Linguistic Reflections of a coronaspeak year

Well, what a year this has been! A year like no other. Where life and even the way we interact changed.

It is inevitable then that many of our authors blogged about the virus, its impact on not only us, but also our language. As Michael Toolan reflects ‘…as with every new phenomenon with the potential to turn our world upside down, our first response, immediate and intimate but with potential to go global, is in our language.’

Words such as lockdown, quarantine (Cambridge Dictionary’s word of the year 2020) and ‘the rona’ have all made their way into every day vocabulary.

As David Crystal reflected, ‘the majority of the neologisms are blends – the combination of parts of two old words to make a new one. Many begin with Cov (covidiot, covideo, covidivorce) or corona (coronanoia, coronaspiracy, coronacation, and, for your self-made haircut, coronacut).’

Let’s hope there’s no record of our coronacuts!

Our language has changed throughout the course of this pandemic. As Betsy Rhymes notes language has ‘gone from the whimsical sharing of quarantinis and quaran-baking to the more ominous spectre of maskholes and the scamdemic… talking our struggles against the pandemic into being’.

Then there are those who use language as Stanley Dubinsky & Michael Gavin state ‘a marker that signals danger and contagion.’

Trump referred to the virus as an “Invisible Enemy” and even “a Chinese Virus”. As Janet McIntosh comments ‘…we have seen his florid playbook at work: anti-PC tough talk; near-gleeful verbal bigotry; theatrical claims and rapid reversals; catchy and chantable hostilities; and a veneer of military grandeur.’

Whilst in the UK, we watched as the Prime Minister and Special Advisor created a story to justify breaking lockdown restrictions, ‘The original aim of the government’s narrative was to justify Cummings’s actions by foregrounding one emotional rationale over another. Okay, so maybe he’d bent the rules ever so slightly with his trip (yes, this was a moral failing on his part), but he did so in order to satisfy a higher moral code: looking after his infant son.’ as Philip Seargeant tells us.

Looking forward though, Florian Coulmas found in his 100 voices project, people hope for truth. ‘This is directed at the willingness of governments honestly to communicate with the public…Yet truth gives us hope.’

So, as we move towards a new year, it is with hope. At the time of writing, a vaccine is being rolled out in the UK. Perhaps the beginning of life getting back to somewhat normal, and coronaspeak, social bubbles and Covid-19 itself being a thing of the past.

The blogs featured here were originally posted as part of our Cambridge Reflections: Covid-19 series, which can be read on our 1584 blog. Betsy Rhymes’ blog ‘The Shared (and Not so Shared!) Language of Covid-19: Our ways with words may be as critical as a vaccine’, can be read here.

English-based coroneologisms: A short survey of our Covid-19-related vocabulary English Today

Language as Symbolic Power

 Written by Claire Kramsch, author of Language as Symbolic Power

When twenty years ago I decided to teach an undergraduate course on Language and Power in my German department at UC Berkeley,  I didn’t have any other purpose in mind than to share my newly acquired insights into post-structuralist approaches to language study with students who were learning a foreign language. As they were working hard to acquire French or German and to develop the ability to communicate with foreign others, I wanted to show them how much more there is to language than just grammar and vocabulary. Why, behind their choices of what to say, what not to say, and how to say it, there was a whole power game going on!

Many students had never thought about what it took to play that game, neither in their native nor in the foreign language. They still believed the old adage “Sticks and stones/ can break my bones/ but words/ can never hurt me”. I was determined to deflate their bubble and to show them how and why words can hurt – they can make you laugh and cry, and can lead you to action. How often have I been taken in by the sound of someone’s voice, their accent, their choice of words, that have either endeared me to them or turned me off.  Many people fall in love with native speakers because of the way they talk –  I know I have. How often have I been unable to truly understand what a person meant by a word because I didn’t know the word’s history in that person’s culture – the word “people” in English for example vs. “le peuple” in French and “das Volk” in German.  But then, how can we know whether someone is speaking through their culture or through their own unique self?,  I wondered.

