Talking about Language, Talking about L-O-V-E

The hip hop classic, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), is now over 20 years old.  The album was recorded before either of my children, now ages 13 and 21 were born.  But, during quarantine, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing it and listening anew with my 13-year-old daughter.  Musically it’s a masterpiece, but there’s more than music here: One of the most compelling and original parts of the album occurs in snatches of talk between the songs. In these interludes, I’ve noticed my daughter’s attention become more focused.  She listens intently as a conversation unfolds between a teacher and some middle-school students about one word: Love.  This conversation brilliantly enacts not “miseducation,” (as the title of the album might suggest), but an ideal of pedagogical discussion.  Whether you’ll be on zoom or masking up and entering a classroom this coming fall, if you’re planning to talk about language with your students, this discussion of the word love on Lauryn Hill’s classic album provides a potentially powerful model for doing so. 

The conversation begins like this: 

Teacher:  Alright people. I’m going to write something on the board.  Let’s spell it. First letter…

Chorus of Kids:  L-O-V-E [a couple giggles]

Teacher: What’s that? 

Chorus of Kids: LOVE!

Teacher: What?

Chorus of Kids: LOVE!

Teacher:  How many of you know any songs about love?

Student:  I know a lot about love!

Teacher: Tell me some titles, titles, I want some songs.

Student: Love! [Lots of giggles]

Teacher:  There’s a song called love? There’s no song called love!  Alright, what is it what is it?

Student: It go “loooooove” [more giggles]

Teacher: Okay.  Anybody else…

Student:  I will always love you.

Teacher:  Okay, any movies about love?

Student: Romeo and Juliet.

Teacher:  Ok. Did you know what that was about when you saw it?

The conversation then fades out and Lauryn sings a sad love song, “Ex-factor.”  After that song and another, the “classroom” conversation continues:

Teacher: Okay, how many people in here have ever been IN LOVE? I know none of the guys are going to raise their hand. Heh heh.  How many of y’all have ever been in love? I know none of the guys been in—we don’t get in love, right? Oh!  Let this black man right here tell what his idea of love is. It’s not all the time we hear young black men talking about love.  About your personal definition.  Don’t tell me what Webster thinks.  

Student (boy): You are willing to do everything for that person.

Teacher: Okay, everything like what?

Students: Side mumbling

Teacher:  Let him talk, come on.  If I asked him to talk about a fancy car, he’d be right on point, but we want to talk about love. You can do it! What do you think?  You said you loved somebody, you should know why you love them, right?

Student (boy):  The way they act. The way they carry theyself.  Stuff like that. 

Student (girl 1): They just stand out.  It’s like sometimes it don’t even matter what they wear or what they look like. It’s like. It’s like. That one! You know? 

Student (girl 2): Yeah [wistfully]

Student (girl 1): You know that you want to talk to him because he stands out. It’s like he got a glow or something.  

Student (boy): That’s what I’m talking about.

Teacher:  That’s deep. I thought that was a beautiful point.  Anybody else want to deal with that? 

Student (girl 2): And, sometimes like when they try to act funny in front of their boys and they get around and they say I love you—They can’t love you! Because love is- love don’t do that. 

Student (girl 1): Love is not phony.

At that point, Lauryn sings one of her most famous songs, Do Wop (that thing), and then, the conversation resumes: 

Teacher:  Hey.  We got some very intelligent women in here, man.  Do you think you’re too young to really love somebody? 

Chorus of Kids: NO!!!!!!!

Teacher: Let’s take it from me.  I’m an adult.  I say wait, you’re too young to be in love.  This is silly. You’re infatuated with him.  He got nice jeans. He wear fancy adidas. 

Chorus of Kids: Laughing!

Teacher: I don’t know!
Student (girl): It’s a difference from loving somebody and being in love.

Teacher:  Okay!  You tell me.  What’s the difference?

Student: You could love anybody.  But when you in love with somebody, you’re looking at that person like- you’re taking that person for what he or she is, no matter what he or she look like or no matter what he or she do!

Student: You can fall IN love—you can fall OUT of love.

Student: You stop being IN love with them, but you is NOT gonna stop loving that person. 

Student:  Maybe sometimes they’ve never been loved before, or they never been in love before, or they never- they don’t know what the feeling is to be loved. 

Teacher: You killed it. We can end the conversation with that, right?

In these small moments, between songs, this teacher illuminates what a great discussion with kids, about one word, might look like.  

