Woke: The Other W-Word 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Citizen Sociolinguistics is not Folk Linguistics

Over the last few years, since I’ve been writing about Citizen Sociolinguistics, several people have conflated it with a field called “Folk Linguistics.”  Now it is time to disambiguate those two.  Citizen Sociolinguistics is *very different* from Folk Linguistics.  Here is how:

First, review: What is Citizen Sociolinguistics?

Citizen Sociolinguistics is the work people do to make sense of everyday communication and share their sense-making with others.  Like any people inquiring into their world, Citizen Sociolinguists have certain research questions, methods for investigating those questions, an accumulation of findings, and typical ways of disseminating those findings.

What questions do Citizen Sociolinguists ask?

Screen Shot 2018-03-04 at 1.26.31 PMCitizen Sociolinguists’ questions are constantly changing. One day, an important question to a particular citizen sociolinguist might be, “What is Natty Light and who drinks it?”  Another day, or to someone else, an important question may be, “What is a fake news and who uses that expression? What would it mean if I Screen Shot 2018-03-04 at 1.01.59 PMused it?”  

How do Citizen Sociolinguists investigate those questions?

Citizen Sociolinguists use just about any means available to explore (and expound on) language and communication:

  • YouTube Performances (e.g., “Typical Natty Light Night”)
  • Instagram/Facebook/Snapchat/and other micro-blogging and social media
  • Urban Dictionary entries and examples
  • Asking questions about language on-line and in real life
  • Blogging and Responding to Blogs
  • Comments/Likes/Dislikes on any of these and on any Comments/Likes/Dislikes and so on recursively…

Screen Shot 2018-03-04 at 1.21.50 PMOften Citizen Sociolinguistic work involves using Social Media and the Internet, which means that Citizen Sociolinguists’ questions and findings constantly and speedily renew, change, and snowball with accumulated features of social context.

What are Citizen Sociolinguistic “findings”?

Like Citizen Sociolinguistic questions, Citizen Sociolinguistic findings are ephemeral.  Yet, in a given fleeting moment, the answers are highly relevant to a specific someone at a specific point in time.  Inevitably, answers involve more than language:  Component parts of a “Natty Light” definition, for example, might include hints of the race/class/gender/age of people who drink it, a history of various infamous encounters with Natty Light, the typical situation that includes Natty Light (e.g.,  frat house/college/TV/sports).  These distinctions my be the subject of extended on-line dialogue, or blogs like “11 things you didn’t know about Natty Light”. Similar distinctions would emerge for a phrase like “fake news,”  because Citizen Sociolinguistic meaning does not inhere in the words themselves, but in the experience of using that expression.  

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Infamous Coach, Larry Eustachy, parties with Natty Light.

How are Citizen Sociolinguistic findings disseminated?

Generally, any findings or performances by Citizen Sociolinguists are spread by other Citizen Sociolinguists in real life or via social media in a recursive and never-ending process.

HOWEVER, citizen sociolinguistic findings may also be coöpted for other interests.  Screen Shot 2018-03-04 at 11.18.46 AM

For example, advertisers often try to use knowledge from Citizen Sociolinguists to promote their products (see “natt-a-pult” ad).  

What makes Citizen Sociolinguistics different from Folk Linguistics?

Folk Linguistics differs from Citizen Sociolinguistics in its research questions, methods for investigating those questions, in its findings, and in ways of disseminating those findings. Screen Shot 2018-03-04 at 1.31.42 PM
While Citizen Sociolinguistic questions are constantly changing and different for everyone, Folk Linguistics asks questions that serve the interests of professional 
sociolinguists and dialectologists, and perhaps by extension, applied linguists working with teachers or language policy makers. Most generally, Folk Linguists ask, “What are the  the subconscious cultural models with which folk (defined as all non-linguists) are operating?”

Folk Linguistics has a range of methods for getting at these subconscious models: Comparing folk-drawn dialect maps with those produced by linguists; “matched guise” experiments in which people are asked to listen to ways of speaking (without seeing the speaker) and attribute a range of personality traits to the speaker; and even discourse analysis, in which the linguist identifies tacit folk assumptions as they emerge in interviews or conversation.    For example, if a folk person says, “I don’t have a dialect.  I happen not to be from the South,” the Folk Linguist notes this person’s “folk” cultural model for “dialect”–namely, that a “dialect” is something that only people in the South have (Preston, 2011).

Findings from Folk Linguistics illuminate assumptions “folk” have about language thatScreen Shot 2018-03-04 at 1.38.55 PM may or may not match with professional linguistic findings.  These “folk” understandings about language may be disseminated to professional communities involved in teaching language or policy and planning.  If, for example, Folk Linguistic studies reveal contradictory local impressions about certain dialect features, policy makers may need to know this before designing any specific curricula or rules about how those features should be discussed, mandated, or taught.

