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Review of  English in Computer-Mediated Communication


Reviewer: Selina Sutton
Book Title: English in Computer-Mediated Communication
Book Author: Lauren Squires
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 30.1257

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Review:
SUMMARY

‘English in computer-mediated communication: Variation, Representation, and Change’, edited by Lauren Squires, is volume 93 in De Gruyter Mouton’s 99 volume series ‘Topics in English Linguistics’. According to the blurb, this book “examines the English language in particular in CMC – what it looks like, what it accomplishes, and what it means to speakers”. While several overviews of sociolinguistics in computer-mediated communication (CMC) are available (e.g. Thurlow and Mroczek, 2011; Herring, Stein, and Virtanen, 2013; Tannen and Trester, 2013; Georgakopoulou and Spilioti, 2016) previous texts have been dominated by qualitative investigations, whereas this volume gives near-equal weighting to quantitative variationism. Also, it is evident that this is not an introductory volume, with many concepts being introduced with minimal explanation, and so its content would certainly be inaccessible to first and second year undergraduates, probably third years too. However, it would be an essential resource for anyone wanting to develop expertise in the topic of sociolinguistics in CMC, regardless of career stage.

Overview of the chapters

The book begins with an introductory chapter from the editor and is then divided into 4 sections, each containing 3 or 4 chapters that share a topic.

Squires’ introduction describes three themes (i. Variation, ii. Representation, and iii. Change) that run throughout the book. These are also referred to as “ordinary processes” (p. 2). A key motivation for the book is to no longer focus on CMC as a context or medium that has created “new”, homogenous language types or practices, although this conceptualisation is still present in some current CMC research. Rather, Squires argues that now CMC is part of everyday life many of its communicative practices have lost their “edge” (p.1) and that language in CMC displays diversity and variety, just like non-CMC language. This change in thinking, along with being refreshing and long overdue in some researchers’ eyes, directs us to research questions that are actually more reminiscent of those asked in non-CMC contexts rather than those asked in the earlier days of sociolinguistic CMC research.

Part I, chapters 1 to 3, is concerned with “Code and Variety” and explores “English as a code to be chosen among others, and English varieties as they manifest and are configured through online discourse” (p. 4).

In Chapter 1, “Modular repertoires in English-using social networks: A study of language choice in the networks of adult Facebook users”, Lars Hinrichs studies the choosing of German or English in Facebook posts by adult, native German speakers. Unlike similar prior research of adolescents (Androutsopoulos, 2014), Hinrichs found little code switching between German and English, that English did not carry a particularly positive symbolic value, and that its use was to maximise audience. It was rationalised that this behaviour was related to the stable, established identities of the adult participants, and that the very different language behaviours of Androutsopoulos’ (2014) adolescent participants was related to their emerging identities.

Chapter 2, “Tweets as graffiti: What the reconstruction of Vulgar Latin can tell us about Black Twitter”, sees Taylor Jones examine the manifestation of African American English (AAE) on Twitter, particularly the nonstandard spellings of two phonological variables (liquids and glottal stops). Inspiration is taken from studying Vulgar Latin, which was mostly seen in graffiti, because of its overlapping qualities with tweets; short, informal, public, often ribald social commentary. Tools developed and validated within the field of historical linguistics are used to analyse this data, with Jones arguing that older methods developed for non-CMC contexts may be being overlooked for more recently developed, fashionable techniques.

Cecilia Cutler’s chapter, “ “Ets jast ma booooooooooooo”: Social meanings of Scottish accents on YouTube”, analyses the comments posted on several video clips of characters in animated films that have Scottish accents. Language ideologies and attitudes are revealed both by commenters’ dialect performances through orthography, and through metalinguistic commentary. Cutler argues that this work indicates the role YouTube plays in allowing viewers to engage with and respond to language variation.

Part II, Chapters 4 through 7, focuses on the phenomena of “Contact, Spread, and Innovation”. English and CMC spread globally in an almost reciprocal manner, and this chapter considers the role that CMC plays in linguistic innovation as well as the sociolinguistic outcomes of this global spread.

