The Karen Stereotype

written by Karen Stollznow, Griffith University, Queensland

Karen is a first name, in fact, it’s my first name, but online, “Karen” has evolved to mean so much more than just a name. In recent years, “Karen” has also become a negative stereotype, a meme, and an insulting epithet. The colloquial meaning of “Karen” is multi-faceted and complicated. The term typically refers to a middle-class, middle-aged white woman who is obnoxious and entitled in her behavior, and she is often racist. She is angry, aggressive, and a bully. Her catch-cry is demanding to “Speak to the manager” of an establishment over the slightest inconvenience. In some versions she even wears a stereotypical hairstyle. Her complaints are selfish and petty. For example, Cathy Hill, a patron at a Red Lobster restaurant in Pennsylvania, was labeled a “Karen” after she brawled with staff this past Mother’s Day, because she believed she had waited too long for her take out food.

In recent months, the label has broadened in usage. “Karen” is now used to refer to a woman who is perceived as ignorant and uninformed, such as “anti-vaxxers”, those who refuse to have themselves or their children vaccinated against contagious diseases. The term is used for those who openly flout health and safety measures like wearing masks or social distancing in public to protect themselves and others from COVID-19. The term also refers to women who initiate confrontations in public that have a more sinister, racial undercurrent. Most infamously, the incident in which Amy Cooper was walking her dog in New York’s Central Park when she illegitimately called the police on birdwatcher Christian Cooper, because he politely asked her to put her dog on a leash. Another current event involved Patricia McCloskey and her husband Mark standing outside their home in St. Louis, Missouri, aiming guns at Black Lives Matters protestors as they marched by their neighborhood.

Historically, other women’s names have been used as related stereotypes. Most notably, “Sally” and “Miss Ann” were generic names for white women, which go back to the time of enslavement in the United States. In particular, these terms were often used within the African American community to refer to a white woman who behaved in a condescending and arrogant manner, especially exhibiting behavior that revealed racist undertones.

In recent years, a series of incidents have constructed the legend of the “Karen” stereotype. In this digital age, these events have been captured on video and posted online. They’ve gone viral and the antagonists were dubbed with alliterative nicknames. In 2018, Alison Ettel aka “Permit Pattie” called the cops on an eight-year-old girl selling water on the sidewalk in San Francisco, because she was “illegally selling water without a permit.” In South Carolina in 2018, Stephanie Sebby-Strempel shouted slurs at a black teenager swimming in a community pool, ordering him to “Get out!” of the water and hitting him repeatedly, the act earning her the nickname “Pool Patrol Paula.” Also in 2018, Jennifer Schulte was dubbed “Barbeque Becky” for calling the police on a black family using a charcoal grill in a park in Oakland, California, because she claimed they were breaking the law. At a dog park in Massachusetts in 2019, “Dog Park Debbie” called the police claiming her dog was being “assaulted” by another dog when it attempted to mount her pet in play. A common thread across these examples is that the women’s actions appear to be racially motivated.

Over the years there have been several contenders to the term in pop culture, including Becky, Tammy, Felicia, Sarah, and Susan. Anyone’s name can potentially be used as a negative stereotype, so why Karen? That Karen won out is largely coincidental, although it was a common woman’s name in the United States and other Anglophone countries spanning the generations of the late Baby Boomers and early Generation X. Data from the U.S. Office of Social Security shows that the name peaked between 1951-1968, when it appeared in the top 10 for the most popular baby names. “Karen” is no longer a popular name among Millennials, Generation Z, or babies, and for these reasons, it sounds slightly old-fashioned to some people’s ears.

But who was the original “Karen”? The origins of the moniker are hotly debated, although the stereotypical use of the name can be traced back to several sources in the early 21st century. In the 2004 film Mean Girls, Amanda Seyfried plays the role of Karen Smith. Revealing the characteristic of a “Karen” as ignorant and oblivious, airheaded Karen asks her friend Cady who’s relocated from Africa, “If you’re from Africa, why are you white?” Many people trace the Karen meme back to stand-up comedian Dane Cook. In a 2005 comedy routine from his album Retaliation, Cook delivers a “Karen” punch line in a joke about a friend that no one actually likes. As he says, “There is one person in every group of friends that nobody likes”…“Example, Karen is always a douche bag. Every group has a Karen and she’s always a bag of douche.”

The Karen type even has stereotypical physical attributes. In 2009, Kate Gosselin, the co-star of the mid-2000s reality TV show Jon and Kate plus 8 sported an asymmetrical bob cut hairstyle with blonde highlights. This was dubbed the “Can I speak to your manager?” haircut. Some believe Gosselin was “Karen Zero.” Another theory links the meme to a Reddit account, which was set up by an anonymous man in the midst of messy divorce proceedings. He posted rants about his ex-wife Karen, who allegedly won custody of their children and took possession of their house. The account was later closed, but a subreddit emerged in 2017, which is described as “dedicated to the hatred of Karen” and posting memes of the stereotype. The group features a photograph of Gosselin, whose images are often used to depict Karen. The term has also been used for years on Black Twitter, a subculture of black users focused on issues of interest to the Black community.

The meme exploded amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, bolstered by the growing awareness of police brutality against African Americans. During this time, there has been a trend of exposing “Karens” in video footage on social media, to shame women who have done offensive things in public. These have resulted in varieties of “Karen”, such as “Grocery Store Karen”, who had an altercation with staff in a supermarket in North Hollywood, California, after being asked to wear a mask. “Coughing Karen” intentionally coughed on fellow customers in a New York bagel shop after being asked to put on a mask. “San Francisco Karen” demanded to know if a man who was stenciling “Black Lives Matter” in chalk on the front of his home was defacing public property. These examples typify the “Karen” as an entitled white woman who exploits her privilege when things don’t go her way. Some cases of public shaming have led to real world consequences. Amy Cooper, otherwise known as “Central Park Karen”, was in the wrong, but out of spite she attempted to exploit Christian Cooper’s skin color to persuade the police to arrest or hurt him. She was held accountable for her actions when she temporarily lost custody of her dog, she was fired from her job, and now the police plan to charge her for filing a false report.

