Tone Deaf

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Have you ever witnessed someone using language painfully out of tune with the present company? Examples I’ve encountered include

  • A college student, charging meals and shopping sprees to their parents’ credit card, complaining about how poorthey are in front of peers who struggle to pay tuition on their own
  • A museum docent welcoming a Korean-American visitor from Santa Barbara with the Mandarin Chinese greeting ni hao
  • A professor repeatedly referring to the women in his graduate seminar as girls

Every day, people use language in ways like this, slightly out of tune with the immediate
situation, ways we might describe as tone-deaf. Considered more literally, a tone-deaf musician cannot hear what their instrument sounds like relative to the pitch of others. A tone-deaf singer can sing loudly and clearly—while completely unaware of the cacophony their voice causes when surrounded by a chorus of voices singing in a different key. This can lead to some pretty painful listening.  In conversations, metaphorical tone-deafness can also lead to painful situations.  Often and understandably, the person most directly affected by tone-deaf turns of phrase may not feel they can speak up. Or, that if they do, the tone-deaf person may become defensive and the conversation will go nowhere. Tone deafness is an unfortunate state, but one with a remedy: More talk about language, that is, citizen sociolinguistics.

Almost nobody purposefully intends to be communicatively tone-deaf.  For this reason I prefer the formulation tone-deaf to the term micro-aggression which might also be used to describe the example scenarios above.  The term micro-aggression suggests these instances of tone-deaf language use originate from a malicious individual, intentionally using language aggressively to demean another person.  In contrast,  the term tone-deaf refers to a societally-induced state, one fostered by poor language education—even among our most privileged classes.  Advice to combat micro-agressions usually involves highlighting words or speech events to avoid:  Don’t use the n-word.  Don’t ask Asian-Americans where they are from.  Things to NOT say.  Unfortunately, this kind of advice can lead to accusations of “political correctness,” or to people simply clamming up in the face of the unfamiliar.  Instead of leading to further conversation about assumptions behind our language choices, conflicts around language across diverse groups continue to seethe beneath the surface.

Citizen sociolinguistic inquiry provides an alternative to these prescriptions for sensitive language use: More discussion about language and more consideration of different perspectives. We do not need a prefabricated list of words to use and not use, but an increased level of language awareness, and the skills to inquire about words and their uses and meanings across contexts.  Situations of tone-deafness arise every day, but they can be curtailed by improving language education, by specifically teaching our children how to tune in to the everyday workings of language in context.

Being tone deaf, speaking without regard for the other perspectives in a community, can be the result of any overly standardized language education, in which expertise is seen only to be lodged in the voice of the teacher or the text of a grammar book.  Even professors with PhDs, working at prestigious universities, might appear tone-deaf until less powerful individuals have the courage to call them out.  While a tone-deaf person may have excellent language skills according to one context and set of criteria, they have an underdeveloped ability to assess the context in which they are speaking, and the way others might receive their words. An education that enables such tone-deafness is an undereducation, because it never builds the expertise necessary to engage in the cycle of dynamic language awareness:  In many language arts classrooms, students have never been pushed to engage in citizen sociolinguistic inquiry.

A tone-deaf use of language, if unchecked, can have the opposite effect of citizen sociolingistic discussion.  Instead of fomenting conversations about language, it can silence less powerful voices.  Unless someone speaks back—for example, by calling someone out on the type of language they use—that tone-deaf perspective becomes the only one people hear. Nobody learns from alternatives. People who are literally tone-deaf may be discouraged from ever pursuing music.  They just won’t be able to participate.  The equivalent action for the conversationally tone-deaf  would restrict those who are tone-deaf to their own neighborhood of language use, be it an Ivory Tower, fraternity or sorority, family or clique, or other any other walled-off language community that “understands” them.

