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

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

Screenshot 2019-12-19 11.08.35.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, crucially:

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

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

No source left behind (lol)

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

CONTINUUM OF STANDARD:

“Less” standard:

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

“Sorta” standard:

  • Grammarly
  • YouTube
  • Digg
  • Wired

“More” standard:

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

 

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

Saying LOL out loud is officially a thing

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

Screen Shot 2019-12-16 at 13.33.27

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 13.23.59

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

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

Figure 2.

Screen Shot 2019-12-15 at 17.10.06

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

Use and comprehension of LOL is SYSTEMATIC & CONSISTENT

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Sarcasm/irony (sarc):

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

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

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

(3) Awkward (awk):

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

(4) Literal LOL (LOL):

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

(5) Other (other):

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

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

Figure 3.

LOL.speaker.meaning

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

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

Beware of “LOL Syndrome”!

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 13.24.23

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

Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 13.24.30

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

Time to meet the family (lolz)

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

Screen Shot 2019-12-18 at 13.24.37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2019-12-19 10.45.48

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

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

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

And now, let the conversations continue – IRL!

 

References (and further reading, lol 😉

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nyle DiMarco: Citizen Sociolinguist of the Deaf Community—and Communication in General

Let’s be honest:  Most hearing people could not be bothered with sign language.

As kids, we may have thought about how amazing it would be to know it: Maybe weScreen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.23.28 PMhappened on the card with the alphabet and learned how to spell our name, or to sign a few top secret words to friends. But after a first enthusiastic burst, the card gets lost, the signing seems like too much effort.

Speaking for my own childhood self, it’s hard to stay motivated when you and all your friends are not deaf.  Learning all the letters, then spelling every word out gets to seem incredibly laborious.

Even if one musters will to know more sign language, typing in “How to use sign language” on google doesn’t help much.  The tutorials that pop up generally feature a very silent video with minimal effects.   Like this one:

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.26.07 PM

But even this no-nonsense video has over two million views.  The comments underneath give some sense of what motivates people to come to this site, and it is not to learn a secret language. Most comments mention encounters with deaf people—real or fictional—and the desire to make a visible effort to communicate like them: They have fallen in love with a deaf person, or they have a regular customer who is deaf.  They’ve tried a little sign, and witnessed how gratifying it is to connect through this medium.

Many mention Koe No Katachi (“A Silent Voice”), an anime film about a deaf girl. Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 6.27.44 PM.png

And others say that Switched at Birth, a TV show about twins, one of whom is deaf, brought them to this instructional site.

And here arrives our Citizen Sociolinguist star:  Nyle DiMarco, who plays the deaf heart-throb “Garrett” on that show.

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 1.32.21 PM
Nyle DiMarco as “Garrett” in Switched at Birth

Poking around on the web more, Nyle DiMarco emerges as a gorgeous, young, creative, confident, brilliant, and deaf man.  He also appeared on America’s Next Top Model—and won.  He competed in Dancing with the Stars—and won.

He’s obviously an extraordinarily gifted human.  But what makes him a Citizen Sociolinguist?  In addition to modeling, dancing, and acting, he is continuously explaining, largely through YouTube videos, Twitter, and other social media, how sign language works for him and why.  He shows the world the role signing plays in his life—the same way other Citizen Sociolinguists I’ve discussed in this blog site talk about and act out the everyday role of Singlish, Konglish, Emoji, or other language varieties

Nyle talks about and shows us explicitly how signing works for him—with his family, with his friends, while flirting, at the movies.

He embodies what communication can look like in the hands of a socially gifted, smart and confident young man. Who, oh yeah, is also deaf.

One of his YouTube videos posts answers to questions people have asked him through Twitter, and his response to one question in particular, “Were you ever bullied?” caught my attention.  He replies, “No.  Maybe I was made fun of, but I never listened.  Because I have always loved being deaf.”  He importantly points out that being deaf has never been an issue for him—his entire family was deaf, he says, and “they knew what to do.”

Educators often talk a lot about how damaging a “deficit perspective” can be for learners. In the case of deafness and signing, if you consider it a deficit, you may never focus on a deaf individual’s strengths.  Nyle DiMarco embodies the opposite perspective—as he describes himself, he has never seen his deafness as a deficit.  He LOVES being deaf. And, in the best way, he loves being HIM.  He exudes self-respect—and respect for others.

