Being a Linguist

I Could Do THAT?!?! Jobs that Linguists Do

I’m going to try something a little different this week, and I’d love to hear some feedback on whether or not to make this a more regular type of post:

I found an interview with the linguist who created several languages for the Game of Thrones television series, and aside from being an interesting article for both language nerds (like myself) and GoT fans (heck yes!) I thought it was a great example of different jobs that linguists can do.

For this kind of work, where the task is to create an entire language–vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation guides–it’s pretty obvious to see how linguistic training would be useful. I’d like to find even more examples where the linguistic connection might not be quite so obvious.

So if you’d like to see the occasional post where I highlight an example of the wide variety of work that linguists can do, let me know in the comments, and I’ll happily make it a more regular feature!

In the meantime, I encourage you to check out the Career Linguist Website and Blog of Dr. Anna Marie Trester, the Program Director of the MLC (Master of Arts in Language and Communication) at Georgetown University. She has several wonderful career-related resources!

Cognitive Linguistics

Is it the Sound or is it the Smile?

Do the sounds of certain words affect on our emotional state? It looks like the answer may be yes.

Recently, a psychologist and a phoneticist conducted experiments to test whether certain sounds can have a positive or negative effect on a person’s mood. Long story short, they found that the [i:] sound had a generally positive effect on a person’s mood, while the [o:] sound had a generally negative effect.** When I read this, it reminded me of the linguistic concept of sound symbolism.

I first learned about the concept of sound symbolism—where certain sounds are thought to have certain connotations and therefore influence how we react to them—while writing a paper on a well-known advertising slogan. I was attempting to demonstrate how linguistic awareness could help when coming up with new product names or marketing copy, and I discovered that research had been done on this concept of sound symbolism. (I’ve included a citation for the article I referenced most heavily at the end of the post, for anyone who wants to read up in more detail.)

But for these two sounds in particular, I thought the stronger case (rather than sound symbolism) was made by the section of the experiment that focused on stimulating the muscle groups required to make these sounds, and then measuring the effect on emotional state. This is primarily because the muscles used to make the [i:] sound are very much like those used to smile, where the muscles used to make the [o:] sound were the opposite, and as with other body language studies, the physical can have a marked impact on the mental and emotional. This is why body language experts like Amy Cuddy recommend adopting a powerful body stance, even when you don’t feel powerful—because “faking it” very often leads to “making it.”

What do you think? Do you think that sound symbolism has a leg to stand on as a concept? Or are actions speaking louder than words?


**Sidenote: I’m using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) symbols for the “i” and “o” sounds, although the original article didn’t. I’m making an educated guess based on the pictures included in the article.

The reason for this disclaimer is because the author of the article used the word “like” as an example of the “i” sound, which doesn’t match the IPA symbol for [i] OR the facial expression (which looks like a smile). In fact, the IPA symbol for the “i” in the word “like” would be the dipthong [aI].

So I’m not 100% positive that the “i” and “o” sounds they tested are in fact a match for the IPA symbols I’m using. However that’s my educated guess—let me know if you agree or disagree in the comments!


Also, here’s that citation I mentioned above:

Klink, Richard R. 2000. Creating brand names with meaning: The use of sound symbolism. Marketing Letters 11 (1): 5-20.


Language in Advertising, Uncategorized

“Bossy” Doesn’t Mean “You’re a Boss” and Other Ways Language, Gender, and Society Intersect

Like many kids, I relied on school-provided transportation and someone to watch me until my parents came home from work. But rather than using standard yellow busses, my small, Catholic grade school used maroon vans. And rather than day care, my grandparents took turns caring for my brother and me (Mondays and Tuesdays with my father’s mother, Wednesday through Friday with my mother’s parents). At the beginning of each school year it was a few weeks before the bus drivers learned our routine and dropped us off at the right house, but occasionally they would forget, and we’d speak up and let them know which house was expecting us. The regular drivers were used to this.

One day when I was in the 5th grade, we had a substitute driver who didn’t know our routine. When I realized that she might drop us off at the wrong house, I spoke up. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but the driver thought I was being disrespectful, and told me not to be “sassy” towards her. I’ve never forgotten it, because I remember being so shocked that she would say that; my tone was not rude and I was speaking up because I knew it was unlikely that she was familiar with our non-standard arrangement. My shock gave way to embarrassment and silent outrage–to me her response was completely unjustified, and I was a child who hated injustice of any kind (still rather true as an adult, as a matter of fact).

