Month: November 2018

Expat v. Immigrant v. Migrant Post 1: Dictionary Definitions

The public discourse around people who move to the U.S. is ugly at the moment (the moment being Build a Wall, Travel Ban, and Zero Tolerance). This series uses dictionaries and corpus linguistics to reflect on how we speak about people that move from one country to another.

As an American living in Ethiopia, I am frequently referred to as an expat. However, my Ethiopian colleagues in the United States are identified as immigrants. Why is that?

What are the definitions of immigrant, migrant, and expat? For those uninitiated in the dark arts of lexicography, words in dictionaries are not defined by some divinity on high making pronouncements (aka prescriptions). Rather words are defined by lexicography witchstaff who are analyzing how they are used by the speakers of the given language (aka descriptions).

Thhhhhhusly, the definitions below have been determined by and broadly represent how Americans use and understand these labels. Take a peep:

As you can see with your own beautiful eyes, the distinctions are subtle. (Also, how extra is American Heritage Dictionary?) All three dictionaries include reference to permanence for immigrant. There is no analogous qualification for expat, indicating expats may not be perceived as permanently living in a foreign country. The definitions for migrant all include a reference to work and frequent movement.

I have moved in and out of the U.S. to four different countries for work opportunities over the course of my career, but nobody has ever called me a migrant. Qwhite interesting, huh? In subsequent posts I will consider how these terms are used in racialized and class-based ways rather than applied to describe permanent, temporary, or work-related movement.

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Emoji Grammar as Beat Gestures

Emoji Grammar as Beat Gestures

If you’re a Lingua Bish, you probably know about celebrity linguists Dr. Gretchen McCulloch😻 and Dr. Lauren Gawne 😻. In their presentation at the 1st International Workshop on Emoji Understanding and Applications in Social Media in June (2018), they presented their research to answer the question once and for all, Are emojis a language 🤔? But actually, Gretchen and Lauren always use emoji as the plural for emojis, (bishes don’t) and their research question was “If languages have grammar and emoji are supposedly a language, then what is their grammar?”

If you try to compare emojis to language, the closest you’ll get is word units. Of all the bits of a language, emojis are most similar to words, but language is so much more than a bunch of words. It has parts of speech and structure (and so many other things). Emojis often affect the tone of text or add a layer of emotion😏, but Lauren and Gretchen think that’s just a small part of it because their effect isn’t always straightforward. To compare emojis to words, they decided to look at the most used word sequences and compare them to the most used emoji sequences. They hypothesized that if emoji sequences are repeated they should be considered “beat” gestures, but what is that even?

Beat Gestures and Emojis

So gestures are a different type of communication🖐. They are not a language and they don’t have grammar. 

a beat gesture and definitely cool

One type of gesture is the “beat” gesture. It is characterized by its absence of meaning and its repetitive nature. You use beat gestures when you talk with your hands👐 and most gestures politicians make during speeches are beat gestures.

not cool and not a beat gesture

However, when a really cool person bobs their open palms up and down in the air above their head, you know it means “raise the roof”, so this is not a beat gesture. It seems like emojis act the same way as beat gestures, often repetitive and often with no inherent meaning unless accompanied by words🤯.

The Emoji Corpus

Gretchen and Lauren used a SwiftKey emoji corpus to check out sequences of two, three, and four emojis. That means that they looked for groups of emojis that often appear together. They looked for the 200 most common sequences and noticed that the top sequences used just one repeated emoji. These were the top 10 sequences in the SwiftKey emoji corpus:

The Word Corpus

Then they used the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) to check out word sequences to compare to the emoji sequences. The COCA contains around 500 million words from things like news outlets and websites👩‍💻. In the 200 most common word sequences, they found almost no repetition. The only time words were repeated, were in the cases of “had had” and “very very very.” However, these didn’t even make the top 200. And yes, that could just be because the COCA is formal and perhaps a corpus of informal language would have yielded different results. For example you might get instances of what linguists call the ‘salad-salad reduplication’ (2004) as in “it’s salad salad🥗, not ham salad or jello salad”. It’s the same as “OMG you like like them 😲??” or “It’s Saturday. Tonight I’m going out out💃,” but this bish is digressing. 

Comparing Words to Emojis

The point is, where words are very rarely repeated in a sequence, it appears that emojis are. You’re probably like, “but I send 2-4 emojis at a time and they don’t repeat.” Ya, you might, but I bet they’re pretty similar like 5 different hearts💝💘💖💗💓, or the hear-no-evil monkeys🙈🙉🙊, or allll the dranks🍾🍹🍸🥃🍷🥂🍺. So ya, sometimes they’re all different, but if so, they’re likely on a theme.

But even though emojis can be more repetitive than speech or writing, most emojis occur next to words and not in sequences. Even where emojis occur without words, it’s mostly just one or two at a time and usually in response to a previous message. Guess who else usually partners with words? You guessed it, beat gestures👊! 

It seems like emojis and beat gestures have a lot in common. Let’s list the ways: 

  1. no grammatical structure
  2. no inherent meaning unless accompanied by words
  3. often repeated
  4. often add emphasis

Maybe emojis and beat gestures should get a room already 👉👌😜.


