English-Language Robots

One of the more fascinating finds from a previous post – scroll below, or check here – had to do with the selection of language as tag. Ukraine’s been beset by linguistic schisms as long as it’s remained independent, so it should be little surprise that examining the usage of online language has helped delineate and define groups, movements, and individuals.

Instagram, it turns out, proved no different. But where most analysis of Ukrainian media – online, old-school, what have you – wobbles between Ukrainian and Russian, Instagram offered another wrinkle: English. Turns out, as the photo below helps illustrate, English saw far more prevalence in EuroMaidan Insta-tags than either Ukrainian or Russian.

 The Exceptional & The Everyday: 144 Hours in Kiev

The Exceptional & The Everyday: 144 Hours in Kiev

The larger implications may remain limited – there are only so many Instagram users, after all – but there’s no harm in adding another layer to the reams of linguistic tracking in Ukraine. After parsing the findings, though, I found myself wondering. We’ve seen English aplenty since EuroMaidan began. We’ve seen it in pleas and placards. We’ve seen it propagandized near and far. We’ve seen it pop up time and again.

But what about when it comes to cyborgs?

Bear with me here. RFE/RL had a great, hilarious run-through of the newest Halloween-costume-turned-national-rallying-cry in eastern Ukraine. Turns out that the soldiers holding the Donetsk airport have earned something of a reputation. Through months of shelling and fortitude, those on the front-lines are no longer soldiers; each of them is, according to both separatists and supporters, a kiborg, or “cyborg.” Indestructible. Immovable. Molded as human, but surviving as machine. (Much like a certain statue in Detroit.)

The kiborg moniker has caught on in the past few days – hence, the RFE/RL coverage – but, interestingly, it has remained relegated to the non-Anglosphere. Twitter results come back almost entirely in Ukrainian or Russian. Aside from RFE/RL, English-language media outside Ukraine hasn’t yet gotten to the topic. As of Saturday, Ukrainian- and Russian-language Tweets saw plenty of kiborg-in-Donetsk references. In English? Not so much.

Which poses an interesting question, and one I don’t yet have an answer to: When does the linguistic shift in this ongoing war usually start popping up in English? When does a meme – or a nickname, or an interpretation – hop from one of the local languages to English? Are the “cyborgs” following some theoretical model? Or are they behind the curve? (And does this blog-post throw a wrench into the theoretical path?) And where do the social media tracks of EuroMaidan peel off from the paths set during the Arab Spring and Gezi Park?

Part of this is academic, examining the nexuses of linguistics, media studies, and geopolitics. Part of it, though, is awesome – these are cyborgs, after all. They're there. They’re among us. And it's just a matter of time before the English-speaking world finds them.