Do you tweet the way you speak?

So one of my side projects is looking at what people are doing when they choose to spell something differently–what sort of knowledge about language are we encoding when we decide to spell “talk” like “tawk”, or “playing” like “pleying”? Some of these variant spelling probably don’t have anything to do with pronunciation, like “gawd” or “dawg”, which I think are more about establishing a playful, informal tone. But I think that some variant spellings absolutely are encoding specific pronunciation. Take a look at this tweet, for example (bolding mine):

There are three different spelling here, two which look like th-stopping (where the “th” sound as in “that” is produced as a “d” sound instead) and one that looks like r-lessness (where someone doesn’t produce the r sound in some words). But unfortunately I don’t have a recording of the person who wrote this tweet; there’s no way I can know if they produce these words in the same way in their speech as they do when typing.

Fortunately, I was able to find someone who 1) uses variant spellings in their Twitter and 2) I could get a recording of:

This let me directly compare how this particular speaker tweets to how they speak. So what did I find? Do they tweet the same way they speak? It turns out that that actually depends.

  • Yes! For some things (like the th-stopping and r-lessness like I mentioned above) this person does tweet and speak in pretty much the same way. They won’t use an “r” in spelling where they wouldn’t say an “r” sound and vice versa.
  • No! But for other things (like saying “ing” words “in” or saying words like “coffin” and “coughing” with a different vowel in the first syllable) while this person does them a lot in thier speech, they aren’t using variant spellings at the same level in thier tweets. So they’ll say “runnin” 80% of the time, for example, but type it as “running” 60% of the time (rather than 20%, which is what we’d expect if the Twitter and speech data were showing the same thing).

So what’s going on? Why are only some things being used in the same way on Twitter and in speech? To answer that we’ll need to dig a little deeper into the way these things in speech.

  • How are th-stopping and r-lessness being used in speech? So when you compare the video above to one of the sports radio announcer that’s being parodied (try this one) you’ll find that they’re actually used more in the video above than they are in the speech that’s being parodied. This is pretty common in situations where someone’s really laying on a particular accent (even one they speak natively), which sociolinguists call a performance register.
  • What about the other things? The things that aren’t being used as often Twitter as they are on speech, on the other hand, actually show up at the same levels in speech, both for the parody and the original. This speaker isn’t overshooting thier use of these features; instead they’re just using them in the way that another native speaker of a dialect would.

So there’s a pretty robust pattern showing up here. This person is only tweeting the way they speak for a very small set of things: those things that are really strongly associated with this dialect and that they’re really playing up in thier speech. In other words, they tend to use the things that they’re paying a lot of attention to in the same way both in speech and on Twitter. That makes sense. If you’re very careful to do something when you’re talking–not splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a preposition, maybe–you’re probably not going to do it when you’re talking. But if there’s something that you do all the time when you’re talking and aren’t really aware of then it probably show up in your writing. For example, there are lots of little phrases I’ll use in my speech (like “no worries”, for example) that I don’t think I’ve ever written down, even in really informal contexts. (Except for here, obviously.)

So the answer to whether tweets and speech act the same way is… is depends. Which is actually really useful! Since it looks like it’s only the things that people are paying a lot of attention to that get overshot in speech and Twitter, this can help us figure out what things people think are really important by looking at how they use them on Twitter. And that can help us understand what it is that makes a dialect sound different, which is useful for things like dialect coaching, language teaching and even helping computers understand multiple dialects well.

(BTW, If you’re interested in more details on this project, you can see my poster, which I’ll be presenting at NWAV44 this weekend, here.)

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Are television and mass media destroying regional accents?

One of the occupational hazards of linguistics is that you are often presented with spurious claims about language that are relatively easy to quantifiably disprove. I think this is probably partly due to the fact that there are multiple definitions of ‘linguist. As a result, people tend to equate mastery of a language with explicit knowledge of it’s workings. Which, on the one hand, is reasonable. If you know French, the idea is that you know how to speak French, but also how it works. And, in general, that isn’t the case. Partly because most language instruction is light on discussions of grammatical structures–reasonably so; I personally find inductive grammar instruction significantly more helpful, though the research is mixed–and partly because, frankly, there’s a lot that even linguists don’t know about how grammar works. Language is incredibly complex, and we’ve only begun to explore and map out that complexity. But there are a few things we are reasonably certain we know. And one of those is that your media consumption does not “erase” your regional dialect [pdf]. The premise is flawed enough that it begins to collapse under it’s own weight almost immediately. Even the most dedicated American fans of Dr. Who or Downton Abby or Sherlock don’t slowly develop British accents.

