, after witnessing the coin fall the same way 99 times in a row, would be such an idiot as to discount the Gambler’s experience. They might instead start to value that Gambler’s insight; No Sociolinguist would insist that Irish American or African American speech works one way, after hearing new ways of speaking, addressing a range of people, in different contexts, again and again. No sociolinguist would discount that speaker’s own explanation for the speech in their community. Would they?
The Ludic Fallacy illustrates that ignoring those real-world voices leads to a mistaken understanding of the world. In finance, this may mean lost money. In the study of language and society, it can lead to wrong-headed judgements about what people can do.
The Ludic Fallacy also provides a refreshing reminder that an aberration from one perspective, is, from another perspective, an obvious illustration of how the world works. The 99 coin tosses yielding “tails” may be an outlier for a Statistician but may be a normal occurrence of a practice easily recognizable to the real-life Gambler. Similarly, an encounter with always new language in the schools in Philadelphia, may seem like an aberration to an outsider Linguist, but happily ordinary to the students in any given classroom. In any case, the unexpected offers an opportunity to engage more deeply with the language, interactions, and the people who create our world.
The foundation of all citizen sociolinguistics is talking about language. Everybody does it, and, inevitably, though talk and conversation, everybody, collectively creates how we view and think about language around us. Those everyday conversations have been the springboard for most of the posts on this site.
The goal of this citizen sociolinguistics website has been to document varieties of language experience, as I’ve encountered them. I’ve also wanted to go beyond my own perspective. This medium, the blog site, has not been the best for back-and-forth, but I’ve enjoyed reading the comments from people across the globe who’ve added their views on the proper pronunciation of “succinct” or “croissant,” or the problematic overuse of the word “gentrification.” Now I’m hoping for more discussion, more voices, more languages, more controversy, more dialogue.
To that end, I invite you all to join me and many others on a much more interactive site, “The Virtual Linguistic Ethnography Lab: A Place to Talk about Language.” Invite your colleagues, your friends, your students!
The site is now live and waiting for the conversation to begin. Check it out:
Each topic features an interactive bulletin board that allows you to see each others’ posts and comment directly. Take a look and join the conversation! And let’s see what we can discover there together.
The hip hop classic, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), is now over 20 years old. The album was recorded before either of my children, now ages 13 and 21 were born. But, during quarantine, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing it and listening anew with my 13-year-old daughter. Musically it’s a masterpiece, but there’s more than music here: One of the most compelling and original parts of the album occurs in snatches of talk between the songs. In these interludes, I’ve noticed my daughter’s attention become more focused. She listens intently as a conversation unfolds between a teacher and some middle-school students about one word: Love. This conversation brilliantly enacts not “miseducation,” (as the title of the album might suggest), but an ideal of pedagogical discussion. Whether you’ll be on zoom or masking up and entering a classroom this coming fall, if you’re planning to talk about language with your students, this discussion of the word love on Lauryn Hill’s classic album provides a potentially powerful model for doing so.
The conversation begins like this:
Teacher: Alright people. I’m going to write something on the board. Let’s spell it. First letter…
Chorus of Kids: L-O-V-E [a couple giggles]
Teacher: What’s that?
Chorus of Kids: LOVE!
Chorus of Kids: LOVE!
Teacher: How many of you know any songs about love?
Student: I know a lot about love!
Teacher: Tell me some titles, titles, I want some songs.
Student: Love! [Lots of giggles]
Teacher: There’s a song called love? There’s no song called love! Alright, what is it what is it?
Student: It go “loooooove” [more giggles]
Teacher: Okay. Anybody else…
Student: I will always love you.
Teacher: Okay, any movies about love?
Student: Romeo and Juliet.
Teacher: Ok. Did you know what that was about when you saw it?
The conversation then fades out and Lauryn sings a sad love song, “Ex-factor.” After that song and another, the “classroom” conversation continues:
Teacher: Okay, how many people in here have ever been IN LOVE? I know none of the guys are going to raise their hand. Heh heh. How many of y’all have ever been in love? I know none of the guys been in—we don’t get in love, right? Oh! Let this black man right here tell what his idea of love is. It’s not all the time we hear young black men talking about love. About your personal definition. Don’t tell me what Webster thinks.
Student (boy): You are willing to do everything for that person.
Teacher: Okay, everything like what?
Students: Side mumbling
Teacher: Let him talk, come on. If I asked him to talk about a fancy car, he’d be right on point, but we want to talk about love. You can do it! What do you think? You said you loved somebody, you should know why you love them, right?
Student (boy): The way they act. The way they carry theyself. Stuff like that.
Student (girl 1): They just stand out. It’s like sometimes it don’t even matter what they wear or what they look like. It’s like. It’s like. That one! You know?
Student (girl 2): Yeah [wistfully]
Student (girl 1): You know that you want to talk to him because he stands out. It’s like he got a glow or something.
Student (boy): That’s what I’m talking about.
Teacher: That’s deep. I thought that was a beautiful point. Anybody else want to deal with that?
Student (girl 2): And, sometimes like when they try to act funny in front of their boys and they get around and they say I love you—They can’t love you! Because love is- love don’t do that.
Student (girl 1): Love is not phony.
At that point, Lauryn sings one of her most famous songs, Do Wop (that thing), and then, the conversation resumes:
Teacher: Hey. We got some very intelligent women in here, man. Do you think you’re too young to really love somebody?
Chorus of Kids: NO!!!!!!!
Teacher: Let’s take it from me. I’m an adult. I say wait, you’re too young to be in love. This is silly. You’re infatuated with him. He got nice jeans. He wear fancy adidas.
Chorus of Kids: Laughing!
Teacher: I don’t know! Student (girl): It’s a difference from loving somebody and being in love.
Teacher: Okay! You tell me. What’s the difference?
Student: You could love anybody. But when you in love with somebody, you’re looking at that person like- you’re taking that person for what he or she is, no matter what he or she look like or no matter what he or she do!
Student: You can fall IN love—you can fall OUT of love.
Student: You stop being IN love with them, but you is NOT gonna stop loving that person.
Student: Maybe sometimes they’ve never been loved before, or they never been in love before, or they never- they don’t know what the feeling is to be loved.
Teacher: You killed it. We can end the conversation with that, right?
In these small moments, between songs, this teacher illuminates what a great discussion with kids, about one word, might look like.
Now, you might be thinking—this is an ideal situation, and the conversation may even be scripted ahead of time. No wonder it’s so wonderful! Others have also wondered the same. In an essay in Medium about this Album, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, Alex Chochoclo writes:
“I always wondered whether the classroom dialogue recordings were scripted or not. I’d like to believe that they weren’t. Somehow, the experience of listening to young men and women talk about their opinions and experiences of love at such an early stage in their lives is endearing. I wonder what those same voices are experiencing of love right now and what they’ve endured over the last twenty years.”
As if in answer to Chochoclo’s essay, the New York Times also published an article that year, after tracking down the original teacher and some of these students (now adults) to follow up on these very same wonderings. The revelations of these individuals, and about the word “love” continue to flow in this multi-media article about what followed.
As the participants remember that day, recalling the conversation, they assure listeners that, while it didn’t take place in a classroom, it was entirely improvised—with the single goal being to have a conversation about the word, “love.” The teacher brought a couple of students he already knew to the recording session (which took place in Lauren Hill’s childhood home in Newark, NJ), and Lauryn’s team rounded up a few more neighborhood kids whom the teacher had never met before.
