Interview with Roula Kitsiou – Talking about acronyms
Roula Kitsiou studied Greek Philology in Athens and acquired a postgraduate degree in Modern Learning Environments and Design of Educational Material (University of Thessaly). She has recently completed her PhD in Sociolinguistics at the University of Thessaly. Between the years 2011-2015, she worked as the main research and administrative assistant at the Greek Language and Multilingualism Laboratory of the University of Thessaly, where she was involved in educational and research programmes mainly concerning language teaching to target groups with an immigrant background. Currently, she works at the Educational Content Methodology and Technology Laboratory of the Hellenic Open University, developing digital educational material for the HOU’s new postgraduate programme “Language Education for Refugees and Migrants”
At what point in your career did you begin to work in sociolinguistics and what attracted you to it?
After my BA in Greek Language and Literature and consequently my MA in Modern Pedagogics in 2010, I realised -among others- that studying the language system wasn’t enough to explore and describe the “here and now” of the communicative event. Therefore, I needed different conceptual tools and methodological approaches to unveil the mechanism of language, to approach the fluid and unexpected communicative event as well as the way people think about language, and finally explore the potential that sociolinguistic approaches of language can offer to language teaching.
Engaging in the field of sociolinguistics gave me the opportunity to reflect on and negotiate the sociolinguistic realities that shape my thought as well as develop my critical language awareness engaging in a constant negotiation with others’ realities. What attracted me most to sociolinguistics -being a young researcher and trying to understand and follow the current trends of this dynamic field- was its interdisciplinary nature and its potential for informed interventions in educational policy issues and inclusive language teaching practice.
What was the starting point for you to choose acronyms as a subject for your PhD?
Acronyms is one of the categories that I studied in my PhD and it was actually this category which triggered a much broader research design scheme relevant to the use of shortenings. The idea and my relevant research need emerged in the context of some observations from my everyday sociolinguistic reality and teaching practice. Specifically, teaching Greek, I found out that there was limited or contradictory metalinguistic description for acronyms in the Greek reference books (both school or scientific dictionaries and grammars). Simultaneously, I observed a growing tendency of peers or younger people to use shortenings in different forms of communication (for example in Computer Mediated Communication, CMC). In addition, observing the linguistic landscape of my city it was really interesting for me to explore daily, how groups of different socio-political stances expressed themselves through acronym-graffitis in the written surrounding environment. Many new acronyms entered the everyday vocabulary of Greek citizens (for example ΔΝΤ – IMF) and were playfully, creatively used in order to express ideological messages. These observations triggered my research curiosity and I decided to systematically approach this linguistic phenomenon especially in the absence of relevant (sociolinguistic) approaches for the Greek context.
Could you briefly explain the purpose and main findings of your PhD?
In my PhD I was interested in investigating if and how young educated people (specifically students-prospective teachers of primary education) use shortenings (acronyms were one subcategory) in their everyday oral and written communication within the current socioeconomic context of Greece (2011-2015). My research pointed to aspects of written communication, as reflected in the practices and choices of language users relating to the linguistic phenomenon of shortenings. Shortenings have not systematically been approached through a sociolinguistic lens for the Greek paradigm, as well as by international literature, that has mostly been concerned with issues of typology, terminology, morphology, lexical change-neology, phonetics-phonology and psycholinguistic aspects. Adopting a constructivist approach, I was led to the construction of a grounded theory concerning youth (ortho)graphic identities performed by language users in their everyday life using shortenings in the Greek context. The general conclusion of my PhD is summarised in the fact that the use of shortenings proves to be an ideologically charged issue for the Greek paradigm that is related to the dominant –for the Greek context- ideology of standard language as well as to the (ortho)graphic identities that language users perform in different contexts reflecting elements of sociolinguistic change.
Taking into consideration your research, to what extent are acronyms important in our everyday life communication? Can they possibly cause problems in communication?
Based on my research I could say that acronyms are an important part of our everyday life communication. They facilitate us in many contexts of our daily lives, at work, at home, in our leisure time. They are lexical items that can give you great opportunities to be creative, to express “multum in parvo” playing with language. On the other hand, acronyms can conceal meanings and create ambiguousness during communication. There are also contexts where they can be used as a means to show expertise and exercise one’s power over out-group members. The real problem relates to the use of acronyms in political media discourse (especially terminology related to economic issues), which can sometimes prevent the viewer-citizen from understanding important issues which affect his life.
Do all people understand the real meaning of such terms? Are people able to explain what most acronyms stand for? For example do they know that PhD is a type of doctorate degree awarded by universities and at the same what is stands for (Doctor of Philosophy)?
