Monday 24 December 2012


Season's Greetings to all our readers.

We look forward to your continued interest in 2013.

Best wishes from the Linguistics Research Digest team.

Friday 14 December 2012

Say it like you mean it

If you've ever heard someone talk to a young child, or have done it yourself, you've probably noticed that it's quite different from how adults talk to other adults. Research comparing talk directed to infants with talk directed to adults has consistently borne this out. In addition to using features such as repetition and “simple” sentences in infant directed talk (or IDS), ‘prosodic’ features such as rhythm, pitch, intonation and stress also vary significantly, and to beneficial effect. It appears that young children not only prefer listening to IDS, but they also use its prosodic features in language learning. IDS stress patterns, for instance, help focus children’s attention on target words, as well as identifying grammatical class, and understanding word boundaries. Features of IDS prosody such as intonation and stress therefore appear to be important for helping young children to acquire lexical, morphological and syntactic information.

Deborah Herold,  Lynne Nygaard and Laura Namy have now found that adults also use prosody to help children understand the meanings of words.  They investigated the use of prosodic cues in the speech of fourteen, native English-speaking mothers interacting with their individual children. The average age of the children was 23 months. The researchers investigated six words with opposite meanings: happy/sad, hot/cold, big/small, tall/short, yummy/yucky, and strong/weak. Each pair was illustrated by images that would be easily recognisable to young children such as, for big/small, a big flower and a small flower and accompanying sentences which included the word being investigated, such as “look at the big one/look at the small one”. The mothers were asked to read and talk about the “picture book” with their children, and to make sure that they read each sentence at least once during the session. The mothers’ speech was then compared with earlier recordings where the mothers had produced each of the sentences as if it was directed to an adult. The two sets of recordings thus yielded talk directed to infants and talk directed to adults, for comparison, and the participants were unaware of the real aim of the study.

Herold, Nygaard and Namy found that mothers systematically varied prosodic cues such as loudness and duration in order to differentiate the meanings of the pairs of words. Adjectives such as happy, tall and strong were all produced more loudly than their opposites (sad, short and weak) (though the differences were negligible for the three remaining pairs of words). Happy, hot, big, short, yucky and weak were all produced with shorter duration than their opposites. Interestingly, happy was the only member of a pair to feature both greater loudness and shorter duration, which the researchers hypothesise may have something to do with the communication of positive emotion. If so, this is a new and significant finding: previous studies have shown that prosody can communicate something about the emotion of the speaker, but this research suggests that features of IDS prosody can provide  information about positive and negative meanings, even when the speaker is not actively experiencing those emotions themselves.

These findings are the first to show that when they are directing their talk to children, speakers use consistent and reliable prosodic cues to mark different word meanings. They add to a growing body of work on the significance of prosody in first language acquisition.
Herold, Deborah S., Nygaard, Lynne C. and Namy, Laura L. (2012) Say it like you mean it: mothers’use of prosody to convey word meaning. Language and Speech 55: 423-436.

doi 10.1177/0023830911422212

This summary was written by Ishtla Singh

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Is ‘Star Wars’ pronounced the same in Dorset as in New York?

Dorset or Dawset? Losing the /r/ sound in the southwest of England.

How do you pronounce ‘Star Wars’?  Can you hear the /r/ in either or both words?  If you can, you are using what linguists call ‘non-prevocalic /r/’. This refers to the presence of the /r/ sound in ‘non-prevocalic environments’, that is places in a word where there is no following vowel sound.  For example, ‘Star Wars’ could be pronounced sta(Ø) wa(Ø)with no /r/ sound (i.e non-prevocalic /r/ is absent or the phrase is ‘non-rhotic’) or star wars with the /r/ sound (i.e non-prevocalic /r/ is present or the phrase is ‘rhotic’).

In England, except for a small area of Lancashire and the southwest of England, all accents of English are described as non-rhotic and in some dialects rhoticity is changing.  For example, recent studies in the southwest of England suggest that rhoticity is in decline, whereas in the USA, in New York, it seems that the opposite process is occurring and former non-rhotic accents are becoming rhotic.

