The surprising unpredictability of language in use

This morning I recieved an e-mail from an international professional association that I belong to. The e-mail was in English, but it was not written by an American. As a linguist, I recognized the differences in formality and word use as signs that the person who wrote the e-mail is speaking from a set of experiences with English that differ from my own. Nothing in the e-mail was grammatically incorrect (although as a linguist I am hesitant to judge any linguistic differences as correct or incorrect, especially out of context).

Then later this afternoon I saw a tweet from Twitter on the correct use of Twitter abbreviations (RT, MT, etc.). If the growth of new Twitter users has indeed leveled off then Twitter is lucky, because the more Twitter grows the less they will be able to influence the language use of their base.

Language is a living entity that grows, evolves and takes shape based on individual experiences and individual perceptions of language use. If you think carefully about your experiences with language learning, you will quickly see that single exposures and dictionary definitions teach you little, but repeated viewings across contexts teach you much more about language.

Language use is patterned. Every word combination has a likelihood of appearing together, and that likelihood varies based on a host of contextual factors. Language use is complex. We use words in a variety of ways across a variety of contexts. These facts make language interesting, but they also obscure language use from casual understanding. The complicated nature of language in use interferes with analysts who build assumptions about language into their research strategies without realizing that their assumptions would not stand up to careful observation or study.

I would advise anyone involved in the study of language use (either as a primary or secondary aspect of their analysis) to take language use seriously. Fortunately, linguistics is fun and language is everywhere. So hop to it!

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3 thoughts on “The surprising unpredictability of language in use

  1. Yes, again, Casey! I’ve seen specialized (professional/disciplinary) vocabulary used in surveys/polls with an external audience not really familiar with the concept or specialized terminology (examples from library world: “scholarly communication”, “e-science”). To what extent might we unconsciously shape responses in a way that fit our own schema or structures reinforcing concepts that perhaps should be reconsidered/deconstructed? Of course I believe this linguistic awareness is par for the course in political polls but may not be considered as carefully in other types of survey research. Thank you for reminding us how important this is — especially as we think about data sharing and combining data sources for analysis.

  2. I thought the subject was interesting when I read this about a month ago. As someone not born in US, the use of English had been always an intriguing topic to me, and sometimes on purpose, and sometimes not, I track different writing patterns both in myself, and others.
    I don’t know if it was the recency effect of reading this post or something else, but as I was writing a paper for a class, I caught myself using certain type of sentence structure that is rather uncommon (or at least to myself). I think I must have picked the pattern up from something I’ve read recently, which got me to think that perhaps we should also look out for outside stimulations affecting our linguistic patterns.
    Sometimes, when we read a book or a really really long paper, if the pattern the author uses is idiosyncratic, or even slightly different from what is of the norm, it stands out; and if one is exposed to it for a certain amount of time and keeps noticing the difference, there may be a possibility of it being unconsciously incorporated into the reader’s mind and writing style (this is just my hypothesis).
    Recently, I also noticed that I have started using certain words that my friend says a lot over the phone. I’m sure this is not something that just happens to me, as I notice it in my friends as well. I think it’d be interesting to explore the impacts of language exposure and its effects in different forms (reading, listening, etc) and somehow devise a way to measure those impacts.

    • This is a really interesting topic! Linguists call it “linguistic accommodation” or “language contact.” (There are probably other terms that I’m not thinking of offhand.) It happens on a smaller scale, like when people in a conversation imitate each other’s behavior, word use, intonations, etc., and on larger scales, like when people or groups change and become more similar over time. There is also an interesting body of research about the ways in which peoples’ idea of themselves, or identity construction, is related to language change. So accommodation and change don’t happen equally to everyone interacting.

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