And who is this “teacher”? The students seem so attentive and forthcoming, eager to answer his questions. I have always wondered, is he also a hip hop star? No! At the time of the recording, he was an elementary school teacher in Newark, and a friend and neighbor of Lauryn Hill. Today, he is the Mayor of Newark, NJ, Ras Baraka.
And the students the Times talked to were—still are, in the Times-recorded interview from 2018—genuinely engaged in this discussion of love. Twenty years after the recording of their “class”, they had distinct memories of the event and of the substance of the conversation. One of them remarked, of the interludes between songs:
“That’s the best part of the CD! It kind of makes you laugh. And gets you thinking!”
One of the women surprised herself, looking back, at the wisdom of her statement about love, in 1998, when she said, “Maybe sometimes they’ve never been loved before, or they never been in love before, or they never- they don’t know what the feeling is to be loved.”
Listening back to the recording from 1998, she told the Times reporter: “I was wise beyond my years!” She was impressed with her own younger self, and the recognition she had then that someone who has never been loved may not be able to feel love for others. As she remarks:
“I honestly was thinking about….I had seen kids my age who didn’t have what I had, which was a loving family. And they would just do things that would be considered bad behavior. But, you know, it just dawned on me when that question was asked: Maybe someone doesn’t know how to love because they’ve never been loved before. They don’t know what it feels to be loved. So how can you possibly expect someone who has never been loved before to know how to love?”
Another participant, one of the boys in the love conversation, talked about how the meaning of the word, “love,” for him has changed over 20 years of his life. Now, he says, as a divorced man, as a man who had recently lost his ex-girlfriend to gang violence, “love” for him is a “gamble.” He then remarked, “1998 to now, which is 20 years—I’ve lost over 100 friends to gang violence.”
This conversation—and the return to it 20 years later—reminds us that words don’t define the world for us. Discussing the word love, did not center on identifying its universal essence, the definition. Instead, it illuminated how people bring meaning to that word through the events of their own lives. The love discussion became a way for all these adults to talk about much more than the meaning of a word, or even their own individual relationship to it. That discussion of whatever we mean by “love,” provided a medium to talk and hear about how others might experience the world—through their own relationships, through observations of families around them, from the experience of violence, and of loss. As one participant remarked:
“For me at the time the only person I loved was my brother and my mother. So I could relate to that and that aspect. But to know that being in love was something totally different and its coming from someone that was my peer. It helped be to understand that as I became older and got into relationships. Other people that I know haven’t even had those kind of conversations at home…”
This simple but surprisingly powerful conversation about a single word was still lively for these participants, 20 years after the original recording. While the “classroom discussion” on Lauryn Hill’s record is set up in her own home, with just a few neighborhood kids, and an obviously gifted communicator as teacher, it’s worth thinking how conversations about single words like this can bring out the collective knowledge in any classroom.
Teachers can start conversations like this anywhere, even on-line. Classrooms benefit from this talk about language—conversations that let a word take its meaning from those who are talking about it. Write a word on the proverbial chalkboard (or flash it on your Zoom screen, or post it in on a discussion board) and start a conversation. The word needn’t be “love.” Any word that matters at the moment, for your students, in your shared world, could launch the dialogue: “love,” “freedom,” “citizenship,” even “research.” The word research has been an illuminating springboard into discussion for my students. What is research? That question may not be as spicy as “what is love?” but it is a compelling question for grad students just embarking on research of their own. And just as it was useful for the kids on Lauryn Hill’s record to hear about love from their peers, students can also gain valuable insight from the experience their peers bring to words like “research.”
These are not discussions in which a teacher tells students a standardized definition. As former teacher and now Mayor Ras Baraka encourages kids, he asks for their “personal definition,” saying explicitly, “Don’t tell me what Webster thinks.” These conversations don’t call for the “proper” usage or recite expert opinion on the topic. Instead, talk about the word “love,” like talk about any single word, encourages students to talk about how the word means for them, in their world. Once students are invited to share their intelligence in this way, students seem to gain a confidence that comes from using words as tools for exploration, rather than displays of standardized knowledge being lectured into their heads. Who knows, 20 years later, our students, like those on Lauryn Hill’s record, may still be thinking about such conversations, reflecting how those words work in their world.
As teachers or students, do you remember conversations about words and what resulted? Please share your memories or other comments below!
We will be as fair as we possibly can. The smaller people will definitely be handled.
–Diane von Furstenberg, on the fate of her vendors during the COVID-19 downsizing of her wrap-dress empire
All of us have probably at one time either called someone out for saying something offensive, or been called on our choice of words. Calling someone out for their words is awkward and takes effort. It’s a social risk. I call these instances, “citizen sociolinguistic arrests,” those moments when someone feels strongly enough to take that social risk and call deliberate attention to another’s words: “Please don’t call us girls, we’re women” or “I’m Asian American. We don’t really use the word Oriental anymore.” Those on the receiving end of a citizen sociolinguist’s arrest might feel a bit defensive—“I was just kidding” or “it’s just a figure or speech!” or “Sorry, I didn’t realize you were so sensitive!”. Despite defensive remarks to the contrary, when people take the trouble to call us out on the way we use our words, something larger is going on.
This brings me to Diane von Furstenberg, and the statement quoted above, and, most specifically, her reference to “the smaller people.” In case you are not familiar with DVF, she is an aging fashion designer who, arguably, invented the “wrap-dress” decades ago. She is apparently, according to a New York Times profile of her published this week, struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. While she still carries a net worth of over one billion (and is married to another billionaire, Barry Diller), her business has been losing money for years. And now, with coronavirus, “fashion is out of fashion,” and the wrap-dress mogul is doing even worse.
DVF’s “money problems” seem laughable to most of us. Still, those who work for DVF have had to suffer because of her losses. Bad business for DVF has meant much harder struggles for those who have worked for her, and the article mentions she has had trouble paying her vendors. One $20,000 invoice for a flower order, leftover from an event she organized in 2019, has still gone unpaid. Given her downsizing plans, this floral designer and other vendors may go without their pay, the way of many of DVF’s former employees who have been put out of work by the incessantly shrinking demand for DVF’s fashions, and now, the pandemic. When questioned about how business consolidation might affect these empolyees, Diane offered this explanation and reassurance:
“We will be as fair as we possibly can. The smaller people will definitely be handled.“
Hundreds of readers took to the comment section to take issue with nearly everything about DVF’s travails, and citizen sociolinguistic arrests zeroed in on this particularly telling turn of phrase: “the smaller people.”
Tiago from Philadelphia in a comment that received 275 recommendations (NYT does not do ‘thumbs up’) pointed directly to that “smaller people” statement:
Dozens of others directly called out the reference to “smaller people.” A few examples:
One might argue that these comments remain in the realm of simple word choice, just an unfortunate phrase, “smaller people.” These are “just words” after all. DVF may have been speaking off the cuff. Give her a break.
However, other readers made explicit the very real and strained conditions the “smaller people,” as DVF calls them, are living through now, and the consequences of self-interest of the kind DVF is displaying with her “smaller people” word choice. Some commenters explicitly mentioned themselves as objects of the “smaller people” reference. Those who have been most hurt by COVID-19:
Some explicitly name the suffering of the “small people” DVF is selfishly short-changing:
And some comments even came from DVF vendors themselves, literally those people whom DVF referred to as “smaller people,” like Rob Adler, still owed $9,000 which he will probably never see:
Sometimes, people believe that getting called out for our words is just a matter of political correctness. We should instead pay attention to deeds. But, when a billionaire complains about her own personal financial struggles and refers to those she is shafting as “smaller people,” we can see how her words themselves are deeds, creating the unexamined life she lives, a life in which she doesn’t see the people who work for her, who count on her for their living, as equally important humans. These citizen sociolinguistic arresters aren’t just wordsmiths taking issue with the phrase “smaller people.” These are real people commenting on these words because they construct a world where DVF feels little responsibility for others—the florist who was stuck with the $20,000 bill, the printer who will never be paid $9,000 owed him by DVF, and those who will never be paid severance wages owed them.