Caroline Piercy was interested in this phenomenon in the dialect of Dorset, southwest England.  She focused her study on four different age groups of speakers with equal numbers of male and female speakers in each.  Her results showed a decline in the use of non-prevocalic /r/ over time, with average rhoticity of her speakers being 29%.  The Survey of English Dialects in 1967 found rhoticity in the Dorset dialect to be 97%, so there has been a marked change over time.  Piercy also discovered that there was a strong correlation of age and rhoticity, with the youngest group of speakers not using non-prevocalic /r/ at all, signifying that this linguistic change from rhotic to non-rhotic is now complete in the Dorset dialect.

Piercy considered different linguistic scenarios where the /r/ could or could not be pronounced.  For example, she focused on the type of vowel preceding some instances of non-prevocalic /r/ and found that a word like ‘nurse’,  with a stressed vowel before the non-prevocalic /r/ was the most likely situation for the /r/ to occur.  Preceding vowels that were stressed like this were shown to favour rhoticity more than those that were unstressed, so that the /r/ was less likely to be pronounced in words like ‘your’ or ‘were’ for example. 

When lexical frequency was taken into account, Piercy found that frequently used words were less likely to be rhotic – so that a non-prevocalic /r/ in a more common word is less likely to be pronounced than one in a less common word.  Therefore, in Dorset, it seems that the more frequent words are leading the change in rhoticity as more people drop the non-prevocalic /r/ from their speech.  However, the study in New York has found that there it is the less common words that are leading the sound change towards rhoticity, as non-prevocalic /r/ becomes more prevalent.  Interestingly and perhaps due to this fact, in both studies more frequently used words displayed less rhoticity.  One explanation for this could be that it is easier to lose a sound from speech than to gain one.  So, in words which are used more frequently, the /r/ sound is lost more quickly.  Conversely, in less frequent, ‘rare’ words it is easier for the non-prevocalic /r/ to remain or even to become more stressed, as is the case in New York. 

Overall, Piercy’s study suggests that linguistic factors, which may apply across all varieties of English, could have universal effects in the use of non-prevocalic /r/.  It is interesting to reflect on the fact that, although two dialects may be thousands of miles apart, they can still be subject to the same linguistic forces…which brings us back to Star Wars!
Piercy, C. (2012). A Transatlantic Cross-Dialectal Comparison of Non-Prevocalic /r/. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics, Vol.18/2: 76-86.

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Linguistic cleanliness – will we ever accept variation and change?

How do you react when you hear people saying innit or like or how about when you see signs such as potato’s or tomatoe’s (see our previous post on the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’) in shop displays? For many people, these uses of language provoke emotional and, often, angry responses because they are viewed as ‘bad’ language and a threat to the stability of standard English.

Kate Burridge, a researcher and Professor of Linguistics, has taken a look at the attitudes and activities of ordinary people as reflected in letters to newspapers, listener comments on radio and email responses to her own comments made about language in various broadcasts. She states that linguistic purists tend to make a very clear distinction between what they see as ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ in language – in other words, what is desirable or undesirable. There are two aspects to this distinction; the first is that purists tend to want to retain the language in its perceived traditional form and they therefore resist language change and the second is that they want to rid the language of what they consider to be ‘unwanted elements’, including foreign influences. Burridge likens linguistic purism to dealing with taboo practices generally – ‘the human struggle to control unruly nature’.

Some of the examples that Burridge provides are quite alarming. After her explanation of the etymology of the term ‘GORDON BENNETT’ on TV, one viewer complained that the explanation was a ‘disgrace’ and followed the comment with ‘I hope that you die (pleasantly) before me: so that I can piss on your grave’. Another took offence at Burridge’s suggestion that the use of the subjunctive was a relic of an older system and responded with, ‘The only reason it isn’t used is that people are ignorant. Grammar hasn’t been taught in school for over 30 years and now our language is suffering. It is becoming a sort of Pigeon (sic) English’. Another referred to the ‘rape of the English language’ as ‘escalating out of control’ and ‘indulged in by people of all ages’. As Burridge notes, these are clearly passionate and confident responses, indicating that language matters to a lot of people.

