Keeping Language in a Locked Drawer (Not)!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, what to conclude?

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

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

Is that a Word? Urban Dictionary as a Site for Citizen Sociolinguistics

Thank you to RCCola for posting a comment about Urban Dictionary! (See previous entry, How Citizen Sociolinguists Work: Pow!). UrbanDictionary.com can be a crucial first stop for a Citizen Sociolinguist. Despite being filled with smarmy filth, Urban Dictionary helps the sociolinguistically curious access crucial meanings behind many words—even seemingly mature words.

Urban Dictionary also gives us a new way of thinking about what words mean—and even what counts as a word. As mentioned previously on this site, people often judge their own language by what some imagined, composite Authority on Language might say about it. We may hear that internalized voice of the Standardization Big Brother asking: Is that even a word!?

From a Citizen Sociolinguistics perspective, the best way to find out about word meaning is not to ask, “Is that a word?” (which might pointlessly lead one to a traditional dictionary) but to figure out how people use the item in question and what impression it makes. Here’s where Urban Dictionary can be a handy first stop. Let’s think this through by puzzling over arguably one of the most annoying words in the English language: Irregardless.

Now, the first (most popular) entry on Urban Dictionary says irregardless is…

Used by people who ignorantly mean to say regardless. According to webster, it is a word, but since the prefix “ir” and the suffx “less” both mean “not or with” they cancel each other out, so what you end up with is regard. When you use this to try to say you don’t care about something, you end up saying that you do. Of course everyone knows what you mean to say and only a pompous,rude asshole will correct you.

Despite gratuitous profanity typical of Urban Dictionary, this entry seems to capture a crucial social meaning of “irregardless”—its association with being pompous in an ignorant way. So, Urban Dictionary provides a useful first step toward understanding a word-like item’s social value. A second step might be to see how this aligns with our own and others’ experience. Regarding irregardless, this Urban Dictionary entry aligns nicely with a more G-rated version of the same sentiment, voiced by Bert, a 16-year-old high school student:

 I feel like people say “irregardless” to sound like they know what they are talking about. Go on Facebook arguments and you’ll see it: “ Irregardless” [said with funny pompous voice]. People use it to try to sound smart. “Irregardless” [pompous voice again]. They are trying to sound smart.

For most humans, whether some spoken item officially counts as a word is only the tip of the conversational iceberg. As these comments illustrate, a host of other questions seem more critical:

  • What type of impression am I trying to make when I use this word?
  • Do my conversation partners know about it?
  • Do they have some awareness of how I am using this word?
  • Do I have any awareness of how I am using this word?

While Urban Dictionary may provide wide-ranging answers of variable quality, it makes a good a first stop on the Citizen Sociolinguistic exploration of a word’s social value.

What are your criteria for a word? Does its existence on Urban Dictionary make it so? How do you use Urban Dictionary? Post your comments here!