No judgements: Global Language Monitor tracks political buzzwords, filters through Obamarama and surges out of the quagmire

Babbel interviews Global Language Monitor Paul JJ Payack about the impact of the English language on other cultures.

After posting last week about the CNN story proclaiming that Sarah Palin spoke at a higher grade level than Joe Biden, I was curious about the organization that made this assessment, and what they thought it meant. Now that curiosity has brought Babbel Blog together with Paul JJ Payack of Global Language Monitor to speak about political buzzwords — from “quagmire” to Obamarama — and, well, everything in the dictionary.

Click here to listen to the interview with Paul JJ Payack. Right click to download mp3.

Babbel Blog: What does Global Language Monitor do?

Paul JJ Payack: Basically what we do is monitor global English and its impact upon various areas of culture.

What exactly is “global English”? How does that differ from American English or British English?

Five years ago we thought that it was an interesting idea to monitor the growth of the English language. We started with, I was the founding president of, and it’s the largest multilingual site on the planet, with about 300 different languages, 30 million pageviews a month. What we decided was that it would be interesting to focus on English. What was happening with English was, in 1960 there were 250 million speakers of English. In 2008 there are 1.35 billion speakers of English.

When I was young, when you were growing up, people would tell you to study Spanish or study Russian, study Chinese, because that’s the language you’re going to need as you move into the future. So people did not understand what would happen in terms of the global communication explosion that was the result of the internet.

The internet basically changed everything, starting from about 1994 on. English became the dominant language of commerce, culture, science, electronics, software, entertainment. This has never happened before in human history. Before there was what we considered global languages like Latin during the middle ages, which was basically the language of Europe. French became a lingua franca, the global language of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but was mostly in diplomacy. But there’s never been a language across the board that is used as a first, second, third, and now a business language as the English language is right now.

You would say then that there’s a difference between a global language and a lingua franca. They’re not the same thing.

Yes, a global language is a language that people understand to do business, to be educated, to travel, to work with computers, this is a language that you need to know to move forward in the 21st century. That’s how English has evolved. Now, it’s not that English is any different than any other language, it’s not that it’s a better language. It’s just that it was in a position after World War II and because of the technological developments etc. that it was able to assume this dominance.

But then I suppose lexical changes occur when you have a lot of people who are speaking English as a second or third language etc., and then that has influence on the – well, I don’t want to say pure language – but on the base language itself.

Exactly. What happens is – and this is a really interesting phenomenon. The last time we had a global language, which was Latin, which even though we say it was limited in scope, it fragmented into the Romance languages. Because so many people started speaking it, they started claiming it as their own. And it’s interesting because the studies right now show that people who speak English, whether it’s in Korea, or India, in Beijing or in England, they believe that they own the language. They’re doing things with English that have never been done before, they’re adding new words and cataloguing new phrases, and doing text messaging, and acting like they own English, which is a little bit different than let’s say French, where everyone understands that the French Academy owns French. They have a task to keep it pure. English is like the opposite of that. It absorbs language from any and all places, and there’s no central body that keeps it “pure”. As a matter of fact, that would be an impossible thing to do, because there are so many aspects that are evolving right now.

So the Global Langage Monitor, what we decided to do was monitor exactly what was going on in the world of languages, with an emphasis on global English.

Previously, when I was in college, I studied Victorian English of the 19th century . Now it’s different. You have to study global English as the youth speak it in 2008. In other words, there is no locality to English language anymore. Because it’s how the youth of the world is using the language that’s interesting. They’re coming at it from Beijing or Nigeria or from East L.A. or whatever, and it’s interesting to see the phenomenon of how the youth are dealing with the language, how they’re impacting it. And you can watch the language evolve before your eyes and your ears.