As the course gained in popularity and I was invited to teach it for the campus at large, it grew into a full-fledged interdisciplinary course on language as social and political practice and was ultimately transformed into a book, Language as Symbolic Power, soon to be published by Cambridge University Press.

While the class was becoming more and more multilingual and multicultural, so did the examples that the students provided to illustrate the theories we were reading. For example, their examples of child rearing practices from different parts of the world confirmed or disconfirmed Bourdieu and Foucault’s views on the power of discourse and discourses of power.

Over the years the course also became more and more relevant to the current political situation: the fall-out from the 2001 attack against the World Trade Center and the way the media discussed the event; the rhetorical strategies that preceded the war in Iraq and Bush’s “Mission Accomplished”; the Obama years  “Yes we Can” and, after the police killing of Trayvon Martin,  “If I had a son, he’d be like Trayvon”.  Indeed, as Panagiota Gounari writes in her introduction to a special issue of the L2 Journal (2020) on Critical Pedagogy and Language Learning and Teaching in Dangerous Times, “language as a site of power, ideological tensions, political and financial interests, hierarchies, and symbolic and material violence, is most definitely a war zone.”

Now that we have lived through four years of Donald Trump’s language warfare, language as symbolic power will be having a field day at the ballot box. No speech act will be more important than the vote we will cast on November 3. The results of the election will show what value we still give to words like “democracy” and “truth”, and how we are to use language on social and other media in the future. They will certainly affect how the readers of Language as Symbolic Power understand the book when it comes out in November.

How a #CheekyNandos became more acceptable

By Laura R. Bailey (University of Kent) and Mercedes Durham (Cardiff University)

Our recent article, A cheeky investigation: Tracking the semantic change of cheeky from monkeys to wines describes the behaviour of cheeky in British and American English.

For Mercedes, growing up in French-speaking Switzerland but speaking American English at home meant having to ‘relearn’ English at school with her classmates. They were learning British English, which, for Mercedes, often led to confusion. Confusion sometimes turned into hilarity, particularly the time she was confronted with a picture of a dog stealing sausages and the exclamation ‘What a cheeky dog!’. Cheeky, for people or dogs, just wasn’t in her vocabulary. Fast forward a couple decades when she moved to the UK, and found that not only was cheeky all over the place but it was used for drinks and food too. #CheekyNandos, so baffling to Mercedes and other American-English-speaking internet users, was commonplace and unremarkable for Laura and other British-English-speakers. Being good linguists, we set up a study.

We knew that cheeky applied to food and drink was newer than cheeky for sausage-stealing dogs, so we wanted to know whether this newer form of cheeky had spread to North America, despite the fact that the older form was known to be used less there. It gave us the opportunity to examine how language changes and how the internet might in some cases spur this on.

It’s no surprise to sociolinguists to find differences when the same language is spoken in different regions, and we know that changes can happen at different times in different places, or simply only happen in one place. But in our highly connected world there are cases where the internet can help spread language, particularly in the case of specific words or phrases spreading via memes.

What’s in a meme?
While our article focuses on existing differences between linguistic varieties that memes and language play can bring to light, memes themselves are language change in action.

Memes are cultural shortcuts: often jokes or satirical social comment, they provide the setup so the memer just needs to find a funny punchline. Part of the joke then consists of the template itself, such as the ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme:

the ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme, consisting of a woman looking at her boyfriend angrily as he turns to leer at a passing woman. The distracted boyfriend is labelled ‘me’, the passing woman ‘a nap’, and the girlfriend ‘multiple pressing matters and responsibilities’.

