Sunday, July 12, 2009

Dialects and "accents" in SL -- or, who was that monster I saw you with last night?


I finally got around to looking at the Girl Genius comic for the first time (in fact, I managed to piss away the better part of a weekend reading all the way through the online version of the stories, which first began appearing in hardcopy form in 2001). And this got me back to considering the different ways we express ourselves in our typed chat in-world.

The issue of people "speaking" (ie, typing ) in some form of dialect or "accent" in SL has been kicked around quite a lot in recent months and seems to have been a catalyst for a certain amount of angst and anger in certain communities. I have been thinking about this a good bit, especially after Miss Eugenia Burton commented on some elements of the conversation on her blog, Complicated Conundrum and mentioned that yours truly goes around the grid, frequently using an approximation of a rather thick 19th century rural Texan dialect without running into any obvious hostility or irritation because of how I "talk." Eugenia holds up the example of my experience as a contrast to that of other folks in sl who use an "accent" and feel that they are getting a substantial degree of negative reactions for their use of non-conventional spelling and speech patterns. Not unreasonably, she asks why.

At the time she wrote this piece, I had commented that I thought the question deserved some pondering, in part because I felt like I must be missing something. To some extent I felt this way because in the last couple years I have spent less and less time in the sims where the debate was growing, and also because I really didn't know very much about the group of players who seem to find themselves at the center the discussion in a great many cases. These are the sl residents who take on the appearance and speech patterns of "jagermonsters," fictional soldier-creatures that feature prominently in the stories of the Girl Genius comic by Phil and Kaja Foglio.

In the comic -- and when recreated by players in SL -- these creatures speak a heavily accented form of English that is represented through a distinctive arrangement of spelling and word choice that is meant to suggest a Germanic/Balkan background for these characters. It tends to look like something along the lines of, "Dollink! Dot is vun goot-lookink hat hyu got dere!

And yes it can be somewhat hard to follow sometimes. But does it really foster as much of a negative reaction as people think it does? And does it actually rub people the wrong way to greater extent than the happy horseshit dialect I tend to inflict on others in-world?

In some ways, I would think what I do would be more likely to piss people off. My dialect is not merely a construction of dropping g's, using o' rather than "of," and employing the ever popular "y'all." It also draws on colorful and profuse period profanity, good ol' working-class frontier vulgarity, and speech patterns, spelling and vocabulary that is drawn from sources such as Mark Twain, period newspapers, and historic diaries. The way I talk can not only be confusing, it can be downirght offensive to Victorian sensibilities. And it doesn't help that I am a woefully wretched typist to boot. I am told by some of our rl German-speaking residents in Deadwood that my chat makes their translators emit blue sparks and smoke after a while.

Yet I don't think I have ever really caught a ration of shit about what I am typing as Dio (other than within the context of rp, where it is not uncommon for some greenhorn lady fresh off the stage to get all offended by my coarse talk...but that's all in think).

Well it may be a bit of apples and oranges, being as in places like Deadwood, everyone expects some expression of persona through typed chat. I'm not that different from other people there. And I don't go to parties and dances in Caledon or the other steampunk sims any more, so consequently, I am not in contact with a non-frontier rp society at large in any big way. I gather, however, that many of the "jagerkin" spend a lot of time participating in the general social life of the Victorian and steampunk sims on a very regular basis. So that very well may be a large part of why they can end up ruffling some feathers, while there aren't negative emails or blog posts (that I am aware of, anyway) talking about that dreadful Kuhr woman and how hearing her speak is like being subjected to the sound of nails on a chalkboard accompanied by fumes from a portapotty at a outdoor rock concert that the honey-wagon boys forgot to pick up until a week later. I'm just not around enough to irritate the fuck out of people for the most part.

So is part of it about that "being hard to follow" thing? There may be something to that. In Deadwood we had a grizzled old character named Crakajack whose typist went to almost mind-numbing lengths in creating long segments of chat that were truly spectacular examples of "genuine frontier gibberish." It was funny and brilliant and entirely appropriate, and holy Mother of God, I wish I had saved some transcripts of it. At the same time, I seemed to be the only person who had the least goddam idea of what he was saying (and yeah, it took some effort to read it over a couple of times and figure it out). I don't think Crakajack ever got the kinds of interaction or reactions he hoped for, and finally his typist killed the character off (he got shot over a gambling debt back on China Row).

So there is a balance we have to seek between giving free reign to our creativity and actually being able to communicate with others effectively. I do at times find my myself adjusting my dialect for the situation: if I know I am talking with a non-native speaker of English who is probably using a translator, I'll pick simpler vocabulary and type it out more fully so there is a better chance of the translation making some sense. Likewise, I will tone down the colorful and earthy stuff in certain circles, just because the idea of getting the message across often takes precedence over the authentic feel of the language. So maybe we need to be willing to make compromises if the goal is communication.