Burridge also notes that many extracts that she has examined express concern over the ‘Americanization’ of English, especially as it pertains to New Zealand and Australian English, where the topic is hotly debated. She refers to newspaper headlines such as ‘Facing an American Invasion’ and to one writer who considers that English is deteriorating into a ‘kind of abbreviated American juvenile dialect’.

Why, then, do people hold such strong views about language use? The view held by Burridge, and indeed most linguists, is that such lay concerns about language use are not usually based on genuine linguistic worries but are reflections of deeper and more general social concerns. She suggests that the opposition to American English is more to do with linguistic insecurity in the face of a cultural, political and economic superpower and that somehow American English poses a threat to authentic ‘downunder English’ and perhaps to Australian and New Zealand cultural identity. Similarly, links are often made between ‘bad language’ and ‘bad behaviour’ and there is often an (unjustified) idea promoted that if a person has no regard for the nice points of grammar, then that person will probably have no regard for the law. With such deeply embedded attitudes towards language use, it is perhaps no wonder that we find such emotionally charged responses.

What, though, are the views of younger people who have grown up with awareness of linguistic variation and change? Schoolchildren are taught about standard and non-standard uses and in the media there is a wide array of regional accents used by presenters and broadcasters. E-communication is also playing a role in promoting colloquial and nonstandard language to the point where it may be achieving a new kind of respectability within society. We might think that these new attitudes could signal the end of linguistic purism but according to a survey conducted by Burridge among first year university linguistics students, the results revealed that there was still an overwhelming intolerance towards language change, especially when it came to American English influence. Of the 71 students interviewed, 81% expressed concern that the use of American elements was detrimental to Australian English.

It seems then that language attitudes are very deeply entrenched and that new attitudes and practices will take much longer to change, if they ever will. As Burridge concludes, the ‘definition of ‘dirt’ might change over the years, but the desire to clean up remains the same’.
Burridge, K. (2010). Linguistic cleanliness is next to godliness: taboo and purism. English Today 102, Vol. 26/2: 3-13.

doi: 10.1017/S0266078410000027

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Friday 23 November 2012

Workshop for English Language teachers

Registration deadline extended to 30th November 2012 for a few remaining places.........

Analysing spoken English: Resources and techniques for teachers

Workshop for English Language teachers to be held at Newcastle University, UK, on Saturday, 8 December 2012.

The workshop is hosted by the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics and is organized by staff at Newcastle University, with contributions from colleagues at Queen Mary, University of London, and the University of Ottawa, Canada.

Here’s what other teachers have said about the workshops:

“fantastic value for money”

“excellent resources”

“these workshops need to be advertised more widely. Many other English teachers would come if they knew about the quality – and the price!”

9:30 – 10:00: Arrival and registration

Part 1: Discourse-pragmatic features: What are they? How do they develop? Why do we need them?  
10:00 – 10:15: Introduction: What are discourse-pragmatic features?  
10:15 – 10:45: The usage, function and spread of innit?  
10:45 – 11:15: Reporting speech: The use of quotatives in spoken language  
11:15 – 11:45: Linguistic irritants or indications of communicative competence?: Children’s use of general extenders
11:45 – 12:00: Q-A-session  

12:00 – 12:45: Lunch break

Part 2: English Language teaching: On-line databanks and resources
12:45 – 13:15: Teaching the google generation
13:15 – 13:45: Linguistics Research Digest  
13:45 – 14:00: Q-A-session  

14:00: Workshop close

To register your interest in the workshop please e-mail Melanie Birch ( who will then raise an invoice for you. Please include in your e-mail your own name, the name and full postal address of your school/institution, a contact phone number, your e-mail address and, where this is different from your own details, the name and contact details of the person you would like us to invoice for the event.

