May 4th Musings

I have several small pet peeves that tend to rear their ugly heads at various points, but seriously, who doesn’t? Besides loud chewers and defining a word with the word being defined, this whole Star Wars Day nonsense irks me. “Why?!” you ask, “Aren’t you a red-blooded American who appreciates the cultural legacy that Star Wars has left?!” And the answer is, yes, I appreciate the cultural significance of the movie franchise, but for me, May 4th is a much more salient and potent day.

I grew up in a small community in Northeast Ohio, down the street from a college which was pretty much where the majority of my high school graduating class found themselves after high school. My mom grew up here and attended the same university, and while my dad grew up 20 minutes south of here, he also attended the university. And so because of this school’s proximity to my hometown and its importance in my life, the Kent State shootings have a profound impact on me, a girl who never went to Kent and a full-fledged millennial (who as you know don’t typically care about “old people things”). Furthermore, one of my uncles was in the Ohio National Guard, and has a connection to Kent (he wasn’t there), but I would’ve loved to hear his stories about the events. I had no idea he was connected until after his death; it’s funny the things we never say.

So why then do I care so much about the May 4th, 1970 shootings? So what, I’m a “townie” with parents who remember the road to town being closed that day, with people fearing that the protesters would soon be at the door? I care because as human being I know this story is important to our lives. I watched a PBS documentary a few weeks ago about 1970, and I was shocked at the tension that was conveyed through the film. The summer of love that defined the 1960s seemed to come crashing down in mere months. In the first third of the year the country saw the escalation of Vietnam into Cambodia, at a time when people thought that things were winding down…add to that students who felt that the war was wrong and that there was no need for teenagers and young adults to be sent into this conflict, and you get a powder keg of a situation. I think (from my millennial perspective) that this was one of those defining moments for a generation- people were protesting and 4 college students were killed. There was a teacher at my middle school who knew one of those killed; she was on her way to class, and was in no way involved in the situation. From reading the old Newsweek piece from 1970, neither were the other 3.

We talk about “safe places” from protesting and events that “mean something to people,” but by the same token, these past events should mean something too. May 4th meant something 46 years ago; today we should continue to remember it, and hope for peace. Marcus Cicero (yes, the great Roman orator) once said “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.” This is no different. If we fail to remember a day when 4 college students were shot while others assembled and protested, we disgrace their memories and we run the risk of repeating ourselves. If we call it “irrelevant” or “for old people” and scoff at it because we just “can’t relate” then we miss the connections that are inherent among us all. History has always been intriguing to me because when you cut to the core, people have always been similar throughout the ages.

I wandered the grounds of Taylor Hall today, looking at the Victory Bell, the parking lot, the memorials, the Pagoda, and I can’t imagine. I’ve seen the pictures; I’ve read the stories, but I can’t imagine what those people felt, whether students or National Guardsmen. All I know is that these people and this event signaled the shift, heralded that the world was never going to be the same. Awful things could happen in the middle of nowhere America. The significance is real to me, and I was happy to see that still, 46 years later, students and people are visiting the sites where the students fell and leaving messages:

IMG_1736IMG_1738IMG_1737IMG_1735(I couldn’t resist the picture of the famous black squirrel coming to survey the site too)

To insert my linguistics-self in here, the second chalk message struck me as interesting with its use of #onceaflashalwaysaflash. Through this simple chalk message, the writer (a student I’d imagine) connects the world of today with the world of yesterday, both within the hashtag itself, but also through using the hashtag to show support, solidarity, and remembrance for humans in a world before mass media of the scale we know today. In our world where large protests are a relic of the past, the simple extension of our conventions to the stories of the past serve to pull them towards us, continuing their salience and relevance to our lives today.

If you want to hear interviews with people who were there, who saw the events unfold, Kent State has some archival material.

Voices May Fade

It’s been a while, and for that I’m sorry. Most of my thoughts would be about sports teams and place identity, which I’ve already covered in an earlier post.

