Five DIY Language Games for Online Learners of All Ages

Lately, the Internet has become an indispensable resource for teachers and professors as we surf through websites and social media looking for examples, links, lessons, or just something to break the ice, lighten the mood, and remind us all of our shared humanity while online.

While searching, we might also discover a secret that most avid Internet-surfers already know: The Internet can make online learning productive, fun, individualized, human-like, illuminating, and even important.  To that end, I dedicate this post to just five online language games—five of the infinite ways the Internet invites us into moments of language wonderment.  As you engage in these naturally occurring language games, you may think you’re “just” surfing the Internet, but, I guarantee, online learning will happen—to make that more obvious, I’ve titled each of these games with an important mini-lesson about language you will learn as you partake, and added some post-game reflections for online learning bonus points:

Game 1:  Words Create Our World—The Caption Game

This is probably the most “classic” of all language games, created by the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously coined the term “language game” to describe everything we do with words.

Examples: This picture was first used by Wittgenstein to show how language shapes our world. So, what is it?

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If I tell you this is a “duck” you probably see the image one way. If I tell you it is a “rabbit,” then what do you see? A rabbit? Wittgenstein used this ambiguous image to illustrate how the words we use create the world we live in.

This ingenious demonstration of the power of words can be illuminated in many ways. Internet surfers can find similar examples (multiplying like rabbits) online. The famous “Rubin vase,” pictured below plays a similar game with viewers and language users:

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Another well-known example, this image of a “young lady,” takes us into the realm of the uncanny.  What—in addition to the young lady—do you see here?

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Are you stumped? In both these examples, it might be easier to see the unnamed image if someone captioned it for you:  In the “Rubin vase” image, do you see “two faces” in addition to the vase—once you read those words?  In the “young lady” drawing, do you also see an “old woman with a wart on her nose”—if the picture is captioned that way?

I think these pictures are cool, but if they strike some readers as old, stuffy, and esoteric, consider this more up-to-date observation: We play the same language game any time we caption a photo for Instagram or Snapchat! To illustrate, this cat picture (or any cat picture), might be described in infinite possible ways:

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I could caption this “Cat on a loveseat” or “Cat contemplating the meaning of life” and viewers may see this photo very differently depending on which of those descriptions accompanied it.

Play!  Now that you’ve seen a few examples of how words create our world, go ahead (if you haven’t already!) and search around for more of these ambiguous images online.  You might start by looking for “optical illusions.”  See how the words you use to describe each picture can change what you see!  Then try playing with some of your own photos on social media.  How do you turn the image into a certain kind of event by captioning it one way or another? (“The Life of The Party”?  “My Annoying Brother”? “Dinner with Friends”?  “The Last Supper”?)

Reflections: Lately, in the age of COVID-19, using language to talk our reality into being has been a staple on Zoom or other video-conferencing media.  If we call the now-familiar Zoom grid-of-faces a “Graduation,” that’s what it is!  Call it “Happy Hour” or a “Celebration” and participants will see it as such.   In this way, Wittgenstein (and now the Internet) shows us that language is not just a collection of words that describe things, but itself a collectively created “form of life.”

Game 2: Translation is Not a One-To-One Language Mapping—The Song Lyrics Google Translate Game

As The Caption Game above illustrates, words don’t have a one-to-one correspondence to reality.  Nor, as this Song Lyrics Game will illustrate, do they have one-to-one correspondence to the “same” words in other languages.  Just like a caption for a picture, a translation of a passage will also, always, involve some selection and interpretation.  The interpretive nature of translation becomes most obvious when we try to learn a new language—and particularly when we try to fudge a little and use Google Translate instead.

Examples: Language teachers across the globe have tried to impress upon their students this simple fact:  Google Translate is not the best shortcut to language learning.  And, social media have provided us with some of the best “teachable moments” for this lesson. For years, the Youtube site “Translation fails” has been posting google translations of songs.  By running English-language song lyrics through Google Translate, transforming them into many different languages, and then back into English, this YouTuber arrives at silly—and oddly illuminating—results. Her first smash hit was the Frozen lyric, “Let it Go!”  After she ran this song through several languages on Google Translate and then back to English, the inspirational “Let it go!”refrain had transformed into the more defeatist, “Give up”:

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Updating for new songs and styles, the same YouTuber has now come out with another viral success, based on Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” hit, in which the dark and gloomy incantation, “I’m the bad guy,” punctuated by the now-infamous, “Duh,” transforms to “I’m biscuits. Huh?”