The registration fee is £48 and covers administrative costs, the costs for production of the resource booklet and a buffet-style lunch. The deadline for registration and receipt of payment is Thursday, 15 November 2012 (extended to 30th November 2012). Registration fees are non-refundable after this date, except in the unlikely event of the workshop being cancelled.

Details about the exact venue, travel etc. will be circulated in due course. However, if you have any queries in the meantime, please contact the local organiser, Dr Heike Pichler,

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Are dolls houses for boys or girls? And how do we talk about them?

Should boys and girls be taught the same subjects?

Do we view the world through ‘male’ or ‘female’ eyes?  Do hidden messages in society concerning our gender reflect in the language we use to evaluate our experiences?  This is what James Mackay and Jean Parkinson set out to investigate in their study of 87 trainee teachers in South Africa who built and electrically wired a dolls house as a class assignment.

The students who made up the study were divided into four groups - disadvantaged females, disadvantaged males, advantaged females and advantaged males.  Their written reflections on the assignment were analysed using the grammatical APPRAISAL framework, which allows analysis of expression of emotion (AFFECT), assessment of behaviour (JUDGMENT) and assessment of processes (APPRECIATION).

From their analysis of the written assignments a picture emerged of a class divided along gender lines rather than according to educational background. The female students in both the advantaged and disadvantaged groups chose to use more AFFECT and JUDGMENT in their evaluations than did their male students. Many female students found the project stressful and spoke of the task as being a ‘nightmare’ and its accomplishment as being ‘the proudest moment of my life’.  Explicit statements on gender appropriacy included ‘I was surprised I could do it being a girl’ and ‘all those years I thought boys are the only ones who knew how to do the wiring’.

Male students, on the other hand, used much more APPRECIATION in their evaluations, writing things like ‘The module was well-structured’, ‘Doing wiring really gave me no sweat’ and ‘This kind of project is very useful to us’, thereby focusing more on the process rather than the emotions involved in it. 

Overall, the females appraised their own emotions and actions negatively, whilst the male students appraised the task and the course positively.  However, it is interesting to note that the females did not achieve worse in the task than did the males.  Yet they still experienced the task far more negatively, passing harsher judgments on their own performance and experiencing more negative emotions.  The researchers also found that the group of educationally advantaged female students displayed better theoretical understanding of electricity than the educationally disadvantaged male students. However, despite this, their self-confidence was assessed to be much lower.  So it seems that differing gender expectations played a role in the students’ ability to perform this task.

The study confirms that at a grammatical level of APPRAISAL, beliefs about whether a task is more or less appropriate to our gender do influence us emotionally and have real consequences for how easy or difficult we will experience a task as being.

This study surely has wider implications, particularly for education?  In the South African context in which it took place, changes have recently been introduced to the teaching of technology in schools so that there is now a single subject for boys and girls, rather than Domestic Science for girls and Woodwork for boys. Hopefully this will impact on beliefs about gender appropriacy in the future, although it is unlikely to eliminate them altogether, as they are ingrained in society and individuals to the point that they are even displayed in the language we use to evaluate our experiences.
Mackay, James and Parkinson, Jean 2009.'My very own mission impossible':  an APPRAISAL analysis of student teacher reflections on a design and technology project.' Text and Talk 29 (6): 729-753

doi. 10.1515/TEXT.2009.037

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Logos and language

Do we associate a logo with a particular type of social identity?
And with a particular way of speaking?

We all make social judgements about people based on the way they speak. But what kinds of social differences do we pick up on, and can we really relate social judgements to very small differences in pronunciation? Andrew MacFarlane and Jane Stuart-Smith’s research in Glasgow used an innovative method to investigate these questions. They found that listeners were very sensitive indeed to phonetic variation and that they used it to recognise social stereotypes that were meaningful in their local community.