As memes become popular and enter the general consciousness of a group of users, they can be modified, illustrating language change processes familiar from the ‘real world’. Soundcloud, for instance, is a site for musicians to host their music. It became popular for a Twitter user to follow up a viral tweet with a reply saying something like ‘Oh wow, this blew up, here’s a link to my Soundcloud if you want to check my music out!’. So many people did this that the text became pretty formulaic and began to be mocked. Now, ‘Soundcloud’ has travelled through a process of trademark genericisation (where the brand name became used as a generic term for any music site), abstraction (where the generic term became a metaphorical term for something to promote, such as a charity) and verbification (it has become used as a verb meaning ‘to promote something under a viral tweet’).

Memes that rely only on a specific sentence construction or phrase, and don’t need the scaffolding of an image or social media platform can break out into the ‘real world’. This has happened in recent months with shortcuts for generational or socioeconomic groups such as ‘snowflake’ and ‘boomer’. While these terms have been around for some time (‘boomer’ has been used to describe the generation born between the World War II and the early 60s since at least its first attestation in the OED in 1976), within the last year the use of the phrase ‘OK boomer’ has, well, boomed. With the help of TikTok it became a meme, and now an utterance of ‘OK boomer’ condenses reams of intergenerational discord into a convenient verbal eyeroll.

The cheeky nandos meme did two things: it highlighted the regional difference that we already suspected was there, given Mercedes’ own experience, and it revealed a linguistic change in progress that is spreading from the UK to the US, at least in part via this meme.

We asked 372 people to rate sentences using the word cheeky. We were especially interested in their answers to the sentences that included ‘old-fashioned’ cheeky, such as He’s a cheeky boy, and the newer use, as in Let’s go for a cheeky nandos after work. We call these Type 1 and Type 2 respectively. Type 1 are the blue squares in this graph, and Type 2 are the orange dots:

Graph illustrating the mean rating (1-6) of sentences containing two types of cheeky. Type 1 are rated between 4 and 5.5 out of 6, and Type 2 are rated at around 4.

You can see that Type 1 and Type 2 (old and new cheeky) are pretty distinct, especially if you only consider the Type 1s that refer to humans and not animals (it turns out Americans think you have to be human to be cheeky, while Brits are familiar with cheeky dogs).

The biggest difference between the UK and North America is revealed if we look at Type 2, the #CheekyNandos type. Cheeky to refer to food, drinks and illicit activities is very much a UK thing, it turns out:

Graph showing that while Type 1 is rated at around 4.5 by both regions, Type 2 is rated at 4.6 by British respondents and 2.8 by North Americans.

We also suspected that the new use of cheeky would be more acceptable among younger people. If it is, this indicates it’s a change in progress (so-called ‘apparent time’). And it is, in both regions: the orange line in both graphs below dips as the age of the respondents goes up. In the UK but not North America, new cheeky is at least as acceptable as the original one, if not more so, for younger speakers. Many respondents said the original meaning seemed old-fashioned, and like something their grandma might say.

Two graphs, showing the relative rating of the two types of cheeky by age group in Britain and Ireland and in North America.

We also looked at whether cheeky was expanding further into contexts such as ‘Let’s go for a cheeky ride’ (we called this type 3). You can see what we found about them, and more about what we’ve talked about here in the full article describing the study in more detail, published in English Today.

Laura R. Bailey (@linguistlaura) and Mercedes Durham (@drswissmiss)

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’.

German Intensifiers: The Emergence of German Variationist Sociolinguistics

Written by James Stratton ([email protected])
Purdue University, Department of Linguistics, School of Languages and Cultures

Everything in the universe has to evolve to survive, and language is no exception. As well as constantly changing, language is also rich in variability, that is, there are several ways of expressing the same thing. The fundamental idea of variationist or Labovian sociolinguistics is that variation is not random, but instead is conditioned by various linguistic and social factors. Intensification is a part of language which is constantly evolving because, as intensifiers become overused, they start to lose their intensifying or persuasive effect. Since intensifiers provide speakers with the opportunity to make their speech more persuasive, credible, and emotional, at any given point in time there are various intensifiers which speakers can choose from.

