What if everybody knew… why a Serbian meme page and a letter that shouldn’t even exist brought people together? Or, what’s actually going on when someone helps her brother at the hospital, or reads him a story?
In part two of this episode, Ameena Faruki ’22 and Sofia Pauca ’21 speak to host and producer Dexter Thomas about their student research at Princeton.
Whether we’re with strangers online, or with our closest family, the ways that we communicate with each other are never quite as straightforward as they might seem. These stories, about in-jokes and nonverbal communication, teach us that sometimes ‘talking’ means reevaluating our concept of language.
This two-part series was inspired by interdisciplinary senior thesis work completed by students pursuing independent concentrations or undergraduate certificates in programs within the Humanities Council. If you missed part one, “…about African drums and the Loch Ness Monster,” you can go back and listen to that episode here.
Listen in the player above. Or, take this episode on the go with you:
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“If Everybody Knew” is a podcast brought to you by the Humanities Council at Princeton University. Each episode highlights innovative research, new ideas, and untold stories in the humanities at Princeton and beyond. Our episodes are free, and available on our podcast page, or wherever you get your podcasts.
This episode was inspired by the interdisciplinary senior thesis work completed by students pursuing undergraduate certificates in Humanities Council programs. You can read more about these programs here.
This episode was hosted and produced, with all music composed, by Dexter Thomas. You can find his website here, or find him at @dexdigi on Twitter.
About the Guests:
Ameena Faruki ’22 recently graduated from Princeton with an A.B. independent concentration in linguistics and a certificate in visual arts. Ameena’s senior thesis was advised by Laura Kalin (Linguistics, Humanities Council) and is titled “The <y> and the y-ssified: Online-exclusive expressions of the diminutive in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian.”
Sofia Pauca ’21 graduated from Princeton with an A.B. in religion and a certificate in humanistic studies. Sofia’s senior thesis was advised by Elaine Pagels (Religion) and is titled “Leaning on the Lord”: Family Experience with Religion and Spirituality in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.” You can watch her documentary here.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
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NARRATION (Dexter):: What’s one thing you wish everybody knew? I’m your host and producer Dexter. Thomas, and I also happen to be a postdoc at the Humanities Council here at Princeton. So, this is the second episode in a two-part series. In case you haven’t heard the first one, I definitely encourage you to go back and check that first. If you’ve already done that, you’re in the right place. And just as a reminder, in this series, the stories are coming from four Princeton students, they’ll be talking about their research and the topics are all pretty different, but they all come back to how we talk to one another. I know that might not make a whole lot of sense just yet, but hopefully it will.
So in this episode, I’ve got another two stories for you. One has to do with a doctor, a picture book and a big sister who’s doing her best to look out for her little brother. But first, I wanna talk about internet slang. Specifically, Serbian internet slang. To start us off. I want you to imagine the letter y. Lowercase, uppercase doesn’t really matter. Color doesn’t really matter either, but let’s go with a nice deep orange. …Got it? Cool. Now, odds are that you have no idea what I’m talking about and you’re pretty confused. Like I was when I first started talking to this next guest, so let’s get into it.
Ameena Faruki: My name’s Ameena Faruki. I’m a graduating senior at Princeton concentrating in linguistics, and I have a certificate in visual arts, too.
NARRATION (Dexter):: So just as an aside, before we really get into this. We’re mostly gonna be speaking about the Serbian language here, but most of the things we say here are also going to apply to a larger group of languages called BCS, for Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. These languages have differences, but they’re all mutually intelligible. That said, here we go.
Ameena: I grew up in Serbia. I lived there for most of my life, I moved to the US when I was 13. So I started here in middle school and then just went to American schools until college. I actually grew up bilingual. My mom is Serbian and my dad is Pakistani, so both of them just communicated in English. So I kind of grew up learning English and Serbian at the same time. So moving here, I became more and more used to using English formally and in school. And the only person that I really spoke Serbian with still was my mom. And there were, kind of like, a lot of times when I would just – I kind of forgot how to properly express a certain sentiment, or expressed it in a way that just sounded really awkward when there was actually like, a right way to say it.
Dexter Thomas: Hm. How did your mom react to that?
