Rhetorical Speech on Tumblr.

Nathaniel posts at Tumblr about an interesting phenomenon. He quotes copperbooms:

when did tumblr collectively decide not to use punctuation like when did this happen why is this a thing

Then he prismatic-bell says:

ACTUALLY

This is really exciting, linguistically speaking.

Because it’s not true that Tumblr never uses punctuation. But it is true that lack of punctuation has become, itself, a form of punctuation. On Tumblr the lack of punctuation in multisentence-long posts creates the function of rhetorical speech, or speech that is not intended to have an answer, usually in the form of a question. Consider the following two potential posts. Each individual line should be taken as a post:

ugh is there any particular reason people at work have to take these massive handfuls of sauce packets they know they’re not going to use like god put that back we have to pay for that stuff

Ugh. Is there any particular reason people at work have to take these massive handfuls of sauce packets they know they’re not going to use? Like god, put that back. We have to pay for that stuff.

In your head, those two potential posts sound totally different. In the first one I’m ranting about work, and this requires no answer. The second may actually engage you to give an answer about hoarding sauce packets. And if you answer the first post, you will likely do so in the same style.

Here’s what makes this exciting: the English language has no actual punctuation for rhetorical speech–that is, there are no special marks that specifically indicate “this speech is in the abstract, and requires no answer.” Not only that, it never has. The first written record of English (actually proto-English, predating even Old English) dates to the 400s CE, so we’re talking about 1600 years of having absolutely no marker whatsoever for rhetorical speech.

A group of teens and young adults on a blogging website literally reshaped a deficit a millennium and a half old in our language to fit their language needs. More! This group has agreed on a more or less universal standard for these new rules, which fits the definition of “language.” Which is to say Tumblr English is its own actual, real, separate dialect of the English language, and because it is spoken by people worldwide who have introduced concepts from their own languages into it, it may qualify as a written form of pidgin.

Tumblr English should literally be treated as its own language, because it does not follow the rules of any form of formal written English, and yet it does have its own consistent internal rules. If you don’t think that’s cool as fuck then I don’t even know what to tell you.

Great stuff; thanks, rozele!

Comments

  1. When copy editing, I found it particularly challenging to decide how to punctuate interviews. In usual written prose, I have commas and periods (and occasionally semicolons) reflect the intonation of what would be slow and deliberate speech. In an interview, where spoken words are reproduced mostly verbatim, this kind of punctuation would present the speech as unnatural. But then it might make reading it easier.

    I don’t have a solution to that. Maybe I would if I’d done that kind of work full-time for decades.

    I personally would put just a little bit of punctuation in the sauce packet monologue, but sure, the Tumblrites and James Joyce don’t have to.

  2. One thing I would love to be studied more is linguistic creativity.

    I remember in early 2000s I could recognize some Tolkienists (that is, Tolkien fans) on Internet forums not by any specific words (usually you recognize a slang, e.g. hippie slang by peculial words that hippies use – but there were not many or any “words” in Tolkienist Russian) but by their manner of speaking.

  3. but does the no punctuation at all style actually reflect an intent by those teens and young adults to create a style for rhetorical speech or did it result from the fact that on mobile device keyboards punctuation is a pain in the ass so you just skip it and as an unintended byproduct that creates a solution to the lack of a marker for rhetorical speech i’m just sayin

  4. Stu Clayton says

    did it result from the fact that on mobile device keyboards punctuation is a pain in the ass so you just skip it and as an unintended byproduct that creates a solution to the lack of a marker for rhetorical speech i’m just sayin

    Im just sayin I agree bro after all its nothing new ockham got there first my sossage fingers can go on vacation now

  5. @Y: i’ve always found anna deavere smith’s solution to readable transcription the most compelling – she uses linebreaks, with minimal punctuation within lines. which also (deliberately or not) reflects gertrude stein’s insight that the sentence is not a unit of speech*, while the paragraph is.

    @ martin: you’ve just rediscovered the evolutionary notion of the spandrel! it’s key to understanding why [edit: or, maybe better, how] the idea that evolution “reflects an intent”** is garbage, which also applies to language change.

    .

    * i think this also goes a long way to help understand what’s wrong with the chomskyites, who take the sentence as their basic unit, and perhaps relatedly do not understand that language is what people say to each other.