I think that’s why the two articles below touched such a nerve. They both have to deal with women and language. I’ve talked a little bit about language and gender in a previous post, mostly about work by linguists that describe how certain ways of speaking are not masculine or feminine automatically, but rather index a certain cultural idea, which then indexes the understanding of masculine or feminine in that culture (example: tag questions like “that’s right, isn’t it?” can index uncertainty—or accommodation—which can index femininity in certain cultures). But this post is more about how certain words have different meanings when applied to women than to men, and how women are treated (and thought of) differently than men when contributing to conversations.

Let’s start with a video. This was making the social media rounds a while back, but it definitely applies here:


It’s an ad for Pantene, sure, but more importantly it shows how men and women are subjected to a double standard: they have different labels attached to their behavior, even when the behavior is exactly the same. Personal grooming is “neat” (male) or “vain” (female); working late is “dedicated” (male) or “selfish” (female). And strong leadership goes from being a “boss” to being “bossy.” Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, would like to ban the word “bossy,” meaning she’d like to change the way the American culture applies it in a negative way to describe girls who display leadership attributes. Our language use is a powerful means of socialization, and applying negative connotations to words directed at girls who like to lead can have consequences well into adulthood. Even now, I wonder if my preference for sitting back and listening before speaking is mostly due to my introverted nature or my socialized nurturing.

Which is why I enjoyed this next article by Soraya Chemaly. Ms. Chemaly suggests 10 simple words, in 3 simple phrases, that women could use when they feel their contributions to a conversation are being overlooked, and especially when they’re being interrupted.

I feel like I have to say that being interrupted is not always a bad thing. Yes, it can be used to take the floor away from another speaker, but sometimes this is just a temporary shift. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: conversations are tricky, and involve constant negotiating. If someone is unclear about something someone else is saying, they may interrupt in order to get some clarity. Interrupting someone can also be a way of showing interest, although if this is the conversational style of only one person, or only a few out of a group, this way of showing interest can easily be misunderstood.

But this article talks about interruptions with an added layer of condescension or implied sexism: where the importance or acceptance of what’s been said is treated differently based on the gender of the speaker. Much like the Pantene ad and the “ban bossy” article, the point is that society has different ways of interpreting behavior and speech based on gender. It’s taught, not inherent, which means it can be re-framed and changed. And it can start with just 10 simple words.

Framing, Language and Business, Second Language Experiences

Multilingualism–It Makes Good Business Sense

Today I found a whole slew of articles discussing language in the business world, primarily focusing on the challenges of engaging with customers around the world, or opening offices in multiple countries. Since I couldn’t pick just one topic to focus on, I thought I’d give links to them all (plus a semi-related bonus link at the end) with some commentary.

To start off, I found a press release about SDL’s Language Cloud, which as I understand it, offers companies a combination of “human, machine, and specialist machine (?) translation” services, so that they can connect with customers in the local language. I found this video on SDL’s site, which helped me better understand the goals of this new platform. At one point, the video mentions that not only was the website translated into the local language(s), product reviews were translated as well. And then I started wondering: there’s no mention of what this cloud platform does when it comes to translating things like idiomatic expressions. For things like website copy, it’s likely that the phrasing is run past a native speaker (at least, I’m assuming this would be done, otherwise you might end up with some amusing, yet technically correct phrases like some of those found here). But product reviews may not get this same treatment, and if you’ve ever used something like the “see translation” feature on a Facebook post, you know that the translations are sometimes confusing or unclear).

Next, I found some articles that talk about being an employee for a multi-national company. The first one is a somewhat basic argument for why it’s a good idea for relocating employees to learn the local language(s). They make a case for why it makes good business sense (along with simply being practical for daily living), as well as why employees might be resistant to learning a new language and what companies can do to encourage or reward those employees who do attempt to learn.

One of the reasons they give for why employees don’t learn the local language(s) is that they mistakenly believe that everyone speaks English. I wonder if this is primarily targeted at businesses that are moving from the U.S. to other countries. My own experiences traveling to European countries have taught me that many people don’t automatically assume that everyone they encounter speaks their language—they try the locally dominant language first (if they know it), and then any other language they can speak. Living on a continent with so much linguistic diversity will do that.

Finally, I found a blog post with tips for presenting in a foreign language (i.e. without an interpreter or translation software). I’ve had personal experience with this and I can honestly say it was one of the most nerve-racking times of my life, not because of the presentation, but because of the Q&A afterwards. I was lucky that I was able to choose the presentation topic, which meant I would probably know the answers to any questions, and I simply had to focus on understand the question itself, to be able to answer it successfully. Still, I agree with the suggestions put forth by the blog, and would only add that sometimes it’s best to act confident and “fake it ‘til you make it.”