Anyway, as a proud, outspoken linguist, (or just a linguist with an awesome support network…or just a linguist), my friends and family have been the subject of many of my research papers. They’ve let me record our conversations to analyze, been participants in research projects about police interrogations or conception of spacial orientation…and I’ve even taken text messages in as research examples in my social media course. Almost everyone in my life has been part of my linguistic research and analysis, but there is one piece of data in particular that I am most happy that I’ve obtained.

In the fall of 2013, I was entering my second (and final) year of my masters graduate program and taking Discourse Analysis: Narrative. I had already used a conversation with my friends as one of my conversational narrative examples to bring to class, but now halfway through the semester I needed a new example, one more isolated and less cooperatively told. I was having trouble figuring out whom I could convince to participate…and who could also tell a good story. I settled on my grandmother, who was 93 at the time and someone I visited weekly when I was home. I planned ahead, brought my recorder with me one Sunday I was home, asked for her help, and started recording. I really didn’t need to prompt her; the stories she wanted to tell came to the surface, both stories I had heard before and some that were new.  I heard about her language ideologies as a young adult and the changes she has made since. I think all in all the recording lasted 2 hours, with my grandma having the floor most of the time and my dad and I interjecting every so often. My littlest sister contributed a little, but was largely silent.

Flash forward about a year and a half to 2015. Last month I lost my grandma, and with her all of the stories of her life and my family’s. I regret not being able to hear more of them, to hear about my hometown in the 1930s, to hear a young adult’s perspective on World War II, to hear a middle aged woman’s take on the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, to hear her thoughts on the technology explosion at the end of last century and the beginning of this one. And while I’ve heard some of these stories and committed them to memory, I am extremely lucky that I managed to preserve some on tape, in her voice, in her own words. Long after she can no longer speak, her words remain just as alive as the day I recorded them.

So what’s the point? Besides me having a cathartic release of sorts reminiscing about the convenient happenstance of linguist life, of course. All over the world, there are voices and tongues being silenced and dying out each and every day. Some of these voices, however, aren’t English or Spanish or even Mandarin. They are languages and tongues that we may never know…and if we don’t work to record and learn about them, we will never know the stories contained within. I know I’ve talked about my work with Recovering Voices at the Smithsonian, and I am more acutely aware of preserving the world’s stories because of it. And when a language dies, it also takes the unique understanding of culture with it. This I’m aware of as a Latinist…you can’t really understand the Roman culture fully without understanding the language that it used.

I know that we can’t save everything, and I know that language preservation is debated within the linguistics community to an extent. But yet, I feel drawn to sharing the stories of others whose lives are so different from our own, if only to allow us to see ourselves in a completely different light and completely different way. When I was a young linguist (in my undergrad days) I wanted to be a field linguist, figuring out the puzzles and mysteries that each new, undocumented, endangered language holds. While I’ve changed course slightly, I still have a fondness in my heart for the endangered languages of the world, for when they are silenced a piece of human history disappears that we can never get back.

Do you offer McGurk Effect Fraud Protection?

One of my favorite commercials on television now (or maybe of all time) is that Discover “fraud”/”frog” protection ad. I absolutely adore it, finding it the best piece of linguistic advertising on television. That being said, as you know, I’m a huge lingua-nerd, and it combines some of my favorite things- phonology/phonetics and humor. If you haven’t seen the advertisement, please go here to watch it (it might be crucial to the rest of this post).

This commercial is based on the fact that “frog” and “fraud” are extremely similarly pronounced words. In this ad, they seem to differ only by their final sound, [g] vs. [d]. (The vowels are slightly different too, depending on which side of the cot/caught merger you’re on. I’m a merger, so we’ll proceed accordingly). The two final sounds, [g] and [d], are extremely similar. Both are voiced stops, meaning that during the pronunciation of these sounds, your vocal cords vibrate and the airstream is completely cut off by your tongue and then released (don’t believe me? you can feel your cords vibrate by gently resting your hand on your throat as you say the words, and by placing your hand in front of your mouth to feel the air). The two sounds differ only in place of articulation (i.e. where your tongue is in your mouth when you make the sound), which only adds to the ease with which these sounds can be confused.