Ameena: Kind of maybe like a joking mocking response from my mom, like, “Oh, like, you forgot about this.” Or like, “You’re, like, not using Serbian enough.” Not in a, you know, demeaning way or anything, but just in kind of a joking way. But a joking way that kind of alarmed me. So that’s the kind of stuff that started to worry me.
And then that led me into, over the pandemic actually, kind of going in and like seeking this kind of …not community, but like small friend group and then kind of circle that I hovered around in, or lurked around in, just so I could be exposed to the language more. So I could use it with people. And from being exposed to these various online circles of BCS speakers, especially on Twitter, I came across this particular phenomenon or convention that ended up being the focus of my senior thesis.
NARRATION (Dexter):: That “phenomenon” was that people were writing things that looked like gibberish. They were intentionally misspelling certain words, especially slang words. I asked Ameena to give me an example.
Ameena: There’s for example, um, like ufazonu which people use it to kind of mean something has some kind of “vibe,” or it’s in the style of something. And so the way that would be spelled is like U-F-A-Z-O-N-U, and then this final U would be replaced with Y. So it was taking these various kind of slang terms, with just Y substituted in. So, keeping in mind that the BCS writing system does not use the character ‘Y’ to represent any sound in the language. That’s not a character that is used, along with X and W and Q.
Dexter: Wait. So does this mean if you’re Serbian and you’re writing on your keyboard, you just never touch the ‘Y’ key?
Ameena: Basically, yeah. Theoretically, yes.
Dexter: Wow. Okay. It just sits there.
Ameena: Yeah, it just sits there.
NARRATION (Dexter):: And yet Ameena kept seeing tons of online chatter using this ‘Y’ character, which again, isn’t even supposed to be there — which means that it’s not actually pronounceable. I mean, imagine I took the word ‘birthday’ and deleted the letter ‘H’, and then put an ampersand where it used to be… and then showed you that new word and asked you to pronounce it. You probably think I’d lost my mind. But tons of people were actually writing like this. But even though it looked random, Ameena had the feeling that there was something systematic happening here, like rules were naturally starting to develop on their own. So Ameena started doing some analysis.
Ameena: People would use ‘Y’ to replace both ‘yeh’ sounds, which makes sense. But also to replace basically any vowel at the end of a word, or like at the rightmost edge of a word, and typically only choose, you know, one vowel within a word to replace it with. And also one word within a phrase or a tweet to replace it with. It seemed like it was maybe used for some sort of emphasis. It would be put on, like, a random word in a sentence. Or you would feel like there’s a reason, like why they chose a word to use ‘Y’ on, but you can’t really put a finger to it.
Dexter: So you get online and you just see you just seeing people using kind of random characters and words. I mean, this kind of sounds like if all of a sudden, you haven’t really been spending a whole bunch of time on the English internet for a while, and then you get on and all of a sudden — the way that people like to replace ‘S’ with a dollar sign.
Ameena: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
Dexter: …because they think it looks cool. But then all of a sudden somebody starts replacing ‘B’ with a dollar sign and ‘T’ with a dollar sign, and just any letter.
Dexter: …and, and so you’re seeing, you know, kind of the equivalent of this is… maybe a bad example, but you’re seeing the equivalent of this. What was your response? What did you think? Did you just think “Man. I’ve really been gone for a long time?” Or what were you thinking?
Ameena: Um, yeah, I guess it was, it was like kind of a little bit like that, because I was like, this is how like the people like the kids talk right now? And not, not even really kids, but like even like young adults, early thirties, teenagers. So it’s a pretty wide age span, but this is how people talk now. Um, but I found it more just Interesting. I couldn’t really pick up on what exactly was it that prompted someone to use it. Because it didn’t seem like it was completely random.
Dexter: So I think a lot of people would see that and say, “Oh, that’s weird. Some people writing weird stuff on the internet.” You decided…to write a thesis on it…
Ameena: Yeah (laughs)
Dexter: …not a common response. But it’s what brings us here today. You started researching this.
Dexter: Yeah. So tell me about what you found. What was the origin of all this?
Ameena: So the ‘y’, like actually originated on this Serbian specific Facebook meme page, it was called Rucno pravljeni nakit, or like ‘handmade accessories’.
