NOS versus NOZZ: Urban Dictionary Settles the Issue in the London Review of Books

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 4.00.17 PMI don’t often mention the London Review of Books in this BLOG.  In fact, I never have.  I’ve never found much of a direct connection between anything I’ve read there and Citizen Sociolinguistics.  Until now!

Today I read a letter to the editor in the LRB (27 July) that took issue with some language in an article in a previous issue (LRB, 29 June).  Not uncommon in the LRB. But then (not common at all!), to back up his point, the writer, Will Bowers, cited Urban Dictionary.

Mr. Bowers specifically took issue with the term used for nitrous oxide (which you may know from the good old days of dentistry as “happy gas”).  It seems this substance is now used “by young people today.”   Mr. Bowers seems fine with that, but expressed concern that Will Self, the author of the essay in question, referred to the substance as “nozz” rather than “nos.”

You may be wondering: How was Mr. Bowers, of Merton College, Oxford, so familiar with Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 4.00.58 PMnitrous oxide and its various monikers? He clarifies: “…the popularity of the drug among teenagers at the turn of the century coincided with the release of The Fast and the Furious, a terrible film in which cars were customized to go faster with the addition of NOS (Nitrous Oxide Systems).”

How does Mr.Bowers then make the case for this term (NOS), from a “terrible film,” over Mr. Self’s choice (nozz)?

Mr. Bowers hedges a bit before drawing on Urban Dictionary, referring to it as “the not altogether reliable urbandictionary.com”.  However, his findings from that potentially unreliable source clinch his argument.  As he writes,

“urbandictionary.com agrees, placing the slang for the drug as the fifth term in its entry for ‘nos’, while the entry for ‘nozz’ has only one definition: ‘A swag person that excels in social activities’.”

How did Urban Dictionary become a useful source here?  Is it simply a matter of convenience?  Or might it be the very best source in this case? When the knowledge of bona fide nos users is in question, UD seems to be the right choice.

Dear readers, have you ever cited UD as a source?  What were the conditions?  Did it serve you well?  And how did you tailor your argument to your audience? Did you need to hedge or apologize for your UD use?  Please comment below!

 

 

 

Our Sitting, Lying President

Lies frequently reveal much about the values of a society, even when the field worker can not check on them.”  (Hortense Powdermaker, 1966, Stranger and Friend: The way of the anthropologist, pp. 185-6).

Lies, as stated above, can reveal a lot.  Gaining insights from lies – or inaccuracies– aligns perfectly with a Citizen Sociolinguistic view of knowledge. As I’ve mentioned (often) in this blog, whether accurate or not, how someone describes their own language tells us something about what that person believes society values.  Someone who describes themselves as speaking “broken English,” for example, may not be describing their own English accurately, but they have identified a dynamic in society that makes them feel insecure about how they speak.

So, as Citizen Sociolinguists, misrepresentations, inaccuracies, and even instances of straight-up lying about language are all important to consider.  As observed by Hortense Powdermaker above, lies “reveal much about the values of a society.”

Lies may also be important sources of insight for everyday citizens, especially

Screen Shot 2017-06-15 at 2.31.48 PM
Hortense Powdermaker, American Anthropologist, 1900-1970
considering this: President Donald J. Trump lies a lot.

What insights can Trump’s lies can give us into our own society and its values?

In the quotation above, Powdermaker was describing her fieldwork in Mississippi in the 1930’s.  Specifically, she was describing the disproportionate number of people in white society who claimed to have ancestors who were officers in the Confederate army, or who had owned large plantations and many slaves. While Powdermaker points to facts that show many of those she interviewed must have been lying, these statements, even more so in their inaccuracy, suggest an unapologetic presence of racist values.

