Category Archives: Sociolinguistics

Restricted entry: online code-switching and long-distance belonging

This week’s RDM guest blogger, Antonella Gazzardi, takes us on a multilingual journey that started in Orlando’s Epcot center – and eventually found its way to Facebook.

Antonella writes:

I am interested in code-switching practices, their underlying creativity, and how they spill over into social media. I am referring to a way of playing with languages that is shared by a small community of practice I belong to – and Facebook is what allows me to be exposed to it daily. Our community consists of Italian expats who mix Italian and English in a distinctive way, which is very much tied to a specific work environment that we all shared for one year: Epcot’s Italian pavilion food & beverage facilities.

For people who must leave this environment when their visa ends and then scatter around the world, language practices that originally emerged in this face-to face context eventually leak over into social media communication, where it’s possible to reach many people across the globe with one fast, cheap, and simple click. So when a Facebook page was opened to share our memories , it was quickly flooded by comments reminiscing about those days, conveyed, of course, using the particular hybrid language that we have come to identify with our Epcot experience.

The most active participants in the FB group are former employees, who post, comment, and comment on comments, using a jargon that can only be understood if you are … one of us.   This is because some of the unique blends only make sense in that Italian-American working context.  Some of these expressions take on entirely new meanings, which are virtually obscure to outsiders – even if they are bilingual. I’ve been collecting samples of this context-specific language for roughly 8 months, and I have classified them in two major categories.

The first category is word blends and expressions that are context-specific to Orlando/Industry expats. For example, an Italian speaker who is fluent in English may quickly (and correctly) infer that “ciargiare” is an Italianized infinitive for “to charge,” since it has become common for many Italians with some knowledge of English to Italianize technology-related words in exactly the same way. These days, everybody understands “postare”, “taggare”, “hackerare”, or “spammare”, blends that bounce back and forth from offline to online exchanges.  So what exactly  is distinctive about our Facebook posts? This is where I think context, creativity, bilingualism, and code-switching all come into play in a uniquely clever way:

What is a cippettone? What does stampare mean here, if it is not the literal translation of “to print”– which it is not. What is pompa time for bananas? What does push push push and pusha babe! mean when the speaker does not specify what needs to be pushed? And, if one’s “final trip” is not the one to the graveyard, then what is it?

“Cippettone” is a blend of the English word “cheap” and the Italian suffix “-one,” which translates into a “big” whatever noun precedes it. In this case, the augmentative (“-one”) is pejorative in connotation: it refers to a very cheap patron. “Stampare” means to stamp checks, a metaphor for a priori adding gratuities to the bill based on the number of patrons. “Pompa time” is when the “pompatori” (literally, people who inflate) get into action, i.e. servers who are known to regularly make much more money than average ones. So “pompa time” is rush hour, when skilled servers can upsell and turn tables as fast as possible, which is what “push push push” and the blend “pusha babe!” mean. Of course, in so doing they make lots of money, affectively nick-named “bananas”, maybe because of their golden skin. And when their one-year work contract is over, it’s time to use  time left on their visa to travel around the United States before heading home: the “final trip.”

The second group of posts consists of somewhat less context-dependent, but still community-contingent, instances of code-switching used by expats for communicating specific types of information.  These language switches often refer back to a past event, or a memory of the time spent working at Epcot.  Here’s are a few examples from FB:

“Se per quelli che erano all’Alfredo, many years ago, ma ve lo ricordate Charlie, il cameriere brasiliano?”           (For those who worked at Alfredo’s, many years ago, do you remember Charlie, the Brazilian server?)

No way!! Il vino la sua ossessione!”                                    (No way! Wine was his obsession!)

“(…) Family numerosa !”                                                                   (Big family!)

These three comments, like many others, use Italian syntax and vocabulary for the most part, but occasional English phrases or words are dropped in that tie their authors back to this specific bilingual community. Because most of the members of the FB group are Italian, there is no need to use “many years ago”, “no way”, or “family” instead of their Italian counterparts here.