Ameena: It started out in, like, 2013. And everyone that I tell this to thinks that it sounds really weird, but it’s a meme page that was meant to parody other Facebook pages that sold handmade jewelry. Just like a kind of satirical parody page. They would pretend to make jewelry out of like, plastiline and sell it, but not really. So it would kinda imitate in these ways, but with always this kind of, uh, very kind of infantile or sort of mocking, sarcastic undertone.
Ameena: Yeah, so over the years developed its own kind of very distinctive writing style that it became known by. It kind of seemed like the goal of this writing style was like first, to just look extremely ridiculous and bizarre. And also to look maybe kind of like cutesy or immature. And what this writing style consisted of was replacing all Vs with Ws, replacing all Hs with Xs and replacing any and all vowels with Y.
Dexter: So this ‘handmade accessories,’ weird meme page is writing in this bizarre format. And then what, did people just start copying it? How did it jump from there to other places?
Ameena: Yeah, so this meme page is actually very popular, but what was interesting was that you wouldn’t really know if people using these conventions actually know where it came from. I would assume that people who are from Serbia and use it, most of them would probably associate it with the meme page or they would know where it came from. But someone who was living in Bosnia who used it, um, most likely would not be familiar with this meme page. Or at least the people that I’ve asked had no idea what it was.
NARRATION (Dexter):: Which is maybe the hallmark of a successful meme: when the people who are using it don’t even know where it came from. So anyway, Ameena collected samples of a few hundred messages online that used the y-slang, which was harder than it sounds because, well, take that example of if people started using the dollar sign in place of random consonants. You wouldn’t be able to just go to Twitter.com and type in a dollar sign, because you’d get stock prices and things that were completely irrelevant. And for reasons that I won’t even get into here, linguistically, looking up misspelled slang in Serbian on Twitter is just as bad as it would be in English, or maybe actually worse. But Ameena was able to find some patterns. For example, they were able to confirm that people tended to put ‘y’ at the end of a word. Not always, but usually. But even beyond that grammar, there seemed to be some social norms forming around this thing. People didn’t just tweet y-slang on the timeline to the public. Most people tended to only use it in replies when talking to other users who also used the ‘y’. And there was something else.
Ameena: So it ends up maybe having like more of this, like, social connotation. What I’ve noticed is that a lot of people who use ‘y’ this way, or apply, ‘y’ the most liberally are people who like identify as queer. So it seems to be, maybe that people just like kind of adopt just kind of a distinctive stylized way of writing or communicating. Um, but there’s this kind of added social aspect to how it’s used.
Dexter: That’s interesting. How, how are you able to find that out?
Ameena: I guess because I’m also in community with these people, so like, I would know who else was in that category. Um, or they would just like talk about it straight up,
Dexter: But then again, it wasn’t just a demographic or social thing. After interviewing people about what they thought the difference between a normal word and a y-word was, Ameena realized that this thing was creating a brand new grammatical function on top of the language.
Ameena: So people would use it when they’re replying to their friends. So they would be friendly, um, or they would want to just kind of sound cutesy, or actually convey the smallness of something. Or they would use it along with the standard diminutive, so they would, like, stack it. So they would kind of use it in these more kind of traditional ways. Or they would use it to be a bit humorous or to add like an element of non-seriousness to whatever they tweeted.
Ameena: Um, or maybe to kind of lighten the effect of what they’re saying.
Dexter: This reminds me of a couple things in English. I mean, one is how if you get a text message from somebody, and the person ends it with a period…
Dexter: …which is what you’re supposed to do in English.
Dexter: In most languages you’re supposed to end with a period. But if you do, you immediately assume, “This person is angry.”
Dexter: You know, even though they’re just following standard English. And then the flip of that, what the ‘y’ reminded me a little bit of is almost like ‘LOL.’ Which, when most people put LOL at the end of a sentence… it’s developed to the stage where nobody’s actually “laughing out loud.”
Dexter: They’re just saying, “Hey, this thing that I wrote, I’m a little worried that it’s gonna come off too serious or like I’m angry or, or something like that. So this thing that I wrote, I mean it in a friendly way; I’m saying it with a friendly look on my face, please don’t be upset..because I care about how you take this.”
Ameena: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. That’s actually exactly the kind of function that I think it fulfills. And the reason that I think, and this is interesting because it parallels, I guess, how English and how BCS work.
