How to linguistics #2.1: you talkin’ to me?

Sociolinguistics is the subfield of linguistics that aims to reveal and explain the different ways in which language is used in its social context(s). It is also the field that contains three of my favorite linguistic phenomena, namely politeness, accommodation, and code-switching. I know that these are three of my favorite linguistic phenomena because I am slightly nerdy and also because if you were to ask my mom or my little sister about any of these, you would get surprisingly accurate answers, which means I must have spent too many dinners orating about them.

The term ‘code-switching’ in particular has wormed its way into our collective vocabulary; in our household, it’s not uncommon to be interrupted by someone yelling “Code-switch!” at you when you are innocuously incorporating a string of English words in a Dutch sentence or vice versa. (More on bilingual code-switching and its flip side, language interference, in how to sociolinguistics #2.2, forthcoming.)

I’ve written about politeness in language before. Code-switching and accommodation are interrelated concepts, as code-switching is one of the many ways in which accommodation can occur, and accommodation is one of the many reasons why code-switching might occur. Up first: accommodation.

Accommodate, per favore
Let’s start off with a few definitions. (Just so you know, the Sociolinguistics notes I’m basing all this on are stored in a folder named ‘Fall 2011’. Creative license applies.) Accommodation is about how speakers consciously or unconsciously adapt their communication to the people they are talking to, a.k.a. their interlocutors. Convergence is adjusting your communication in order to reduce differences between you and your interlocutor; divergence is adjusting your communication in order to enhance differences between you and your interlocutor.

Convergence (“that’s how I roll, motherfucker”) and divergence (legibility and correct punctuation) explained in one snazzy comic.

Another personal example. We have this family friend, a wonderful Italian guy who owns a pizzeria in the center of town. When he moved here five years ago, he couldn’t speak a word of Dutch and only several words of English. By now he knows many words in both languages, and all of us communicate in a cute little hybrid of English and Dutch with a pinch of Italian (I personally know prego, grazie, and two swearwords).

The weird thing is, when we talk to him, we spontaneously forget how to English a little. We slow down ever so slightly. We construct simpler sentences. We put emphasis in odd places. We adopt a mysterious intonation pattern that probably has the Dutch and English circuits in our brains going, “What the hell are you doing? Stop. Your life is not a musical. Stop.” We end our every sentence on a high note or, worse, a cheerful “Yesss?”

What’s happening here is not spontaneous cognitive failure in anticipation of crispy, freshly-made, authentic Italian pizza straight from the oven. What’s happening here is linguistic convergence, the unconscious variant—as evidenced by the fact that my brother and my dad have, on different occasions, shaken their heads and said, “Why does that keep happening?” after one of these conversations.

Why does that keep happening? Enter Giles.

One of us vs. you can’t sit with us
It’s entirely possible that we already entered Giles a while ago; he might have been the one to come up with the concepts of convergence and divergence in the first place. I can’t remember. He definitely came up with communication accommodation theory (CAT), though, which explains why we accommodate, whether ‘toward’ (convergence) or ‘away from’ (divergence) someone.

Why does everyone in my family simplify their English and adopt a melodious, Italianeqsue intonation pattern when we talk to our Italian friend? According to my three-year-old notes, the process of convergence at its core “reflects people’s basic desire for social approval”. Some of the reasons why people converge are

- to be perceived positively by their interlocutor(s);
– to emphasize common social identities;
– to convey empathy or respect;
– to strengthen social bonds;
– to increase the chance of being understood.

When we inadvertently converge to our Italian friend, then, we are basically saying, “We like you! We want you to like us! We want you to feed us crispy pizzas!” Except in a more subtle way—so subtle we don’t even realize we’re doing it. (Once you’ve started converging, it’s very hard to stop. This only goes to show how deep mankind’s desire for pizza social approval runs.)

Divergence, the opposite of convergence, is a means of maintaining or accentuating social identity in communication. The social groups we identify with form essential parts of our self-concepts, and we often—again, whether consciously or unconsciously—show our group affiliations through the way we talk.

Meeting someone who speaks impeccable British and hearing your own accent grow stronger? Unconscious divergence to stay true to your own roots. Loudly swearing in church or in class? Conscious divergence from the language use expected in that situation to make sure that everyone around you knows that you are a super cool person who, like, totally doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks, man.

Divergence can be a way to emphasize identity by increasing the social or emotional distance between you and your interlocutor(s). It can also be a way of excluding someone from a conversation entirely. The most flagrant—and effective!—form of divergence, of course, would be to switch to a language the person you want to disassociate yourself from doesn’t understand. We have arrived at the topic for next time: code-switching.

Image credit: talking faces | comic | CAT

How to linguistics #1: the bare bones

One of the first things you learn in Statistics class is that correlation does not imply causation. The field of linguistics has a tagline of its own: “descriptivism yay, prescriptivism nay”. (This is not the way my professor phrased it, but it’s been almost half a decade since I took Linguistics 101, so I may need to take some liberties here.)

