OK. I’ll covfefe.

See what I did there?

I took that weird typo Donald Trump made last week and I stuck it into a sentence. I used it as a verb, and a specific type of verb at that – you can tell, because this is a familiar sentence format in English, where we would usually use something like “play”. And because covfefe has no actual denotational meaning, it gets to take on the meaning of the usual word, but with a strong connotational or indexical meaning of “I am making fun of Trump”.

The bulk of the covfefe fun went down while I was sleeping, and by the time I got to the internet, it was a tired mess of its usual self, the stink of the covfefe hangover lingering strong in the air. Since then, covfefe has gotten the linguistic treatment in media from Gretchen McCulloch, who writes about the morphophonemics of the word, on the popular blog Language Log, where they’ve mostly focused on compiling the best examples of covfefeism, and by Language Jones, who ran a complex semantic analysis of Trump’s tweets to define the lexical space into which covfefe would fit.

There’s something about covfefe, though, that helps break my blogger’s block and gets me wanting to add to the pile. What’s interesting from a linguistic anthropological perspective is how this word, with it’s really unusual origin story, is having its meaning assigned, changed, extended, and changed again in very rapid succession by the ways it is used. There are people suggesting it should be a Starbucks drink. Companies are incorporating it into their advertising slogans. Hillary Clinton inserts it twice into a common cliché, making it play the role of both the fragile glass and the damaging stones in Trump’s metaphorical house. On the pro-Trump side, several people react to the mockery by using covfefe to murbandictionarycovfefeean things like “irrational“, or “deserved punishment“. While traditional lexicography can’t possibly deal with something that moves this quickly or has this much oddness to it, the user-driven Urban Dictionary and game-based Words with Friends dictionary operate by different rules and have each tried to summarize the meaning of this elusive new ‘word’.

In trying to understand what covfefe means, it quickly becomes apparent that it means nothing, but also everything. As I mentioned above, we ascertain some basic information about each use of covfefe by interpreting it in light of what it’s replacing within familiar phrase structures, but it’s still hard to define what it actually means even in those limited contexts. We can basically understand that Clinton’s use makes covfefe refer to some kind of material, but not what kind of material it is – it’s both like glass and like stone, and it doesn’t really matter that it’s performing a dual function. I’m not sure there’s a word for this type of item, but I want to call it something like an empty lexeme, because we can pour whatever meaning we want to into it, and it takes it on. In another sharp point of insight, Gretchen McCulloch points out that the -fefe morpheme is self referential – they refer back to the meme itself, not to anything outside of it. Usage patterns for covfefe tell us little about what the speaker thinks about this very new word with an already odd birth story, but that doesn’t mean they’re meaningless. What they actually tell us is how the speaker feels about Donald Trump, his careless Twitter presence, and his tendency toward bullshittery in the extreme. This last component was only made more prevalent when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that “the president and a small group of people knew exactly what he meant” (Ed: Wait, what’s up with that headline, though? Covfspiracy? Seriously? SS: Too many morfefes, too little time).

Maybe it’s my tired brain, but I honestly can’t think of another example of a word with this kind of flexible denotation but very specific implication. And while of course I know there are more important things going on in the world, there’s something about this particular brand of language fun that I can’t quite let go of, so excuse me while I go grab myself some covfefe and get down to serious covfefe.

 

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New World Whatnow?

A couple of weeks ago, on the radio on my way to work, I heard an interview with a band called “New World Alphabet”, which struck a dissonant linguist-y chord with me.

The interviewer asked the band to explain their name, and while I’m paraphrasing the response here (because I was driving and couldn’t write it down verbatim immediately),
typewriter-1782062_960_720they seemed to invoke about four different linguistic points in their answer. Basically, they said “we all know somewhere between 12,000 and 30,000 words. And the only thing we need to do to change things is change the order of the words we use. If we change the order of the words, we change the way we think, and we can use that to change the world. So that’s the idea behind creating a New World Alphabet”. The interview had been recorded earlier, and so the host, when he came back live, said “I have no idea what any of that meant”. I have to admit, in some ways, I don’t either.