BUT! This ad reminds me of a great cognitive science trick known as the McGurk Effect. Before you read any farther, watch this video (unless you are familiar with this effect). I suggest you watch it once and just listen to it once. If you’re like many people, when you watch the video, you hear the man say “ga ga ga ga,” but if you simply listen to the video, you’ll likely hear “ba ba ba ba.” The point being that your brain takes in not only the acoustic information when someone speaks, but also visual cues, such as the position of the tongue in the mouth. Everything is awesomely related!

So what does this have to do with the frog/fraud ad? Well, I’m a bit biased (or I’d try it myself), but I wonder how much of what we hear in the commercial is influenced by the visual stimuli. When the man is asking for “frog protection” we see that he is holding the frog, priming our brains to hear “frog” and interpret it as such. When we see the customer service representative, we know he’s not going to say anything about covering frogs, so we hear “fraud” instead. It is entirely likely that without seeing the video we would clearly hear “frog” and “fraud,” but it is also likely that we would hear something rather muddied.

In summation, I commend you, Discover Card, for providing me with an advertisement I consider clever and rather intelligent. Now…if we could just get other advertisers to do something equally as lingua-savvy, I’d be one happy linguist!

LeBron James: Showing the ties that bind

As a linguist, I’m primed to notice things that people usually take for granted. Having done an entire project concerned with what a sports playoff video revealed about the identity of the city in which the team resided, I’m even more in tune to the interconnections of city identity, sports team identity, and the relationships between us all.

I was born and raised in Northeast Ohio, and have returned after finishing college to spend my adult life here. Naturally for the past week or so, all our news stations have been gripped with coverage of “The Decision 2.0.” Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that LeBron announced he would be returning to Cleveland to play for the Cavs. Within minutes, radio stations around here began playing their inventory of songs about home. Restaurants and other local establishments changed their signs out front to read “Welcome home, LeBron!” You might say that this means Cleveland forgives easily. I see it another way.

I spent my college years in another city on Lake Erie that often finds itself the butt of jokes: Buffalo, NY. This became extremely apparent when one weekend while listening to my Sabres lose, the radio station was advertising the following Sunday’s “Battle of the Mistakes on the Lake” NFL game between the Cleveland Browns and the Buffalo Bills. There’s something that binds these two cities together in a way that might only be apparent to those of us who feel close to these cities.

Both of these cities have seen their eras of prosperity burn brightly only to be slowly extinguished. When you think of an economically prosperous region, I doubt you think of Cleveland or Buffalo. Growing up as a kid in NE Ohio, I was constantly told about how hard work is the only way to get where you want to be in life, that to be successful you have to work for it. Nothing is handed to you on a silver platter. That’s just not how life works. While this mantra is pervasive in sports regardless of region, in these two particular communities, this life philosophy bleeds through the sports world into the everyday, creating a bond between athletic team and community that may be unparalleled anywhere else.

Why do I say this? Because my Facebook news feed exploded with people quoting one of the last paragraphs of LeBron’s letter in Sports Illustrated: “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.” Clearly, this resonates with us. We’ve seen our city go from a booming steel town to a decaying shell. I think Buffalo has seen the same. The sense of being ready for greatness again and working towards glory can be seen in their playoff opening video from the 2006-2007 season, as I found when I analyzed this video for an academic paper.

In both cities, we are communities that can often feel forgotten. We’re not flashy. But dang it all, the hope we feel when we can potentially achieve recognition for our work is beyond compare. We will not lie down quietly. And even when it feels that we’re the laughing stock of the national sports world, we still have that glimmer of hope that once more we will rise from the ashes of our despair, that we will achieve greatness. So LeBron, welcome back home. There’s something special about the Great Lakes region that I don’t think you can find anywhere else. Each region of the country has their own unique and wonderful qualities. I think this is ours.

Recovering Reflections

It’s been a long time since I’ve written. A long time. But in my defense, I’ve gone through quite a crazy few months. I finished up a job, an internship, graduated, moved back home, started a new job, and gone on vacation- all within the course of a month. Now I’m finally having time to breathe. And more importantly, time to reflect on everything. So this may diverge a bit from my usual topics, but bear with me.