In their sheer accumulation, these comments become the real news story, bringing the blunt reality of DVF’s way of doing business to light. While the headline of the article reads, “Diane von Furstenberg’s Brand Is Left Exposed by the Pandemic,” nobody in the comment section is lamenting the degradation of the DVF brand. The hundreds of comments nearly unanimously condemn her selfishness in the face of COVID-19. The preponderance of this view is so strong that, rather than raising the same issue again, some comments simply call attention to this accumulation of remarks taking DVF to task:
Another response similarly comments on the comments—praising the New York Times for the article, and complementing “the reality check the comments section is providing”:
It’s hard to tell whether this commenter is being sarcastic with their big “thank you” to the NYT. It’s also impossible to say whether the author of the NYT article was intentionally outing DVF as a woman of “brazen self-interest.” That seems unlikely. However, that’s the message this article is delivering—driven home as a result of the contributions of these active readers (and citizen sociolinguists), who have called out DVF’s language and the stance it conveys.
By engaging in these online citizen sociolinguistic arrests, these commenters haven’t just shamed DVF for her use of language. They have shamed her for the entire way of life her language choice conveys and reenacts. Collectively, they ask, “Why, DVF, do you call your vendors, “smaller people”? We know those people, we are those people, and our lives are important, not small.”
Citizen sociolinguists’ arrests may at first strike people as trivially focusing on simple words, but these acts call attention to broader social conditions: Calling some humans “smaller people,” like repeatedly referring to grown women as “girls,” or misguidedly greeting an Asian American who grew up in Ohio with the Chinese language greeting, “ni hao,” are not simply problems with word choice. They both reveal and reproduce unexamined social relationships. The speaker of those words enacts their own unexamined stance again and again through their language choice—until they are faced with a citizen sociolinguistic arrest. A citizen sociolinguist’s arrest has the chance of starting an important conversation, a slim chance of pushing the utterer of each of those poorly chosen words to start speaking differently, and in the process, to start building a different way of seeing and acting in the world. By using words in a new way, one learns something about another person’s perspective, and may even develop compassion for those they don’t know or even understand.
It may be too late for DVF, but her commenters have raised the awareness of the absurdity of profiling her in the NYT. These citizen sociolinguists changed the story from one about the fashion business, to one about people. Comments from those who have been hurt by DVF’s world view, who have experienced hurt from others who share the world view that sees some humans as “smaller people,” may have pushed some readers to think differently about their own stance toward inequality during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
Have you engaged in “citizen sociolinguistic arrests”? Have you been a recipient of one? How did those encounters change your view of the world? How do words display—and produce—compassion or lack thereof? How can we guide each other to become more understanding in how we use words, and in how we show compassion for each other? Do you think we can? Please comment below!
Citizen Sociolinguistics flourishes in those moments when language catches us by surprise and forces us to start talking about it. Consider, for example, the way people alternately marvel or reel in horror at the language of teens. There’s something intriguing going on with teen language that sparks human curiosity. Parents and high-school teachers like to share their stories about the language of teens, and professional linguists like to study and explain it. Non-linguists may judge teen language as right, wrong, or just plain weird (“sick” is a word for something you like?). Linguists tend to describe teen language as playing an important and complex role in language change over time (semantic reversal! Sick!). Now, I would like to consider how teen language changes more than just language, it changes world we live in. To get a bigger picture of what teen language is good for we need to turn to a third view: that of teens themselves.
Everyday Adult Perspectives on Teen Language
First, let’s considerhow everyday adults talk about the language of teens: Sometimes with wonder, but also with trepidation, even revulsion!
Much of the language of teens seems to crop up out of thin air. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when we have all been at home working, studying, or goofing off together, we may be hearing and seeing more teen language. This post on Twitter, for example, illustrates one working-from-home Mom’s experience with Teen language (or in this case, a 12-year-old):
First of all: Ew! Moving beyond that initial reaction, I showed this tweet to my 13-year-old daughter and she was very impressed! She was also slightly baffled: How did this kid come up with all these different expressions? My daughter and I shared a moment of wonderment (and horror) at this mini fart thesaurus. Sometimes the language feats of teens carry an impressive ‘air’ of mystery and the unknown.
More comprehensive catalogs of teen language or ‘what kids are saying these days’ often lead to this same kind of wonder and disgust. Each semester, for example, my friend Mr. Z, a high-school teacher, has his Language Arts classes compile lists of their favorite “slang,” from which he creates a word cloud. Those words mentioned more often (like “bae” below) show up larger in the cloud, and those less-common words (“sick”) are tiny.
These word clouds have become an impressive tradition over the years, and they’ve begun to function like semester-to-semester time capsules. Each year, the teacher and I, and the crops of new students in his classes, marvel at the old standbys and the new arrivals. These word clouds tend to impress everyone—including other teachers in the school. But as often as people are impressed with teen language, they are baffled, and even wary of it. Sometimes we don’t even understand what teens are saying (BAE? shawty? krunk?). When we do understand (or think we do), we might not know how to react, or how to talk about it (white girl wasted?). Many adults tend to disengage when teens talk in strange ways. What are we supposed to say? Should we tell them not to use those words? To speak with more maturity? More formality? Some teachers would balk at compiling a word cloud like the one above—it seems too subversive for school. And in moments of frustration we might even think, what is wrong with teens? 15 fart expressions? Really? Why can’t kids just speak about important things and do so like adults??!!
Linguists’ Perspectives on Teen Language
Linguists, however, love to talk about teen language. But, unlike many parents, teachers, or everyday language police, they don’t judge it or fear it, they describe it and provide the long view. Still, they often manage to take teens’ active engagement with words and the world out of the equation, describing youth language in general as an engine of language change, rather than exploring teenage talk as a dynamic part of their interactions with others.
This article, posted on the website of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), for example, points out that, much as some adults would like to limit our language to one, correct, immutable, and testable form, the only thing constant about language (paradoxically) is change. Many words and expressions we take for granted were once considered problematic youth language. The article provides useful examples: “Bus” was once considered an unseemly shortening of “omnibus.” And, many phrases we now consider problematic in certain contexts –the inevitable “double negative,” for example—were once a staple of older forms of English. Linguists are very good at illustrating that language change happens and that it’s okay. No need to worry about teen language—it’s natural. Teen language, like a slowly moving glacier, may be hard to navigate for us old folks, but just as that glacier carves out a beautiful and lush valley, teen language will slowly manipulate the word for us, over time shaping the very language we inhabit and enjoy. Trust the process.
Thoughtful people like teachers and parents who really don’t want to unnecessarily criticize teenagers, find these linguistically informed verdicts on teen language a relief. After discussing controversial words that appear in the language cloud, for example, words that teens themselves have shared, Mr. Z and I want to have an adult message for students, but we don’t want to be preachy. It’s useful to be able to cite linguists who tell us there is something important and lasting going on (language change) when, for example, teens say “like” in every other sentence, seem to shorten perfectly good greetings to “yo,” “what’s good?” or “whaddup?”, or use LOL incessantly, LOLOLOLOLOLOL. They are not being lazy or losing their mental acuity. The linguist says it’s fine. “LOL” in spoken discourse might one day be used by heads of state. Our language will never stop changing and that’s okay.