Now, you might be thinking—this is an ideal situation, and the conversation may even be scripted ahead of time.  No wonder it’s so wonderful! Others have also wondered the same.  In an essay in Medium about this Album, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, Alex Chochoclo writes:

“I always wondered whether the classroom dialogue recordings were scripted or not. I’d like to believe that they weren’t. Somehow, the experience of listening to young men and women talk about their opinions and experiences of love at such an early stage in their lives is endearing. I wonder what those same voices are experiencing of love right now and what they’ve endured over the last twenty years.”

As if in answer to Chochoclo’s essay, the New York Times also published an article that year, after tracking down the original teacher and some of these students (now adults) to follow up on these very same wonderings.  The revelations of these individuals, and about the word “love” continue to flow in this multi-media article about what followed. 

As the participants remember that day, recalling the conversation, they assure listeners that, while it didn’t take place in a classroom, it was entirely improvised—with the single goal being to have a conversation about the word, “love.”   The teacher brought a couple of students he already knew to the recording session (which took place in Lauren Hill’s childhood home in Newark, NJ), and Lauryn’s team rounded up a few more neighborhood kids whom the teacher had never met before.    

And who is this “teacher”?  The students seem so attentive and forthcoming, eager to answer his questions.  I have always wondered, is he also a hip hop star?  No! At the time of the recording, he was an elementary school teacher in Newark, and a friend and neighbor of Lauryn Hill.  Today, he is the Mayor of Newark, NJ, Ras Baraka.  

And the students the Times talked to were—still are, in the Times-recorded interview from 2018—genuinely engaged in this discussion of love.  Twenty years after the recording of their “class”, they had distinct memories of the event and of the substance of the conversation.  One of them remarked, of the interludes between songs:

“That’s the best part of the CD! It kind of makes you laugh.  And gets you thinking!”

One of the women surprised herself, looking back, at the wisdom of her statement about love, in 1998, when she said, “Maybe sometimes they’ve never been loved before, or they never been in love before, or they never- they don’t know what the feeling is to be loved.”

Listening back to the recording from 1998, she told the Times reporter: “I was wise beyond my years!”  She was impressed with her own younger self, and the recognition she had then that someone who has never been loved may not be able to feel love for others. As she remarks:

“I honestly was thinking about….I had seen kids my age who didn’t have what I had, which was a loving family.  And they would just do things that would be considered bad behavior.  But, you know, it just dawned on me when that question was asked:  Maybe someone doesn’t know how to love because they’ve never been loved before. They don’t know what it feels to be loved. So how can you possibly expect someone who has never been loved before to know how to love?” 

Another participant, one of the boys in the love conversation, talked about how the meaning of the word, “love,” for him has changed over 20 years of his life. Now, he says, as a divorced man, as a man who had recently lost his ex-girlfriend to gang violence, “love” for him is a “gamble.”  He then remarked, “1998 to now, which is 20 years—I’ve lost over 100 friends to gang violence.” 

This conversation—and the return to it 20 years later—reminds us that words don’t define the world for us. Discussing the word love, did not center on identifying its universal essence, the definition.  Instead, it illuminated how people bring meaning to that word through the events of their own lives.  The love discussion became a way for all these adults to talk about much more than the meaning of a word, or even their own individual relationship to it.  That discussion of whatever we mean by “love,” provided a medium to talk and hear about how others might experience the world—through their own relationships, through observations of families around them, from the experience of violence, and of loss. As one participant remarked:

“For me at the time the only person I loved was my brother and my mother. So I could relate to that and that aspect. But to know that being in love was something totally different and its coming from someone that was my peer. It helped be to understand that as I became older and got into relationships. Other people that I know haven’t even had those kind of conversations at home…”

This simple but surprisingly powerful conversation about a single word was still lively for these participants, 20 years after the original recording.  While the “classroom discussion” on Lauryn Hill’s record is set up in her own home, with just a few neighborhood kids, and an obviously gifted communicator as teacher, it’s worth thinking how conversations about single words like this can bring out the collective knowledge in any classroom. 

Teachers can start conversations like this anywhere, even on-line.  Classrooms benefit from this talk about language—conversations that let a word take its meaning from those who are talking about it. Write a word on the proverbial chalkboard (or flash it on your Zoom screen, or post it in on a discussion board) and start a conversation.  The word needn’t be “love.”  Any word that matters at the moment, for your students, in your shared world, could launch the dialogue: “love,” “freedom,” “citizenship,” even “research.” The word research has been an illuminating springboard into discussion for my students. What is research?  That question may not be as spicy as “what is love?” but it is a compelling question for grad students just embarking on research of their own.  And just as it was useful for the kids on Lauryn Hill’s record to hear about love from their peers, students can also gain valuable insight from the experience their peers bring to words like “research.” 