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Play! Now try it yourself.  Take a verse from your favorite song and with the “help” of Google, translate it into a few different languages.  Then translate it back to English. What do you get? Keep going until you get the funniest version, then entertain yourself by singing this out loud! Record it for your friends. You might even want to post it on YouTube! What sort of comments do you receive?

Reflection: Translating with Google to surprise yourself with the silliest possible lyrics can be a blast. It’s also a great illustration of how impossible it would be to line up the world’s languages word-to-word to create precisely the same description an object—or each other.  Each language seems to do things a little differently.  And given Wittgenstein’s observations about language as a “form of life,” this makes sense: Why would we expect words from different languages to line up one-to-one when words don’t line up one-to-one with anything else they are supposed to describe?  It’s precisely this slippage that makes language a shared accomplishment—and not a code that a computer algorithm could understand or recreate.

Game 3:  Appearances of Linguistic Accuracy can be Deceiving—The Magic Bilingual Idiom Game  

 As the Song Lyrics Game above illustrates, there is often some slippage between one language and the next—and between any word and whatever it is attempting to describe.  As literary theorist Jacques Lacan would put it (but in French), there is an “incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier”. There is no one-to-one alignment—either between language and things or between one language and another language.  For that reason, if we translate through enough different languages, and then back to English, we can arrive at “I’m biscuits” from “I’m the bad guy.”  But this slippage gets even more mind-bogglingly wonderful when Google Translate does arrive at a translation that looks right, but still doesn’t work! Revealing this invisible slippage, puts the “magic” in this Magic Bilingual Idiom Game, drawing attention to the often-overlooked aspects of linguistic knowledge that multilinguals hold.

Examples:  One of the best types of idioms to entertain ourselves with on Google Translate might be those phrases for collections of things:  Herds of horses, packs of dogs, clutches of owls, pods of dophins, etc. Often, different languages have different expressions for these.

What’s called a “school of fish” in English, for example, is called a “banco de peces” in Spanish. But what happens if we enter “banco de peces” in Google Translate?:

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Of course. Banco=Bank, de=of, Peces=Fish.  The individual words are translated “accurately” enough.  But the resulting expression makes no sense.  Bank of fish? How can we ever fix this error? It would be confusing to a monolingual English speaker if a monolingual Spanish speaker were to use the expression “bank of fish” for “school of fish”.  And, it would be confusing to a monolingual Spanish speaker if a monolingual English speaker used “escuela de peces” (school of fish) for “banco de peces”.  But if two bilinguals used these translations, they would likely know what each other were talking about.  Their invisible multilingual knowledge would reveal itself!

Google recognizes that their translation app needs the wisdom carried within bilingual users to hone its functionality—this is a form of bilingual expertise that computers alone could never learn. Therefore, Google has built a feedback tool into their translation tool: Click on Google Translate’s dropdown menu and it will offer alternative translations and even a chance for you to “improve this translation.”  You can select the best translation and it will be transformed on your screen, just like this:

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If you care to contribute to the human improvement of Google Translate, calling on your own multilingual expertise, chime in, and Google Translate will get better.

But even if humans improve infinite entries in Google Translate this way, the app still will not work perfectly.  Many expressions and their translations simply cannot be fully illuminated through a computer app.  Consider, for example, the French expression, “cherchez la femme.” Like “bank of fish,” this sentence translates easily in a one-to-one, faux-accurate way, but it loses much of its resonance along the way.  I learned the phrase, “cherchez la femme,” many years ago from a friend in Hollywood who had spent a few years in Paris dubbing movies for a living. He loved saying “cherchez la femme,” and I soon came to get a vague sexist feeling from it. When I asked what it meant, he would give a long, meandering explanation about “noir” movies and how any mystery can be explained by finding the woman at the bottom of it. Knowing no French at the time, I just learned the phrase as a chunk that sounded something like “shayrshayl’phahm” and came to associate it with heartbreakingly sexy French women and intrigue.

