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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1.

Screenshot 2020-01-01 13.56.43

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

Research Questions

I formulated three research questions as follows:

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

Method

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

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

Figure 2.

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.02.12

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

Analysis & Findings

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

Figure 3.

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.05.04

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

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

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

Figure 4.

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.09.25

Figure 5.

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.10.24

Conclusion & Discussions

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

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

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

Figure 6

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.14.33

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

Figure 7

Screenshot 2020-01-01 14.15.36

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


References

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

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

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

“LOL”: On perceptions of language evolution in the age of the internet

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Sarah Horwitz, a fourth year student majoring in Linguistics at The University of Pennsylvania.

Screenshot 2019-12-19 11.08.35.png

I’ll begin honestly: I have never considered myself to be among the pioneering forces of youth culture. However, I was surprised to notice at the end of last summer that I sounded like I could be. By which I mean, I realized that I had started saying LOL in spoken conversations. Soon after, I made some additional observations: notably, that when I said LOL, I didn’t always pronounce it the same way (cf. “L-O-L” [ɛl.o.ɛl] versus “lull” [lʌl] or “lole” [lɒl]); and that the variance between these pronunciations didn’t feel trivial. However, I wasn’t sure what to make of this information.

Fast forward to early September, when I was struck by a moment of linguistic wonderment (Rymes 2019): in the middle of a spoken conversation, the friend I was talking with “LOL-ed”. Just like I do! As it turned out, my friend – also young and female – uses LOL in her spoken language, and she also pronounces her LOLs variably. This moment of wonder sparked many new questions – for instance, could we, as young, female speakers, be innovators in an ongoing linguistic change? – yet I still lacked any nuanced answers.

Several weeks later, my spoken LOL use cropped up again, this time in a moment of linguistic arrest (Rymes 2019). After hearing me say LOL out loud, both my mom and my brother called me out, asking: Why don’t you just actually laugh? In the moment, I struggled to explain my behavior. However, I didn’t feel like I was using LOL as a replacement for laughter, and I was also hesitant to label any sort of communicative behavior – especially my own! – as “wrong”.

These personal experiences culminated in my endeavor to better understand what it means when people say LOL in spoken, offline[1] language. In what follows, I explain how I used methods of citizen sociolinguistic inquiry – defined by Rymes (2019) as “pay[ing] attention to how [everyday] people talk about language,” (9) – to probe the meanings of “spoken LOL”. I should mention that my experiences with sociolinguistic research heavily shaped my analytical approach. However, what follows is not sociolinguistic research. Though perhaps, in the spirit of Svendsen (2018), my methods might contribute to evolving discussions of “how (socio) linguistics can contribute to the general field of citizen science,” (140).

What does it mean when someone uses LOL in spoken language?

This is the question at the core of my research. As a nascent “LOL-er”, I’ll admit to being selfishly interested in better understanding my own language use. Yet for less trivial reasons, the sociolinguist in me wondered if better understanding the meaning of “spoken LOL” could enrich our understandings of the people actively involved in, or witness to, processes of linguistic change. Some other questions I wondered about include:

  • Who actively participates in processes of language change?
  • Who controls these processes?
  • How do people respond to these processes while they’re happening?

And, crucially:

  • How do people understand their own (and others’) participation in the process of language change?

In what follows, I outline my most essential and interesting discoveries. While admittedly lengthy, these discoveries are by no means exhaustive, and I am sure they will continue evolving over time. Thus, in the true spirit of citizen sociolinguistic inquiry, I welcome any feedback and further discoveries in the comments section!

No source left behind (lol)

“Citizen sociolinguistics”, and citizen science more generally, seeks to gain knowledge by asking and/or involving “non-experts” – generally, people without conferred social or academic status on a subject matter – in the research process (Rymes 2019; Svendsen 2018). Thus, to capture the widest range of existing knowledge on spoken LOL, I actively sought out sources with varying levels of “mainstream” (institutional) prestige. I arrange this diversity of expertise along what I call a “continuum of standard”. Here are the sources I consulted, arranged on the continuum:

CONTINUUM OF STANDARD:

“Less” standard:

  • Urban Dictionary
  • Wikipedia
  • Stan Carey’s personal blog
  • Quora
  • Google survey I administered to people in my academic and personal networks

