Teenage Talk: It Doesn’t Just Change Language, It Changes Our World

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 consider how 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.   

田园女权 (Countryside Feminism ) on Weibo: a citizen sociolinguistics perspective

Editor’s Note:  This is a guest post by Peizhu Liu, an Educational Linguistics PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania.  

A year ago,  a newly-coined expression – 田园女权(Countryside Feminism ) –attracted my attention on Weibo, which is one of the biggest social media platforms in China, with over 445 million monthly active users as of 2018 (“Sina Weibo”, 2019). Even though I had already sensed the negative connotation of the expression by reading the online discourse surrounding it, for example,  我不是反对女权,我是反对田园女权 (What I am against is not feminism but countryside feminism), there were still questions that puzzled me: what’s the origin of this expression? What does it mean exactly? Who coined it, and for what purpose?

A thorough search online led me to many possible explanations. For example, according to Feng (2018) and Zhifu (the Chinese equivalent of Quora), the term “countryside feminism” (tián yuán nǚ quán) has a reference to the Chinese “rural dog” (tián yuán quǎn), a breed that is indigenous to China, but viewed as lowly and without a pure lineage. By linking Chinese indigenous dogs with Chinese feminism, the term disparages the Chinese feminist movement as outside the mainstream women’s liberation movement in the West, and attaches to it a connotation as something coarse and unsophisticated.

In addition, Jikipedia (Figure 1), the Chinese equivalent of Urban Dictionary, defines 田园女权 (countryside feminism) as follows: These women fight for gender equality on the surface; however, they in fact only desire the same rights that men have, but refuse to take on the responsibility (“中华田园女权”, 2017).

Figure 1.

Screenshot 2020-01-01 13.56.43

Despite the definitions that I found online, I was interested in learning how this term – countryside feminism – is utilized by internet users on social media. Since Weibo is one of the most popular social media platforms in China, and since it allows people to publicly express themselves in real time and interact with other users they might not know (Programmer, 2018), I chose it as the site where I collected the data.

Research Questions

I formulated three research questions as follows:

  • What’s the connotation of the term 女权 (feminism) on Weibo?
  • What is the definition of 田园女权 (countryside feminism) to Weibo Users?
  • What might these discussions of the terms 女权(feminism) and 田园女权 (countryside feminism) teach us about the status quo of feminism in China?

Method

I posted a survey on Weibo using my own account (Figure 2). The questions in my survey include, but are not limited to:

  • What do you think of the connotation of “feminism” on Weibo? Is it positive, negative, or neutral?
  • Do you know the meaning of “countryside feminism”? What’s the difference between “feminism” and “countryside feminism”?

Figure 2.

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.02.12

My goal was to collected 30-50 responses, but what happened greatly exceeded my expectations. Since this questionnaire was re-posted by quite a few influencers, most of whom are feminists, I received 392 comments within the next 24 hours. Due to time constraints, I randomly selected 100 comments to analyze.

Analysis & Findings

For the first research question (what do you think the connotation of “feminism” on Weibo?), I counted the numbers of respondents who hold different opinions and calculated the percentage. The result shows that 52% of the respondents believe that the term “女权(feminism)” has a negative connotation on Weibo; 6% of the people think that the term is positive; 16% of the respondents think it is neutral (Figure 3).

Figure 3.

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.05.04

For the second question (Do you know the meaning of “countryside feminism”? What’s the difference between “feminism” and “countryside feminism”?), I categorized answers according to the main idea expressed by the users and listed the popular definitions of “田园女权 (countryside feminism)”. The top three definitions are as follows:

  • It was coined by Chinese men as a way to stigmatize Chinese feminism because they feel that Chinese feminism is coarse and vulgar (48%).
  • Country feminists only support women’s privilege, rather than gender equality, and they only want rights but not responsibility (18%).
  • Countryside feminists hate Chinese males, but love European and American males (6%).