Yesterday, I happened to mention to one of the ladies I work with that I had interned as program outreach intern (aka social media intern) with a program within the Smithsonian Natural History museum. Her eyes got wide, exclaiming “Oh how cool!” I nodded humbly and said “yeah.” Later as I was reflecting on this experience, I realized exactly how cool it was and really how much my two years in grad school taught me about myself. It’s not until now when I’m thinking about it over a month later that it dawns on me just how much I learned.

I’d say my museum internship was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had to date. I remember vividly seeing the email in my inbox telling me that I had been accepted. It was during lunch at summer camp (another job I rather enjoyed) and I just kept saying “oh my God!” over and over again. I swear everyone else thought I was delusional. Later that day when we were at the pool, we were hit by a huge storm, so large that we had to corral all the kids into the bathrooms because the lightning was so close. I had run out to move their bookbags so that they’d stay dry. Consequently I was drenched more than had I jumped into the pool. I don’t think I completely dried out for hours.

But I digress. That email was one of the greatest ever and I was nervous as heck to start. The people I met were fantastic and it taught me about different managerial styles, as I was navigating a web larger than I could conceive, since the Smithsonian NMNH is huge in and of itself. I was proud of my little badge, and even the October shutdown couldn’t dampen my spirits, (although it did mean I couldn’t go for about a month or so). Luckily, they let me stay on in the spring and then I learned so much more beyond social media.

I met people from all different walks of life, with stories that I could have only imagined. Not only did my work then become fun (I mean, come on, my job was to search the internet and find cool stuff to post), but it became important and insightful. I saw people’s lives touched and changed by the work the program was doing. And while my social media postings seemed pitiful in comparison, I realized that I was helping to get their stories told and promote awareness of the work. I mean, I guess I knew that I was doing that going into the internship, but it’s something entirely different to see it on another’s face. That’s just one of the experiences I’ll treasure from my time in Washington DC.

Reflections on Student Affairs

Two years ago, I began working on my masters degree. I needed a source of income, because, let’s face it, DC is expensive. I applied for a job in the student affairs department on campus, more specifically working with and advising the graduate student organizations at the university. I ended up landing it and have worked there since. As I look to the end of my time there, with my graduation impending, I can’t help but reflect upon everything that has happened there (in true student affairs style).

As a linguist, I’m used to hearing “what are you going to do with that?” or even wondering why I was drawn to something in the first place. When I started working in the Center for Student Programs (as we called it back then), I really wasn’t sure how linguistics applied beyond my ability to meticulously pick out the right words to say, and how to phrase things in the best possible way. This changed last week.

On Tuesday, the blogger over at LousyLinguist came to talk to a the professional development class that’s a requirement for my degree. His talk was also open to the rest of the department, which is why I went. He mentioned a story about how a group of computer programmers had developed a program that spit out character stereotypes on Wikipedia, and how social scientists/humanities people pretty much slammed them saying that they didn’t take into account the underlying factors and stereotypes working in those articles. (Forgive me for not being able to find the news article). The point being, he said, is that as linguists, we study the underlying societal constructs, such as race, ethnicity, gender, etc. when we look at language. We know that these concepts are intertwined with language and affect how people speak and interpret language. We don’t take these phenomena for granted.

So how does this tie into student affairs? In my experience there, these concepts are exactly those that student affairs seeks to enlighten students about. I have been part of diversity and inclusion conversations, where students (and staff) discuss race, ethnicity, gender, and other stereotyped identities that most people don’t think about on a day to day basis. Student affairs seeks to create awareness about the underlying societal constructs, and break down stereotypes, both “positive” ones and the negative. (By positive I mean things that sound like they’d be complementary to the stereotyped group). As a linguist, I’m already keyed into thinking about these types of influences, and so my perspective can only be expanded.

Language and Stereotypes

In the past I’ve focused on finer points in language like puns and word play. Today I hope to focus on a different, yet equally important, aspect of the language we use: connotations and how language is used to frame and shape our identities, sometimes for the better, sometimes for worse.