This language use is automatic, it expresses being part of a community, and it reinforces the bond shared by those who have had common experiences in this particular setting. In fact, I have found that this jargon is kept alive across continents by those of us who are former Epcot employees – but when we communicate online about things other than our Epcot experience, we very rarely code-switch.  Therefore, the mixing of codes that I have been studying is both functionally and contextually specific.

Arguing online over food ownership

With the current state of U.S. politics, we’re all aware of the contentious debates that are taking place in many online spaces today.  But you might be surprised to learn how heated things have recently gotten on social media spaces dedicated to…cooking?  As this week’s RDM guest blogger, Jessica Giovanni, explains, Facebook’s “Tasty” page is a site that’s full of drama.


Jessica writes:

Tasty specializes in video recipes that are both creative yet easy to recreate, thus their target audience is presumably people who enjoy trying new things and/or need an easy meal to cook due to their busy schedules, lack of culinary skills, or both. Most of Tasty’s videos contain simple ingredients, simple cooking methods, short cooking times, and an unconventional spin on established traditional recipes. So, as both a user of the site and a researcher of online discourse, I’ve been surprised to see the hundreds of people flooding the “Comment” sections of these videos with negative evaluations of the site’s recipes.

In last semester’s Discourse Analysis class, I chose to focus on comments responding to a Tasty video showing a recipe for a spaghetti and meatball bake.


This recipe had a total of 11,542 comments and about 14 million views associated with it, for likely a couple of reasons. 1) Spaghetti and meatballs is a highly Americanized take on the classic Italian dish of spaghetti with meat sauce. 2) Also at issue is the way that the dish is prepared, namely, that it is baked. This unusual (at least from an Italian perspective) method of preparation serves Tasty’s main purposes: speed and ease of the cooking process.

I analyzed 50 comments from the video, as automatically sorted by Facebook’s Top 50 Comments algorithm. There were two main groups of people commenting in this space: 1) those who objected to the video recipe in some way, and 2) those who positioned themselves against the first group. Example 1 is representative of the first group’s comments, which dominated the data set, with 25 out of 50 comments.  (The second group was represented by 13/50 comments, and 12/50 were neutral.)

Example #1

Please stop fake italian recipes.

Remember, in real italian recipes:

-we don’t use paprika in any foods, paprika is not in italian culture.

-doesn’t exist pasta with potato or chicken, or KETCHUP. Pasta with ketchup is the biggest insult to the italian kitchen, please use tomato souce.

-we use garlic, not garlic powder, in italy doesn’t exist

-parsley with meat balls? Why?

-we cook pasta in boil water and only after it we bake it

-in Italy DOESN’T EXIST PASTA WITH MEATBALLS!! Is Ragú, is not with meatballs, google it

– what is Alfredo souce?!? And Bolognese souce?!? Please stop it, we call french fries, hamburger or hot dog with their name, please do the same with our foods.

The opening line, framed as a request (“Please stop fake italian recipes”) summarizes the main point of the entire commentary: This user objects to the recipe in the video because it is inauthentic.  As the text continues, the author of Example 1 establishes authenticity, both through contrasting constructions ( “fake” vs. “real” Italian food) and by making a series of claims about what “does not exist in Italy/Italian cuisine” (i.e., paprika, garlic powder – or any pasta dishes that include chicken, potatoes, ketchup, and, of course, meatballs).   These repeated statements about what does and doesn’t exist in Italy – combined with several first person plural pronoun “we” statements (e.g., “we use” “we don’t use” “we cook”) –  position the author as an expert on Italian food, and as a member of the culture from which the dish (ostensibly) originates.

In contrast, the second group of commenters explicitly react against the opinions of the people who have negatively evaluated the video.  Their comments focus more on who has the right to comment in the space, based on the presumed target audience of the page. Since Tasty’s videos seem to cater to people who either do not have the time nor the skills to put together complicated meals, the second group of commenters uses this line of argumentation to counter the comments made by the first group. This oppositional stance is illustrated in Example 2.

Example #2

Hey people please stop complaining! This is a site that is for inspiration… i think the idea is great… if i cook Bolognese sauce its always too much so i can make that on the next day… so i make my own sauce and i would rather take normal spaghetti and i would make my own way of meatball… everybody can make it in another way but the idea is good… and remember that there are people out there that are not good cooker and dor them this is easy to make… so PLEASE STOP BITCHING!!!

