Student Speaker Abstracts – Session 2

Shannon McKeown, Wayne State University

“Fake News, Crooked Hillary, and Bad People: A Linguistic Analysis of Donald Trump’s Twitter Insults

As political discourse shifts from traditional media to social platforms, understanding and navigating mass communication becomes increasingly important. This paper explores the correlation between Donald Trump’s Twitter insults and standard propaganda tactics in order to reasonably predict the reach and impact of his social communications. By analyzing Trump’s most retweeted insults, this paper reveals a direct engagement with the seven propaganda devices: name calling, glittering generalities, transfer, testimonials, plain folks, card stacking, and band wagon. The tweets reviewed come primarily from the New York Times’ database of Trump’s insults and are compared to a synthesized definition of “insult” derived from the Oxford English Dictionary, Don Rothwell, and Helen Daly. Similarly, the author’s definition of “propaganda” incorporates ideas from Alfred Lee and Elizabeth Lee. Initially this paper establishes what constitutes an insult and determines how Trump’s tweets exemplify that definition. Secondly, three tweets comprised of his most popular insults “fake”, “crooked”, and “bad” are likened to the seven devices of propaganda and their context explained. Finally, the author discusses the reach and impact of Trump’s tweets, noting how information, accepted without scrutiny, can quickly devolve into dangerous, politically biased propaganda. This paper challenges the veracity of political discourse through social media and highlights the danger of audience apathy. Many value the ease of instantaneous information; yet fail to critically evaluate these sources. This modern complacency has the potential to allow for more political figures to employ increasingly aggressive and socially impactful tactics.


Amelia Stecker, Northwestern University

“Variation in Evaluations of Gendered Voices: Individual speakers condition the variant frequency effect”

Listeners are sensitive to the frequency at which a speaker produces socially meaningful variants. Labov et al. (2011) showed that as a speaker produced higher frequencies of a stigmatized variant, they were rated as increasingly less professional on a logarithmic scale. Listeners have also been shown to use top-down social information about speakers in speech perception (e.g. the speaker’s perceived gender, Strand 1999). However, less is known about the ways that speaker characteristics can modulate the frequency effect shown in Labov et al. (2011). This study brings together these bodies of work to examine how a speaker’s gender influences how their frequency of use of a stigmatized variant is evaluated socially.

Some work has demonstrated that women use prestige-linked variants more frequently than men (e.g. Labov 1972). Further, academic and popular discussion suggests that women’s voices are more highly scrutinized than men’s voices (e.g. Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 2003; Slobe 2018). This converges to suggest that listeners may provide more negative social evaluations of women’s usage of stigmatized variants versus men’s usage at the same rates of production. This study tests this prediction using the well-studied and stable sociolinguistic variable ING (Campbell-Kibler 2007), as tested in Labov et al. (2011).

In a matched-guise task building on the design of Labov et al. (2011), 185 participants heard five men and five women speakers producing a passage of news headlines containing 10 ING tokens. Proportions of the “stigmatized” -in variant versus the “standard” -ing variant in the passage were manipulated in 10 steps, resulting in 10 different -in frequencies. Each participant heard
every voice and -in frequency in a randomized order, counter-balanced across participants. Participants rated each voice on seven-point scales for professionalism, likeability, likelihood of being a real-life broadcaster, and intelligence.

Passages with greater -in frequencies were rated significantly lower for professionalism,
intelligence, and likelihood of being a broadcaster (all p<0.05), replicating previous findings (e.g., Labov et al. 2011). However, speaker gender did not significantly predict these ratings, nor did it interact with -in frequency, failing to support the prediction that women will be more negatively evaluated for using -in than men. Instead, results illustrate qualitative differences between the 10 individual speakers, not patterning clearly along gendered lines. Specifically, some speakers appear to show a reversed effect of -in frequency on social evaluations, with greater -in frequencies leading to higher professionalism, intelligence, and broadcaster ratings, in contrast with previous work.