So, let’s consider:  What does Trump lie about? What can we learn from those lies? To jog your memory, here is a list of topics Trump has lied about, compiled by the Toronto Star:

Screen Shot 2017-06-15 at 2.09.45 PM

A quick glance at this list might bring to mind many of Trump’s lies or misrepresentations:  He has lied about attendance at his inauguration, he has claimed he predicted the Brexit vote, he has claimed there was “massive voter fraud” during his election.  He has also, notoriously, claimed that President Obama was not born in the United States, he has claimed the Paris Accord would punish the U.S., forcing us to close coal mines while China opens more, he has claimed the Russia-Trump story is nothing but “fake news.”

What can we glean from this lying (yet sitting) president? Obviously, these are claims of a disturbed man who will say anything to put himself in first place.  But, do all these lies provide any deeper insight into what our society values? What propelled a liar of this magnitude into the highest office in our country?

Many of the things Trump lies about are not important (It seems foolish to join in the quibbling about how much of the Mall in D.C. was populated with people at his inauguration.)  Similarly, the lies that middle-class whites in Mississippi told about their ancestors were not important (Why quibble about how many slaves someone’s ancestors really owned—whether 1, 2 or 10?).  However, these types of lies share a similar dynamic:  People drawing on fantasies about themselves—and the willingness of others to go along with those lies—inevitably points to a hollowness. Powdermaker suggested that this hollowness, in the case of whites in Mississippi, was an absence of “a middle-class tradition.”

As the gap between super-rich and poor in the United States grows, a similar absence today seems worth considering: There are countless people in the United States –poor, middle-class, and wealthy—who live on fantasies of super-wealth, of fame, popularity, celebrity, the “good life”, or the super-successful-venture-capital-backed start-up.  And, many of these fantasies may be as hollow in human values as those of 1930’s Mississippi whites, lying about being from families of plantation owners and confederate officers.

Lies and inaccuracies can be important forms of knowledge, for Citizen Sociolinguists and for just plain Citizens.  Donald Trump’s lies are not going to stop.  What else can we learn from them?

What is the absence we—both rich and poor—are covering up by living with the lies of our president?  How might we fill it with something else?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Modern-day Malapropisms: Yogiisms versus Trumpisms

The term “Malapropism” describes a lovable feature of our all-too-human use of language—that is, using the almost-right-but-not-quite-right word.  YourDictionary.com illustrates their entry with this example, spoken by the TV character, Archie Bunker:

“Patience is a virgin.”

This example illustrates the layers of possibility within subtle linguistic missteps.  In choosing the words “patience is a virgin” instead of “patience is a virtue” the script-writers pile on a little jokey sexual innuendo and maybe a touch of creepy-old-man, building Archie Bunker’s character as a conservative curmudgeon in the decades-old sitcom, All in the Family.

A good malapropism—like any good joke—may also go down in history. Everyday people seem to remember them and pass them along.  Something about them draws people to savor the language, to recognize its special capacity for creative meaning, and even to make fun of ourselves and the human condition.

The baseball coach, Yogi Berra, was famous for his malapropisms (or “Yogiisms”), and forScreen Shot 2017-05-26 at 3.36.50 PM their humor and everyday pithy wisdom.  Phrases like “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility,” “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded,” or “When you get to a fork in the road, take it” bring home some shared sense of the absurdity of everyday life.  Rather than bringing out the dictionary and calling Yogi to the mat for being incorrect or nonsensical, people have ended up repeating these Yogiisms-turned-aphorisms.  An internet search yields dozens of sites compiling his top 20 (or 50!) phrases.

Now, Donald Trump has become a modern proliferator of malapropisms:

Unpresidented or Unprecedented When condemning China’s actions in international waters, he referred to their actions as “unpresidented”:

Screen Shot 2017-05-26 at 12.47.09 PM

7/11 (The convenience store?) versus 9/11 During his presidential campaign, he denounced the terror attacks on the World Trade Center—those that occurred on “Seven Eleven.”

“I watched our police and our firemen down on 7/11, down on the World Trade Center before it came down.”