Theresa Heyd reports on a study of how the function words “dey” and “am” are used on a web forum for local and diasporic Nigerians in Chapter 4 “Global varieties of English gone digital: Orthographic and semantic variation in digital Nigerian Pidgin”. Heyd questions how nonstandard repertoires (e.g. creoles, pidgins) that have previously predominantly been spoken varieties transition to being regularly used in written contexts, and further, how does this occur in multilingual contexts. Through this work, insights into the varieties themselves, as well as the associated CMC practices that develop, are gained.

In Chapter 5, “Virtual meatspace: Word formation and deformation in cyberpunk discussions”, Matt Garley and Benjamin Slade describe the word formation and deformation strategies that are characteristic of cyberpunk literature and are then used in CMC contexts that pivot around this genre. The long-term nature of the CMC data (the Usenet data dates from 1987 to the late 90’s, and the forum data dates 2006 to 2013) is novel in comparison to most previous work, and so is the use of literary data in conjunction with CMC data (the book corpora dated from 1980 to 2007). As the authors describe, this study design creates an interrogation of the linguistic practices associated with a literary subculture rather than a speech community per se, and so considers feature actuation and transmission on a larger scale.

Chapter 6, “Language change because Twitter? Factors motivating innovative uses of because across the English-speaking Twittersphere”, sees Axel Bohmann question whether platform specific characteristics (in this case Densification, Colloquialization, Americanization, and Computer Mediated Discourse) can act as a catalyst or driver in a linguistic change. Binomial logistic regression revealed that the three most significant factors all related to densification, that is the fact that the number of characters one can use in a tweet is restricted encourages because-complementation (e.g. “Early morning gym because fat”, example 1b p.149).

Steven Coats explored the “Grammatical feature frequencies of English on Twitter in Finland”. He collected English tweets that were geo-tagged within Finland and compared these to English, non-geotagged tweets from an established corpus. An exploratory factor analysis revealed differences in the use of a range of features (including Tweet length, prevalence of hashtags, expressive lengthening) that clearly distinguishes English from Finland, and global English on Twitter.

Part III, Chapters 8 through 10, focus on “Style and Identity”; “specific features of English in CMC are investigated for the work they do in constructing sociolinguistic personae.” (p.4).

In Chapter 8, “Stylistic uniformity and variation online and on-screen: A case study of The Real Housewives”, Lauren Squires conducts a principal components analysis to examine the differences and similarities in stylistic practices across all individuals within the Real Housewives franchise, individuals within their cast, and across the 6 casts. Unlike other analyses of style on Twitter, Squires started by considering the public persona of ‘a Real Housewife’, and how this manifested regionally (to reflect the different casts) as well as individually by engaging with the TV show data. From the insights gained, the linguistic manifestations of both the uniformity and variation in the Real Housewives’ identities could be interpreted.

Patrick Callier considers how stylistic resources are combined and what social effects are achieved in doing so. Chapter 9, “Exploring stylistic co-variation on Twitter: The case of DH”, reports an analysis of tweets that used the standard/nonstandard spellings ‘this/dis’, ‘that/dat’, and ‘they/dey’, and their covariance with other orthographic representations of DH-stopping, R-lessness and R-fullness, and the presence/absence of internet initialisms (e.g. OMG). Most interesting is how, through a multiple correspondence analysis, the three DH-stopping keywords (“dis”, “dat”, “dey”) showed highly distinctive co-occurrence patterning with the other variables. Callier proposes that this may indicate these three forms occur in different communicative situations.

In Chapter 10, “Who I am and who I want to be: Variation and representation in a messaging platform”, Rebecca Childs describes the similarities and differences in the use of language features (postvocalic /r/, and expletives and slang terms) in instant messaging and spoken data collected from the same participants. After describing the local Appalachian African American community and the ways in which its young people engage with the broader African American community, and the social and cultural connotations of the variables under study, it is evident that the lack of overlap of behaviours in written CMC and speaking demonstrate different identity construction and performance in these contexts.