It’s interesting in that in BCS, this kind of marker of non seriousness, because there isn’t really an equivalent to LOL in BCS. So it’s interesting that the ‘y’, or whatever else people use, this marker of seriousness is used as… it’s used, like, more morphologically. It seems like a suffix or something like that, which you fix to a word. But in English, the LOL is just like, an entity of its own.
NARRATION (Dexter):: Again — and I don’t wanna get too far into linguistics here, but Serbian does have a diminutive. Even if that word ‘diminutive’ is new to you, the concept is definitely something you heard of, especially if you know any Spanish. That’s the thing where you add -ito or -ita to the end of something to make it sound smaller, or cuter. So for example, in Spanish, the word for house is ‘casa’, but if you change that to ‘casita’, that grandiose house becomes smaller and closer and a little bit more familiar. And without stretching those linguistic comparisons too much, Serbian – and BCS in general – has functions that let you do something very similar, but there’s some grammatical rules that you need to follow. But the ‘y’ can be added to any word, basically however you want. So it’s actually more versatile. And it lets you pack in more creative meaning to a word than the standard language. But for Ameena, the important thing here is the social implications that this adds to the language.
Ameena: So I feel like it might have most like, generally speaking, like kind of a non-threatening or friendly connotation. If we were to look more into why it tends to be used by queer people more, it maybe also could just have kind of an in-group connotation. So if someone is like using ‘y’, they want to signal to you that, you know, I’m one of you or you’re one of me, something like that, maybe.
Dexter: Which can be extremely important…
Dexter: …if you feel like the surrounding world isn’t very friendly to you. Signaling to somebody that, “Hey. You and I are friends. We’re on the same page.”
Ameena: Yeah, exactly.
Dexter: As you were telling me, you were kind of starting to look online because you felt like you were missing something, or something was being lost and you needed to recuperate it.
Dexter: ..you were looking to be able to speak Serbian properly again.
Dexter: But what you ended up finding was a completely different, you know, “improper” Serbian, we could say.
Dexter: This seems to actually fit something that has fulfilled a need for people.
Ameena: Yeah. Because like what you said…it is true that, when I wanted to make sure that I continued to understand the language that, of course, I remembered how to actually speak it grammatically, in like scare quotes, “officially”, like how it’s grammatical to speak it. But the way that it’s used online is, of course, a lot more fluid. People could be, you know, native speakers and they could have PhDs in their countries writing in BCS, but there’s still, you know, ungrammatical use of language that still conveys its own purpose or signifies some kind of in-group type of language.
NARRATION (Dexter):: From the Internet, where wireless signals allow us to exist everywhere and nowhere at once, to a more confined space. Where those signals take on a different context.
Sofia Pauca: Hi, my name’s Sophia Pauca. I’m from North Carolina. I graduated last year from Princeton with a major in religious studies.
NARRATION (Dexter):: This next one with Sophia is a little different. It’s not an interview. Sophia wrote her senior thesis on how families were navigating spirituality in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. And she even made a documentary about it. But when we started talking, I got interested in the work that came before all that. And as it turns out, a lot of it goes back to an essay that she wrote the year before an essay about trying to communicate with her little brother. I asked if she would share it with me. So, here it is.
Sofia: Victor slowly opens his eyes, his headrests on a foam block at the top of the hospital. And a white sheet covers the rest of him. His eyes, just barely open, move gradually around the room. They find me and I smile. “Hi, little man,” I say gently. He keeps looking at me, the nurse beside us exclaims. “Oh, good. You’re awake. Your sister is right here next to you.”
She then turns to hand the post-surgery feeding tube kit to my dad. I keep looking at my brother. I don’t know if the nurse knows that Victor is nonverbal. It would be completely appropriate for her to expect that after the anesthesia wears off the 14 year old boy on the bed will start speaking. I know that he will not. He will laugh, cry, grunt, point. He will communicate, just in his very own ways. I do not understand him completely, but I do understand him some. And that ‘some’ means the world to me.
I am writing this essay for a class on conducting ethnographic research. But in thinking about my personal experience, I sometimes feel that the ethical dilemmas of misrepresenting others that ethnographers face out in the field is something that I face each and every time that I interact with my brother or speak to others about him, and yet, do I stop doing so? I consciously make the decision, right, wrong, or somewhere in between, to continue. What I have to trust is my own love for my brother and that I will always strive to represent him as best as I can.
