Online Talk Is a Window Into Culture

January 23, 2023

Linguistics professor teams up with grads and a student to produce a book on how we use language on social media.

Cecelia Cutler and CUNY Students and Alumni
Professor Cecelia Cutler (left) co-edited “Digital Orality: Vernacular Writing in Online Spaces” with alumna Wafa Bahri (Ph.D. ’19, Linguistics) and Ph.D. candidate May Ahmar (right). (Cecelia Cutler photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

When Professor Cecelia Cutler (Linguistics, Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures) looks at social media, she sees a goldmine for linguists. The ever-expanding archive of posts, chats, videos, and comments constitutes a trove of language ripe for study — one that requires no interviews or transcriptions. Plus, she knows that many of her students spend much of their time on social media, making it a source of interest for them.

“It’s not just that it’s easier to get the data,” Cutler said, “but it’s also the world they’re living in. It’s how they communicate with each other. I’ve got all these students who want to work on social media.”

Cutler started looking at social media data, mainly from YouTube, a decade ago for a study of the lyrics and language used by white kids who were making hip-hop videos. After that, she was hooked. In November, she and some of her current and former students produced a book that examines how the proliferation of speech-like writing on social media is shaping language and culture.

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“Language is not just a tool of communication. It’s so much more than that,” Cutler said. “One of the things we’re pointing to in this book is the significance of digital writing as a way to understand political and social movements.”

Digital Orality: Vernacular Writing in Online Spaces is co-edited by Cutler, Ph.D. candidate May Ahmar (Linguistics), and Wafa Bahri (Ph.D. ’19, Linguistics). Ahmar and Bahri each wrote a chapter, as did Eric Chambers (Ph.D. ’19, Linguistics) and Michelle McSweeney (Ph.D. ’16, Linguistics).

Bahri explores the use of two languages — Ettounsi and Tamazight — on social networking sites in post-Revolutionary Tunisia. Ahmar focuses on the writing practices of public figures on Lebanese Twitter. Other chapter titles include “‘You’re in the Gym to BUILD IT BIG, not Have Social Hour’: Performing Dumb-Jock Masculinity on a Male Erotic Hypnosis Messageboard” (Chambers) and “Performing Politeness in Online Dating: How Orthographic Choices Signal Relationship Status” (McSweeney).

The variety of topics reflects the many layers of meaning in language, and working with a group of Graduate Center students and alumni brought an exciting range of perspectives to the project, Cutler said.

“There's a nice mix,” she said. “They’re all really wonderful, accomplished people who have come from different places and entered linguistics for different reasons, and they bring these very interesting, diverse experiences. It was just great working with them.”

For Cutler, Digital Orality represents not only the culmination of a rewarding collaboration with students, but a professional passion project years in the making.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for so long,” she said. “And to finally see it come to fruition has been very, very rewarding. I do feel like the contribution of this book is really about the turn to the study of writing in sociolinguistics. It’s a way to legitimize the study of writing and show systematic ways in which we can do it and the kinds of things that we can say about people and their identities and their aspirations and their political alignments, based on their language use. I’m thrilled to have it in print.”

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