[As promised, here’s the bonus link, which I liked because it talks about reframing how you think about your business—from mentally referring to your company a verb rather than a noun—can help you appreciate its complexity and ever-changing nature]

Language in the News, Language on TV, Recommended Reading

How do we Know if an Apology is Sincere?

This week I’ve been thinking about apologies. It started when I looked at Facebook’s “Trending” list the other day, and saw Jonah Hill on The Tonight Show apologizing for using an offensive term when a member of the paparazzi angered him. If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it below:



As I watched the clip, I started thinking about public apologies. My first reaction to the video was that this was something Mr. Hill thought was difficult, but necessary, and that his words, his tone, and his body language all made me feel he was being sincere. Many people who commented on the clip agreed, although there was the occasional dissenter (as there always is).

Being linguistically trained, I started to wonder why exactly I believed he was sincere. I thought of a few specific moments:

  • At the beginning, Mr. Hill tells the story of the incident in a clear and succinct way, which implies that he’s thought about what he wants to say and has planned it. But at around the 1:00 mark, he pauses, says, “I think that,” stops talking briefly, says, “Sorry, I think that” and pauses again. He also pauses at several other points later in the clip. These pauses and repetitions are more conversational in tone, rather than part of a carefully planned speech, and imply “spontaneous and heartfelt” rather than “planned and calculated.”
  • At 1:56, Mr. Hill lifts his eyes directly to the camera to address those watching the show on TV (or the computer). About 15 seconds later, he looks at the camera to say, “Use me as an example of what not to do.” For most of the clip he avoids looking up at the camera, and so this deliberate shift seems significant.

But these are just my quick thoughts, based on what I know about body language, repetition, and pauses in general. Wouldn’t it be great if a linguist looked at apologies in greater depth?

As if in answer to my thoughts, today I discovered that a linguist has in fact done this very thing! Edwin Battistella, a linguistics professor at Southern Oregon University, has written a book titled Sorry About That, which looks at the language of public apologies, based on many hours of reading transcripts (and other written documents) and watching YouTube videos very much like the one I talk about above.

I’m adding this book to my reading list, and will discuss it in a future blog post. And FYI: the article states that this book is “written in layman’s terms” because the author, “really like(s) the idea of professors writing for the general public, as well as for one another…” which is an idea I wholeheartedly agree with!

Language in the News, Language on TV

Young Women Are Changing What It Means To Be Called a “Slut”

Last Friday, the 23rd, Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree near the University of California, Santa Barbara campus. As an explanation for what drove him to such violence, police turned to his YouTube channel and a written manifesto, which revealed a hatred for women who had rejected him (and by extension all women) and men who seemed more sexually successful. In the days that followed, a hashtag appeared on Twitter, #YesAllWomen, which was used to draw attention to the fact that many, MANY women have had to deal with men who felt that they were entitled to a woman’s attention and who react with anger when told no. From cat-calls, to policies regarding appropriate clothing that are biased against women, to rape, to honor killings by family members, many women know the feeling of being objectified.

Yes, sexual persecution of women by men exists, and hopefully #YesAllWomen will help start a dialog, and this horrible tragedy in California will be a catalyst for change. But what about persecution of women by other women? As the great Tina Fey says in Mean Girls:

“Ok, so we’re all here ’cause of this book, right? Well, I don’t know who wrote this book, but you all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it ok for guys to call you sluts and whores. Who here has ever been called a slut?”

Source: (IMDB:


I found a very interesting article about this very topic in Slate this week, titled, “Are You a Slut? That Depends. Are You Rich?” The study conducted by two sociologists interviewed women from one dorm at a Midwestern University over the course of their college careers. Part of the study examined how the term “slut” is utilized and interpreted (the term “slut narrative” is used), and they determined that it has more to do with social class and money than sexual activity. Calling other women a “slut” was “more about policing women’s looks, fashion, and conversational styles than criticizing the notches on their bedposts. And the vagueness and ubiquity of the term “slut” on campus allowed these women to effectively police each other without denying themselves actual sex.”

I’m always interested in how social systems affect the language (vocabulary and conversational style) of the members of that particular society. In this study, there are two groups separated by class, each with their own rules for behavior and language use relating to sexuality: calling someone a “slut” had more to do with the social status of a girl’s romantic partner, and less to do with the number of sexual partners.

