Towards a social linguistics

Several contributors to this blog, including yours truly, and no doubt a number of our readers too, have recently been bitten by the Facebook bug. Facebook bills itself as “a social utility that connects you with the people around you”, and its kind of fun too. In addition to being able to track what your friends are up to, it is also possible to join groups of like-minded individuals to share ideas, and socialise (reminds me of those sessions in the bar at the end of a hard day’s work at a linguistics conference). Along with the predictable groups centered around Noam Chomsky, there is also “You’re a Linguist? How many languages do you speak?”, “Typologists United”, and my particular favourite “Thomas Payne is My Hero” whose members are:
“dedicated to the source of all linguistics knowledge, Thomas Payne. His manuals are so good that they can apply to any discipline at any time. Physics problems? Open the textbook and realize that you should really be a linguistics major. Life? Look up grammatical relations and discover meaning in existence. Linguistics? You better just read the whole thing. Oh Thomas Payne, what would we do without you?”
Facebook is part of what has been termed “Web 2.0” by Tim O’Reilly.

The basic idea is that Web 2.0 uses the internet to connect people rather than connecting documents, as in the original conception of the web by Tim Berners-Lee. Since a number of us are now realising that documenting and describing minority and endangered languages is crucially about people and establishing and maintaining human relationships, rather than data, standards and preservation, Web 2.0 opens up a range of possibilities for new ways of collaborating that go beyond what we have been able to do so far. This includes the following, among others:
1. social (sharing) websites like Facebook, YouTube and Flickr;
2. blogs, like this one and others in the sidebar;
3. wikis, of which Wikipedia in its various versions and languages is just one example. The recently launched Glottopedia, which aims to become a “free encyclopedia for linguistics”, is a moderated wiki and contributors must sign-up and use their own names when creating or editing content;
4. web-based collaborative applications that are generally free and have much if not most of the functionality of desktop applications like word-processors, spreadsheets, calendars and slide shows.
At SOAS, we have done some experimentation with several of these “web-based apps” and find them very useful collaborative tools. We have a single shared calendar for the 12 ELAP and ELAR staff using the free My Calendars tool, that enables us to see each other’s comings and goings and commitments, and to plan meetings accordingly. We also looked at Google Calendars and 30 Boxes but they weren’t as easy to use and didn’t have the facility of colour coding each staff member, which we find to be especially helpful. For jointly writing documents Google Docs and Spreadsheets is excellent: it is simple and clean with the main functionalities of a word-processor. It truly enables collaborative team-based writing and sure beats emailing Word documents with layers of track-changes and comments that can easily become a versioning nightmare when two or three authors are involved. It is easy to save copies of documents to one’s own computer. Athough sharing of individual documents can be specified to particular users and appears to be secure, I personally have reservations about putting sensitive materials on Google’s servers, and would certainly keep a back-up copy of valuable documents on my desktop computer.
This is about as far as we have gone to date with our social linguistic participation in Web 2.0. One of our MA students, Paul Butcher, is currently writing his dissertation on application of Web 2.0 concepts to language documentation and support and I look forward to reading what he has to say when it is finished in September. Perhaps he can be persuaded to contribute to this blog when he’s done.

1 thought on “Towards a social linguistics”

  1. “Facebooking” must be on the up: Blogocracy* has a discussion just today particularly contrasting it with blogging. And there’s even an explicit nod to our discipline:

    a friend at Uni who was doing linguistics was challenged by her lecturer to go for a day without using phatic communication.

    * hosted at which is also blurring the definition of “main-stream media”

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