In addition, as I visited the home pages of 15 well-known feminist accounts (each has at least 100,000 followers) and pages of 30 respondents who claim to be feminists, another interesting finding emerged: none of their account names include the term “feminism/feminist”. Even in the section of the profile description, the term “feminism/feminist” is rarely found (see figure 4 and 5, for example – they are two of the most famous feminist Weibo accounts).

Figure 4.

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.09.25

Figure 5.

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.10.24

Conclusion & Discussions

First, the overall connotation of feminism on Weibo is negative.

Second, the most popular definition of countryside feminism given by Weibo users is that “it was coined by Chinese men as a way to stigmatize Chinese feminism because they feel that Chinese feminism is coarse and vulgar”. This definition aligns with the perspective offered offered by Feng (2018) and Zhihu: “By linking Chinese indigenous dogs with Chinese feminism, the term disparages the Chinese feminist movement as outside the mainstream women’s liberation movement in the West”. In my opinion, an “inferiority complex” (Cohen, 2015) which is deeply engrained in Chinese people’s collective memory is reflected in the term of “countryside feminism”. Also, let’s look at the third-most popular definition, which was shocking to me. It says that “countryside feminists hate Chinese males, but love European and American males”. In this definition, not only the “inferiority complex” and “ever-intensifying gender antagonism” (Wu & Dong, 2019) but also the antagonism towards the West are manifested.

In addition, according to her work on online space for feminism in China, Han (2018) pointed out that “feminism” is one of the most sensitive subjects to the Chinese government’s censorship policy, and feminist Weibo accounts which are thought to be too “radical” are very likely to be suspended. A few years ago, a feminist Weibo account: Feminists’ Voice, was silenced because of a post calling for women’s strike on the International Women’s Day (Figure 6).

Figure 6

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.14.33

A few days after the post went viral on Weibo, Feminists’ Voice was suspended. Figure 7 shows the message that was sent to Feminists’ Voice by Weibo.

Figure 7

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.15.36

Under such strict control, it is no wonder that feminists on Weibo seem to avoid using the term “feminism/feminist”. I argue that the strict censorship on “feminism” also contributes to the anti-feminist environment on Weibo.

To sum up, feminism might be stigmatized in various ways all over the world, but according to this analysis, feminism is stigmatized with specific Chinese characteristics within the societal context of China. Furthermore, these online discussions about the terms “feminism” and “countryside feminism” enable us to see a glimpse of the status quo of Chinese feminism. It faces a conflated backlash from the patriarchy, a national inferiority complex, the antagonism toward the West, and the government’s censorship.

Do you have any insights about or experiences with the term countryside feminism?  Please comment below!

References

Sina Weibo. (2019, December 2). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sina_Weibo.

中华田园女权. (2017, July 23). Retrieved from https://jikipedia.com/definition/290746060.

Cohen, A. (2015, August 3). China Still Fighting Its Own Inferiority Complex. Retrieved from https://www.worldcrunch.com/culture-society/china-still-fighting-its-own-inferiority-complex.

Feng, J. (2018, January 20). Hard times for feminists in China. Retrieved from https://supchina.com/2017/03/08/hard-times-feminists-china/.

Programmer, W. C. M. (2018, June 25). What is the difference between WeChat and Weibo nowadays? Retrieved from https://medium.com/@wechatminiprogrammer/what-is-the-difference-between-wechat-and-weibo-nowadays-33db40a73e76.

Wu, A. X., & Dong, Y. (2019). What is made-in-China feminism(s)? Gender discontent and class friction in post-socialist China. Critical Asian Studies51(4), 471–492. doi: 10.1080/14672715.2019.1656538

Xiao Han (2018), Searching for an online space for feminism? The Chinese feminist group Gender Watch Women’s Voice and its changing approaches to online misogyny, Feminist Media Studies, 18:4, 734-749.

 

 

Given or Negotiable?: Korean Family Address Terms on the Move

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Eunsun Lee, a doctoral student in Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. 