Karen has people divided. There are those who are in favor of using the name, because it describes modern racism and microaggressions, and reveals how some white women exploit their social privilege against marginalized groups. The term functions as a label to make fun of these women for their unpleasant behavior and attitudes, and serves as vigilante justice in situations that are morally unjust, and occasionally even dangerous. Others express concern that the bad behavior and actions are conflated with the name, demonizing and stigmatizing people named Karen. Women named “Karen” know that the memes aren’t targeting them specifically, but it can still feel personal, because it’s their name and part of their identity. Of course, a woman named Karen is not necessarily a “Karen.” As we have seen, she has been a Kate, Stephanie, Alison, and Amy. The label is not representative of people who happen to have that name, although some Karens have been vilified, experiencing harassment on social media or bullying in schools, simply for having the name.

There are several arguments against the use of Karen as a generalized insult for any woman perceived as annoying in some way. The term has been criticized as classist and ageist. “Karen” is often middle-class or from a working-class background, which are marginalized groups. She is usually middle-aged or older, which is a group targeted by social prejudice. The “Karen” character may be predated by negative stereotypes of older women in television, who were portrayed as demanding, interfering, nagging busybodies, such as manipulative mother Marie Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond or nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz on Bewitched. A woman might be labeled a “Karen”, not judged for bad behavior, but simply because of her physical appearance, her clothing, or her hairstyle. It is a trope that in some usage has become mired in misogyny. A Karen is invariably a woman, and often a mother. The term has been co-opted by disgruntled online men, especially incels and chauvinists, who take advantage of the meme and use the insult with glee to attack any disliked women, as demonstrated by the Reddit thread. The term has been construed as sexist in that there is no male equivalent for a “Karen.” Male types in popular culture include Chad, Kyle, Ken, and Aaron, but these stereotypes are not as derogatory, while some can have positive connotations. Some women also use “Karen” as a general term of abuse against other women, showing that sexism is commonly endorsed and perpetuated by women.

Karen is a gender stereotype, and as a preconception about attributes or characteristics of women, it can be harmful. There is also the issue of social responsibility. It is convenient to have a memorable, shared name to categorize a recognizable type of behavior, but using names as stereotypes often renders the offenders nameless. Assigning “Karen” as a nickname grants them anonymity. Using their real names, such as Amy Cooper, ensures that these people can be held accountable for their actions.

For a further discussion of related topics, see my forthcoming book ‘On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present’.

Cambridge Reflections: Covid-19

Reflections of a tree in a puddle

Written by Alex Wright, Senior Executive Publisher and Head of Humanities at Cambridge University Press

The coronavirus and its challenges of immediacy have thrown into sharp relief the apparent disjuncture between intellectual endeavour and what a society goes through in the grip of a pestilence. When the difference between life and death is measured in terms of having enough ventilators in hospitals, or adequate PPE, should we even be talking about characterisation in Shakespeare? It is right to ask such a question, and proper too to give priority to what people need to do to survive the present emergency. But a moment of crisis helps us to see that we live out our lives perpetually threatened by loss; and gives us space too to reflect on the fact that the life of the mind has always attempted not just to make sense of the world but also to make it a better place.

Throughout its long history Cambridge University Press has tried to ask larger questions about meaning and value. Because our publishing has always at its heart been about outreach, and education in the broadest sense, we wish now to make some of our authors’ keenest insights available in the form of short blogs. The aim will be to provide a resource in times of need: crystalline, bite-sized chunks – digestible nuggets of reflection – which can be drawn upon anywhere where someone has access to the internet. Our hope is that this new digital library of concise contemplations will prove diverting and engaging: even consoling. That it will provide, at a critical moment, a reliable repository – gratis, and easily and immediately available – of ‘the best of CUP’.

The collection includes writing from all aspects of humanities and social sciences including linguistics. Explore the collection at www.cambridgeblog.org/category/cambridge-reflections-covid-19/

English in the Movies by David Crystal

I hear pop songs in English in every country I visit. Just back from a lecture tour around Italy, and I heard them in taxis, in hotels playing background music, and in cars passing in the street with the radio on loud – in every city. Often, the listeners are singing along, demonstrating a level of English ability that is sometimes well beyond their general level of competence. It’s a great language-learning tool – and I’ve had exactly the same experience in my own encounter with other languages. When I was learning Portuguese in Brazil, my samba-ese far exceeded by general skill. But the musical dimension had all sorts of benefits. It gave me confidence. I felt I was beginning to identify with the culture. And I could drop musical quotations into my basic Portuguese that delighted both me and my hosts.

So why isn’t there always the same experience in the cinema? On my Italy tour, I was in a different hotel every night, and occasionally flicked through the TV channels. I glimpsed many English-language films, and every one was dubbed into Italian. What an opportunity missed! Same thing happened in Germany. I love watching foreign films in their original languages, with English sub-titles. It’s a totally different experience. One of my favourite films is La Nuit AmericaineDay for Night – and I’ve watched it both in French and dubbed into English. There’s something bizarre about seeing people with distinctively French expressions and gestures interacting with English voices. And my Italian friends on this trip told me they felt exactly the same watching English-language movies dubbed in Italian.