I’ve always found these explanations useful and persuasive at first, but ultimately incomplete. Once we’ve been consoled by Linguists that teen language is simply contributing to the inevitable if glacially paced process of language change, the conversation usually stops. But when we discuss the role of teen language this way, we take the teens out of the world that stimulates and inspires them, and, out of a world that might also hold injustices and frustrations to which they are reacting, out of institutional norms that they might be resisting by using language in creative new ways. Out of the realm of controversy. Instead of engaging with any of those possibilities, once we legitimize the way teens speak by naming its role in “language change,” we can go back to just waiting for teens to either talk like adults, or for teen language to be accepted sufficiently over the course of time so that adults use it too.
By stepping beyond the “language change” explanation, I’m not trying to debunk anything linguists have learned and published about language change. It’s real. It’s interesting. And it seems important to remind ourselves that language change is inevitable, and that we are all participating in it. However, the focus on language change illuminates only a small corner of a much larger conversation that we can have around teen language. Recognizing that language changes and teen language plays a role the process should be just the beginning of that conversation about language. However, many times I’ve witnessed the “language change” explanation as the end point. Science has spoken. The Glacier will move. Language will be fine. Conversation stops. As an alternative, to keep the conversation going, and to capture the remaining 99.9% of what motivates teens when they communicate, I’m suggesting that when we talk with teens about their language, we include their perspectives as well.
Teen Perspectives on Teen Language
Teens, perhaps more than any other age-group, are surrounded by new and varied language everyday – language of parents, friends, teachers, coaches, multiple and diverse social groups, and, now, the Internet! While many teens may try to act sage and bored, the world and the language that constructs it, is relatively new to them, and one of their main jobs as developing humans is to figure out how to make it work. This will lead to language change. But the language of teens will inevitably change not only language, but also the world. Teens grow up in a world of stimulating newness. Teens also have ideas and desires of their own. Their job is to listen to and participate fully in that world of language. Some of the things they say will seem weird to adults. Sometimes the language they use will change the world.
Consider, for example, the phrase, “people who menstruate.” Recently, this phrase was quoted with disdain by JK Rowling in a now infamous tweet:
Following this tweet, the Internet broke out with horror at JK Rowling’s statement. Many long-time JK fans officially pronounced their Harry Potter Fandom dead. I was confused. As a cis-gendered woman, literally the same age as JK, I thought her comment only slightly funny—a dumb, slightly mean joke—but I didn’t see how it caused such a revolt against her. Then I asked my daughter (13-years old and a big Harry Potter fan) what she thought. “I can see why people are upset. People are rightly calling her transphobic, mom,” my daughter said immediately, and then proceeded to explain to me that many “people who menstruate” might not label themselves “women.” In that moment, we seemed to come face to face with generational differences in language use, specifically how we use language in gendered ways. Who knows if this usage will lead to lasting language change. But discussion of this phrase and how we describe gender categories, seems important. As my daughter’s quick response to my confusion showed me, teens are participating in those discussions and they hold strong opinions.
I raise this example to illustrate the importance of conversations about language—and often, especially, the language of young people. Teens are not just talking about farts, sex, or getting stoned. But that’s part of the picture too, and to talk about the world-changing words, we need to be more open to talking about all language. What if, instead of chalking up the profusion of creative teen language exclusively to language change, we kept the discussion going? We could start talking with teens about the language they use, learning from them what those words are doing, asking teens questions about their language, rather than giving them explanations from linguistics: How did you learn all those words I don’t know? Where do you think they come from? Would you use those words with adults? If not, then with whom? Why? Why do you feel so strongly about using or not using certain words or turns of phrase?
Over the years, I have learned that teens have strong opinions about language—and less strong feelings about whether they contribute to language change. I’m suggesting we listen to those strong opinions. Once we assume teens participate actively in the world of language around them, we might also learn more about the world they live in, the way that they are processing it and in turn shaping it with their language. Then, we can start to think about how they might learn to navigate new and different ways of communicating they will encounter over their lifetime. The social world, inevitably, provides an abundance of opportunity, ridiculousness, oppression, joy, fear, despair, and hope for all of us. Our language is the primary way that we, over a lifetime, make sense of it, and sometimes rebel against it or create it anew, together. Over time, language will indeed change. In the meantime, let’s talk about it and make it work for us!
What kinds of teen language exists in your life? How do you make sense of it? What have you learned from talking to teens about language? Maybe you are a teen? Please comment below.
Lately, the Internet has become an indispensable resource for teachers and professors as we surf through websites and social media looking for examples, links, lessons, or just something to break the ice, lighten the mood, and remind us all of our shared humanity while online.
While searching, we might also discover a secret that most avid Internet-surfers already know: The Internet can make online learning productive, fun, individualized, human-like, illuminating, and even important. To that end, I dedicate this post to just five online language games—five of the infinite ways the Internet invites us into moments of language wonderment. As you engage in these naturally occurring language games, you may think you’re “just” surfing the Internet, but, I guarantee, online learning will happen—to make that more obvious, I’ve titled each of these games with an important mini-lesson about language you will learn as you partake, and added some post-game reflections for online learning bonus points:
Game 1: Words Create Our World—The Caption Game
This is probably the most “classic” of all language games, created by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously coined the term “language game” to describe everything we do with words.
Examples: This picture was first used by Wittgenstein to show how language shapes our world. So, what is it?
If I tell you this is a “duck” you probably see the image one way. If I tell you it is a “rabbit,” then what do you see? A rabbit? Wittgenstein used this ambiguous image to illustrate how the words we use create the world we live in.
This ingenious demonstration of the power of words can be illuminated in many ways. Internet surfers can find similar examples (multiplying like rabbits) online. The famous “Rubin vase,” pictured below plays a similar game with viewers and language users:
Another well-known example, this image of a “young lady,” takes us into the realm of the uncanny. What—in addition to the young lady—do you see here?
Are you stumped? In both these examples, it might be easier to see the unnamed image if someone captioned it for you: In the “Rubin vase” image, do you see “two faces” in addition to the vase—once you read those words? In the “young lady” drawing, do you also see an “old woman with a wart on her nose”—if the picture is captioned that way?
I think these pictures are cool, but if they strike some readers as old, stuffy, and esoteric, consider this more up-to-date observation: We play the same language game any time we caption a photo for Instagram or Snapchat! To illustrate, this cat picture (or any cat picture), might be described in infinite possible ways:
I could caption this “Cat on a loveseat” or “Cat contemplating the meaning of life” and viewers may see this photo very differently depending on which of those descriptions accompanied it.
Play! Now that you’ve seen a few examples of how words create our world, go ahead (if you haven’t already!) and search around for more of these ambiguous images online. You might start by looking for “optical illusions.” See how the words you use to describe each picture can change what you see! Then try playing with some of your own photos on social media. How do you turn the image into a certain kind of event by captioning it one way or another? (“The Life of The Party”? “My Annoying Brother”? “Dinner with Friends”? “The Last Supper”?)
Reflections: Lately, in the age of COVID-19, using language to talk our reality into being has been a staple on Zoom or other video-conferencing media. If we call the now-familiar Zoom grid-of-faces a “Graduation,” that’s what it is! Call it “Happy Hour” or a “Celebration” and participants will see it as such. In this way, Wittgenstein (and now the Internet) shows us that language is not just a collection of words that describe things, but itself a collectively created “form of life.”