When you meet someone in Korea, there are several things they will ask you to initiate a conversation. Among many other things such as your occupation and country or city of origin, they will want to know your age, which determines the address term that they can use to talk to you. Age indeed plays a key role in shaping the language you can use with others.

But there is one huge exception to this significant role of age in determining the appropriate address term for use. Below is an excerpt from a newspaper article (Lee, 2018) in Joongang Ilbo, one of the major nation-wide newspapers in Korea.

Park, who is two years in her marriage, complained, “The address terms make it so awkward between family members at holiday gatherings.” Park’s husband has a younger brother and a younger sister, who is 5 years and 6 years younger than Park, respectively. Despite the age difference, Park addresses them as akassi and tolyennim. “I just can’t get used to addressing my brother- and sister-in-law, who are way younger than me, as akassi and tolyennim,” said Park. “I find it bizarre to be using honorifics to them while my husband addresses my younger sister simply as checay.”

So what’s with all these address terms? To give you a bit of the background, below is a table that compares the address terms that women and men are expected to use to address their in-law family and the etymology of each term.

When wife addresses husband’s … Whom? When husband addresses wife’s …
시댁 sitayk (媤宅) ‘Husband’s house’ [+H] Entire family 처가 cheka(妻家) ‘Wife’s house’ [-H]
어머님 emenim ‘Mother’ [+H] Mother 장모님 cangmonim (丈母-nim) ‘Wife’s mother’ [+H]
아버님 abenim ‘Father’ [+H] Father 장인어른 canginelun (丈人-elun) ‘Wife’s father -senior’ [+H]
도련님 tolyennim ‘Young master’ [+H] Younger brother 처남 chenam (妻男) ‘Wife’s brother’ [-H]
서방님 sepangnim ‘Husband’ [+H]
아주버님 acwupenim ‘Older relative’ [+H] Older brother 형님 hyengnim (兄-nim) ‘Older sibling’ [+H]
아가씨 akassi ‘Young lady’ [+H] Younger sister 처제 checay (妻弟) ‘Wife’s younger sibling’ [-H]
형님 hyengnim (兄-nim) ‘Older sibling’ [+H] Older sister 처형 chehyeng (妻兄) ‘Wife’s older sibling’ [-H]

[+H]: with honorific morphemes / [-H]: without honorific morphemes

In a nutshell, if your husband has a younger brother or sister who is significantly younger than you, your familial relationship with them overrides the age factor, prescribing you to use honorific address terms for them. However, notice that the same does not apply to men when they address their wife’s siblings. That is, age is still the most influential factor for using honorifics. They only use honorific terms for your wife’s parents and older brother (and not her older sister—indicating the influence of the gender factor as well).

Park’s remark in the previous excerpt can then be understood as her uneasiness about the asymmetric terms between husband’s and wife’s family members. And she was not the only one to make such remarks; according to a survey conducted with 4,000 respondents nation-wide in 2016, 65% of the people perceived the gender disparity in the family address terms to be problematic (Lee & Kim, 2018). In the past few years following the survey, several national petitions were  posted on the Cheongwadae (the executive office of the President of South Korea) website regarding the problematic address terms that women have to use for their in-law family members.

In response to these visible changes in the people’s perception of the prescriptive address terms, the government agencies such as the National Institute of Korean Language and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family announced some policy revisions and public campaigns to address this issue in 2018 and 2019. They have made a few suggestions on the alternative terms that can be used in place of the traditional terms. Given the discrepancy between the prescriptive address terms and the terms that people actually feel comfortable with, it was recommended that each family consider using some of the alternative terms to fit their communicative needs.