Christopher Eccleston Thor 2 cropped
Lots of planets have a North with a distinct accent that is not being destroyed by mass media.
So why is this myth so persistent? I think that the most likely answer is that it is easy to mischaracterize what we see on television and to misinterpret what it means. Standard American English (SAE), what newscasters tend to use, is a dialect. It’s not just a certain set of vowels but an entire, internally consistent grammatical system.  (Failing to recognize that dialects are more than just adding a couple of really noticeable sounds or grammatical structures is why some actors fail so badly at trying to portray a dialect they don’t use regularly.) And not only  is it a dialect, it’s a very prestigious dialect. Not only newscasters make use of it, but so do political figures, celebrities, and pretty much anyone who has a lot of social status. From a linguistic perspective, SAE is no better or worse than any other dialect. From a social perspective, however, SAE has more social capital than most other dialects. That means that being able to speak it, and speak it well, can give you opportunities that you might not otherwise have had access to. For example, speakers of Southern American English are often characterized as less intelligent and educated. And those speakers are very aware of that fact, as illustrated in this excrpt from the truely excellent PBS series Do You Speak American:

ROBERT:

Do you think northern people think southerners are stupid because of the way they talk?

JEFF FOXWORTHY:

Yes I think so and I think Southerners really don’t care that Northern people think that eh. You know I mean some of the, the most intelligent people I’ve ever known talk like I do. In fact I used to do a joke about that, about you know the Southern accent, I said nobody wants to hear their brain surgeon say, ‘Al’ight now what we’re gonna do is, saw the top of your head off, root around in there with a stick and see if we can’t find that dad burn clot.’

So we have pressure from both sides: there are intrinsic social rewards for speaking SAE, and also social consequences for speaking other dialects. There are also plenty of linguistic role-models available through the media, from many different backgrounds, all using SAE. If you consider these facts alone it seems pretty easy to draw the conclusion that regional dialects in America are slowly being replaced by a prestigious, homogeneous dialect.

Except that’s not what’s happening at all. Some regional dialects of American English are actually becoming more, rather than less, prominent. On the surface, this seems completely contradictory. So what’s driving this process, since it seems to be contradicting general societal pressure? The answer is that there are two sorts of pressure. One, the pressure from media, is to adopt the formal, standard style. The other, the pressure from family, friends and peers, is to retain and use features that mark you as part of your social network. Giles, Taylor and Bourhis showed that identification with a certain social group–in their case Welsh identity–encourages and exaggerates Welsh features. And being exposed to a standard dialect that is presented as being in opposition to a local dialect will actually increase that effect. Social identity is constructed through opposition to other social groups. To draw an example from American politics, many Democrats define themselves as “not Republicans” and as in opposition to various facets of “Republican-ness”. And vice versa.

Now, the really interesting thing is this: television can have an effect on speaker’s dialectal features But that effect tends to be away from, rather than towards, the standard. For example, some Glaswegian English speakers have begun to adopt features of Cockney English based on their personal affiliation with the  show EastendersIn light of what I discussed above, this makes sense. Those speakers who had adopted the features are of a similar social and socio-economic status as the characters in Eastenders. Furthermore, their social networks value the characters who are shown using those features, even though they are not standard. (British English places a much higher value on certain sounds and sound systems as standard. In America, even speakers with very different sound systems, e.g. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, can still be considered standard.) Again, we see retention and re-invigoration of features that are not standard through a construction of opposition. In other words, people choose how they want to sound based on who they want to be seen as. And while, for some people, this means moving towards using more SAE, in others it means moving away from the standard.

