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This is the research blog of Kim Witten: linguist, internet researcher and graphic designer. My PhD research focuses on the way people in online communities negotiate the pronunciations and social meanings of new words that are derived or primarily used in a text-based medium. Please see the 'About' section for more.

October 1, 2012

Sociophonetic Variation in an Internet Place Name

by Kim Witten

My first journal article is now published in the Names: a Journal of Onomastics (Maney Publishing link) special issue on Names, Naming and the Internet.


This study provides one of the first published accounts of sociophonetic variation in which the speech community under investigation exists online and text-based communication is the dominant mode of interaction. The abbreviated name of the Internet community weblog — MeFi, from — has at least eight recognized pronunciation variants. Quantitative analysis of surveys from over 2000 MetaFilter members reveals statistically significant variation in the distribution of members’ preferred pronunciations for MeFi across four English-speaking countries. These results reflect dialectal and socio-cultural differences in naming preferences in spite of the fact that the speech channel is limited or non-primary.

Here is the link to the content of Volume 60, Number 4, December 2012; my article is here. The post-print of the article can be viewed by clicking here (automatic PDF download). Please note that the post-print is the version that has been accepted by the journal, prior to Maney’s copyediting, typesetting and proofing process; there will be differences between this PDF and the final published version. If you have Institutional access to Names, please view that version.

I hope you enjoy reading this. Please don’t hesitate to send me some feedback. Thanks!

Preferred citation: Witten, K., 2012. Sociophonetic Variation in an Internet Place Name. Names: A Journal of Onomastics, 60(4), pp.220–230.
Some terms and conditions for online journals from Maney Publishing.
September 25, 2012

Chugging and crunching the chars, chais & chi-squares

by Kim Witten

With AVML being a success and accomplishment, and Portugal vacation sadly in the recent past, I’ve finally forced myself to turn to data crunching my way through this endless flood (York is turning into a giant waterhole). It was slow going at first, but in the last few hours I’ve really made some progress.

After weeks of tinkering with Google Refine, I finally have the data in an analyzable state. In the database to boot! I started playing around with the variables and ran a few chi-squares. The results are encouraging! Not only are there significant changes between the 2010 and 2012 surveys, but there are some consistencies (that are also significant) as well. I even found a few things that I hadn’t checked on the 2010 data, which I will go back and do.

Gender is still insignificant; age most certainly is not. Geographies have shifted. Heat maps are needed (and thanks to AVML and some helpful MeFites, I know where to start). Also interesting is the relationship between strength of what I call “MeFi conviction” and pronunciation outcomes. Basically, MeFites who feel very strongly about their chosen pronunciation tend to fall more strongly into a few popular pronunciation groups; MeFites who don’t care or are unsure are pretty much all over the place. This may seem obvious or uninteresting, but it is actually quite relevant to the process of enregisterment in that emerging standards and awareness of those standards are aligned with people’s attitudes and investment in their own pronunciation choices.

That’s all I’ll say for now. There’s loads more, but I’m tired, it’s late and I need to have a real think about things. But later.

I’ll probably work on this again a little bit more tomorrow. Then I’m switching gears to work on updating and submitting my paper about dogwhistles to a journal. I want to make some changes, then include data from next week’s presidential debate. Keep your ears open for those pitches, people!

Friday kicks off a MetaFilter meetup weekend with trips to the Superhuman exhibit at the Wellcome Collection, a night of Turkish BBQ and jazz music, a Saturday at the Science Museum, a trip to what I hear is passable Mexican food at Taqueria afterwards, and finally a pub crawl in Clerkenwell. Then I shall spend Sunday at the International Tattoo Convention, adding to what has so far been a 50+-hour investment. Good times.

August 29, 2012

Some results from the MeFi Pronunciation Surveys

by Kim Witten

I summarized some of the early findings from the MeFi pronunciation surveys in this MetaTalk comment. Here they are, repasted below.