The most salient point seems to be an invocation of linguistic relativity, otherwise popularly known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which basically suggests that there is a relationship between the way we think and the structural properties of the language(s) we think in. While a lot of linguists dispute the idea entirely, it’s somewhat more accepted by anthropologists in their examination of the myriad ways that language and culture influence each other. It’s also an idea that gets transmitted an awful lot through science fiction, since in imagining radically different types of intelligent beings or ways of being human, it’s not unusual to also hit on the idea that we need to re-imagine how these beings might think and speak. I’m particularly fond of the feminist sci-fi novel Native Tongue by Suzanne Haden Elgin, as an example, but a more recent one appears in the movie Arrival (which I still haven’t seen [Ed.: Wait, what? How do you even call yourself a linguist and/or nerd, let alone a linguist nerd, if you haven’t seen this movie? SS: I know, okay, I try, but give me a break, I have a job and little people in my house who demand to be fed regularly. Ed.: Excuses, excuses, Shulist, I’m not sure I can take you seriously anymore. SS: That’s fair]).

This New World Alphabet articulation of how relativity works is less thoroughly developed, but definitely seems to apply far more force and conscious will to the relationship than would be supported among any type of language scholars. The focus on putting words in specific orders – and I’ve yet to see examples of how they would change word order to produce these world altering changes – seems to either defy the existence of grammatical rules (which would make people even more confused than the radio host in conversation with these people) or to suggest simply shifting ideas around would have a lot more transformative power than it ever possibly could.

And yet, okay, I can at least see the hazy version of what they’re getting at with this. What I still don’t understand is how that is manifested in an alphabet of all things. Alphabets (there are many) are writing systems, not thinking systems, and they’re not made of alphabet-1679750__340words, but of symbolic representations of sounds. All I can get to with this part is that it confirms how much Western assumptions about how language works massively oversell the role of literacy.

So on the one hand, it’s kind of cool when bands and movies and stuff take their inspiration from linguistics. On the other hand, please don’t try to actually learn linguistics from 45 second radio interview clips.

“How Books Work”

As a linguistic anthropologist, I think a lot about how we relate to written language, not only in different ways from spoken, but in different ways depending on how it’s presented. We often take for granted the existence and significance of something called “books”, when of course what those are and how we read them are matters mediated by any number of cultural factors.

Now classic work by Shirley Brice Heath initiated a complex conversation about how different groups of parents socialize their children into particular relationships with the written word, as they guide them from a young age to understand books as stories, words in their written forms, and letters as representations of sound (to varying degrees of emphasis). These aren’t minor distinctions, as kids are developing understandings about what to look for in a text, and specific forms of literacy (and the types of children who use them) are later encouraged and validated in educational settings.

Every night, I read books with my 5 year old son, and I often wonder about the implications of how I’m teaching him to relate to the stories, the words, and the books-as-texts. For the past few weeks, he’s rediscovered a book we bought him a couple of years ago called The Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak (yes, the dude from The Office). It’s become a favourite (meaning we read it every. single. night. Sometimes two or three times), and every time I come to this page:

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…it awakens the latent linguistic anthropologist. Is this how books – and in particular, children’s books – work? Why? How does this relate to our Western sense of texts as authorities, instructor/teachers, or sources of knowledge? The book goes on to adopt two voices – one set of words the reader is apparently being “forced” to say (like “My head is made of blueberry pizza”) and a meta-reader who comments on how frustrated they are to have to read these preposterous phrases (“I didn’t want to say that”, “Please choose a book with pictures next time!”).

It’s a cute book, it makes my five year old crack up every time we read it (Ed: why don’t small children get tired of the same joke? Seriously.), and I’m clearly overthinking it. But there are questions worth asking in there – how do books work? How do we teach children about how books work? And is my head actually made of blueberry pizza, if the book told me to say it, and I said it out loud?