hashtagTwo horizontal strokes, two vertical strokes, et voilà: the now-ubiquitous #. People may read that symbol as “number”, “pound sign”, “sharp”, or “octothorpe”, but if you are under 25 and have ever used a social medium, there’s a high chance you’ll call it a “hashtag”.

In phonology, the branch of linguistics that concerns itself with how certain sounds chance and in what contexts, the # is used to denote a word boundary. For example, in Dutch, consonants like /d/ and /z/ become devoiced (/t/ and /s/, respectively) when they occur at the end of a word. The word for ‘gold’ goud may end in a ‘d’, but the final consonant is pronounced like a ‘t’ (IPA: [xɔut]). And although ‘cats’ in Dutch is poezen, the singular form, without the plural -en marker, ends with the ‘s’ sound: [puːs].

(This happens in a lot of Germanic languages, and English has some vestiges of it. Consider the difference between ‘thief’ and ‘thieves’; the word-final /f/ was probably a historically devoiced /v/.)

We would describe each pattern as a phonological rule thusly:

/d/ -> [t]/_#
/z/ -> [s]/_#

See the #? The formula states: /d/ becomes [t] if it occurs in the spot denoted by the underscore, to the right of which is nothing (i.e. the boundary of the word).

When I introduce phonological rules in class, I always call # a “pound sign”. That’s what I was taught. But my students’ reflex is to call it a “hashtag”, à la Twitter and Facebook. It just tickles me whenever they do this, especially because it seems so incongruous to use the neologism for a symbol that has existed for centuries. (The Shady Characters blog has an excellent pair of posts about #: read them here!) It’s like looking at the colorful photos in a View-Master and calling it VR.

Then again, there’s no real logical reason to call it a “pound sign”, either, since it’s not representing any unit of weight here, just the absence of something. It reminds me of the way I use # when programming in R: to comment out lines of code I don’t want to run. But I haven’t heard “hashtag” used in this context in the coding community yet… maybe just “hash”, but I can’t be sure.

As I explained jokingly in class the other day, I am so old that when I learned how to write phonological rules, hashtagging wasn’t even a thing. (Well, technically, the practice was about one year old when I took Introductory Linguistics in undergrad.) I really wonder if the hashtag will become so ingrained in this generation’s lexicon that the phonologists of tomorrow will think nothing of using it in their writings and lesson plans.

#thefuture #isnow


Word of the Day: kludgey (also spelled “kludgy”, “klugey”, and perhaps also “cloogy”) is a slang term that arose in the context of computing to refer to hardware or software that, despite its inelegance, clumsiness, or Frankenstein-esque construction, manages to work. (Roughly equivalent to: “macgyvered”, “jury-rigged”, “hacky”.) Etymologically unclear, the noun “kludge” was clearly coined in the past fifty years, and the OED records its earliest usage in 1962, although its origins are still disputed. One of my professors regularly refers to the code they write for data analysis as “kludgey”, and the interesting thing is that while I didn’t know what they meant at first, I could tell (from the phonotactics, perhaps?) that for code to be kludgey was not that great, but not too bad, either. Kind of like how you know you don’t want to meet the “frumious Bandersnatch” (of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass) even if you can’t quite define “frumious”.


About Andrew C.

I'm a grad student at UC Berkeley.
This entry was posted in teaching, what even is linguistics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to #PoundSign

  1. You said: “… maybe just “hash”, but I can’t be sure”
    In NZ we always call it “hash”, and our computer programming teachers called it that too. And a hashtag is a hash + a word.

    From the dictionary on my Mac:
    hash 3 |haʃ| (also hash sign )
    noun chiefly Brit.
    the symbol #.


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