But the climate may be changing, and in this week of the launch of the third edition of CEEL I read news reports from different countries proudly announcing that it’s now possible to watch English-language films in the original language. And Italy is among the headlines! The website Wanted in Rome has a report about  the ‘growing number of cinemas in Rome showing movies in their original English-language versions, with subtitles in Italian’, and lists eighteen of them. In Spain, Murcia Today reports that  the Hornillo multicine shows Spanish-language films throughout the week, but every Tuesday shows English language originals – this week on 27 November The Girl in the Spider’s Web and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society. Might these initiatives spill over into television?

The mood seems to have been building up this year. I don’t recall such developments making online headlines before. In March, a teacher of English at a lycée in the town of Béziers, southern France launched a petition on Change.org calling for an end to the dubbing of foreign films and TV series and asking for all foreign programmes broadcast in their original version. She commented: ‘People say the French have problems with foreign languages but it is because they do not have the opportunity to hear them regularly enough.’ And the headline of the report is sympathetic: ‘Why it’s time France stopped dubbing English-language films and TV series’. For adults, of course, not for kids who are still learning to read.

It’s already happened in some countries. A report last year in Dutch Review headed ‘Why are the Dutch so good at speaking English?’ comments:

‘Fact is that the Dutch get in touch with the English language early in life through television. They don’t dub any movies or series, and contrary to other European countries like Spain, Germany or France you can watch everything on TV in original language while reading the subtitles in Dutch. This means that the kids in the Netherlands have a much more natural approach when it comes to learning and speaking English propelling them well ahead of their peers in other countries.’

I’ve found similar comments in relation to Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. And as a regular visitor to the Netherlands (I have a daughter living there) I have to concur with the reporter. But my remarks are anecdotal. It would be really interesting to see a current survey on dubbing practices worldwide – and not just for English, but for all languages. I remember reading an English Proficiency Index report a few years ago which pointed out parallels between proficiency and subtitling. There wasn’t a total correlation (e.g. in Poland and Germany), and there were some complicated scenarios in places where the choice of ‘subs or dubs’ raises issues of endangerment and identity (such as Quebec). Practices evidently vary greatly worldwide.

David Crystal is one of the world’s foremost authorities on language, having published extensively over the past fifty years on his research work in English language studies.  An internationally renowned writer, editor, lecturer, and broadcaster, he received an OBE in 1995 for his services to the study and teaching of the English language. He is Honoury Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor, and was made a Fellow of the British Academy (FBA) in 2000. David lives in Holyhead, Wales, where he is the director of the Ucheldre Centre, a multi-purpose arts and exhibition centre.

David Crystal’s third edition of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of English Langauge, with additional features such as audio recordings is now available.  Explore the David Crystal Collection which includes these resources, free articles, a competition and more.

The brave new world of emoji: Why and how has emoji taken the world by storm?

Blog post written by Cambridge author Vyvyan Evans.

An emoji is a glyph encoded in fonts, like other characters, for use in electronic communication. It’s especially prevalent in digital messaging and social media.  An emoji, or ‘picture character’, is a visual representation of a feeling, idea, entity, status or event.  From a historical perspective, the first emojis were developed in the late 1990s in Japan for use in the world’s first mobile phone internet system. There were originally 176, very crude by today’s standards.

Early Emoji Faces

Early emoji faces

In 2009, the California-based Unicode Consortium, which specifies the international standard for the representation of text across modern digital computing and communication platforms, sanctioned 722 emojis.  The Unicode approved emojis became available to software developers by 2010, and a global phenomenon was born.  Today, there are a little over 1,200 emojis available.

The new universal ‘language’?

While emoji is not, strictly speaking, a language, in the way that say, English, French or Japanese are languages, it is certainly a powerful system of communication.  English is often said to be the world’s global language, so a comparison is instructive.
English has 335 million native speakers, with a further 505 million speakers who use it as a second language.  It’s the primary or official language in 101 countries, from Canada to Cameroon, and from Malta to Malawi – far outstripping any other language.  It has been transplanted far from its point of origin – a small country, on a small island –  spreading far beyond English shores.  But more than the range, English has steadily gained ground in almost all areas of international communication: from commerce, to diplomacy, from aviation to academic publishing, serving as a global Lingua Franca.


But in comparison, emoji dwarfs even the reach of English. The driver for the staggering adoption of emoji has been the advent of mobile computing, especially the smartphone.  Emoji was introduced as an international keyboard in Apple’s operating system (iOS) in October 2011.  And by July 2013 it had been introduced across most Android operating platforms.
There are different measures for assessing the stratospheric rise of emoji.  One factor has been the rapid adoption of smartphones.  Today one quarter of the world’s global population owns a smartphone; and based on a survey of mobile computing habits in 41 countries it is estimated that today there are over 2 billion smartphone users with 31% of the global population accessing the internet by smartphone.  In terms of specific countries, China exceeded 500 million smartphones during the course of 2014, and it is estimated that India will have over 200 million smartphone users this year, and in the USA the same figure will be achieved by 2017, when 65% of the population of the United States will own a smartphone.[i]   In terms of smartphones alone, some 41.5 billion text messages are sent globally every day, using around 6 billion emojis—figures that are mindboggling.[ii]

Emoji all around us

Today emoji is seemingly everywhere, having spread far beyond the messaging systems it was developed for.  The New York Subway has now introduced a system, using emoji, to advise passengers of the status of particular subway lines: whether trains are running normally or not.  As the NY City website explains: “We’re trying to estimate agony on the NYC subway by monitoring time between trains and adding unhappy points for stations typically crowded at rush hour.” [iii]  Here’s an example:

New York Subway Emoji

Reprinted from the WNYC website

Even an institution as august as the BBC is not immune.  Each Friday, the Newsbeat page on the BBC website—associated with BBC Radio 1 and aimed at younger listeners—publishes the news in emoji. Radio listeners are invited to guess what the headline means. See whether you can figure out which headline this emoji ‘sentence’ relates to:

Emoji Question

  1. Four climbers find what they think is a Dodo chick egg. But it’s not. The bird has been extinct for 450 years.
  2. One in four people don’t know the Dodo is extinct, a poll finds.
  3. Four children win a science competition to genetically recreate the Dodo.