Game 2: Translation is Not a One-To-One Language Mapping—The Song Lyrics Google Translate Game
As The Caption Game above illustrates, words don’t have a one-to-one correspondence to reality. Nor, as this Song Lyrics Game will illustrate, do they have one-to-one correspondence to the “same” words in other languages. Just like a caption for a picture, a translation of a passage will also, always, involve some selection and interpretation. The interpretive nature of translation becomes most obvious when we try to learn a new language—and particularly when we try to fudge a little and use Google Translate instead.
Examples: Language teachers across the globe have tried to impress upon their students this simple fact: Google Translate is not the best shortcut to language learning. And, social media have provided us with some of the best “teachable moments” for this lesson. For years, the Youtube site “Translation fails” has been posting google translations of songs. By running English-language song lyrics through Google Translate, transforming them into many different languages, and then back into English, this YouTuber arrives at silly—and oddly illuminating—results. Her first smash hit was the Frozen lyric, “Let it Go!” After she ran this song through several languages on Google Translate and then back to English, the inspirational “Let it go!”refrain had transformed into the more defeatist, “Give up”:
Updating for new songs and styles, the same YouTuber has now come out with another viral success, based on Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” hit, in which the dark and gloomy incantation, “I’m the bad guy,” punctuated by the now-infamous, “Duh,” transforms to “I’m biscuits. Huh?”
Play! Now try it yourself. Take a verse from your favorite song and with the “help” of Google, translate it into a few different languages. Then translate it back to English. What do you get? Keep going until you get the funniest version, then entertain yourself by singing this out loud! Record it for your friends. You might even want to post it on YouTube! What sort of comments do you receive?
Reflection: Translating with Google to surprise yourself with the silliest possible lyrics can be a blast. It’s also a great illustration of how impossible it would be to line up the world’s languages word-to-word to create precisely the same description an object—or each other. Each language seems to do things a little differently. And given Wittgenstein’s observations about language as a “form of life,” this makes sense: Why would we expect words from different languages to line up one-to-one when words don’t line up one-to-one with anything else they are supposed to describe? It’s precisely this slippage that makes language a shared accomplishment—and not a code that a computer algorithm could understand or recreate.
Game 3: Appearances of Linguistic Accuracy can be Deceiving—The Magic Bilingual Idiom Game
As the Song Lyrics Game above illustrates, there is often some slippage between one language and the next—and between any word and whatever it is attempting to describe. As literary theorist Jacques Lacan would put it (but in French), there is an “incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier”. There is no one-to-one alignment—either between language and things or between one language and another language. For that reason, if we translate through enough different languages, and then back to English, we can arrive at “I’m biscuits” from “I’m the bad guy.” But this slippage gets even more mind-bogglingly wonderful when Google Translate does arrive at a translation that looks right, but still doesn’t work! Revealing this invisible slippage, puts the “magic” in this Magic Bilingual Idiom Game, drawing attention to the often-overlooked aspects of linguistic knowledge that multilinguals hold.
Examples: One of the best types of idioms to entertain ourselves with on Google Translate might be those phrases for collections of things: Herds of horses, packs of dogs, clutches of owls, pods of dophins, etc. Often, different languages have different expressions for these.
What’s called a “school of fish” in English, for example, is called a “banco de peces” in Spanish. But what happens if we enter “banco de peces” in Google Translate?:
Of course. Banco=Bank, de=of, Peces=Fish. The individual words are translated “accurately” enough. But the resulting expression makes no sense. Bank of fish? How can we ever fix this error? It would be confusing to a monolingual English speaker if a monolingual Spanish speaker were to use the expression “bank of fish” for “school of fish”. And, it would be confusing to a monolingual Spanish speaker if a monolingual English speaker used “escuela de peces” (school of fish) for “banco de peces”. But if two bilinguals used these translations, they would likely know what each other were talking about. Their invisible multilingual knowledge would reveal itself!
Google recognizes that their translation app needs the wisdom carried within bilingual users to hone its functionality—this is a form of bilingual expertise that computers alone could never learn. Therefore, Google has built a feedback tool into their translation tool: Click on Google Translate’s dropdown menu and it will offer alternative translations and even a chance for you to “improve this translation.” You can select the best translation and it will be transformed on your screen, just like this:
If you care to contribute to the human improvement of Google Translate, calling on your own multilingual expertise, chime in, and Google Translate will get better.
But even if humans improve infinite entries in Google Translate this way, the app still will not work perfectly. Many expressions and their translations simply cannot be fully illuminated through a computer app. Consider, for example, the French expression, “cherchez la femme.” Like “bank of fish,” this sentence translates easily in a one-to-one, faux-accurate way, but it loses much of its resonance along the way. I learned the phrase, “cherchez la femme,” many years ago from a friend in Hollywood who had spent a few years in Paris dubbing movies for a living. He loved saying “cherchez la femme,” and I soon came to get a vague sexist feeling from it. When I asked what it meant, he would give a long, meandering explanation about “noir” movies and how any mystery can be explained by finding the woman at the bottom of it. Knowing no French at the time, I just learned the phrase as a chunk that sounded something like “shayrshayl’phahm” and came to associate it with heartbreakingly sexy French women and intrigue.
Only many years later did I look the phrase up on Google Translate, which conveniently gave me the word-for-word translation, “look for the woman”:
And, the simple, “look for the woman,” translated right back into “cherchez la femme”:
On the day I learned that “shayrshayl’phahm” simply translated to “look for the woman,” (and vice versa) I was a little disappointed. It seemed so mundane. But, it was also inaccurate. The simple, faux accuracy of word-to-word correspondence conceals the different forms of life these expressions create in English or French. That’s precisely the magic of the Magic Bilingual Idiom Game: It reveals all the important aspects of living through multiple languages that the faux accuracy of one-to-one translation conceals. Consider how important precisely this knowledge would be in the context of The Caption Game (above)! Captioning a photo with “Look for the woman” would lead to a very different viewing experience than would “Cherchez la femme”!
Play! Now it’s your turn to try out your own multilingual knowledge. Think of an idiom you know in one language—then, using Google, translate that into another language you know, then translate it back. How does that work for you? Often, you may get the exact same expression. But how do you know whether it has the same meaning? In this game, you will need to call on your own invisible multilingual knowledge (and possibly that of your multilingual friends) to check the layers of meaning and precisely how or if Google Translate fails you.
Whenever you sense something amiss, try to fix Google Translate a little and click on their dropdown menu to “improve this translation.” Of course, with expressions like “cherchez la femme” this might be more difficult. Fortunately, not all human knowledge can be reduced to a Google algorithm! Take note when this happens, revel in your own multifaceted language expertise, and share the good news with a friend.
Reflections: Expressions like “cherchez la femme” render Google Translate almost pointless—but they also serendipitously illuminate the magic of language and the power of multilingualism. Because Google attempts to translate even socioculturally complicated expressions in a one-to-one way, a person needs to know multiple languages and the forms of life they invoke to be able to know when Google Translate leads them astray. For this reason, Google translate is always soliciting feedback from its users. And, over the years, it gets better! Now, it translates many idioms without using a one-to-one correspondence because it has been drawing on the everyday expertise real multilingual people have volunteered—and which you may have already contributed to by playing this game!