The final part, Part IV, Chapters 11 through 14, examines how the “Mode and Medium” of interaction influences language use and the resulting attitudes towards its users.

Chapter 11 sees Markus Bieswanger consider the concept of synchronicity not as binary but as a continuum, and not as stable but variable. In “Electronically-mediated Englishes: Synchronicity revisited”, he reports on two sets of data collected from the same forum; the first 100 replies from a topic posting and the first 100 replies posted exactly one week since the original topic posting was made. Bieswanger establishes that there is a statistically significant difference in the mean time period between replies, with a mean gap of 39 seconds in the first 100 messages, and a mean gap of 4 minutes 6 seconds in the first 100 messages posted one week later. This clearly illustrates that this context, that is typically defined as asynchronous, can actually be not only synchronous but for that synchronicity to differ throughout the thread. Further, this appears to have an impact on the communication behaviours of the posters; statistically significant differences were found across the two datasets for the length of message and lexical shortenings.

In Chapter 12, Nathan LaFave examines “Social factors and lexical frequency influencing English adjective gradation in speech and CMC”. 2 data types (i. Instant messages, ii. Spoken) were collected from several corpora and examined in regard to the influence that linguistic and social factors had on adjective gradation, particularly synthetic (e.g. “old”, “older”, “oldest”) versus analytic (e.g. “beautiful”, “more beautiful”, “most beautiful”) adjective gradation. Through various statistical analyses, LaFave reveals that there isn’t a statistically significant difference between instant messenger and speech data but there was when examining the social factors of sex and education. Furthermore, preliminary comparisons were also made with a corpus of formal writing.

In “Implications of attitudes about nonstandard English on interactional structure in the computer-mediated workplace: A story of two modes” (chapter 13), Josh Iorio reports on an experiment within a global virtual project networks (GVPNs); a team of teams that are geographically dispersed and so use technology to communicate and carry-out their work. In this study there were 2 GPVNs, each one containing 3 teams spread across 3 countries (USA, the Netherlands, and India) with the members of each team having a different native language (English, Dutch, and Telegu). The participants communicated in English through 2 modes (written and spoken) to complete a project, and the participants’ language attitudes towards their co-workers was assessed through questionnaires.

Finally, Lauren Collister’s participant-observation ethnography reveals the role that the language attitudes and ideologies of others can have upon engaging with an online gaming world. Chapter 14, “ “At least I’m not Chinese, gay, or female”: Marginalized voices in World of Warcraft”, reports on the experiences of players who do not possess this online world’s supposedly dominant, unmarked identity of white, heterosexual, American male. One can be ‘outed’ (identified as deviating from this identity) in several ways – through a perceived lack of English proficiency in the text chat, or through vocal features in the voice chat. The repercussions of one being outed include receiving abuse and being excluded from group gaming activities, e.g. raids. Players attempted to avoid such instances in a variety of ways, the most sociolinguistically relevant being to avoid voice chat and consciously changing one’s speech.

EVALUATION

First, the theme of ‘English’ should not be taken as an indicator that the book covers a narrow topic or lacks diversity in its content. On the contrary, an array of English varieties (e.g. African American English, Scottish English, Nigerian Pidgin English to name a few) as well as English use in different cultural contexts (e.g. English use by native German, Finnish, Dutch, and Telugu speakers) is examined. Also, the theme of English should not be viewed as excluding those interested in other languages. Anyone with an interest in sociolinguistics in CMC will appreciate the range of interaction contexts (e.g. social media sites such as Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, messaging applications, discussion forums) and linguistic phenomena, concepts, and topics of interest that are covered. Furthermore, it can be argued that one of the key learnings and the most inspirational aspect of the book is the novel and innovative study designs and methods that are reported on; learning and inspiration that one can envisage being transferred to other CMC languages and contexts and, in some cases, outside of CMC.