(The correct answer is 2).

Moreover, the literary canon is not excluded: a visual designer with a passion for emoji has translated Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a book of 27,500 or so words, into a pictorial narrative, consisting of around 25,000 emoji.[iv]  Some example emoji ‘sentences’ are below:

Alice in Wonderland Emoji

Frivolous or the future?

A common question that people ask is whether anyone—you or I—can simply create their own emojis?  The short answer is yes.  For instance, Finland, on behalf of the Finnish people, has created its own set of national emojis that express Finnish identity.  These include emojis of people in saunas, of a Nokia phone and of a headbanger.

These is a computer generated emojis made available by Finland's Foreign Ministry on Wednesday Nov. 4, 2015. Finland is launching a series of ‘national emojis’ that include people sweating in saunas, classic Nokia phones and heavy metal head-bangers. Petra Theman from the Finnish Foreign Ministry says the emojis will be released as a way to promote the country’s image abroad and are based on themes associated with Finland. (Finnish Foreign Ministry via AP)

These are a computer generated emojis made available by Finland’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday Nov. 4, 2015. Finland is launching a series of ‘national emojis’ that include people sweating in saunas, classic Nokia phones and heavy metal head-bangers. Petra Theman from the Finnish Foreign Ministry says the emojis will be released as a way to promote the country’s image abroad and are based on themes associated with Finland. (Finnish Foreign Ministry via AP)

Finnish national emojis

But while Finland was the first country in the world to embrace its national identity through emojis, you or I won’t be able to text one another the headbanger emoji anytime soon.   And that’s because the Finnish emojis have not been officially sanctioned by the Unicode Consortium—and Finland has no plans to submit them for consideration.

A new emoji has to meet various criteria to become a candidate emoji.  And only after a lengthy vetting process, taking around 18 months, does a successful candidate emoji pass muster.  Even then, it can take still longer for a newly sanctioned emoji to make it onto our digital keyboards – once approved, emojis can take several operating system – updates, and sometimes several years, to make it onto a smartphone or tablet computer near you.  So, for now, at least, Finland’s bespoke emojis are classed as ‘stickers’: bespoke images that have to be downloaded as part of an app, in order to be inserted them into text messages.

On January 25th 2016, a Chinese – American businesswoman, YiYing Lu, from San Francisco, succeeded where Finland had declined to tread.  Supported by a publically-funded kickstarter campaign, Lu succeeded in having a dumpling achieve official emoji candidate status.  And if successful, the proposed dumpling is set to become a bona fide emoji by the end of 2017.  In so doing, it would join a growing catalogue of food emojis, including pizza, hamburger, doughnuts and even a taco glyph.

Dumpling Emoji

The proposed dumpling emoji. From The Dumpling Project.

             The entire emoji vetting process is controlled by a handful of American multinational corporations, based in California.  And there are strict qualifying criteria for new emojis: they may not depict persons living or dead, nor deities, for instance.  This is why there is no Buddha, or Elvis emojis. Moreover, a candidate emoji must be deemed to have widespread appeal.   On this score, the proposal for a dumpling emoji looks to be a strong candidate. A dumpling – a dough filled food parcel – is popular around the world, with exemplars ranging from Italian ravioli to Russian pelmeni, to Japanese gyoza. In Argentina there is empanadas, Jewish cuisine has kreplach, in Korea there is madoo and China has popstickers.  But when Lu, an aficionado of Chinese dumplings, attempted to text a friend about the dish, she noticed there wasn’t an emoji she could use.

In early 2016, the fact that the dumpling had officially achieved candidate emoji status in California hit the headlines around the world, from New York, to London, to Beijing; even the broadcast media got in on the act. I was invited onto BBC Radio to discuss the success of the Dumpling Kickstarter project, headlining with Lu herself.   The Kickstarter campaign  –  to raise the necessary funds to prepare the proposal  –  had been a self-evident success, achieving over $12,000 and reaching its target within a few hours of going live.  But the headlines beg the very question: why all the fuss about dumplings? Isn’t this simply frivolity gone mad, an expensive bit of silliness?

On the contrary: emoji matters. The Dumpling Project stands for far more than a simplistic bid to have the favourite food of a Bay area business woman become sanctioned as an emoji. It is an instance of internet democracy at work: indeed, the slogan of the project was ‘emoji for the people, by the people’.