Game 4: Subverting Genre Expectations is Funny—The Fake Amazon Reviews Game
Mistranslated song lyrics (like those we’ve played with in the Song Lyrics Game) come off as funny or absurd because they subvert our expectations for the genre: When we expect a dark incantation like “I’m the bad guy” and get “I’m biscuits” instead—we just have to smile. A similar happy twist occurs now and then with the Amazon product review genre. Even though we may doubt the veracity of many of these reviews, we tend to read them in hopes that most contributors sincerely report the facts: If this is a good product or an awful one, reviews will say so. Precisely this practical expectation for the honest and earnest review on Amazon makes fake reviews a brilliant departure.
Examples: You may already be familiar with one of the biggest magnets for fake reviews, the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, pictured here:
The reviews of the banana slicer have far more feedback than reviews of any other product on Amazon I’ve seen. Over 58,000 readers came across the review below and “found this helpful”!
After all, who hasn’t for decades “been trying to come up with an ideal way to slice a banana”?
The sociolinguist Camilla Vasquez has written extensively about satirical online reviews like these, and just recently she alerted me to another comic product review for a popular commodity in our age of quarantine: Yeast. This very enlightening review rose to the top:
Play! Now, try to find another “fake” review! What language game is it playing instead of sincerely reviewing a product? Poking fun at that product? Practicing PUNmanship? Venting about another topic? After combing through these and having a few good laughs, pick a product you want to review and try your hand at the “fake review” genre. Go ahead and post it and see how the world responds!
Reflection: For me, fake reviews are life-and-language-affirming. They affirm that people care about enjoying language and a few laughs with fellow humans more than diligently buying and reviewing whatever product crosses their screen. Sometimes the act of sharing one’s sense of humor with the world provides people with more satisfaction than simply consuming that world!
Game 5: We Live in a World of Others’ Words—The Word Wonderment Game
If you’ve been playing all the games above, you may by now be feeling flush with the power you wield with your words—the power to create a world, but also to genre-shift and tear it down! You may also feel humbled by the shape-shifting quality of those same words and our inability to pin down their meanings. Words are indeed powerful, but they also belong to no one person. And no dictionary or reference tool or app like Google Translate can provide a word’s decisive meaning. As the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin has written (but in Russian), “We live in a world of others’ words.” The Word Wonderment Game is about exploring how our words take on new meanings when others take them out into the world and all its diverse forms of life. The Internet is made for this type of exploration.
Examples: You can start the Word Wonderment Game with any word or phrase you’ve heard lately that captured your fancy. It may be something new you overheard from teens (“soft girls”) or college kids (“natty light”), a new word for the age of COVID-19 (“face covering”) or a local word you’ve overheard and think you understand by never really fully “got” (“jawn”?). You might even see an intriguing word chalked up on a sign at your local bodega. “Hoagie” for example, is often used in Philadelphia as if everyone knows what it means—and as this picture shows, Philadelphians are venturing out to pick up freshly made hoagies even during quarantine:
But what if you were new to Philadelphia and you didn’t know this word? Or what if you’ve lived here forever but simply want to explore how other people use this word? Via the Internet you can take a shortcut through the world of others’ words. Start with a google search:
Already, Google’s dropdown menu suggests we’ve entered a world in which people associate hoagies with comfort (“haven”) and immediate gratification (“near me”). The list of links proffered next offers solid indications that Philadelphia is hoagie-central. Next, urbandictionary.com provides a selection of strong opinions, and the “top definition” offers more information about the history of the word itself:
A life-like quote in the second entry mentions that you can get hoagies at “da Papi store”:
And this entry authoritatively mentions an exception: “meatball” is the one filling that requires “sub” or even “sandwich” and not “hoagie” as the sandwich word:
These entries and the dialogue included, may set you wondering: Do I even know how to say the word “hoagie”? To explore, head to YouTube, with a new prompt: How to say “Hoagie”. You’ll get a long a boring tutorial—but you’ll also find many other videos in which “hoagie” is under discussion.
After this, you might find yourself reading about “The Great Hoagie Debate”, and even filling out an online poll about it (I admit it. I voted “yes”):
As you churn through these different perspectives on hoagies, you’ll likely also encounter more words you’ve never known before. Wawa, hero, meatball sub, da Papi store, and so on. You’ll also start feeling like some people in Philadelphia really care about hoagies. A lot. It’s not just another word for sandwich. The word “hoagie,” like any other word, is no one person’s alone to define or wield—but one shape-shifting word among many in a world of others’ words.
Play! You may be spending more cross-generational time in conversation these days. This means you may hear new words you don’t often (or ever) use yourself—but that people you know may care about a lot. Ask about those words! What do they mean to the speaker? In what situations would they use them? Inevitably, you will be running across unfamiliar words everyday (“namean?”). Or familiar words that have taken on new meanings (“face covering”). Follow up on those words! What “forms of life” do they invoke? Who uses them? What do they tell us about society? Surf the Internet to find all the nooks and crannies these words inhabit and the ways their meaning changes across contexts. “Slippage” between words and meaning doesn’t only occur when we’re using google translate. Even the word “hoagie” has an indeterminate meaning. So be sure to look into all the different ways our world is made up of others’ words.
Reflection:TheWord Wonderment Game revels in the fact that any time we speak, we are participating in a world of others’ words—and others’ perspectives. As you learn about different words and about the forms of life that surround words you thought you knew, you’ll likely run into controversies. You may find yourself feeling strongly about the use of certain words. You may feel that certain words should not be used. Why not? Our strong feelings about words can lead to important conversations about our differences. Through these conversations about language, we can also collaboratively build new meanings together, so that we live in a shared world.
Now, next time you’re on zoom, teaching a class, or celebrating the end of the week, “share your screen”! You may be able to play some of these language games with others and spark more talk about language—in the process, you’ll be collaboratively shaping the world we’re inhabiting, both online and off.
Please share your reflections on any of these games below. If you want more language games, let me know! There are many more that I cut from this short list. What other language games do you play on the internet? Please share!
A generation from now, we will look back on this time and remember our shared language–a shared language that citizen sociolinguists have made visible and viable. During the COVID-19 global pandemic, we have all been learning new words and phrases, and while we haven’t been able to share each other’s space and live company, we have been able to create a new global Lingua Franca for the COVID-19 era.
A generation from now, we will look back on this time and remember our shared language
To illustrate, let’s take a cursory scan of new words being popularized, circulated, re-created, and joked about these days. COVID-19, of course, has been coined in the last few months. Is there anyone on the planet who does not know what this refers to? And Merriam-Webster has already compiled lists of suddenly frequent vocabulary words we all have been hearing, including virus, contagious, infectious, superspreader, and quarantine. The York Times also just published a useful glossary covering these terms, throwing in state-of-emergency, incubation, containment, and R-naught.
I appreciate these careful compilations, but these are words that scientists of infectious diseases have known and been using for a while, as experts. Everyday people experiencing this pandemic have simultaneously been creating an all new vocabulary of our own. By re-thinking some of these terms from the scientific community, having conversations about these very words, and by endlessly generating and popularizing more words related to this pandemic, we have been able to make sense of our own world in our own words, together—while maintaining a safe distance from each other.
The phrase Social Distancing, for example, has baffled some, coming across as an oxymoron. I’ve had numerous conversations in which people puzzle over how we can be “social” and “distant” at the same time, and heard friends snappily assert that we need to be physically distant but remain socially connected. But we keep using the phrase anyway. And, it has expanded from noun phrase to adjective: We now have social distancing workouts,social distancing car circles, social distancing study halls, and even social distancing fun runs. We can still catch The Daily Social Distancing Show with Trevor Noah. I just googled “Social Distancing” and the first phrase that popped up on the search dropdown menu was social distancing baptism (and the first image featured a minister aiming a super-soaker at an infant).
