Reading time: 15 minutes
If, like me, you consider yourself a very online person, yet are surrounded in your daily life by offline people, it can be enormously enjoyable and perhaps even cathartic when you get the chance to meet similarly online people and have a good gossip about it all. Recently, as Covid restrictions have allowed it more, I’ve been able to meet up with lovely people who are likewise worryingly devoted to the infamous bird app, Twitter.
Several of these Internet comrades have been linguists, or at least linguistics-adjacent, and the conversation has each time turned to stimulating discussions about how linguistics works on social media. At this point, I tend to go on the defence — I owe Twitter an enormous debt when it comes to my own linguistics input and output, and I’m keen to emphasise the positives among all the awfulness.
I know how bad Twitter can be. Trust me, I am familiar with it. It can evoke all kinds of awful feelings in us — anger, jealousy, fear, compulsion — and Twitter hostilities can leave a lasting effect on groups of people, and easily spill out beyond the site’s digital borders. I also recognise that my good experiences are shaped by various forms of privilege, and are something many people just do not enjoy. In light of this (not in spite of it), I feel a need to highlight some of the unappreciated good it has done for at least one person (namely, me) over the past few years.
By exposure to so much lived experience, so much diversity of thought and being, so much intellectual generosity, I firmly believe that Twitter has made me twice the person I ever was. More specifically to my own interests, my self-imposed commitment to tweeting (almost) daily language facts and thoughts has made me twice the linguist. The quotidian quota really began when I was ill at the start of 2021, helping me to keep mentally active, but both before and after that time it has been a pleasure to send tweets and to receive so much enthusiasm and further knowledge in return.
For this month’s blog post, while I wait for the muse to send better ideas, I’ve written out some personal thoughts on some ways a social-media platform like Twitter can be beneficial for a linguist and passionate public poster like myself. It’s just an attempt to share some positive reflections, and offer some rationale into why I keep doing what I do. It’s an apology in the classical sense, an apología, though I am also genuinely sorry to all who have been so thoroughly afflicted with my thoughts.
A single tweet offers a mere 280 characters to make your point, and such limits force you to think very carefully about your writing. The first benefit therefore that comes to mind is how much tweeting has done for my skills and creativity in writing.
There are personal restrictions that can eat up the available characters; if you are posting something for both specialists and non-specialists, you have to keep your assumed information to a minimum, reckon where to place the knowledge threshold, and explain everything above it. Moreover, you have to communicate, at least implicitly, why readers of the tweet should care, how it’s of relevance to them, and why they ought to keep reading. So, my general linguistics tweets oftentimes end up working to the same structure: first mention a thing, then explain a little about what it is and how it works, and only then do I actually get to give the hopefully interesting information that is the whole raison de tweeter.
With so much to include, you have to be creative and economical with the wording if it’s all going to fit into one tweet. Thus begin the search for synonyms, the shifting of syntax and the punctilious pruning of punctuation, all to get the character count out of the red minus numbers.
It’s all tiny changes, but every little helps. Univerbation, or just fusion? Plosives or stops? Consonant or simply sound? Comes from, derives from, goes back to, leads to, became, has given us, the origin of, originates in, hence – these are are all handy near-equivalent phrases for the process of derivation that just about let me avoid repeating myself. A relative clause like ‘which means…‘ can be made into a present participle (‘meaning…’), just as the short ‘due to…‘ construction can match a full causal clause with ‘because…’. Need to add more info or highlight something as significant? You could write it in words, but a simple –dash can also express the emphasis and link back to what comes before. Academic practice is to refer to written signs through putting angle brackets around the sign, so ⟨a⟩ concerns the written letter, but then again that uses up two characters, so I usually try to convey the same idea with unchaperoned capital letters instead.
What I mean by all of this is that every tweet has been a chance to hone my writing skills, to try to convey what I want to, both explicitly and implicitly, and enthusiastically, with concise and carefully considered language – though I don’t claim to always get it right!
Regardless of character limits, there’s also the issue of formatting and making things clear. How do we maintain good linguistic practice and present ideas properly in tweet format?
The best example of this concerns the fundamental linguistic distinction between the language you are discussing and the language you are discussing it in. If I say, ‘the English word fish is related to Latin piscis‘, there are two levels of language involved here: there’s the level of the examples, which are in English and Latin, and then there’s the English that I use to consider them.
The former is the object language, while the latter is the metalanguage. Like the language we are studying, a metalanguage can be anything – English, German, Japanese, American Sign Language, formal logic notation, anything. What is needed is a way to signal when we shift from the meta to the object, especially when they are the same language. If we don’t, things will get confusing. In speech, there is usually a slight intonation break. In writing, we can use italics for the object language. Compare these two sentences:
- I’m interested in the word fish.
- I’m interested in the word fish.
