Back in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Suzanne Wagner realized that social distancing requirements had created an unlikely linguistic experiment.
Wagner studies language change at Michigan State University and in April she started collecting voicemails from adults, kids and teenagers across the state. She and a team of researchers have received hundreds of messages so far. They plan to mine the recordings for clues about what happens to our speech when our social lives contract.
“Our question really is, when people are not in those in-person interactions, particularly group interactions, does it slow down language change?” Wagner explains.
Normally, we pick up phrases and manners of speech through routine face-to-face conversations. Our language evolves to match others in our region. But now, many people are separated from these communal pools of speech.
“If we think of Michiganders as effectively all living on a bunch of different islands — we’re all on an archipelago now rather than a state,” Wagner says.
Some shifts in language permeate across our social bubbles easily — we all know new terms like learning pods and quaranteam. But more subtle shifts in language, like pronunciation or syntax, could be hyper-localized, explains Betsy Sneller, another sociolinguist at MSU and fellow organizer of the project.
“We might expect that in these little archipelago islands — whatever pronunciation 10 people are using — you’re going to focus in on that,” Sneller says.
We’ve seen these language shifts before
It used to be that many people in the Great Lakes region shared a dialect with people in Missouri. That was when Route 66 connected Chicago to St. Louis, so people would drive down from the big city through small towns in Illinois and Missouri.
“You could imagine they would stop, they would eat, they would interact and the dialect spread that way,” says Sneller.
Once interstate highways replaced Rt 66, the dialect shifted. People in St. Louis no longer sounded like people in Chicago, Sneller says.
We could experience a similar language shift with the pandemic, as we miss out on many of our own in person conversations. But the researchers really don’t know how things will play out. It could be that in this digital age, it doesn’t much matter if we’re limited to short conversations at the grocery store.
“If that’s the case, we’ve learned something interesting about language change,” says Sneller. “You don’t need that much interaction to make it happen.”
The substance matters, too
Whatever is revealed about how our language twists and turns amid collective isolation, this study is as much an oral history project as a linguistic one. The researchers want to document what these recordings reveal about this moment in history — how our norms have shifted and lives have changed.
“One participant said he thinks masks are so normal now— just like shoes— sometimes he wears them back in the house and forgets,” says Sneller. “But he doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to arrows in the grocery store.”