One reason why emoji matters is the following; love it or loathe it, emoji is today the world’s global form of communication.  A quarter of the world’s population owns a smartphone, and over 80% of adult smartphone users regularly use emoji, with figures likely to be far higher for under 18s. In short, most of the world’s mobile computing users use emoji much of the time.  And yet, the catalogue of emojis that show up on our smartphones and tablet computers  –  the vocabulary that connects 2 billion people  –  is controlled by a handful of American multinationals – eight of the eleven full members of the Unicode Consortium are American: Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, Google, Facebook and Yahoo.  Moreover, the committee reps of these tech companies are overwhelmingly white, male, and computer engineers – hardly representative of the diversity exhibited by the global users of emojis.  Indeed, as of 2015, the majority of food emojis were associated with North American culture, with some throwbacks to the Japanese origins of emoji (such as a sushi emoji).
Hence, one motivation for the Dumpling Project was to ensure better representation. Of course, on its own, a campaign and proposal for a new food emoji cannot do much.  But as an appeal to global cultural and culinary diversity, and as call for better representation of this diversity, the dumpling is a powerful emblem.  Emoji began as a bizarre little known North Asian phenomenon; since, control has come to rest in the hands of American corporate giants. Dumplings, on the other hand, in their various shapes and guises are truly international and get at the global nature of emoji.
Perhaps more than anything, the Dumpling Project is fun; and in terms of emoji, a sense of fun is the watchword.  While these colourful glyphs add a dollop of personality to our digital messaging, the Dumpling Project makes a powerful point without resorting to burning either bras or effigies.  It avoids gender, religion or politics in conveying a simple message about inclusiveness in the world’s most widely used form of communication. And in the process, it provides us with an object lesson in the unifying and non – threatening nature of emoji. Perhaps the world can, indeed, be united for the better by this new, quasi-universal form of communication.

Communication and emotional intelligence

Setting aside dumplings, one of the serious questions surrounding the rise and rise of emoji is this: Why has the uptake of emoji grown exponentially: why is a truly global system of communication?  Some see emoji as little more than an adolescent grunt, taking us back to the dark ages of illiteracy.   But this prejudice fundamentally misunderstands the nature of communication. And in so doing it radically underestimates the potentially powerful and beneficial role of emoji in the digital age as a communication and educational tool.
All too often we think of language as the mover and the shaker in our everyday world of meaning.  But, in actual fact, most of the meaning we convey and glean in our everyday social encounters, comes from nonverbal cues.  In the spoken medium, gesture, facial expression, body language and speech intonation provide a means of qualifying and adjusting the message conveyed by the words.  A facial wink or smile nuances the language, providing a crucial contextualisation cue, aiding our understanding of the spoken word.  And intonation not only ‘punctuates’ our spoken language—there are no white spaces and full – stops in speech that help us identify where words begin and sentences end—intonation even provides ‘missing’ information not otherwise conveyed by the words.
Much of our communication is nonverbal.  Take gesture: our gestures are minutely choreographed to co-occur with our spoken words. And we seem unable to suppress them. Watch someone on the telephone; they’ll be gesticulating away, despite their gestures being unseen by the person on the other end of the line. Indeed, if gestures are suppressed, in lab settings say, then our speech actually becomes less fluent. We need to gesture to be able to speak properly.  And, by some accounts, gesture may have even been the route that language took in its evolutionary emergence.

Eye contact is another powerful signal we use in our everyday encounters.  We use it to manage our spoken interactions with others.  Speakers avert their gaze from an addressee when talking, but establish eye contact to signal the end of their utterance. We gaze at our addressee to solicit feedback, but avert our gaze when we disapprove of what they are saying. We also glance at our addressee to emphasise a point we’re making.
Eye gaze, gesture, facial expression, and speech prosody are powerful nonverbal cues that convey meaning; they enable us to express our emotional selves, as well as providing an effective and dynamic means of managing our interactions on a moment by moment time – scale.   Face – to – face interaction is multimodal, with meaning conveyed in multiple, overlapping and complementary ways.  This provides a rich communicative environment, with multiple cues for coordinating and managing our spoken interactions.

Digital communication increasingly provides us with an important channel of communication in our increasingly connected 21st century social and professional lives. But the rich, communicative context available in face-to-face encounters is largely absent.  Digital text alone is impoverished and emotionally arid.  Digital communication, seemingly, possesses the power to strip all forms of nuanced expression even from the best of us.   But here emoji can help: it fulfils a similar function in digital communication to gesture, body language and intonation, in spoken communication.  Emoji, in text messaging and other forms of digital communication, enables us to better express tone and provide emotional cues to better manage the ongoing flow of information, and to interpret what the words are meant to convey.

It is no fluke, therefore, that I have found, in my research on emoji usage in the UK, commissioned by TalkTalk Mobile, that 72% of British 18-25 year olds believe that emoji make them better at expressing their feelings.  Far from leading to a drop in standards, emoji are making people – especially the young – better communicators in their digital lives.

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[i] http://www.emarketer.com/Article/2-Billion-Consumers-Worldwide-Smartphones-by-2016/1011694#sthash.p0P9KU38.dpuf

[ii] Swyftkey April 2015

[iii] http://www.wnyc.org/story/your-subway-agony/  (accessed 8th July 2015 7.30pm BST).

[iv] http://joehale.bigcartel.com/product/wonderland-emoji-poster

Using Figurative Language

Using Figurative Language Book Cover Blog post written by Herb Colston, author of, Using Figurative Language.

Many people think figurative language is special or unusual somehow, used only or mostly in poetry, song lyrics or other creative outlets, or just when a speaker/writer is being flamboyant. Some people even think it’s a bad form of language, used to baffle or mislead people, or to be uncooperative in some way, or that it’s incomprehensible (or just hard to comprehend) and thus not how we ought to communicate. Even if people are more appreciative of figurative language they still often acknowledge its presumed higher potential for being misunderstood.

A common question thus posed about figurative language is why it even exists. Why do people speak (write) figuratively when more direct ways are available? Or, put most pointedly, why don’t people just say what they mean?

Using Figurative Language attempts to address this question. It reviews and discusses several decades’ worth of interdisciplinary research and theorizing which show first that the question itself is a bit odd. Many people don’t realize that speakers have been using figurative language as long as we’ve had language, and that on some level, there isn’t even a principled way to distinguish figurative from other supposedly nonfigurative language. Figurative language is also way more prevalent in normal everyday talk and writing than most people recognize. Although many of its instances can be creative and colorful as in song lyrics etc., most of it shows up right under our noses in ways we may not notice as figurative. By way of example, although Linguists and Psycholinguists would certainly argue over this specific quantity, one could readily claim the text I’ve used thus far in this blog post has well over three dozen figures in it, far more than the perhaps more obvious, ‘colorful’ and, ‘under our noses’. Figurative language is stealthy.