But you also hear a lot of lamentations about the deterioration of the English language. Because it’s true, when you look at the English that’s used on the internet, I mean the spelling etc. ….Well, deterioration – that’s sort of a subjective evaluation, but…

No, we look at English as a dictionary would look at English. The traditional 17th, 18th century dictionary. And that is descriptive. When you use an English dictionary, they don’t tell you how you should use English. What they do is they describe how it is used. For example the city of New Orleans. Correct pronunciation of that name is norlins. Why is that the correct pronunciation? Because that’s how the people in New Orleans pronounce it. Now there are two or three different ways to pronounce it, and if you’re on a news station, or the BBC, you can pronounce it any way you like, but in our tradition, in the English tradition – I mean in the language tradition, not the country England – how things are spoken locally are the correct pronunciation.

So we don’t look at the language as either blossoming or degenerating, we just look at it as it is. It’s being transformed very quickly. And this is another interesting thing about English. It can be transferred into different cultures, and different media. And evidently it readily transforms because of the latin characters or whatever, but people use it to suit their own purposes in many different ways.

What we did five years ago was we developed a series of algorithms, softwares, formula. And what we could do is we could look at language and see how it’s evolving. And what we’ve done is we use that software, which we call PQI, Predictive Quantities Indicator, and we survey the language, globally, and we see what’s changing. We survey the global media, English and all languages, print or electronic – everything has a database nowadays – we survey the internet, the blogosphere, we survey propietary databases, sources of information etc., we see what’s being used, how it’s being used in an interesting way, if it’s telling us something about the culture or the language, and how things are changing.

So we’ve been able to apply that to all sorts of things, from television to cinema, to politics, to brands, we just surveyed the athletes at the Beijing games, what names are out there, we can tell you what the level is in terms of interest. The data tells us how the language is changing, and particularly what words are having the biggest impact and influence.

Every year we do a survey of the cinema, and we look for words and phrases in the cinema that have a cultural impact. A few years ago we had as our top “Hollyword”, brokeback, from Brokeback Mountain. It was a phenomenon, because all of a sudden, brokeback was the new way to say gay or homosexual. We noticed that this was a global phenomenon.

So last year our friends in China tell us that there’s a new Chinese dictionary, and they created an idiogram for the word brokeback. Idiograms for “broke” and for “back” combined, and it comes out meaning “gay”.

We did the same thing with the word Obama. We noticed that — if you’re following the US presidential campaign – Barack Obama has a very interesting name. Supporters and detractors have been using it in many different ways that are quite interesting and novel. If he’s gaining strength they call it Obamamentum. If you don’t like him, he’s an Obamination. If you think the whole nation is behind him, it’s the Obamanation, and the whole circus that goes with the Obama phenomenon is Obamarama.

What we try to do is see things and anoint them, so to speak. To legitimize the use as a word far before a traditional dictionary even things about it. So for example, we have an essay on our site about the obsolescence of traditional dictionaries.

We use as an example the word “dark energy”. Now Merriam Webster – who we greatly respect – just entered dark energy into the new Collegiate Dictionary. Meaning in 2008, people going to college for the first time, will be able to look up dark energy. Now the problem as we see it, is that dark energy has probably been around for ten years now. The point is, if you go to Google, and type in dark energy, it comes up, say, ten million times. You can’t be a science student in this day and age, and not understand what dark energy is. And yet, it was just entered as a legitimate phrase into the dictionary. We think that’s interesting and sort of charming, that we’re still using the rules that Samuel Johnson created in the 18th century – that is, you see a word appear, and then you wait years to see if it sticks. In 2008 with the internet, it doesn’t work like that anymore.

That’s what we do, we try and see what are the new words. Now as you say, with text messaging etc., there’s all sorts of jargon that’s out there that doesn’t actually fit into a traditional dictionary because they try to use words that are used by most people. But unabridged dictionaries are set up to record any significant word in any piece of literature or historical document ever uttered in the language.

But that’s interesting then, you’re making up a dictionary more based on a way on quantity than on quality. You’re not judging what deserves to be in there… just because it’s everywhere.

Since the dictionary was invented in the 1700s, the basis is you make no judgements. The idea is that the language is a living entity on its own and you can’t decide whether a word is appropriate or not. You can say it’s obsolete, you can say it’s vulgar, but you don’t make a judgement as to what a word is, other than does it exist in a sufficient quantity and in a significantly wide geographic area to make it a word.

As you were speaking about before, you track political buzzwords. So especially now in the election season, what exactly is a political buzzword?