Ultimately, Folk Linguistics has its own (subconscious?) cultural model, not shared by Citizen Sociolinguistics.  That model presupposes that Professional Linguists alone can identify the cultural models of the “folk” and that these cultural models may, in the hands of linguists, serve the needs of other linguistics-related professional fields. Citizen Sociolinguists, in contrast, are in the business of sharing their own cultural models around language and communication–models that are ephemeral, constantly changing, often controversial, and always swathed in (entertaining) situation-specific social cues. 

Folk Linguists are primarily Linguists.  Citizen Sociolinguists are Citizens of the world–and often highly insightful, funny, and outrageous. This blog is about sharing findings from the inquiry work they do!  

What is Gabagool?

Screen Shot 2017-10-14 at 7.07.26 PMA couple weeks ago, I saw the item “gabagool” on the menu of a local Philly restaurant.  Having lived in Philadelphia for a while, I had the vague feeling this was just an ironic nod to the way people here pronounce the delicious, ham-like meat, “Capicola.” But, since it was printed out on a real, official menu of a nice center city restaurant, I thought I might be mistaken.  Maybe “gabagool” was just one more variation on Italian meats and cheeses that I didn’t know.

So, in Citizen Sociolinguist form, I turned to (Gaba)Google.  What did I learn?Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 10.55.26 PM

As I suspected, Gabagool is “just” another way of saying “Capicola.”  The top definition on Urban Dictionary (the first google hit), also supplies a couple useful analogs in the “Napolitan” dialect:  Manigot (for Manicotti )and Rigot (Ricotta).

One Urban Dictionary author also knew a little linguisticky detail about voiced and unvoiced consonants, and came up with a pattern for these special words.

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In addition to Urban Dictionary entries, (gaba)google brought up quite a few videos associated with “Gabagool”– Citizen Sociolinguists have a special knack for recognizing and displaying all the non-linguistic elements of a scene.  These non-linguistic aspects of context provide crucial meaning to unique ways of speaking.  “Gabagool” is not simply a “Napolitan”, voiced-consonant way of saying capicola. It is something you say in a certain special context while looking a certain way.

By consulting the citizen sociolinguists posting on Youtube, we begin to see all the otherScreen Shot 2017-10-28 at 10.07.29 PM features of a scene that go into using the word “gabagool.”  The most popular video example, by far, is this clip from the Sopranos, in which Silvio Dante, outrageously played by Stephen van Zandt, demands, “Gabagool!  Over here!”

Everything in this scene that surrounds Silvio Dante’s “gabagool” illustrates the context of New Jersey Italian American family. And, as Meadow Soprano (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) illustrates in her iconic line, “Don’t eat gabagool, Grandma, it’s nothing but fat and nitrates,” even speakers of the word gabagool who don’t know much Italian (or feel any reverence for the cuisine) can fluently speak this variation.  According to Atlas Obscura, you will not even hear “gabagool” (or proshoot or manigot for that matter) if you go to Southern Italy, their ostensible original homeland. Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 11.07.21 PM

Gabagool, instead, serves as an emblem for identity—say “Gabagool, ovah here!” and you are not simply demanding some capicola, you are being a specific type of Italian American, probably born-and-raised in the tri-state area.  Even the comments from the Sopranos’ YouTube clip (and another compilation of all the gabagool scenes in the series) zero in on love for just this word:

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Of course, it is possible to seriously misuse the word “Gabagool.”  In another popular video that came to the top in my google search, Michael, from the show The Office, tries to use a Sopranos style “gabagool” in a standard business lunch restaurant and makes no sense at all.

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Michael is trying to impress their Italian American client at lunch, but instead shows a (typical-for-his-character) dramatic misreading of context, using “Gabagool” in a setting that is far more like Applebees than a gathering in the Sopranos’ living room.  The waitress has no idea what he is talking about, (and who knows what the Italian American client thinks!).

Let’s bring this all together then—the (gaba) good, the bad, and the ugly: Gabagool epitomizes something wonderful about learning language: You only need know a few words to join in and start speaking.  However, to use those words effectively, you also need to know much more about who uses them, in what settings, and how.  In the case of capicola, you must saaaaavor the gabagool—despite the fat and nitrates.  The tenuous connection of gabagool to Italy also illustrates that words aren’t locked into being part of “A Language.” Inevitably, communities of speakers develop their own uniquely local communicative flair.  However, that local flair requires not simply knowledge of a word, or its voiced consonants, but a sense of context.  As Michael-from-The-Office illustrates, if you don’t understand when, where, and how to use one of these emblematic words, you might be better off just not using it.

Do you have certain emblematic words you say, that mark you as part of an inside group?  What are they? In what settings do you say them? What effects do they have?  Have you ever made an error or faux pas when attempting to speak an emblematic word like gabagool?  Please share your stories and comment below!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Acquisition versus Learning and Citizen Sociolinguistics

Did you LEARN how to speak English or ACQUIRE that ability?  What about Spanish?  Or Arabic? This is a distinction that many in the language teaching world like to think about.

Some tend to think that first languages (“mother tongues”) are acquired through participation in family and society, while additional languages require explicit instruction, and are thus learned.  Nobody taught us how to conjugate verbs as we acquired our first language—but this seems to be a big focus of learning additional languages in high school.