The author of Example 2 highlights Tasty’s intended purpose (“a site that is for inspiration”) and dismisses those comments made by the first group as non-legitimate, by referring to them as “complaining” and “bitching.”  This author stresses in different ways the main objectives of the cooking videos: to prepare food that is simple and quick to prepare (“easy to make”). In this way, the user projects his/her membership as a legitimate in-group member of the page’s intended audience, and positions those who are against the video as outgroup members, who are missing the point of the site.

Online discourses such as these reveal differing food ideologies.  The two groups’ claims to authority and their membership statements demonstrate opposing stances on the issue of whether or not it is appropriate to recontextualize ethnic cuisines. The first group’s comments indicate that some users reject any version of an original recipe that deviates from the traditionally accepted preparation methods of the origin culture, while the second group believes that traditional recipes can be altered, provided that the reasons for those alterations are made clear. Discussions such as these, especially in online spaces, not only reveal a range of beliefs about food “ownership,” but also reinforce and (re)circulate those ideas, by exploiting the particular affordances of the social media platform on which they appear. Having an awareness of the different ways that those ideologies are represented linguistically can help users identify the rhetorical strategies that are used in social media communications and to better understand what people believe as well as how they represent those beliefs to others. As social media continue to have increasing influence on/presence in our lives, it is more important than ever to become a critical consumer of online discourse and to consider its impact on our identities and cultures.

Parody Reviews… and Final Video Projects

I’m very happy to share this update : my first “Amazon parody reviews” article has just been published in the online journal, Language@Internet!  I’ve been working on this topic ever since I finished writing my book about review language, two years ago. I’ve even given 3 or 4 conference talks about it since then.  But, for some reason, figuring out exactly the right angle to take has been a challenging and lengthy ordeal.  Nevertheless, once the writing finally got underway, I was lucky enough to have a couple of other related papers come out of the process.  So… if all goes well, a second article about narrative identities in parody reviews, and a book chapter comparing references to gender in legitimate versus parody reviews, should appear later — perhaps sometime in 2017.  Stay tuned!

I have one other piece of digital media to share.  Rather than writing final term papers this semester, my awesome undergraduate Language & Society students (these guys):groupworked on multi-phase, group video projects. They modeled their projects after a video made by Manchester University.  My main objectives were: 1) for students to gain an experiential understanding of the linguistic diversity of Tampa Bay (something that many folks at our university and in our area take for granted); 2) to interact with people whose experiences may be different from their own; 3) to demonstrate a few things that they learned from our course readings and discussions throughout this semester; and 4) to gain experience synthesizing and presenting information effectively in a multi-modal digital format.  One of the groups uploaded their video to YouTube, and I’m very pleased to showcase it here. Enjoy!

I definitely plan to incorporate more video projects in my future teaching.

From Internet Rules!…to Bad Hombres?

A couple weeks ago, I attended the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIR) in Berlin.  This conference has been held every year since 2000, and it’s dedicated to exploring all things internet-related = it’s impressively multidisciplinary.   This year’s theme was “Internet Rules!”  (polysemously referencing ideas related to who rules the internet?” as well as “what are the rules of the internet?”).  I attended 4 days of mind-blowingly good presentations, on topics ranging from humorous memes, to peer economy platforms and post-colonial computing, to what happens in our digital afterlives, to big-data visualizations.

I participated in a panel on “Sociolinguistic perspectives on everyday digital practices,” where my colleagues talked about topics such as: academics’ stances on digital writing practices (David Barton), the role of hashtags in Hong Kong’s umbrella movement (Carmen Lee), and the implications of surveillance for our digital interactions (Rodney Jones).  In my own talk, I used the conference theme as a point of departure, in exploring various types of “rule-breaking” in the Amazon review space – as well as related metadiscourse(s).

