I did some back-to-school virtual university talks this month! I talked about The Internet is Making English Better at Yale with Claire Bowern and about Internet Linguistics and Memes as Internet Folklore with a student at the University of Oklahoma.
In behind the scenes news, I also now have an assistant! This won’t change much about the public-facing things, but it feels like a kind of professional level up to have someone helping on the email/logistics side part-time.
You, a person who’s currently on the English-speaking internet in The Year of The Pandemic, have definitely seen public service information about Covid-19. You’ve probably been unable to escape seeing quite a lot of it, both online and offline, from handwashing posters to social distancing tape to instructional videos for face covering.
But if we want to avoid a pandemic spreading to all the humans in the world, this information also has to reach all the humans of the world—and that means translating Covid PSAs into as many languages as possible, in ways that are accurate and culturally appropriate.
It’s easy to overlook how important language is for health if you’re on the English-speaking internet, where “is this headache actually something to worry about?” is only a quick Wikipedia article or WebMD search away. For over half of the world’s population, people can’t expect to Google their symptoms, nor even necessarily get a pamphlet from their doctor explaining their diagnosis, because it’s not available in a language they can understand. […]
According to a regularly updated list maintained by the Endangered Languages Project, Covid information from reputable sources (such as governments, nonprofits, and volunteer groups that clearly cite the sources of their health advice) has been created in over 500 languages and counting, including over 400 videos in more than 150 languages. A few of these projects are shorter, more standardized information in a larger variety of global languages, such as translating the five WHO guidelines into posters in more than 220 languages or translating the WHO’s mythbuster fact sheets into over 60 languages. But many of them, especially the ones in languages that aren’t as well represented on the global stage, are created by individual, local groups who feel a responsibility to a particular area, including governments, nonprofits, and volunteer translators with a little more education or internet access.
We also announced the winners of the 2020 LingComm Grants! We had over 75 applications from around the world and we’d like to thank all applicants for making the job of deciding extremely difficult! Stay tuned for further updates from these great projects:
Looking ahead, linguistic changes are yet to come, Ms. McCulloch said. She explained the concept of a retronym — assigning a new name for a default now dated by technology or social change; for example, with the rise of cellphones, non-mobile phones became “landlines.”
“We are still in the phase of naming the new things we’re encountering, but eventually we’ll get to the stage where we need names for what things were like before the virus hit,” she said. We’re still assimilating to “the new normal” and its accompanying word bank, while longing for “the before times.”
But when we return to the life we knew, forever altered as it may be, we may need new qualifiers: first dates that aren’t over FaceTime; IRL hangouts, unmasked and less than six feet apart; to-stay drinks at bars.
I hit my eighth blogiversary on All Things Linguistic, and it is frankly pretty absurd that I’ve been blogging this long. Here’s the traditional year-in-review roundup post, featuring some of my favourite posts of the past year.
Two new Language Files videos came out: the Hidden Rules of Conversation (about Grice’s Maxims) and schwa, product of the ongoing collaboration between me, Tom Scott, and Molly Ruhl. (It is, uh, maybe not a coincidence that Everything Was Coming Up Schwas this month, when you have a good idea you might as well just roll with it.)
My book about internet language, which I’d been working on since 2014, finally came out into the world! Because Internet hit the New York Times bestseller list and was one of TIME’s 100 books of 2019, plus tons of other media.
I wrote two op-eds for the New York Times and continued writing my Resident Linguist column at Wired, and we made two special video episodes of my podcast, Lingthusiasm.
Book: Because Internet
There were over 200 media hits for Because Internet in 2019, at final count. Here are a few highlights:
We celebrated our third year of Lingthusiasm, a podcast that’s enthusiastic about linguistics which I make with Lauren Gawne. New this year were two video episodes, about gesture and signed languages, so that you can actually see them!
Here are all 24 episodes from 2019, 12 main episodes and 12 bonus episodes:
Language snobbery is not inevitable. It’s not that people who cling to lists of language rules don’t want love as well. It’s that they’ve been sold a false bill of goods for how to get it. In high school English classes and writing manuals, we’ve been told that being “clear” and “correct” in language will help people understand us.