In this way, Nyle DiMarco’s Citizen Sociolinguistics is illuminating not only for the Deaf Community, but for all of us—because he is talking about communication and modeling what it looks like in ordinary situations.

Nyle’s experiences surrounding the movie Black Panther illustrate this attitude in action.  When he went to the movie theater, full of excited anticipation for the show, the captioning machine the theater provided for him was a disaster, running behind the dialogue and awkwardly blocking sub-titles for the fictional Wakandan language spoken by characters in the movie.  He tweeted about his experience, vividly illustrating his position:

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 12.19.50 PM

And he wrote about his experience in Teen Vogue, describing in candid detail how awful his trip to the movie theater was (he left after ten minutes). He also made a larger point about the importance of sub-titling movies, and the biased views against it:

“I’ve heard the standard counterargument. Onscreen captions degrade the viewing experience. They’re annoying and distracting. I call BS. People don’t mind subtitles when they don’t understand the language being spoken.”

Nyle goes on to point out that many popular mainstream shows (Narcos on Netflix, for example) include subtitles for those viewers who don’t know languages other than English.  And, even Black Panther included sub-titles in English for Wakandan. His clarity and his humble description of his own viewing experiences on Twitter rallied thousands of Twitter followers in support of his point:  Subtitles of all types often improve the movie experience for everyone—why exclude those that are for deaf people?

But if you look up “Nyle DiMarco’s Black Panther Controversy” on line, you will probably find another Citizen Sociolinguistic controversy—this one with Nyle on the receiving end of the criticism.   Nyle attracted ire from members of the black/deaf community when he posted a video announcing the new American Sign Language (ASL) sign for “Black Panther”.

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 12.46.32 PM

He was criticized for, as a white celebrity, overstepping his role as a spokesman for the deaf community, and soon other signs were proposed for “Black Panther”:

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 12.06.30 PM

The Moth News story excerpted above, for example, elicited this comment praising the slamming of Nyle (and two thumbs up):

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 12.06.50 PMHow did Nyle respond?  This seems like an important test of not only Deaf communication, but communication in general.  According to a sign language interpreter friend of mine: “Nyle did apologize, saying he did not mean to take over and use his fame to overstep boundaries, and I don’t think this tainted his overall reception in any way.”

I looked around on line a bit then and found that, not only did he apologize, he also fully embraced alternatives.  Immediately after his Twitter post, a black deaf man posted a different version of an ASL Black Panther sign.  Nyle responded with “Thanks @jaceyhill” and unmitigated enthusiasm:

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 12.52.23 PM

The Twitter feed continued to take up @jaceyhill’s SUPERHEROIC version of the sign.  While a few haters remained, most responses piled on to say thank you to Nyle for his contributions, and, even, as this post illustrates, to promote greater unity:

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 12.58.22 PM

So, I don’t see “sign language” as just a potential secret code any more—thanks, in part, to my new favorite Citizen Sociolinguist, Nyle DiMarco.  Every day, he puts his voice out there, talks about being deaf, about using sign and other modalities (like subtitles), and respecting whatever comes back.  His points about his own communication are not meant to stand as immutable truths, but to begin a dialogue about communication and human dignity.  Along the way, more citizen sociolinguists—like @jaceyhill, above, who coined the ASL Black Panther sign that stuck—join in to contribute the expertise that can only come from their unique perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

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.  

Screen Shot 2018-03-04 at 1.11.59 PM
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!  

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!

 

 

 

The Ghost Emoji: A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 12.28.04 PMHave you ever sent or received a ghost emoji? What does it mean? This is a perfect question for the Citizen Sociolinguist—because we can only answer it by asking what citizens-who-use-ghost-emojis say about it.

The question, “What does a ghost emoji mean?” occurred to me because, not to brag, but, recently I’ve found myself using the ghost emoji in a way that feels “fluent.”

Then, I unthinkingly used it with a distant acquaintance to indicate, “Thanks! I’m glad you liked the photo!”, and I started second-guessing my fluency. Suddenly I felt nervous that the seemingly innocuous winking ghost may have some offensive history of use (see, for example, the eggplant emoji).