To describe the weather in German, speakers can say it is sehr kalt ‘very cold’, echt kalt ‘real cold’, voll kalt ‘very cold’ [literally. full cold], richtig kalt ‘right/proper cold,’ super kalt ‘super cold’, so kalt ‘so cold’, wirklich kalt ‘really cold’ and recht kalt ‘real cold’, to name but a few. Speakers can also intentionally choose to not intensify the adjective and say that it is simply kalt ‘cold’. Examining the factors which shape the decision to use an intensifier or not, as well as the factors influencing intensifier choice, is a variationist question. In a study published in the Journal of Germanic Linguistics, I carried out the first variationist analysis of German intensifiers.

By collecting a list of the contexts in which intensifiers could be used, I was able to quantify the average number of adjectives a speaker intensifies. In doing so, I found that German adjectives were intensified 37 percent of the time. Of the possible choices, so ‘so’ has become the most frequent (e.g., meine Mutter ist so anstrengend ‘my mother is so tiring’). While sehr ‘very’ has been around since Middle High German (e.g., ir sît sere wunt ‘you are painfully à sorely à very wounded’), so has been coming in and out of fashion throughout the history of Germanic. It can be found in Old English (he swa ænlic wæs ‘he was so famous’), in Old High German (min vater ist so samalih ‘my father is so similar’) and in Old Saxon (sô blîði warð ‘became so happy’). While it fluctuates in frequency across time and space, it is found today in a number of Germanic languages, such as Dutch (e.g., hij is zo groot ‘he is so big’), Norwegian (e.g., han er så høy ‘he is so tall’) and Icelandic (e.g., það  er  svo  hlýtt  ‘it is so warm’). Today, the shift from sehr ‘very’ to so ‘so’ is a change led by predominantly younger as opposed to elderly speakers. That said, so has become so pervasive (as in English!) that it has spread to speakers of all ages.

Intensifiers which scale up the meaning of an adjective (e.g., der Film war echt langweilig ‘the movie was real[ly] boring) are called “amplifiers”, whereas intensifiers which scale down the meaning of an adjective (e.g., der Film war ein bisschen langweilig ‘ the movie was a little boring’) are called “downtoners”. Consistent with findings from other languages, German amplifiers (67%) were used more frequently than German downtoners (33%). Even though both men and women used amplifiers more frequently than they used downtoners, women used amplifiers more frequently than men did. However, interestingly, men used downtoners more frequently than women did. Therefore, in statistical terms, if you encounter a sentence containing an amplifier (e.g., so, sehr, echt) there is a higher likelihood that it came from a female speaker than a male speaker. In contrast, if you encounter a sentence containing a downtoner (e.g., ein bisschen), there is a higher likelihood that it came from a male speaker. On a sociological and anthropological level, this difference may suggest something inherent about the nature of being male or female in modern societies, a difference which is manifest in language itself. In other words, women have a tendency to describe events as being higher than the assumed norm more often than men do which is reflected in their language (e.g., the movie was not just good, but was really good), and while men also prefer to amplify the meaning of an adjective, they tone down its meaning more frequently than women do (e.g., the movie was kind of good).

By looking at intensifier use across different age groups, it seems that intensification becomes more common over time. There are several possible reasons for this, one being that the overuse of an intensifier brings about the need for additional ways to intensify one’s speech so that a message remains convincing and emotional. However, there is a notable caveat. Very young speakers of German, such as speakers 10 years of age or younger, used intensifiers less frequently than all other age groups. A likely explanation for this is that these speakers are still in the developing stages of language acquisition and therefore first acquire adjectives before the use of optional intensifiers.

This study provides several insights into German intensifier use and its interaction between social factors such as gender and age. In doing so, the study also hopes to have laid the foundation for future work in a field which does yet officially exist, namely German Variationist Sociolinguistics. While Variationist Sociolinguistics is well established for work on English, to date, few studies have employed classical variationist methods to examine German variation and change.
For updates on future German variationist work follow me on Twitter and my project “German Variationist Sociolinguistics” on Researchgate.

Adjective Intensifiers in German is free to access.