What we consider a political buzzword is words that become hot. By hot what we mean is that they take on a meaning other than originally intended. And everyone uses this word or this phrase to connote a whole host of ideas that boil down to one word or one phrase.

For example, “flip flop”. Flip flop has been in the language for hundreds of years, but it wasn’t applied to politics in a significant way until the 2004 presidential election, and it referred to John Kerry changing his position. So he was a flip flopper, he flip flopped, etc. etc. Now that word has taken on a life of its own, it’s a bona fide phrase in the English language, and you hear people use flip flop constantly, any time someone changes their opinion. Flip flopping is not necessarily bad, it’s a sign of human growth and a vibrant mind, where when new facts emerge, you change your opinion, things change. So it’s not an inherently bad term. But as a political buzzword, it’s inherently a bad term. You do not want to be a flip flopper. It means that you lack commitment, it says that you have faulty judgement, it has all sorts of innuendoes. So that’s a political buzzword.

Back before the Iraq war started, in 2003, just when we were launching the Global Language Monitor, we noticed one day that, as we were surveying global newspapers, the phrase kept coming up: “rush to war”. New York Times, the Times in London, Washington Post, generally, in these English language newspapers, I think I read it ten or fifteen times in one morning. And I was thinking: now this is interesting, that everyone just happens to be saying the exact same phrase, that this is a “rush to war”. So we started tracking that. And that was one of the first buzzwords that we tracked that seemed to make an impact on the culture. And it did: it became a part of the ongoing debate about how we got into the Iraq war, was there evidence of weapons of mass destruction, etc. It all became boiled down to “rush to war”.

At that point we said, let’s start tracking these things in general, in a methodical – not exactly scientific – but methodical way. I mean it’s scientific insofar as we use the algorithms, and we have a way to do it, a methodology etc. But it can’t be replicated, because the nature of the language … It’s not like you can say, let’s have a medical study, we have four hundred patients, we’re going to give them all a placebo, and that we’ve got another four hundred that are going to have this kind of drug etc., and then we can reproduce those results in other studies, and someone can reproduce it in Berlin or Tokyo and then we come to a consensus if it’s this way. Well the nature of the internet is there’s no such thing as a permanent base of data. So what we try to do is construct a new concept called ephemera. Which is a class of data that exists at one point in time, that cannot be replicated. So if I try to measure exactly how your blog is doing right now, if I measured the exact same thing tomorrow I’d get different answers because the databases themselves on the internet will be changing in real time. So it’s a different way of measuring things… but still it needs to be measured.

So we’ve been measuring political buzzwords for five years, and it’s interesting to see which ones peak. Another interesting one was quagmire. So quagmire often referred to the American involvement in Vietnam. And the idea is a ground war in Asia where you get bogged down, and you just can’t get out, inextricably entwined in this event, and it gets very difficult to extricate yourself from it: quagmire.

Quagmire literally means quaking bog, quaking swamp, and you step on something in the swamp and it might move. It’s not sure footing. That became a buzzword a generation ago for an intractable situation in combat. So people started talking about Iraq becoming a quagmire. It’s interesting because it didn’t work, that phrase faded away pretty quickly. It was something that was important to the media at one point, and then all of a sudden people stopped using it, it wasn’t in vogue anymore that Iraq was a quagmire.

Another example is the word surge. It’s been in the language for time immemorial, and we all know what surge means, if you’re at a concert the crowd surges toward the stage, a storm has a wall of water before it that’s a storm surge, there are many meanings. But in the specific poltical, combat meaning of the word, it meant an increase of troops. It became “the Surge”. So if you’re talking about politics or the Iraq war, it is a word that has a new meaning. “Did the Surge work?” It was a word that was redefined. That would be a buzzword to us.

What are the words that are appearing most frequently in the election season?

We have a political sensitivity quote checker, but its our PQI for political buzzwords that we’ve been tracking for five years now, and when there’s an American election, we focus on it all the more. Rather than doing it every quarter we track it every month, every two weeks, etc.