    ** a/k/a “intelligent design” creationism

  6. Stu Clayton says

    rhetorical speech, or speech that is not intended to have an answer

    That’s a tendentious way use the word “rhetorical”. Classical rhetoric is a set of speech and writing techniques for influencing people effectively. “Rhetoric” is not a synonym for monologue. To the masses nowadays, “rhetoric” just means “blah-blah”, and there is no assumption that it is a monologue.

    Not even the fixed expression “rhetorical question” means “a question not intended to have an answer”. It means “a question that suggests an answer but does not insist on one”. Uttering such a question is only one of many rhetorical techniques for influencing the hearer – with or without an “answer”.

    There is no law against answering a rhetorical question – in fact, when you have the necessary rhetorical chops, you can shoot it down with a suitable response. The response itself can be “rhetorical”, or a punch in the mout’.

  7. David Eddyshaw says

    which also applies to language change

    Surely some language change reflects an intention?

    (I don’t at all dispute that the source of most language change is entirely opaque, with pretty much any theory you care to mention more or less immediately provoking a host of obvious counterexamples.)

  8. Cf. sexual selection.

  9. Stu Clayton says

    Surely some language change reflects an intention?

    Interrogatio ! Nice one.

    I think I now understand why the “question not requiring an answer” technique is called “rhetorical question”, and in Latin merely interrogatio. It’s because classical rhetoric dealt with the delivery of speeches, i.e. where there is no dialog between individuals. Since a rhetor doing his rhetor thing was not chatting with anyone, if he/she uttered a “question” it was automatically a “rhetorical question” because there was no one to answer. This was in the days when dumb remarks from the audience were not countenanced.

  10. Creditwise, do note that the comments you attribute to Nathaniel are rather from user prismatic-bell (and incidentally date already to June 2015 — I think I’ve seen this go around already close to that time).

  11. Stu Clayton says

    Two rhetorical questions in a dialog:

    Q. Are you shittin me ?
    A. Are you shittin me ?

  12. David Marjanović says

    * i think this also goes a long way to help understand what’s wrong with the chomskyites, who take the sentence as their basic unit, and perhaps relatedly do not understand that language is what people say to each other.

    I like that.

  13. Creditwise, do note that the comments you attribute to Nathaniel are rather from user prismatic-bell

    Fixed, thanks. I guess I just assumed prismatic-bell was his nom de tumblr.

    I like that.

    Me too!

  14. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Are posts in that style not to be replied to because they’re written in that way, or are they written that way because they’re on Tumblr, and not to be replied to because they’re on Tumblr?

    Because as far as I can tell there is no way to reply to something on Tumblr except by reposting the whole thing somewhere that the original author might never see and adding your own bit to it, which is one of the things I’ve never got my head around. Maybe throwing individual thoughts to the wind is just the Tumblr style, like short things is (supposed to be) Twitter’s.

    (Although anywhere online that I chat rather than write comments I only use capital letters for the pronoun I and for emphasis, and full stops only if i want to stop one sentence and start another within the same ‘line’.)

  15. @rozele: Thanks for the Anna Deavere Smith tip. I just looked at a sample of her Notes from the Field. It’s really good, but I don’t see there what you’re talking about. She uses punctuation (and I wish I was that good with it) and not a lot of line breaks. Which book should I check out instead?

    Now, what Tamara Shopsin does with line breaks (e.g. in Arbitrary Stupid Goal) is utterly revolutionary.

  16. Not even the fixed expression “rhetorical question” means “a question not intended to have an answer”. It means “a question that suggests an answer but does not insist on one”.

    I would say that a rhetorical question is an expression whose syntactic form is like that of a question, but whose illocutionary force (pardon my language) is not.

  17. Stu Clayton says

    Can an illocutionary act have any force if no one hears it ? Berkeley covered only illodendra.

    I’ve seen claims that he didn’t say anything about a falling tree in particular, but it’s a cute legend. It’s been decades since I read the Treatise, so I won’t pretend to remember.

  18. you don’t expect me to answer that do you

  19. Stu Clayton says

    Curses, foiled again ! At least I got a rise if not a full-fledged answer.

  20. Jen in Edinburgh says

    If no one hears a tree, did it fall?

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    pardon?

  22. Stu Clayton says

    Still it stands to reason, God knows.

  23. @Jen: despite the platform being constructed in ways that make it harder, there’s plenty of conversation on tumblr. and as the post itself illustrates, the unpunctuated style isn’t a “do not reply” marker (those conventionally go in the tags), it’s a marker of the flavor/texture that something is being said in. it guides how a person will reply, just as all-caps typing does (and all-caps unpunctuated is, as you’d expect, rhetorical screaming: loud, but not to be replied to based on its ostensible questions).