During all this social distancing, Universities across the globe have been using the most popular video-conferencing platform, Zoom, to take learning on line, and this has led to more word play: Zoomed out, for example, to describe that zoned out feeling and glazed expression one might get after a day of meetings and classes on Zoom. That is, if you weren’t Zoombombed by a hacker, popping into your meeting uninvited, with inappropriate messages and images.
On top of these new words, certain place names have become part of everyday conversation, and now resonate with us all. Wuhan is a huge city in China with a population of over 11 million people—more than New York, Tokyo, or London. But until COVID-19, most Americans had never heard of it. While the coinage of Wuhan virus gave a one-sidedly negative perspective of the city, more nuanced associations with Wuhan are emerging—as illustrated by this “The Wuhan I Know” comic recently created by Laura Gau, gaining popularity on Twitter, and featured on public radio. Now nearly everyone in the US probably knows the name of that city, and many of us can even picture its location on a map, inside another newly familiar location, the Hubei Province. Similarly, the Lombardy Region of Italy, and even New Rochelle, New York have become commonplace in conversation. We’ve all expanded our repertoire to include these distant—and not so distant—place names.
But we’ve also been sharing and resurrecting terms about the time we spend at home: Procrastibaking (a combo of procrastinating and baking that some are trying out for the first time) has been reappearing and featured in more social media posts. As has the need for no-knead bread (who knew?) and pizza kits (now being picked up from favorite pizza joints to be assembled, safely, at home).
And more and more we’ve been popularizing words for new activities we are doing together (apart), by tacking the word virtual onto it all. Now we have virtual happy hour, virtual brunch, and Zoom’s virtual background. My son, still at college on the West Coast, but living off-campus, just had a virtual zoom birthday celebration with us, his East Coast family, along with his West Coast housemates, whom he calls his social distancing team.
We’re all in this together, and our language shows it
Some of these new words and phrases may evoke the specter of loneliness, and some of these place names may draw a momentary infamy they never asked for, but this is how we, as a society, develop a common relationship to our new, uncommon conditions. Even in the best of times, much of the way we all experience the world together is by sharing language with each other. As we use and talk about words together, those words themselves become our shared experience. Even just hearing certain words again and again, as they morph little by little–Zoom, Zoomed out, Zoom-bombing, social distancing pizza kit, social distancing friendship, social distancing–gives us a sense we are all living life as one collective. In the time of COVID 19, this type of shared language experience provides a form of existential hope. We are all in this together—and our language shows it.
The human elbow is getting a lot of attention these days, as we collectively fight the global spread of COVID-19.
But what does that word “elbow” refer to? Am I the only one who has spent most of my life using “elbow” to refer exclusively to the pointed part that sticks out when we bend our arm? I don’t think so. Ask any person on the street to point to their elbow and I bet you they’ll point to that pointy part. And yet…
Cough into your elbow
The part of our anatomy where we are supposed to be coughing these days (if we don’t have a tissue) has been confusingly called the “elbow.” This suggests (and this suggestion is born out in ubiquitous public service announcement illustrations) that the “elbow” is the part of our arm that gets enclosed when we bend our arm.
This contradicts everything I have envisioned about elbows for my entire life.
Bump elbows in greeting
On the other hand (or the other side of the elbow), we are also supposed to “bump elbows” instead of shaking hands or hugging—apparently a time-tested greeting that has been called on during epidemics in the past, and has now been resurrected for COVID-19. This is reassuring to me—I can visualize bumping elbows—the pointy part of our arms. Wikipedia provides this crystal-clear illustration of elbows touching in “a stylish bump in 2008”:
But it would be really hard to cough into that pointy part of our elbow. So why are people calling the inside of our elbow the “elbow.”
Maybe we just don’t have a word for it, and it’s just too clumsy to say “the inside of your elbow”. Is it called the “elbow pit”? I googled that and found others had been wondering the same thing: The search bar auto-filled with “Elbow pit what to call it?”
But Wikipedia tells us there is a specific word for that part of our body: the cubital fossa or… elbow pit.
This wikipedia definition of “elbow pit” (aka cubital fossa) as anterior to the elbow was bolstered as my search continued. As I was googling “elbow pit,” the search bar also offered up another top search suggestion: “elbow pit tattoo.” This is what they look like—they are not on a person’s elbow. They are nestled in the elbow pit (where we should also cough):
But for some reason, the public service message is not “Cough into your elbow pit.” Why not? Why have people insisted on calling this simply the “elbow”?
Well, the analogy to a smelly armpit may just be too much for genteel Americans to handle. I mentioned this term, “elbow pit,” to my 12-year-old daughter and she said simply, “Ew. I find that very disturbing.”
Others seem to have also picked up on the disturbing aspects of the phrase, “elbow pit,” as represented, of course, on Urbandictionary.com, where elbow pit is defined. The top definition seems modest and descriptive:
But the third definition goes directly to the problem of armpit associations:
Ew, indeed! The commonsense resistance to a bodily analogy like “elbow pit” is borne out further on Reddit, where at least one thread suggests referring to the elbow pit as, instead, “elbow vagina.”
So, maybe a more expansive working definition of “elbow,” to include the “elbow pit,” has merit. It seems that people who design these public service campaigns would rather be a little imprecise than end up in the “elbow pit” zone of associations. Plain old “elbow” is simpler and conveniently euphemismistic, nipping any of the “elbow pit” or “elbow vagina” undertones in the bud.
Maybe it’s okay, sometimes, to be a little imprecise in our language if the precise language just leads us down a scary path? People might be more likely to cough into something called “elbow” (inaccurately) than to cough into the more accurately named “elbow pit.”
And what if we are talking to kids—those prime germ-spreaders? We don’t want to call it the elbow pit and immediately hear a class of 25 saying “EEEEEEEWWWWWWWW!” Definitely bad PR for good practices.
Well, sometimes we just need to think a little longer (or ask a citizen sociolinguist!) to come up with the most effective phraseology. Fortunately, this Seattle pre-school teacher, Ms. Laurie Goff, seems to have nailed it! She calls it the “cough pocket,” and tweeted a handy video demonstrating exactly what coughing into that cough pocket will look like:
Her accompanying explanation is friendly and convincing: “That’s a cough pocket. It’s on your body! It’s free, it’s easy, and it’s always with you!” Now this video (and not a collection of germs from all her preschoolers!) is going viral, spreading the word about where to cough–arguably more effectively than any inaccurate, euphemistic use of “elbow,” or accurate, but icky, “elbow pit” ever could.
So to the question, how are we supposed to cough into our elbow? Ms. Goff provides an answer: Use your cough pocket!
What are your experiences with the words “elbow,” “elbow pit,” and “cough pocket” (and of course, the “elbow bump”)? Please comment below!
Lately, Joe Biden’s language has been under the articulateness microscope. When there are substantive policies to be debated, why do we hold up articulateness for critique in political discussions? Biden seems competent enough, and experienced. Does it really matter if he is articulate? Short answer: It depends on what people say about it.
So, let’s take a look: How are people talking about Biden’s speech?
Joe Biden’s manner of speaking has been called “choppy,” “rambling,” “halting,” and there are plenty examples to illustrate this as noted in this October 2019 New York Times article:
“People are being killed in western, in eastern Afghan — excuse me, in eastern, uh, Ukraine,”
“I would eliminate the capital gains tax — I would raise the capital gains tax”
“So there’s a, there’s — my time up?”