This move by the government agencies generated tons of commentaries under a number of online media reports. A lot of the commentaries often took the discussion to an aggressive gender conflict, where male commentators bringing up the honorific address terms men use for their brother’s wife as a counter example and criticizing women for overproblematizing and unjustly claiming for a revision of the standard addressing norms. Some of the comments criticizing the move included (translated by me):

  • Just because there is no ‘-nim’ suffix at the end of the terms doesn’t mean that those terms don’t have honorific meanings. There are so many other problematic language practices these days. What a pity that people are picking up on this trivial issue.
  • Why don’t you get rid of all the address terms altogether and just follow the American way of addressing people by their first name? Wonder how you’d feel about being called by your first name by your nephew.
  • The presence of honorifics in the address terms you use is not as important as the amount of respect you pay in your actual interpersonal relationship with the person. Why denounce the address terms? They’re not gonna change so easily any ways.
  • The Ministry of Gender Equality and Family should address other more significant issues than this.

Overall, it seemed that the online commentaries under the media reports were inclined toward a negative attitude to the change. This piqued my interest, as I had initially thought there would be more positive reactions to the change as shown in the national survey results and the number of signers for the national petitions. Is this really what the majority of people think of about this change? How about my family and friends? How would they perceive this change and their own uses of those address terms?

So I decided to conduct my own citizen sociolinguistic interviews with people around me. As a first step, I interviewed my mother, who is in her mid-50’s, positions herself as politically liberal, and most importantly, addresses her husband (my father)’s siblings in the traditional way. Then I asked her to interview her friends, which in turn elicited responses from 13 different women in their mid- to late- 50’s. The questions that my mother and I used were:

  1. How do you address your husband’s siblings?
  2. (In case you had known them before you were married) Were there any changes in the ways you addressed them after you were married?
  3. How do you feel about the terms that you use?

Interestingly, I found more variance in the address term practices than I had expected. Only 3 out of 13 respondents strictly followed the prescriptive rules. In the rest of the cases, they reported a range of alternative practices including:

  • Using the terms that your own children would address them (e.g. Samchon “Uncle”, Komo “Auntie” [-H])
  • Using the terms that your husband would address them along with the honorific suffix -nim (e.g. Nwu-nim “Older sister” [+H])
  • Addressing them in relation to their own child’s name (e.g. Eunsun-emma “Eunsun’s mom”, Kyengmin-appa “Kyengmin’s dad” [-H])
  • Using different terms when your parents-in-law are around and when they are not

Struck by the variance in the practices, I inquired the factors for choosing the terms that they use. Some of the influential factors I have found are:

  • Socialization experiences 
    • In their own family
    • In husband’s family
  • Their perception of the husband’s parents’ conservativeness
  • Their interpersonal distance or age difference with their husband’s siblings
  • The husband’s siblings’ preference / Whether they have children
  • Their own preference
    • The degree to which they feel ‘comfortable’ using those terms
    • The association of knowing the ‘correct’ terms with well-educatedness

Except for the one respondent who reported that she had never questioned using the traditional address terms, all the other respondents reported that they had gone through some adjusting processes when they got married and as their relationship with their husband’s siblings evolved as they had children. Two salient strategies emerged in the processes: a) negotiation, where they talked with their husband’s siblings and reached agreement on which term both sides feel comfortable using; b) silence, where they chose to opt out of using address terms for their husband’s siblings altogether due to their uneasiness with the terms.

Address terms can be a very sensitive issue since it would directly affect how you verbally communicate with the person in face-to-face interaction. This was well-supported by the online data that I encountered and the conversations that I had with my interviewees. Although revising the prescriptive norms regarding the address terms may not be the right remedy for this issue as some commentators online have pointed out, it is evident that major changes have been occurring at the micro-level practices of people’s use of those terms.