The day before his surgery, Victor and I sit on the couch in his room. We’ve just finished reading one of his favorite books: the one about pirates being babysitters.
I close the book and lay it down next to me. Victor sits quietly, his hands tucked carefully beneath his legs. Looking downwards at his knees that are at the same level on the sofa as mine. We are the same size. “Hey Vic,” I say softly. He keeps looking downwards, quietly knocking his knees against each other.
“How do you feel about your surgery tomorrow?” He continues knocking. “Do you feel nervous?” I ask. ‘Uh,’ he says quietly. When my family and I communicate with Victor, we take, Uh, to mean, yes, given its similarity to uh-huh.
Victor also clearly uses this when answering yes or no questions. He will respond with it when we ask him if he wants something, and then he is happy when he gets it. But his expression of “no” is much more difficult to understand. Sometimes he makes a guttural noise, which indicates he doesn’t want something. Sometimes he just simply doesn’t respond.
I stay quiet for a little bit as he continues to look down.
“I’m sorry,” I say. I pause for a little longer. “I do think it will be good for you though. You’ll feel better and have more energy when you can eat more through your feeding tube and you won’t have to eat by mouth as much. I know how much you hate that.”
He continues to sit there, a little more still than usual.
I sit and wait for a while. Then I take his little hand and trace small circles on his palm. He turns his hand upwards, as if seeking my fingers, seemingly enjoying the sensation on his skin. He looks up at the mobile that hangs from the ceiling, watching the paper figures slowly twist in the air.
From 14 years of experience with my brother, I approach our interactions with the assumption that I will do most of the talking and he will do most of the listening. And there once again, is that inescapable assumption that communication is inherently verbal.
The following day, the surgeon walked into Victor’s hospital room to check on his recovery. I was lying next to my brother, holding his iPad while we were watching one of his favorite movies, Cars. The surgeon began asking how Victor was feeling, but the questions were not directed at the patient himself, but rather to us, his family members. I replied that Victor seemed to be feeling better, but was still in some pain.
We had surmised this because over the last few hours he had swatted at us. And when something is hurting him, he does not usually cry, but instead becomes angry. But in reality, we had no idea the exact amount of pain he was in or how he felt about it. I asked a surgeon for more pain medication and he agreed. I glanced back at Victor, who was looking directly at me.
I say that I’m careful about speaking for Victor. And yet I do it all the time. He lives in a world where communication with authorities, such as doctors and teachers is verbal. and we help him make requests that ultimately improve his quality of life. And yet how I wish that he could make those verbal requests himself. It seems sometimes that he wishes that as well.
After a minute or two, Victor gets up from the sofa and starts heading to the door. “Wait,” I say, wanting us to stay in his room for a little while longer. “Do you want to read a book?”
He turns and walks back, heading towards the boxes on the floor, containing dozens of books sitting upright, his hand reaches down and pulls out a large flat red book with the words “You are Special” written in gold lettering on the cover. He turns to me and hands me the book. “You want this one?” I ask. “Uh,” he replies. I motion beside me, and he carefully sits down with his hands under his legs.
This is the one that he usually brings to me when I ask him if he wants to read a book.
In fact, sometimes I just ask him while we’re anywhere in the house, “Do you want to read ‘You are Special’?” And he immediately turns to go to his room and get the book. I open the book to the first page and start reading:
The Wemmicks were small wooden people. All of the wooden people were carved by a woodworker named Eli. The Wemmickseach have a box of star stickers and dot stickers that they stick to each other. When someone does something impressive, they earn a star. Or something clumsy, they get a dot. The talented ones got stars too. Some could lift big sticks, high above their heads, or jump over tall boxes. Still others knew big words or could sing pretty songs.
I pause here and think. I think about the many times that my sister and I have impressed people by being athletic, or by getting into Princeton. I think about how much Victor loves to hear me sing, but he has never sung a word himself. I go back to reading.
Others, though, could do little. They got dots. Punchinello was one of these. He tried to jump high like the others, but he always fell. When he fell, the others would gather around and give dots.