These are not discussions in which a teacher tells students a standardized definition. As former teacher and now Mayor Ras Baraka encourages kids, he asks for their “personal definition,” saying explicitly, “Don’t tell me what Webster thinks.” These conversations don’t call for the “proper” usage or recite expert opinion on the topic.  Instead, talk about the word “love,” like talk about any single word, encourages students to talk about how the word means for them, in their world. Once students are invited to share their intelligence in this way, students seem to gain a confidence that comes from using words as tools for exploration, rather than displays of standardized knowledge being lectured into their heads. Who knows, 20 years later, our students, like those on Lauryn Hill’s record, may still be thinking about such conversations, reflecting how those words work in their world.

As teachers or students, do you remember conversations about words and what resulted? Please share your memories or other comments below!

Teenage Talk: It Doesn’t Just Change Language, It Changes Our World

Citizen Sociolinguistics flourishes in those moments when language catches us by surprise and forces us to start talking about it.  Consider, for example, the way people alternately marvel or reel in horror at the language of teens. There’s something intriguing going on with teen language that sparks human curiosity. Parents and high-school teachers like to share their stories about the language of teens, and professional linguists like to study and explain it. Non-linguists may judge teen language as right, wrong, or just plain weird (“sick” is a word for something you like?).  Linguists tend to describe teen language as playing an important and complex role in language change over time (semantic reversal! Sick!). Now, I would like to consider how teen language changes more than just language, it changes world we live in.  To get a bigger picture of what teen language is good for we need to turn to a third view: that of teens themselves.  

Everyday Adult Perspectives on Teen Language

First, let’s consider how everyday adults talk about the language of teens:  Sometimes with wonder, but also with trepidation, even revulsion! 

Much of the language of teens seems to crop up out of thin air. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when we have all been at home working, studying, or goofing off together, we may be hearing and seeing more teen language.  This post on Twitter, for example, illustrates one working-from-home Mom’s experience with Teen language (or in this case, a 12-year-old):

First of all: Ew! Moving beyond that initial reaction, I showed this tweet to my 13-year-old daughter and she was very impressed! She was also slightly baffled: How did this kid come up with all these different expressions? My daughter and I shared a moment of wonderment (and horror) at this mini fart thesaurus.  Sometimes the language feats of teens carry an impressive ‘air’ of mystery and the unknown.   

More comprehensive catalogs of teen language or ‘what kids are saying these days’ often lead to this same kind of wonder and disgust.  Each semester, for example, my friend Mr. Z, a high-school teacher, has his Language Arts classes compile lists of their favorite “slang,” from which he creates a word cloud. Those words mentioned more often (like “bae” below) show up larger in the cloud, and those less-common words (“sick”) are tiny. 

These word clouds have become an impressive tradition over the years, and they’ve begun to function like semester-to-semester time capsules. Each year, the teacher and I, and the crops of new students in his classes, marvel at the old standbys and the new arrivals. These word clouds tend to impress everyone—including other teachers in the school. But as often as people are impressed with teen language, they are baffled, and even wary of it. Sometimes we don’t even understand what teens are saying (BAE? shawty? krunk?). When we do understand (or think we do), we might not know how to react, or how to talk about it (white girl wasted?).  Many adults tend to disengage when teens talk in strange ways. What are we supposed to say? Should we tell them not to use those words?  To speak with more maturity?  More formality? Some teachers would balk at compiling a word cloud like the one above—it seems too subversive for school. And in moments of frustration we might even think, what is wrong with teens?  15 fart expressions? Really? Why can’t kids just speak about important things and do so like adults??!!

Linguists’ Perspectives on Teen Language

Linguists, however, love to talk about teen language.  But, unlike many parents, teachers, or everyday language police, they don’t judge it or fear it, they describe it and provide the long view. Still, they often manage to take teens’ active engagement with words and the world out of the equation, describing youth language in general as an engine of language change, rather than exploring teenage talk as a dynamic part of their interactions with others.  

This article, posted on the website of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA), for example, points out that, much as some adults would like to limit our language to one, correct, immutable, and testable form, the only thing constant about language (paradoxically) is change.  Many words and expressions we take for granted were once considered problematic youth language.  The article provides useful examples: “Bus” was once considered an unseemly shortening of “omnibus.” And, many phrases we now consider problematic in certain contexts –the inevitable “double negative,” for example—were once a staple of older forms of English. Linguists are very good at illustrating that language change happens and that it’s okay.  No need to worry about teen language—it’s natural. Teen language, like a slowly moving glacier, may be hard to navigate for us old folks, but just as that glacier carves out a beautiful and lush valley, teen language will slowly manipulate the word for us, over time shaping the very language we inhabit and enjoy. Trust the process.

