Tag Archives: Linguistics

The Mechanics of a ‘California Accent’

Regional dialects in English are largely informed by the particular way people in different geographic areas make their vowel sounds. Consonants can inform the sounds of vowels, but are largely static; going from an “F” sound to a “T” sound is a huge leap, whereas vowels are a little bit fluid, bleeding into each other. The entire game is to make sure you have enough difference between vowel sounds so that words can be distinguished from one another. But the specific sounds you make? Not so important, as long as they get the idea across of what word you’re trying to say.

A key change in the California Shift is what’s called the cot/caught merger. Northeasterners and Midwesterners pronounce those words differently, giving the former an “ah” sound and the latter an “aw” sound. “Californians do not,” says Eckert, who is originally from New York. “They have no idea. That vowel is almost completely merged. Think ‘mawwm’ instead of ‘mom.’”

Vowel sounds work like those sliding puzzle games where you have to unscramble a picture by sliding one piece of it at a time. As soon as you move one piece, you’re left with an empty space behind you, which has to be filled by something else. Californians dropped the “cot” vowel sound, pronouncing it like “caught” instead. So something had to fill that space. “The California Shift is this kind of combined change in the pronunciation of short vowels,” says Kennedy. The easiest way to think about it? Look at the words kit, dress, and trap. In the California Shift, “kit” becomes “ket”, “dress” becomes “drass”, and “trap” becomes “trop”.

Dan Nosowitz writing for Atlas Obscura about the linguistics behind the “pop punk voice” employed by bands like Blink-182.

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The Linguistic Morphology of Reaction GIFs


When we turn to the person sitting next to us and say something, it’s not particularly difficult to convey our emotional intent. We have an entire arsenal of non-verbal tools at our disposal when we communicate in person: we can gesticulate, frown, shrug, shake our heads, even face-palm. But what about the instances when we are limited to words on a screen? According to linguist Chi Luu, “email, instant messaging and other online forums for speech have made the efficient communication of emotion and social cues necessary,” and this is where the internet famous face-palm comes into play. In a recent column for JSTOR Daily, Luu explored the rise of so-called “reaction GIFs,” and their place in our internet vernacular:

The evolution from simple punctuation-based emoticons to more complex reaction gifs from internet memes shows how more nuanced expressions are being stylized and conveyed in online culture. Emoticons in parallel have themselves developed some complexity, influenced by their Japanese counterparts. These are known as kaomojis, which use combinations that include katakana characters, such as the  shrug ¯\_(ツ)_/¯  and the ever popular table flip (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻ . Emoticons that are frequently used have been developed into image versions of their punctuation selves (also known as emoji) and are so popular with internet users an emoji-only messenger is now available for those who like their communication short and sweet.

From visual emojis depicting simple emotional states, it’s a short step to the more dynamic emotion or reaction gifs, used by certain internet subcultures to respond or react in playful ways to an online discussion. These are gif images, often originating from internet memes, that depict elements of body language that can be too complex for an emoticon to describe. Essentially, it’s an innovative way for speakers to convey a sense of gesture on the internet.

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Homecoming and Pain: On the Etymology of Nostalgia

Why do some people look back and others refuse to? What are the pleasures of  “nostalgia”? The word itself has its etymology in the Greek nostos(homecoming) + algia (pain), but the condition is more multifaceted, combined of equal parts of homesickness, self-indulgence, sentimentality, and an alertness to the genuine, confected, or nonexistent pleasures of other times, other ages, and other places. In Updike, and many others of us, the pleasure of remembering predominates, not the pain.

The word, if not the condition, is modern, coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer as a translation of the German Heimweh (homesickness) to describe the depression he witnessed among Swiss mercenaries longing to get home following service abroad. That its coinage coincides with the beginnings of the ages of Enlightenment and then Romanticism suggests that words both come out of their historical circumstances and affect subsequent conditions. They respond to cultural stimuli and then create new feelings, or new articulations of older ones. In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym distinguishes between two nostalgias, a “restorative” version, a longing for return to the favored place, and a “reflective” one, which is all about irreparable loss. But in America today, the original pain of nostalgia is often replaced by the diluted pipe-dream pleasures of self-indulgent trips down Memory Lane.

Willard Spiegelman writing for The American Scholar about memory, nostalgia, and his 50th high school reunion.

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