Tag Archives: society

Words — How do They Work?

After being a human & watching humans for over twenty-three years & also studying them during my time at college, I’ve come to realize that humans love to split hairs over trivial matters. Even though it may not say so on all of our Facebook profiles, it’s definitely one of our most favorite pastimes. And it’s not just an idle craft, the equivalent to crocheting while watching soaps; it’s serious business. I’d even venture to say that it approaches obsessive preoccupation for many people – at least for the vocal ones with Internet access.

With that established, one thing many people (especially ones with Internet ones & blogs like mine) fight about & lose sleep over is language. Our alien observers must know that it’s a big deal to us, language. There are people who really, I mean really, care about grammar & usage & are mortally offended when someone dares to type your when they really mean to say you’re. Oh, & you better be using Oxford commas, you imbecile! And there are those who don’t shut up about the mutable, ever-shifting linguistic sands, & language is in the mouth of its beholders, etc.

There is a never-ending laundry list of language-use issues that people bring up repeatedly with seemingly ever-increasing fervor as people embrace the Internet as the place to go to vent their thoughts (guilty). If you misuse their, there, & they’re you couldn’t be stupider. You must be uneducated if you pronounce so & so a word differently from me. Or is it I? Crap. Send me back to university if I can’t recite Strunk & White verbatim! The worst part is that these arguments are often hateful.

So we have Grammar Nazis & … uhh, enlightened language-hippies? Prescriptivists & descriptivists. Those who seek to draft maps of how language should (logically) work & those who are content to navigate its tangled, uncharted rivers. Okay, maybe my biased language is beginning to show & you’ve figured out that I place myself comfortably within the second camp – the descriptivists, the linguistically enlightened.

Here’s the part where I get really biased & push my side.

I would love to hear less noise about how we should be saying “I’m well” in place of “I’m good.” Largely because those people are, well, more wrong than not. But also because it’s OUR language, not the language of some grammar collecting dust in your university’s library. There are so many people who just have the wrong idea about things. Most dictionary-makers aren’t prescriptivists, yet their words are taken to be the law of the linguistic land by some. It’s as if it’s been forgotten or ignored that the words in the dictionary came from our mouths first & it was those oral actions that gave birth to their more-or-less agreed upon definitions.

There’s way too much hateful attention being paid to language as written, I believe, when it comes to how we speak on the Internet (i.e., informal language). Is it truly that offensive if a person fails to apostrophize contraction it’s, effectively rendering it a possessive its? The horror. I’m almost, almost positive you wouldn’t notice their flub had they been speaking, not writing. And chances are, they can handle it in formal writing. If not, then it’s likely a failure of our education system to teach (note the emphasis on teach) prescriptive rules which oftentimes run contrary to our intuitions about language. In any case, there’s no need for name-calling.

We need more noise from people embracing language’s natural tendencies, OUR natural tendencies – especially from non-linguists. Get the word out! It’s great to me that so many people are indeed enthusiastic about language & how we use it, but not that it means in many cases that such passion is manifested as disgust for fellow humans. We’re all culpable of committing grammatical crimes. And I’ve seen how people hate to be labeled as hypocrites.

At the same time, as someone who has studied evolutionary psychology, I am driven to understand where this behavior comes from. This is just my guess, but I’d venture to say that dialect differences in particular could mark in- versus out-group membership. You don’t speak like me? You can’t be my friend. Furthermore, it’s not impossible that individual differences in language use could serve as markers for intelligence. There’s a reason why you’re asked to know loads of esoteric vocabulary for the GRE.

I don’t want to venture too far down this path because I recognize that evolutionary psychology can be at times a controversial field of study, but I did also want to get those thoughts, however brief, out there for you to mull over. I do invite those who have studied in-/out-group behavior & the relationship between intelligence & linguistic prowess to speak their minds. Though I have a B.A. in psychology & am indeed very interested in human behavior, I consider myself a linguist first & foremost.