Fortunately, however, being metaphorically “tone deaf” is something we can work to avoid by having conversations about language and including language awareness and inquiry as part of any language arts education: Let’s investigate who uses the word girl in different ways and why, explore uses of ni hao and all the ways Asian Americans experience that greeting, discuss how people relate to the word poor and the implications.  We can also develop inquiry skills to investigate more obviously controversial words like the n-word, fag, or the use of gender-neutral pronouns.   Any tone-deaf encounter provides us impetus for a discussion about language and how it affects all of us.  Each conversation about language can illuminate the ways we have all  been socialized into different understandings of how certain words work.

When we talk about language, we develop an inquiry skill that all humans need — the ability to listen to others and to engage with different perspectives. The more we talk about language, the more deeply we understand how and why some language may be hurtful, and how some can be powerful; how words like girl or ni hao may be offensive to some or how people experience words like poor differently.  But more generally, we develop ongoing habits of awareness of context and the way language works within it.  This is the goal of citizen sociolinguistics.

Have you experienced tone-deaf uses of language? Have you developed ways to avoid them or combat them?  Please talk about your experiences in the comment section below!

 

 

 

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Porch Culture and Citizen Sociolinguistics

Fear proves itself.

William Whyte

Recently I had an encounter with a visitor to Philadelphia (a prospective Penn father, college touring with his son) who said, “I didn’t realize the University of Pennsylvania was located in a rough neighborhood.”  When pressed, he elaborated.  “I mean, West Philly–there are some nice houses, but mostly row houses. And some are really run-down.”   Screenshot 2019-07-09 11.38.44

Since I have a house in that neighborhood (I call it a “twin,” not a “row house”), his comments forced me to reflect (okay, I was pissed-off). I would never describe West Philly (especially the part within walking distance of Penn) as a “rough” neighborhood.  Yes, some people do not have money to repair their homes. And the homes are old. I don’t equate low-income with “rough.”

But this visitor also found it difficult to interact in this area. As he put it, “We were not threatened in any way, but neighbors were often out and just stared at us as we parked and walked to and from the car.” Despite his denial (“we were not threatened in any way, but…”), his description of the neighbors as “just staring”, suggests he felt uncomfortable and, well, threatened.  But I would never equate neighbors being “often out” with his “rough neighborhood” description.

One of my favorite things about West Philly is that people are “often out.” They do not have huge private back yards or indoor leisure spaces. But they do have front porches with tables and chairs for family and friends. Isn’t it okay for them to be out?  If a visitor is parking in their neighborhood, why should they not watch him?  In addition to economic diversity there is a huge amount of ethnic and racial diversity here. And many residents of West Philadelphia speak different languages. This makes the neighborhood feel good—to me.  I am happy when people are out after work, and if they “stare” at me, I stop and say hello.  But for visitors like this one, from an exclusive gated community in Florida, interacting with a diversity of neighbors might feel slightly uncomfortable.

How is any of this relevant to Citizen Sociolinguistics?

Citizen Sociolinguistics thrives in spaces where people talk about language and communication, and where people feel free to share stories and personal experiences that illuminate how certain ways of speaking contribute to who they are. These kinds of discussions often happen on-line—they include voices across socioeconomic statuses, language backgrounds, and gender, racial, and generational differences.  These conversations may be unique, even weird, sometimes misguided, or challenging, but like my neighborhood, they are not “rough”.  And like the richness I see in my neighborhood, citizen sociolinguistic richness depends on being open to encounters with others.  Citizen sociolinguistic forums—discussions about “Spanglish” or “Common Welsh Phrases” or “Gender Neutral Pronouns,” for example—are like West Philly front porches.  But Citizen Sociolinguistic dialogue and community formation, like my neighborhood, can be damaged by visitors who don’t engage in the discussion because they see that front-porch presence as a threat.