Thoughtful people like teachers and parents who really don’t want to unnecessarily criticize teenagers, find these linguistically informed verdicts on teen language a relief.  After discussing controversial words that appear in the language cloud, for example, words that teens themselves have shared, Mr. Z and I want to have an adult message for students, but we don’t want to be preachy. It’s useful to be able to cite linguists who tell us there is something important and lasting going on (language change) when, for example, teens say “like” in every other sentence, seem to shorten perfectly good greetings to “yo,” “what’s good?” or “whaddup?”, or use LOL incessantly, LOLOLOLOLOLOL.  They are not being lazy or losing their mental acuity. The linguist says it’s fine. “LOL” in spoken discourse might one day be used by heads of state. Our language will never stop changing and that’s okay. 

I’ve always found these explanations useful and persuasive at first, but ultimately incomplete. Once we’ve been consoled by Linguists that teen language is simply contributing to the inevitable if glacially paced process of language change, the conversation usually stops. But when we discuss the role of teen language this way, we take the teens out of the world that stimulates and inspires them, and, out of a world that might also hold injustices and frustrations to which they are reacting, out of institutional norms that they might be resisting by using language in creative new ways.  Out of the realm of controversy. Instead of engaging with any of those possibilities, once we legitimize the way teens speak by naming its role in “language change,” we can go back to just waiting for teens to either talk like adults, or for teen language to be accepted sufficiently over the course of time so that adults use it too.  

By stepping beyond the “language change” explanation, I’m not trying to debunk anything linguists have learned and published about language change.  It’s real.  It’s interesting.  And it seems important to remind ourselves that language change is inevitable, and that we are all participating in it.  However, the focus on language change illuminates only a small corner of a much larger conversation that we can have around teen language.  Recognizing that language changes and teen language plays a role the process should be just the beginning of that conversation about language.  However, many times I’ve witnessed the “language change” explanation as the end point.  Science has spoken. The Glacier will move. Language will be fine. Conversation stops.  As an alternative, to keep the conversation going, and to capture the remaining 99.9% of what motivates teens when they communicate, I’m suggesting that when we talk with teens about their language, we include their perspectives as well. 

Teen Perspectives on Teen Language

Teens, perhaps more than any other age-group, are surrounded by new and varied language everyday – language of parents, friends, teachers, coaches, multiple and diverse social groups, and, now, the Internet! While many teens may try to act sage and bored, the world and the language that constructs it, is relatively new to them, and one of their main jobs as developing humans is to figure out how to make it work. This will lead to language change. But the language of teens will inevitably change not only language, but also the world. Teens grow up in a world of stimulating newness. Teens also have ideas and desires of their own.  Their job is to listen to and participate fully in that world of language. Some of the things they say will seem weird to adults. Sometimes the language they use will change the world.  

Consider, for example, the phrase, “people who menstruate.” Recently, this phrase was quoted with disdain by JK Rowling in a now infamous tweet: 

Following this tweet, the Internet broke out with horror at JK Rowling’s statement.  Many long-time JK fans officially pronounced their Harry Potter Fandom dead.  I was confused. As a cis-gendered woman, literally the same age as JK, I thought her comment only slightly funny—a dumb, slightly mean joke—but I didn’t see how it caused such a revolt against her.  Then I asked my daughter (13-years old and a big Harry Potter fan) what she thought.  “I can see why people are upset.  People are rightly calling her transphobic, mom,” my daughter said immediately, and then proceeded to explain to me that many “people who menstruate” might not label themselves “women.”  In that moment, we seemed to come face to face with generational differences in language use, specifically how we use language in gendered ways.  Who knows if this usage will lead to lasting language change.   But discussion of this phrase and how we describe gender categories, seems important.  As my daughter’s quick response to my confusion showed me, teens are participating in those discussions and they hold strong opinions.

I raise this example to illustrate the importance of conversations about language—and often, especially, the language of young people. Teens are not just talking about farts, sex, or getting stoned. But that’s part of the picture too, and to talk about the world-changing words, we need to be more open to talking about all language. What if, instead of chalking up the profusion of creative teen language exclusively to language change, we kept the discussion going? We could start talking with teens about the language they use, learning from them what those words are doing, asking teens questions about their language, rather than giving them explanations from linguistics:  How did you learn all those words I don’t know?  Where do you think they come from? Would you use those words with adults? If not, then with whom? Why? Why do you feel so strongly about using or not using certain words or turns of phrase? 