  • 2,521 MeFites took the March 2010 survey; 1,920+ took the August 2012 survey.
  • At least 47 different countries were represented in both surveys.
  • All MeFites of the 2010 survey were active users and that survey data represented 16% of the active MetaFilter userbase. It’s estimated that this 2012 survey represents at least 10% of the active userbase.
  • From the 2010 survey data, it seems that MetaFilter skews male (62%); 36% of the survey respondents were female. There were statistically significant differences in the male/female ratio between the US and the UK — the UK tended to skew more towards males (72%); 27% of the UK survey respondents were female.
  • Again from the 2010 survey data, the average age of MeFites was 33, with no statistically significant differences between Australia, Canada, UK and US.
  • The most preferred pronunciation was “me-fie”, followed by “meh-fee” and “meh-fie”, where “meh” is pronounced with a vowel similar to the one in “met” (not “may”). The remaining pronunciations, in order of their preference, were “may-fie”, “me-fee”, “may-fee”, “my-fie”.
  • The order of preferred pronunciations stay more or less the same (the last 3 switch around a little bit where there are low counts) but the amounts by which any one variant “wins” changes based on several factors, many of which are significant.
  • The “meh-fih” and “my-fie” pronunciations weren’t options on the 2010 survey; the “my-fie” pronunciation was calculated after the fact, based on discussions with individual MeFites and survey comments.
  • The 2012 survey should provide some reliable data on those options, since they were included on this survey. It would also appear (from a very cursory look) that those two options are fairly represented here, meaning that many MeFites chose either of those as their preferred pronunciation.
  • Looking at the 2012 data (briefly and before it’s been thoroughly cleaned up and normalized), it seems that there are some interesting shifts in distribution of preferences between US, UK, Canada, Australia and the other countries. While some geographic regions seem to have gotten more skewed towards a pronunciation, others have gotten more varied. It will be interesting to match this up with how strongly people feel about their pronunciation choice.

I’m trying to find a good way to share this (and other related) info to interested MeFites. I don’t know that another MeTa is appropriate and this seems a bit *too* meta (and unfinished) for Projects. I’m not sure if this is something that people other than me and a few other wordnerds have overwhelming interest in. Anybody have any thoughts?

August 27, 2012

Sociophonetic Variation in an Online Community of Practice

by Kim Witten

The last five days of my final MetaFilter data collection were extremely successful and I can breathe a huge sigh of relief. I have a beautiful, ginormous dataset to work with and a solid plan of what I’d like to do with it. But oh boy, I’ve got my work cut out for me.

Until then, I’d like to enjoy the good feeling of this accomplishment, and bask in the overwhelming support of MeFites and MetaFilter moderators. None of this can be done without them and I truly feel blessed to have such help and encouragement every step of the way. Mirroring many of the sentiments in the comments people left in their surveys, MetaFilter is a phenomenal community and truly the best of the web.

After 2+ years of needing to withhold MeFi pronunciation data, I’m finally ready to spill the beans! I’ve attached the full presentation I gave last year at Variation and Language Processing (VaLP 2011). This one covers a little bit of everything I’m working on…sociophonetic variation, enregisterment, corpus comparisons, and a mini-map of my database and the type of data that’s in it.

My first journal article comes out around November and I’m hoping to be able to share a pre-print or some data from it. I’m still working on how I can do that. The article delves into differences in the pronunciation of the first syllable of MeFi across native English speakers in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US. Stay tuned for that.

I’ve only briefly looked at the 2012 survey data so far. I can see some definite patterns going on and there are some rather drastic differences between the data here and the last survey. It’s super exciting and I’ll post a little bit more about that as I can.

For now, here’s a PDF of “Sociophonetic Variation in an Online Community of Practice”, presented at VaLP 2011 and containing some of the pronunciation and other results from the 2010 survey: Witten_MeFi_VaLP_2011-04-12_smll

Also, here’s a quick pronunciation guide for disambiguating IPA and the codes used in my research. NOTE: the numbers are NOT a preference ranking.