As you can tell, this issue of linguistic receptivity is dear to my heart. I don’t just think it’s an interesting measure of individual differences to study – I think it has real-world applicability & must be studied if we are to shed our ignorance about language & encourage diversity & understanding. So everyone go out & learn about language!

Megan L. Risdal

NOTE: For you nerds, this is where the title of this post comes from. I eliminated the obscenity to be nice.



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Is the Internet Thinking What I’m Thinking?

Are you there, Internet? It’s me, Megan.

Like a lot of people right now I’m reading articles about Steve Jobs’ resignation from his CEO position at Apple. And you know, if I didn’t know better, I’d think he had died. Every article I’ve taken glanced at reads like an obituary. Anyway, being that I’m a nerd, I decided to see if the Internet had similar sentiments. So what did I do? I searched “obituaries” & “obituary” on Twitter & here are some of the results:

“All these Steve Jobs Resigns news stories look like obituaries. Guys, both Jobs and Apple are still alive.”

“All the Job retrospectives going out tonite are written like obituaries. He’s still alive & bet he’ll keep kicking.”

“Guys, Jobs is alive and still at Apple. It is not time to write obituaries, and some of tweets look like that.”

And this one written by @justwright is my favorite because it coins a fantastic portmanteau:

“Jobituary (noun) an obituary-like article, published upon resignation, in which your job and life are equivalent.”

I hope it’s okay that I only credited the Tweet actually worth crediting because I don’t really know etiquette for Tweet-attribution on blogs by amateur linguists. But first of all, I think it’s great that I can see who’s thinking what I’m thinking by using Twitter. I can’t quite describe why it gives me such delight, but it does. Second, I really hope that Steve Jobs doesn’t die soon (an unfortunate, but not impossible event) because, well… would Reuters just re-publish this same article with only minor adjustments? I’m not sure how tasteful that would be. I even wonder if news sources drew upon their prefabricated obituary in reporting his resignation?

In short, I think that these articles that were written to sound like obituaries (detailing his battle with cancer, his medical leaves, trumpeting his achievements, etc.) are bad news. I have no familiarity with journalistic writing, so I couldn’t really begin to tell you how they could have been written to make him seem less moribund if not already dead. But someone better figure out something with a little more tact to prepare for the event that he actually does pass away while his resignation & the reports of it are still alive in our minds.

However, not every report has been so bleak. In fact, here’s an essay that cheerfully reminds you that it’s NOT an obituary.

Anyway, this is only tangentially related to language, so I’ll quit while I’m ahead! I do hope that Steve Jobs doesn’t read too many of his jobituaries — they would certainly depress me!

Megan L. Risdal

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Deconstructing American Political Discourse: An Artificial Hegemony on Words

Today’s guest entry is by Daniel Saffert, a philosophy student & writer … & just by coincidence he is also my significant other. I trust you’ll enjoy his essay on modern political discourse. As a token of my appreciation to him for writing an entry for me to publish on my blog, I am sharing with you a link to his Tumblr, Entre les Néants, where you can find more of his work. I’m probably biased, but I love reading his short stories. — MLR

American politics has always been partial to its buzzwords and catchphrases. Vietnamization and “Star Wars” and the “moral majority” and so on. But during the 21st century the American public’s lexicon has been subjected to a veritable onslaught of new words and phrases for consideration. This is no doubt due in part to the continual spoon-feeding of the 24-hour news cycle and its army of political commentators—a deluge of sensations that is par for the course in the so-called Information Age we find ourselves in.

The preeminence of electronic media then as the public’s mode of conceiving the world has arguably made what one may call “reality” and what we watch on our televisions and computer screens almost indistinguishable. In fact, “real life” tends to imitate its hyperreal televised counterpart and sometimes even regard it as the arbiter of how one should act, feel, and of course speak. This is no less true of politics in the media. Like any other television programming, it influences our conception of our own lives as a reflective Other. The point at which this change in behavior and perception becomes problematic is not when we’re simply quoting Seinfeld at work or getting a Jennifer Anniston haircut, but when, in the case of the language of political discourse, language—a mode of being and conceiving—no longer belongs to us in any real sense.