One final note: Another factor which I think contributes to the idea that television is destroying accents is the odd idea that we all only have one dialect, and that it’s possible to “lose” it. This is patently untrue. Many people (myself included) have command of more than one dialect and can switch between them when it’s socially appropriate, or blend features from them for a particular rhetorical effect. And that includes people who generally use SAE. Oprah, for example, will often incorporate more features of African American English when speaking to an African American guest.  The bottom line is that television and mass media can be a force for linguistic change, but they’re hardly the great homogonizier that it is often claimed they are.

For other things I’ve written about accents and dialects, I’d recommend:

  1. Why do people  have accents? 
  2. Ask vs. Aks
  3. Coke vs. Soda vs. Pop

Ask vs. Aks: Let me axe you a question

Do you know which one of these forms is the correct one? You sure about that?

Four things are inevitable: death, taxes, the eventual heat-death of the universe, and language change. All (living) languages are constantly in a state of flux, at all levels of the linguistic system. Meanings change, new structures come into being and old ones die out, words are born and die and pronunciations change. And no one, it seems, is happy about it. New linguistic forms tend to be the source of endless vitriol and argument, and language users love constructing rules that have more to do with social norms than linguistic reality. Rules that linguists create, which attempt to model the way language is used, are called “descriptive”, while rules that non-linguists create, which attempt to suggest how they believe language should be used, are called “prescriptive”. I’m not going to talk that much more about it here; if you’re interested, Language Log and Language Hippie both discuss the issue at length. The reason that I bring this up is that prescriptive rules tend to favor older forms. (An occasionally forms from other languages. That whole “don’t split an infinitive” thing? Based on Latin. English speakers have been happily splitting infinitives since the 13th century, and I imagine we’ll continue to boldly split them for centuries to come.) There is, however, one glaring exception: the whole [ask] vs. [aks] debate.

Axt zum spalten
In a way, it’s kinda like Theseus’ paradox or Abe Lincoln’s axe. If you replace all the sounds in a word one by one, it is the same word at the end of the process as it was in the beginning?
Historically, it’s [aks], the homophone of the chopping tool pictured above, that has precedence. Let’s take a look at the Oxford English Dictionary’s take on the history of the word, shall we?

The original long á gave regularly the Middle English (Kentish) ōxi ; but elsewhere was shortened before the two consonants, giving Middle English a , and, in some dialects, e . The result of these vowel changes, and of the Old English metathesis asc- , acs- , was that Middle English had the types ōx , ax , ex , ask , esk , ash , esh , ass , ess . The true representative of the orig. áscian was the s.w. and w.midl. ash , esh , also written esse (compare æsce ash n.1, wæsc(e)an wash n.), now quite lost. Acsian, axian, survived inax, down to nearly 1600 the regular literary form, and still used everywhere in midl. and southern dialects, though supplanted in standard English by ask, originally the northern form. Already in 15th cent. the latter was reduced dialectally to asse, past tense ast, still current dialectally.*

So, [aks] was the regular literary form (i.e. the one you would have been taught to say in school if you were lucky enough to have gone to school) until the 1600 or so? Ok, so, if older forms are better, than that should be the “right” one. Right? Well, let’s see what Urban Dictionary has to say on the matter, since that tends to be a  pretty good litmus test of language attitudes.

“What retards say when they don’t know how to pronounce the word ask.” — User marcotte on Urban Dictionary, top definition

Oh. Sorry, Chaucer, but I’m going to have to inform you that you were a retard who didn’t know how to pronounce the word ask. Let’s unpack what’s going on here a little bit, shall we? There’s clearly a disconnect between the linguistic facts and language attitudes.

  • Facts: these two forms have both existed for centuries, and [aks] was considered the “correct” form for much of that time.
  • Language attitude: [aks] is not only “wrong”, it reflects negatively on those people who use it, making them sound less intelligent and less educated.

This is probably (at least in America) tangled in with the fact that [aks] is a marker of African American English. Even within the African American community, the form is stigmatized. Oprah, for example, who often uses markers of African American English (especially when speaking with other African Americans) almost never uses [aks] for [ask]. So the idea that [aks] is the wrong form and that [ask] is correct is based on a social construction of how an intelligent, educated individual should speak. It has nothing to do with the linguistic qualities of the word itself. (For a really interesting discussion of how knowledge of linguistic forms is acquired by children and the relationship between that and animated films, see Lippi-Green’s chapter “Teaching children to discriminate” from English with an Accent: Language  ideology and discrimination in the United States here.)