Over the years, I have learned that teens have strong opinions about language—and less strong feelings about whether they contribute to language change.  I’m suggesting we listen to those strong opinions. Once we assume teens participate actively in the world of language around them, we might also learn more about the world they live in, the way that they are processing it and in turn shaping it with their language. Then, we can start to think about how they might learn to navigate new and different ways of communicating they will encounter over their lifetime. The social world, inevitably, provides an abundance of opportunity, ridiculousness, oppression, joy, fear, despair, and hope for all of us. Our language is the primary way that we, over a lifetime, make sense of it, and sometimes rebel against it or create it anew, together.  Over time, language will indeed change.  In the meantime, let’s talk about it and make it work for us! 

What kinds of teen language exists in your life?  How do you make sense of it?  What have you learned from talking to teens about language? Maybe you are a teen? Please comment below.   

“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)

Shakespeare or Hip Hop?

wutang  Shakespeare

Last week in an 11th Grade English class, the English teacher and I started a discussion of language in Hamlet by presenting this poetic musing from D.H. Lawrence:

When I read Shakespeare I am struck with wonder

That such trivial people should muse and thunder

In such lovely language.     

Then we asked students about their experiences reading Shakespeare’s language so far. They shared frustrations (Too repetitive! Confusing word order!) and doubts (No way could one man have written so much!). Nobody fully embraced the idea that Shakespeare was a creative genius.

Nor did anyone take issue with Lawrence’s glib use of the phrase “trivial people” or the condescending tone he took toward them. Why shouldn’t everyone muse and thunder in lovely language?

Then, we trotted out this Shakespeare versus Hip Hop quiz (one I also shared with my Facebook friends, thus the 79 responses).

The questions and answers (quiz adapted from Ammon Shea’s book Bad English (2014)):

Quote Answer % Correct (n=79)
1.   The music, ho! 1.     Shakespeare, Anthony and Cleopatra 78%
2.   But if you don’t, I’ll unsheathe my Excalibur, like a noble knight 2.     Gangstarr, “Step in the Arena” 66%
3.   Holla, holla! 3.     Shakespeare, King Lear 62%
4.   This is the proper way man should use ink. 4.     Big Daddy Kane, “Taste of Chocolate” 45%
5.   Welcome, ass, Now let’s have a catch. 5.     Shakespeare, Twelfth Night 68%
6.   The money that you owe me for the chain. 6.     Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors 48%
7.   Pay me back when you shake it again. 7.     Nas, “You Own Me” 67%
8.   Holla, ho! Curtis! 8.     Shakespeare, Taming of the Shrew 60%
9.   Sabotaged, shellshocked, rocked and ruled, Day in the life of a fool. 9.     Public Enemy, “Brothers Gonna Work it Out” 70%
10.          Every square inch of it, that he chose for himself, is the best part. 10. Wu-Tang Clan, “Wu-Revolution.” 37%
AVERAGE PERCENTAGE CORRECT:       60%

People seem to get the right answer an average of about 60% of the time. Just barely a collective D-.

As some astute 11th graders pointed out, they were able to choose the “right” answers by second-guessing the test, not by deciding whether the language represented the “essence” of Hip Hop or Shakespeare.

Number 1 (78% correct!), for example, seemed to point to Shakespeare only because it sounds obviously like Hip Hop. Typical test-designers, students speculated, would include “ho” just to trick people.

Number 9 (70% correct) includes the word “shellshocked,” which another student pointed to as a giveaway, since that word didn’t exist until after the First World War. Shakespeare didn’t have any shells of that kind!

So, unless you know the exact lyric or play, or recognize testing tricks or oversights, the average person seems to have about a 50/50 chance of correctly guessing whether these quotes come from “Shakespeare” or “Hip Hop.” What does this tell us? Perhaps Shakespeare’s forte was not in his isolated mastery of “The English Language.” Instead, he may have been capturing exactly what “trivial people” said. Their wondrous language (including “ho” and “holla holla”), gleaned from Shakespeare’s active life in the pubs (so we’ve heard), may be precisely what Shakespeare wrote down.

What does that tell us about literary language? About Hip Hop? About our collective language resources? Do you know some “trivial people” that “muse and thunder” in lovely language? How do today’s artists—musicians, screen-writers, poets, playwrights—take up the talk of everyday people and use it for effect?   Please comment!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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