As for the misinterpretation likelihood, true, figurative language can be and is misunderstood occasionally, but so is purported non-figurative language in all the ways it can be unclear. Figurative language can also provide incredibly rich meaning. I’ve often described it as, “Meaning in concentrate—just add brain”. So the above question presumes we have the option of just omitting figurative language from talk and text to improve communication when doing so would be effectively impossible.

Despite the oddity of the question, though, the book also gives us the general answer to it— we use figurative language because it does things for us, things not as easily done with other kinds of language. These ‘things’ include meaning enhancement (for instance, by metaphor – “That job interview was a root canal”), negativity management (by rhetorical questions – “Are those your dirty dishes?”, or verbal irony – “Yeah right, just hysterical”), persuasion hyperbole – “Doing it that way will take forever”, or idioms – “That’s a tough row to hoe”), compliance improvement (by indirect requests – “Could I ask you a question?”), as well as social engineering, humor, bonding, tantalization and many, many others. The book not only documents that figurative language does these things, it also explores how it does so. For this the book gathers explanations from psychology, linguistics, evolutionary biology, anatomy, neuroscience, the history and variety of communication methods, semiotics, philosophy and other fields interested in figurative language.

The book also goes beyond the general usage answer though to show that understanding what figurative language accomplishes requires thinking about more than just language or communication. Figurative language is intertwined with our senses (seeing, hearing, touching, etc.) how we move physically (walking, jumping, reaching, etc.) our emotions, our broader concepts, our mind-reading and memory abilities, the actual physiology of pronunciation and many other diverse aspects of human life.

Figurative language is perhaps especially intermingled in our social interactions with other people. It can function as social honey, glue, lubricant, a lever, a ladder, a weapon, a pedestal, a pillow, a trap, a Trojan Horse, territory marking, handcuffs, a Band-Aid and perfume, among many other things. As just one brief concrete example, speakers use more figurative language when interacting with people they like, admire or wish to impress in some contexts, and using figurative language for this succeeds generally for speakers—other people like you back or are impressed if you use it right. Poetry and romance are connected for a reason!

The book also deals with many other questions one can ask about figurative language. How should we study it? How has it changed over time? Have we exhausted its potential? How might we best explain it? How does it arise in children? Why is there occasional resistance to it? How prevalent is it out there in the world?

Finally, the book treats all these issues concerning figurative language with many examples taken from authentic recorded talk and text by speakers as well as from diverse instances in popular culture (e.g., movies, television, advertisements, news sources, cartoons, novels, commercials, the internet and others). It thus provides a treatment scholarly readers can appreciate, but also might be enjoyed by broader audiences as well.

Thanks to Cambridge for publishing it and future-thanks to everyone who reads it. I hope you find it enlightening and enjoyable.

The truth about transitions: What psycholinguistics can teach us about writing

Blog post written by Yellowlees Douglas author of The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You A Better Writer

The Reader's Brain Journalists, particularly those writing for American audiences, practically have transitions drilled into their heads from their first forays into writing for the public. Where’s your transition? their editors persist, as they linger over each sentence. However, those editors and newsroom sages handed on advice with well-established roots in psycholinguistics—and with particularly striking benefits for the reading public. I explore what linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience can teach us about writing in my forthcoming The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer. And using an abundance of transitions is perhaps the simplest advice you can follow to make your writing easy to read, in addition to bolstering your readers’ speed and comprehension of even complex, academic prose.

As a species, we evolved to learn from observing cause and effect—and from making predictions based on those observations. For example, your everyday survival relies on your ability to predict how the driver to your right will behave on entering a roundabout, just as we predict hundreds of events that unfold in our daily lives, all of which dictate our behavior. But we feel relatively minimal cognitive strain from all these predictions, mostly made without any conscious awareness, because we can make predictions based on prior experience. We expect the familiar.

Similarly, in reading, we expect sequential sentences to relate to one another. However, most writers assume that their readers see the ideas represented in one sentence as inherently connected to the preceding sentence. But sentences can become islands of meaning, especially when writers fail to provide explicit linguistic cues that inform readers how one sentence follows another.

Take, for example, your typical university mission statement, the kind invariably featured in American university catalogues and websites:

Teaching—undergraduate and graduate through the doctorate—is the fundamental purpose of the university. Research and scholarship are integral to the education process and to expanding humankind’s understanding of the natural world, the mind and the senses. Service is the university’s obligation to share the benefits of its knowledge for the public good.

Chances are, even if someone offered you the lottery jackpot for recalling this content in a mere half-hour, you’d fail—at least, not without some serious sweat put into rote memoriziation. Why? Despite the mission statement containing a mere three sentences, nothing connects any sentence to the others—aside from the writer’s implicit belief that everyone knows that universities focus on teaching, research, and service. Unfortunately, only an academic would understand that research, teaching, and service form the bedrock of any research university. As a result, we can safely guess that the writer was an academic. Sadly, the actual audience for the mission statement—the family members tendering up their retirement savings or mortgaging the house for tuition—fail to see any connections at all. As studies documented as early as the 1970s, readers read these apparently disconnected sentences more slowly and with greater activity in the parts of the brain dedicated to reading. In addition, readers also show poorer recall of sentences lacking any apparently logical or referential continuity.