As mentioned earlier, across the chapters equal attention is given to quantitative and qualitative approaches. Of course, as with most edited volumes, some chapters will be of more interest than others to some readers. But an understanding of polarised methods, and more importantly an acceptance of their differing epistemologies, would be required for a reader to engage with more than a few chapters. Therefore, it is likely that many readers will merely dip in and out, rather than engage with the majority of the volume. This is also reflected in the lack of dialogue or discussion across the chapters. Squires’ excellent introduction does clearly describe how the content of the chapters relate and pattern in a multitude of ways, and the fundamental themes that underlie throughout the book have not been so explicitly touched on previously. But the authors of the individual chapters make minimal reference to each other’s work, and the end of the volume lacks a summary or conclusion. In other words, the book is a complementary bricolage of work rather than providing a series of learnings that interconnect to spark debate, build into broader insights, or trigger new, topic-wide questions. In fact, this is a common issue across these types of books. The volume is intended as an overview and so evidently provides a representation of the current state of affairs, but considering its differentiation from the other volumes available in this topic space, and the vibrancy and future potential of this research area, not looking forward and proposing future directions feels like a wasted opportunity.

Further, in regards to the cohesion of the chapters, there is one which some may view as somewhat disjointed or disconnected from the rest. The volume is dominated by research of language use (by individuals, groups, for different audiences, in different modalities and contexts etc), yet Chapter 3 is primarily concerned with language ideologies and attitudes. While language ideologies and attitudes do figure in other chapters, the findings reported there focus on how the presence of language ideologies and attitudes influences or explains interactional behaviour. For example, in Chapter 13 Josh Iorio’s study found that different modes (speech and writing) triggered different language ideologies and attitudes amongst the communication partners and, equally, that this influenced interactional patterns (in other words, who communicated with who and how often). Similarly, Lauren B. Collister’s ethnography, reported in Chapter 14, found that gamers who were aware that they didn’t conform to the assumed dominant identity of the World of Warcraft world either did not use voice chat or consciously changed their speech when using voice chat to avoid being ‘outed’. Chapter 3 does touch on language use somewhat (how Scottish accents are represented through orthography) but this is interpreted in relation to how this use signals the commenters’ stance towards Scottish English.

Equally, others may welcome Chapter 3’s inclusion because of its use of video data. To date, research into linguistics in CMC has been dominated by investigations into written content, and where video is considered it is usually in regard to the language content of the dialogue rather than the speech itself. While there is less video data online relative to textual data, the amount that video and speech data is currently researched when examining language in CMC seems unbalanced, and so the inclusion of Cutler’s work avoids the medium of video being continually overlooked.

To conclude, although it has its limitations, this edited volume is a welcome and much needed addition to the growing collection of literature on sociolinguistics in CMC. Most importantly, the deviation away from framing technology as something predicted to always drastically influence or impact language is exactly the rebalancing that this area of interest needs if we are to move forward in our research.

REFERENCES

Androutsopoulos, J. (2014). Languaging when contexts collapse: Audience design in social networking. Discourse, Context & Media 4-5. 62-73.

Herring, S., Stein, D., and Virtanen,T. eds., (2013). Pragmatics of computer-mediated communication. Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter.

Georgakopoulou, A. and Spilioti, T. eds., (2016). Routledge handbook of language and digital communication. London/New York: Routledge.

Tannen, D. and Trester, A. M. eds., (2013). Discourse 2.0: Language and new media. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Thurlow, C. and Mroczek, K. eds., (2011). Digital Discourse: Language in the new media (Oxford studies in sociolinguistics). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Selina Jeanne Sutton is a 3rd year PhD student within the research group NorSC (Northumbria Social Computing) based at Northumbria University, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. Her research interests lie at the intersection of digital technology design and sociolinguistics. Her thesis will report on an exploration of methods for conducting sociophonetic research in online, publicly shared video data. She has also previously published work on emoji and voice user interfaces, as well as on social media from perspectives other than linguistic. She can be found on Twitter at @selinajsutton and www.selinajsutton.com

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