Bigly versus Big League Also during his campaign, Trump repeatedly used the term “bigly.” Though his handlers claimed he was saying “big league,” this odd usage stood out so prominently to citizens that memes around “bigly” have proliferated…bigly.

Screen Shot 2017-05-26 at 3.41.59 PM

There are probably more, and more serious malapropisms in Trump’s repertoire.  But even this short list suggests a qualitative difference between Trump’s malapropisms and Yogi Berra’s—or even Archie Bunker’s.  Trump’s seem worse.

But, if malapropisms aren’t inherently bad, what exactly is wrong with Trumpisms?

It’s not that they are “poor English.” Many people have written about how Trump abuses the English language. Some have catalogued Trump’s malapropisms as “Times when the English language took a hit”. But abuse of the English language is not the real problem here.

The problem isn’t that Trump uses words in unorthodox ways, but the precise quality of the missteps he makes.  They show none of the qualities of time-tested malapropisms—humor or tacit wisdom.  Granted, the 7/11 gaff may have dark humor to it.  But, generally, Trumpisms are not funny.  He certainly has no sense of humor about them.  In fact, he often tries to correct them immediately by removing tweets (like the “unpresidented” tweet above) as soon as he’s been called out.  Trumpisms shed no wisdom or whimsical perspective on the human condition.  The only tacit message they communicate is (at best) that he doesn’t really care that much.  And no amount of time with a dictionary, grammar book, or linguistics professor will cure that.

Good news: Despite Trump’s use of bigly, unpresidented, 7/11 (for 9/11), and probably many more absurdities, the English language is safe.  Trump may spew malapropisms, but malapropisms in themselves are not bad—they show us that language is alive and inevitably unorthodox at times. Every day, people use words in ways which create new (unpresidented?) meanings.

And who knows, maybe soon we will be unpresidented!  Patience is a virgin.

Please add your comments below! Do you have malapropisms you love or hate?  Any recent Trumpisms to add? What can we learn from these?

The Ghost Emoji: A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 12.28.04 PMHave you ever sent or received a ghost emoji? What does it mean? This is a perfect question for the Citizen Sociolinguist—because we can only answer it by asking what citizens-who-use-ghost-emojis say about it.

The question, “What does a ghost emoji mean?” occurred to me because, not to brag, but, recently I’ve found myself using the ghost emoji in a way that feels “fluent.”

Then, I unthinkingly used it with a distant acquaintance to indicate, “Thanks! I’m glad you liked the photo!”, and I started second-guessing my fluency. Suddenly I felt nervous that the seemingly innocuous winking ghost may have some offensive history of use (see, for example, the eggplant emoji).

So, wearing my Citizen Sociolinguistic curiosity cap, I hit the internet.

A quick google search for the definition yielded, somewhat unexpectedly, an article on the topic in GQ magazine entitled (to my relief), “The Ghost Emoji is Perfect.”

Fortunately, the ghost emoji works in almost any situation, according to the author, Maggie Lange:

Here are good occasions to use the ghost emoji: to show you’re listening; sheepishness; to elicit a faster response; to punctuate a rambling conversation; jumpy excitement; to show someone you’re thinking about them in a casual way; to say hey, boo; if you don’t know how to react, but you want to show a general copacetic ‘tude; to inquire if your friend Irish-exited a party; if you have no idea what someone’s talking about, but you know they don’t know either; to say you feel like a shell of yourself but it’s fine; to show pleasant accordance with plans; to check if anyone on the group chain is having noontime existential dread; Halloween hype; to agree to disagree.

Even though the ghost emoji doesn’t mean anything–or could mean everything–it seems to do a lot. So, a better question, and one better suited to Citizen Sociolinguistics may be “How do you use the Ghost Emoji?”.

I googled this question and immediately was directed to Reddit. In the “NoStupidQuestions” subReddit (other questions include, “how do blind people know where the braille signs are?”) we find an answer:

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 10.06.16 AMSound familiar? This response is a direct link back to the GQ article I previously mentioned.