“Sorta” standard:

  • Grammarly
  • YouTube
  • Digg
  • Wired

“More” standard:

  • Slate Magazine
  • Oxford English Dictionary (OED)
  • The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
  • National Public Radio (NPR)
  • Linguists (Dr. John McWhorter and Gretchen McCulloch)

 

I found widespread evidence across nearly every source I consulted that LOL is now a feature of many English speakers’ spoken language. I also found fairly consistent attestations of the nuanced social meanings and functions of LOL, both online and offline. However, among the people and sources I consulted, I discovered an overwhelmingly negative attitude towards this evolved linguistic reality. Why, if even the most “standardizing” of cultural touchstones like the OED, attest the presence of LOL in spoken language, do people still seem to believe that this way of using language is “bad”? I cannot definitively explain this trend, despite all of my research. However, by providing nuanced information about spoken LOL, I hope to equip you, dear reader, with an understanding of how departures from linguistic norms can be ingenious, instead of just injurious.

Saying LOL out loud is officially a thing

There is overwhelming attestation across the sources on my “continuum of standard” that LOL is a feature of many English speakers’ spoken language. It is worth contextualizing the general emergence of LOL before delving further into its significance when said out loud. According to the BBC, the first online use of LOL was by “computer geeks” at the end of the 1980s (1). Over the next thirty years, use of LOL in internet-mediated contexts gradually expanded, and had exploded in popularity – and among younger demographics – by the early 2000s. According to an article on Wired, LOL has existed beyond the confines of cyberspace since approximately 2011 (1). However, the article goes on to list the first verbal citing of LOL as occurring before 2011, as part of dialogue between two characters in the British novel Freshers(by Kevin Sampson; published 2003):

Screen Shot 2019-12-16 at 13.33.27

Source: Wired, “People Officially Say ‘LOL’ Out Loud” (2011)

Evidently, the presence of LOL in written dialogue is different from the presence of LOL in myriad spoken conversations that occur around the English-speaking world (cf. You’re Skitting Me 2014; Morgan 2011; Carey 2013; McWhorter 2013; McCulloch 2019). However, it is worth highlighting that the presence of LOL in written dialogue suggests a cultural shift, in which the use of LOL in a spoken conversation becomes normalized. It is impossible to say whether this lone instance of normalized spoken LOL precipitated the frequent presence of spoken LOL that we currently see. Regardless, use of LOL has transitioned from written to spoken conversations since 2011. A Quora forum (from around 2016), based on the question “When people say ‘lol’, do they say ‘l’ ‘o’ ‘l’ individually or together as ‘lol’?”, further attests the progression of LOL use offline. Notably, the question of the forum is not whether people say LOL offline, but how LOL is pronounced when it is said aloud. In other words: the question is premised on what appears to be a new linguistic reality: LOL is not limited to online spaces. Interestingly, the two top answers to this original query have been viewed 1.4 thousand and 342 times respectively since 2016 (at the time of writing, December 2019). We therefore have indications that by 2016, many people were not only aware of LOL’s offline presence, but also cognizant that LOL could be pronounced in different ways.

That the existence of “spoken LOL” is now a given is echoed by the sampling of citizens I polled in a brief online survey (2019). Of 31 respondents, 29 (93.5%) are aware of spoken LOL:

Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 13.23.59

We can by no means generalize based on the results of this small and unrepresentative sample. However, it is worth noting that among this sample (roughly gender-balanced, but skewed young), the majority of respondents had heard LOL used in spoken language.

Beyond asking questions related to LOL on my survey, I also asked my respondents to self-report where they grew up. Curious to see if geographic location had any influence on a respondent’s familiarity with LOL, I used Labov et al.’s (2006) Atlas of North American English (ANAE) to code each respondent’s “geography of origin” by the ANAE category it fell into. The ANAE provides comprehensive evidence of the dialect diversity that exists in North America; each of its dialect regions, shown in the map below, are arguably distinct. Once coded, I plotted each of my positive respondents (respondents who had heard LOL used out loud; N=29) in their dialect region of the ANAE dialect map:

Figure 2.

Screen Shot 2019-12-15 at 17.10.06

Once again, it would be unwise to generalize from the patterns suggested by this graphic. Yet it is still interesting to note that recognition of “spoken LOL” does not seem limited to particular regions, within our small sample of geographically diverse speakers. It’s also worth noting that this kind of analytical approach exemplifies a blending of traditional sociolinguistic methodology with emerging citizen sociolinguistic methods, and could possibly be successfully adopted with larger and more balanced data sets.

Use and comprehension of LOL is SYSTEMATIC & CONSISTENT

Moving beyond evidence of LOL’s recognizable presence in spoken English, we turn towards documentation on what LOL means. Across the same “continuum of standard” sources, we find even more robust evidence supporting the notion of LOL as a communicative device with nuanced meanings. Interestingly, it appears that the meanings of LOL online and offline are slightly different. However, in both contexts LOL seems to function to concisely convey extralinguistic information.

Dr. John McWhorter gives LOL the linguistic classification of a “pragmatic particle” (2013), or a word that adds helpful context to a communicative interaction. McWhorter (2013) argues that LOL is a pragmatic particle that communicates empathy. He expands on this discursive function to argue that LOL is also unique for giving written speech, which has traditionally sounded relatively formal, a way to sound more casual. Linguist Gretchen McCulloch (2019) expands on this idea of LOL “informalizing” written speech, and also draws on the work of a third linguist, Michelle McSweeney, to document the “semantic shift” undergone by LOL from its origins in the “Old Internet” to its current online use. McCulloch explains how in the early days of “Old Internet People” (think our “1980s computer geeks” from the previous section), LOL emerged as shorthand that meant “laugh(ing) out loud”. However, LOL has since evolved into a “social lubricant” (2019:125) that softens what is sometimes interpreted as curt, cold online communication. McCulloch explains how LOL seems to be used for emotionally motivated communication, including to flirt, to repair a relationship, and to hint at subtext (2019:105; NPR 2019). It seems that regardless of its specific emotional appeal, the presence of LOL in a message implies that there is at least a second layer of meaning in the communication.

Beyond these layers of meaning, McCulloch also documents certain “syntactic constraints”[2] that appear to condition how LOL is used in online contexts. For example, she describes how LOL tends to be used only once per utterance. The presence of such “syntactic constraints” is expanded by Grammarly, a website that markets itself as a tool for proper and effective writing. According to Grammarly, LOL can be used online as an interjection and as a verb (Ticok, 2). This suggests it would be appropriate to say “why’d you lol so hard” [where “lol” is a verb], but inappropriate to say “wow you’re such an lol” [where “lol” is a noun]. It is likely these uses might have made intuitive sense to you as you read them; if so, that would seem to provide additional “citizen” support for the existence of structural constraints on how LOL is used!

Ultimately, the fact that LOL seems to convey nuanced semantic information, plus has basic “syntactic constraints”, lends intriguing and critical academic credibility to the form and function of LOL. Unfortunately, none of these linguistic analyses approach LOL in the offline contexts that I am most interested in. Additional online sources (cf. Anderson 2011, Morgan 2011, Carey 2013, Manjoo 2013, McWhorter 2013, McCulloch 2019)[3] also seemed to relegate their copious depictions of LOL’s communicative nuances to “online LOL”. I can only speculate about what this lack of information might suggest. Perhaps the primary folks having discussions of LOL’s meaning are unaware of the differences between LOL’s written and spoken meanings; perhaps those who do say LOL aloud are intuitively connected to its nuanced meanings, and thus have no need to discuss them; or perhaps something entirely different is going on. As I do not know more definitively, I can only draw from the responses of my survey to probe the nuanced meanings of spoken LOL. And according to my survey responses, it appears that the “semantic shift” of LOL described by McCulloch and McWhorter might have carried over into spoken language!

I asked my survey respondents to write-in what they thought LOL means when said aloud. Resultantly, I received a range of responses. However, there were some consistent trends in what people said, and in poring over the data, I identified four main categories of meaning:

(1) Sarcasm/irony (sarc):

  • Saying LOL can communicate irony or sarcasm, or that something is unfortunate or “MEME funny”

(2) Funny, but not enough to laugh (almost.ha):

  • Saying LOL can mean you’re indicating an appreciation of humoristic intent, contained laughter, or acknowledging a joke; critically, saying LOL is not an intended replacement for real laughter

(3) Awkward (awk):

  • Saying LOL in response to what someone else says can indicate that you found something funny when it was not actually intended to be so; it can convey a pity laugh or sense of awkwardness; or it can convey a response like “omg”, “ha!”, or “imagine that!”