Now, the interesting thing about these forms is that they both have phonological pressures pushing English speakers towards using them. That’s because [s] has a special place in English phonotactics. In general, you want the sounds that are the most sonorant nearer the center of a syllable. And [s] is more sonorant than [k], so it seems like [ask] should be the favored form. But, like I said, [s] is special. In “special”, for example, it comes at the very beginning of the word, before the less-sonorant [p]. And all the really long syllables in English, like “strengths”, have [s] on the end. So the special status of [s] seems to favor [aks]. The fact that each form can be modeled perfectly well based on our knowledge of the way English words are formed helps to explain why both forms continue to be actively used, even centuries after they emerged. And, who knows? We might decide that [aks] is the “correct” form again in another hundred years or so. Try and keep that in mind the next time you talk about the right and wrong ways to say something.

* “ask, v.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 12 February 2013 <http://www.oed.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/view/Entry/11507&gt;.

Soda vs. Pop vs. Coke … Which is right?

Short answer: they’re all correct (at least in the United States) but some are more common in certain dialectal areas. Here’s a handy-dandy map, in case you were wondering:

Maps! Language! Still one of my favorite combinations. This particular map, and the data collection it’s based on is courtesy of popvssoda.com. Click picture for link and all the lovely statistics. (You do like statistics, right?)

Long answer: I’m going to sort this into reactions I tend to get after answering questions like this one.

What  do you mean they’re all correct? Coke/Soda/Pop is clearly wrong. Ok, I’ll admit, there are certain situations when you might need to choose to use one over the other. Say, if you’re writing for a newspaper with a very strict style guide. But otherwise, I’m sticking by my guns here: they’re all correct. How do I know? Because each of them in is current usage, and there is a dialectal group where it is the preferred term. Linguistics (at least the type of linguistics that studies dialectal variation) is all about describing what people actually say and people actually say all three.

But why doesn’t everyone just say the same thing? Wouldn’t that be easier? Easier to understand? Probably, yes. But people use different words for the same thing for the same reasons that they speak different languages. In a very, very simplified way, it kinda works like this:

  • You tend to speak like the people that you spend time with. That makes it easier for you to understand each other and lets other people in your social group know that you’re all members of the same group. Like team jerseys.
  • Over time, your group will introduce or adopt new linguistic makers that aren’t necessarily used by the whole population. Maybe a person you know refers to sodas as “phosphates” because his grandfather was a sodajerk and that form really catches on among your friends.
  • As your group keeps using and adopting new words (or sounds, or grammatical markers or any other facet of language)  that are different from other groups their language slowly begins to drift away from the language used by other groups.
  • Eventually, in extreme cases, you end up with separate languages. (Like what happened with Latin: different speech communities ended up speaking French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and the other Romance languages rather than the Latin they’d shared under Roman rule.)

This is the process by which languages or dialectal communities tend to diverge. Divergence isn’t the only pressure on speakers, however. Particularly since we can now talk to and listen to people from basically anywhere (Yay internet! Yay TV! Yay radio!) your speech community could look like mine does: split between people from the Pacific Northwest and the South. My personal language use is slowly drifting from mostly Southern to a mix of Southern and Pacific Northwestern. This is called dialect leveling and it’s part of the reason why American dialectal regions tend include hundreds or thousands of miles instead of two or three.

Dialect leveling: Where two or more groups of people start out talking differently and end up talking alike. Schools tend to be a huge factor in this.

So, on the one hand, there is pressure to start all talking alike. On the other hand, however, I still want to sound like I belong with my Southern friends and have them understand me easily (and not be made fun of for sounding strange, let’s be honest) so when I’m talking to them I don’t retain very many markers of the Pacific Northwest. That’s pressure that’s keeping the dialect areas separate and the reason why I still say “soda”, even though I live in a “pop” region.

Huh. That’s pretty cool. Yep. Yep, it sure is.