    @Y: ADS talks about her linebreak approach in a long-ago New Yorker piece (i think including texts from interviews with incarcerated women).

  24. If I were to abandon the conventions of capitalization, the pronoun “I” would be the first thing to go, not the last. What purpose does capitalizing it serve? In fact, since I started doing Welsh exercises on my phone, uncapitalized “i” has been slipping through a lot more in my informal messages as autocorrect has been nodding.

  25. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I just don’t like the look of it – almost every other word you’re used to seeing uncapitalised inside sentences, so they don’t look odd in themselves. But I’m inconsistent about proper names, now I come to think of it.

  26. Maybe the brain processes ⟨I⟩ as an ideogram, and ⟨i⟩ as a letter for several English sounds.

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    Welsh has (at least) five quite distinct words pronounced i, but writes two of them ei and one of them eu, in order to confuse foreign learners.

  28. ə de vivre says

    “A group of teens and young adults on a blogging website…”

    In the year of our Lord 2022, are there any teens on Tumblr? (That is to say, is this a niche in-group phenomenon or more widespread? )

  29. David Eddyshaw says

    They might be on Tumblr in a postmodern ironic way.

  30. Google Tumblr.

    “Is Tumblr still a thing 2022?” suggests Google with a link to an article
    https://qz.com/emails/quartz-company/2139456/tumblr-making-comeback/
    subtitled “An impossible-to-monetize relic of the old internet, Tumblr is gaining popularity with Gen Z.

    “Old Internet”?:(((( 2007 is more or less when I took a pause and decided not to monitor new developments on the Internet for a while. It is still in my “to explore” list…

  31. Google Tumblr

    Er. Well. The first of these words in a verb in the imperative…

  32. the sentence is not a unit of speech, while the paragraph is.

    Is this a commonly stated idea? It strikes me as a very useful insight, but I don’t think I have ever seen it stated so explicitly.

    I wish someone had told me this when I was learning Japanese (especially premodern Japanese), where units of meaning that my anglophone brain wants to construe as “sentences” often cannot easily be broken apart because they are syntactically or morphologically connected to each other within the paragraph.

  33. John Cowan says

    One human year = seven Internet years, so Tumblr was founded just over a century ago.

  34. If you don’t think that’s cool as fuck then I don’t even know what to tell you.

    In which case you can just shut up keep silent. 🙂

  35. Don Marquis was doing this style back in 1916 with Archy and Mehitabel.

    but wotthehell
    archy wotthehell
    it s cheerio
    my deario that
    pulls a lady through.

    oh i should worry and fret
    death and i will coquette
    there s a dance in the old dame yet
    toujours gai toujours gai

    expression is the need of my soul
    i was once a vers libre bard
    but i died and my soul went
    into the body of a cockroach
    it has given me a new outlook on life

    i see things from the under side now
    thank you for the apple peelings in the wastepaper basket
    but your paste is getting so stale i can’t eat it
    there is a cat here called mehitabel i wish you would have
    removed she nearly ate me the other night why don’t she
    catch rats that is what she is supposed to be for
    there is a rat here she should get without delay

  36. prismatic-bell: the English language has no actual punctuation for rhetorical speech–that is, there are no special marks that specifically indicate “this speech is in the abstract, and requires no answer.”

    I dispute that. How about wording the sentence as a question, but punctuating it a different way? For example: Well, what do you know!

    And has prismatic-bell gone too far in calling something a language when it’s no more than a distinctive way to punctuate?

  37. “the sentence is not a unit of speech, while the paragraph is.”

    Is there a definition of “paragraph” valid for all languages? Is there one valid just for English?

    When reading well-edited German expository prose, I often find sentences (bounded by a blank space at the beginning and a final stop or a question mark, etc. at the end) which English prescriptivists would consider run-ons.

    Much ink has been spilled on the definition of a “word.” A “sentence” may be even harder to define and a “paragraph” yet harder, but I am all ears.

    [or, if you wish: …. yet harder. But I am all ears”]

  38. The unit of speech is the utterance.

    [edit: that Wikipedia article clearly went through a peer review process that advised adding at least three images]

  39. >“the sentence is not a unit of speech, while the paragraph is.”