Are there no dissenting opinions?  Even on Reddit?

There is one more comment in the Reddit thread.  I clicked on it nervously to find…

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 10.22.01 AM

Just the ghost emoji!  Now officially my favorite riddle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

***

Do you use the ghost emoji?  How?

Why does it exist?

Can you think of equivalents of the ghost emoji in any (other) language?

Please share and comment below!

Anarchism and Citizen Sociolinguistics

What could anarchism possibly have to do with citizen sociolinguistics?Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 10.25.02 AM

The word “anarchism” may suggest the big circled A (usually in graffiti form) or even images of “anarchist” punks overturning tables or setting fire to McDonalds— the opposite of responsible citizenship. And certainly a departure from any form of sociolinguistics.

Citizen sociolinguistics as anarchism? Let’s think this through…

First, many forms of anarchism do not involve violence and vandScreen Shot 2017-03-10 at 10.26.19 AMalism.  A google image search yields images representing anarchy as associated with liberty, peace, collaboration, freedom, and mutualism. Rather than relying on overt violence, anarchism usually flies below the radar.  It’s tricky, often clever, and often (for example, in cases of poaching or squatting) a matter of survival.

In his brilliant book, Two Cheers for Anarchism, James C. Scott illustrates that in unobtrusive, yet subtly influential ways, anarchism is everywhere.  He gives examples of everyday forms of anarchism, starting with the most mundane, jaywalking.

Like other forms of anarchism, jaywalking is a subtly coordinated act of rule-breaking. For example, you might decide not to jaywalk when walking with a small child (it would set an unsafe example). But if it’s three a.m., you’re alone with not a car in sight, you might cross at a red light, or even in the middle of the block! As Scott writes, “judging when it makes sense to break a law requires careful thought, even in the relatively innocuous case of jaywalking” (Scott, 2012, p. 5).

Scott goes on to mention more radical forms of lawless behavior: desertion, squatting, poaching and points out that these are often the lowest risk options at hand: “desertion is a lower risk alternative to mutiny, squatting is a lower-risk alternative to land invasion, poaching is a lower-risk alternative to the open assertion of rights to timber, game, or fish.  For most of the world’s population today…such techniques have represented the Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 10.25.49 AMquotidian form of politics available” (p. 12).

Now, what does anarchism–even in its most subtle forms–have to do with citizen sociolinguistics?  This: Everyday understandings of language generated by citizen sociolinguists follow the same tactics of everyday acts of anarchy.

Just as anarchists go out and jaywalk, desert, poach or squat, citizen sociolinguists get online and post videos about “How to Speak Singlish,” engage in lengthy and opinionated dialogue about the finer distinctions of South Philly (Sow Philly) vernacular, post tutorials on varieties of English in Yorkshire (I’m proper chuffed about it!) or engage in Indian language(s) play in the YouTube videos like “Google my Bulbul.

These acts of citizen sociolinguistics, like many acts of anarchism, are not concerned with developing a coordinated social movement. And yet, like sustained, tacit anarchism, they gradually build valuable knowledge from the ground up, drawing on fine-grained distinctions provided through living locally and perceptively, and sharing that knowledge in everyday ways, often via social media like YouTube and Twitter.

