Author Archives: Chelsea Burwell

Pragmatics and Lexicon: Why What You Say (Or Can’t Say) Means So Much

Your mind is constantly churning for the “right” thing to say – even at the most inconvenient of times. As I partake in my nightly face-washing routine, I find myself trying to map out adequate words for this blog response. I turn on the radio; one of my favorite songs by rapper J.Cole comes on and my mind scurries to remember the words, so that I can recite the lyrics on beat. My iPhone beeps, I read the text message and my mind races as my fingers hover over the screen before I type a clever, succinct message.

Speaking of text, I was particularly intrigued by Radford’s featured psycholinguistic model of how linguistic competence meshes with linguistic performance. The mind begins by finding the sounds or symbols within the input; subsequently the words, the structure of the words and finally their literal meaning. However, why does this model neglect the consideration of pragmatics? For example, a text messages lacks vocal inflections, tones, volumes and such, leaving room for much ambiguity behind a message’s meaning. This explains why many a text message exchange has escalated into unnecessary misunderstandings. (See: Key and Peele skit). Moreover, the appearance of text alters the pragmatics associated with symbols. Whether particular words are bolded, underlined, italicized, CAPITALIZED and even striked out triggers the mind to distinguish one set of text from another. This is clearly exhibited when a parent texts their child to “COME HOME” versus “Come home,” as capitalization juxtaposes to one having a raised vocal tone. Particular typographical font styles serve this purpose as well; some fonts, like Curlz, Chalkduster, and Elephant are more appropriate for non-academic writings, unlike Helvetica, Times New Roman, or Arial.

The tug of war between pragmatics and semantics has also been at the heart of debates about racial and cultural epithets. Once derogatory words have become “reclaimed” and morphed to fit new meaning in 21st century contexts of discourse. The term “gay,” once meaning happy or joyous, now categorizes an individual’s sexuality. In terms of the “n” word, not only is the pragmatic value heavily emphasized, but also the phonetic form. Replacing the “a” for the “-er” suffix changes the implication of the word entirely – an argument which has made its way into widespread debates over the use of the term.

In addition to the concept of pragmatics, the term lexicon allured me. Despite taking a few undergraduate courses in grammar and linguistics, I had never been exposed to this concept. I considered the widening gap between individuals’ personal dictionaries and how these rifts came to be. The detachment exists amongst generational, socioeconomic, cultural and even educational lines. I’ve found this to be true when explaining to older family members my daily toils being a CCT student; much of what I learned and what I attempt to describe is foreign to them. It amazes me how intertwined yet independent each person’s lexicon is, and these vocabularies overlap constantly in everyday interactions. As I mentioned in last week’s discussion, the emergence of the emoji has added a new layer of possible picturesque language, thus adding a new bank in its users’ lexicons. This raises the question: Is pictorial language a more universal and easily accessible language to bridge the aforementioned gaps versus a language that uses alphanumeric symbols?



*Side anecdote/note:

I remember two summers ago, stepping out of the aircraft in Rio de Janiero, Brazil and being not only greeted by the sweltering South American heat and humidity, but also by sounds of an unfamiliar tongue: Portuguese. Yet, I wasn’t as startled as my accompanying middle-aged travelers – I had studied Spanish five years consecutively from middle to high school.

You may be reading this and saying to yourself, “I hope she knows she just referenced two separate languages.” Yes, I am aware; this is no typo. I was moderately confident in my ability to translate a portion of the foreign language, because both the Spanish and Portuguese languages operate under similar grammars. My comfort level was so evident amongst my travel group, that I somehow became the linguistic liaison between “us” and “them” (them, including our two tour guides). As Radford’s text explains, some languages possess a Universal Grammar, following similar rules for language use. What I found interesting and also neglectful was Radford’s focus on children as subjects for language acquisition. The model featured within the text explains that children are exposed to language by adults and as their language faculties develop (i.e. voice, teeth to make “th” sounds, etc.), they will soon implement the grammar of the language. Given my previously stated anecdote, I’d like to know if there is a cultural or age-based gap in learning a new language. Most primary education institutions, particularly elementary schools and even daycares, are including various languages in their curriculum. Does a particular native language make it easier to learn a new language versus another? Does the ability to readily learn a language dwindle with age? What is the difference in America’s emphasis on learning a language versus other nation’s insistence on rearing multilingual citizens? This isn’t much of a theoretical question as it is of mere curiosity and supplementary for class discussion.