August 20, 2012

Advances in Visual Methods for Linguistics

by Kim Witten

I don’t know why I haven’t mentioned it here before, but my supervisors, other colleagues and I are putting together a conference taking place next month. Advances in Visual Methods for Linguistics (AVML) is a 3-day event with workshops, posters and exciting presentations grouped into six sessions ranging from mapping techniques to knowledge, corpora and interaction visualisations. Our conference website has all the info about our keynote speakers, conference programme, travel, accommodation and more.

We’d love to draw as much interest as possible, so if you know a fellow wordnerdy data-cruncher who would like to get in on the latest dataviz techniques, please pass along the info.

Click on the image to download a PDF of our conference poster:

Registration closes in ten days…sign up now or miss out on this datatastic event!

July 25, 2012

Quantify Me and the Frequency of Beans

by Kim Witten

Inspired by this recent MeTa post about quantifying user comment data into frequency tables, I’m uploading some slides from a presentation I gave last year at Variation and Language Processing (VaLP, 2011). This isn’t the full presentation, but it contains some fun data about beans and where I’ve been going with corpus research these days.

I’ve actually collected some more frequency tables (over 150 now), which is great…thanks again to all the MeFites who contributed thus far! Also in the works is one final big data collection. If all goes as planned, MeFites will be able to see their own frequency files as well as participate in some more pronunciation Q&A fun. With the approval of the ethics board and the help of the MeFi mods, I hope to go live with that for 5 days sometime before October. It’s a lot of work, especially for the mods and so as always, I thank them profusely.

As always, any questions or concerns, feel free to email or MeMail me!

Modified VaLP Presentation – for MeFites

Oh, one more thing! My very first published article should be coming out soon (December, 2012) in a special issue of the Journal of Onomastics titled Names, Naming and the Internet. The article title will be “Sociophonetic Variation in an Internet Place Name”. It contains quantitative analysis of surveys from over 2,000 MeFites, revealing statistically significant variation in the distribution of members’ preferred pronunciations for MeFi across four English-speaking countries. In other words, how are people actually saying MeFi out there in the world? Stay tuned and find out.


March 17, 2012

The MeFi Register, Poster and Paper

by Kim Witten

It’s been a very busy time for me, research-wise. Now that I’ve finished with this term’s (also very hectic) teaching schedule, I can catch up on all things here with complete attention. News to report comes in 3 parts:


I got ethics approval to proceed with yet another form of data collection. This time I gathered MeFites’ examples of items that might be considered part of the community register. This goes towards a glossary in my dissertation, which will be crucial for the chapters on enregisterment.

The MetaTalk thread was an overwhelming success (300+ comments, woo!) and I think people there had fun with reliving some of the site culture. I learned quite a lot about memes and things that I had no idea even existed before.


I entered this year’s HRC poster competition — an invitation to “create a poster which offers a clear ‘taster encounter’ with your research project for a non-specialist audience and has quickly appreciable dramatic visual impact.”

I was thrilled and honored to find out on Thursday morning that I placed first in the competition! Here’s my winning entry:

(click on the image for a downloadable pdf)


Lastly, I’ve been working on finishing up my very first academic article for publication. This paper explores pronunciation variation of ‘MeFi’ by the geographic location of MeFites who participated in the March 2010 data survey.

I’ve finished the first final draft and have so far received positive feedback from the various people I’ve shared it with for pre-submission review. I’m pleased with what I’ve written and am encouraged by the response so far.

The article is due to the publisher in early April, and should be publicly available in print form around December this year. More details to come soon.

Now that I have more time to devote to all things MeFi, I should be updating this site more frequently. Feel free to leave me any comments or questions or suggestions. I love ‘em.