    Is there a definition of “paragraph” valid for all languages? Is there one valid just for English?

    Well, if we’re going to be picky, the paragraph is obviously not a unit of speech at all, but a unit of writing. And many premodern writing traditions either did not have paragraphs, or made much less extensive use of paragraph-like breaking up of text than we tend to do in modern writing. So I wouldn’t be prepared to defend rozele’s (or Gertrude Stein’s?) claim as literally true. Nevertheless, it seems there may be many cases where thinking about paragraphs (whatever they might be) may be at least as useful as thinking about sentences (whatever they might be); we shouldn’t automatically privilege the latter over the former.

    As for prismatic-bell’s claims, they are clearly ACTUALLY* absurd. Quite apart from the fact that an innovative punctuation style does not (“literally” or otherwise) constitute a new language, they are misguided in their analysis of how this style of punctutation functions. My understanding (admittedly formed through only a very cursory familiarity with the norms of tumblr discourse) is that punctuation omission is merely a signal of informal discourse. It has nothing to do with being “rhetorical” (whatever that might mean), but is comparable to early 20th-century modernists’ omission of punctuation in their “stream-of-consciousness” style of writing.

    *I believe the standard spelling in this context should be ACKSHUALLY, but here I follow prismatic-bell’s usage.

  40. cuchuflete says

    i don t have a clue what tumblr is
    it might be useful to have a look at it before offering a thought
    and of course that raises doesn t it the question rhetorical or otherwise of what to call the omitted punctuation which may be a language unto itself or not

    Here, for those few who might give a tinker’s damn, are the omitted
    marks: ‘ . , , — — ‘ , , , , . ? !

    Do punctuation mark omitters also eschew diacritics? We have some available for those in need. ^ ö õ ó ä à á etc.

  41. John Cowan says

    Then there is the slightly pre-Shakespearean style / of inserting a slash to mark the point / where you would naturally pause in speaking / people wrote to be read aloud / and the slash helped the reader-aloud find the point / where taking a breath / even a short one / makes a lot of sense

  42. And has prismatic-bell gone too far in calling something a language when it’s no more than a distinctive way to punctuate?

    Well, of course, but if you’re looking for someone to wag a minatory finger at excited exaggeration you’ve come to the wrong Hattery. I once started a review with “This is the best book ever written.”

  43. A commenter on the recent LLog post on peeving notes that the New Yorker incorrectly encloses quotative like between commas (“She was, like, ‘I’m just here,'”) while the NYT, correctly, does not (“she was like, [quote].”)

  44. I found that a rather dispiriting thread. I don’t understand why Mark has such an animus against Philip Taylor, who is perfectly well spoken and polite and (as he says) on-topic; I had the same reaction as PT:

    And yes, I did “ignore the 2-minute answer that [Mark] cited in the post”, preferring to go to the audio recording itself to hear what she had actually said. Whilst I do not believe for one second that Mark selected the two-minute extract because it demonstrated the point that he was seeking to make, others, less honourable, might well do so, and I therefore always prefer to go to the original source rather than to an extract cited.

  45. Yeah, myl went overboard. I hope he is not turning into Pullum. But what amazed me is the degree of embeddedness of the comments. We have myl’s reaction to a comment of Philip Taylor to a post by Prof. Liberman triggered (sorry, Y) by a twit by Julia Ioffe reacting to an email by David Gerson (who is rather articulate for a 3-year old) who was aroused to write it by Ioffe’s podcast. 1,2,3,4,5,6. Six levels of commenting depth. I am sure one of the longer threads on this blog can topple it easily, but still impressive.

  46. I hope he is not turning into Pullum.

    Or Mair, who has zero patience with people who disagree with him. I think it’s a professorial thing.

  47. the New Yorker incorrectly encloses quotative like between commas

    Maybe they are changing their rule. In this week’s issue there is a cartoon with the caption “Wow! He’s like totally obsessed with you.”

  48. It has nothing to do with being “rhetorical” (whatever that might mean), but is comparable to early 20th-century modernists’ omission of punctuation in their “stream-of-consciousness” style of writing.