Only many years later did I look the phrase up on Google Translate, which conveniently gave me the word-for-word translation, “look for the woman”:

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And, the simple, “look for the woman,” translated right back into “cherchez la femme”:

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On the day I learned that “shayrshayl’phahm” simply translated to “look for the woman,” (and vice versa) I was a little disappointed.  It seemed so mundane.  But, it was also inaccurate. The simple, faux accuracy of word-to-word correspondence conceals the different forms of life these expressions create in English or French.  That’s precisely the magic of the Magic Bilingual Idiom Game: It reveals all the important aspects of living through multiple languages that the faux accuracy of one-to-one translation conceals.  Consider how important precisely this knowledge would be in the context of The Caption Game (above)!  Captioning a photo with “Look for the woman” would lead to a very different viewing experience than would “Cherchez la femme”!

Play! Now it’s your turn to try out your own multilingual knowledge. Think of an idiom you know in one language—then, using Google, translate that into another language you know, then translate it back.  How does that work for you?  Often, you may get the exact same expression.  But how do you know whether it has the same meaning?  In this game, you will need to call on your own invisible multilingual knowledge (and possibly that of your multilingual friends) to check the layers of meaning and precisely how or if Google Translate fails you.

Whenever you sense something amiss, try to fix Google Translate a little and click on their dropdown menu to “improve this translation.”  Of course, with expressions like “cherchez la femme” this might be more difficult. Fortunately, not all human knowledge can be reduced to a Google algorithm! Take note when this happens, revel in your own multifaceted language expertise, and share the good news with a friend.

Reflections: Expressions like “cherchez la femme” render Google Translate almost pointless—but they also serendipitously illuminate the magic of language and the power of multilingualism. Because Google attempts to translate even socioculturally complicated expressions in a one-to-one way, a person needs to know multiple languages and the forms of life they invoke to be able to know when Google Translate leads them astray.  For this reason, Google translate is always soliciting feedback from its users.  And, over the years, it gets better!  Now, it translates many idioms without using a one-to-one correspondence because it has been drawing on the everyday expertise real multilingual people have volunteered—and which you may have already contributed to by playing this game!

Game 4: Subverting Genre Expectations is Funny—The Fake Amazon Reviews Game

Mistranslated song lyrics (like those we’ve played with in the Song Lyrics Game) come off as funny or absurd because they subvert our expectations for the genre: When we expect a dark incantation like “I’m the bad guy” and get “I’m biscuits” instead—we just have to smile.  A similar happy twist occurs now and then with the Amazon product review genre.  Even though we may doubt the veracity of many of these reviews, we tend to read them in hopes that most contributors sincerely report the facts:  If this is a good product or an awful one, reviews will say so.  Precisely this practical expectation for the honest and earnest review on Amazon makes fake reviews a brilliant departure.

Examples: You may already be familiar with one of the biggest magnets for fake reviews, the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer, pictured here:

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The reviews of the banana slicer have far more feedback than reviews of any other product on Amazon I’ve seen.  Over 58,000 readers came across the review below and “found this helpful”!

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After all, who hasn’t for decades “been trying to come up with an ideal way to slice a banana”?

The sociolinguist Camilla Vasquez has written extensively about satirical online reviews like these, and just recently she alerted me to another comic product review for a popular commodity in our age of quarantine: Yeast. This very enlightening review rose to the top:

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Play! Now, try to find another “fake” review!  What language game is it playing instead of sincerely reviewing a product?  Poking fun at that product? Practicing PUNmanship?  Venting about another topic? After combing through these and having a few good laughs, pick a product you want to review and try your hand at the “fake review” genre.  Go ahead and post it and see how the world responds!

Reflection:  For me, fake reviews are life-and-language-affirming. They affirm that people care about enjoying language and a few laughs with fellow humans more than diligently buying and reviewing whatever product crosses their screen.  Sometimes the act of sharing one’s sense of humor with the world provides people with more satisfaction than simply consuming that world!

Game 5:  We Live in a World of Others’ Words—The Word Wonderment Game

If you’ve been playing all the games above, you may by now be feeling flush with the power you wield with your words—the power to create a world, but also to genre-shift and tear it down! You may also feel humbled by the shape-shifting quality of those same words and our inability to pin down their meanings. Words are indeed powerful, but they also belong to no one person. And no dictionary or reference tool or app like Google Translate can provide a word’s decisive meaning.   As the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin has written (but in Russian), “We live in a world of others’ words.”  The Word Wonderment Game is about exploring how our words take on new meanings when others take them out into the world and all its diverse forms of life. The Internet is made for this type of exploration.