Returning from Berlin, I bounced right back into the classroom, and in my UG “Language & Society” course, one of our readings this week was Jane Hill’s “Language, Race and White Public Space.”  (I make it a point to work some discussion of “mock Spanish” into any Sociolinguistics course that I teach…but this is the first time I’m teaching this content to undergraduates.)  More than half of the students seemed to understand how covert racism operates in the examples that Jane Hill presents…but I could tell that a few students still weren’t completely convinced, as they tried to argue for alternative interpretations of the “mock Spanish” examples discussed (e.g., “they’re just having fun,” ” lighthearted Spanish practice,” “I wouldn’t take it so seriously” …)

And then presidential debate #3 happened.  Any lingering doubts about the reality of mock Spanish were instantly erased: the following day, my students came to class and ALL they wanted to talk about was Trump’s use of “bad hombres”! As my colleague, Adam Schwartz, explains so beautifully in this post, “bad hombres” may be the most emblematic example of mock Spanish that we have seen to date.  And as it continues to generate more memes and become more embedded in our online collective consciousness, I know I’ll be using this example in my own teaching for many years to come.

Too much English spoken!

…or “parle trop Anglais!” to be more precise.  This excerpt comes from a tourist’s review of a Belgian hotel, posted on, as reported in a recent article by Patrick Goethals about multilingual online reviews.

This study looked at all mentions of language in 11,000+ reviews of Belgian hotels (in cities located in the Dutch-speaking region of Belgium: Antwerp, Bruges, and Ghent ).

It’s important to pause for a moment here to point out that Belgium is officially multilingual, with three official languages (Dutch, French & German).  Each language is roughly associated with a particular region of the country, as illustrated on this map:

Belgium_Language Map


In this study, hotel reviews written by tourists in 3 languages — French, German, and Spanish — were analyzed in order to find out how the 3 different groups of tourists discussed their language experiences in the hotels where they stayed.

The researcher found that, of the 3 groups, the German reviewers commented the least often on language-related issues.  They didn’t seem to care too much about who spoke which language(s) in the Belgian hotels they stayed at.  In contrast, the Spanish reviewers commented the most frequently on language related issues: nearly 8 percent of the 2,500 Spanish-language reviews made some mention of language.  And interestingly, when they did, their comments tended — for the most part — to be pretty positive, as in the following  example:

El personal encantador, a pesar de no ablar español, cosa que queda discuplada por su simpatia y amabilidad.  (Charming personnel, although they did not speak Spanish, which we can forgive them for, thanks to their friendliness and kindness).

Overall, the French reviewers commented on language-related issues just slightly less than the Spanish.  However, when they did, they tended to be the most critical in their language related judgments, as can be seen in complaints like the following:

Rien en francais lamentable!  (Nothing in French — pitiful!)

Obviously the role of context is key here.  For the French reviewers, there seems to be an assumption that since Belgium is a multilingual country — and since French is one of Belgium’s three official languages — staff in Belgian hotels should be fluent in French…even though ALL of the hotels reviewed happened to be located in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.

It would be interesting to replicate this study with the same 3 language groups in other European (or international) contexts, where none of their languages have an official status. For instance, would the French be as likely to comment on language-related issues when traveling to, say, Turkey, or Poland, … or Japan?

This is an interesting study which uses to travel reviews to tap into peoples’ language attitudes.  It also reveals a tension between multilingualism at the level of national policy on the one hand, and the interactions between language beliefs and the on-the-ground realities of actual language use as they occur in the context of travel, tourism, and hospitality, on the other.

A Day in the Life… What our Contemporary Digital Practices Look Like

I am teaching “Language & Technology” this semester.  One of the first assignments – drawing on David Barton’s suggestions for writing ‘techno-linguistic biographies’ – asks students to write a journal-style entry in response to the following prompt: “Thinking of yesterday, what digital technologies did you first deal with when you woke up, and how did this continue during the day?  Walk me through your engagement with different online media throughout the day, in a chronological fashion.”

Reading my students’ responses, I am equally impressed by their talent for writing (by this, I mean that each and every response is compelling in its own way), as well with several of the trends that I’m seeing.  I’ve chosen to write about these trends using the collective pronoun ‘we,’ because I believe that many of us go about our daily existence in a similarly mediated (and mediatized) fashion.