“Get The Picture?” : Historicizing How We Follow the Signs for the Sake of Survival and Interpersonal Communication

Did you know that most of subtle of body cues could be the difference between whether you live or die in an encounter with a cougar in the woods? Not exactly the most obvious survival tidbit for trekking the rugged terrain, but necessary when considering you can’t just talk your way out of a duel with a 130-pound feline. Why? Because it’s not a human, meaning it won’t understand the sounds you utter because it’s not a member of “the symbolic species.” And while plenty of blog posts have been about reading the signs of animalistic non-human body language, we do not wholeheartedly understand them either. In fact, because of distinctive cultural meaning systems, it seems we, humans, don’t fully understand one another.

As we know, miscommunication and bad wiring with cultural standards lie at the heart of most domestic and international conflicts (thank goodness for United Nations). For example, translation from spoken and written language to another is not always as smooth and precise as one would hope in multicultural dialogue. Yet, verbal and nonverbal communication gets misconstrued even amongst those of the same national origin and native tongue.

I remember having a conversation with my relatives about their upbringing and what their parents taught them about interacting with police officers. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown tragedies – and having a general understanding of the historical strain between law enforcement and the Black community – I predicted that this discussion would have undertones of mistrust for the police. And I was correct. My female cousins narrated lessons from their elders telling them to consult a neighbor or trusted member of the community, not a police officer, if you needed help. More striking was the talk I received from my father, who said “Don’t catch an attitude with police” and “Don’t make any sudden movements in your car if you get pulled over,” insinuating that the wrong move – the wrong symbol delivery – could render guns being drawn. Message received.

In Kate Wong’s text, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture,” she examines the rise of material symbols as a means to “foster good relationship with others as a hedge against hard times.” And while this holds true in gift-giving scenarios, general interpersonal relationships are strained and dependent on the physical and mental exchange of symbols. A conjecture of signs could equate to triggering a defense mechanism: hazy air plus the smell of smoke and a rush of heat could lead one to suspect that a fire is near. In such a case, symbolism is a vital means of survival. But what about socially constructed and skewed symbols? A person is walking at night approximately 50 feet behind you with a dark hoodie and their hands in their pockets – does your instinct activate defensive tendencies as a means of survival or are you merely jumping to hasty conclusions about this person? That takes a lengthy deblackboxing of interacting systems.

This reflection on social cues and body language evoked thoughts about the creation of symbols for survival and commemoration within African and African American culture. A method of quilting, using geometric Afrocentric shapes and symbols, was practiced as a means of communicating when it was safe for slaves to escape to freedom. The Adinkra symbolic system originated in the Ivory Coast, thanks to the Gyaman kingdom. After being defeated by the Asantes, the king of Gyaman, Nana kofi Adinkra, wore a cloth adorned with symbols and patterns to express the sorrow of his loss. These Gyaman signs were adopted by the Asante people and later sketched on clothes, typically worn during at funerals to bid farewell to deceased loved ones. (Adinkra translates to goodbye or farewell in Twi, the dialect of the Akan ethnic group to which Asante people belong). [1]

Later in the text, Wong delves into the history of material culture and its primitive purpose as vessels for peace offerings. In the social media realm, it seems that likes and retweets/reblogs are the new measures for keeping that interpersonal peace. Users exchange symbols of approval to others within their digital reach. Similarly, with all symbols of communication, the omission or neglect of sending a signal or symbol – silence or virtual silence, if you will – is a sign in itself, typically of disrespect or disapproval. (See: the cold shoulder, the silent treatment in intimate relationships).

Before I wrap up this reflection, I think it’s important to note the universality of a particularly new craze in symbolic systems: the emoji.

Colin Renfrew explained it perfectly: “We live in a world which we have made: it is a world of artefacts, to the extent that is almost true to say that the world in which most of us live today is an artifact, albeit a complex one.”

Merging this pictorial meaning system with alphanumeric characters is creating new and breaking old bonds for written communication. I love using emojis because they add a creative layer to mundane language. While the emoji character options are finite, their incorporation into written dialogue adds a layer of animation and tone that gets misconstrued with text only.*


*Professor Tinkcom mentioned a book by Bing Xu, titled Book from the ground: from point to point, composed mostly of pictograms, with few textual symbols. I certainly plan on investigating this book, given my almost excessive use of emojis, to see if I can successfully get through it without blowing my mind each time. I recommend you all check it out, too.