Examples:  You can start the Word Wonderment Game with any word or phrase you’ve heard lately that captured your fancy.  It may be something new you overheard from teens (“soft girls”) or college kids (“natty light”), a new word for the age of COVID-19 (“face covering”) or a local word you’ve overheard and think you understand by never really fully “got” (“jawn”?).  You might even see an intriguing word chalked up on a sign at your local bodega.  “Hoagie” for example, is often used in Philadelphia as if everyone knows what it means—and as this picture shows, Philadelphians are venturing out to pick up freshly made hoagies even during quarantine:

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But what if you were new to Philadelphia and you didn’t know this word?  Or what if you’ve lived here forever but simply want to explore how other people use this word?  Via the Internet you can take a shortcut through the world of others’ words.  Start with a google search:

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Already, Google’s dropdown menu suggests we’ve entered a world in which people associate hoagies with comfort (“haven”) and immediate gratification (“near me”).  The  list of links proffered next offers solid indications that Philadelphia is hoagie-central. Next, urbandictionary.com provides a selection of strong opinions, and the “top definition” offers more information about the history of the word itself:

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A life-like quote in the second entry mentions that you can get hoagies at “da Papi store”:

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And this entry authoritatively mentions an exception: “meatball” is the one filling that requires “sub” or even “sandwich” and not “hoagie” as the sandwich word:

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These entries and the dialogue included, may set you wondering:  Do I even know how to say the word “hoagie”? To explore, head to YouTube, with a new prompt:  How to say “Hoagie”. You’ll get a long a boring tutorial—but you’ll also find many other videos in which “hoagie” is under discussion.

After this, you might find yourself reading about “The Great Hoagie Debate”, and even filling out an online poll about it (I admit it.  I voted “yes”):

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As you churn through these different perspectives on hoagies, you’ll likely also encounter more words you’ve never known before. Wawa, hero, meatball sub, da Papi store, and so on.  You’ll also start feeling like some people in Philadelphia really care about hoagies.  A lot.  It’s not just another word for sandwich. The word “hoagie,” like any other word, is no one person’s alone to define or wield—but one shape-shifting word among many in a world of others’ words.

Play!  You may be spending more cross-generational time in conversation these days. This means you may hear new words you don’t often (or ever) use yourself—but that people you know may care about a lot.  Ask about those words!  What do they mean to the speaker?  In what situations would they use them? Inevitably, you will be running across unfamiliar words everyday (“namean?”). Or familiar words that have taken on new meanings (“face covering”). Follow up on those words!  What “forms of life” do they invoke?  Who uses them?  What do they tell us about society?  Surf the Internet to find all the nooks and crannies these words inhabit and the ways their meaning changes across contexts. “Slippage” between words and meaning doesn’t only occur when we’re using google translate.  Even the word “hoagie” has an indeterminate meaning.  So be sure to look into all the different ways our world is made up of others’ words.

Reflection: The Word Wonderment Game revels in the fact that any time we speak, we are participating in a world of others’ words—and others’ perspectives.  As you learn about different words and about the forms of life that surround words you thought you knew, you’ll likely run into controversies. You may find yourself feeling strongly about the use of certain words. You may feel that certain words should not be used.  Why not? Our strong feelings about words can lead to important conversations about our differences. Through these conversations about language, we can also collaboratively build new meanings together, so that we live in a shared world.

Now, next time you’re on zoom, teaching a class, or celebrating the end of the week, “share your screen”!  You may be able to play some of these language games with others and spark more talk about language—in the process, you’ll be collaboratively shaping the world we’re inhabiting, both online and off.

Please share your reflections on any of these games below.  If you want more language games, let me know!  There are many more that I cut from this short list.  What other language games do you play on the internet?  Please share!

The Age of Zoom Meetings for a person who stutters

As many of us continue to adjust to working (or studying) from home, there’s been a proliferation of pieces about digital communication in today’s Age of Zoom Meetings. Despite the obvious benefits offered by these platforms during a pandemic, both researchers and “laypeople” have explored why exactly Zoom meetings can be so frustrating. Technological failures and glitches clearly play a part, but many think there is something more fundamental to the medium itself at work. Linguistic anthropologist Susan Blum, for instance, had some especially insightful thoughts about why Zoom—which she sees as based on a “folk model of how conversation works” (ouch!)—is so exhausting. She argues that videoconferencing is “nearly a replication of face-to-face interaction, but not quite, and it depletes our energy.” I couldn’t agree more, especially as the novelty of making your background a Minecraft world fades away. Zoomxhaustion, zoomtigue—whatever you want to call it—is real.