So here we go.  This is a composite snapshot of what our typical daily engagement with technology looks like.

90% of us (18/20) are awakened by our phones, which we reach for and “check” for notifications (email, text) and then “scroll” through social media apps.  Several of us do this while we are still in bed, and before we have even had our morning coffee.  The adverbials that appear alongside our descriptions of this activity include instantly, consistently, automatically, first thing, every morning, still half-asleep, and with eyes half-open.

Facebook is still the most frequently mentioned type of social media.  Many of us (8/10) mention “checking Facebook,” yet none of us really conveys a very strong sense of enthusiasm about Facebook  (…as in “I even checked FB” x2).  For those of us who listed our “typical” daily sequence of checking social media accounts, Facebook is the very last one we check. It seems like our growing dissatisfaction with Facebook has to do with a sense that it has been colonized by commercial interests.  As one of us points out “…recently, Facebook has been getting filled with more and more advertisements, viral videos and click bait.”

Checking Facebook almost feels like an obligatory ritual, or a chore.  Only one of us mentions posting a status update.  A handful of us post birthday wishes we have been notified about, and several of us “like” something that’s been posted by someone else.  One of us works in place that posts daily work updates on FB;  one of us has an academic advisor who uses FB as primary mode of communication.

In contrast, Instagram is the social media app we tend to use primarily to communicate with family and friends (for 7/20 of us, anyway), followed by Snapchat (5/20).  Only 20% of us are looking at Twitter today – including one of us who identifies Twitter as the only form of social media used.

Only two of us post photos on social media.  In both cases they are selfies.

Only two of us mention looking at online reviews (Rotten Tomatoes, Amazon).

There are just a few of us (4/20) who use What’s App, but others of us mention using other chat programs.  Only one of us mentions using Skype, and it’s to talk to someone who’s in another country.  Several of us, of course, still use our phone to call people.

Lots of us multitask, like having multiple tabs open at once – the highest number reported is 16.    Also we often interrupt other activities we are engaged in, e.g.: “In the time it’s taken me to write this full paragraph, I’ve stopped to check my email and Facebook twice each, and checked Snapchat on my phone once.”  Or taking breaks during reading (between paragraphs) to see what the family group is chatting about on What’s App.

ALL of us use email and text messages.   Most of us refer to having more than one email account: three seems to be the average.  The majority of us refer to “checking” email and texting on multiple occasions throughout the day.

Many of us use apps for informational purposes, like weather reports, traffic updates, and news.  And to do business (shop, pay bills, do banking).

All of us use technology on a daily basis for educational purposes (Canvas, Google to look stuff up, Google translate, GoogleCalendar and Dropbox). Many of us use technology  for entertainment (Netflix, Amazon, Hulu).  Lots of us use technologies to listen to music at various points throughout the day (often in our cars, or while working out): Spotify, Pandora, Rhapsody, itunes, Youtube.  And the majority of us mentions Youtube – not only for music, but for watching other kinds of videos as well.

Only 3 of us mention our favorite game, which we play regularly.

Social media, for many of us, is an important tool for staying connected with our families and friends (and, as one of us puts it, SM enables us “to feel like [we’re] not alone in cyberspace”). At the same time, several of us admit that we use these platforms as a way to “eat up time” “kill time” and “pass the time.”  We are, it turns out, doing a lot of “checking” “scrolling” and “clicking” in our daily lives.

Finally, about 25% of us refer to deliberately restricting or limiting our use of digital media at different points in our day.

Are unhappy Brits less polite online than their American counterparts?

I love journalists.  I’ve had the privilege of interacting with several of them, and I’ve found them to be a smart, well-informed, and insightful bunch.  What’s more, journalists ask really great questions. Their questions typically bring a slightly different – and often thought-provoking – spin to some of the same topics that I’m interested in.

A few days ago, I got an email from a journalist – let’s call him “J” –  who asked me if I’ve ever looked into relationships between nationality of reviewer and review valence (positive/negative).