The two researchers devised an experiment where they told 31 judges that they would hear pairs of words pronounced by two men, ‘Lee’ and ‘Phil’, from Greater Glasgow. The judges were shown 4 brand logos for Lee and 4 brand logos for Phil. These two young men, the researchers said, had named four brands that best summarised their lifestyle choices about where they liked to drink (two Glasgow bars), what they wore (the logos shown were Adidas and Gant), what sports they enjoyed (Scotland Rugby League or the Scottish Football Association) and where they went to buy a quick lunch (Marks and Spencer, or the local Greggs bakers shop). On their own, none of these choices are particularly meaningful: Adidas, for example, is worn by all sections of society but, like most aspects of social identity, these choices become meaningful when contrasted with something else. In the researchers’ view, the logos associated with Phil were stereotypes of a regular working class Glaswegian man, while those associated with Lee were stereotypes of an upwardly mobile ‘new’ middle class Glaswegian, the type of person who might speak with an accent that has only recently been recognised in Glasgow and that local people associate with Glasgow University and the Art School (not always favourably, as MacFarlane and Stuart-Smith point out: see

What the judges didn’t know was that in fact the pairs of words were all read by the same man – Andrew MacFarlane. Of course, several pairs of words were there to distract the listeners, but included in the list were three pairs where one word was read with a pronunciation typical of the new Glasgow-Uni style and the other with the regular Glaswegian pronunciation.

The results showed that the listeners believed they were listening to two speakers, and that they were able to use the brand logos to construct two stereotypical speakers to whom they then assigned different pronunciations. Some phonetic features turned out to have strong social associations: for example, a word like people, when pronounced with a vocalised /l/, was strongly linked with ‘Lee’, the character with the regular Glaswegian persona, while a lengthened –er syllable in a word such as number was very strongly linked to ‘Phil’. Unexpectedly, though, one of the variants thought to be typical of the new Glasgow-Uni accent, the pronunciation of initial /r/, was not associated with either of the persona, suggesting that people do not yet associate this feature with any particular accent.

What was important was that although the researchers felt that Lee and Phil could be construed as working class or middle class, none of the judges used these labels when they described the men. Instead, local categories worked more readily for them: one listener volunteered, for example, “Lee sounded more Glaswegian” and another ‘one of them sounds sort of Glasgow Uni-ish”. The researchers suggest that brand logos and other kinds of visual ways of creating social identities can be used more widely to explore how people perceive language variation, and how this kind of perception relates to language change.
MacFarlane, Andrew E. and Stuart-Smith, Jane 2012. ‘One of them sounds sort of Glasgow Uni-ish’. Social judgements and fine phonetic variation in Glasgow. Lingua 122: 764-778.

doi. 10.1016/j.lingua.2012.01.007

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

Thursday 8 November 2012

Representing gender in children's reading materials

would a boy have been shown with flowers in the 1970s?

Are girls and boys portrayed differently in children’s reading materials today than in the past? During the 1970s and 80s, studies of children’s reading materials found that males not only featured more than females but also they tended to take the lead roles and were more active than their female counterparts, who were often restricted to traditional stereotyped roles.

Many of these earlier studies of gender in children’s reading material analysed the texts based on their content, which meant that researchers made their own judgements about what was sexist and what was not.  Now, however, advances in computer and electronic technology mean that ‘corpus linguistics’ can be used to analyse texts more systematically. Using this method, John Macalister set about answering the question of how far gender roles in writing for children had changed since the 1970s.

Macalister based his study on New Zealand’s School Journal, a multi-authored journal of prose, drama and poetry, published and distributed to New Zealand school children every year.  He focused his research on the words ‘boy/s’ and ‘girl/s’and any variants of those, such as ‘boyhood’ and ‘girlfriend’. He analysed the frequency of the words; whether they were alone or connected to each other somehow (usually by ‘and’); what ‘roles’ or occupations were assigned to boys and girls; their attributes, signalled by adjectives and, finally, what they were ‘doing’ by analysing their associated verbs.  He concentrated his research on four issues of the School Journal from the years 1910, 1940, 1970 and 2000.