Especially for people who stutter.

While people who stutter (PWS for short) face unique communicative challenges in all parts of their life, I’ll be honest: as a PWS myself, the Age of Zoom Meetings is especially difficult. I’ve spoken with several friends who stutter, and they corroborate my feelings of exasperation with videoconferencing vs. in-person communication. Many of the things that make Zoom simply “exhausting” for fluent people make it emotionally draining and at times traumatic for PWS, especially in high-stakes videoconference settings.

[Before diving into the “why,” a quick introduction to stuttering. Traditionally, stuttering is conceived of as a communication disorder involving disfluencies in a person’s speech (often repetitions, blocks, or prolongations). Scientists don’t really know what causes stuttering, but they do know it is basically neurological and physiological, not psychological. While children who develop a stutter often “grow out of it,” those who start stuttering after early childhood rarely become non-stutterers. Here’s a link to a page created by the National Stuttering Association for more information about stuttering. Because of its current relevance, here is a great piece about Joe Biden as a person who stutters. Finally, for people into linguistics, here is a thought-provoking reframing of stuttering as a speech variety.]

Many of the things that make Zoom simply “exhausting” for fluent people make it emotionally draining and at times traumatic for PWS, especially in high-stakes videoconference settings  

The disembodied voice

Most of the challenges faced by PWS result from the paucity of (or in the case of audioconferencing, the lack of) visual information. This constriction of communication—the inability to harness our full communicative toolbox, in a sense—can have frustrating ramifications for both the PWS and the listener.

First, in cases where the videoconference is the PWS’s first interaction with someone new, the dearth of visual information increases the likelihood that the listener will not understand what’s happening during a disfluency—they will not be able to “read” the person as a PWS. The moments of disfluency displayed by PWS, when conveyed over a platform like Zoom, can so closely resemble technological “glitches” that PWS are often accused of being on mute or having bad Internet service (when in fact, we are just stuttering!)

This adds a new and debilitating layer to the challenges PWS face. During in-person interaction, while we are still often misunderstood, we don’t have to worry about a stutter being seen as a technological glitch (humans don’t have mute/unmute buttons, after all–though I’m sure many of us could think of several people we wish that did!). Secondary behaviors associated with stuttering, things like (involuntary) gestures and hesitations, help communicate the message that “Hey, I stutter” and “give me a moment.” These are all are stripped away in Zoom-mediated communication, leaving PWS to face the stark choice of explicitly “outing” themselves, or appearing technologically maladroit. Neither is a pleasant option—the latter is a lie and makes us look incompetent, and the former can be emotionally laborious and put the interlocutor on the defensive. These misunderstandings, in the way that they derail the conversation and require interactional “repair,” are draining and put the onus on the PWS to constantly explain themselves.

The moments of disfluency displayed by PWS, when conveyed over a platform like Zoom, can so closely resemble technological “glitches” that PWS are often accused of being on mute or having bad Internet service

Similarly, even when interacting with people who know you stutter, the lack of visual data can make it difficult for a PWS to signal the start and end of their speaking turn. When a PWS begins speaking, especially in a circumstance where they anticipate stuttering, they often (again, possibly unconsciously) use nonverbal cues like changing their posture, gaze, or beginning to make hand gestures. All humans do this, of course, but PWS might rely on them as a way to hold the floor when they are having a speech block and want to prevent others from talking over them. Bodily gestures also help to signal the end of a speaking turn, and when it is OK for a speaker to start talking without feeling like they are interrupting.

Few of these communicative resources are available to PWS in conferencing. In my own experience, I speak much less on Zoom calls because I don’t have time to begin a speaking turn. Stuttering most commonly happens at the beginning of the utterance, and by the time I start talking, someone might already have the floor. In cases where I do really want or have something to say, I might use a filler word like “um” or “well” to hold my place as I begin. This isn’t ideal; especially in the business world, it can come across as “unconfident” or “unpolished.”