These findings illustrate heterogeneity in how the frequency of a stigmatized variant affects speakers’ social evaluations. This suggests that previous paradigms that utilize only one speaker for stimuli may not generalize to other speakers, even within the same macro-social category. Further, findings demonstrate greater variability between same-gender speakers than between gender groups. This challenges the primacy of a binary gender distinction in sociolinguistic practice (e.g. Zimman 2017), suggesting that individual speakers complicate this effect.


Neal Liu, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

“Writing Conferences in First-Year Composition as a Site of Emerging Identity Roles for Graduate Teaching Assistants”

Notwithstanding a veritable avalanche of scholarship in the past decades on the relation between the writing conference talk and the participant role, these studies tend to dominantly zero in on the writing conference engagement done by seasoned secondary-school writing instructors or by senior faculty members and/or specialized instructors at the tertiary level. Little has been done on how first-year-composition graduate teaching assistants (FYC GTAs) establish their unique identity roles as teaching assistants via the conference talk and the negotiation made with the
institutional and programmatic policies. Thus, this qualitative work-in-progress attempts to map out the interactional construction of emerging identities for the FYC GTAs at the individual writing conference at a large Midwestern university in the U.S. to further understand the multilayered interconnectedness between the writing conference talk, the identity formation, and the institutional constraints and/or affordances. Drawing on the theoretical frameworks of Davis and Harré’s positioning (1990) and Goffman’s identity as performance (1956), this pilot study utilizes ethnographic (i.e., extensive field notes and observer commentary) and interactional data (i.e., video- and/or audio-recorded interaction), coupled with semi-structured interviews, to pinpoint particular linguistic cues that inform how the FYC GTAs’ identity performance is made,
constructed, and asserted through the one-on-one writing conference enactment. Data collection involves observation of two writing conference sessions, and post-conference interviews with the focal groups of FYC GTAs and students for an inquiry into their experiences with and at writing conferences. Analysis includes the sequential organization of the conference talk based on the classroom-analysis coding system developed by Fanselow (1977) and adapted by Davis et al. (1988). The data triangulation entails the alignment of the participants’ reflection with the transcript of the videotaped/audiotaped interaction and interview, and with the course syllabi on which description of the institutional policies is proffered. This work-in-progress anticipates that
the identity of FYC GTAs might not be determined in an a priori and ritualistic working; rather, FYC GTA’s identity roles are multiple forms of interpersonal interaction and institutional constraints and affordances. The rhetoric of treating FYC GTAs’ identity roles as interactionally emergent might aid FYC GTAs or writing teachers at large to better orchestrate their writing conference schemas and agendas so that students’ learning can be fruitfully maximized.


Jamie Benheim, Northwestern University

“Regional features and the Jewish ethnolinguistic repertoire in Chicago”

A commonly discussed component of the Jewish American ethnolinguistic repertoire (Benor 2011) is the use of New York City (NYC) regional features, such as raised THOUGHT, by speakers who live elsewhere (Knack 1991), especially Orthodox speakers (Sacknovitz 2007). This is attributed to ideological ties between Jewish identity and NYC throughout the U.S. Less is known about how indexical links between Jewish English and NYC features interface with the social meanings of regional features common to the particular communities in which these Jewish speakers live. This study uses evidence from perception and production to explore how Jewish Chicagoans’ vocalic systems integrate NYC- and Chicago- (or Northern Cities Shift;
NCS) linked features. Contrary to predictions that directly link NYC features to Jewish English, results show that listener background influences sociolinguistic perception for those features which are socially meaningful in production in Chicago more broadly, rather than for Jewish speakers specifically.

In wordlist productions comparing a subset of perception task participants (N=21) with Catholic Chicagoans (N=46), TRAP and LOT show apparent-time reversal of the NCS (all p<0.05) for both groups, while THOUGHT shows no significant apparent-time change. Controlling for age, only LOT differs between these groups: LOT is significantly higher and backer (less NCS-like) for Jewish speakers (all p<0.01). While a backer LOT is consistent with an analysis of more NYC-like Jewish vowel spaces, THOUGHT shows no significant patterning, despite its traditional associations with Jewish speakers and NYC.

