bill noble meaning in flux

I'm moving to Sweden!

Hej Sverige!

I’m moving to Gothenburg, Sweden at the end of the month to take a PhD position at the University of Gotherburg’s Centre for Linguistic Theory and Studies in Probability (CLASP). It’s a big move, so I thought I’d take some time to write about what I’ll be doing there before I leave.

Basically, I’ll be taking classes, doing research, and probably teaching (or TAing) some, too. By the end, I’ll have written a dissertation based on my research and (if all goes well) I’ll get a degree. All this will take four or five years.

What am I researching?

My research will focus on semantic change. Semantics is the part of linguistics concerned with meaning. This includes lexical semantics (what do words mean?) and compositional semantics (how do words combine to make meaningful sentences?). I think my work will mostly focus on lexical semantics.

I’m particularly interested in looking at the social context of language change. Sociolinguists have this concept of a speech community – a group of people who share a set of linguistic conventions, such as the meaning of certain words. Speech communities come in all sizes, from as large as speakers of English to as small as a pair of close friends.

Speech communities can overlap or even “eavesdrop” on each other, resulting in the spread of novel linguistic conventions. Change in a larger community affect the language spoken in sub-communities. Conversely, changes made to the language in a sub-community are sometimes adopted by the larger community.

Linguistic variation (differences between communities) and linguistic change (differences within a community over time) are two sides of the same coin. Both are necessary for understanding questions like where does semantic change come from? and why are some changes adopted more broadly, while others aren’t?

Why does it matter?

So, I obviously think this is all really interesting. I also think it’s really important. At the risk of going all now more than ever on you, I think it’s clear to anyone who’s visited The Internet in the last 5 or 10 years that we’re far from consistent when it comes to maintaining a productive discourse. And while I wouldn’t try to deny that there are significant—at times insurmountable—differences of opinion and values out there, I think it’s often the case that we can’t even get at those differences because we’re totally talking past each other.

Vox’s Ezra Klein had a nice example of the kind of thing I’m talking about in his piece about the recent Twitter controversy surrounding some old tweets by journalist Sarah Jeong.

A few years ago, it became popular on feminist Twitter to tweet about the awful effects of patriarchal culture and attach the line #KillAllMen. This became popular enough that a bunch of people I know and hang out with and even love began using it in casual conversation.

And you know what? I didn’t like it. It made me feel defensive. It still makes me feel defensive. I’m a man, and I recoil hearing people I care about say all men should be killed.

But I also knew that wasn’t what they were saying. They didn’t want me put to death. They didn’t want any men put to death. They didn’t hate me, and they didn’t hate men. “#KillAllMen” was another way of saying “it would be nice if the world sucked less for women.” It was an expression of frustration with pervasive sexism. I didn’t enjoy the way they said it, but that didn’t mean I had to pretend I couldn’t figure out what they meant. And if I had any questions, I could, you know, ask, and actually listen to the answer.

Here’s the other thing, though: all that was happening inside my community, which both inclined me towards generosity, and gave me more context for what was going on. If I had been on the outside of it, perhaps my ultimate reaction would’ve been different, perhaps I would’ve let my initial offense drive my interpretation.

The internet lets people from across the world connect, find shared experiences, and build communities. It also enables interaction between people who have very little in common and may sometimes feel at opposition with each other. I think that access can be a great force for good—and is something worth preserving—but it can also conttribute to discord with serious real-world implications.

When we’re interpreting language, context is key. Social context is especially key. We often don’t get that social context on the internet. It’s foreign, or faded from memory, or (willfully or otherwise) stripped away.

When a new lexical item like #KillAllMen pops up, it’s in response to communicative need—in this case, the need for a tong-in-cheek way to point out problems caused by the patriarchy. People who don’t possess that need (e.g. men with no interest in pointing out the patriarchy) may not intuitively interpret it that way. With a better understanding of how semantic change spreads (particularly on the internet), I think we can make better informed choices about how to organize discussion and build communities in a way that makes diverse voices accessible to everyone. For example, we can find ways to make the social context necessary for generous interpretation available, while exposing bad-faith provocateurs who feign outrage (i.e. trolls) for what they are.

I don’t want to make it sound like “oh if only we understood each other all our problems would go away”. There is clearly no shortage of non-linguistic social division in the world today. But if we can better understand where semantic change comes from, and what accounts for the differences between communities, I think we can give people better tools for contextualizing each other’s speech and at least start discussing those divisions across linguistic communities.

So what does this “research” actually consist of?

I’m planning to take an interdisciplinary approach, grounding my research in cognitive and sociolinguistics theory, and applying tools from computational linguistics and social network analysis. A lot of my research will using computer models to find and probe phenomena such as semantic change in large-scale corpuses of social media and other internet discourse. I think it will be a good practice to update this blog regularly as my studies and research progress, so if you’re interested, stay tuned here or follow me on Twitter.