In the first three issues of the Journal, Macalister found that ‘boy/s’ outnumbered ‘girl/s’. However, by the final issue the numbers were roughly equal with ‘girl/s’ slightly exceeding ‘boy/s’.  This shift in numbers since 1970 shows how awareness of gender bias has resulted in more equal treatment of girls and boys. The same can be shown with the ‘interdependence’ of the words. In the 1910 issue, 48% of the occurrences of ‘girl/s’ was found connected to’boy/s’.  However, this reduced noticeably as the century progressed, so that by 2000 the figure stood at only 4%, proving that there is a trend towards increasing individuality in the treatment of ‘girl/s’.

Macalister found that there was a greater number of ‘roles’ associated with ‘boy/s’ in the 1910 - 1970 journals and these roles were more likely to relate to employment.  However, it was striking that by 2000, there was an absence of any clearly marked occupation for ‘boy/s’, whereas ‘girl/s’ seem to have taken over roles beyond the confines of home and school, appearing as ‘delivery girl/s’ and ‘girl/s crew’ for example.

In all of the issues, ‘little’ was the only adjective that was consistently applied to both ‘boy/s’ and ‘girl/s’ and ‘girl/s’ was always more likely to be associated with an adjective than ‘boy/s’.  Some examples of the kind of adjectives attributed to ‘girl/s’ in 1910 were ‘beautiful’, ‘dreamy’ and ‘gentle’ whilst ‘boy/s’ was attached to ‘bold’, ‘clever’ and ‘thoughtful’.  However, by 2000 the adjectives had become more evenly distributed with both ‘boy/s’ and ‘girl/s’ described as ‘brave’, ‘naughty’, ‘young’ and ‘pretty’ amongst others.

When the verbs associated with the words were analysed it was found that in the 1910 – 1970 issues, ‘girl/s’ was encountered ‘doing’ far less often than ‘boy/s’ and even in 2000, ‘girl/s’ was marginally less often portrayed as ‘doing’.  One interesting result to emerge is that in 2000 there is an absence of an association between ‘boy/s’ and mental verbs whereas before they could sometimes be found thinking and reading etc.  So, it seems that boys are being depicted in a more limited fashion than they were in the past.

Macalister concludes that overall gender stereo-typing in New Zealand school reading material has been successfully addressed since 1970.  It would be interesting to investigate whether the same has happened in Great Britain.
Macalister, John (2011) Flower-girl and bugler-boy no more: changing gender representation in writing for children. Corpora 7 (1): 25-44.
doi 10.3366/cor.2011.0003
This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

Friday 2 November 2012

Going banana’s* about the greengrocer’s apostrophe

To go bananas is an idiomatic, informal expression meaning to get angry or emotional about something

You may have noticed the recent negative attention that has been given to the use of an apostrophe with plural nouns, often referred to as the ‘greengrocer’s apostrophe’ because of its association with the prices of fruit and vegetables displayed in shops, as in banana’s 65p per kilo and lovely, ripe tomatoe’s. Of course, the apostrophe used in this way goes against current standard usage – the apostrophe is not required with plural nouns – but, as Joan Beal reveals, historically this was not always the case.

According to Beal, the use of the apostrophe in this way was common in 18th-century English. She traces the apostrophe back to its first introduction by printers in the 16th century as a device to mark omission and demonstrates how it came to be used both to mark possession (as in Sue’s pen) and then also to mark the plural of nouns ending in a vowel, as in the Italian Tongue was so well understood in England, that Opera’s were acted on the publick Stage, an example provided from The Spectator in 1711. It seems that 18th century grammarians either made no reference to the apostrophe at all or it was considered to be merely a printer’s device, with one of the most prominent grammarians, Bishop Robert Lowth, declaring in 1762 that few precise rules could be given concerning punctuation and that ‘much must be left to the judgment and taste of the writer’.

However, Beal demonstrates that there was growing condemnation of the greengrocer’s apostrophe during the 19th and 20th centuries. Although no mention is made of it in the first edition (1926), Fowler’s second edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1965 contains a comment which refers to the use of an apostrophe with a plural noun as a ‘fatuous vulgarism’. The revised version of this dictionary in 1996 makes specific reference to the term ‘greengrocers’ apostrophe’ and states that its use had been condemned by grammarians since the mid-19th century but that it continued to appear ‘to the amusement of educated people’. This last comment seems to mark a shift towards making a distinction between those who know how to use the apostrophe ‘correctly’ and those who don’t, the latter perhaps being more concerned with selling their goods than worrying about matters of punctuation. As Beal notes, the ‘amusement’ of educated people seems to turn to ‘outrage’ in the 21st century with remarks concerning the use of the apostrophe often having undertones of snobbery.