So, wearing my Citizen Sociolinguistic curiosity cap, I hit the internet.

A quick google search for the definition yielded, somewhat unexpectedly, an article on the topic in GQ magazine entitled (to my relief), “The Ghost Emoji is Perfect.”

Fortunately, the ghost emoji works in almost any situation, according to the author, Maggie Lange:

Here are good occasions to use the ghost emoji: to show you’re listening; sheepishness; to elicit a faster response; to punctuate a rambling conversation; jumpy excitement; to show someone you’re thinking about them in a casual way; to say hey, boo; if you don’t know how to react, but you want to show a general copacetic ‘tude; to inquire if your friend Irish-exited a party; if you have no idea what someone’s talking about, but you know they don’t know either; to say you feel like a shell of yourself but it’s fine; to show pleasant accordance with plans; to check if anyone on the group chain is having noontime existential dread; Halloween hype; to agree to disagree.

Even though the ghost emoji doesn’t mean anything–or could mean everything–it seems to do a lot. So, a better question, and one better suited to Citizen Sociolinguistics may be “How do you use the Ghost Emoji?”.

I googled this question and immediately was directed to Reddit. In the “NoStupidQuestions” subReddit (other questions include, “how do blind people know where the braille signs are?”) we find an answer:

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 10.06.16 AMSound familiar? This response is a direct link back to the GQ article I previously mentioned.

Are there no dissenting opinions?  Even on Reddit?

There is one more comment in the Reddit thread.  I clicked on it nervously to find…

Screen Shot 2017-04-17 at 10.22.01 AM

Just the ghost emoji!  Now officially my favorite riddle inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

***

Do you use the ghost emoji?  How?

Why does it exist?

Can you think of equivalents of the ghost emoji in any (other) language?

Please share and comment below!

Untranslatable and Multilingual Words

pochemuchkaAbout two years ago, a blog listing 11 “Untranslatable words from other cultures” became unexpectedly popular.This list includes beautiful illustrations and words that describe situations or states of mind that we all might recognize, but may not have a single word for, like the Spanish word for post-meal conversation:

Sobremesa: the time after lunch or dinner you spend talking with the people you shared the meal with.

Or the Russian description of a potentially annoying type of person:

Pochemuchka: Someone who asks a lot of questions. In fact, probably too many.

The “pochemuchka” description also includes the aside, “we all know a few of these,” suggesting that, though the word is distinctly Russian, the sentiment may be familiar cross-linguistically.

The voluminous comments following the 11-word list reveal a general recognition of the social arrangement or emotion described by each entry, but also the special added zing that these sentiments take on when a specific word gets attached to them. As one commenter wrote:

Tine • What a lovely post! It gives me great joy to hear about other people’s perceptions and how they cherish it enough to give it its own word.

The subsequent proliferation of sites with “untranslatable words” like this suggests that many people like Tine, above, are drawn to words from afar that name subtle, yet recognizable, feelings, perceptions, situations, or social nuance. (Try googling “untranslatable words” and you will find dozens of lists, videos, and essays). Paradoxically, these “untranslatable” words seem to translate well to readers, as insinuated by at least one commenter on a YouTube video illustrating “8 Untranslatable words” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sPHJp25u7Tw):

Qichin 8 Untranslatable words … and their translations.

If there are words that exist in one language but have widely recognized meanings, could there also be words that exist in many languages (or “cultures”) but have different meanings? Is there a flipside to “untranslatable words?” I call these multilingual words. They exist. But this type of word seems harder to find.   Googling “multilingual words,” yields no entries describing this possibility–only multilingual word lists featuring supremely translatable words like Hello, Goodbye, Thank you and You’re Welcome, or simply definitions of the word “multilingual.” Googling “words that exist in multiple languages” yields the same lists of “untranslatable words” described above.

Still, words that look the same and sound the same in different languages but have different definitions in each of those languages do, of course, exist. The recent guest post about Google my Bulbul, a popular YouTube video, provides at least one example. The word “Bulbul” draws a few comments that suggest different definitions:

Insan hor  ‘Bulbul’ means ‘Penis’ in Egyptian.