That said, once I actually got into Girl Genius, I came to get a sense of why people are so committed to taking on the persona of a jagermonster, including the occasionally impenetrable chat.

These guys are a hoot and a half: funny, sarcastic, tough, brave, enthusiastically violent, and uglier than a Fox News marketing meeting. They wear a wacky mix of pre-1900 European military-style uniforms, and most ordinary folks are scared shitless of them. They provide a regular comedic element to the Girl Genius storylines, and at the same time they often function as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on the action and main characters as the classic outsiders, who periodically make observations of substantial profundity.

So, of course, lots of people want to be jagermonsters: I so totally get it now that I have read the comic (which by the way, I thoroughly freakin' enjoyed). The jagers are characters that appeal to certain kinds of people who feel a connection there -- the sense of humor, the sense of being outsiders, of being different from the rest of society (and so perhaps appreciating the very unique different-ness of the jager way of looking and talking). The more I have pondered on this, I don't think it really is about rp as much as it is about selecting an avatar and a way of speaking and comporting oneself -- the persona -- that we feel best represents the uniqueness of who we are, even in a virtual context. People clearly are putting on the jager look and doing jaeger-speak not so much in the interest of telling stories or creating specific scenarios -- they simply are choosing to move through the world in a form that they have found comfortable and fun..

Hell, Dio is pretty much her typist, other than Mrs. Kuhr is a little younger, a little tougher, a little more fun to listen to, and a better shot. We do tend to take on personas that amuse us, that are perhaps the slightly more polished or intensified versions of what we think we are (or wish we could be), and it is understandable that when we have a less-than-enthusiastic reaction to our choices of avie and persona and speech patterns, we will feel it is, in essence, a rejection of ourselves in some way. Ultimately it probably is only about not being easily understood, but it feels to us like something more.


  1. Another excellent post with some interesting speculation, Miss Dio!

    Weighing in from the sidelines, it seemed to me that the objections to Jaeger-speak were mainly with regard to its use in group chat, where others - non-RPers - were being pulled into the RP involuntarily. It never bothered me - well, with the possible exception of the day some wag decided that "talk like a pirate day" needed a companion "talk like a Jaeger day" so it vaz hall Jaeger, hall dez tyme, so to speak - and, when well done, can be hysterically funny.

    All of which goes to show - there are a great many people in this world, and you can't please everyone all the time.

  2. Interesting musing. My own Miss Merryann is rather easy to type (there are a few benefits to being a Victorian prude), but let's face it, type is a poor substitute for speech, no matter what.

    Once you've rp'd with someone a few times their particular 'accent' gets easier to grab quickly. Sometimes the chat is difficult to read, but I appreciate how much effort the typist makes to create a realistic character. So I make the effort to read it.

    Oh, and a good grasp of phonics is essential.

  3. hey Grigor, yer welcome, Hon

    Hey Rhianon, yeah I know a big part of the kerfuffle involved group chat, and that is something I also can understand, as I find even most normal group chat to be a distraction at best. There are groups I have left to avoid the chat (and group notices as well) and in Deadwood we just disabled it. And that's not really an issue about "being pulled into the rp" it's simply that we all talk too much sometimes and it gets hard to concentrate on things.

    Hey Merryann, I like your attitude about respecting the work someone puts into their typed convo, and making the effort to comprehend it is a manifestation of that respect. But then after all, many people put great effort into non-accented or dialect chat as well -- and I think most of us also respect the effort to goes into making choices on the vocabulary, sentence structure and content of any good chat, including that of a somewhat prudish Victorian lady from the East. In a world where so much of how we present ourselves is through typed dialogue, everybody's putting in some hard work if they are trying to make it interesting and fun for themselves and others.

  4. Now you too can speak like a Jagermonster :)

  5. Hi, Dio. I've read the comic, at least the first year or so of the free online material. I could see why you might interpert things that way. With that said, I (respectfully) don't agree with you. As I've pointed out in various places, I DO find adapting (any kind of) speech pattern in world to be a form of roleplaying. How could it not be? I've been told that the accent is a form of character adornment, like wearing a hat, green skin color, or prim hair. I would counter that ALL of those things contribute to playing a *character* in world. Much as we might use Second Life to fantasize about things, I am not Victorian Naval officer. You are not a cussin' frontier woman with a fast pistol in the 19th century. And sure as the turning of the stars, people who play Jaegers aren't green monsters with vaudeville Yiddish accents in Napoleonic uniforms in real life. The Hobos are a pack of fairly modern-themed malcontents in Second Life, but their real counterparts aren't living in a beach shack made of driftwood somewhere in reality, either. It's a fact; we change how we present ourselves to play in world. That IS "playing a role" at its most basic level. I've been told .. "this is the way I am, how dare you!" but let's make a reality check, it can't be. At the end of the day we are all doomed to reside in these sorry meatsacks that communicate with each other via computers running a virtual reality simulation of a fantasy reality. With that said, we all have the right and ability to roleplay the character we like. Why would we hesitate to call it that?