Now I am curious to know our readers’ reaction to this issue of family address terms. To what extent do you think there is a value or meaning to the prescriptive rules? How would you want to address your in-law family members? What if there is a conflict in the ways you and your husband or in-law family members think of the terms? How would you go about to address the conflict through conversations? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

 

 


References

Lee, E. (2018, Sep 23). “남편 동생은 도련님ㆍ아가씨인데, 내 동생은 처남ㆍ처제?” (“My husband’s younger siblings are called Tolyennim and Akassi, and my younger siblings are called chenam and checay?”). JoongAng Ilbo. Retrieved from https://news.joins.com/article/22996250

Lee, E. (2019, Jan 23). 도련님 대신 ‘OO씨’…성별 비대칭 호칭 바뀐다(‘XX-ssi’ instead of Tolyennim … Gender-Asymmetric Address Terms Change). JoongAng Ilbo. Retrieved from https://news.joins.com/article/23313592

Lee, P. & Kim, T. (2018). Aspects and Problems in the Contemporary Use of
Address Terms and Reference Terms within a Family”. The Sociolinguistic Journal of Korea, 26(1). 277-309

Gender Neutral Pronouns: Comments Disabled!

I’ve often asserted (and people are often surprised or skeptical to hear this) that comments on YouTube videos about language are for the most part positive—and often over-the-top enthusiastic!  If someone is sharing some thoughts about “Philadelphia Street Names,” “Common Welsh Phrases,” or “How to Speak Singlish,” for example, most comment threads will unfurl with agreement, praise of the language portrayal, or provision of  a few more examples or personal anecdotes to support the points being made.  Most viewers give “thumbs up” to the videos and to any positive comments. “Thumbs down” are rare.

There is, however, at least one set of language-related posts that has emerged as a glaring exception:  Posts discussing gender pronouns.  Take this video, by a YouTuber Jake Edwards, “Gender Pronouns: Get Them Right!”, for example:

Screenshot 2019-03-05 15.52.43

Despite what seems to me to be a relatively even-handed discussion of gender pronouns (including “singular they”) this video’s thumbs up, thumbs down ratio is starkly negative:  138 thumbs up to over one thousand thumbs down.  And, the comment thread is equally dark.  The first and most thumbed-up comment (at 210) reads: “How to generate dislikes.”

Paradoxically, it seems this YouTube video has turned into a site for affiliation—but not around respectful use of gender pronouns. Instead, there is a different group building strong affiliations here:  Those who feel strongly opposed to any non-binary framing of gender, those who consider Jake a representative of the “snowflake” generation, and those who see no reason why their personal “freedom of speech” should be restricted to attend to the needs of a “small minority” of people who want to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns.

How did this happen?  Why aren’t there more voices here chiming in on Jake’s side? Sure, there are a few comments that try to counter the thumbs-downers, but they are a small minority. Whatever your feelings about this issue, doesn’t it seem odd that the dis-likers are out in such force? Maybe Jake foregrounds the gender issue too much and too abstractly and this takes the discussion away from issues of language and from his own personal experiences, usually big draws for positivity on language videos.

This led me to a search for other sites, where affiliation around gender-neutral pronouns might, I imagined, come more freely. Sites where members of the LGBTQ community told their own stories or anecdotes about pronoun use and how it made them feel. I found a few of these, including one for the Chronical of Higher Education  and from my own University.  But, almost universally, such sites have their comments disabled.

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No doubt they feared the same treatment as Jake Edwards.  Are there no outlets for non-produced, positively affiliative public voices commenting on this issue? Thirsty for some more refreshing citizen sociolinguistic dialogue on gender-neutral pronouns, I pressed on.

Maybe, I thought, there would be more even-handed dialogue around the use of gender-neutral pronouns if I found a YouTuber who addressed this even more explicitly as a language issue, and down-played the gender-identity aspect.  Along those lines, here is Tom Scott’s video, episode 7 in Tom’s Language Files, “Gender Neutral Pronouns: They’re Here, Get Used to Them.” Despite having a title strikingly similar to Jake’s (the “they/them” word-play seems irresistible), the focus on what he calls “grammatical gender”, its role as part of his “language files” series, Tom’s much more mainstream look, and his proper British pronunciation, suggest a more, erm, neutral approach to gender neutrality.