Like anarchists, citizen sociolinguists are usually breaking the rules of “elites”:  Singlish is outlawed in Singapore classrooms. South Philly vernacular or Yorkshire expressions like “I’m proper chuffed” are not considered “proper English.” Videos like “Google my Bulbul” mix languages, defying named language boundaries.  These acts of citizen sociolinguistics, like acts of anarchy, illuminate the workings of human communication precisely by departing from its standardization.  Enforcing rules of language, in many contexts, may seem as silly as stopping at a red light on a deserted 3 a.m. stroll.  Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Just as acts of anarchy are lower-risk alternatives to official political action, acts of citizen sociolinguistics are very low risk.  But they are more likely to affect language use at a local level than more organized, top-down attempts to re-legislate language standards. People use languages in infinitely variable ways around the world–and in ways that change from day to day.  Everyday language use never aligns completely with those narrowly functional standards, frozen in time, laid down in language textbooks or even in sociolinguistics class. Instead, most language users develop fine-grained local understandings of their own language use by using their own language. And quotidian language politics for them takes the form of citizen sociolinguistics: Like everyday acts of anarchism, the posts and musings of citizen sociolinguists illuminate the fine-grained knowledge of those tuned more closely to the workings of the social order than those who are making the laws.

***

Do you participate in acts of citizen sociolinguistics?  What are they?  Why? Do you see the “anarchism” in them? Or do you more highly value top-down understandings and legislation of linguistic practice? Where do you stand?  Add your comments below!

 

 

Citizen Self-Transcription and Eye Dialect 

Screen Shot 2016-09-24 at 6.37.24 PM.pngHave you ever had to transcribe oral speech?

If so, you know it can be a tedious process–listening to a recording and then typing out utterances word for word.  Word. For. Word.

But transcription is not as easy—nor necessarily as boring—as it sounds.  It involves translating spoken language into written words and like any other translation project, this requires some interpretation and finesse.  For example, when a speaker says what sounds like “I’m gonna leave now.”  Should that be written as “I’m going to leave now”? or “I’m gonna leave now”?   If an adult English Teacher says it would you be more likely to write “going to”?  If a 10-year-old in the class says it, would you be more likely to write “gonna”?  How do age, race, gender,  socioeconomic status, institutional role, and any other aspect of the situation figure into that interpretation?

The sociolinguistic, Mary Bucholtz, in her article, “The Politics of Transcription,” has pointed out that even established researchers often make transcription decisions in ways that indicate underlying biases.  When someone uses a certain spelling for one demographic or social role and a different spelling for another, Bucholtz calls this “eye-dialect.”

So, the tedious act of transcription becomes political, and the stakes can be high: A courtroom transcript, for example, that represents a defendant’s speech in stigmatized eye-dialect, could leave a record that unfairly influences a jury’s perception of that individual.  Bucholtz urges transcribers to be mindful of the choices they make when they transcribe—accounting for how their representations create identities for speakers.

Last week, however, when talking about “The Politics of Transcription” in my graduate class on Classroom Discourse Analysis, one of the students pointed out that many individuals—especially teens-these-days—use something like “eye-dialect” to purposefully add nuance to their text messages, Facebook and Instagram posts, snap-chat stories, or any social media that mimics “conversation.”

In these kinds of self-transcriptions, people usually call on eye-dialect to deliberately construct identities for themselves.   In this way, they are creating citizen transcriptions of themselves, calling on their own knowledge of local social value connected to transcribed forms of talk.  Citizen self-transcribers crafting a text message, just like reflective researchers transcribing language “data”, can be painstakingly mindful of the identity they present when they translate a spoken-like message into a social media message.

Here is an example of my own speaking-to-my-son self which I found in our text message history:

screen-shot-2016-09-24-at-5-16-20-pm

In my mind, this message, including its eye dialect, captures my kind yet concerned loving self.  The spelling of “Pleez” conveys my sheepishly earnest need for my teenage son to keep me in the late night loop.

Probably the best guard against bias among social scientists or courtroom transcribers is to treat all speaking the same way and be as uniform as possible.  But when we everyday individuals transcribe our own voices into text messages, we participate in an unstandardized, yet high-stakes world of eye dialect.  My own Emoji smiley-face, heart, and old-lady face probably also convey some middle-aged white lady dialect.  But that’s okay.  That’s who I am. And, I’m the one who transcribed it.

