Monolingualism, or speaking only one language, is kind of a freak occurrence in human history. Before the advent of sprawling nation states, it wasn’t unusual for one to live in the vicinity of a number of ethnic groups who spoke languages completely unrelated to your own. Over hundreds of years, as people continue to communicate across disparate languages within a close proximity, they begin to influence each other and a “Sprachbund” forms. A “Sprachbund” is essentially a group of languages that share structural features because of contact and influence rather than inheritance. Although English is completely unrelated to Hungarian, the two languages share a number of core features in common. Articles like “a” and “the” are absent from Hindi, Latin, and Icelandic, which are related to English, and also absent from Finnish, which is related to Hungarian. However, these articles are mandatory in English, Hungarian, and a number of other European languages that are spoken in a similar area.
While this sort of situation has been exceedingly common historically and even to this day, many modern communities are devoid of frequent interaction between speakers of different languages. Attitudes towards this vary significantly. Some people in the United States find the idea that individuals could speak both Spanish and English almost offensive, whereas the European Union’s Treaty of Lisbon lists language education and trilingualism as one of its main objectives. In a number of countries across Europe, a majority of people speak more than one language, but most Europeans are stuck speaking almost entirely in their native language. This pales in comparison to Africa, where it is very common for children to speak one or two European languages, a regional language, and multiple local languages. It is not uncommon for a single conversation to switch fluidly between more than three languages, as I have heard through anecdotes from acquaintances who have visited family members on the continent. Even in Africa, nation states often buy into the concept of a single official language which is not always spoken by a majority of the population.
In our messy world full of language ideologies and politics, significant barriers to the natural process of language exchange have emerged for one reason or another. This is not necessarily the case online, where people all over the world find themselves operating in the same communities. Hololive has for a long time been a linguistically diverse community, with an active sodality of translators and a broadly international viewership. Although based in Japan, as of 2020 Hololive has expanded to include Indonesian and English language branches. Besides broadening the reach of this community, individual members of these new branches individually exhibit their own linguistic diversity. Takanashi Kiara speaks German natively and teaches it to other members of the English branch, while also hosting an informal talk show with members of the Japanese branch. Ninomae Ina’nis, also of the English branch, speaks English, Japanese, and Korean. Indonesia itself is the second most linguistically diverse nation in the world, with more than 700 languages. Airani Iofi in particular speaks English, German, Japanese, Korean, and Bhasa Indonesia, while also making an effort to learn Thai.
Hololive is a talent agency for virtual Youtubers, a genre of performers who embody a virtual avatar to interact with their audience in real time. These performers are marketed a “virtual idols”, and like idols they are multi-talented entertainers that make money selling themselves as a brand. In contrast to Japanese idol culture, far less emphasis is placed on perfection and far more on authenticity and building a connection to their audience. Functionally, virtual Youtubers have more in common with livestream culture, meaning their performances are generally rooted in audience participation. Multilingual fans will often pull short clips from these livestream performances and translate them into their own languages, which has been the impetus for most of Hololive’s international expansion. In this respect, the fanbase acts as an extension of the performer, and often times members of the community at large are the ones primarily responsible for motivating, marketing, and curating the content consumed by much of the audience.
This connection between the performers and the audience is essential to understanding Hololive as a linguistic community. Language change is often guided by prestige, meaning that people tend to talk like people they respect and admire. For example, in 1963, William Labov famously highlighted the tendency for young Martha’s Vineyarders to strengthen vowel pronunciations imitating the older generations and fishermen who exemplified the ideal of independent, strong, and skillful island natives. An example that will be more familiar to non-linguists is the tendency for white middle-class youths to imitate features of African American English out of an admiration for hip-hop culture.
Indubitably, the speech patterns of the performers hold the highest level of prestige in the Hololive community. They are the focal point and most respected members of the community, while also acting as the only source of spoken language all members are guaranteed to hold in common. Audience members may be motivated to learn foreign languages to better understand the performers, which aligns with performers’ desires to communicate with each other. Language learning streams facilitate communal language acquisition, while passive exposure to multilingual communication between performers directs the community towards a shared understanding of using multiple languages at the same time to communicate.
These dynamics are intricate and complex. Just as audiences are motivated to understand their favorite performers, to a certain extent performers feel motivated to understand their audience members. Audience members are also critical to framing the identity of a performer, which has an effect on their language use. Influences in the community can be very subtle: I feel that my Spanish proficiency has improved somewhat due to casual exposure to Aiko Okonomiyaki’s translations of English clips, for example. Even trying to break up the community into categories like performer, translator, and audience member is a gross oversimplification. As the performers are the most salient and clear-cut aspect of the community, much of my analysis will focus on their language behavior and the primary vector of interaction between them and the rest of the community.