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This video is very popular—over 1 million views—and the thumbs up and down ratio is more balanced—31,000 thumbs up to 17,000 thumbs down. And, scanning down the comments, I found some very appreciative and personal remarks, receiving many thumbs up, like this one:

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Then, Tom’s own pinned comment caught my eye. It explained the more positive ratio—and the age (posted 2 or more years ago) of the positive comments I had noticed:

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To his credit, 4.2 thousand people like Tom’s comment here.  But to me, looking for real dialogue and for personal engagement around this issue, the kind I’ve grown used to around other citizen socioliguistic videos, this seemed sad. What happened to fuel such a dramatic change in comment content that he felt forced to disable them?

A simple glance to the “recommended videos” on the right margin of my computer screen provided the answer.  Or rather, the name: Jordan Peterson.  He is a Canadian Psychology professor who made news when he posted this YouTube video (a power-point lecture with voice-over) criticizing a bill in Canada that would include gender identity and expression as subject to human rights protections.  Being legally forced to call people by gender neutral pronouns, Peterson asserted, was a violation of his freedom of speech.

He has since blanketed the internet with his views.  His followers have also mastered the art and science of trolling, attacking anyone who dares speak out about their own experiences as a non-gender-conforming individual.  For Jordan Peterson gender neutral pronouns are no longer an issue about language and linguistics. Instead, language here is a proxy for other prejudices—and “freedom” not to use gender-nuetral pronouns has become a means for suppression of difference. Peterson’s quest for his own “Free Speech,” as an individual—a white, male, Psychology Professor from Canada—has, de facto, resulted in lack of free speech for those who hold views different from his own.  Dialogue has ceased.  It seems that Jordan Peterson’s internet empire and the way it has emboldened those expressing hate and fear of difference has led to comments sections being disabled on most of those sites where individuals try to speak for themselves about gender pronouns in their own lives.

You may be wondering, what’s so bad about having the comments disabled, as long as people are still posting videos?  This is bad because when comments are disabled, the community building and knowledge-sharing fostered by citizen sociolinguists stops.  The conversations and annecdotes, the supportive comments and encouragement, have no home. As I’ve illustrated in many posts on this site, everyday conversation about language usually turns into a way to affiliate with a certain community.  Some South Philadelphian’s, for example, might coalesce around the insider knowledge of how to pronounce “Passyunk Avenue,” order a cheesesteak “wit,” fight off their cold with some ARnge Juice, or cheer on the Iggles. This is a tiny minority of speakers, and their dialogue generates shared pride and awareness of their groupiness. Sharing anecdotes or language opinions are bids for affiliation.  Haters need not apply.  But if they do, and if “comments are disabled” all that affiliation is subverted.

The potential power of citizen sociolinguistics lies in its ability to air points of view that otherwise might not be heard, to foreground local forms of expertise, and to build common ground. Often these forms of expertise might be held by a small minority of people.  That is certainly the case with the group of citizen sociolinguists who would like to talk about gender-neutral pronouns.  We need to hear from them and about their experience.  They are the experts.  And they need each other! We do not need Jordan Peterson speaking about these issues with which he has no experience or expertise, obfuscating, in the guise of philosophizing, silencing civic dialogue in the name of freedom of speech.

The old ways of dictating language via standardizing institutions and documents may be losing their hold on how we think about language—and hurray for citizen sociolinguists who are sharing their nuanced and local expertise, building community and affiliation through conversations about words and ways of speaking. But what happens when trolls and negative attention-seekers lead us to “disable comments”? When this happens—as it seems to have in the case of gender pronouns—the control over how we use language and discuss it may have become more insidious than even the most prescriptive grammarian or authorizing institution.

What alternatives are there to disabling comments?  Is it possible to counter the negative-affiliative power of huge troll movements?  Please share your ideas in the comment section below!