[1] Teeteh, Valentina A. “Adinkra – Cultural Symbols of the Asante People.” St. Lawrence

University. Web. 27 January 2015.

It’s More Than Characters and a Catchy Beat: Breaking Down TV and Music

Week 2: Approaches to Media Theory, Communication, and Meaning Systems

I must preface my commentary by stating that this set of readings gave me a lot to think about and I know I’m cognitively only scratching the surface in understanding all the concepts it has to offer. Nonetheless, Professor Irvine’s breakdown of the excessively used terms media, medium, and mediation, as well as Stuart Hall’s illustration of the message exchange process intrigued me. After all, with hopes of creating a magazine devoted to subculture, it is essential to grasp the distinction between and the interactions amongst media and meaning systems.

We typically relate the word medium, as being a channel of content delivery and reception; that meta-layer between information and observation/perception/understanding. Yet as Hall examined, the role of the medium possesses greater autonomy and importance. Mediated messages via broadcast media and especially music are not just new information, characters, plots and a catchy beat. To quote Irvine’s text: “Shifting to the question of mediation as social, political, economic, and ideological processes, rather than considering the contents or material technologies themselves, allows us to convert media into interfaces to the larger social-technical-economic and political systems which they mediate.”

Let’s take a ride and examine the vehicle that is reality TV, specifically on VH1. Created in the 1980s, VH1 is a cable channel that originally catered to showing the lighter and more mature side of popular music, but has now become a lead platform for drama-filled primetime programming. Shows like Love and Hip: Atlanta, Basketball Wives, New York and Hollywood; Black Ink Crew; Mob Wives and the recently nixed show Sorority Sisters have reinforced problematic imagery of minorities and women. I’m certainly not implying that conflicts are not realistic; As Hall’s texts explains, “… within a more traditional framework, his [Philip Elliott] discussion of the way in which the audience is both the ‘source’ and the ‘receiver of the television message.” Yet, reality is compromised in place of staged confrontation when reality TV producers have reportedly instigated brawls between cast members. The visual aspects and camera practices used for these programs deliver implicit messages that slip by even the most observant of viewers. Cameras panning and zooming methods on the female body have an effect on the psyche of young girls. A study conducted by Dohnt and Tiggeman[1] found that girls “who watched more appearance focused television shows were less satisfied with the way they looked.[2]

More fights equals more buzz on social media and higher ratings, which equates to more episodes being aired and more revenue for the shows’ participants. These shows exhibit fragmented truths under extremely magnified lenses that trickle down to affect the international social fabric and solidify racial and cultural stereotypes. While the study titled “Hollywood Diversity Brief: Spotlight on Cable Television” from UCLA’s Ralph J Bunche Center for African American Studies revealed that TV shows with ethnically diverse cast members attract larger audiences, there are still disproportionately more programs with where women and minorities are underrepresented[3]. This absence of diversity sends a message in itself – which incorrectly displays the national makeup of which these programs are produced and displayed.

Consideration of the world of television awakens my interest in uncovering the motives and behind-the-scene environment of the music industry. You can certainly deblackbox the content – the instrumentation, the lyrics, the vocal notes. Yet what are the social, political and economic undertones behind the lyrics of a seemingly volatile rhymester or an aurally soothing songstress? Why does the dynamic of the beat crescendo in the middle of the song? Why does a certain artist always make “club bangers”? – Are they pressured by their label to sell fantasy and not truth? These analyses of frequently used media allow us to peel back facades and avoid distractions from the happenings of human symbolic processes and systems.

After all, it’s never just for show; there’s always a greater purpose.


[1] Dohnt, H & Tiggeman, M. “The contribution of peer and media influences to the development of body satisfaction and self-esteem in young girls: A prospective study.” Developmental Psychology. 42:5. 2006. 929-929. Web. 25 January 2015.

[2] Manwaring, Ayarza. “Reality Television and Its Impact on Women’s Body Image.” 2011. Online Theses and Dissertations. Web. 26 January 2015.

[3] Obenson, Tambay. “Programs w/ Black Leads Dominate VH1’s Top 5 Shows in 2013. Shifting Trends?” Shadow and Act | Indie Wire. 28 October 2013. Web. 25 January 2015.