In the last eighteen months, since the election cycle began, the number one word has been change. Change. Obama is talking about change, McCain is talking about change, every one is trying to co-opt this idea of change. We then survey the global media etc. and we look for the word change in a political context. Not just “change my sweater”, rather in a political context, and we see how many times it’s used. It’s amazing, it’s a real phenomenon.

Interestingly enough, the buzzwords that you hear on the radio and in television, or read in the newspaper, are not the ones we measure as the top buzzwords. In the long run, the ones that we measure, they do surface as the top ones at that time, but it’s interesting because sometimes the current media isn’t aware of what’s going on. They’re using the buzzwords but they don’t really see what it means.

So now the number two buzzword is what we call climate change… a composite of climate change, global warming etc.

And then there’s what we call the financial tsumami. There’s this worldwide economic restructuring going on and it’s different then ever before, because a lot of it is driven by technology, it’s almost like events are ahead of themselves and the old rules don’t apply, and we’re trying to figure out how to handle the economic situation. It’s not like the great depression in the 30s where there was a catastrophic world war that destroyed the means of production and it was a mess from a structural point of view, it’s almost like it’s a technological mess. The means of production are there, people there, etc., people are employed, yet we’re having this radical restructuring, what do we call that?

We’ve been calling it the financial tsunami. But really we don’t know what the word for what we’re going through is. It’s kind of like World War I, right?

Well, the word people seem to keep using is crisis.

Crisis, right. That’s not registering for us as a unique name now. I mean, it’s like the depression. It wasn’t called the depression until way after it was over. World War I wasn’t called World War I until World War II, right? Usually when there’s a great event, I mean the Renaissance… Matthew Arnold created the word Renaissance in 1840, three hundred years after it was over. You never know what something is going to be called in the long run.

But right now, the concept of change is really hot. But in our poltical buzzwords, the number two thing is climate change. So in spite of the fact that there is this worldwide economic restructuring, in spite of the fact that there’s a war, in spite of the fact that there’s immense unpopularity of the sitting president, the number two thing on people’s minds, according to the media, is global warming or climate change.

So you recognize this phenomenon of a word appearing more often than another word, do you think then with that we can make a prediction as to how the election is going to go? Since they are talking more about climate change than perhaps the Iraq war, that’s what they might vote on?

Right, and I’ll give you an example. In 2004, our analysis said that the biggest impact was from the words … if you take a mean average, boil them down, it meant morals. Not morals as people were thinking of it at the time, you know, vice president Cheney has a daughter that’s a lesbian, Mary Cheney, that’s morals, gay marriage, that’s morals, it wasn’t like that.

Traditionally people vote with their pocketbook, it’s a pocketbook issue. As one theory goes, people vote for their own economic interests.

But what we saw was that thirteen of the top twenty words we were tracking all had elements of morality in them, meaning, that people weren’t looking at global outsourcing as an economic idea, but as a moral idea. Is it moral to send jobs overseas. Is it moral to fight the Iraq war. Is global warming a moral issue. That was interesting.

As time has unfolded, that is what people have come to see. This great change in that election, that people were looking at things in a different way than they traditionally did.

The second thing we found out there was that… there’s this myth out there that there’s this 24-hour news cycle. And there is, insofar as how you read on the internet, they have to change it all the time to keep people’s interest. But what we found, when an issue surfaces, it goes into blogs, media archives, it surfaces in different places, it bounces around the media echo chamber, and all of a sudden it becomes more pronounced. So flip flopping was an issue in July (2004), — and in elections people always talk about the October surprise – meaning something about candidate that you don’t have enough time to recover from, a scandal or something. But what we found was that the events in July and August were more important than events that happened in October. Because the flip flopping etc. that were big in July and August had time in the echo chamber of the internet to magnify themselves. So they didn’t go away after 24 hours. The thing that most influenced the election was the August surprise, not the October surprise.

So we look at the midterm elections in the same way, we see the same thing happen, and we’re looking at this election cycle in the same way. Two days ago they were talking about Obama having a fourteen point lead, and 300 electoral votes as opposed to the 271 you need… in other words a landslide. But when we look at our PQI numbers, political buzzwords, we don’t see that. We see the issues beneath the surface that the media is not talking about, because it’s not a 24 hour thing, it’s a longer term thing. What we see is a very close election, favoring Obama very slightly.

