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Words Matter

Applied linguist Emily Rine Butler explains why they do.

Ever stop to think about how conversation happens? Why something sounds rude? Why “waiter” and “waitress” are words but “server” and “servress” are not? Dr. Emily Rine Butler is an applied linguist, and she has answers. “Applied linguistics is taking this idea of language and applying its structure, meaning, and context to real-world problems,” she explains.

Butler, who is a senior lecturer in the William and Grace Dial Center for Written and Oral Communication and affiliate faculty in the Department of Linguistics, says she loves her field. She gives talks on effective communication, conducts research on conversation dynamics in health-related fields, and teaches students how language creates identity, reflects and affirms social norms and power structures, and shapes social dynamics.

Butler is a discourse analyst and conversation analyst. "We work with the structure of language, the minutiae of everyday conversations, rules and intricacies. How do you know who gets to take the next turn?" she asks. "We create that in the conversation without having to explain it. So, how do we know the social rules? I love getting to introduce students to that,” she continues. "It’s not that students are ignorant to it, they haven’t thought about it, then they begin to see it more."

“As linguists, we geek out and say all studies are languages studies in some way, because as humans, it’s the primary way we communicate,” says Butler. She gives a crash course below:

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Naming and Titles: Beyond academic or professional titles such as “Doctor” and “Professor,” men have one title option, “Mister,” while women typically have two, “Missus” or “Miss.” While many have pushed for more neutral terms, such as “Miz,” and an even-more-gender-neutral version, “Mx,” no matter what a woman chooses to go by, information is revealed —usually related to her marital status.

Lexical Asymmetry: Lexical inequality plays out in a lot of different and interesting ways. In the case of lexical asymmetry, some words are meant to refer to equivalent positions, but are not actually used in the same way. The asymmetry usually goes in one direction, with the female role being more negatively judged. For example, “master” versus “mistress”, or “bachelor” versus “spinster". In the case of marked terms, a particular word is considered “marked” when it has a seemingly “neutral” or generic counterpart, although the “neutral” term is usually male. So there is tennis and “women’s tennis." As a counter example, you may see “nurse” and “male nurse”.

Meaning-Making and Connotation

Denotation is a word’s actual meaning, but connotation is all the sociocultural meaning wrapped into it. Consider the following pairs of words. Each word in the pair denotes something very similar, but some have more of a negative connotation:

slender — skinny

curvy — fat

thrifty — cheap

clever — shrewd

plain — boring

protest — mob

club — gang

eccentric — weirdo

unstable — insane

ambitious — greedy

self-confident — arrogant

dignified — snobby

curious — nosy

Conversation Pacing and Turn-Taking

How people use silence: Anything over 0.2 seconds of silence, people tend to note as a pause, and they look for you to account for that, so if you are coming from a culture that values silence, and you’re interacting with someone who’s not, where people want to fill the silence, you have this mismatch.

dr. Butler's pop culture picks

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“You have to find that connection to the outside world,” Butler says. She frequently uses scenes from movies and TV shows to illustrate to students. Some examples:

Key & Peele: They do a lot with regard to expectations for pitch and voice and race or gender and what people expect; if you don’t use words in a particular way, you are thought about as less than. We do this with women, e.g. fry (a hoarse vocalization such as Lindsey Lohan’s), breathiness (such as Scarlett Johannson’s), uptalk (raising one’s pitch at the end of a sentence, such as the “Valley Girl” voice).

Rocky IV: This entire movie is a metaphor for U.S.–Russia relations; we talk about politics through great myths, and at the time the movie came out it was designed to illustrate American moral superiority over Soviet Communism. The training montage alone illustrates the values Americans hold dear by showing Rocky training in the snow with old farm equipment, while the Russian has the fanciest equipment and steroids. It speakers to larger myths that we imbue in sports in Americana.

Mean Girls: In the scene where she says, “You can’t sit with us,” she’s creating social rules through the speech acts. There’s also the idea of fake compliments, like when she compliments her classmate’s sweater, then turns to her friends and says it’s the ugliest thing she’s ever seen. So compliments have a function, even if they’re fake. Everything is contextual.

dr. butler's courses

SPC 2608: Introduction to Public Speaking (Honors section)

COM 4930/LIN 4930: Language and Power

COM 4930/LIN 4930: Language and Social Interaction

SPC 2300: Interpersonal Communication

Interested in learning more? The Dial Center offers a minor in Communication Studies — the third largest minor in the college!

Butler also is actively involved in a number of campus organizations and activities, including reading the names at graduation. “Because I’m an academic, I don’t get to do as much, but I believe that if you are granted skills in something, you can give back,” she says. “I can teach how students how this is done, how to advocate for yourself — how to use language to empower yourself.”

Footnote: Story by and content curated by Rachel Wayne.