For the past year and a half now, I’ve worked on campus at our student programming office (or engagement office, as we call it). While I technically mostly work with the graduate student population, my “other duties as assigned” allow for me to interact with the undergraduate population. My first task this semester, and even this year, saw me attending a leadership retreat for undergrad student leaders (while the area was in the grip of that polar vortex, I might add). One of the activities at this retreat was an exercise in breaking down the wall of stereotypes that surround our everyday lives. Students were asked to write the first words that came to mind when they saw such words as “fat,” “gay,” “male,” “female,” “disabled,” and “dumb,” among other words. It made no matter if the words were positive or negative. No one would know who wrote what. When everyone had written their words on each box, they were built up into a wall. Then the fun began.

One by one, each box was the focus of the group and students (and staff) who identified with the category on the box was asked to step forward and divulge how this stereotyping had affected their lives. The stories were powerful. People spoke of how the negative words tore at their souls daily, how they had even begun to believe that those words described them, and how they would continue to define them. I wasn’t spared from this. The words on the “fat” box brought up childhood prejudices and experiences that I’ve long suppressed or learned to dealt with. Seeing words like “lazy” and “unathletic” made me remember how often I had used those to describe myself in my head, and how they were inextricably linked with words like “unattractive”…how this would forever be deeply ingrained in my mind as a part of me. I was not alone in this, as others vocalized the thoughts in my own head, matching my own situation nearly perfectly. We all felt each other’s catharsis at finally sharing baggage we had hidden for so long. Baggage that is hardly worth sharing in most every situation. Except for this one.

While the example of “fat” might seem terse or even unimportant, this happens with words that are more “high-stakes” in the everyday. Categorization is good. We need it to make sense of our world. It goes awry, however, when we let language categorize and shape the identity of people, creating a generalized bucket for them. Not every person who is overweight lacks athletic ability or is lazy or even ugly. We are all different, and while some commonalities may exist, we cannot let these words, stereotypes, and broad categorizations define how children will grow up viewing themselves. While I am no longer “fat” by any means, those words that I had internalized since childhood are still in my head, coloring how I view myself. Which is sad, because they are just words, simply a pattern of sounds that we have smooshed together and given meaning to. Nothing that should define a person, and yet that’s what we use language for often. Defining ourselves and others, attaching an identity to them when one need not be there at all. I understand the importance of words to our identities. I am a woman, a friend, a sister, a girlfriend, an American, etc. That’s all well and good. But it’s problematic when those words I just listed are taken to mean that I am catty, bitchy, snobbish…and the whole host of other negative stereotype words that we so often tend to use.

What am I proposing then? In one of my classes, we were taught to “reframe” a conversation when, in discussing what linguists do, the talk turns to the inevitable “how many languages do you speak” question. We were told to reframe and redirect the conversation, bringing our interlocutors to a place of understanding about linguistics. I argue that we could do the same in terms of stereotypes and identities. Reframe what an identity word like “disabled” or “fat” means. Do not allow them to pigeon hole someone into a tiny box of words that are not true for them, but that they begin to think describe them over years of hearing them. While it might seem a catch-22, a spiral we cannot escape, I think with a little work, and perhaps a little luck, we can reframe our thoughts on these identity categorizations…and maybe, just maybe, a new generation of children who are just a little overweight won’t think of themselves as lazy, unathletic, and ugly when they grow up.

Robots and Syntax

There’s a new craze going around Facebook that has my linguistically-inclined brain buzzing-the whatiwouldsay generator. For those of you not familiar with it,  according to the “about section” on the application, it “automatically generates Facebook posts that sound like you! Technically speaking, it trains a Markov Bot based on mixture model of bigram and unigram probabilities derived from your past post history.”  The resulting “status” that the bot generates tends to be a nonsensical blend of words that come together to make a status. When reading them, however, I can’t help but think “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” 

Way back in the dark ages of linguistics in the 1950s (okay, I’m exaggerating), a man named Noam Chomsky composed this sentence to demonstrate the point that grammaticality and intelligibility are not the same. While “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” seems like it SHOULD be a sentence that can be written/uttered in our everyday speaking lives, there is no meaning inherent in the thought (unlike the sentences I’m writing here). Although in later years, as this sentence has gotten tossed around by linguists like candy, people have naturally tried to give a meaning and situation to it, leading to some amusing pictures.