  6. Hey O'Toole,

    It's really good to see you back.

    Anyhow, I've been thinking over what you're saying...about how we categorize what we do -- and maybe in the discussion we have gotten somewhat sidetracked in how we use the term "roleplaying." And I think, upon reflection, I have to agree, when we adopt any imaginative persona, we are playing a role. So yes, I can see the value of looking at "roleplaying" in a more global sense.

    At the same time, I think we can all agree that while we are none of us really frontier scouts or victorian naval officers, or green monster soldier-creatures, in taking on the mantel of this or that, we are trying express something about ourselves through the appearance, the affectations -- the role, as you point out -- that we chose to put on.

    For example, yes, I know you are not really a victorian naval officer and explorer, but by golly, I truly think the creative mantel you have drawn about yourself really does say something about who your typist really is -- at least something of his values, his interests, his world view, is reflected in the role you have selected to play. It's one of the reasons why I think I like you, because of what you seem to be saying with the role you play.

    I can certainly see your point that it might be useful to go ahead and call it all roleplaying. Arguably everyone is choosing to "play a role" in this world, whether it is as a land baron dealing in property that really doesn't exist in a physical sense, an oddly-dressed tourist exploring manifestations of other people's imaginations, a disc jockey, a fashion critic, a magazine publisher, or a roving lothario -- they're all roleplayers. The guy who chooses to wander the social landscape of Caledon and inflict his feeble attempts at wit on his fellow residents has chosen to play a role. The person who has elected to be a good and gracious host of virtual social events, likewise is playing a role.

    WE have met the roleplayers and they is us.

    All I was saying was that I can understand why many of us take it a bit personally when we find others have a negative reaction to what we put on -- to the role we play. But ultimately what I was saying was that we have to accept that fact: not everyone is going to love (or even like) the package we present in-world, or the roles we choose to play. Hey that's just like what happens in meatspace (where arguably we all have to be roleplayers as well -- we just don't have the same flexibility in how we can wrap the package).

    Other folks may not like how we play our roles simply because our accents are impenetrable and we're just hard to understand. But it also may be because others find the roles we play to be offensive, or redolent of various pathologies. Or maybe it's just because the role a person chooses to play is that of a self-absorbed, insufferable narcissistic dickwad. Either way, it doesn't matter -- we have negative reactions to others' forms of roleplay for various reasons, and we need to be true to our feelings and values.

    In that context, when we "choose not to be drawn into other people's roleplaying", I think that is something all of us are doing every day. It is, in fact, utterly necessary in order to stay sane. And other people are doing it to us as well, all day long, because by golly, they need to stay sane too. It is everyone's right to choose not to play along with someone else's chosen path of virtual self expression, whether it's choosing not to get into certain conversations, or avoiding certain social events, staying out of certain sims, or not patronizing certain businesses.

    I was simply saying I can understand why, when it happens to us, it can potentially feel like it hurts, even when on an intellectual level, we're telling ourselves it shouldn't.

  7. Thanks, Dio.. good to be back and as cantankerous as I ever was. I guess I'm reacting to the comments I've seen when people have asked me to explain why the Jaeger accent is so broadly offensive. "It's not roleplaying, this is me!" I've heard this again and again. Sure, it's roleplaying, what else is Second Life but? The flip side of that coin is.. you have every right in the world to roleplay whatever you want to do, within terms of service, no matter how irritating others might find it-- SL is a Hobbesian paradise. Just don't be surprised and hurt when people reject what you passions out of hand. There's no need to let it get to the level of offense I've seen displayed lately. I've recently been told that certain residents of a certain municipality choose not to darken my door or play in any of my reindeer games specifically because I voice my opinion on this topic and many others. I am not at all offended by that. We can't all get along all the time. Some of us (and myself, I put on top of this pile) can be abrasive about our views.

    I would counter that when we deal with appearances only, we tend to make judgements based only on appearances.

    It's the classic SL cunundrum of experience only what the guiding hand behind the avatar wishes for us to see.

    Unless you have the luxury of time to get acquainted with someone at a profound level, how in the world can you discover ANYthing about another Second Life AV except what you see on the surface? It's impossible. In regards to the Yiddish vaudeville accent, I have already admitted I find it about as entertaining as nails screeching on a chalkboard, myself. And a big "So vot? Hyu cares?" should be any Jaeger's response to that statement. It doesn't bother me that there are people out there that choose to be greenies. There's a little bit of everything in SL. I've been everything from dread Cthulhu to a Rhino at a town meeting, myself. I think people need to get over the fact that their sacred cows piss other people off and just get on with living.