But understanding doesn’t come from insisting on a list of rules, shouting the same thing only louder like a hapless monolingual tourist in a foreign country. Understanding comes from meeting other people where they are, like being willing to use gestures and a handful of semi-remembered words and yes, even to look like a fool, to bridge a language barrier with laughter and humility.
We’ve been taught the lie that homogeneity leads to understanding, when in truth, understanding comes from better appreciating variety.
Boomerspeak’s canonical features include the dot dot dot, repeated commas, and the period at the end of a text message. It can also involve random mid-sentence capitalization, typing in all caps, double-spacing after a period, signing your name at the end of a text message, and confusion between the face with tears of joy emoji and the loudly crying emoji.
But it’s not just a question of intergenerational strife. Watching boomerspeak distill and crystalize into a distinct genre this year can help us understand a bigger phenomenon: how distinctive ways of speaking bubble up into the popular consciousness and become available for commentary or imitation, a linguistic process known as enregisterment.
Here’s part of the blurb I wrote for Wired’s roundup list:
There’s always a risk, when it comes to Explaining The Youths, that said Youths will turn around and decide your explanation makes the thing no longer cool anymore (ahem, “ok boomer”). When I decided to write a book about internet language, I was worried this would be people’s response. But that’s not what I’ve been told about Because Internet. Instead, people tell me it’s helping them bridge generation gaps.
It was also very very fun to see people’s photos of giving or being given Because Internet as a gift, or finally having time to read Because Internet around the holidays! I’ve tried to like/comment/reshare as many as possible on twitter and instagram, and do feel free to keep tagging me there!
If you’ve been unenthused about the emoji of recent years, you’re not alone. A flashlight? A toolbox? A fire extinguisher? A tin can? Who even uses these?
The emoji set to appear on your phone next year are similarly dismal. A screwdriver, a toothbrush, a bell pepper—seriously, what is this, a shopping center? When you think of emoji, you don’t think of a laundry list of random objects. You think of iconic, sometimes weird, expressive faces, like the face with tears of joy, the thinking face, the angry devil, the smiling pile of poo, and the see-no-evil monkey, plus classic symbols like the thumbs-up and the heart. But the latest batch includes just three new faces and one new hand shape, compared with 49 new objects, from a roller skate and a rock to a plunger.
The reason for this slide into irrelevance? The Unicode Consortium—the organization in charge of determining which symbols our devices are supposed to recognize—has increasingly been measuring the wrong thing in the process of approving new emoji.
Like many linguists, I have a difficult time turning the linguistics part of my brain off. If you get me at the pub, I may be trying to listen to what you’re saying and then get distracted by your vowels. So to be interested in the way people talk on the internet is just a natural extension of being interested in how people talk around me on an everyday basis. […]
I think it’s easy to see people doing something different from you, and assume it must be haphazard, random, or they must not know “the right way” to do it. In reality, people are acting for deliberate reasons, and I’m figuring out what those reasons are.
I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times (my first time writing there instead of being quoted!), from the perspective of 200 years in the future when people have nostalgia for the good old days of quaint emoji. Here’s one part that I liked (longer excerpt here).
The early 21st century was also a golden era for linguistic innovation related to using indirect constructed dialogue to convey actions and mental states. In speech, this era saw the rise of “be like” and in writing, the “me:” and *does something* conventions. (And I’m like, how did people even communicate their internal monologues without these?? also me: *shakes head* yeah I have no idea.)
We now take these linguistic resources for granted, but at the time they represented a significant advancement in modeling complex emotions and other internal conditions on behalf of oneself and other people. Imagine being limited to the previous generation of dialogue tags, which attempted to slice everything into sharp distinctions between “said,” “felt” and “thought.”
My keynote talk about internet linguistics at the CoEDL Summer School in Canberra, Australia last year went online. I also switched this monthly newsletter from Mailchimp to Substack (existing subscribers were already migrated, and you can still view it online at gretchenmcculloch.com/news, but if you’d like to get an email when I write a new post like this, you can sign up here).
You must be logged in to post a comment.