ozarque (ozarque) wrote,

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Linguistics; verbal self-defense; attack patterns in written language

Undauntra commented:
"A while back, you were discussing Verbal Attack Patterns, which seem to be predicated on stress patterns. Are there any analogous textual attack patterns in use online, where tone of voice is nonexistent?"

And wolfangel78 responded:
"Starting a response with 'Um' or 'Uh; is a very good indicator of an attack: 'Um, what you're saying is so stupid I can't believe I need to explain it to you . . . ' A lot of these kinds of attacks have been banned on various forums; reading their guidelines can give you a good guess about what is an attack." [And in an earlier comment] "In forums, one of the attack patterns is starting a response with "um". ... It's the lazy version of 'far be it from me to point out such an obvious error but ...' "

With ordinary offline written English, there's no way to identify hostile language. Suppose someone writes you a letter that says "[X] would be a really stupid thing for you to do; please don't do it." You can't tell whether that sentence is friendly advice, sarcasm, tender loving counsel, an arrogant/patronizing/condescending sequence, a neutral statement of fact as the writer perceives it, or any one of a dozen other things. Reading "I can't stand you," you can't tell whether that's a joke, a neutral statement, a hateful statement, or is coming from someone whose only emotion is curiosity about whether the line will "push your buttons and get you going" .... or something else. Even wolfangel78's elegant "Far be it from me to point out such an obvious error, but ... ," if it appears in ordinary written English, is emotional murk because it could be intended as a joke.

I'm asked fairly often to serve as an expert witness in lawsuits involving allegedly hostile language; when the only evidence is written English, I always refuse. Without the intonation and tone of voice it's not possible to determine the emotional message of an isolated sequence of written English. To make it unambigously clear that a written message is hostile people have to abandon the characteristics implied by the word "ordinary"; they have to do things like writing in all capital letters, underlining words three or four times, writing in huge letters, ending sentences with half a dozen big exclamation marks, and so on -- all devices that are attempts to add the missing emotional message.

Online English text is neither strictly speech nor strictly writing; it's something in between, and is just beginning to be seriously investigated by linguists. Its immediacy ... the way you can go back and forth quickly as if you were in a face-to-face conversation .... makes people conscious of the absence of the emotional message, and uneasy about it. This uneasiness led to the development of the emoticons and some of the abbreviations like "LOL." I thought at one point that those two devices might start being used routinely in offline written language, but so far as I can determine that hasn't happened. Presumably people value the deniability of written English too highly to risk compromising it that way.

I don't think we know enough about online English text to answer undauntra's question. Not yet. (When you consider the difficulty of accurately interpreting the emotional messages in speech, and in offline writing, that shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.) However, because cyberbullying is so vicious, and so hard to defend against, we need to get the necessary information -- fast. I therefore value wolfangel78's item about "um" being a reliable signal of hostile language online, and the additional information provided.


Note: I'd like to clarify the suggestion that the Verbal Attack Patterns are predicated on stress patterns. It's not the stress patterns -- although all hostile spoken English will have distinctive stress patterns -- that makes a sequence a VAP. It's the presence of a set of characteristics: a particular sentence structure, plus a particular word pattern, plus the stress patterns, all at the same time, in the absence of extenuating circumstances. (That is, having an emergency department doctor running along beside your gurney at the hospital shouting "QUICK! What's your BLOOD type?" constitutes extenuating circumstances; you know that's not a verbal attack.)
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