Beal suggests that the apostrophe is something that is brought to people’s attention because it appears in notices in the public domain and that its so-called misuse may have come to stand for a set of values that an older generation fear losing, as if there had been a golden age when everyone knew and applied the ‘correct’ usage. As Beal demonstrates, that simply was not the case. Of course, she does not promote the use of the apostrophe with plural nouns but urges that their use should not be seen as a sign of illiteracy or stupidity either. As she argues, it is ‘a matter of proof-reading, not a matter of life and death’. What she says it does show however is that these minor matters (at least, minor to linguists) about language can loom large in the public’s consciousness, which in turn can inform us ‘about language and society at any given place and time’. 
Beal, J. (2010). The grocer’s apostrophe: popular prescriptivism in the 21st century. English Today 102, Vol.26/2: 57-63.

doi: 10.1017/S026607841000009X

This summary was written by Sue Fox

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Do you smile with your nose?

Do smileys ever have a nose?

Emoticons are a good way of representing what gets lost when we switch from speaking to texting. We can’t use intonation or facial expressions to show whether we’re joking or are sad, so we use an emoticon to do the job. The emoticons people use can vary, though, as Tyler Schnoebelen discovered when he analysed nearly 4 million American English tweets that included at least one of the most frequently used emoticons. Just some of the variations that people used are shown in the Table.

Number in the corpus
Percentage of all emoticons in the corpus
: )
; )
: (
big smile
: D
: -)
; -)
     70, 618
: -(

Counts and percentages of emoticons in the American English Twitter corpus analysed by Schnoebelen

Schnoebelen showed that the variants corresponded to different types of users, tweeting with different vocabularies. His statistical analyses revealed that the most pervasive distinction was between emoticons with noses and those without noses. He therefore set out to discover whether emoticons with and without a nose, such as :) and :-) , mean the same thing. He did this by looking at how they patterned with other aspects of tweets.
Tweets cannot be longer than 140 characters, so you might expect people who send longer tweets to use emoticons without a nose, to save a character. But it turned out that people who used noses wrote longer tweets, not shorter ones. They also avoided abbreviations like thru. These ‘nosers’ made few typos and spelt words correctly. Overall, then, their language could be described as more standard. The ‘non-nosers’, by contrast, seemed to want to be more non-standard.  They tended to mis-spell words such as ‘tomorrow’ as tommorow, they dropped the apostrophe in contractions such as wasn’t, and they used more taboo words and more expressively lengthened words (like soooo or yummm). They also used more emoticons overall. They seemed to be younger than the ‘nosers’, keeping up with a younger set of celebrities and sending them positive vibes.

Schnoebelen explains that emoticons with noses were the first to be used, so for a while they were the historically ‘standard’ forms. This meant that people who were interested in presenting themselves as nonstandard had to change them, and remove the noses.

So, do emoticons with noses mean the same as those without a nose? Schnoebelen reminds us that meaning is an emergent property of social relations, not something that a symbol has in itself. He gives as an example a bouquet of roses, which is meaningful because there are lovers, patients, doctors and florists to give it meaning: the interpretation is shared by people we’re familiar with, using familiar interpretive schemes. To understand the meaning of emoticons, then, we need to think not only about the emotions they can convey but also who uses them and when. A smiley can tell us how the person feels about what they are tweeting, but it also tells us something about the kind of relationship they want to establish with the people they are tweeting.
Schnoebelen, Tyler (2012) Do You Smile with Your Nose? Stylistic Variation in Twitter Emoticons. University of Pennsylvania Working Papers in Linguistics 18 (2): 117-125

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire