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!

“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.

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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):

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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:

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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.

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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)

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)!

 

Modern-day Malapropisms: Yogiisms versus Trumpisms

The term “Malapropism” describes a lovable feature of our all-too-human use of language—that is, using the almost-right-but-not-quite-right word.  YourDictionary.com illustrates their entry with this example, spoken by the TV character, Archie Bunker:

“Patience is a virgin.”

This example illustrates the layers of possibility within subtle linguistic missteps.  In choosing the words “patience is a virgin” instead of “patience is a virtue” the script-writers pile on a little jokey sexual innuendo and maybe a touch of creepy-old-man, building Archie Bunker’s character as a conservative curmudgeon in the decades-old sitcom, All in the Family.

A good malapropism—like any good joke—may also go down in history. Everyday people seem to remember them and pass them along.  Something about them draws people to savor the language, to recognize its special capacity for creative meaning, and even to make fun of ourselves and the human condition.

The baseball coach, Yogi Berra, was famous for his malapropisms (or “Yogiisms”), and forScreen Shot 2017-05-26 at 3.36.50 PM their humor and everyday pithy wisdom.  Phrases like “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility,” “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded,” or “When you get to a fork in the road, take it” bring home some shared sense of the absurdity of everyday life.  Rather than bringing out the dictionary and calling Yogi to the mat for being incorrect or nonsensical, people have ended up repeating these Yogiisms-turned-aphorisms.  An internet search yields dozens of sites compiling his top 20 (or 50!) phrases.

Now, Donald Trump has become a modern proliferator of malapropisms:

Unpresidented or Unprecedented When condemning China’s actions in international waters, he referred to their actions as “unpresidented”:

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7/11 (The convenience store?) versus 9/11 During his presidential campaign, he denounced the terror attacks on the World Trade Center—those that occurred on “Seven Eleven.”

“I watched our police and our firemen down on 7/11, down on the World Trade Center before it came down.”

Bigly versus Big League Also during his campaign, Trump repeatedly used the term “bigly.” Though his handlers claimed he was saying “big league,” this odd usage stood out so prominently to citizens that memes around “bigly” have proliferated…bigly.

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There are probably more, and more serious malapropisms in Trump’s repertoire.  But even this short list suggests a qualitative difference between Trump’s malapropisms and Yogi Berra’s—or even Archie Bunker’s.  Trump’s seem worse.

But, if malapropisms aren’t inherently bad, what exactly is wrong with Trumpisms?

It’s not that they are “poor English.” Many people have written about how Trump abuses the English language. Some have catalogued Trump’s malapropisms as “Times when the English language took a hit”. But abuse of the English language is not the real problem here.

The problem isn’t that Trump uses words in unorthodox ways, but the precise quality of the missteps he makes.  They show none of the qualities of time-tested malapropisms—humor or tacit wisdom.  Granted, the 7/11 gaff may have dark humor to it.  But, generally, Trumpisms are not funny.  He certainly has no sense of humor about them.  In fact, he often tries to correct them immediately by removing tweets (like the “unpresidented” tweet above) as soon as he’s been called out.  Trumpisms shed no wisdom or whimsical perspective on the human condition.  The only tacit message they communicate is (at best) that he doesn’t really care that much.  And no amount of time with a dictionary, grammar book, or linguistics professor will cure that.

Good news: Despite Trump’s use of bigly, unpresidented, 7/11 (for 9/11), and probably many more absurdities, the English language is safe.  Trump may spew malapropisms, but malapropisms in themselves are not bad—they show us that language is alive and inevitably unorthodox at times. Every day, people use words in ways which create new (unpresidented?) meanings.

And who knows, maybe soon we will be unpresidented!  Patience is a virgin.

Please add your comments below! Do you have malapropisms you love or hate?  Any recent Trumpisms to add? What can we learn from these?