One of the most interesting unintended consequences I’ve observed in the Age of Zoom Meetings is indicating the end of a speaking turn as a PWS. In “real life,” I find people rarely talk over me when I am having a disfluency—because they see what is going on. In online conferencing with people who know I stutter, they almost always treat me with respect—but they sometimes simply don’t know when I am finished. So they will say “Sorry to interrupt you, Jacob…” when I have actually finished my turn. Of course I appreciate their intentions, but the effect of this apology is that it disrupts the flow of the conversation, makes me feel singled out, and can even put pressure on me to “keep speaking” if the assumption was that I wasn’t done. Other writers have already remarked on how often we are forced to apologize for interrupting on Zoom, and all of this is only exacerbated for a PWS.

Zoom is also marked by the death of backchanneling. We simply don’t do this over Zoom—the playback from a “room” of people saying “Uh-hum” and “Mhm-hm” is horrendous. We also can’t really use nodding to signal we are listening, because our face is probably just a 1”x 1” sliver of someone’s screen. Backchanneling is an essential part of human communication, and the lack of it is difficult for everyone. But again, it makes things especially hard for PWS—many of whom rely on it to keep going during especially difficult disfluencies. (I have been saved many times by an especially empathetic listener in the audience who, by virtue of maintaining eye gaze with me, lets me know that they hear what I am saying.)

Finally, from a psychological perspective, it is difficult for me as a PWS to think that my entire identity on a Zoom meeting is constricted to my “disembodied voice.” PWS are obviously much more than their stutter, but over Zoom one can feel reduced to just that condition. We have less opportunity to display our passion, our confidence, our articulateness, when all we are is a stuttering voice floating through the ether. Research in digital communication backs up this feeling of being “judged”: delays on conferencing systems of even 1.2 seconds made listeners perceive the speaker as less friendly.

Zooming into the future

Like the telephone, Zoom is essentially a monocrop of communication—as Blum says, “all the communicative signs that embodied humans rely on are thinned, flattened, made more effortful or entirely impossible [on Zoom]. Yet we interpret them anyway.” 

Many of points brought up here don’t just apply to PWS. Rather, they more broadly illuminate the limitations of digital communication in its current state. I don’t know if or how these shortcomings can be improved upon, but I do hope we can build empathy for some of the challenges they might pose for PWS and the infinite others who might be misinterpreted while Zooming.

Some things, of course, do help. Being on camera, and having others display their faces, is generally more helpful than audioconferencing—it softens the impact of some of the things mentioned above, but by no means removes them, especially in larger groups. Having empathetic people around also makes things easier for the PWS. But the fact of the matter is that digital communication is simply not built for people with communication disorders. Like the telephone, Zoom is essentially a monocrop of communication—as Blum says, “all the communicative signs that embodied humans rely on are thinned, flattened, made more effortful or entirely impossible [on Zoom]. Yet we interpret them anyway.”

I would love to hear others’ thoughts about The Age of Zoom Meetings. What affordances or challenges does Zoom bring to who you are?

Citizen Sociolinguistic Arrest: Update that Syllabus, Boomer!

The beginning of January brings a new year, and, for anyone involved in the University, a new semester.  And, with that, after the relaxed, snack-filled and beverage-saturated days of the holidays, many a lament about the return to a more frantic pace and the need to ramp up for new students. My colleagues and I are spending the first week or two of January putting our syllabi together, readying ourselves for that first day, when we meet relative strangers and are responsible for connecting with them deeply and building a community of inquiry together.

In preparation for that anticipated first day of class, most of us will be updating our syllabi not only with new material—the latest journal articles in Cinema Studies or Sociolinguistics or History of X—but also with new language to talk about that material. Let’s face it (boomer) without a little updating in how we talk about history, sociology, linguistics, education, and ourselves, there may be no lesson at all.  We may be stopped in our tracks on that first day of class in what I call a “citizen sociolinguistic arrest.”

What is a citizen sociolinguistic arrest? It’s very much like an ordinary citizen’s arrest—one citizen calling another out for violating the law—only in the case of a sociolinguistic arrest, the citizen calls out the other for a violation of their language. You have probably witnessed or even participated in at least one citizen sociolinguistic arrest over the holidays. Maybe your sister referred to her niece as a “freshman” in college, and she was reminded that “we call them first years now.”  Or your grandmother referred to participants in the Hong Kong protests as “Orientals” and someone gently explained that English-speaking people generally now use the term “Asian” instead.