Even on-line, there are visitors who shut down points of view being voiced within the “rough neighborhoods” of citizen sociolinguists.   Rather than engaging with the conversation they react impulsively to an impression made by a certain word or phrase.  Forums and videos on “gender neutral pronouns” for example, have drawn many citizen sociolinguists to post about their own experiences with language, and are potentially a center for understanding the way pronouns are changing in the way they function in our society. But this very phrase—”gender-neutral-pronouns”—can also draw in outsiders who don’t engage in the community but react to what they view as a threat to their own identity. These are commonly called “internet trolls.” They shut down dialogue.  As I’ve written in a previous post, trolling can lead to entire comment forums being disabled or expunged.  The trolling comments turn previously amicable and open spaces for engaging with language into platforms for an alternative xenophobic or otherwise bilious message.  All dialogue ends.  Trolls in the neighborhood of citizen sociolinguistics send everyone inside off their porch.  Citizen Sociolinguistic conversations are not gated communities.  They are more like the front-porch society of West Philly. But trolls treat certain citizen sociolinguistic conversations as if they are rough neighborhoods, where the simple act of discussing certain ways of speaking are aimed at them—treating discussions of “gender neutral pronouns” for example, like threatening “stares” of neighbors.  The troll does not stop to say hello—but scares everyone inside, silencing them.

The out-of-town visitor to a diverse neighborhood, like the outsider troll visiting a language discussion, creates a threat by imagining one.  In doing so, walls go up around neighborhoods, barriers divide communities of speakers.

In a brilliant book about the City of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, Mike Davis identifies precisely this dynamic. He laments the “fortress” neighborhoods people build up around themselves in the LA area. Invoking a phrase from William Whyte, eternal sage of city life, he writes, “’Fear proves itself.’ The social perception of threat becomes a function of security mobilization itself, not crime rates” (p. 224). And, gradually, this leads to the destruction of public space.  City planners’ strategies designed to keep homeless people away—unsittable benches, randomly-timed outdoor sprinklers, elaborately caged trash areas, non-existent public restrooms—end up driving not just the homeless but everyone away. Or almost everyone. Outside public spaces become the realm of drug addicts and dealers—precisely those targeted by the tactics of the city planners.  Fear proves itself.

Conversations about language can also become places where “fear proves itself” in this way—where trolling drives away discussion of the language issues that most need diverse input and forms of expertise. Some see trolling as the playful practice of free speech on-line, some see moving to gated communities as exercising the freedom to safely raise our children.  But both may also be viewed as self-fulfilling practices of disengagement and isolation that come from fear.

What can we learn from this?  And how do we circumvent self-fulfilling fear that drives people into gated communities and shuts down language discussion?  For urban planning, Mike Davis suggests we can drive away fear of crime and homelessness by creating a “dense, compact, multifunctional core” (p. 231) for the city.   When people are nudged to gather in public spaces, the inevitable sociability builds community and motivates humane solutions for social issues. I’d like to think there are analogous solutions for conversations about language. It would be a mistake to isolate language discussions to their own gated community, with ‘comments disabled,’ away from the trolls. Instead, somehow, discussions will have to be more densely and diversely occupied, to ensure that trolling can’t derail them, and that engaged citizen sociolinguists continue to illuminate our understanding of language and each other.

So get out on that metaphorical (or real) front porch and join the conversation!  Conversations about language inevitably are conversations about life and how we can live together.

Opinion Matters: What Can We Learn from Opinions People Have about Language?

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I am willing to bet a Wawa Hoagie that you (or your “close friend”) have a strong opinion about some aspect of language.  By simply googling a bit, browsing through urban dictionary, or candidly recalling a conversation you’ve had recently, some opinions like these might surface:

  • If you live in the USA, you should speak English.
  • The way people from Philadelphia speak is completely different from the way people from New York speak.
  • The Welsh language is amazing.
  • The street spelled “Passyunk” should be pronounced “Peah- Shunk.”
  • “Jimmies” NOT “sprinkles.”
  • People SHOULD NOT use “literally” in a figurative way
  • “Ain’t” is not a word/ “Ain’t is a word.”
  • Everyone SHOULD learn another language.
  • Irregardless is a pretentious way of saying regardless!!!

People have their opinions.