Anarchism and Citizen Sociolinguistics

What could anarchism possibly have to do with citizen sociolinguistics?Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 10.25.02 AM

The word “anarchism” may suggest the big circled A (usually in graffiti form) or even images of “anarchist” punks overturning tables or setting fire to McDonalds— the opposite of responsible citizenship. And certainly a departure from any form of sociolinguistics.

Citizen sociolinguistics as anarchism? Let’s think this through…

First, many forms of anarchism do not involve violence and vandScreen Shot 2017-03-10 at 10.26.19 AMalism.  A google image search yields images representing anarchy as associated with liberty, peace, collaboration, freedom, and mutualism. Rather than relying on overt violence, anarchism usually flies below the radar.  It’s tricky, often clever, and often (for example, in cases of poaching or squatting) a matter of survival.

In his brilliant book, Two Cheers for Anarchism, James C. Scott illustrates that in unobtrusive, yet subtly influential ways, anarchism is everywhere.  He gives examples of everyday forms of anarchism, starting with the most mundane, jaywalking.

Like other forms of anarchism, jaywalking is a subtly coordinated act of rule-breaking. For example, you might decide not to jaywalk when walking with a small child (it would set an unsafe example). But if it’s three a.m., you’re alone with not a car in sight, you might cross at a red light, or even in the middle of the block! As Scott writes, “judging when it makes sense to break a law requires careful thought, even in the relatively innocuous case of jaywalking” (Scott, 2012, p. 5).

Scott goes on to mention more radical forms of lawless behavior: desertion, squatting, poaching and points out that these are often the lowest risk options at hand: “desertion is a lower risk alternative to mutiny, squatting is a lower-risk alternative to land invasion, poaching is a lower-risk alternative to the open assertion of rights to timber, game, or fish.  For most of the world’s population today…such techniques have represented the Screen Shot 2017-03-10 at 10.25.49 AMquotidian form of politics available” (p. 12).

Now, what does anarchism–even in its most subtle forms–have to do with citizen sociolinguistics?  This: Everyday understandings of language generated by citizen sociolinguists follow the same tactics of everyday acts of anarchy.

Just as anarchists go out and jaywalk, desert, poach or squat, citizen sociolinguists get online and post videos about “How to Speak Singlish,” engage in lengthy and opinionated dialogue about the finer distinctions of South Philly (Sow Philly) vernacular, post tutorials on varieties of English in Yorkshire (I’m proper chuffed about it!) or engage in Indian language(s) play in the YouTube videos like “Google my Bulbul.

These acts of citizen sociolinguistics, like many acts of anarchism, are not concerned with developing a coordinated social movement. And yet, like sustained, tacit anarchism, they gradually build valuable knowledge from the ground up, drawing on fine-grained distinctions provided through living locally and perceptively, and sharing that knowledge in everyday ways, often via social media like YouTube and Twitter.

Like anarchists, citizen sociolinguists are usually breaking the rules of “elites”:  Singlish is outlawed in Singapore classrooms. South Philly vernacular or Yorkshire expressions like “I’m proper chuffed” are not considered “proper English.” Videos like “Google my Bulbul” mix languages, defying named language boundaries.  These acts of citizen sociolinguistics, like acts of anarchy, illuminate the workings of human communication precisely by departing from its standardization.  Enforcing rules of language, in many contexts, may seem as silly as stopping at a red light on a deserted 3 a.m. stroll.  Ain’t nobody got time for that!

Just as acts of anarchy are lower-risk alternatives to official political action, acts of citizen sociolinguistics are very low risk.  But they are more likely to affect language use at a local level than more organized, top-down attempts to re-legislate language standards. People use languages in infinitely variable ways around the world–and in ways that change from day to day.  Everyday language use never aligns completely with those narrowly functional standards, frozen in time, laid down in language textbooks or even in sociolinguistics class. Instead, most language users develop fine-grained local understandings of their own language use by using their own language. And quotidian language politics for them takes the form of citizen sociolinguistics: Like everyday acts of anarchism, the posts and musings of citizen sociolinguists illuminate the fine-grained knowledge of those tuned more closely to the workings of the social order than those who are making the laws.