Because prediction is the engine that enables readers’ comprehension, transitions play a vital role in enabling us to understand how sentences refer to one another. In fact, certain types of transitions—particularly those flagging causation, time, space, protagonist, and motivation—bind sentences more tightly together. When you use as a result, thus, then, because, or therefore, your reader sees the sentence she’s about to read as causally related to the sentence she’s just read. Moreover, when writers place transitions early in sentences, prior to the verb, readers grasp the relationship before they finish making predictions about how the sentence will play out. These predictions stem from our encounters with tens of thousands of sentences we’ve previously read. But put the transition after the verb, and your readers have already completed the heavy lifting of prediction. Or, worse, they’ve made the wrong predictions and need to reread your sentences again.

You might think that a snippet like too or also or even flies beneath your readers’ radar. Think again. Transitions are your readers’ linguistic lifelines that link sentences and ideas smoothly together, making your reading easy to understand and recall. You can discover more about not only transitions but also of how your readers’ brains work through every facet of your writing—from the words you choose to the cadence of your sentences in The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer.

Metonymy in a Nutshell

MetonymyPost written by Jeannette Littlemore, author of Metonymy

Metonymy is a kind of shorthand that people use all the time but don’t always think about that much, which is a shame because, when used well, metonymy can have significant persuasive powers and when used badly, can lead to severe misunderstandings. In a nutshell, metonymy is a process whereby one entity is used to refer to another. For example, in the UK we use the term ‘Number 10’ to refer to the Government, whereas in the USA it’s ‘the White House’; and in South Korea, it’s the ‘Blue House’. All of these examples involve a metonymic relationship in which a place stands for an institution. However, this is not the only kind of metonymic relationship. There are many others. The word ‘Hoover’ can be used metonymically to mean vacuum cleaner, via a producer for product relationship, or we might say that we ‘need a drink’, to refer specifically to alcoholic drink, which would evoke a whole for part metonymic relationship. We might say that we need ‘some muscle’, when what we need is a strong person to help us move some furniture, thus evoking a defining property for category metonymic relationship, and so on and so forth.

Unlike metaphor, which usually involves a comparison between two unrelated entities, metonymy is a process whereby one thing is used to refer to something else, to which it is closely related or even forms part of. The best way to illustrate this is with an authentic example such as the following from the ‘Bank of English’ (BofE) corpus:

Do you want me to pencil you in for the time being?

In this example, ‘pencil you in’ is used metonymically to mean ‘make a provisional appointment’. The secretary offers to write the appointment in pencil rather than pen so that the customer can make last minute changes if necessary. ‘Pencil in’ thus stands metonymically for what one might do with a pencil (i.e. write something down which can subsequently be erased).

This example is typical of the way in which metonymy is used in everyday language as a kind of communicative shorthand, allowing people to use their shared knowledge of the world to communicate with fewer words than they would otherwise need. In this particular example, metonymy serves a mainly referential purpose, but it can be used for a wide variety of communicative functions, such as relationship-building, humour, irony and euphemism.

Metonymic meanings can be very subtle and easily missed, especially in communication between people with different linguistic or cultural backgrounds.

In my new book with Cambridge University Press, Metonymy: Hidden Shortcuts in Language, Thought and Communication, I explore and discuss its relationship with metaphor. I then move on to discuss the various models that have been proposed within Cognitive Linguistics to explain how metonymy operates, and highlight the benefits of each. In the book, I outline some of the key functions that metonymy performs in various forms of expression (language, gesture, art, film, dance and music), whilst maintaining a key focus on metonymy as a first and foremost cognitive process, which leave sits traces in these various forms of expression. After having briefly discussed difficulties in identifying metonymy, I examine the extant research into the neuro-linguistic processing of metonymy. Finally, I look at variations and similarities in the ways in which metonymy manifests itself across these different modes of expression and across different languages and cultures. The book is illustrated throughout with real-world examples of metonymy in different forms of expression.

Find out more on Jeannette Littlemore’s book Metonymy, published by Cambridge University Press.

Metaphor: What does figurative mean?

Random pile of colourful plastic letters
Figurative Language, written by Barbara Dancygier and Eve Sweetser, is a lively, comprehensive and practical book which offers a new, integrated and linguistically sound understanding of what figurative language is. The following extract is taken from the Introduction.

Thinking about figurative language requires first of all that we identify some such entity – that we distinguish figurative language from non-figurative or literal language. And this is a more complex task than one might think. To begin with, there appears to be a circular reasoning loop involved in many speakers’ assessments: on the one hand they feel that figurative language is special or artistic, and on the other hand they feel that the fact of something’s being an everyday usage is in itself evidence that the usage is not figurative. Metaphor, rather than other areas of figurative language, has been the primary subject of this debate. Lakoff and Johnson (1980) recount the story of a class taught by Lakoff at Berkeley in the 1970s in which he gave the class a description of an argument and asked them to find the metaphors. He expected that they would recognize phrases such as shoot down someone else’s argument, bring out the heavy artillery, or blow below the belt as evidence of metaphoric treatment of argument as War or Combat. Some class members, however, protested, saying, But this is the normal, ordinary way to talk about arguing. That is, because these usages are conventional rather than novel, and everyday rather than artistic, they cannot be metaphoric. However, there are many reasons to question this view, and to separate the parameters of conventionality and everyday usage from the distinction between literal and figurative. One of these is historical change in meaning: historical linguists have long recognized that some meaning change is metaphoric or metonymic. For example, around the world, words meaning ‘see’ have come to mean ‘know’ or ‘understand.’ Indeed, in some cases that past meaning is lost: English wit comes from the Indo-European root for vision, but has only the meaning of intellectual ability in modern English. But in other cases, such as the see in I see what you mean, metaphoric meanings in the domain of Cognition exist alongside the original literal Vision uses. This knowing is seeing metaphor is extremely productive: transparent, opaque, illuminate, and shed light on are among the many English locutions which are ambiguous between literal visual senses and metaphoric intellectual ones. Do we want to say that because these are conventional usages, they are not metaphoric? In that case, we would have to separate them completely from less entrenched uses which show the same metaphoric meaning relationship: if someone says they have examined a candidate’s record with a magnifying glass, we probably don’t want to say that there should be a dictionary entry for magnifying glass listing this usage. Still less would we want to make a new dictionary entry if someone said they had gone over the data with an electron microscope. As has been widely argued, starting with Lakoff and Johnson, the most plausible hypothesis here is that while wit is no longer metaphoric, transparent and shed light on are metaphoric – and that it is precisely the habitual use of conventional instances of the knowing is seeing metaphor which helps motivate innovative uses.