I bet you wouldn’t pronounce these the same, despite not knowing what a word fish is.
But how do we represent this crucial distinction on Twitter? It’s true that you can tweet in italics, but then we face the problem of accessibility; screen readers have an awful time when it comes to italics and boldface text in tweets, so it’s best avoided. What I love is that, in response to this problem, twitter linguists have come up with various accessible ways to mark object language, pretty much through personal trial and error. While I’ve settled on ‘single quotation marks’, others use “double quotation marks”, _underscores_ or « guillemets » to do the job.
Then we have the additional need to provide translations for foreign words that are tweeted about. How do we separate these from the rest of the metalanguage? Quotation marks again? Brackets? Whichever we choose, it’s eating into our character limit.
But do you have to do this all the time? Arguably not. When the metalanguage and object language are obviously different (perhaps written in different scripts, or with diacritics and letters that the metalanguage lacks), additional punctuation can seem redundant – and with the chance to free up some characters at stake, redundancy is the enemy.
I have relished the challenges of working with the format of Twitter, and I enjoy the variety of solutions that people have come up with to make it work. These things are vital, yet so subtle that I wonder if they go noticed. A judicious use of punctuation, blank lines between sentences and signpost words can guide the reader to the intended interpretation, and hopefully impart something of the tweeter’s enthusiasm too.
The third benefit is of course the opportunities that it offers to interact with and learn from people. Can anywhere in the physical world match up to the dense jungle of personal networks that social media platforms consist of?
The people who live in my phone, many of whom I consider good friends, include Indo-European philologists, classicists and historical linguists, phoneticians, syntacticians, scholars of Uralic and Semitic languages, typologists, language acquisitionists, philosophers of language, sociolinguists, the occasional semanticist – and that’s just the folks with a linguistic bent! How incredibly awesome is it to have access to all their experience and to learn about simply the existence of their fields, work and ideas, let alone what those ideas actually are? Besides, where else, especially in Covid times, can I find so many people with the same appalling taste in language jokes and puns? I’m hardly going to share homemade memes around my actual university department.
Encountering these new corners of my fields motivates me to get involved too (envy has its uses). My very newfound commitment to studying Arabic is almost entirely the result of daily exposure to awesome scholarship on the language, and it’s a privilege to be in touch with people who actually know the answers to any apparent mysteries of language learning. I was recently struggling trying to learn the Arabic script and to understand what the pattern is for the placement of the dots above and below the letters. So, off I went to message an expert in the Arabic script, and I had a very full answer within the hour. Now I sort of understand the pattern (and also get that it’s quite complicated).
Then there are the responses to the stuff that I put out. Positive and negative, they illustrate the immediacy and breadth of knowledge that is on hand. My tweets get all sorts of comments, most of them good questions, prompted by genuine curiosity, or additional facts, revealing evident enthusiasm. Then there are the criticisms, which are usually fair, and they have certainly contributed to a wiser, more cautious approach to the ‘facts’ I tweet out. Twitter is our very own free and quick academic critiquing service. As a result, I’ve developed a useful mental threshold of intellectual confidence; I have to feel I understand, or, failing that, can at least defend every detail of a tweet. What are my sources? Do I understand everything I’m taking about? What assumptions have I included but not considered, and what have I left out?
Other tweeters’ comments have often prompted me to consider my own linguistic biases (language modality being a big one), and to break out in small ways from my own narrow field of focus. One funny consequence that comes to mind is that I try nowadays to avoid the terms archaic and obsolete when talking about words, because someone will inevitably comment that a particular word is still current for them. While such comments are not always in good faith, they are reminders that the life of a word, let along a language, is too big to know completely. All in all, fair criticism is an invitation to think bigger and think better.
Then, lastly, there is the motivation Twitter gives me to learn new things. There’s nothing like it really. Mining language for 280-character gems keeps me busy, keeps me on the look out and keeps me connecting things together. What I learned over the past few years cannot be quantified, or even properly grasped; it’s a slightly worrying thought that it may match what I’ve learned through my university studies. But the motivation wouldn’t work without the possibility of an equally interested audience. It’s reciprocal; learning begets learning. Besides, turning the things I read about into tweetable format truly confirms the old adage: you only truly know something when you can explain it to others. If I can’t tweet it, do I even understand it?
So, here are three general reasons why I won’t be stopping the language content just yet, and why I feel a debt of gratitude to everyone’s favourite hellsite. The constricting limitations of a character count confine and thus refine my writing, while it’s an instructive challenge to make the simple format of the tweet work to the benefit of the linguist. Then, of course, there are the personal connections, a constant source of strength and inspiration. At the end of the day, Twitter is a virtual place for very real people, and people have so much to give. For that, I’m grateful.
But I’ve not yet forgiven them all for making that damn cat meme go viral.