Those same features of transcription that can seem to unfairly bias social science research or stigmatize a defendant in the courtroom, become powerful communicative resources for the citizen self-transcriber.  And, the citizen self-transcriber might have a more sophisticated command of bias than your average social science researcher—because they know that there is not a “correct” way of doing it, only better and worse ways of communicating one’s identity in each unique socially mediated context.

What type of eye-dialect do you deliberately use in your text messages or social media self-transcriptions?  How do you use it to craft identities for yourself?  How do you read other messages and interpret “eye-dialect” there? Do you ever write messages that used your own “speshul” brand of spelling? Please comment and share your ideas and examples below!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Keeping Language in a Locked Drawer (Not)!

Screen Shot 2016-09-02 at 1.39.12 PMAs all University researchers working with language know, if you record language, you must keep it in a locked filing cabinet or a password protected web location.  For ethical reasons.  Our Institutional Review Boards will insist on this.

What (you may be wondering) is ethical about locking up language samples? Even keeping them from the speakers who created them?  The idea is that if you are collecting talk from someone, you need to guard that “data” to protect the speakers from anything damning (embarrassing? false?) about them that those samples might reveal.

Only the researcher will still have access to this data.  Ostensibly, in the role of a professional, with the training necessary to responsibly handle this language, the researcher will have the skills and knowledge to do the right thing, should they want to say something touchy about that language.

But, even as researchers lock up the drawer or type up a passcode for a website, people continue to talk.  The voices we record for our research do not fall silent once we turn off the recording device.

Speech –our own and others’—is all around us.   How do we protect those people from being interpreted in dangerous ways by the random ordinary people walking around judging how they speak? We don’t!

Fortunately, in real life we don’t need to hack into some password protected site to hear real language—or to analyze it.

We don’t even need to be professionally or academically affiliated in any way.  Many people out there listening to the freely available language samples are expert language analysts.  Their expertise may differ from that of a PhD Linguist, Applied Linguist, Sociologist, or Linguistic Anthropologist—but those everyday language analysts (I call them Citizen Sociolinguists) are not necessarily any more or less responsible in their interpretation of other peoples’ speech than a trained academic researcher.

Nor are those everyday analysts necessarily more or less tuned into their sense of ethical obligation toward speakers.

Nobody–University researchers or everyday opinionators—exclusively holds the ethical high ground when it comes to making statements about other peoples’ language.

Nobody has a premium on dumb or misguided interpretations—or on the most definitive explanation.

A good analogy might be the “Traditional Dictionary” versus “Urban Dictionary”.  Which is most definitive?  It depends on what you’re looking for and what sorts knowledge you care about.

Similarly, “Sociolinguist” versus “Citizen Sociolinguist”:  A sociolinguist may notice, measure, and catalogue discrete aspects of sound—but a citizen sociolinguist may notice identical features and simultaneously many other social features that go with those discrete linguistic bits: the types of people who use that type of speech, the way they dress, where they live, or personal stories and experiences with that bit of sound.   Anyone can easily access these types of everyday insight by looking up questions about language on line.  Google “How to speak like a _____” and you will encounter many examples of Citizen Sociolinguistic analysis—from the most raw to the most subtly incisive—and you will see many comments sounding off on the accuracy of these linguistic portraits.

Back to Locking up Language: When we officially gather and lock away some bits of language, we also place limits on our own knowledge, because we only let a few people interpret it and publish the results.  Locked up language isn’t even available to the people who spoke it.

So, what to conclude?

I’d like to suggest an Open Source approach to language.  If you record some, share it! And, certainly share it with the people who spoke it.  But also share your analysis.   Let ordinary speakers share theirs.  Just as Open Source software improves when more coders are involved, understanding human language will inevitably become more important and relevant when it includes more perspectives. Tell that to your Institutional Review Board!

But—you may disagree.  How might sharing language data be unethical?  What might we lose in the open-source approach? What are other ways to ensure all language gets treated with respect?  Please share your thoughts below!