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Thursday December 2nd

Social media and sociolinguistics: Forces that have shaped language over the 2010s

DTH Photo Illustration. Over the past decade, language has evolved to become more gender inclusive.
Buy Photos DTH Photo Illustration. Over the past decade, language has evolved to become more gender inclusive.

In September 2019, Merriam-Webster changed the definition of the word ‘they’ to include usage as a singular pronoun for non-binary people. Just a few years earlier, House Bill 2 was passed in North Carolina, attempting to restrict transgender people from using the bathroom of their identified gender.

The 2010s included several milestones for LGBTQ+ rights and representation and prompted change in the way gender is discussed, both conversationally and academically.

Simon Wolf, 23, holds a master's degree in linguistics from UNC. His academic background in language allows him to view inclusive language as a fluid, social means of transforming the way we interact with one another.

“When I think of inclusive language, mostly I’m thinking about language that is used with an intentional eye toward egalitarianism and with the consciousness of other people in mind,” Wolf said. “We’re in a very interesting linguistic place in terms of the attention we’re paying to speech and language.”

Cai Castillo-Carvajal, a first-year geological sciences and computer science double major, is a counselor with Carolina Kickoff, a Campus Y committee that provides incoming first-year students with a three-day introduction to social justice and campus life at UNC.

“Within the context of Carolina Kickoff, the use of inclusive language is important to me because our campers come from all different backgrounds,” they said.

Rhonda Gibson, 55, is the director of the masters of arts in digital communication through the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Gibson, having decades of experience in journalism, views inclusive language as a tool to more accurately communicate.

”It is language that is not structured in a way that excludes some people from being able to authentically describe themselves,” she said. “I think that’s what inclusive language does in journalism in particular: It gives us tools that better fit the people we’re writing about.”

Gibson said she believes the past decade was most transformative for language in relation to gender.

“Transgender and non-binary people have existed since the beginning of time, but only very recently have we realized our language doesn’t meet their needs,” Gibson said. “We weren’t seeing the changes in the AP Stylebook and (American Psychological Association) and other styles of academic writing. It’s only been in the last 10 or 15 years that those sort of rulebooks have adapted to changing our understanding when it comes to gender identity and gender expression.”

More specifically, Gibson said the usage of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun has been the most controversial change she’s witnessed this decade.

“I’ve been teaching grammar for a long time, and ‘they’ has always been considered to be a plural pronoun,” she said. “That doesn’t work anymore, and I’ve finally realized that it never has. If I could rewrite the English language from the beginning, I wouldn't make it gendered in any way, because there’s so much work we have to do now to fix that.”

Wolf has a less rigid philosophy concerning language, describing it as abstract, performative and dynamic.

“In sociolinguistics, we think about language as something that is done, rather than something that is,” he said. “We think of language, and more particularly linguistic meaning, as something that is mutually constructed by people who are participating in this social practice of language.”

This mutual construction and participation are only amplified by social media, Wolf said, which has led to the creation of new social interactions that have bled into the real world.

“I do think social media has had an impact on the awareness of particular kinds of change,” he said. “Everything is more visible now. It’s easier to find things and develop opinions about language in many different directions."

Castillo-Carvajal shared a similar view concerning social media and said it allows for expanding perspectives and social change.

“I am able to meet people all over the world with different backgrounds and different socioeconomic circumstances that I would not be able to without it,” they said. “A lot of the time, the dominant class in America kind of exists in their own bubble, and social media exposes them to perspectives that might not otherwise see in that bubble.”

Castillo-Carvajal said, growing up in the Dominican Republic, they noticed an abundance of racist and ableist language in their life and on both Dominican and American television, which they believe people are starting to be more considerate about. However, they said there is much work to be done.

“A specific example is how often people use ‘psychotic’  or ‘psychopath’ in casual conversation,” they said. “‘I’m so OCD.’ ‘The weather is so bipolar.’ These are things that are (considered) just perfectly normal and OK, despite these people not recognizing the reality of these illnesses.”

Castillo-Carvajal is excited to see social language practices like these change in the future, and also said they were interested in seeing the shift away from gendered language.

“As someone who speaks multiple languages,” they said, “I’m excited to see languages that have a binary way of speaking learning to speak more neutrally.”

Gibson agreed with them and said she predicts gendered language will eventually fade out of relevancy.

“What I’m guessing is that we’re going to move away from gendered language in general,” she said. “Now that we’ve seen these options, that there are more than just male and female, I think we’ll move away from having to check those boxes. I don’t necessarily think that will happen in the next 10 years, at least not across the whole population. But, I think that’s where we’re going.”

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