But the holidays are over now and we’re working on our syllabi.  After leaving our family gatherings, some may be thinking: Can’t we move on and just do our work?  No.  These citizen sociolinguistic arrests are likely to happen in our classes this semester too.  Professors may begin that first session with introductions.  And these may include mention of preferred pronouns. Even if we don’t mention our own, or include a note about our own pronouns in the syllabus, we may be seen as making a choice deliberately not to honor non-binary or non-cis gendered individuals.  As soon as one student introduces themselves with their own preferred pronouns, the choice may become a topic of conversation.

Now readers may be thinking:  Fine, we can talk about pronouns on the first day. But what about the content of the course—can we teach within our areas of expertise without being arrested for the way we talk about our specialty?   No. There are plenty of opportunities to critique content-specific language there too, and lately, I’ve heard some fascinating content specific accounts of citizen sociolinguistic arrests.

In a photography class, for example, one professor, preparing his lectures on Diane Arbus, realized that his descriptions of Arbus’ photos needed updating.  Last year students had citizen sociolinguistically arrested him for his use of the word “transvestite” to describe Arbus’ well-known photographic subjects.  Society has changed regarding trans, non-cis people and our language has along with it. Should we still use the word “transvestite” since it is the one Arbus used?  That’s an open question.  Or is it?  In my own introductory ethnography class, we routinely read Hortense Powdermaker’s account of race relations in Mississippi.  Should we use “negro” now, because it was the word she was using in her time?  In that case, the question seems less open. But the discussion can be important.

Time clearly changes our relationship to these words, and some of us take longer to catch up. Growing up in different parts of the world also affects the way we use the language to describe our specialties:  Another friend of mine, a history professor, realized that the term “world power” could also lead to a citizen sociolinguistic arrest: Referring to Portugal as being one of the great “world powers” at one time, led to a long discussion of many Westerner’s myopic sense of the word “world.”

Each of these citizen sociolinguistic arrests—those that happen with our friends and relatives over the holidays and those that happen in our classrooms and on our syllabi—have the potential to spark important conversations about language, and, inevitably, about why we choose one word or another, and how our different personal histories led us to these choices of words.

There will never be permanently “correct” ways of talking about any of these issues.  We will always be subject to critique, and when being critiqued, humility and open-mindedness usually serve us well.  These discussions of language—across generations, specialties, gender, and many other communities, can be fascinating. Everyone can learn from them.  And as we do so together, we can build that coveted community of inquiry and genuine curiosity within our classroom.  So, just as we always need to update our syllabi, we might also need to update the way we talk about it–but then let’s keep the conversation going!

Have you been the subject of these sorts of citizen sociolinguistic arrests in your classrooms,  your family dinner table, or elsewhere?  Please share in the comments below and let’s keep talking…

 

 

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!

 

 

 

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.

Woke: The Other W-Word 

screenshot 2019-01-04 09.01.19I just read and relished every word of Deborah Cameron’s blog review of 2018, “The W-Word,” about the highly contested word “woman.”  Strangely, when I first saw the title, even knowing her blog generally addresses issues about women (pardon me!) and language, I thought the W-word in question may have been “woke,” another word that has been used and contested a lot this year.

My mind may have gone in this direction because a friend had just e-mailed me with this query:

Tell me about the word “woke.”  I see it used in so many ways and places, but I don’t understand if it’s an adjective, verb, or what?

Good question!  I was hoping Cameron’s blog would answer it for me.  But no: wrong W-word.  Then, I thought, oh geez!  Woke! I should not be the person to answer this.  My intuition suggests that much use of this word verges on what I have discussed elsewhere here as “Linguistic Gentrification”. Claiming any expertise about it seemed like overstepping.  But… those thoughts didn’t stop me from unilaterally formulating my own answer and firing it off:

There is a lot to say about the word “WOKE.”  I love and hate that word.  In general, I would say that people use it as an adjective to describe someone who is aware that we live in a diverse world full of many different perspectives and that we should not write those off without considering them.  As in, “They are woke.”  If you say that about someone, I would say it means that person has a broad perspective on the world and doesn’t just see things from their own possibly white middle class standpoint.   They understand different points of view, different aesthetics and moral frameworks than just their own.  They are fully behind the “Black Lives Matter” movement and probably have a sign in their yard that says “Hate has no home here” written in several different languages and scripts.  But if they are truly “woke” they also know that even being able to have a yard and put that sign in it means they are privileged.  They would also understand that I am using singular “they” in this description so that I don’t have to use a gendered pronoun.