James Stratton’s website

The Cambridge Studies of Language Practices and Social Development

World network with outline of peopleThe Cambridge Studies of Language Practices and Social Development series provides a needed platform for scholarly discussions around the relationship between diverse language practices and social development and environmental conservation around the world. This series publishes research of the highest quality in socially oriented and problem driven applied linguistics integrating qualitative and quantitative methodologies from humanities, social sciences, public health, education and computer science.

Cambridge Extra spoke to the series editor Meng Ji (The University of Sydney, Australia) about the series.

What has motivated the development of the series?

Our series promotes innovative focused research to address practical social problems such as global environmental, health and legal issues which represent new research challenges, as well as opportunities for socially oriented language practice research.

This series fills in an important gap in current applied linguistics, i.e. socially oriented language practices for disadvantaged social groups such as aboriginal peoples, migrants, refuges, asylum seekers, women, children and people living with physical and mental illnesses.

Titles in this series will demonstrate that socially oriented linguistic research can produce significant, multi-disciplinary outcomes to help the global community and international and national policy makers tackle pressing social problems in the contemporary world.

The inclusion of world indigenous languages represents a major contribution of this series to the study of changing (bilingual/multilingual/translingual) language practices and services around the world.

Can you tell us about some of the topics that this new series will cover?

The series of Cambridge Language Practices and Social Development promotes research innovation and global research collaboration in (bilingual, multilingual, translingual) language practices. Our series covers a wide range of research topics that have emerged from our changing contemporary social environments:

  • multicultural healthcare and public health promotion
  • environmental conservation
  • protection of aboriginal cultural heritage
  • bilingual and multicultural legislation and policy communication
  • community health and medical interpreting
  • social service translation
  • aboriginal and immigrant translation and language policy
  • social language practices for disadvantaged communities and indigenous people

Who is the series aimed at?

This new series will be of important practical use for students and academics interested in developing advanced knowledge of (bilingual/multilingual and translingual) language practices.

It will include research monographs and edited volumes integrating and balancing input from leading academics and industry-based research leaders with extensive professional experiences of bilingual/multilingual/translingual education and research.

Titles in this new series will provide illustration of the application of advanced linguistic research methodologies in the study of real-life materials and data: for example, construction of digital multilingual infrastructure; and the development of empirical linguistic analytical instruments for the study of environmental, political, healthcare and legal issues and social phenomena.


Any interested authors can contact Meng Ji on [email protected] for an informal discussion.


Black Lives Matter

Written by Karen Stollznow, author of ‘On the Offensive

What do people mean when they say, “Black Lives Matter?”

“Black Lives Matter” is a slogan and a social movement in response to the historical and current social and systemic racism and violence perpetuated against Black people.

Where did the phrase come from?

In 2012, 17-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin was walking home in Sanford, Florida, having just purchased a packet of Skittles from a convenience store. He was spotted by local resident George Zimmerman who reported Martin to local police as “suspicious.” Martin was innocent of any crime, although Zimmerman confronted the young man and fatally shot him, claiming the act was in self-defense. He was acquitted of his crime. Following this incident the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter began appearing on social media, in support of Martin and in protest of social and systemic racism. This incident inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, which was co-founded by three Black community organizers: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.

Concerns about systemic and social racism against Black people have been reinvigorated in response to recent high-profile, racially charged incidents in the United States. These include the murder of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was shot while jogging in a south Georgia neighborhood, and also the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after a white police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while the man was handcuffed. These tragic events inspired worldwide protests that have raised awareness of social and systemic racism and led to a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and its motto.

When the Black Lives Matter motto initially arose, the phrase “All Lives Matter” soon sprang up in response, ostensibly to argue that all lives matter because we are all human beings. Black Lives Matter was misconstrued as confrontational, divisive, and exclusionary.

However, Black Lives Matter does not mean that other lives do not matter. Black Lives Matter does not mean that only Black lives matter. In a world where Black people are undeniably discriminated against, in the past and present, Black Lives Matter recognizes that Black lives matter too.

