Monday, December 19, 2011

I don't think it's linguists' fault.

Whenever media coverage of a linguistic phenomenon goes as far off the rails as the recent vocal fry fiasco, linguists blame themselves. To quote some commentary that Doug Bigham posted to Facebook:
It's not the journalists' fault; it's ours. We've failed miserably at public outreach because the "leaders of our field" don't believe the public will ever understand what we do and don't care to try and explain it at a level people will understand. [...] The culture of irrelevance we've created for ourselves can't be dismissed with a hand wave...
That's some tough love, but I'm inclined to disagree. Perhaps linguists, like all academics, have some isolationist tendencies. Doug himself had a lot of trouble drumming up contributions to the Popular Linguistics Magazine. But I think a more severe problem is that linguists' point of view is actively unwanted.

To flesh out what I mean, I think it's worth speculating about why this particular piece of research on vocal fry captured the collective media imagination. The research itself was very modest in its scope, and there is a vast universe of research out there that media outlets could have chosen to report on. Putting aside the academic press, you could fill hours of television with just the postings to Science Now, where the vocal fry piece first got some play. So why did this particular piece of research get reported on TV, and all over the internet?

The answer lies, I think, in the supposed culprits: young women. This is a very simple case of language shaming. The Today Show clip described vocal fry as "animal-like," and buffered the piece with iconic images of female frivolity: shopping, gossiping, talking about boys, and watching Sex and the City. The original MSNBC blog post was updated with the "best comment so far" from Facebook, which said
"These girls sound like a bunch of neurotic dolphins who do not make sense."
"Brilliant," says the MSNBC blogger, "can you top that?" Vocal fry has thus been successfully framed as a negative behavior.

Why is vocal fry framed so negatively? Well, it's almost a tautology to say that young women do something, and it is undesirable. Vocal fry is an especially striking case. Before all of this media coverage, no one, except people who work on speech, even knew what it was, or commented on it. Once it was defined and explained, and associated with young women, suddenly it fit snugly into a classic declinism frame, and a linguistic inferiority of women frame.

The supposed motives of young women for doing vocal fry are also a key element in the media coverage. They want to 1) emulate pop artists and 2) fit in with their friends. That is, they are shallow, frivolous, and thoughtless. Really, the tone of the story is only a slightly refined version of this or this.

Perhaps the coverage of vocal fry could be understood as being part of a larger trend of policing the behavior of women. In a lot of ways (dietarily, sexually, physically, professionally, etc.), there is a razor thin range of acceptability for young women, which now apparently includes their pitch contours. If you end your utterances with a final pitch rise, you're doing uptalk (a.k.a. ending all your sentences with question marks), and if you end them with falling pitches, you're doing vocal fry.

So where does the work of a linguist fit in here? Could we have provided higher quality research and better facts, in an equally digestible manner? Probably, but I submit that media interest in vocal fry has nothing to do with facts, or the quality of the research. The commentary of a linguist would not add grist to the mill of female inferiority, and would therefore just be ignored. In fact, that's exactly what happened with Janet Pierrehumbert's contribution to the Today Show story. What she said was completely lucid, and contained no technical mumbo jumbo, but the point of the coverage was not to educate, but to shame.

The problem is that most people want to be able to use language as a device to separate the inferior from the superior. This kind of desire surfaces in almost every conversation I have about language with a non-expert. It becomes amplified in the media, and it operates at all levels of the social hierarchy. There is the denigration of people who speak non-standard Englishes. Then, there is the denigration of women's and youth's speech. At the higher levels of the cultural elite, self-worth can be determined by your choice of octopuses, octopi, octopodes, or by whether you agree that by saying "A whole wheat bagel, please," you should not have to be asked to specify that you don't want cream cheese.

This is the kind of social work that people want to use language for, and it is a frustrating cultural juggernaut to be at cross purposes with. And that is exactly why, in my opinion, most linguistic research does not gain traction in popular discourse. Before we can get to the interesting stuff, we first have to turn everyone's moral universe upside down.

And that kind of task requires something more than just scientists being open to popularizing their research. We really have to be more agressive in a way that other sciences don't have to be. Really, it's necessary to be politicized, and I can fully understand that step being a difficult one to take for a researcher.

I see this tension being the biggest roadblock to developing larger social relevance for linguistics. Are we scientists, or are we politicians? Can we be both, effectively?


  1. I think you make some great points, and I definitely would agree with the idea that linguists' insights are just plain ignored in most cases. I do think, though, that blogs like yours go some way towards developing more public impact. And very often linguists' input to new stories has much to do with the vagaries of 'the news' which limit how far we are able to get our ideas out into the public eye.

    Is it necessary to be more politicised? Maybe, but perhaps it's also worthwhile thinking about how we can leverage social media to function as a kind of foil to traditional media outlets.

  2. Daniel Ezra JohnsonDecember 20, 2011 at 8:32 PM

    Without meaning too much of a backhanded compliment, this seems to me by far the best VS piece so far.

  3. This is really interesting. I'm going to share this on facebook, if you don't mind, along with the vocal fry piece.

  4. I think you hit the nail on the head with this one.


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