    It is comparable to the stream of consciousness, but stream of counsciousness is not “informal discourse”… It even may (or not) have the required property : “this text represents what’s going on inside my head”. When I share it with you, I may imply (or not) “I’s just a rant, not an actual question”. I too have doubts about prismatic-bell’s analysis, but feeling that someone’s analysis is imprecise does not mean that it is easy to offer an alternative precise explanation:(

  49. I should add that the relevant uses of “like” are sanctioned by the OED

    “sanctioned”:-/

  50. Y- quotes around quotative like are wrong because it’s not really quotative. It’s performative. She was like, I was there! and I was like, shut UP! The written word is intended to indicate tone of voice and facial expression, not to reproduce the words accurately.
    Martin – in the cartoon caption you quote, like is intensive, not quotative/performative. Two different uses of the word.

  51. Writing in the late, lamented The Toast, the then-Mallory Ortberg, now Daniel Lavery, made hilarious use of the non-punctuation style, eg: https://the-toast.net/2016/04/06/texts-from-young-werther/

  52. Bloix, you’re right, but that is not why the comma before the “like” is wrong. It’s wrong because it gives the impression of an intonation which is never used in that context.

    Martin, I suspect NYer cartoonists aren’t subject to the same style book as the writers, if any at all. Good cartoonists, in general, are permitted a lot more than ordinary people are.

  53. I don’t understand why Mark has such an animus against Philip Taylor, …

    (myl has now retracted some of his initial reaction: “I was tired and grumpy.”)

    who is perfectly well spoken and polite and (as he says) on-topic;

    No I didn’t find PT’s comment to be on-topic: a) PT ignored that myl was specifically talking about a segment in which there was no occurrence of the complained-about like; b) PT listened only to the first 22-seconds of the other example, which contained a single like — whereas if he’d listened to the end that was the _only_ occurrence; c) that occurrence was not a usage of like that Gerson had been complaining about — but I don’t think PT has the expertise to distinguish that.

    In this particular example, PT didn’t stray as far off-topic as it often seems. In general PT is a nit-picker; I find him to be mock-polite to the point of patronising; and always looking to turn the conversation to his pet peeves. (PT claims to be 75, not the 105 I’d expect from his antiquated views. I think that’s adopting a persona.)

    PT’s at least one [prescriptivist peever] is alive and well and comments regularly on Language Log. is exactly injecting self into the topic.

    I hope he [myl] is not turning into Pullum.

    I don’t understand that complaint: is S&W anything but “one of the worst things to have happened to English language education in America in the past century.”? And isn’t it a responsibility of a co-author of CGEL to say so?

    Pullum, by the way, can be far more splenetic in private correspondence. But no more than is justified by the “nonsense”.

    It was thanks to a lecture by Pullum [with Gazdar] that I first realised you could express doubts about Chomsky without being immediately cast out as a heretic.

  54. PT ignored that myl was specifically talking about a segment in which there was no occurrence of the complained-about like

    He didn’t ignore it, he (quite reasonably) felt that myl was cherry-picking. “See, there’s no occurrence in this little clip!” Well, of course you want to see if that clip is representative. If you check around and find occurrences elsewhere, it’s certainly not off-topic to mention it.

    I don’t understand that complaint: is S&W anything but “one of the worst things to have happened to English language education in America in the past century.”?

    It’s not about S&W, it’s about slapping down people who disagree with you. All the LL profs do that, and it’s a bad habit.

  55. it’s about slapping down people who disagree with you.

    Yes, the atmosphere at the Log is different to the Hattery. As myl occasionally reminds: you can unsubscribe any time, and get a full refund. And @Hat from time-to-time claims to have taken that offer, but then doesn’t.

    vhm tends to treat the place as a personal blog, but those posts are easily avoided.

    If an academic has invested a career in deep understanding, and is generous enough to share that knowledge — even if only as a draft for a more polished publication to follow — I feel privileged to be let in on their thinking-out-loud.

    Then folk who abuse that privilege to make petty debating points or poorly thought-through responses (and I include myself there) — well I won’t say “deserve” to be, but shouldn’t be surprised to be slapped down.

    I really don’t know why myl bothers these days. He seldom gets any valuable feedback. And Pullum went so far as blocking any feedback. Nevertheless, I’d rather the entertainment and educational value of non-feedbackable Pullum than no Pullum at all. I’d of course prefer the down-slapping Pullum.

  56. Yes, I confess I enjoy Pullum even when he’s being cross. He has a real way with invective.

  57. My main worry is that Prof. Liberman will get annoyed with commenters, then will be closing (or “not opening”) comment threads and then will disappear from the blog entirely. He can grump around all he wants as long as it doesn’t lead him to this dangerous path.

Speak Your Mind

*