Countering with “All Lives Matter” derails the specific conversation about social and systemic racism against Black people. The saying dismisses, ignores, or denies the problem of racism against Black people, and it effectively shuts down this important discussion.

Black Lives Matter is a phrase that promotes the peaceful protest of racism against Black people. It also calls for immediate action against systemic and social racism. When said by Black people, Black Lives Matter is a declaration that Black lives do indeed matter. It is a cry for protection and recognition. When said by allies, that is, supportive people outside of the group, Black Lives Matter is a motto that acknowledges that Black lives matter, and says we stand in solidarity with members of the Black community.

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

Developing intercultural competence through Avatar, Black Panther and the Jungle Book?

Book cover for The Cambridge Handbook of Intercultural CommunicationWritten by Guido Rings – co-author of The Cambridge Handbook of Intercultural Communication

In a connected world, the ability to communicate effectively with people from other cultural backgrounds is a necessity. It is also an opportunity to widen our horizon and learn from good practice elsewhere to improve our lives.

But how can we improve that competence?

There are numerous ways, but we could for instance choose more wisely what we watch and read, and could do this more consciously. We may have already actually watched or read something that enhances our intercultural competence, but we are not aware of it.

For example, who has not watched Avatar, Black Panther or The Jungle Book, some of the highest-grossing movies of all time? Or more recently The Green Book, Blackkklansmen or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood? Or perhaps you read some of the Black Panther comics and/or the Jungle Book stories.

Watching or reading these stories for entertainment, can also connect you with other worlds and worldviews. Many people feel inspired learning from these other perspectives.

Avatar, connects you with the Omaticaya, a Na’vi forest tribe from Pandora that cherishes nature and fights under Jake Sully and Neytiri’s leadership against a global company, aiming to exploit Pandora’s resources. It is Science Fiction – the Omaticaya are a fictional tribe, living on a fictional planet – but there are parallels to the destruction of our rain forests today.

When Neytiri explains the importance of the Home Tree for her people, she highlights an essential link between tribal people and their natural surroundings that is echoed ‘in real life’ by people from the Penan tribe in Borneo. One Penan man highlights: ‘The Penan people cannot live without the rainforest. The forest looks after us, and we look after it. We understand the plants and the animals because we have lived here for many years, since the time of our ancestors’ ( Survival, 2010).

This is of course only one example of a different world view.

Black Panther, The Green Book and Blackkklansmen are examples of films fighting racism, in future and past worlds as well as ours (watch out for the documentary link to Trump and white supremacist perspectives at the end of Blackkklansmen).

On the other hand, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sheds light on fast pace change in the Hollywood film industry, which you might recognise from your company or institution. The film makes the point that fast pace change consumes us and could be handled better if we were able to learn from others – in this case people from another class, rather than a different ethnicity.

In this sense, intercultural competence is really an ‘action competence’ and the ability ‘to handle uncertain situations in a constructive way’ (Bolten, 2020: 57), be it in encounters with people from another nation or ethnicity, or simply with people with another worldview.

It is worth stressing that we don’t really think a lot about our own worldviews, and often do not even see them as a worldview, rather as the only ‘natural way’ to understand and handle things, implying that other ways might be wrong.

In this ‘single story’ context, the numerous and often competing stories developed in films, TV episodes, novels and short stories are useful, because they can describe other worldviews developing cognitive competence by presenting knowledge about other cultures, and enhancing affective competence by awakening our emphatic and even compassionate interest in other cultures. And they can help to develop pragmatic competence by projecting and examining the communication standards in another culture. In all these ways, a narrative can ‘become an agent in advancing intercultural understanding’ (see Neumann 2020: 138).

Does this mean we can understand your ‘Greenpeace obsessed’ neighbour, who keeps donating money for the preservation of the Borneo rainforest, better by watching Avatar?