Auditory stimuli produced by a female American English speaker were resynthesized along ninestep TRAP-LOT and LOT-THOUGHT continua. In a phoneme categorization task, 60 Jewish Chicagoans were grouped into four conditions based on the social information they were told about the speaker they would hear: a Jewish Chicagoan, Jewish New Yorker, Catholic Chicagoan, or Catholic New Yorker. If Jewish identity is ideologically linked to NYC features, higher/backer LOT-THOUGHT and TRAP-LOT boundaries would be expected when the speaker was perceived to be from NYC and when the speaker was perceived to be Jewish, regardless of region. However, neither the speaker’s perceived location nor ethnoreligious identity significantly predicted categorization. Rather, listener background significantly predicts categorization: controlling for condition, Orthodox listeners placed a fronter boundary for
TRAP-LOT (p=0.004) than non-Orthodox listeners, indicating that they expected LOT-fronting, a NCS feature. However, no listener background differences predicted LOT-THOUGHT boundaries, indicating that neither perceived speaker identity nor listener background led to expectations of NYC-linked THOUGHT-raising.

Chicago has an established, sizeable Jewish community and its own place-based linguistic features. These data suggest that speakers do not need to rely on NYC features to index Jewish identity in this context. In this sample, LOT-fronting, but not THOUGHT-raising, shows socially meaningful variation in Chicagoans’ wordlist productions, differentiating Jewish from Catholic speakers. It is precisely this feature which varies among Orthodox and non-Orthodox listeners in perception, and between Jewish and Catholic speakers in production. More generally, these results suggest that the use of a given element from the ethnolinguistic repertoire can be influenced by the pre-existing sociolinguistic landscape in particular communities.


Maria Heath, University of Minnesota

“Lazy or Monotone?: The orthography of speech communities

The conventionalized use of creative orthography online suggests that we should think of social media users as a speech community for whom language norms are reflected in writing rather than in speech. I provide evidence that the varied interpretations of non-standard orthographic patterns can be used to define online speech communities independent of typical demographic categories. Unlike traditional written language, the norms of CMC (Computer Mediated Communication) are learned through exposure and evolve and spread naturally, allowing us to discuss CMC varieties in the same terms as spoken varieties. I suggest that creative orthography is a crucial but largely overlooked tool for doing so.

In a survey of 35 people as part of a social media production study, I asked how readers interpreted several non-standard orthographic patterns. The groupings of responses illuminate social divides in online communities. For the pattern in which a whole message is written in lowercase, as in example (1), there is a clear divide between people who consider the pattern “normal” or unmarked (13 out of 35 participants), those who consider it to be a sign of laziness or lack of education (6/35), and those who interpret it as “monotone”, “deadpan”, or “sarcastic” (10/35). These three categories reflect different social grouping of internet users: tech savvy long-term internet users, users who came online later in their lives, and young people who grew up with autocorrect (McCulloch 2019). Another example can be seen in the alternating capitalization pattern (example 2), in which there’s a clear division between those who are not familiar with it (13/35) and those who interpret it as “mocking” (15/35), reflecting different degrees of exposure to the “mocking spongebob” meme with which the pattern is associated.

Note that both “monotone” and “mocking” are often expressed with intonation in speech, which fits with proposals that have suggested that creative orthography is a way of expressing prosody in writing. For example, repeated letters (3) can indicate lengthening of a word for prosodic emphasis, often found on emotive words or discourse markers (McSweeney 2018), writing a single word in all caps (4) indicates increasing pitch or volume for emphasis, often found in linguistic contexts like semantic focus (Heath 2018), capitalizing an entire sentence (5) indicates overall increases in pitch or volume as a way to indicate increased emotional arousal (Heath 2019), and putting a period after every word (6) indicates boundary tones on every word, making the text slow and emphatic (McCulloch 2019). However, my survey data suggests that these prosodic interpretations only exists for a subset of internet users.
I propose that the conventionalized correlations between orthography and prosody can be used to understand and delineate membership in online speech communities. Prosodic associations with orthography can tell us about people’s exposure to trends through social networks, length of time of membership in a community, and attitudes toward different internet varieties. Understanding the type of conventionalization that orthography can undergo will help variationists pinpoint the boundaries of CMC speech communities and trace their evolution.