Reflections on ICS-2

I was at the 2nd International Conference on Sociolinguistics (ICS-2, Facebook & Twitter) last weekend. I enjoyed many of the talks there. Below are some thoughts on them, and just some other thoughts that came out of the weekend.

First, In my talk on the use of non-standard variations in email marketing, I discussed the use of ALL CAPS in email marketing subject lines. I kinda, sorta qualified this by saying that ALL CAPS is so common in marketing, that it is almost unremarkable. To illustrate this, I held of some of flyers that all of the conference attendees received, just to show that I can literally grab any piece of marketing and find ALL CAPS.

Marten van der Meulen raised a very interesting question about this. He wondered whether the use of ALL CAPS in the flyers was really comparable to the use of ALL CAPS in email marketing subject lines – if they are really doing the same thing. I couldn’t answer him because I haven’t seen this question raised before. I haven’t seen anyone do the research. I’m tempted to say that the ALL CAPS are not doing the same thing in these two texts. In the email marketing subject lines, ALL CAPS is a clear way to emphasize and/or draw attention to (something in) the subject line. But I don’t know if they’re doing this in the flyers. They seem to instead be… well, I don’t know really. I’ll have to look into it more. Any thoughts are much appreciated.

The slides for my talk will be available later. (Gotta fix up the notes pages first J)

You say “gif”, I say “gif”

Speaking of… Marten van der Meulen & Liz Tollenaar (Radboud University) gave a very topical presentation on the pronunciation of GIF. They said that 50% of people say GIF (/gɪf/, hard G), while 30% say JIF (/dʒɪf/, soft G). But what’s really interesting is that 90% of commenters online do not allow for any variation. Also, the appeals to authority happen more in the arguments for either pronunciation than they do in other arguments on prescriptivism. Marten says that NASA, SCUBA and NATO are acronyms that get mentioned in defense of the “JIF” pronunciation. Think about how the vowels in these are pronounced compared to the vowels of the words they represent (such as the U in “scuba” standing for “underwater”, but being pronounced “oo”).

I had a really nice conversation with Marten and Liz on many things related to language ideology and prescriptivism. He told me that him and Liz are Dutch, so they don’t care about the pronunciation either way! (Neither do I, really).

Style Guide says “No”

Morana Lukač (University of Leiden) talked about the role of mass media in prescriptivist debates. She showed that the media is often considered to be “model” speakers and writers. People see the media as language guardians. After all, part of being a journalist is mastery of the standard form(s) of the language. This is one of the ways that journalists receive credibility. She also said that the BBC receives thousands of complaints about language usage every year. Morana said that nowadays we have newspaper style guides as commodities: they are offered to buy in print and you can even follow them on Twitter. She said that style guides usually reflect reader expectations, rather than how the writers feel about language issues and change, or their language usage. Nevertheless, Morana noted that although the media is influenced by prescriptivist rules, their language is still subject to change.

Those interested in this, can check out the Bridging the Unbridgeable blog (and the Publications tab on there) and the Hyper Usage Guide of English (HUGE) database.

Social Media is NOT ruining language!

I also saw Lysbeth Jongbloed-Faber (Fryske Akademy and Maastricht University) talk about how social media has had a positive impact on Frisian. She says that language attrition has been reduced after people took to using Frisian on social media. The community of users grew and more (younger) people were likely to use it with their kids. This is really great news, especially since social media and texting are so often disparaged in the news as being harmful to language use. But Lybeth noted that isolating the social media effect on language shift is very difficult. So many things are combined when it comes to language use.

“In English and other languages”

My coworker (there were a lot of us from the University of Jyväskylä at ICS-2, we rolled in thick) Judit Hahn talked about language options on municipal websites in Finland. Despite Finland officially being a bilingual country (Finnish and Swedish), 44% of municipal websites are only in one language. This is because municipalities are not required to offer both Finnish and Swedish on their websites. But Judit noted how the languages which are offered (and those that are not offered) serves to target and exclude readers. The websites can also present a “fake multilingualism” if the pages for a certain language do not work. And they serve to rank languages based on how much is available in each language and how the page is presented in each language. Much of the decision-making in this process comes down to funding and the fact that many municipalities don’t have a person in the office who speaks/writes Russian, Swedish, Arabic, Chinese, etc.

Judit found that English is the most common second language offered on Finnish municipality websites and that the languages offered followed a geographical distribution – more Swedish offered in the west, more Russian in the east. And, very interestingly, although Arabic and Somali speakers outnumber English speakers in Finland, only one municipal website offers these languages (Hämeenlinna). Crazy, but totally unbelievable.

Language issues on Skype

Marie-Louise Brunner and Stefan Diemer (Trier University of Applied Sciences) talked about communication problems in ELF Skype conversations. They analyzed the roles that the medium and cultural contexts play in people dealing with communication issues. For example, there are times that speakers don’t understand each other, as well as times when culturally sensitive issues come up, such as bull fighting in Spain between a German and a Spanish student. The speakers take stances and have to work out the conflict. They can either position themselves in the topic or use avoidance/deflection strategies. One Spanish speaker, for instance, had to explain how bull fighting is only practiced in certain areas Spain and that not every Spanish person (including the speaker) agrees with it. You can read more about their research in an article that I edited for Varieng’s eSeries here.

Language pros and academics

I also saw Hanna-Mari Pienimäki (University of Helsinki) talk about language professionals regulating academic discourse. Hanna-Mari is part of the Language Regulation in Academia (LaRA) project. She discussed how MS Word gets used in all stages of the language review process (between writer, translator (if necessary) and reviewer). There can be problems, such as if a translator doesn’t use some of the tools offered, but in order to work things out, all of the tools need to be organized temporally and spatially.

Hanna-Mari and I were in the same BA thesis seminar group and it was nice to catch up. I see her from time to time in the University of Helsinki hallways, but I had no idea that she was going to be at ICS-2 until she walked into a talk I was attending. What a pleasant surprise!


Two problems

And now for the not so nice things. In two of the talks I attended, the presenters had the n-word written out in full on the screen. In one of them, the presenter said the full word out loud. Neither of the presenters were black.

I know that as linguists we see and must include these kinds of hateful words into our analyses. But printing them out and saying them is not ok. We can’t do this. The discussion of whether black people can spell out or say these words is not a discussion for me (a white man) to have. But really, we need to abbreviate this word. I don’t think that either of the presenters are racists, and I don’t think they meant any harm in using this word, but like I said above, it’s not for us (white people) to decide whether to use this word (because we can’t). I should have said something in private to them after their talks. Next time I will. Let’s hope there is no next time.

One other not so nice thing. I talked with another attendee about how academic conferences should as a rule have a policy on sexual harassment spelled out in the program. I am not sure of the resources it takes to involve someone from the host university’s HR office, but I’m sure this information would be easy enough for the organizers of a conference to find. Neither me nor the person I talked to experienced harassment at ICS2, but the person I talked to had experienced harassment at a different conference. Academic conferences should clearly spell out their commitment to being anti-harassment in the conference program and perhaps also offer a plan of what to do if harassment happens (who to contact, etc.). Does anyone know of a conference that did this? I think in the future, I’ll contact conference organizers to ask them to include this in their programs (if they don’t already).

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