(4) Literal LOL (LOL):

  • A small number of respondents said that LOL is an acronym meaning “laugh out loud”, and when spoken means “that’s funny”; it can also mean earnest/unironic laughter

(5) Other (other):

  • The remaining responses were either uncertain (cf. “I don’t know”) or off-topic (cf. “It means we are applying a phrase normally deployed digitally to different setting and context”)

I coded each of my responses into the category it best fit, and then graphed my four primary meanings (plus “other”) by the number of respondents who said them. The resultant graph, shown below, suggests some interesting preliminary patterns:

Figure 3.

LOL.speaker.meaning

Two striking patterns emerge from this graph: first, among our small and unrepresentative sample, the “funny but not enough to laugh” (almost.ha) and “sarcasm/irony” (sarc) meanings occurred among the highest number of respondents (N=9 and N=11, respectively). Secondly, when the “other” category is excluded, we see that the “funny but not enough to laugh” and “sarcasm/irony” meanings occurred a noticeably higher number of times than the “awkward” and “literal LOL” meanings did (N=2 and N=3, respectively). These trends seem to tentatively indicate that spoken LOL conveys meanings of irony or sarcasm, adjacent to actual laughter, that are above the level of consciousness of many speakers (in other words, speakers are generally aware of these meanings). It would be interesting to substantiate these findings with more data, which might also let us probe interactions among speaker gender, age, and these semantic categories.

Overall, while these patterns seem interesting, there is again no guarantee that they are accurate, nor do we have any way of knowing how they might generalize to a larger and more balanced sample of speakers. However, this preliminary visual analysis suggests that there might exist a consensus among speakers of what spoken LOL means. Further, in the context of claims of a “semantic shift” undergone by LOL (McCulloch 2019:106), it is interesting to observe that only a small number of participants identified spoken LOL as meaning literal laughter. Again, we cannot guarantee that these patterns are reliable; yet if they are, the nuanced meanings of spoken LOL that depart from literal laughter seem to align with the nuanced meanings of written LOL that depart from literal laughter.

Beware of “LOL Syndrome”!

Despite such seemingly widespread and recognized presence, spoken LOL – along with written LOL – is frequently skewered by citizen and expert speakers. Critics of spoken LOL decry the feature as being confusing and evincing poor grammar (cf. Wikipedia). A finer-grained sampling of representative attitudes is provided below:

  • Wired, “People Officially Say ‘LOL’ Out Loud” (2011):
    • The author explains that, despite his efforts to the contrary, “I’ve personally felt LOL threaten to burst forth on occasion; it may have once even escaped my lips,” (Anderson 2)
  • Slate, “LOL: Write it. Text it. But never, ever say it.” (2013):
    • After presenting complex arguments for the fairly nuanced semantics of “online LOL”, the author writes: “I’m still leery of using the word lol in speech, though. That’s because when you’re talking to someone rather than typing, you have many better ways of expressing emotion—tone of voice, body language, the entirety of the language. When you say lol—whether you pronounce it EL-OH-EL or LAWL—it feels unnatural, like you’re calling attention to texting when you should be talking,” (Manjoo 2)
  • The BBC, “Why did LOL infiltrate the language?” (2011):
    • Cites “purists” and “anti-lollers” who are concerned about spoken LOL’s contribution to the “bastardization” of English (Morgan 1)
  • YouTube, “Those People Who Say ‘LOL’ | You’re Skitting Me S2” (2014):
    • Saying LOL aloud is labeled “LOL syndrome”, something that is shown to be uncontrollable and contagious, and can be “contracted”; those in the skit who say LOL aloud are described as “irresponsible”, and become socially shunned by peers
  • Stan Carey’s WordPress blog, “Sentence first: An Irishman’s blog about the English language” (original post from 2013):
    • Note the first commenter’s stated surprise at the prevalence of LOL in the speech of university students; yet in contrast to the negativity of the previous comments, the second commenter here normalizes the use of “spoken LOL”, to positive effect:Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 13.24.14