It seems that now, nearly 60 years later, people are rediscovering the Chomskian idea of syntax (grammar) and semantics (meaning) being two separate things. Instead of providing a great platform for scholarly discussions, these “whatiwouldsay” amalgamations of prior facebook statuses…and well, Chomsky is completely absent from the process. He lives on, however, in the ideas behind the computer program, where we can always take words (in this case that we’ve used before), mix them up and combine them again in new and novel ways. Sometimes though, it just doesn’t make sense.


May be hot, maybe?

While sitting in class today, taking notes and looking at my cup of chai tea, I happened to notice a type on the paper holder that protects my hands from the beverage’s warmth. Now, I pride myself on my ability to catch typos. Who doesn’t? There’s that great moment of satisfaction in your own knowledge and language mastery. Usually though, I just laugh and chalk it up to inattentiveness (or sometimes cultural differences in language usage). This typo, however, got the gears in my head turning.

The typo that inspired this post!

The typo that inspired this post!

It wasn’t so much as that it was blatantly wrong, but that in a way, it was actually slightly correct. It was as if whoever wrote it decided that the copula (“to be”) was implied, so that it really did say “Caution: Contents are maybe hot,” implying that the drink inside is potentially hot. Granted, I don’t necessarily like that sense of the phrase, since I do think that it’s better to include the space between “may” and “be” so that it reads like all the other coffee cup warnings in our post-McDonald’s lawsuit world: “Caution: Contents may be hot.” But the implied “are” was a logical explanation in my mind, where verbs of being can be eliminated for the sake of saving space and saving money on ink.

The more I started thinking about it, the more I realized the two interpretations were saying basically the same thing: to be care because whatever is in the cup could be hot. Yet, I’m more comfortable with saying that this is a typo rather than that the author made a purposeful choice to delete the verb of being. Maybe (see what I did there?) that’s just because “maybe” seems too wishy-washy for such an imperative statement or maybe it’s because that use deviates from the standard seen on all other coffee cups. Either way, I think it serves to show the ambiguity inherent in language in our daily lives, where even a seemingly benign typo on a coffee cup may not really be a typo after all. It’s all about how you look at it.

Word Play Wednesday

As many of you know, (or at least those who follow American current political events), the US government shutdown yesterday.  It seems to have affected most everyone in one way or another, whether they have been furloughed and not allowed to work or being unable to get a title for a car. This blog is not political in nature, so a discussion of the shutdown is not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to talk about the humor that some have injected into this issue via Twitter, using the hashtag #shutdownpickuplines. One of my Facebook friends was kind enough to have liked (or shared, I can’t remember which) a link to a compilation of the “20 best shutdown pickup lines,” which I’ll post for your enjoyment here.

But what makes these so fun? That’s really what I want to get at. And why do we enjoy them so much? (Or I guess, why do I enjoy them so much?) I think, besides the fact that it’s injecting humor into what would otherwise be a humorless situation, it’s playing with the English language in a fun way. Bad pickup lines are ubiquitous in today’s society I would argue, and they seem to be “bad” because they’re puns. Take for example “If I could rearrange the alphabet, I would put u and I together.” Here we have a pun, or again, what I would call a pun, on the meanings of the pronouns and the letter that have different meanings. In the cases of these shutdown pickup lines, there are instances of taking words that are typically meant to mean one thing but used to mean another, injecting humor and play while they’re at it.

In a sense, that’s the fun of language. We know what words mean and what they mean in our everyday lives, but we can also choose to innovate with them and create new expressions and situations, if only to distract ourselves from the truth which isn’t fun to face (in this case, the fact that quite a few people are unable to go to work and the whole host of other negative consequences that have arisen from the shutdown).

Again, I don’t want to stand on my soapbox talking about the shutdown, but merely comment and appreciate the innovative spirit that language speakers have in our everyday lives. Because that’s the beauty of language, we can utter things that invoke two different readings. We can play with our words, and it’s completely acceptable. We can create new phrases and inject humor into a situation by use of words alone.

So, to paraphrase one of my favorite pickup lines that’s missing from the page I linked, but I believe I saw on Huffington Post or the Washington Post: “The archives may be closed, but I have another national treasure to share with you.”