I think Tina Fey was right. And I also think that some women have found a way to change the understanding of what terms like “slut” and “whore” mean when used by female peers, and to deprive them of their power when it comes to female sexual choices. But outside these gender specific groups, these negative connotations can come roaring back, and I wonder if anyone over the age of 13 still believes that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Language in Advertising, Second Language Experiences

How a Telecomm Company Helped Save a Friendship (and a Language)

Advertising often gets a bad reputation. Companies seen as trying to sell you something, to get you to spend money on something they make (whether you need it or not, and especially when the answer is ‘not’) are ‘just in it for the money.’ Like everything else in life, the reality is rarely so black and white. Which is why when I read about corporations or brands uniting their corporate goals with something truly worthwhile, I want to share it.

Vodafone, a European mobile telecomm provider, started a marketing campaign called Vodafone Firsts, and decided to help promote it by bringing together the last two known speakers of Ayapaneco (aka Tabasco Zoque), a language from Mexico which has almost completely died out. These two friends, who stopped speaking to each other many years ago over a disagreement about the Ayapeneco language itself (how’s that for irony?) have reunited and agreed on a form of the language, and now teach it to local children in an effort to bring this language back to life.

You can read the article I found from Mashable, and I highly encourage you to watch the video Vodafone created as well.

I’d like to be able to say that language death is a rare occurrence, but that’s simply not the case. As you can see from the Endangered Languages Project and UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, thousands of languages are at risk, several critically so. Language vitality relies on new generations of speakers to keep not only the vocabulary and grammar, but the cultural knowledge shared through languages, alive. I could go on and talk about language policies that force citizens to only learn certain languages at the expense of others, or about how people have worked hard to revitalize languages that were almost lost, but I’d rather share something more personal.

The majority of my family is Polish, and the majority of my ancestors first came to the US in the latter part of the 19th century. Although I took Polish language courses in grade school, I retained very little, and am now limited to a greeting, some numbers, and words for food. But I remember my grandmother having conversations with neighbors, and code-switching easily between English and Polish, mostly when she didn’t want us grandkids to understand what she was saying. It was amusing and somewhat frustrating at the time, but now I just feel the loss of that tie to my family’s history. I had a brief opportunity to take advantage of that knowledge and I didn’t, because I didn’t know any better at the time. And while there are still many Polish speakers in the world, in my family and community at least, those numbers dwindle every year.

I’d love to hear from people who’ve had similar experiences with languages spoken in their family, whether fluently or not. Share your stories in the comments—I look forward to reading them!

Cognitive Linguistics, Language in the News, Second Language Experiences

How Languages Can Change Our Choices

Recently, there’s been a study into how language appears to affect morality based decision-making. I’ve seen this story covered by several sources, so it’s possible you may already be familiar. If not, the basic idea is discussed below, or you can read this more comprehensive version from The Economist.

The Study:

Researchers asked study participants to make a hypothetical decision about sacrificing a life to save five in two different ways (either pushing someone on to a train track to save five people OR throwing a switch that will definitely kill the one man, but save the five people—sacrificing yourself is not an option). They randomly posed the situation to half of their study subjects in their self-described native language (which was, for the most part, English). Then they asked the other half in a second language (either Spanish, Korean, English or French). These were all languages that the study subjects knew, but they were not native bilinguals.

The Results:

The researchers found that when asked in their native language, only a few subjects said they would push one man to save five people. But when asked in their second language, more people chose to push the man.

The Possible Explanations:

The article mentions that the reason behind this may have to do with how the brain makes decisions, and how this ties into how languages are processed. In their second languages, the subjects’ brains use their logical “cognitive system” to make a decision, because speaking a less-known language requires more conscious thought. In their native languages, the speakers’ brains could rely on their more intuitive decision-making system, because speaking required less conscious decision-making and awareness

I can’t say what the right explanation might be, although the one put forth by the article (and summarized above) makes sense to me. I’ve experience the sensation of my brain being “maxed out” when speaking in a second language. When I lived in France, I found myself taking almost daily afternoon naps before dinner, just because I felt so tired of thinking so much all day. I also used the brain power excuse for eating so many delicious French desserts, because, I argued, the sugar recharged my brain.

I will say this, however: logical decisions are often considered more reliable, because they’re based on reasoning and time. But I’ve read several books that argue that in some situations, decisions based on intuition are just as good, sometimes more so, because they’re based on personal experience. And any skill, like learning a second language, that helps a person develop both types of decision making models sounds like a good thing to me.