At this point, Victor’s upper lip starts to come down and his lower lip begins to tremble. Over the last year or so, he has been getting emotional at this exact same part in the book every time I read it to him. I pause and look at him. He takes his hand out and points his finger to the page. “Do you want me to keep reading?” I ask. “Uh.”
I continue reading the next few sentences about how people keep giving Punchnello dots. And Victor slowly becomes more upset and lets out a small cry. “Does this make you sad?” “Uh”, he says. “Is it because you relate to Punchinello?” He turns his head and looks straight in my eyes.
At this point in reading the story, I never know what to say after he gets upset. In our life as siblings, so many people stick stars on me. But when interacting with strangers, Victor usually gets dots. Although people tend to be quite kind to him, he’s never publicly recognized for his achievements in the same way that my sister and I are. When people notice he’s acting very differently than them, their initial reaction can sometimes be judgemental. In my mind, his emotional response to this part of the story seems to indicate that he wishes he could do many of the things that would earn him stars in the eyes of others. One of those might be speaking verbally.
I think this because I see him throughout the day, getting frustrated when trying to tell us something by gesturing or making noises that we don’t understand.
Victor points to the page again. It seems like he doesn’t necessarily need me to say anything. He just wants to hear the rest of the book. I continue reading.
Punchinello meets a Wemmick who has no stars or dots because when someone tries to stick one on, they simply fall off. He asks her how she does it, and she tells him to go visit Eli, the woodcarver who carved all the Wemmicks. As Punchinello walks into the large wood shop, Eli picks him up and sets him on the table. Eli sees all of the gray dots on Pello and tells him that he doesn’t care what the other wemmicks think. He says, “Who are they to give stars or dots? They’re Wemmicks just like you, what they think doesn’t matter. Punchinello, all that matters is what I think. And I think that you are pretty special.
Sometimes Victor smiles when I read this line out loud. I usually point to his chest and say the words again: you… are… special.
Victor loves something about this story. Through his reactions to the events and the narrative, he manages to communicate to me some of the ways he feels about his situation. His listening, though mostly silent, is not static. It is dynamic. His changes in expression, some subtle, and some overt, are ways that I can understand a few of his thoughts and emotions.
Victor flips my assumptions about communication on its head. Through the act of speaking, I come to understand him. And through the act of listening, he tells me. This is also communication.
I do think that Victor does wish for many of the things that my sister and I have, such as speech and various motor abilities. I do believe there are a few things he lacks that I should not automatically assume he wants. One of those has become quite clear in the days following his surgery. It would be easy to assume that Victor longs to eat by mouth, but it seems that, in actuality, he does not. Instead, Victor quite vehemently refuses to receive the majority of food through his mouth. This should be taken seriously as a form of communication about his own opinions.
There are things that Victor likes, like spinning tops, watching Curious George, or listening to the same songs over and over. But we can’t assume that just because he lacks a conventional desire for novelty, he must therefore long to act in a conventional way.
This absence of a desire for novelty perhaps should not be regarded as merely an absence, but instead as a significant expression of his own agency to decide what it is that he wants for himself, and how he wishes to spend his time.
The story of Punchinello does not end with him suddenly performing impressive acts and receiving stars, but rather with a message from the woodworker, his creator, who is a metaphor for God. The story itself is a Christian allegory. The message that “you are special” because God loves you, just the way you are, is one that Victor requests to hear over and over. My family identifies with progressive Christianity, but we do not explicitly tell Victor what to believe. I have no idea what Victor thinks of this message, other than the fact that he wants to hear it.
I could think of a million different interpretations of his thoughts, but the truth is I may never know for sure. I could also keep speaking for hours and hours, pages and pages, about the communication between us and my reflections on it. But once again, I find that if I simply sit still and do not speak, I understand the most.
I close the book. Victor sits there quietly. In the few minutes after I am finished reading it, I always have this urge to fill the silence with all my thoughts about what the book said and what I think he might think about it. Sometimes I do. And he sits there for a little bit while I ramble. But this time, I choose to be quiet, because sometimes I also feel that my words just simply won’t suffice.
In these moments, I feel that Victor has somehow gone deeper, or higher, than where words can reach.