Basically the idea is just to shift the way we think of emojis. Thinking of them as a new language with grammar won’t get research far. Gretchen and Lauren might be on to something by considering emojis to be a type of gesture. Emojis don’t have their own grammar, but they work with our written grammar. They add emphasis, just like beat gestures do with our spoken grammar. So, it’s unlikely that emojis can ever be a full language. If they ever start exhibiting structural regularities in corpus studies though, and start languagifying, I’m sure Gretchen and Lauren will be there to catch it.

This paper is great for emoji bishes👯‍, anyone who texts📱, corpus bishes, and lingthusiasts👸🏻👸🏿👸🏼👸🏾.


In: S. Wijeratne, E. Kiciman, H. Saggion, A. Sheth (eds.): Proceedings of the 1st International Workshop on Emoji Understanding and Applications in Social Media (Emoji2018), Stanford, CA, USA, 25-JUN-2018, published at

Ghomeshi, Jila, et al. “Contrastive Focus Reduplication in English (The Salad-Salad Paper).” Natural Language & Linguistic Theory, vol. 22, no. 2, 2004, pp. 307–357., doi:10.1023/b:nala.0000015789.98638.f9.

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Effects of gender and verbal aggression on perceptions of U.S. political speakers

It’s the Year of the Woman 2.0, party people. A record number of women are running for office in the American midterm elections. We will see what happens in the coming hours, but it looks like we could soon have more lady leaders and legislators. What better time than now to read Charlotte Nau and Craig O. Stewart’s 2018 paper on how verbal aggression from men and women is evaluated in political speech?

First of all, this article was published in the Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict. The specificity of some of these journals tickles me. I hope they have a special issue for papers on Guys Who Lash Out After You Don’t Respond to their Messages on Tinder.

Verbal aggression is defined in the article in various ways by various smartypants people, but most definitions include an element of targeting the personal- looks, character, brains, abilities, identity, etc- rather than someone’s viewpoints. It comes in a variety of forms: profanity, putting a hex on someone, mocking, threats, or just regular old insults.

The Experiments

Most existing research in this area analyzes attack ads. Nau and Stewart are interested in verbal aggression in speeches and debates rather than media advertising, which is unlikely to have been written and often not even voiced by the candidate.

The first experiment compares male and female verbal aggression and the effect it has on speaker credibility, listener agreement with message, and perceptions of appropriateness. The researchers hypothesized that ladyfolk exhibiting verbal aggression in political speeches will be deemed less credible, less appropriate, less effective in their message, and overall more aggressive than menfolk doing the same.

Sixty-three study participants read 8 excerpts from political speeches on an online platform. There were four message conditions: female aggressive, female non-aggressive, male aggressive, and male non-aggressive.The political speeches were edited from real speeches to remove evidence of party affiliation and controversial topics. Researchers inserted verbal aggression into some of the excerpts- things along the lines of:

Just kidding, it was more like, “You obviously don’t know what you are doing…” and “you’re a hypocrite.” Introductory information for each excerpt gave a fictitious name of the politician and their title as Congresswoman or Congressman thereby revealing the gender. Participants had to rate their agreement with the message, their perceptions of the speaker in categories of credibility and appropriateness, and their overall aggression.

The second experiment was largely the same, but to increase the salience of gender they included images of a  female or male speaker in place of the introductory information that said congresswoman/man. The paper explains the rigorous selection process of the photos and how they were randomly assigned and reassigned to speeches shown to different participants to minimize the effects of attractiveness and other factors on the research. I don’t want to bother with all that right now, so just trust me that it was legit.


From the first experiment they found that messages with verbal aggression were viewed more negatively overall than the messages that did not include personal attacks. This is consistent with other research in this area.

Howeva, the gender comparison analysis was not what they expected. There was not a statistically significant difference between how men and women were judged except in two areas: suitability and overall aggression (suitability was a subcategory of appropriateness.) In the nonaggressive condition samples, women were rated as more aggressive and less suitable than men. But in the verbally aggressive samples men were rated as more aggressive and less suitable than women.

The results of the second experiment- with the pics- were pretty similar. Both men and women were judged more harshly for being verbally aggressive, but the effects were a teensy weensy more negative for women.

The authors concluded that there wasn’t strong enough evidence to confirm their hypothesis on gender differences. They theorize that in spite of evidence that generally women are judged harshly for stereotypically unfeminine behavior like aggression, there must be an exception for political speech where aggression is normative.


Well well well, I think to myself, vaginahavingly. These experiments didn’t yield the kind of headline-grabbing results which I can wokely plaster on my social media about women being unfairly penalized. But that is the thing about research- it can give us perspective on dominant cultural narratives bolstered with anecdotes.

Women’s voices are frequently picked apart as annoying for… reasons, but it seems that in political speech verbal aggression is not an area where we have a significant disadvantage relative to men. I think there’s room to learn more about this area, but until then… Trash talk away, congressbishes. People don’t really like it, but they don’t like it at similar rates in women and men.

This paper is recommended for discourse analysis darlings and sociolinguistic sweetpeas.

Nau, C. & C. O. Stewart. (2018). Effects of gender and verbal aggression on perceptions of U.S. political speakers. Journal of Language Aggression and Conflict. 6(1). 127-148.

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