Tuesday, 18 September 2018

What do hashtags mean?

Anyone who uses social media is probably aware of the ubiquitous hashtag. What started as a simple way to tag topics on internet chat rooms was then adopted by Twitter, and then spread to many other platforms, including Facebook, Tumblr, and Instagram. The way that the hashtag is used has changed a lot in that time, evolving from a tag into a way of deliberately communicating stances and ideas.

Barbara De Cock and Andrea Pizarro Pedraza found this to be the case when investigating the use of the #jesuis hashtag (‘I am’). You may recall that this hashtag came out of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine. People on Twitter used the hashtag #jesuischarlie to express their support and solidarity with the victims after the incident. De Cock and Pizarro Pedraza wanted to investigate the phenomenon further, to see how the #jesuis hashtag construction changed its meaning in different contexts. To do this, they manually observed and monitored the #jesuis hashtag over the course of a year, to better understand how it was being employed. They then developed a script which gathered a sample of tweets using the #jesuis construction between March and April 2016.

They found 407 different constructions, with four broad different uses: one set referring specifically to terrorist attacks; one set to other disasters involving loss of life; one set to other sad news stories; and one set which did not express solidarity in the face of tragedy, but instead were critical or mocking of the whole concept. These were most often used in conjunction with proper nouns, such as Charlie, Belge, ‘Belgium’, or Panama, but occasionally with other kinds of nouns, such as in #jesuischien, ‘I am dog’ , after the death of a police dog during a raid on a flat occupied in Belgium that was occupied by terrorists.

While the original hashtag expressed solidarity with the loss of human life, De Kock and Pizarro Pedraza noticed a broadening of its use through the four categories. For example, the #jesuisEcuador hashtag was for a natural disaster, as opposed to a terrorist attack, but was still employed to express solidarity with a loss of life. The use of the hashtag changed further still regarding other causes; a French spelling reform inspired a hashtag #jesuiscirconflexe, or ‘I am circumflex’, the diacritic used above certain French letters such as ê. While there is nothing tragic about a change of spelling, the hashtag was still being employed as a way of expressing solidarity with those who were unhappy about the proposed change. This also occurred with events which concerned free speech, something that Charlie Hebdo was seen to represent for a lot of sympathisers; the hashtag #jesuisBoehmermann was not used to express solidarity with someone that had died, but rather with a comedian who was being charged by the Turkish president for criticising him in a stand-up routine.

As with many things that are shown to align with a stance, the hashtag has been used to criticise or show disalignment as well, often by using it ironically. For example, Charlie Hebdo themselves employed the hashtag when the Panama papers news broke: when multiple politicians were found to be hiding money to avoid tax. The #jesuisPanama tag was ironic, feigning solidarity with a class of privileged people to highlight their unethical behaviour. The research showed, then, that the hashtag was being used in a variety of ways.

The authors briefly mention the English #I am tag too, pointing to the use of #I am Leicester to express proud support after the unexpected win by the Leicester football team in the 216 Premier League competition So next time you are on any social media platform, and you see the #jesuis tag or the #I am tag, you could have a think about what kind of solidarity the author is trying to show, if any.

De Cock, B., & Pizarro Pedraza, A. (2018). From expressing solidarity to mocking on Twitter: Pragmatic functions of hashtags starting with #jesuis across languages. Language in Society 47(2):1-21.

This summary was written by Marina Merryweather

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Address terms in Grime

No British genre better highlights the effects of globalisation than Grime music: an amalgam of Garage, Jungle, Hip Hop and Dancehall which emerged from pirate radio stations in East London in the early 2000s. Through Grime, the artists (known as MCs), who are often youths from marginalised, multi-ethnic areas, discuss the hardships of their upbringing. 

I set out to analyse how Grime MCs addressed and referred to other people in their lyrics, in the hope of understanding what defined their interpersonal relationships: familiarity (mutual knowledge of personal information), solidarity (mutual rights and obligations) or affect (mutual like or dislike).

I extracted and coded 589 nominal address and reference terms from 27 Youtube videos by six MCs: 2 from London, 2 from North England and 2 from Cardiff, with approximately 100 terms per MC. All terms were coded for three categories: (1) the addressee or referent  (peer, police, rival, friend, family, artist, female, or other; (2) the emotional context: negative, positive, derogatory or neutral; (3) kinship (kinship, non-kinship or voluntary kinship, meaning using a kinship term for someone who is not a blood relative, such as using bro (‘brother’) to refer to a friend.

106 different terms emerged, with the most frequent showing that all six MCs draw on the same cultural influences. The first group of frequent terms is man, don, mandem, blud and brudda, which all have Jamaican Creole roots. The second group are British or American English terms: fam, mum, and guys, while the third group of terms are affiliated with Hip-Hop: dawg, cuz, nigga.

Delving deeper, I found that negativity was common in the MCs’ lyrics, as in “Blud, I’ll get physical for you”. In fact, of 130 address terms, only seven were non-negative. This is partly explained by the tradition of boasting in Hip-Hop, where MCs use insults to win lyrical battles against opponents. This negativity indicates that affect is not central to their relationships, but what about familiarity and solidarity?

Voluntary kinship terms were also frequent and, interestingly, were often used in negative contexts, such as “Bury your spleen fam”. Sociologists argue that when we face instability, we create fictive ties with others to create a safer world. MCs may therefore use kinship terms to address and refer to non-family members to show that they belong to the Grime community. However, these terms are simultaneously placed in a negative context so that the MCs can engage in lyrical competitions of honour. Given that they use these terms for people they do not know, familiarity doesn’t seem to be the most defining feature of their relationships.

Every MC had a slightly different style, with some drawing more on Jamaican Creole terms whilst others focused on terms from Multicultural London English. MCs in Cardiff were more likely to use British or American English terms, whereas those from London included more Hip-Hop terms. However, there were also nationwide patterns: for example, all six MCs used MLE terms like man and fam, and they addressed and referred to the same people, such as rivals and the police. Even though MCs in the Grime community do not know one another, or necessarily like one another, these patterns in their address and reference system suggest that solidarity is crucial for their interpersonal relationships. It signals that they are part of a wider cultural in-group which unites adolescents from marginalised multi-ethnic areas. I conceptualise this as an imagined community, in the sense of Benedict Anderson (2006, Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso Books). The system certainly reflects hostility, hypermasculinity and individual expression, but it is ultimately based on shared grievances that come from their social neglect. The comradeship expressed in their lyrics allows them to turn their negative experiences into a positive celebration of their existence.


Adams, Zoe (2018) "I don’t know why man’s calling me family all of a sudden”: Address and reference terms in grime music. Language and Communication 60: 11-27.


This summary was written by Zoe Adams