Yes, we can. The Omaticaya stories and the Penan stories address a very similar existential problem, and your neighbour might actually want to help the Penan, or shares the same basic concern about the destruction of the rainforest without knowing about the Penan at all. In both cases, you experience a different worldview, connecting tribal concerns with your neighbour’s concerns, and that helps to address a key issue in contemporary public consciousness: global warming.

You might simply not connect to their genres or particular stories that much, everybody is different.

If you have examples of how your intercultural competence has increased thanks to film or literature, leave your comments. Which films/TV series/novels/short stories gave you a different worldview and why? How and when did you watch/read them, e.g. with your partner after a stressful day, and did that make a difference to your experience?

This might help you to reflect, and it could also help others to find the best text for the development of their intercultural competence.



Bolten, J. (2020). Rethinking Intercultural Competence. In: Guido Rings, Sebastian Rasinger (eds.): The Cambridge Handbook of Intercultural Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Neumann, B. (2020). The Power of Literature in Intercultural Communication. In: Guido Rings, Sebastian Rasinger (eds.): The Cambridge Handbook of Intercultural Communication. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Survival (2010): ‘Avatar is real’, say tribal people, in: Survival International, 25 January 2010 ( (last accessed 8 February 2020).

An interview with Susan Gal and Judith T. Irvine

Cover for Signs of Difference bookSusan Gal (University of Chicago) and Judith T. Irvine (University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) discuss their new book Signs of Difference: Language and Ideology in Social Life.

Firstly, tell us what motivated you to write Signs of Difference?

Our interest in collaboration began some years ago when we discovered a curious parallel in our findings from the two very different places where we had done research: small towns in Senegal and Hungary. Our collaboration started with those unexpected parallels between our separate ethnographic projects. Reading each other’s papers and listening to each other at AAA meetings, we saw amazingly similar processes in two fieldsites that were utterly worlds apart.

The happy result has been a semiotic approach to difference, an approach that is much wider than our own ethnographies but is well illustrated by them. Our book is mainly devoted to developing and explaining that approach, but it begins by showing how it applies to the two ethnographic cases.

In the German-Hungarian town in Hungary as in the Wolof-speaking town in Senegal, people were making distinctions among themselves not only through the way they spoke but also through different forms of emotional expression, clothing, houses and numerous other signs and activities. Language, social organization, geography, history, were all quite different. But in both towns, as it happened, one social category of people spoke and acted in relatively reserved, restrained ways; the other category, by contrast, seemed to be more elaborate in everything, more vivid, dramatic. These were stereotypes of difference. People oriented to these social types, often enacting them in their everyday lives. But how to understand the weird parallels between the two towns? “Restrained” vs. “elaborate” were the ways the people in our two towns characterized their own differences. But when we read fieldwork by others, we saw that although there were always overarching cultural distinctions that organized relations between contrasting sets of people and signs, those distinctions could be quite different from ours. For instance, there was: tough vs. soft in one place but in another pragmatic vs. political. To understand our own examples and others, our explanations would have to be quite abstract. And semiotic.

The book explicates step-by-step a semiotic process of differentiation, with several aspects, that encompasses all the cases. Contrast – as axis of differentiation – is the fundamental idea. Contrasts in expressive signs pointed to contrasting categories of identity; and the qualities attributed to the signs were also attributed to the people-types indexed by the signs. For those familiar with a particular cultural context, the signs of each identity seemed to cohere and to display the same qualities as the people types they point to. We also turned our hand to American and historical examples: How did Yankees come to be thought different types of people than Southerners in 19th century US?  How do faculty differentiate among themselves at an American university? How did the National Rifle Association divide in the course of a crucial political battle? And how do the axes of differentiation themselves change? It was very exciting to work out how the semiotic process we propose illuminates relations between whatever culturally-specific qualities are involved.

You are both regarded as recognized authorities on language and culture. How has your past experience of work on language and culture helped to shape this book?