Looking at political buzzwords, we see that the number five word right now is experience. We have Sarah Palin, who’s relatively inexperienced, and people love her or hate her for a whole host of reasons, but still, experience is an issue for her. But when we look beneath the surface a bit, Obama’s name is associated with inexperience 2.4 times more than it is with Palin. So that tells us that the experience issue has not gone away, it actually has a bigger impact on the election than traditional media see right now, because they’re looking in the 24-hour, the poll from today, what’s happening right now.

Another thing is gender. Right now it’s more important than race. People talk about if Obama can win because he’s black. Will people vote for white candidates like McCain because he’s white? But it turns out according to our analysis, that race is number sixteen, falling from number four in a survey in July, whereas gender moved up twelve spots to number nine. So what we’re seeing is that gender is a bigger issue than race. Maybe we are watching a post-racial election here, but we haven’t gotten to post-gender yet!

I became familiar with Global Language Monitor because I read in CNN last week that after the vice presidential debate you evaluated Palin speaking at a 10th grade language level while Biden was speaking at an 8th grade level.

The goal of Global Language Monitor is to see things how they are. It doesn’t mean I don’t have my personal views, but that has nothing to do with GLM. We attempt to look at things in the stark light of reality, filtering out everything else, so that you can actually see what’s happening in the language.

There are universal language tools that people have been using since the 1940s. The concept is, if you speak more directly, in simpler sentences, less complex sentences, with one syllable words, it’s more easily understood. There are different factors that you evaluate, such as active voice vs. passive voice. Active voice is the doer of the action. So: “I am going to raise taxes”, as opposed to passive voice, where there’s no specified doer, “taxes will be raised”. So if you’re a politician, you’d like to say, “taxes will be raised”. You don’t want to take responsibility for anything bad. This global economic meltdown… everyone has a reason for it, and you really can’t blame anybody. But of course in politics we blame everybody, particularly your opponent.

What we do is we take those language tools and apply them to different things. We apply them to presidential debates. We thought it would be interesting to give people something to talk about other than the he said-she said, but when you look at that, what does it mean?

So the CNN report… the reporter tried to balance it saying it was neither good nor bad to speak at a higher grade level, but I checked it out and I saw that that story in particular was on 20,000 media sites around the world. That’s a lot.

It was an amazingly polarizing story, because the question was… there was one story (laughs) saying, “Is smart the new dumb?” that sort of thing. So let’s assume that Sarah Palin is ignorant and Biden is intelligent. But that’s not the point. The point is that neither ignorance or intelligence on either side, the point is, in terms of how they spoke, was it easy to understand. It turned out that Sarah Palin with what she said – she used complex sentences, and things like that, that she came out at a higher grade level. This is the same kind of thing you use to evaluate a textbook for college, or for a workplace or for a newspaper, you basically use this to measure and see if it’s appropriate for a certain grade level.

What people failed to understand was that for politics you actually want to speak at a lower grade level. Obama has gone through the campaign lowering his grade level. So his first speeches would be at the 11th and 12th grade level, and now when he talks he’s at an 8th and a 9th grade level. Well that’s good. One term we saw that affected Obama months ago was the word “aloof”. People just had this feeling that he was “aloof”. So him specifically trying to get down to a lower grade level, or to speak more plainly, was a benefit.

We also noticed that Palin used a lot more passive voice, and that suggests that she was on the defensive a lot. The fact that Biden spoke at an 8th grade level, was very significant, because he’s known to speak at a 16th or 17th grade level, you need a doctorate to know what he’s talking about sometimes. He’s a traditional politician that uses long, complex- some say convoluted – sentences, and to follow his train of thought is very difficult. So to us… a lower grade level was a triumph. He really mastered what he had to do for the medium. The fact that he spoke in simple declarative sentences, and made sense, and connected with people who could understand in a more basic way was the story. But of course, you know, once it gets out there, people use it to suit their needs and then they use it to prove their points.