To see how this alteration takes place, simply consider the meaning that the term “socialism” has taken on in the American political consciousness since the election of Barack Obama. Socialism, as a political and economic system, has been quite specifically defined by the more than hundred years of development it has experienced as an ideology. It is a huge system of thought. Ironically, it is now used as a generic pejorative by American conservatives for any vaguely progressive thought espoused by the Democratic Party. This repossession of the word for this new context does not simply stem from its continual dissemination into people’s minds by right-wing politicians and news media, however. The success of this new meaning is also predicated on the idea that the general public already believes it to be so, that the new meaning isn’t “new” at all, but rather already existed. In essence, a group of people in this example has come to believe that “socialism” is not merely a rhetorical device thrown around by conservative politicians, but a word they had always possessed in such a context but never used until it was revealed and reinforced in them by the media’s monopoly over the language of politics. This may seem like an exaggeration, a radical explanation of the development of public opinion, but wherever there is language there is also resignation to its rules, and in the case of such political language one finds the internalization of its “laws” to be quite authoritarian.

One is easily convinced of this authoritative grasp by simply examining the linguistic minefield encountered when one attempts to discuss any contemporary political issue. For every one, there are vague generalities that dominate so completely, that to speak outside of them is almost unheard of. One does not speak of criminal justice or the death penalty but “capital punishment.” You are not “pro-abortion”—you are “pro-choice.” Then, having chosen your rigid designators of belief, suddenly by some bizarre form of ideological calculus, your identity as being a liberal or conservative is determined, and you can proudly identify yourself as such when questioned about your political stance. In the polarized political climate we find ourselves in today, there is only the choosing of sides, and in the turbo boosted pace of modern American society, there is no time for elaboration—there are bumper stickers for that.

What this really means is that to even become a participant in political debate in America, you must submit yourself completely to its domination over discourse, which is a resignation to the paradoxical idea that you are voicing your opinions in your own words, that you are exercising control over language to express your own views—and at the same time speaking within a pre-fabricated conception of how one ought to speak, one in which the necessary and specific terms employed are nothing more than vague simulacra of meanings that only serve to obfuscate and conceal the hegemony that has been internalized by the speaker.

This continual interplay of revelation and concealment that allows for this domination over political discourse today is dialectical. The ongoing regurgitation by the media of the same simple buzzwords and generalities serves to reveal to the public what they are supposed to be thinking, or really have supposedly been thinking for a while. Once these ideas are internalized as being the state of reality, as the views of public consciousness, their inherent lack of real meaning (as a mere product of the hyperreal simulation of the modern media) is concealed and their legitimacy remains unquestionably accepted. It is interesting that there is so much debate about what is shown on television—particularly the news—when what is likely more important is what is not shown, what is not said, what is concealed. What has been left out of this language we internalize as our own? What Other is the mirror to a system of empty platitudes?

If these ideas reveal anything at all, they perhaps have again shown the tendency for language to be both our greatest asset and also our worst enemy. There must be some kind of consensus for language to function communicatively at all; and at the same time, this commonality of meaning cannot be such that language is rigid and oppressive. It is unfortunately and indisputably true that even in writing this article, I no doubt have acquiesced to and have thus been influenced by the framework of American political discourse as it exists now, as there is nothing outside of it. As is so often the case, we are forced to work within the “system” to deconstruct it. The abundance of information that we experience daily, however truncated and concealed, is not going away any time soon. If we are to attempt to overcome its influence as a source of linguistic oppression, it must be used to proliferate ideas, meanings, and conceptions that continually subvert the vacuous theater of empty phrases we have been given. If we are to be bound by the same language, let it be one that we have chosen, an eternal friend and enemy that belongs to all of us and none of us.

Daniel Saffert

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