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Do you participate in acts of citizen sociolinguistics?  What are they?  Why? Do you see the “anarchism” in them? Or do you more highly value top-down understandings and legislation of linguistic practice? Where do you stand?  Add your comments below!

 

 

Citizen Self-Transcription and Eye Dialect 

Screen Shot 2016-09-24 at 6.37.24 PM.pngHave you ever had to transcribe oral speech?

If so, you know it can be a tedious process–listening to a recording and then typing out utterances word for word.  Word. For. Word.

But transcription is not as easy—nor necessarily as boring—as it sounds.  It involves translating spoken language into written words and like any other translation project, this requires some interpretation and finesse.  For example, when a speaker says what sounds like “I’m gonna leave now.”  Should that be written as “I’m going to leave now”? or “I’m gonna leave now”?   If an adult English Teacher says it would you be more likely to write “going to”?  If a 10-year-old in the class says it, would you be more likely to write “gonna”?  How do age, race, gender,  socioeconomic status, institutional role, and any other aspect of the situation figure into that interpretation?

The sociolinguistic, Mary Bucholtz, in her article, “The Politics of Transcription,” has pointed out that even established researchers often make transcription decisions in ways that indicate underlying biases.  When someone uses a certain spelling for one demographic or social role and a different spelling for another, Bucholtz calls this “eye-dialect.”

So, the tedious act of transcription becomes political, and the stakes can be high: A courtroom transcript, for example, that represents a defendant’s speech in stigmatized eye-dialect, could leave a record that unfairly influences a jury’s perception of that individual.  Bucholtz urges transcribers to be mindful of the choices they make when they transcribe—accounting for how their representations create identities for speakers.

Last week, however, when talking about “The Politics of Transcription” in my graduate class on Classroom Discourse Analysis, one of the students pointed out that many individuals—especially teens-these-days—use something like “eye-dialect” to purposefully add nuance to their text messages, Facebook and Instagram posts, snap-chat stories, or any social media that mimics “conversation.”

In these kinds of self-transcriptions, people usually call on eye-dialect to deliberately construct identities for themselves.   In this way, they are creating citizen transcriptions of themselves, calling on their own knowledge of local social value connected to transcribed forms of talk.  Citizen self-transcribers crafting a text message, just like reflective researchers transcribing language “data”, can be painstakingly mindful of the identity they present when they translate a spoken-like message into a social media message.

Here is an example of my own speaking-to-my-son self which I found in our text message history:

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In my mind, this message, including its eye dialect, captures my kind yet concerned loving self.  The spelling of “Pleez” conveys my sheepishly earnest need for my teenage son to keep me in the late night loop.

Probably the best guard against bias among social scientists or courtroom transcribers is to treat all speaking the same way and be as uniform as possible.  But when we everyday individuals transcribe our own voices into text messages, we participate in an unstandardized, yet high-stakes world of eye dialect.  My own Emoji smiley-face, heart, and old-lady face probably also convey some middle-aged white lady dialect.  But that’s okay.  That’s who I am. And, I’m the one who transcribed it.

Those same features of transcription that can seem to unfairly bias social science research or stigmatize a defendant in the courtroom, become powerful communicative resources for the citizen self-transcriber.  And, the citizen self-transcriber might have a more sophisticated command of bias than your average social science researcher—because they know that there is not a “correct” way of doing it, only better and worse ways of communicating one’s identity in each unique socially mediated context.

What type of eye-dialect do you deliberately use in your text messages or social media self-transcriptions?  How do you use it to craft identities for yourself?  How do you read other messages and interpret “eye-dialect” there? Do you ever write messages that used your own “speshul” brand of spelling? Please comment and share your ideas and examples below!