I’ve underlined the most explicitly negative elements of the titles and quotes in the above list. These elements characterize spoken LOL with a language of disease (“infiltrate”, “syndrome”, “contract”) and a language of abnormality (“leery”, “escape”, “burst forth”, “unnatural”), beyond generally negative phrasing like “never” and “when you should be [doing something else]”. These metaphorical descriptions paint a fairly consistent picture of LOL as something unwanted and damaging. Even though the last comment, from Stan Carey’s blog, frames spoken LOL in a more positive light, it is striking that this is the only representative comment to do so. It is also intriguing to consider these overwhelmingly negative attitudes in the context of the aforementioned nuanced descriptions of LOL’s meaning and structure. While I cannot explain this disconnect between the meaning and structure of LOL, and attitudes about its use, it seems illogical to simultaneously legitimize the meaning and structure of a linguistic feature, but delegitimize its use.

I found a similar disconnect to exist in my survey responses. Again, of 31 citizen respondents, 93.5% (29/31) had reported hearing LOL said aloud. Among the same group of respondents, 64.5% (20/31) – though smaller, still a majority – reported themselves as being people who would say LOL in their offline communications:

Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 13.24.23

Yet, when asked to evaluate how “good” or “bad” it is when people say LOL aloud, these same peoples’ responses skewed neutral to negative:

Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 13.24.30

I should note that I intentionally left “good” and “bad” undefined in the survey, in order to mitigate the potential influence of my definitions on respondents’ answers. Yet because these terms are undefined, I cannot comment on how respondents may have interpreted them. Nevertheless, it is striking that within a population of respondents wherein the majority have both heard spoken LOL and would say LOL in their own spoken language, only 4 of 31 (12.9%) respondents ranked “spoken LOL” as “good”. The majority of respondents, 18/31 (58.1%) ranked this behavior as neutral, while the middle number of respondents ranked “spoken LOL” as “bad”. This is a surprising trend! Again, because this survey sample is small and unrepresentative, I can only speculate about why spoken LOL seems to be framed in such a negative way. It is possible that over time, as saying LOL is seen as more of a “norm” and less of a “deviant” behavior, more people will evaluate its usage more positively. In the meantime, attitudes surrounding spoken LOL seem like a rich area for deeper research.

Time to meet the family (lolz)

Better understanding attitudes and usage of spoken LOL may also result from investigating some of LOL’s cousins, which include LMAO (“laughing my a** off”), ROFL (“rolling on the floor laughing”), and LOLZ (the plural of “LOL”; “many LOLs”). (For a more complete list of variants, please consult the following sites: BBC and Wikipedia). I don’t have the bandwidth to fully investigate variations of spoken LOL in this one post. However, according to two peers, LMAO does figure certain peoples’ spoken English repertoires – although saying LMAO aloud tends to be seen as “more cringey” than saying LOL (personal communication). These “citizen perspectives” pan out with some subsequent online research. According to the site “HiNative” (2018), which is geared towards helping non-native speakers of English, it becomes clear that LMAO is used in spoken language:

Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 13.24.37

The featured response, by including “…often pronounced as just ‘lmao’ if used in speaking” (orange underline), implies that LMAO is a feature of the spoken language of native English speakers. Further, the casual way in which spoken LMAO is alluded to may suggest that the behavior itself is not particularly noteworthy. I’m honestly uncertain what “just ‘lmao’” means in terms of pronunciation, but according to my two Gen-Z references, LMAO is said aloud in the following way: “luh-mOW” [lə.mæ̓w]. The relative recency of this thread (2018), compared with the featured LOL threads (2013-2017), may suggest that “spoken LMAO” emerged after “spoken LOL”. Ultimately, more research is needed to fully understand this trend!

A second “LOL-spinoff” worth mentioning here has to do with the popular 2007 category of memes, “lolcat”. The first recorded use of “lolcat” was on 4chan in 2006, and the watershed moment for “lolcat” came in 2007 with the “I Can Haz Cheezburger?” meme (McCulloch 2019:243). “Lolcat” officially entered the online version of the OED in 2014 (Wikipedia). Beyond spawning countless “lolcat” memes, and styles of memes, “lolcat” also spawned an internet language called “lolspeak”. This language is intentionally “improper”, and was designed to be a self-referential spoof of “improper internet language”. However, despite its intentional goofiness, there are consistent syntactic patterns to “lolcat” memes and their language, including:

  • “Im in ur [noun], [verb]-ing ur [related noun].”
  • “[Adjective] cat is [adjective/noun].”