I responded by explaining how hard it is to assign categories like “nationality” to a reviewer.  First of all, people move around a lot, so even if someone indicates in their profile that they’re (let’s say) “from Chicago”…what does this actually mean?  That this person was born and raised in Chicago?  Or that they they currently live in Chicago (but maybe they were born and grew up in some other part of the world)?  Or maybe the person is transnational, and considers him/herself to have multiple nationalities?  So nationality can be hard to pin down. Especially so in online environments.

But I was intrigued about what would prompt him to come up with this question in the first place, so I asked him to elaborate.

He told me that, after traveling for several months in Europe recently, he had observed that Brits (i.e., people who claimed to be from a location in the UK in their profile) tended to be “hyper-negative” and “not objective in the least” in their TripAdvisor reviews. (btw, though he shared some examples with me, he also acknowledged that his observations were only  impressionistic and totally unscientific.)

This got me thinking though.

According to a common stereotype, Brits are known for being super polite.  Perhaps even overly so! – as is captured so well in this cartoon:


But there are actually a couple different ways of using language to be “polite.”   The British way of being polite is often expressed in terms of non-imposition, and is realized by means of linguisitic indirectness: as we see in the cartoon above, as well as in the example below.

British sign

I took this photo in a garden on my last visit to England.  When I show this sign to my students in the US, their reaction is “Why is it so wordy…when the point is just ‘Be careful’???”  And my answer is: Because this is considered culturally appropriate language for public signage in England.  We just happen to have different norms for this sort of thing in the US.

And this brings me to my main point as it relates to review language.  In my very first TripAdvisor study, I looked at 1-star “rant” reviews: the very “worst of the worst” hotel reviews.  And even then, I found that about 1/3 of them offered at least ONE positive comment. I argued that when reviewers do this, it helps to construct them as “reasonable” people who are trying to be objective, and who are able to discern quality between different features of the property.

As I’ve given talks about my research over the years and shared this particular tendency, I have been asked by people from Italy, Germany and elsewhere: “Is this a uniquely American phenomenon?”  And it may well be.  I think we do have the tendency to “sandwich” bits of bad news, negative assessment, or critical feedback, between something more positive.  Or even if this is not something that all of us do, it’s usually what is recommended that we should do. We also have a strong cultural orientation toward acting in ways associated with appearing “nice” and “friendly,” even with strangers – and this is quite different from the British.   (It also happens to contribute to why people from other cultures sometimes have the impression that Americans are “phony.”  All of this kind of stuff usually comes down to differences in cultural ways of being.)

Returning back to J’s question, in negative reviews, are US reviewers more likely to present a balanced critical perspective (i.e., “be sure to include the good with the bad”) than British reviewers?  And in contrast, are Brits more likely to “tell it like it is” when they have a criticism?  (After all, just because they tend to be indirect in telling others what to do doesn’t mean that they are going to apply the same level of indirectness when engaged in a totally different activity: posting negative reviews online!)  At this point, I don’t have the answer to J’s question, but it is certainly one that is worth exploring.  Doing so could actually reveal some interesting things about politeness norms and cultural differences  in online contexts.

Online Reviews in Languages other than English

Much of the research about online reviews has focused on English language reviews.   But online reviewing is a completely global phenomenon, and reviews are written in many other languages as well. For this reason, my colleague, Alice Chik, and I have been comparing reviews of restaurants in Hong Kong (written in Chinese, and posted on a local review site called OpenRice) with reviews of restaurants in New York (posted on Yelp). To try to keep things consistent, we selected only reviews of “Asian” restaurants which had received 1 Michelin star.

We found a lot of similarities in reviewing practices, for example, in terms of average review length as well as in many content features. But we also observed some interesting differences. For example, Hong Kong reviewers are a lot more specific about  food-related details, whereas New York reviewers are much more focused on matters of service and ambiance. Hong Kong reviewers also tend to get very descriptive about individual dishes, attending not only to taste and texture, but also to particular smells. (Not to get all Whorfian here, but as Dan Jurafsky points out in The Language of Food, Cantonese does have a particularly rich olfactory vocabulary…)

To learn more, look out for our article “A comparative multimodal discourse analysis of restaurant reviews from two geographical contexts” (Chik & Vásquez) in a forthcoming issue of Visual Communication.