NARRATION (Dexter):: Again, another way of understanding how we speak to each other. So this brings us back once again, to the topic that this podcast is based around. A question that’s maybe a little optimistic, but hey, a little optimism never hurt anybody. We’ll hear from Ameena first.
Dexter: So you’ve had a lot of time to study this very particular niche phenomenon, but most people who are listening to this, they don’t speak Serbian or BCS period. And even those who do, they’d probably be pretty confused if they’d seen any of this y-slang that you’ve been talking about. But what if everybody knew about this? What if this phenomenon was common knowledge?
Ameena: So, if everybody knew or kind of was aware of these intricacies of how language changes and spreads and develops… when people know this or are aware of this, it just makes them more open to, I guess, how change, you know, and changing language. I mean, abstractly, like you can say yeah, “people are open to change”, but people don’t create different ways to say something or switch around like how they write things just out of boredom, or just randomly. Language changes, these changes stick around, because they’re useful and they help us communicate more effectively in some way. Even if it’s a very, very niche, and specific way.
Sofia: I think if everybody knew what I’ve learned through this process of being with my brother and through, and also experiencing, just talking to a lot of the people that I’ve talked to about their personal experiences and hardships, I think hopefully, I would think, that they might come away with more of a reflection on the way that they personally communicate.
Um, but that was also another point where I learned a lot about my own assumptions, about things like with my brother, for example. People in the past have come up to my family, just like randomly off the street, and told us, “There’s a reason God put your brother in your life,” and “There’s a reason He gave him this syndrome,” and things like that.
And my family and I always hated that. Like, absolutely loathed when someone would tell us that. And then I met families and talked to families and that was something they deeply believed in. God, or however they viewed God, um, how this was God’s will. And they gained a lot of strength and resilience from that perspective. And that was shocking to me because I couldn’t understand that in the context of my own life. And yet I watched and listened to how much strength that gave them when faced with something like end of life.
And that isn’t to say that that’s what all families believe that are in those contexts. But I hadn’t really realized how much strength and sense of agency, especially in a place like a hospital where parents can feel — and siblings — completely out of control. And so then thinking to where, I mean, I’m going to medical school next year. And I will, you know, four years from now, be a resident, having some of those kinds of conversations.
And on the one hand, that’s really scary. Um, but I also think that my experience with my brother and then with this thesis work and some other experiences I have, may allow me to appreciate a little bit more some of that power dynamic and in those relationships or in the interactions between physicians, and patients and families.
Dexter: Do you think this experience is going to make you a different doctor?
Sofia: Hopefully. Learning to reflect a lot on my own assumptions and the power that I might have in the future as a physician. Um, but on the other hand, I mean, there’s gonna be so much to learn that I don’t know yet about being a physician.
NARRATION (Dexter):: Thank you so much for listening to this, Episode Four, of If Everybody Knew, Today’s guests were Ameena Faruki, who graduated this year with an independent concentration in Linguistics, which is one of the Humanities Council’s academic programs, and also earned a certificate in Visual Arts. And Sophia Pauca, who graduated last year with a major in Religion and also earned a certificate in Humanistic Studies, which is another program within the Council.
And this episode would not be possible without their research and participation. That being said, the framing and editorializing and everything else in this episode: that’s my own. So, if you’re curious to know more, you should definitely go to the source and please check out the show notes at humanities.princeton.edu/podcast.
You can find a full transcript plus links to everything referenced in here, including a link to where you can watch Sofia’s new documentary.
And like I said, this was part two of a two part series. So just in case you missed the first one, definitely make sure to go back and check that. But hopefully after hearing all that, maybe this makes some sense. From writing down African drum rhythms, to fake monster message boards, to Serbian Internet slang, to how one family does their best to share their thoughts with one another in a hospital, or at home. Four different people, four different experiences, and hopefully four different ways to think about something that I think is essential for all of us: the different ways in which we talk to one another.
Hopefully that sparked something for you.
If Everybody Knew is produced with music composed by and hosted by me, Dexter Thomas. See you all out there.
Esther “Starry” Schor: If Everybody Knew is brought to you by the Humanities Council at Princeton University. Our mission is to nurture the humanities local and globally, engage diverse perspectives past and present, and enrich public dialogue with humanistic approaches. For information about our programs and events, please visit our website at humanities.princeton.edu.