It is thus possible for metaphor or metonymy to motivate conventional extensions of word meanings – and figurative links which are pervasively used in this way shape the vocabularies of the relevant languages. At a first approximation, then, we might say that figurative means that a usage is motivated by a metaphoric or metonymic relationship to some other usage, a usage which might be labelled literal. And literal does not mean ‘everyday, normal usage’ but ‘a meaning which is not dependent on a figurative extension from another meaning.’ We will be talking about the nature of those relationships in more detail soon, but of course metaphor and metonymy are not the only motivations for figurative usage. In this context, we might say that polysemy – the relationship between multiple related conventional meanings of a single word – is often figurative in nature. English see continues to manifest simultaneously meanings related to physical vision and ones related to cognition or knowledge: Can you see the street signs? coexists with Do you see what I mean?.

Read the full excerpt here or find out more about Figurative Language here.

Chopping down the Syntax Tree

Word-tree-5Blog post by Remi van Trijp based on a recent article in Language and Cognition

One of the most notorious problems in linguistics is how to handle “long-distance dependencies”: utterances in which some elements seem to have been taken away from their original position and then moved to a different place. Typical examples are WH-questions such as “What did you see” in which the direct object (“what”) takes sentence-initial position instead of following the verb, as it would do in a declarative utterance (e.g. “I saw the game”).

But what makes long-distance dependencies so difficult? Most linguists assume a tree structure (or “phrase structure”) for analyzing utterances. As a data structure, trees consist of nodes that have at most one parent node, which means that information in a tree can only trickle down from a parent to its immediate children, or percolate upwards in the other direction. A tree structure is thus hopelessly inadequate for representing dependencies between nodes that are in the top of the hierarchy and nodes that are situated somewhere below. The most common solution to this problem is to say that there is a “gap” where we would normally expect a part of the utterance. Information about the gapped element then has to be communicated node-by-node upwards in the tree, until the “filler” of the gap is found.

In recent years, however, a cognitive-functional alternative has started to crystallize in which long-distance dependencies spontaneously emerge as a side effect of how grammatical constructions interact with each other in order to cater for the different communicative needs of language users. For example, the difference between “I like ice cream” and “Ice cream I like” can be simply explained as the tendency for speakers to put the most topical information in the front of the sentence – suggesting that word order should be decoupled from an utterance’s hierarchical structure.

While this view has for a long time been dismissed for being ad-hoc and not lending itself to proper scientific formalization, there now exists a formally explicit computational implementation of the cognitive-functional alternative in Fluid Construction Grammar, which works for both parsing and production. The implementation eliminates all formal machinery needed for filler-gaps by chopping down the syntax tree: rather than taking a tree structure as the sole device for representing all information of an utterance, different linguistic perspectives are represented on equal footing (including an utterance’s information structure, functional structure, illocutionary force, and so on).

The implementation shows that a cognitive-functional approach to long-distance dependencies outperforms the filler-gap analysis in several domains: it is more parsimonious, more complete (i.e. it includes a processing model) and it offers a better fit to empirical data on language evolution.

Access the entire article without charge until 31st July 2014

Bilingual Language Acquisition

9781107673151
How do children develop bilingual competence? Do bilingual children develop language in the same way as monolinguals? Set in the context of findings on language development, Bilingual Language Acquisition examines the acquisition of English and Spanish by two brothers in the first six years of their lives. (The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 1).

Introduction

Bingual language acquisition

The terms bilingual and bilingualism have received diverse definitions. In this book, bilingual (the person), and bilingualism (the condition or state of affairs) refer to the use of two (or more) languages in everyday life. Two major patterns of language acquisition have been identified in studies of early bilingualism: simultaneous bilingualism and sequential bilingualism, but no agreement exists with respect to the age at which bilingual development would be considered to be sequential. In simultaneous bilingualism, the child acquires two languages at the same time from birth or, as some researchers propose, before 3 years of age. Here, I use the term Bilingual First Language Acquisition (BFLA, or 2L1) to refer to situations where the child’s exposure to two languages begins at birth (cf. De Houwer 2009: Ch. 1). This means that the question of the effect that different ages of first exposure to a language may have on the development of bilingual competence is not relevant in BFLA, but it is in sequential bilingualism. The latter could be differentiated, depending on when acquisition of a second language begins, into: (a) successive bilingualism, when the child’s exposure to a second language starts sometime between the first and third birthdays; and (b) early second language acquisition, a form of early bilingualism that happens when a child has one established language before starting to hear and learn a second language (De Houwer 2009: 4). This book focuses on BFLA – that is, on the acquisition of two languages from birth, Spanish and English in this case. The overall goal is to examine whether bilingualism affects the course of development in each language, and if so, how. course of development in each language, and if so, how.

 

Download the full excerpt here