Not all languages exist on equal footing within the speech community. As the main world language, English has a major pull for the performers to learn as a means to broaden their reach. There is a tendency for the Japanese performers who are not fluent in English to put an effort towards learning the language. The first member of Hololive to reach 1 million subscribers was the monolingual English speaker Gawr Gura, who only just debuted in September of 2020. Inugami Korone, the character in the thumbnail to this article, was the next to reach the milestone on the first of November. She debuted in April of 2019, and became prominent to overseas fans in August of 2020 after animator 2ManySnacks made a three second animation of her saying the nonsense phrase “Eekum Bokum” while streaming Banjo Kazooie. After receiving attention from so many people overseas, Korone honed in on her English and performed an English-only stream of Mario in September. The most popular performers have usually found some way to tap into the English-speaking world, and learning to speak English has become a priority for many of the performers.
Japanese also holds a special place in the community. Although it doesn’t have the same reach English does, I see it as a sort of prestige language, similar to how French feels for many English speakers. A very subtle realization of this is the monolingual English-speaker Amelia Watson’s nickname “Ame”, which is pronounced “Ah-May” in accordance with Japanese phonology. Another example is Gawr Gura’s insistence that her name be pronounced “gau guɾa”, using the “tapped” sound that Japanese speakers famously use for both r’s and l’s in English. Takanashi Kiara’s surname is Japanese and her first name is pronounced with the same Japanese ‘r’ sound as Gura’s (Japanese surnames are placed before their given name). Ninomae Ina’nis calls her fans “takodachis”, a pun on the Japanese words tako (octopus) and tomodachi (friend). The original songs released by members of the English branch are either entirely in Japanese or have a Japanese title. Gawr Gura is known as “City Pop Shark” for covering Japanese songs from the 70s and 80s despite not speaking Japanese. She even sang Country Roads in Japanese. All of the members of Hololive English either speak Japanese or are in the process of learning it.
Indonesian occupies an interesting space in this environment. It doesn’t have the cultural capital of Japanese, nor the international reach of English. You generally do not hear it used outside of the Indonesian branch, especially since the Indonesian performers universally speak at least some English. For overseas viewers, the abundance of translated clips still appears to generate a lot of interest in the language. Moona Hoshinova has done a stream teaching listeners Indonesian, whereas Airani Iofi has taught basic Indonesian phrases to various Japanese performers. I think that the approach towards Indonesian is indicative of the general attitude the community holds towards languages. There is always a great enthusiasm for learning new languages and communicating with other people. I have yet to see any of the performers describe a language in negative terms or promote a language as being more important than the others.
The Hololive community is such a wonderful example of language use because it handles language in a playful manner, treating it as a flexible tool for communication rather than something fixed. This creates an atmosphere where it’s possible for language innovations to permeate quickly through the community. An example of this is the adaptation of Usada Pekora’s “Peko” catchphrase by members of Hololive English. “Peko” is a nonsense filler term that resembles Pekora’s name. It can be used to replace sections of stock phrases like kon’nichiwa -> konpeko (hello) and ori’gato -> oripeko (thank you). The other use is translated into English as a sort of vocal punctuation to end sentences, as in “pain peko”, which roughly means “this is really painful”. Admittedly, I do not know Japanese, but it would be interesting if this acted as a sort of vector for transmitting Japanese grammatical features into English.
Pekora made a throwaway joke about the “Pekolandish” language, where every word is Peko. Based on this, Dalila Ixualojli has been developing a constructed writing system and language that only uses tonal variations of “peko”. She has even “translated” clips using clever analysis. The grammar of this particularly sophisticated invented language pulls elements from Japanese so it can function as a subtle learning tool. Constructed languages are a fun way for people to think about linguistics, and have starred in popular media through fully fleshed out fictional languages like Klingon and Elvish.
This is really just a brief overview that touches on the astounding breadth of linguistics topics this community touches on. I think it’s worthwhile to take note of this community now that it’s essentially in its very early stages, and I am excited to see how it progresses. Although unlikely, it’s exciting to imagine a sort of Hololive creole language forming given enough time and exposure. A more probable prospect is that this community is a prominent pioneer of how language will be used online in the future. I think it’s entirely possible that an internet language will form, facilitating communication between people all over the world. This language would almost certainly be based primarily on an English substrate, but incorporating language features from disparate languages of different families. Whatever happens, the next few decades are going to involve some of the most radical language changes in the history of the world. It is a very exciting time to be a linguist.
I have discussed members of Hololive at length in two of my other articles on Virtual Youtubers. These articles are political in nature, which isn’t for everybody, but I think they explore some very interesting ideas. If you thought this article was interesting, I recommend you check those out as well.
I have an email!
Feel free to send a message to SamYoungArticles@gmail.com if you have any comments, questions, or you’d like to be notified when new articles come out. The algorithm doesn’t always let people know when I post new stuff, so this is the best way to keep up with my writing. If you don’t have a Medium account joining the email list means you don’t have to worry about running out of free articles. Thanks for all the support!