Language and Theatre, Recommended Reading, Second Language Experiences

Eddie Izzard and the Ultimate Audience Design Challenge

If you’ve ever seen a Q&A interview where they ask, “Name a performer you’d drop everything to see,” my answer to that is, hands down, Eddie Izzard. I’ve seen him perform his comedy act live and many times on video (and even briefly met him at a signing in Chicago), and the brilliance of his performances blows me away every time.

One of my favorite bits is from his show “Dressed to Kill,” when he does an entire bit in French. I highly recommend you watch it (I’ve included a link), because it is hilarious AND, if you’ve been following my blog, you’ll be able to appreciate it like a linguist. He uses intertextuality and gesture during the French bit about showers and the President of Burundi to reference back to an earlier bit in English (he uses repetition quite a bit throughout his performance), so everyone gets the joke, even if they don’t speak French.

The other day, in an article in the Boston Globe, Izzard has revealed that he’s recently been taking a new show on tour and performing in the native (or dominant) language of the area he’s visiting. So far he’s done shows in English, French, and German, and wants to move on to Spanish, Russian, and Arabic.

Since he’s not fluent in all of these languages, he’s had to script the show completely (i.e. no improv), with the help of his brother, Mike Izzard, who happens to be a linguist (just one more reason to love those Izzards!). But in performance, he (Eddie Izzard) has found that certain phrases, particularly those that rely on wordplay, need to be changed in each language because their meaning doesn’t really translate.

This is the ultimate example of audience design: adjusting what you say to have the maximum impact and best chance of being understood as you (the speaker) intended it. We do this all the time, although not necessarily to large audiences of people who speak a different language, but the concept is the same. And like Izzard, when what we say doesn’t get the response we expected, we change it to try something new.


*I was going to add a paragraph about how this applies to marketing, but techcommgeekmom wrote a nice piece covering this topic. I encourage you to read it here.

Cognitive Linguistics, Language in Advertising

Why Our Word Choices Matter

It can be something as subtle as “a” versus “the,” but the words others use to describe the world can alter our perceptions and even our memories. I came across two (linguistically) fun articles this week that reveal a bit about how and why the words we choose reveal more than we may consciously intend.

The first article, “Why Motivating Others Starts With Using The Right Language,” is about how phrasing can be used to promote leadership and team building, and it points out some interesting linguistic phenomena concerning how subtle differences in word choice can make a big difference. It starts out by talking about a team meeting where two different departments used the words “we” and “they,” indicating an us vs. them mentality rather than a unified group.

(Linguistic Side Note: Like “here” and “there,” and “this” and “that,” “we” and “they” are deictic terms: understanding their reference means having contextual knowledge of the situation.)

Recognizing the use of these terms can give insight into the mindset of the team, and how they feel about each other. And it may or may not be conscious on the speakers’ parts. Later, the article references a study from 1974 comparing how changing “a” to “the” changed people’s memories about seeing a broken headlight in a video. It’s a subtle but powerful difference: an indefinite article (a) versus a definite article (the). But it was enough to alter people’s perceptions of what they had seen.

Finally, the meat of the article covers how leaders can promote feelings of responsibility and control in their teams by encouraging them to change the way they talk about an action. Rather than turning to the leader/manager/whatever and asking how to do a task or fix a situation, the employee/team member/whatever can instead share their intended response, and the leader can either agree, give suggestions, or ask questions. It’s really quite a smart tactic, since it’s proactive (it shows consideration of the best action and a willingness to be responsible) and not face threatening (it offers a possible action that’s still open to negotiation).

The second article is about a study conducted by several linguists on the language used in restaurant reviews. They found that, “sexual words were used in reviews of expensive restaurants, whereas drug-related words were used in reviews of cheap restaurants.” They also found that, “reviewers of more expensive restaurants were more eloquent and expansive in their reviews,” and they suggested that reviewers were hoping to that this eloquence would project an image of a more well-educated, well-off individual, similar to the expected clientele of the expensive restaurants. Finally, they discovered that critical reviews “employed language related to traumatic experiences,” and used the pronoun “we” more often than “I” (which was used in more positive reviews).

I’ve come across other studies of advertising language that discuss how luxury products tend to use ads that are more syntactically complex, and on some level it makes sense to me that food, sex, and drugs all involve the human body, and are somewhat comparable in that sense. Not to mention the fact that cheap food is often less healthy (I’m thinking pizza, chicken wings, cupcakes) and therefore not good for your body, much like drugs. So the interesting question is: how intentional were these word choices?

These nuances of language are what we sociolinguists think are fascinating, since they can reveal so much about the mindset and intention of the speaker, even without their conscious awareness.

What other language subtleties do you find interesting or note-worthy? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!