Monday, November 14, 2011

What if nerd speech is different than non-nerd speech?

What if nerd speech is different than non-nerd speech?
Unintentional segue!  D. Girard asks at the end of the previous post:  What if nerd speech is different from non-nerd speech?  I started to write a comment in reply, which soon became just long-winded enough to be its own post.  

Python Bee
The question reminded me of an experience I had recently, when two college friends from that nerd-kingdom cum juvenile rehabilitation facility commonly known as “That Fucking Place” and more commonly known as “MIT” were visiting.  Naturally, we decided to spend some time watching the finals of the 2010 Python Bee, which is held annually in the dorm we lived in at That Fucking Place.  The Python Bee, for those of you who knew the touch of a member of the opposite (or same) sex before you turned 25, is a contest where MIT undergrads are given computer science problems, and they have to solve them, out loud, letter by letter, in Python. [Parenthetical:  there is apparently an incredibly horrifying thing called a “Bee Python” out there which I was extremely surprised to encounter when I googled “Python Bee.”  Learn syntax, google images!]  
Bee Python

Just like a spelling bee, they can’t take a letter back once they’ve said it.  So you have people saying things like “F-O-R-SPACE-I-SPACE-I-N-SPACE-R-A-N-G-E-OPEN PARENTHESIS-1-COMMA-K-END PARENTHESIS.”  Very clearly, this is not the kind of language that normal human beings use on a regular basis.  The fact that MIT students willingly participate in the Python Bee is, at some level, evidence enough that nerd speech is not like normal people’s speech, but I think that the icky, awkward feeling that Normals get when they have to talk to us nerds (and the equally uncomfortable, “Am I about to be stuffed in a locker” feeling that we get while doing the talking), has at least two deeper sources.  

FIrst, your average nerd is just going to be expert in topics that your average Normal (is that redundant) is not, and their speech is going to reflect that.  For example, a nerd will be horrified if you say “robot” instead of “cylon,” and you are going to feel hostile that the nerd cares about what seems to you like an arbitrary distinction.  In terms of hard data, I have several hundred questionnaires which I have collected from University of Illinois undergraduates over the years (by and large, not nerds…. at least not to the degree of having lots of Python Bee watching parties), asking them about their knowledge about acronyms.  When I came up with the list of acronyms to ask about, I did so by the, in retrospect not terribly scientific, method of just thinking of acronyms I knew and putting them on the list.

Since I was just sprung from MIT at the time, the list had lots of computer acronyms:  WWW, HTTP, FTP, SFTP, SSH, HTML.  It also had some items suggested by corpus analysis-- that is, looking at datasets people have compiled where they, for example, count up how many times a million different words have appeared in the New York Times in the last 5 years.  A corpus analysis might show, for example, that the word Cuomo (governor of New York)  is more common than the word Schweitzer (governor of Montana).  By sifting through newspaper corpora, I found a few acronyms to add to my list, ones that I probably wouldn’t have thought of myself, like DKNY (a clothing brand).  

I scored the first ~300 questionnaires myself, by hand, and imagine my complete and utter shock that, while only 3% of students knew what a png is (portable network graphic), and only 15% knew what tcp is (transmission control protocol), almost ALL of them (92%) knew DKNY.  I think this kind of data is a reflection of the obvious point I made before:  nerds have different expertise than non-nerds, and it comes out in the way they talk, and understand, language.  

More subjectively, I had the experience while watching the Python Bee that the contestants’ speech flooded me with the sense of being Home, at MIT, where everyone else is tube-fed too.  It seemed to me that in addition to tending to gravitate towards different vocabulary than normal-- as reflected by data points like my acronym study and D. Girard’s garden-pathing to a sentence starting with “Dr. Who”-- nerds tend to differ slightly in their prosody and syntax as well.  The tones and rhythms in the speech I heard at the Python Bee were identical to those I had heard around me all the time at MIT, and very different from those that I had mostly been surrounded with since then.  Prior to watching the Python Bee, I had implicitly assumed that the clipped, precisely pronounced speech with just slightly-longer-than-normal pauses between words that so many of my dormmates had employed was just the way they talked.  After watching the Python Bee I realized:  that way of talking was apparently general to a whole new generation of nerds, not specific to individual nerds that I knew in college.  Viscerally, it was striking.  It took me back to my formative years much the way smells can take us back to our elementary school or our childhood home-- it was so unique and characteristic.  

To answer D. Girard’s question, I tend to think that nerd speech is different from non-nerd speech, in quantifiable ways, and these differences constitute at least one factor in the awkwardness / locker-stuffing-phobia that permeates my conversations with normal people.

1 comment:

  1. It is also quite possible that nerds don't all have the same language. Wonder whether normal language has more universals :).