  8. Ugh. It was late when I posted that. I apologize for some of the grammatical faux pas.

  9. Hey Hotspur,

    it's ok about the oopses...I hate that the only way to edit one of these comment posts is to go back, delete it and then repost the corrected version. I usually have to go through that process with a longer comment reply a half dozen times: posting it; seeing a mistake; thining, well, THAT makes me look like a dry-humping moron; copying the text; fixing the typo; deleting the bad version; posting the corrected version; reading it over with an air of satisfaction...until I see the next oops that I missed.

    Rinse and repeat.

    Anyhow, like I say, I understand people being hurt when they feel they are being rejected because other people don't like the way they choose to play and interact in-world.

    But I agree with you 100% -- there is no need for folks to respond to each other with the degree of venom and hostitlity that seems to be getting generated out there.

    And it happens all over -- not just in this situation withthe jagerkin. As an admin in an rp sim, I periodicially have to warn, and someetimes boot and ban people who are choosing to play a role that is disruptive, or who utilze a style of play that the sim leadership finds to be incompatible with the collective goals and style of play in that sim. And people get really, really pissed when that happens.

    No I'm afraid we can't avoid it, that some of us rub each other the wrong way in SL's "social pressure cooker" as Aldo calls it. It is inevitable...

    Now of course, when, as an admin I ban someone, I try to exerciuse some restraint in chosing the language that I use. As much as I might want to tell someone that I think they're a weasel-fucking narcissist, I endeavor to be a little more diplomatic than that. We have to be honest, and call them as we see them, but there is no need to try to be insulting or deliberately hurtful. I think the worst I have done recently was to tell someone that they should "grow up" but I meant that sincerely, as advice, rather than as an insult.

    And maybe that is something we might wish to apply in framing our communication regarding who we choose to interact with or not. We know that our fellow residents often take rejection of their choices personally -- that, yes, it stings a bit. Just as a sim admin has the responsibility to hold back and choose their words carefully, perhaps we can step back and see how we can seek to be honest with each other, without turning it into social warfare.

    I know this whole discussion has made me more cognizant of the times that I have chosen to be assholier-than-thou. So it has encouraged me to reflect on how I can try to be honest, without taking on the role of unnecessary bitch that I often choose to play.

  10. perhaps we can step back and see how we can seek to be honest with each other, without turning it into social warfare.

    Amen to that. The last thing I would want to have happen is a new "victim class" emerging in virtuality.

    Hell, we all do things others find infantile and stupid but seem endearing to us. I'm reminded of one of my first jobs out of college, writing for a radio program. It was fun but paid poorly and I couldn't make the rent with it. So I figured, why not, I'll go out with the salesmen and try to pitch the show for a slice of the advertising revenue. Big mistake. I would give the perspective customers cassette tapes and information about the program's ratings and target age groups etc. A wiser head than mine caught me bringing a tape player along and angrily told me to put it back in the car..

    "Why not? We're selling the program, right?"

    "Dumbass! You NEVER play the product in front of a perspective customer.. it's supposed to be a comedy, it's supposed to be funny!"

    "It IS funny, I helped write it!"

    "Yeah, sure, it is.. but what if he or she doesn't get it? What if they feel like they SHOULD be laughing and aren't? That brings on a hostile reaction, and that will kill the sale! Let them play the cassette on their own time, instead."

    I found my ego couldn't withstand radio sales for something I was helping to create. It was far too personal to hear someone say "I don't get it! That sucks!"

    Essentially, reactions to rejection of RP remind me of that experience... "Here's this grand thing we do over here.. based on this grand thing we read over here... which requires us all to dress up and speak funny... etc. etc... WHAT? You don't LIKE it? Why the hell NOT? What's WRONG with you??"

    That's what I mean when I say, "rejecting your roleplay". not everyone will want to do the same thing you do or even consider it fun and/or interesting. And there's absolutely no need to be overly offended by it. It doesn't have to be a blow to the ego, not if one simply chooses not to be offended.

  11. Maybe this is a good place to wrap this one up for now -- that maybe we can try to be honest with one another without descending into guerilla warfare on the social landscape.

    We all have the right to play the roles and walk the walks that suit us (within the parameters of the TOS and basic human decency), and we all have the right to not play along with others whose choices don't mesh with our own. But we should do our best to not take it too personally when someone doesn't think our choices are all that great--it doesn't mean our choices are less valid or worthwhile or that we are unlovable. We can move on and find suitable pastures in which to graze.

    But similarly, in making the choice to not play along with someone, we really don't need to be harsh about it. We can recognize that even the hardiest of us may feel the sting of perceived rejection in those circumstances: feelings are not always something humans can choose to have or not.

    Consequently, when we elect to not play with someone, we would do well to choose our words carefully and do our best to not reinforce that sensation of rejection more than is necessary.