But even granting that you acquired a lot as a baby, don’t you consciously continue to learn a lot about your own “mother tongue” as you get older?  Consider all the subtle forms of language we continue to learn/acquire long after we seem to have mastered at least one “mother tongue.” Some of that later-in-life language we acquire without much thought, but other language, we probably spend some conscious effort learning.

Take, for example, ordering a hoagie (sandwich) at Wawa.  If you are not from greater Philadelphia, you may not even know what I’m talking about.  For many, this type of language knowledge has been acquired through such subtle cumulative processes of socialization that people don’t know how to articulate it.   And, it may feel awkward to ask someone directly how to order a hoagie at Wawa.  So, it seems better to just muddle along in the hopes that finally you’ll get it (acquire it).

But sometimes we just don’t have the time, the connections, or the guts to acquire certain types of language knowledge through incremental interactional trial-and-error.

That’s where Citizen Sociolinguists come in.

This act of articulating subtle, socioculturally acquired knowledge—so that outsiders can learn it— is PRECISELY what Citizen Sociolinguists do.  You want to know how to order a sandwich at Wawa? Citizen Sociolinguists have produced You Tube videos on it:

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Not even sure what “Wawa” means? You don’t have to wait through years of socialization to acquire that knowledge, you can simply google it.  If you look on Urban Dictionary, you can get a relatively straight definition:

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Etc…

And, if you browse through other definitions, you  will also get a taste for the ironic reverence many Philadelphian’s feel for the convenience store:

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You can also browse a bit and find some good stories of people who did not follow protocol at Wawa, like this Twitter post featuring a gaffe by Sean Hannity (woe is he):

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Citizen Sociolinguists then, are the language teachers you always wish you had—the ones who teach you what is NOT in the book, but what is crucial to learn to get along.  The ones who answer the questions you were afraid to ask—because it seems like you are supposed to already “just know.”

This explicit learning provides a good starting point—by directing language learners (all of us) what to look for.  Once I get some explicit instruction on, say, “how to order a sandwich at Wawa” or, for that matter, “how to greet someone on the street in Philadelphia,” I don’t need to follow those explicit steps, but I may begin to notice how true-to-life this depiction is—or how people vary from it—and how my own individual variation may fit in.

Citizen Sociolinguists provide us the secrets all good teachers do—combatting a fear of total ignorance that might otherwise paralyze a learner—so that we can forge ahead on our own learning path.

By the way, many contemporary applied linguists and language teachers avoid both the terms “learning” and “acquisition” in favor of “language development”—a combination of these processes.  This also seems to apply to the type of growth that happens when we engage with Citizen Sociolinguists.

How have you used the Internet and the knowledge of Citizen Sociolinguists to learn a new language, or to learn new aspects of a language you’ve been struggling to understand?  Has this explicit training opened new forms of participation for you? Please leave your comments below!

NOS versus NOZZ: Urban Dictionary Settles the Issue in the London Review of Books

Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 4.00.17 PMI don’t often mention the London Review of Books in this BLOG.  In fact, I never have.  I’ve never found much of a direct connection between anything I’ve read there and Citizen Sociolinguistics.  Until now!

Today I read a letter to the editor in the LRB (27 July) that took issue with some language in an article in a previous issue (LRB, 29 June).  Not uncommon in the LRB. But then (not common at all!), to back up his point, the writer, Will Bowers, cited Urban Dictionary.

Mr. Bowers specifically took issue with the term used for nitrous oxide (which you may know from the good old days of dentistry as “happy gas”).  It seems this substance is now used “by young people today.”   Mr. Bowers seems fine with that, but expressed concern that Will Self, the author of the essay in question, referred to the substance as “nozz” rather than “nos.”

You may be wondering: How was Mr. Bowers, of Merton College, Oxford, so familiar with Screen Shot 2017-07-27 at 4.00.58 PMnitrous oxide and its various monikers? He clarifies: “…the popularity of the drug among teenagers at the turn of the century coincided with the release of The Fast and the Furious, a terrible film in which cars were customized to go faster with the addition of NOS (Nitrous Oxide Systems).”

How does Mr.Bowers then make the case for this term (NOS), from a “terrible film,” over Mr. Self’s choice (nozz)?

Mr. Bowers hedges a bit before drawing on Urban Dictionary, referring to it as “the not altogether reliable urbandictionary.com”.  However, his findings from that potentially unreliable source clinch his argument.  As he writes,

“urbandictionary.com agrees, placing the slang for the drug as the fifth term in its entry for ‘nos’, while the entry for ‘nozz’ has only one definition: ‘A swag person that excels in social activities’.”

How did Urban Dictionary become a useful source here?  Is it simply a matter of convenience?  Or might it be the very best source in this case? When the knowledge of bona fide nos users is in question, UD seems to be the right choice.

Dear readers, have you ever cited UD as a source?  What were the conditions?  Did it serve you well?  And how did you tailor your argument to your audience? Did you need to hedge or apologize for your UD use?  Please comment below!

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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