Although we studied at different doctoral institutions, we were both part of a movement in anthropology and linguistics toward sociolinguistics and the ethnography of speaking, in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. As it happens, too, our mentors had collaborated on some of the leading works in the field at that time. So our training was parallel, as was our experience of trends in language study and the social sciences in the decades that followed. One of those trends was the semiotic turn that has made the work of C.S. Peirce prominent in cultural and linguistic anthropology. Another trend was anthropology’s increasing interest in political economy, power, and social inequality – a trend which, when linked to the Peircean approach, resulted in a focus on ideology of language. A third trend has involved history and scales of analysis. We have participated in the development of these themes, and in various conferences and working groups that have pressed them forward and in some of which we have worked together. These groups have produced some influential publications, including edited collections to which we have contributed, either separately or together.

The book argues that ideological work of all kinds is fundamentally communicative – can you tell us more about this?

A key point here is that ideological work is both interpretive and productive. It selects an object of attention, something that is picked out and distinguished from a background, and it places that something in a semiotic field of relevant comparisons, differentiations, and inclusions. This is not something that can be done just by an individual brain acting totally in splendid isolation. Instead, it is informed by social experience, by available narratives, metaphors, and theories, and by awareness of one’s interlocutors, past, present, and potential. So there is always, as Bakhtin taught us, some implicit dialogue in semiotic processes, even in those cases where there is not literally a conversation. “Communication” includes all these dialogic relations, even internal dialogue and the ways we unconsciously build upon our social experience.

Actual interactions matter to ideological work, however: interpretation requires uptake, if it’s to amount to anything much. That is, placing an idea, or some focal object, in a web of semiotic relations would ultimately be a social act, involving joint attention. Private contemplation can go a long way, but at some point a concept of ideology – because bound up with moral and political values – means that the interpretive act must be relevant to other people too.

Your book has been described as an “influential approach to understanding ideologies of linguistic and social difference.” What contribution do you feel the book makes?

Well, we feel it makes many contributions! To begin with, in our work ideologies of linguistic and social difference are the same thing, not two different avenues of investigation. But perhaps the first thing to emphasize is, as we’ve indicated in our response to the previous question, that we focus the study of ideology on ideological work: that is, on the activity of interpretation and the social processes that follow from interpretations and enlist them in projects. There are several other important contributions we feel our book makes, as well. We explore ideological work in everyday life, even in the most mundane activities and trivial moments, rather than focusing on the grand doctrines and “isms” (fascism, socialism, and so on) that are the starting point for many scholars in studying ideology; we prefer to consider how the ongoing practices and actions in social life involve ideological constructions. To investigate how those constructions are built up, we take a semiotic approach to the analysis of ideology; and we highlight comparison and difference, as key concerns and fundamental aspects of semiotic processing. Taken together, what these several points allow us to do is to link ideology to perspective and point of view, recognizing that there’s always more than one perspective on the social world. They allow us to focus on contrast and comparison as fundamental in cognitive processing as well as in how people organize their views of society and language. They provide us with methods for analyzing discourse, social interaction (in both its linguistic enactments and its material dimensions), social groupings and ways of speaking. We see ideologies as regimes of value, socially based and semiotically constructed; pertaining to practices and actions in everyday life as well as to grand projects; and incorporating a point of view.

The approach to comparison in our book is important to us, and it’s an approach that connects the ethnographer’s interpretive activity with that of the people an ethnographer studies. Your education and research training and, perhaps, your outsider status (if you come from somewhere else) affect your position and your view of the ethnographic scene, but the people you study are analyzing it too, and that’s something you want to find out about. Besides, those people form views of you, and those views affect the research as well. Everyone is interpreting what’s going on, from their own points of view, all the time, and that includes the activity of doing field research, whatever that research consists of. We have been concerned here with ways of being comparative without assuming we have the ultimate grid on which to place everybody in the world. Drawing on a semiotic analysis lets us see how to do that kind of comparison, and it lets us show that the same kind of analysis works among so many different examples and cases around the globe, including our own social worlds.