Further, “lolspeak” is actually used by people! Most famously, “lolspeak” was used to create a translation of the Bible, the beginning of which reads as follows:

Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem.

Da Urfs no had shapez An haded dark face, An Ceiling Cat rode invisible bike over teh waterz.

At start, no has lyte. An Ceiling Cat sayz, i can haz lite? An lite wuz.

An Ceiling Cat sawed teh lite, to seez stuffs, An splitted teh lite from dark but taht wuz ok cuz kittehs can see in teh dark An not tripz over nethin.

An Ceiling Cat sayed light Day An dark no Day. It were FURST!!!

(excerpt taken from Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet, pp. 243-44)

Nearly every line of this excerpted translation is a reference to some sort of online meme (McCulloch 2019:244). Such a feat of translation is formidable and deserves much lengthier attention than I can provide in this post. However, I still wanted to mention it, because certain core features of “lolcats” and “lolspeak” seem to parallel features of “spoken LOL”:

(1) Both communicate nuanced layers of meaning, sometimes in self-referential ways;

(2) Both are at least a little bit systematic in nature; and

(3) Both have the tendency to draw criticism or negative evaluation from certain other speakers (cf. Morgan 2011, Manjoo 2013, You’re Skitting Me 2014, Wikipedia [ROFLCon])

In recent years, “lolcats” has appeared to lose steam, and the meme is currently less of a cultural vanguard than it once was (Wikipedia [ROFLCon]). Yet the parallels between “lolcats” during their heyday and certain current trends with LOL seem to indicate a certain consistency to how aspects of internet culture and language are transforming oral culture and communication.

Mais attendez, ceci n’appartient pas uniquement à l’anglais ! (ptdrrr)[4]

To recap everything that our investigation has uncovered so far, it appears that:

  1. LOL does exist beyond electronic communication
  2. What LOL means when used in spoken language does not seem random or accidental;
  3. Rather, speakers seem aware that their language is changing, and can articulate both these changes and their systematic meanings pretty well
  4. Yet the discourse around spoken LOL is full of threatening language
  5. Perhaps people have such overwhelmingly negative attitudes towards spoken LOL because they are afraid of the change, or are afraid of being complicit in what may amount to a degradation of language?
  6. At the moment, we cannot say for sure!

This has been a fascinating journey for me, and I appreciate that you’ve successfully read this far! 😉 Yet I would be remiss if I kept my discussion anglo-centric. Indeed, LOL is not the only online laughter, or laughter-adjacent, convention that exists. The following schematic shows various ways of laughing online, for the top ten countries in the world (by internet users):

Screenshot 2019-12-19 10.45.48

Source: Digg, “I Say LOL, You Say Ek1: How People Around The World Laugh Online” (2018)

I leave as an open question whether these other online forms of laughter are also used in spoken speech. Well, I suppose I should say slightly open; in speaking with a native French speaker, I understand that the French constructions “mort de rire” (“dying of laughter”) and “pété de rire” (literally, “broken of laughter”; stronger than mort de rire) are frequently used out loud, perhaps even more so than their English LOL counterparts (personal communication).

On that note of further discovery, I hope that this post sparks interesting conversations, and eagerly anticipate hearing your comments and feedback 🙂

And now, let the conversations continue – IRL!

 

References (and further reading, lol 😉

Anderson, N. (2011, March 26). People Officially Say ‘LOL’ Out Loud. Wired. Retrieved from   https://www.wired.com/2011/03/people-officially-say-lol-out-loud/

Carey, S. (2013, March 5). The dramatic grammatic evolution of “LOL”. Retrieved from             https://stancarey.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/the-dramatic-grammatic-evolution-of-lol/

Dimock, M. (2019, January 17). Defining generations: Where Millennials end and Generation Z begins. Pew Research Center. Retrieved December 14, 2019, from       https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/17/where-millennials-end-and-     generation-z-begins/.