Crudely stated, prescriptivism is concerned with how language should be used, the underlying idea being that usages can be correct and incorrect. A prescriptivist might say singular ‘they’, as in “someone forgot their wallet”, is wrong; it should be “someone forgot his or her wallet”. Descriptivism, on the other hand, is concerned with how language is actually used, in the real world, by real speakers. (I’m a huge fan of singular they. I use it all the time.) Prescriptivism has no place in the scientific – therefore objective – study of language, but it does have a place in aforementioned real world. Continue reading

Holy trinities and double whammies

One of the things I was most excited about when I got accepted into a Master’s program called ‘Translation in Theory and Practice’ was not having to dread the Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions anymore. The Holy Trinity of Dreaded Small Talk Questions is as follows:

  1. How are you?
  2. What do you do/study?
  3. What do you want to do/be when you grow up? (This question is rarely phrased this way, but this is exactly what it boils down to.)

The first question can usually be answered in a relatively straight-forward manner, but the other two form a double whammy. When I was getting my BA, it was pretty much impossible for me to answer the second question succinctly— which is kind of the point of small talk. Getting a liberal arts degree in a country that contains only a handful of liberal arts colleges puts a considerable strain on your ability to converse with people you don’t know all that well but know well enough to, you know, have to converse with them. Continue reading

A house is a house is a house

Once upon a time there were two people who thought it would be a good idea to buy a house built in 1924.

Those people were my parents, and that house is the house I moved back into after graduating college. It’s a fine house, a big house, but allow me contextualize that year. 1924. That’s before ballpoint pens were invented. Before the legendary Leonard Cohen graced this earth with his presence. Perhaps most shocking of all, it’s before IKEA was founded. How does one even furnish a house without the help of IKEA?

Old houses have got their charm, but they require upkeep. The only act of home improvement I personally find absolutely essential is getting a Wi-Fi system that doesn’t conk out whenever it feels like it, with a signal that reaches every remote corner of the house, i.e. my room, preferably all the way to my bed. Alas, my parents consider matters such as painting and gardening to be of much more pressing concern. Continue reading

The curse of constant connectivity


It’s a truth universally acknowledged: we’re addicted to our smartphones.

We’re slaves to Twitter, ensnared in Facebook’s mighty jaws. We Instagram every meal we eat. The instant our attention wanes from a task at hand, every second we spend waiting for our train to show up— we grasp at every opportunity to grab our cell phone. We wake up to blink blearily at the WhatsApp messages our friends send us at 3 AM. Maybe they’re out drinking; maybe they’re in a different time zone. Hell, maybe they just felt like texting us in the dead of night. “It’s always beer o’clock somewhere,” has turned into “It’s always social media o’clock somewhere.”

Sources in support of this claim are everywhere. Can’t turn on the television without stumbling straight onto a heartfelt complaint about the superficial and unrepresentative quality – or rather quantity – of communication in this age of constant connectivity. See also: YouTube. Continue reading

The stubborn language whore in the attic

In the Netherlands you can take pretty much as long as you like to finish university. Where I live, it’s not unusual to run into guys – they’re usually guys – in their late twenties who have been studying for eight years and still haven’t gotten their Bachelor’s degree. The Dutch government once tried to remedy this situation by implementing a langstudeerboete, a fine for students with a study delay, but it got dismissed almost the minute it went through.

This reminded me of the following. In my hometown, there’s an alley which used to be a no-bike zone. The Dutch are big on cycling, obviously, and when it comes to cycling, traffic rules usually get ignored. Red lights? One-way lanes? Ha! Similarly, the idea of a no-bike zone simply does not exist in the Dutch conceptual system. Flocks of school kids, students on rattling hand-me-downs, mothers with toddlers front and back, elderly couples on tandem bicycles; everyone cycled through the no-bike alley. Cops used to guard it on either side to fine every culprit, but to no avail. We persevered in our fundamental right as Dutch people to turn the world into one big bike lane until, one day, the cops were replaced by this sign:

Cycling permitted; bonus points for not knocking pedestrians off their feet.

There’s this Dutch proverb, de aanhouder wint – literally ‘the one who persists wins’. The Dutch are stubborn. We do not bend to legislation; legislation bends to us.

To return to the subject of studying:  Continue reading

Curriculum vitae imaginationis

#5 on the list of ‘Required Documents for Application to this Master’s Program’: an updated curriculum vitae (résumé). According to the explanatory note, a curriculum vitae is “an overview of your personal details, and your educational and professional background”.

I wonder, should someone who doesn’t know what a resume is even be allowed to apply for a postgraduate degree? Also, why specify that the resume has to be updated— isn’t that kind of obvious? No, prospective student, don’t send us the Comic Sans MS document you wrote in Microsoft Word 97 with nothing but some babysitting to boast. We want experience! We want extracurricular activities! We want sweat, unpaid internships, after-school jobs in shoe stores and downtown cafes— anything to prove your dedication to responsibility and hard work!

When I was five or six years old, it was my life goal to own a petting zoo. I wouldn’t stop penciling meticulously designed floor plans into the margins of my primary school notebooks. Rabbits would go here; goats there; horses would get a pasture of honor in front of my house. Countless drawings and frustrated teachers later, I had perfected the farm’s architecture to a point where I had no idea what else to add. Continue reading