Gender Neutral Pronouns: Comments Disabled!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Who Are Citizen Sociolinguists?

At several places on this blog site, I have attempted to define and clarify what “citizen sociolinguistics” is.  But readers may still be unclear about who counts as a citizen sociolinguist.  Can scholars also be citizen sociolinguists?  Can robots? Small children?

Generally, citizen sociolinguists are any people (let’s exclude robots for now) who talk about language and publicly share their insights, often via Interned-based social media.  Citizen sociolinguists do not primarily concern themselves with scholarly debates. Instead their observations function as social gambits, luring any interested peers into a discussion of language by illustrating something unique, funny, interesting, absurd, or annoying about language around them.

Katiemayoxx” , for example, who has a YouTube Chanel primarily focused on Make-Up tutorials, begins her video about “things Welsh people say” by explaining that “today’s video is going to be a pretty different video actually.  Just something different that I wanted to film because I think some of you might find it interesting or maybe even funny.”Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 9.38.37 AM.png

From another part of the world, “GregoryShampoo”, invites viewers to learn how to speak “Singaporean English, aka, Singlish,” urging them to learn “five very important Singlish words: Lah, Sia, Siao, Wa Lao, and Bo Jio,” and illustrating the best possible attitude to embody while saying them.

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Screen Shot 2018-07-25 at 9.58.57 AMIn the United States, “thethugyone,” from South Philadelphia, begins by telling his audience he’s had a bad cold, sinusitis, and pneumonia for a while, and so, he says,

…being sick, I’ve been on YouTube watching videos, like, incessantly.  Just for entertainment, you know. And I came across like, different accent challenge videos and I figured, “I’m from south Philly I can do an accent too,.. I mean, just the way I talk, or whatever.  So.  Yeah. So I figured maybe you guys could relate to it? I don’t know if there’s anyone from South Philly or from Philly in general.  People who aren’t from the East Coast think it’s from New York.  But trust me, I’m from here.  I’m from Philly and when I hear a New York Accent it’s not the same. So you’re all crazy, So the accent challenge, here it goes…

As these examples illustrate, those who I am calling “citizen sociolinguists” are generally non-scholars, and their insights are made with no intention of contributing to a scholarly discussion.  Instead, these videos are primarily offered up as entertaining performances–enticements to lure in more viewers. And, they succeed! As the comment-threads following these videos go on to illustrate, these YouTube performances generate extended dialogue about language.

Many YouTube response comments reaffirm the initial YouTuber’s perspective or provide extended stories about their own experiences with the language under discussion.  For example, comments following KatieMyoxx’s “things Welsh people say,” affirm what she has presented as “Welsh sayings,” in statements like:

im welsh and im from south wales, im from cwmbran and i say all these<3 welsh and proud!

Other commenters pick out specific words to underline as very important.  One commenter, for example, reaffirms the importance of the Welsh word, “cwtch”:

Anyone can hug but only the Welsh can cwtch.

Another emphasizes that now she understands her own use of “cwtch” better:

OMG CWTCH IS A WALES THING! I’m a vocabulary person, and i said that word in a sentence at a gathering and someone asked me if I was welsh… it all makes sense now…

Typically, commenters add to the discussion by drawing on personal experience, but now and then commenters will proffer some knowledge that is less experiential, more scholarly–ish as this person, who emphasized historical of one of the “Welsh” words, “mun”:

‘mun’ is also in the Sheffield dialect of Yorkshire English of the 19th century and it meant man.

Similar chains of comments unfurl below the “Singlish” and “South Philly” YouTube performances referenced above, and infinite other social media performances, on YouTube and elsewhere.

All these comments, even those taking a more scholarly stance, become part of an on-going conversation, working together with the initial performance to produce a citizen sociolinguistic portrait of a certain way of speaking.  By contributing to dialogue about language, these commenters (as well as the performer who sparks the dialogue) are taking the role of “citizen sociolinguist.”

And, as citizen sociolinguists all these social media performers are asserting (and creating) value for language they are using.  Are you a citizen sociolinguist?   Do you post your own performances? Comment on language? Please share 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!

Making a Scene: Get thee to YouTube

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 9.44.39 PMI just saw Shakespeare’s Hamlet off Broadway at the Classic Stage Company. The production features Peter Sarsgaard as a hipster Hamlet, drinking, sniffing coke (meth?) and lackadaisically moping around, while delivering his lines in a way that uncannily grabbed my attention. His perfectly laid-back, but pained delivery turned the super-familiar, “To be or not to be…”, “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt…”, “Alas poor Yorick, I knew him…” into brand-new-seeming phrases.

