Word! The Language Column
Dialectics of Correct Pronunciation

Illustration: Two people with speech bubbles
What role does the spoken word play in internet language? | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Generations Y and Z may not do much talking over the phone, but they do still attach importance to the spoken word on the Internet. Here’s Dirk von Gehlen on avocados and deliberate mispronunciations.

By Dirk von Gehlen

“Like if you’ve been there”: What may sound offline like an abortive attempt to construct a meaningful sentence actually serves as an identity-building prompt on social networks. “Been there?” usually serves as the lead-in to a description of an everyday situation that can be handled in two or more different ways. The option you pick then becomes a personality-defining and socially-connecting choice – expressed with a “like” and a fleeting but heartfelt agreement on this particular way of doing things: Butter your toast before adding chocolate spread or not? Which goes in the bowl first: milk or muesli?

Who phones and who chats?

Nowadays, these everyday preferences with identity-defining implications often serve as litmus tests that betray membership of certain cohorts. Generations Y (millennials) and Z (aka zoomers) are both considered “young” in Germany and, although they don’t particularly like or understand each other, they both seek to set themselves clearly apart from the baby boomers. But the generation between the old (boomers) and the “young” (comprising the quite young Gen Z and those born before the turn of the millennium: Gen Y), the generation following the baby boomers, are often forgotten: namely Gen Xers, who are no spring chickens anymore and can now help bridge the generation gap from the sidelines, as it were.

One good litmus test to tell generations apart is how they use their telephones. While boomers actually use their phones to make phone calls, holding the device to their ears like the receiver of an old-fashioned rotary dial phone, millennials and zoomers can seldom be seen actually talking into their gadgets. And when they do, they tend to hold the phone horizontally between thumb and forefinger and speak into the microphone at the bottom facing them. These cohorts seem to have a veritable phobia of carrying on a telephone conversation the old-fashioned way. Gen Xers, on the other hand, have developed a disturbing hybrid form that combines the disadvantages of the traditional phone call which always comes at a bad time with the disadvantages of an SMS (lack of direct personal “connection”): the voice message.

To boomers, these audio messages seem like voicemail on an answering machine that has been sent using an app, whereas very young people often feel they’re an acoustic disruption of their text- and image-based chat. Nonetheless, I would like this sequence of the “Word” column to be viewed as a voicemail, because I want to talk about the spoken word and its importance to our identity.

The Internet has popularized a form of communication in which spoken and written language are organically interwoven. It doesn’t even occur to many of us nowadays that a “chat” means a spoken-word conversation. On the net, people write – in the spirit of a verbal chat.

Mispronouncing “avocado”

But that doesn’t mean the spoken word has been banished from online communication. On the contrary, it’s quite important to digital dialogues. Because the names we use to designate certain things and how we pronounce them goes a big way towards defining and differentiating identities across generational boundaries. “Like if you say Apfelkitsche too” [i.e. a regional dialectal word for Apfelkerngehäuse] would be a prompt for interaction about a photograph of an apple core. But this form of dialectal differentiation also gets at the very core of Internet language – and not only in relation to online illustrations of regional identities.

The web itself began grappling with questions of correct pronunciation an eternity ago, if you count in Internet years. Back then, videos demonstrating the right way to say some particularly tricky words became popular on YouTube. For example, how do you say the French word “croissant”? In the late noughties, videos galore were posted online to teach viewers how to pronounce “croissant” correctly if they don’t want to be laughed at in France.

And since every trend always carries within itself the option of an ironic counter-trend, it wasn’t long till plenty of clips began making fun of the whole elocutionary quest. In the German-speaking world, @luksan-wunder pioneered the art of mispronunciation. One clip from 2015, for instance, mangles the word for a green fruit that’s extremely popular on toast – and not just for breakfast at hip urban cafés. Luksan-wunder’s viral video puts the stress on the wrong syllable (namely the second one) of the word “avocado”. It sounds as if someone were using only the pit of the avocado and throwing the rest away: Wrong!

Distinction by correction

This deliberate mistake sowed the seeds for other successful clips to pop up, which can now be harvested on new networks: @diclassicx, for example, used exactly the same mispronunciation of “avocado” in a TikTok clip in the spring of 2022, which got an incredible number of views. The reason why is Cunningham's Law: “The best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question; it's to post the wrong answer.” Then someone’s bound to stick their oar in to correct it. This principle not only confers a certain distinction on the corrector (“I know the right answer!”), it also forms the basis of what I call the Glut-Theorie (“fanning the embers”) of political debate.

Needless to say, this principle of demarcation and identity formation doesn’t apply only to spoken language. It also turns up in the use of slang, abbreviations and – the subject of my next column – emojis.

If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to contact me – by sending me a voice message or just a regular old email to sprachkolumne@goethe.de

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.