November 17, 2011

What’s in a name? Why the way you say MeFi matters.

by Kim Witten

This is the presentation that I gave at the Association of Internet Researchers conference (AoIR12) in October, 2011. I was part of a panel of MeFites presenting our MetaFilter-related research. With their permission, I’ll update this post with links to their work/slides in the future. We’ll probably put something together for MetaTalk too, I hope. 11/18 Update: Here’s the MetaTalk post about the panel: Notes from the MetaFilter research panel

What’s in a name? Why the way you say MeFi matters. from Kim Witten on Vimeo.

(Please forgive the nasality and occasional consonant mash-up…I had a fierce head cold when I re-recorded the audio.)

I welcome any feedback on this. I can’t express how helpful it is to hear and how much all the comments inform the direction of my research. Thanks!

November 15, 2011

exemplars, enregisterment, electronic media…

by Kim Witten

This week I am really hoping to be able to upload my slides+audio from last month’s AoIR presentation. The talk was titled “What’s in a name? Why the way you say MeFi matters.” In this 15-minute presentation I explored the ideas of enregisterment and stance-taking on MetaFilter, as two means for the creation of individual and group identity. I think it turned out fairly well, but I’d like to hear some feedback from academics and MeFites.

Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about the focus of my PhD. Enregisterment is becoming increasingly appealing as a main direction to explore. All of the literature I’ve read so far touches on enregisterment lightly, but none I have found go into the depth that I wish to see. Most articles on the subject explain how something – a form, phrase or style of speaking – is indicative of that third-order indexicality, i.e. enregistered, without explaining or quantifying how it got there. This is what I want to show. I think that my other interests in corpus work and exemplar theory have something to contribute. I am starting to see a way to connect it all and that is exciting.

October 29, 2011

Someone great is gone.

by Kim Witten

I haven’t been updating this website as much as I’d like to, for several reasons. Primarily because my research has been somewhat and unofficially on hold until life circumstances and sea(son) changes work themselves out.

Instead of attending conferences this year (I presented research at six different events last year and I’m pooped), I am busy on working with my supervisors to help plan a great one for the beginning of next year. More details to come later.

I also began teaching seminars again. This time around, it’s been nothing but great fun.* I enjoy the material and feel much more confident about my ability to engage the 135+ students, and make the content accessible and interesting.

Lastly and most importantly, I have been deeply saddened by the passing of Jane Moody, Director of the Humanities Research Centre. She was an inspiration and a role model to me – to so many people. She will be greatly missed.

There is a tribute page for Jane at the HRC Treehouse Blog, where you can share stories and memories, look at pictures and enjoy a YouTube video of her Pantomime performance at the Merchant Adventurers’ Arts Discovery Event with Berwick Kaler. Official commemorative events will be announced in due course.

This weekend I am taking the time to reflect, rest and slow down the pace of all things. I know that the stresses can take their toll, and I’ve seen both humorous and scary†† signs that I need to watch out and take more care. I’ve also had a head cold all week and I’m just now starting to feel the reprieve…as I allow myself to take on some of the sadness of this great loss.

On MetaFilter, there is a tradition in obituary threads where people place a lone period in a comment or post. It represents a moment of silence. It’s a way to stand in solidarity with another when you can’t find the words or don’t want to fill the space with sound. It’s a nice way to be present with quiet wisdom. That’s something I’ve been working on in this journey. And I find myself at a loss for words this dark morning, as I try to wrap this up and embrace a new day.


*It was fun last year, too, but also overshadowed by my insecurities and failures at adjusting to life in the UK. And lack of sleep.

I got so caught up in things yesterday that I actually forgot to show up to my first day at my new job. This is funny if you know me at all — organized, responsible and serious to the hilt about these things. Plus, I’d been looking forward to it all week.

††A near-death experience involving me, my bike and an unexpected car. That’s all I’ll say, as reliving is required for retelling and I’d rather spare myself the former for the sake of sharing of such scary stories. Even though it is Halloween weekend.