Hearing these lines again also made me think of the modern Internet meme-like quality of much of Shakespeare. How different is “To be or not to be” from President Obama’s “Yes we can!” or Sweet Brown’s “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”? Why do we keep watching and performing these phrases again and again? One reason might be that each time we hear these recognizable words in new contexts, we experience something different (See also, modern day poetics post). How would this work with Shakespeare?

I decided to choose one meme-like phrase of the play and focus on that, and Sarsgaard’s performance struck me most during the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene. I had remembered this scene as one of an angry Hamlet ranting at Ophelia (his girlfriend) telling her, “Get thee to  a nunnery!”, shoving her around crazily. But in Sarsgaard’s version, Hamlet and Ophelia (played by Lisa Joyce) seemed not really to be talking to each other at all. Hamlet wasn’t ever yelling and rarely even directing his speech at Ophelia, but musing to himself about the pointlessness of marriage, the fickle nature of all women. He closed the scene in angst, leaving the stage without looking at Ophelia:

I say, we will have no more marriages:

Those that are married already, all but one, shall live;

The rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go.

Throughout the scene, Hamlet came off as depressed and disillusioned with all womanhood and humanity. Ophelia seemed heartbroken, for losing Hamlet, and for Hamlet losing his mind. Each seemed not to be talking to, or even addressing each other. The scene, as played by Skarsgaard and Joyce seemed about painful and isolating misunderstanding. It seemed deeper and sadder than I had ever remembered.

I turned to YouTube: How do others make meaning out of these words?

First, I found the Mel Gibson (1990) movie version:

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Though this scene takes a long time, Gibson cuts nearly half of the text. He never even says “get thee to a nunnery,” “make thy way to a nunnery” or even, the final, “to a nunnery go!” Instead, he yells a lot and pushes Ophelia around.

Next, I looked to the more elegant Kenneth Branagh & Kate Winslet (1996) movie version. Here Branagh includes all of Shakespeare’s text, including “Get thee to a nunnery.” And he delivers it directly to Ophelia’s face.

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Branagh, like Gibson, but not to such a degree, yells a lot while storming around a huge castle atrium.

Ethan Hawke (2000) takes a different approach. He is a modern guy, involved in business dealings in New York, up in a high rise, holding a beer (Carlsberg). But, like Gibson & Branagh, in the nunnery scene, he emotes directly to Ophelia. He is massaging her shoulders as he delivers his “Get thee to a Nunnery” line, and oddly pleading with her when he tells her why she should go, “We are errant knaves all; believe none of us”:

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One YouTube commenter (the only one) suggests a possible problem with this performance:

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As Georgian Wolf’s comment hints, Hawke’s engaged stance toward Ophelia seems strange considering the harsh, yet almost stream-of-consciousness content of his lines.

Big Stars are not the only ones performing Shakespeare on YouTube. So, I started looking at non-professional versions performed by students in English classes. My favorite was an unlikely performance by “Hong Kong students”:

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This version came closest to the painful sense of detachment and loneliness I got from Sarsgaard’s performance. Hamlet is staring off into space for the “get thee to a nunnery” line. And, many of the other lines cut to imagined, dreamlike spaces (and distinctly non-Denmark like settings):

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This HK Students’ version might speak more to other high school age students (especially in Hong Kong) than any of the professional productions do. And, collectively, this small set of YouTube scenes (and there are many more) illuminate the potential range of interpretations of a single scene, even a single line, of Shakespeare—including the potential to mock Mao Zedong!

Still, many High School English students seek out the “Spark Notes” website rather than YouTube to try to figure out what is going on in Shakespeare. How does Spark Notes represent the Nunnery scene?

Hamlet is very nasty to Ophelia and tells her to become a nun.

After seeing a YouTube repository of Shakespeare scenes, performed in dozens of new ways, this bare bones description disappoints. Unlike a Spark Notes synopsis, YouTube performances of classics don’t attempt to generically summarize THE meaning of a scene. They collectively communicate the huge range of potential meanings behind not only Shakespeare, but all our language. Also, inevitably, some performances work, some don’t. Why? What comes together to make a scene? How could centuries-old drama make sense in our world? Why do some performances speak more to certain people than others? To explore these kinds of questions, get thee to YouTube!

Have you encountered YouTube versions of “classics”? Have you any favorite versions? Can YouTube help students connect to literature and understand language in this way? Please comment below!