In most cases my research participants said that it wasn’t really important for them to know what the acronyms they use stand for. They don’t even bother to ask for the full phrase if they can understand meaning through context. The truth, however, is that they could recognise most of the full phrases of the acronyms they used in their everyday life. So, I would say that they could certainly recognise PhD as a doctorate degree but they would not really care about what it stands for. There are cases, on the other hand, when homonymous acronyms or different pronunciations of the same acronyms or simply unfamiliar acronyms, cause a great trouble to their understanding and they need to get to the full phrase in order to be able to use them effectively. In my unpublished yet case study analysing data from 11 acronym-databases, I came up with 732 different full phrases in 7 different languages corresponding to one and only three-letter acronym, TNT! This is really amazing if you think of how “multum in parvo” can be questioned here. How many of those “meanings” can somebody remember? How important is it then to remember what TNT stands for? How could it be most effectively used?
Sometimes we see acronyms written with a full stop between the letters, sometimes they are written only in uppercase letters or sometimes in lower case. From your research would you reach the conclusion that there is a standardisation in Greek concerning the written form of acronyms?
It is true that there is a variety in the written form of acronyms. This is usually the case with acronyms that have become lexicalised and start to look more like a regular word. If the language user is familiar with the special vocabulary to which the acronyms he uses belong, it is usual that he simplifies its written form. Concerning Greek, I would say that the study of acronyms is a relatively under-researched field; this affects the metalinguistic descriptions of acronyms and shortenings in general, as well as their standardisation. For example, I discovered that there are contradictory or insufficient descriptions of what those lexical items are or how they are spelled in the language and mathematics schoolbooks for the Greek primary education. The school grammars for primary or secondary education have a limited description of those items as well. I refer to the school teaching materials because school language is usually considered as the standard language for the Greek paradigm. There are some special dictionaries or parts of general dictionaries of the Greek language that include orthographic rules about acronyms but there is generally tolerance towards and/or acceptance of the various (re)spellings of acronyms in the absence of systematic relevant studies. This allows for creativity and linguistic-orthographic freedom on the part of language users, especially when using those lexical items in informal contexts, but also in more formal environments.
Is there any terminological aspect in your field of activities?
Terminology is really important to me, both as a critical language user and as a researcher. I mean we have to problematize terms and concepts, especially in a scientific era that the coinage of new terms is an almost daily phenomenon (see for example discussions about the terms diversity, superdiversity, languaging, translanguaging, bilingualism, multilingualism, plurilingualism, metrolingualism etc.). In my PhD I have included a chapter critically approaching the terminology used mostly in English and Greek literature in order to define different categories of shortenings. What I realised in the context of my study is that almost every researcher who has studied acronyms or other categories of shortenings has proposed his own taxonomy and definitions, including myself… This fact makes it very difficult to acquire a wider picture about those lexical items or make data comparisons and finally to communicate scientific knowledge relevant to acronyms. I will give you a specific example. If we take for example the acronym “KKE” (stands for Κομμουνιστικό Κόμμα Ελλάδος – Communist Party of Greece) and its two alternative pronunciations (alphabetic [kápa.kápa.épsilon] or with an epenthetic vowel [kukué]), different scholars would define it with different terms taking into account different combinations of criteria (for example pronunciation, length, spelling). So “KKE” would be characterized by different scholars as a(n): abbreviation, letter group, polylectic orthographically shortened acronym, acronym, acronym proper, non pronouncable initialism, alphabetism with vowel addition, etc.
Do you know IATE? What is your opinion about it?
I am familiar with the IATE database and have already used it both as a language user and as a researcher in order to explore specific language elements. I think that it is a very useful tool for many types of practitioners as well as for language users in their everyday life for decoding specific terms. I also find it really important that it is an interactive database open to language users’ contributions. As I have already mentioned, homonymity is one of the characteristics of acronyms, which although sometimes can be playful and enjoyable, in other cases it can be troublesome for language users. When it comes to transferring those lexical items to other languages it is even more difficult, if there is not an official translation of the terms. Therefore, I think that a multilingual database that is dynamic and can follow the appearance and multiple use of various acronyms is a very useful tool. I would find it really interesting and useful if IATE could also provide logos for those acronyms that usually appear in specific multimodal logo contexts as well as broader texts within which those acronyms are used.
Interviewer: Anna Manolaki
Born in 1992 in Athens (Greece). She did her Bachelor on Primary Education at the University of Thessaly (Volos, Greece). During the last years of her Bachelor studies, she was working at the Greek Language and Multilingualism Laboratory of the University of Thessaly, where she participated in many research projects concerning language teaching and migration. Attracted by the field of sociolinguistics, she decided to further her studies by undertaking a Master’s degree course in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts, at the University of Luxembourg. While being a Masters student, she has been working for the European Migration Network – National Contact Point Luxembourg by providing administrative support to the research team. She joined TermCoord’s team as a study visitor in August 2016.
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