Still, Biden’s popularity has in part been fueled by this choppy, rambling, and halting style, as evidenced by these Iowans quoted in the same article:
“I love it. It appeals to the common people, working class, Americans, everybody!”
“I know he falls over some of his words, we all do.”
“Oh, big deal! He speaks from his heart.”
So, is he speaking poorly? Or is he brilliantly connecting with the common people? As discussed in a previous post, in certain situations inarticulateness can be a form of competence. Until recently, Biden’s choppy and halting delivery—with the occasional profane word thrown in—has worked well for him, projecting a down-to-earth image. But, the claim that his disfluencies appeal to “the common people, working class, Americans, everybody” may be an overstatement. Even those common people and working-class Americans are starting to get worried about Biden’s disfluencies. When the New York Times spoke to union leaders in Western Pennsylvania, those hard-working Americans insisted that their priority was to support a candidate who would maintain coal jobs. Biden was their guy—but they had concerns. Not because he was wavering on his stance on coal and fracking, the issues that most concerned them, but because he didn’t seem very articulate. One of them summed up:
“You know it scares me. I love Joe Biden, but lately he’s not as articulate. What’s Trump gonna do?”
For these union leaders, being inarticulate has become Joe Biden’s biggest vulnerability. If Biden couldn’t get the Democratic nomination, some of them were considering voting for Trump and, as union leaders, advising their union members to do the same.
According to some accounts, Biden has been verbally awkward for decades, and for a long time Biden’s gaffes and hesitations, and even his profanity have made him likable. But the union leaders had a different take for 2020: Right now we don’t need a friendly guy. We need someone who can challenge Trump. As the concerned union leader quoted above asked, if we put a hesitating, pausing, mis-speaking Biden on stage with Trump, “What’s Trump gonna do?” (Implied answer: Rip him to shreds). In the context of that discussion, it seems Joe Biden has pushed the limits of competent deployment of “inarticulateness.” If he can’t more seamlessly make his case, he simply won’t be able to stand up to Trump.
Others have discussed this as a problem of age. He’s just too old to keep up—and his inarticulateness is the primary evidence of this. This argument is made clearly by a New Hampshire voter quoted in this Vox article:
“I don’t think he can take on Trump for that reason. I don’t think Biden is quick enough and sharp enough to take him on. His story is incredible, but he’s just too old.”
Biden’s inarticulateness is increasingly being talked about not as a sign of relatability and political competence, but as a sign of age, incompetence, and inability to beat Trump. How did that happen? Did he really start becoming more inarticulate? Is his brain degenerating?
His brain may be degenerating, but let’s be frank: That’s not what matters in this election.
Consider another politician famous for his folksy speech and mannerisms: Ronald Reagan. He was elected twice. Despite an increasingly simple speaking style and decreasing vocabulary during his time in office, citizens deemed his style relatable. In Reagan’s case, much of his repetition and reliance on stock lines may have been caused by a brain stumbling through the plaques and tangles of Alzheimer’s disease. Still he was a successful candidate, winning two terms and then ongoing status as a beloved former President. He was even dubbed, “The Great Communicator.” Why didn’t people focus on his inarticulateness–his slowing of speech, his waning vocabulary (now shown to be empirically measurable)? Because the people discussing his speech didn’t talk about it as a problem.
At one time, that folksy interpretation of Reagan’s speech style was enjoyed by Biden too. But now the word articulate has come to haunt Biden’s campaign. As the very different cases of Biden and Reagan suggest, how we perceive someone’s inarticulateness is more a product of a context and everyday conversation than of that individual’s brain–even if the examples of halting speech and bumbling frustration coming from that individual are as real as the recordings replayed again and again on national television. It’s not the speech itself that’s giving Joe trouble, but the way people talk about it. So, back to our original question: Let’s say Joe Biden is inarticulate. Does it matter? Not on its own. But all those people out there discussing Biden’s speaking problems—and the journalists reporting their remarks—are making it matter more and more each day.
Being “articulate” (or not) probably does matter for the success of a presidential candidate. But how we talk about it is what makes it matter.
Being inarticulate is highly under-appreciated. In many cases, rather than a sign of carelessness or miseducation, being inarticulate may instead be an important building block of sociality and even democracy in a diverse society. Consider, for example, the following much-maligned expressions deemed “inarticulate”:
You know what I mean?
These are expressions that have been derided by English speakers, teachers, parents, and elders, as a mark of younger generations’ lack of backbone, intelligence, or will. Taylor Mali’s spoken word performance mocking these hesitant words and the mannerisms that accompany them has circulated widely on YouTube. In under three minutes, Mali brilliantly delivers his entire monologue using these expressions and piling onto them all the hesitant rising intonation in the universe:
In case you hadn’t realized? it has suddenly become uncool to sound like you know what you’re talking about? or believe strongly in what you’re like saying?
Invisible question marks and parenthetical you-knows? And you-know-what-I’m sayings? have been attaching themselves to our sentences, even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions?
Are we like the most aggressively non-committed generation to come along in like a long time?
Mali’s spoken-word performance almost seems to be celebrating these ways of speaking. Immortalizing them. But he concludes by imploring listeners to “Speak with conviction,” delivering this line with conclusive falling intonation, and a facial expression of drop-dead seriousness.
This call for confident articulation of our convictions makes sense—in certain contexts. Dozens of you-know-what-I-mean?s throughout Swedish Activist Greta Thunberg’s speeches would likely lessen her impact on worldwide climate awareness. “Invisible question marks” and ubiquitous likes would be surreal on the presidential debate stage. Fluent, confident, unhesitating speech—speaking with conviction—remains the preferred mode in political debates or speechifying in Davos.
But last week I asked some graduate students in my class—many of whom are international students, all of whom are multilingual and have lived in different parts of the world—to think more broadly about being articulate. Specifically, I asked, are there certain situations where being inarticulate is more useful?
An answer shared by several students took me by surprise: Paradoxically, phrases like those maligned by Taylor Mali can also help a person sound like a competent language speaker.
One student from China mentioned how, upon arriving in the United states, she was surprised to hear so many “likes” among the native speakers here. She started using like and you know what I mean to fit in. As she put it, using these phrases does double duty: It makes you sound like you’ve been living in the US for a while, and simultaneously gives you time to search for a word, or think through the rest of your sentence—always useful when using a new language. As soon as she learned the phrase you know what I mean, it became a crucial bridge to successful communication with local English speakers.
A student who grew up in Philadelphia, but had spent the last year living in Brazil, had a similar perspective on speaking Portuguese there. The crucial word for him had been tipo. Another student remembered that when learning French, her instructor, frustrated with all the students’ “ums” told them to please use the proper French “euh” instead.
The examples began to flow—what about saying o sea or este in Spanish? Or something like ba in Swedish? A quick google search yielded lists of filler words in dozens of other modern languages. This duolingo forum about filler words contains an outpouring of citizen sociolinguistic expertise and appreciation (and a little Taylor Mali-like opprobrium) including these enthusiastic examples:
As these stories and outpourings of multilingual “filler” words suggest, being “inarticulate” in this way may be an important step in joining a new language community—and even sounding “native-like”. For a new speaker of any language, speaking “with conviction” may not only be impossible, but undesirable. The priority may instead be fitting in, and using words like like and you know what I mean, can be the most competent way of entering into new conversations.
What forms of being “inarticulate” function well for you? Or do you find ums, likes, tipos, and you know what I means annoying? Please comment below!