Despite my career as an “Applied Linguist,” I don’t feel that my job is to have strong opinions about language.  Nor do I feel it is my professional role to resolve differences of opinion that inevitably arise about language, or to “debunk” certain opinions out of line with research-based studies.   I am fascinated by other peoples’ opinions!  And, I do care about people and what those opinions say–good and bad–about our society. Why are opinions about language so strong? What compels people to spend so much time and energy opining about, for example, the pretentiousness of “irregardless,” the dictionary-status of the word “ain’t”, the “ugliest” regional accent, or the proper way to speak “English” and when and where it should be used?

Even the most accomplished linguist cannot resolve these debates—at least not in their role as linguist. Why not? Isn’t scientific research the best way to seek truth, to push the world forward, and to promote progress and change for the better?  Don’t linguists have the data that could resolve language debates? Yes and no.

While linguistics is sometimes categorized as a “science,” it differs in at least one important way from more prototypical scientific fields. Human language use (unlike our bio-chemical composition) is affected by opinions humans have about it.  My cells are organized in a certain way that, as far as I know, will not be affected by what my opinion is about them.  My own mother will always be my biological mother no matter what I think of her. But the way I speak—whether I call my mother “Mom,” “Ma,” “Mother,” or “Gretchen,” for example—is inevitably affected by my own opinions, my mother’s opinions, and the opinions of people around me, who hear me use those terms of address.

So, if peoples’ opinions about language affect how we talk and our opinions of other people’s talk, we probably can learn something about society by investigating those opinions more carefully—but what exactly can we learn?  Let’s think that through.

First, take a basic opinion:  English only!

As discussed in a previous post, statements about when and where English should be spoken might pose as reasonable requests for communicative clarity—but when looked at more carefully in context, they can also be a form of anti-immigrant racism, linguistic border patrol masquerading as reasonable opinions on language.

Language opinions also patrol less high-stakes borders.  Consider, for example, the opinion that “the Philly accent is not the New York accent.”  There are precise linguistic methods for measuring such a claim.  However, stating this as an opinion may be more about establishing an identity as a Philadelphian than the phonological distinctions between a statistically significant sample of New Yorkers and Philadelphians—the opinion itself acts as a form of linguistic border patrol. And again, language itself may be a stand-in for other identity features that matter more.

Sometimes, the linguistic border patrol sets up finer-grained distinctions, not about race, immigration status, or location:  Consider the opinion, “Irregardless is not a word.”  Whether or not this is a “word” matters far less to the person stating this opinion than the picture this word paints of the user.  This “defininition” on Urban Dictionary provides a useful synopsis of what using “irregardless” might mean about someone:

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The important border being guarded here seems to be between “educated” and “uneducated.”

Another entry provides this useful clip from the movie “Mean Girls” to precisely illustrate a different type of person (one of the uncritical followers of the high school’s lead mean girl) who might use the word “irregardless”:

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Views on languages, language varieties, and words like “irregardless,” (often fleshed out with supportive examples and illustrations) may start as “mere opinions” from “lay people” about language—but as they become conversations including more and more people (as tends to happen on the Internet), they also build knowledge about language.  This knowledge isn’t validated through scientifically measurable accuracy of these descriptions—instead, this is a socially constructed accuracy.  Language types called “English,” “Philly,” “New York,” or “Educated” become understood as these labeled entities because these opinions and conversations build portraits of language users as social types. The categories these citizen sociolinguists set up can act as self-fulfilling prophecies—building communities, setting up distinctions, or breaking them down.

What can we learn from this?  We may not learn much about language at all—at least not the kind of learning you might expect from linguistics class or French101.  But we can still learn something important.  We can learn –through concrete discussions about language—how citizens shape distinctions between themselves and others, form local identities, create unique new identities, bond with and reject one another, and create and destroy social value.  Once we glimpse these processes (through the work of citizen sociolinguists) we might not know more about language as an object, but we do have more awareness of how language builds meaning for everybody using it.

Have you come into contact with any strong opinions about language?  What can you learn from those opinions? What social work do you think those opinions do? Please comment below.

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”:

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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.

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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…

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

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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.

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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:

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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!