A non-woke person would say something like “All Lives Matter” (not just “Black” lives).  They think they have a certain sense of taste and morality because it is The Best Way to Think—not because it is a cultural perspective they grew up with.  I think of a supremely non-woke person as someone who is impossible to talk to because they think they are superior but are ignorant and not willing to learn. 

That said, the word “Woke” can be used, as you point out, in lots of different ways, and it can be just another way of being judgmental about other people. So, despite my endorsement of “woke” people, above, I try not to use the word!

Then, after sending this and feeling sheepish about the possibly un-woke level of confidence and verbosity in this response, I decided to poke around a little and see what others are saying about the word “woke,” starting with the usual suspect, Urban Dictionary.

I was immediately glad I had not sent my friend there. Most entries were negative and layered with snarky irony. The “top definition” reads as follows:

screenshot 2019-01-03 13.40.56

First of all–minor point–this definition makes it sound like “woke” is a noun: “The act of being very pretentious…”. Then the author goes on to use it as an adjective.  Leaving that aside, the content belittles any kind of compassion, empathy, or open-mindedness that I associate (perhaps naïvely) with the best features of being a woke person.

The rest of the definitions (a total of seven) were similarly down on the word. A few (especially definition #5) also pick up on the idea that “pretentiousness” or “superiority” is involved in being woke, and imply that this pretentiousness is attached to liberalism (suggested in #5 by reference to the Huffington Post):

“A state of perceived intellectual superiority one gains by reading The Huffington Post.”

A couple definitions (#2 and #4) make allusions to “The Matrix,” equating woke-ness with taking the “red pill.” (For those not familiar with The Matrix, the red pill enables human beings to see a reality we are usually blind to—namely, that we are all floating in human size jars while machines harvest our metabolic energy and feed us an illusion that we are livin’ the dream—or at least trying to.)

And a couple definitions (#3 and #6) take on the grammatical form directly (I assume ironically) as in:

screenshot 2019-01-03 14.17.04screenshot 2019-01-04 08.40.07

 

 

 

 

 

(Try to ignore the strange (Einsteinian?), time-twisting formulation that suggests one can wake up and actually be in the past tense).

The least popular definition (#7) seems to me the best and most even-handed:

screenshot 2019-01-03 13.55.23

I like this one because it gets at the social “consciousness” involved in the term, the good intentions behind those who use it (it “comes from a genuine place”), but also the overuse, and the potential for it to be used unthinkingly in “fake-deep” ways.  Leaving aside the possibly contentious use of “N—A”, this definition seems the most, wait for it… “woke” to me.

So why is it the least popular?  It is possible that the popularity of #1 and the relative unpopularity of #7 tells us more about the people who vote on Urban Dictionary definitions than something important about the word “woke”. I would like to write them all off as being silly and more ignorant than I am. But this takes us back to my first hesitation:  Why would I be the expert? Those urbandictionary.com authors and thumbs-uppers (and many more like-minded people who are not writing on urbandictionary.com) are precisely those who build that word’s meaning. My own opinion may be irrelevant. In practical terms, my view certainly matters less than the collective voice of people talking about and using language, coming up with and adding approval or disapproval to definitions and illustrative sentences on Urban Dictionary and everywhere else. I would also suggest venturing beyond UD, of course: A simple google search points to important connections between the phrase “Stay Woke” and African American struggles for social justice.  But just reading through those seven “definitions,” would probably be more useful to my friend than my singular e-mailed response, because these definitions give a sense of the ideological minefield one steps into when using that word!   People (and I am just one of the lot of them) create the meaning behind words.

So, whatever “woke” means, its best feature may be its potential to start conversations about “woke-ness” (whatever that is!) and, in the process, about a world full of different perspectives. In this way, conversations about the word “woke” may have something in common with Cameron’s discussion of that other W-word, “woman.”   As she points out, meanings of any word, and the inevitable changes in those meanings

“…can neither be imposed by fiat nor prevented by appealing to some higher authority.”

So, I’m suggesting we keep talking about these words and many more!  If we do, we will inevitably get more “woke” ourselves—whatever it ends up meaning (and let’s hope it’s not pretentious or fake-deep!). What does “woke” mean for you? Whom or what sources would you consult to find its meanings? Please weigh in!  Comment below (and consider going to urbandictionary.com to give your favorite definition a thumbs up or, better yet, enter your own)!

 

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:

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 1.06.11 PM

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”:

Screen Shot 2018-10-03 at 1.13.31 PM

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.