Yzeed Az no it means beautiful bird 😛

Business Andbusiness is is bird with melodious voice

SillyDodo  Uhh.. bulbul in hebrew is a word for penis..

 These are not subtle sentiments or distinctions. “Bulbul” is not “untranslatable.”  People just disagree on the translation. They also disagree on what language it comes from.  Therefore, in the face of this comment controversy, the best way to understand what “bulbul” means is to see how the video-maker, Funzoa, uses the word in his video. The Bollywood style of the entire video points to the more romantic “beautiful bird” definition. And, Funzoa, perhaps to disambiguate as clearly as possible, illustrates his otherwise whimsical “Google my Bulbul” with a very dictionary-illustration-like bird:

Bulbul bird

Finally, in the comment thread about the meaning of “bulbul,” Fuzoa explicitly disambiguates:

Funzoa It means a beautiful bird in india. Ao either way google bulbul works. Hehe

With this example of a “multilingual word” in mind, I went back to the “untranslatable” words to refine the distinction. Do people disagree about the meaning of these untranslatable words the way they do about multilingual words? I found numerous claims to new “untranslatable” words in dozens of world languages. But all these words seemed isolated to the language claiming them, and most comments agreed on each meaning.

In some cases, commenters argued about the linguistic uniqueness of the word. So, while Brazilians may want to claim “saudade” as uniquely untranslatable, others name new words to describe it. “Saudade” is to Portugese as “dor” is to Romanian as “stesk” is to Czech as “tesknota” is to Polish as “sehnsuchst” is to German. Similarly, “hygge” is to Danish as “cozy” is to English as “gezelligheid” is to Dutch, and so on.

The comments largely confirm that the “untranslatable” words, while new, are readily understood by readers of different languages as distinctive, and descriptive of feelings we generally understand.

But, finally, one comment thread on the 8 Untranslatable words YouTube video posed this challenge:

Jolly Infidel  Good stuff… But i was hoping for a english word that has no foreign translation.!

And the response came:

ThePolocatfan276 I think that’s called “slang”

Is “slang” so special as to be “untranslatable?” Could it be elevated to the level of “saudade” and “hygge”? Or is it more “multilingual,” like “bulbul”?

Recalling my recent discussions with teens, who love to talk about “slang,” several possibilities for each type of word came to mind. Take this current phrase, for example (with definition approximated from multiple 11th grade discussions).

Eyebrows on fleek: When someone is perfectly coifed, eyebrows smooth and plucked, looking supremely socially confident.

Like “saudaje” or “pochemuchka,” “fleek” seems to be an “untranslatable” word. We recognize the feeling of the expression, “Hey, I’m ready to go to the party! Eyebrows on fleek!” but we might not use that phrase in our own “culture.”

GucciThe following words seem more like the multilingual word, “bulbul.”

Drawin’ (drawing a picture or being annoying?)

Gucci (designer brand name or good—as in “it’s all Gucci”?)

Turning up (showing-up or getting-really-excited-for-a-social-event?)

Even though these words are in English, they act like multilingual words because they mean differently across different groups of people. Teens recognize one meaning, older adults another. Rather than naming a feeling we all recognize, with a new and special word (on fleek!), these words are the same words we all recognize. But, they are infused with new, youth-culture meaning (That’s Gucci!). So here we have it:

Untranslatable words show how naming something brings meaning to a widely recognizable aspect of our social or natural world.

Multilingual words show how our social connections bring new meanings to our words.

Assuming this view on multilingual words, we may be speaking many languages even when we think we are only speaking one. And, being lost in translation may not only apply to named languages like Russian or Spanish or Portuguese. It may also happen when we use words that apparently belong to the same language.

As the linguists Sinfree Makoni and Alastair Pennycook wrote in 2006, in their book Disinventing and reconstituting language (p. 36):

All communication involves translation.

This translation involves not only the typical act of one language being translated into another, but also, and more substantively, the act of people talking to each other and trying to make meaning out of each others’ words. Both untranslatable and multilingual words have the potential to open up different kinds of worlds: Those we recognize but haven’t yet named, and those we have yet to know about.

What “untranslatable” or “multilingual words” do you know? How do you use them? Where, when and with whom? Have you every felt lost in translation in your own language? Please comment!