Ho, P-C. (2019, October 4). I Say LOL, You Say Ek1: How People Around The World Laugh     Online. Digg. Retrieved from https://digg.com/2018/how-different-countries-laugh-          online

Labov, W., Ash, S., & Boberg, C. (2006). Chapter 11: The dialects of North American English.   In The atlas of North American English: Phonetics, phonology, and sound change: a multimedia reference tool (116-149). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. Accessed online at             https://www.ling.upenn.edu/phono_atlas/Atlas_chapters/Ch11_2nd.rev.pdf

lol. (2017, April 25 [top definition]). Retrieved December 10, 2019 from Urban Dictionary:         https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=lol

LOL. (n.d.) Retrieved December 10, 2019 from the LOL Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LOL

Lolcat. (n.d.). Retrieved December 10, 2019 from the Lolcat Wikipedia page:        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lolcat

LOLCats – Funny cat pictures. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.lolcats.com/

Manjoo, F. (2013, May 2). LOL: Write it. Text it. But never, ever say it. Slate Magazine. Retrieved from             http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/technology/2013/05/lol_write_it_text_it_but_ne            ver_ev er_say_it.html

McCulloch, G. (Interviewee), Yu, M. & Kopp, E. (Producers/Editors), Jarenwattananon, P. &      Novey, B. (Web adapters). (2019, July 31). Our Language Is Evolving, ‘Because        Internet’ [All Things Considered Author Interview]. Retrieved from NPR,             https://www.npr.org/2019/07/31/747020219/our-language-is-evolving-because-internet

McCulloch, G. (2019). Chapter 3: Internet People. In Because Internet (63-108). New York, NY:            Riverhead Books.

McCulloch, G. (2019). Chapter 4: Typographical Tone of Voice. In Because Internet (109-154). New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

McCulloch, G. (2019). Chapter 7: Memes and Internet Culture. In Because Internet (237-264).    New York, NY: Riverhead Books.

McWhorter, J. (Speaker). (2013). Txting is killing language/ JK!!! [TED Talk]. TED | Ideas         worth spreading. TED Talk retrieved from             https://www.ted.com/talks/john_mcwhorter_txtng_is_killing_language_jk/transcript?language=e n#t-804123

Morgan, J. (2011, April 8). Why did LOL infiltrate the language? BBC News Magazine.   Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-12893416

Palomasribeiro [username]. (2018, January 23). What does lmao mean? Question posted to          HiNative,https://hinative.com/en-US/questions/6462660

Pan, J. (2016, May 3). When people say “lol”, do they say ‘l’ ‘o’ ‘l’ individually or together as    “lol”? Question posted to Quora, https://www.quora.com/When-people-say-lol-do-they-        say-l-o-l-individually-or-together-as-lol

ROFLCon [archived website]. (2007 October 31 – 2014 September 21). Retrieved from             https://web.archive.org/web/20080426224218/http://roflcon.org:80/

ROFLCon. (n.d.). Retrieved December 14, 2019 from the ROFLCon Wikipedia page:      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ROFLCon

Rymes, B. (2019). Chapter 1: Citizen’s Arrest. In How We Talk About Language. Cambridge       University Press [expected 2020, October 1]

Rymes, B. (2019). Chapter 2: Wonderment, The spark that starts talk about language. In How We  Talk About Language. Cambridge University Press [expected 2020, October 1]

Rymes, B. (2019). Chapter 4: Fomenting Wonderment and Critique: Feedback Loops. In How We Talk About Language. Cambridge University Press [expected 2020, October 1]

Svendsen, B.A. (2018). The dynamics of citizen sociolinguistics. Journal of Sociolinguistics,       22(2), 137-160.

Ticak, M. (n.d.) What Does Lol Mean? [web log comment]. Retrieved from Grammarly, https://www.grammarly.com/blog/lol-meaning/

You’re Skitting Me. (2014, April 12). Those People Who Say “LOL” | You’re Skitting Me S2       [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bpn56vN5iII

[1] Note: I mean “offline” in the sense of “not on the internet”, not in any sense of semantic/syntactic processing. The same holds for “online”; when I say “online”, I only mean “on the internet”

[2] In quotation marks because I do not mean “syntactic constraints” in their formal (theoretical) linguistic sense

[3] Though I recognize that there are many online sites and forums I may have missed!

[4] But wait, all this doesn’t belong uniquely to English! (LOLLL)

Tone Deaf

Screenshot 2019-08-08 09.28.20
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.

Gender Neutral Pronouns: Comments Disabled!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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:

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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:

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(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:

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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)!