Univocal heteroglossia

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Alex Koppelman, "The Unheralded", The New Yorker 9/12/2012:

For the past three years, Brendon Ayanbadejo, a backup linebacker and standout special-teams player for the [Baltimore] Ravens, has been advocating for same-sex marriage—writing about it, talking about it, appearing as one of the stars of a video campaign launched by backers of a measure to legalize it in Maryland. It’s not his day job, but he’s gotten enough attention for it that an anti-gay-marriage Maryland state legislator wrote to the owner of the Ravens and demanded that he shut Ayanbadejo up.

The legislator was Emmert C. Burns Jr., and his 8/29/2012 letter, on the letterhead of the Maryland House of Delegates, stated that

As a Delegate to the Maryland General Assembly and a Baltimore Ravens Football fan, I find it inconceivable that one of your players, Mr. Brendon Ayanbadejo, would publicly endorse Same-Sex marriage […] Many of your fans are opposed to such a view and feel it has no place in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment and excitement. […]

I am requesting that you take the necessary action, as a National Football Franchise Owner, to inhibit such expressions from your employee and that he be ordered to cease and desist such injurious actions. I know of no other NFL player who has done what Mr. Ayambadejo is doing.

Enter Chris Kluwe, the Minnesota Vikings' punter, who wrote an open letter to Mr. Burns. After an insulting but stylistically unexceptional opening, he lays out three counterarguments in language that's an interesting combination of elevated style and locker-room trash talk. His first point:

As I suspect you have not read the Constitution, I would like to remind you that the very first, the VERY FIRST Amendment in this founding document deals with the freedom of speech, particularly the abridgment of said freedom. By using your position as an elected official (when referring to your constituents so as to implicitly threaten the Ravens organization) to state that the Ravens should "inhibit such expressions from your employees," more specifically Brendon Ayanbadejo, not only are you clearly violating the First Amendment, you also come across as a narcissistic fromunda stain. What on earth would possess you to be so mind-boggingly stupid? It baffles me that a man such as yourself, a man who relies on that same First Amendment to pursue your own religious studies without fear of persecution from the state, could somehow justify stifling another person's right to speech. To call that hypocritical would be to do a disservice to the word. Mindfucking obscenely hypocritical starts to approach it a little bit.

I don't think that the Greek rhetoricians had a word for the juxtaposition of disparate styles represented by passages like "not only are you violating the First Amendment, you also come across as a narcissistic fromunda stain". It's reminiscent of Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of heteroglossia, as explained in his essay "Discourse in the Novel":

The internal stratification of any single national language into social dialects, characteristic group behavior, professional jargons, generic languages, languages of generations and age groups, tendentious languages, languages of the authorities, of various circles and of passing fashions, languages that serve the specific sociopolitical purposes of the day, […] — this internal stratification present in every language at any given moment of its historical existence is the indispensable prerequisite for the novel as a genre.

But Bakhtin saw this "internal stratification" of language as a way for the novelist to present or suggest different points of view, not as a rhetorical device used to draw attention to the arguments of a single voice:

The novel orchestrates all its themes, the totality of the world of objects and ideas depicted and expressed in it, by means of the social diversity of speech types and by the differing individual voices that flourish under such conditions. Authorial speech, the speeches of narrators, inserted genres, the speech of characters are merely those fundamental compositional unities with whose help heteroglossia can enter the novel; each of them permits a multiplicity of social voices and a wide variety of their links and interrelationships (always more or less dialogized).

Mr. Kluwe's second argument starts with an even more striking example of the rhetorical power of univocal heteroglossia:

"Many of your fans are opposed to such a view and feel it has no place in a sport that is strictly for pride, entertainment, and excitement." Holy fucking shitballs. Did you seriously just say that, as someone who's "deeply involved in government task forces on the legacy of slavery in Maryland"? Have you not heard of Kenny Washington? Jackie Robinson?

This technique — for which readers will no doubt be able to find precedents going back to Twain, Rabelais, and before — has always (I think) been common in letter-writing, and often appears in blogging, where there's no editor to impose a uniform house style. Even if Aristotle had no term for the technique that Kluwe used, he would have understood why Kluwe's letter immediately went viral: Kluwe's status as an athlete provides the ethos, the high style carries the logos, and the trash-talking establishes the pathos.

It'll be interesting to follow this episode's impact on the upcoming referendum on Maryland's Religious Freedom and Civil Marriage Protection Act.


  1. [links] Link salad for a Portland Thursday | jlake.com said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 8:36 am

    […] Univocal heteroglossia — Language Log is hilarious about the recent Baltimore Ravens/gay marriage kerfuffle, thanks to another moronic conservative politician. […]

  2. Philip said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 8:39 am

    Sam Kinison was a master of this, as in his famous world hunger routine: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P0q4o58pKwA. He goes from a calm and rational tone to an abusive one very suddenly. The contrast in styles makes for a memorable effect.

  3. Vance Maverick said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 9:03 am

    It's very common in (at least American) preaching, which can veer from the KJV, and a high style derived from it, to the vernacular and earthy (if not always the obscene), with the same spectacular effect. I've heard Cecil Williams of Glide Memorial in San Francisco do this (again, admittedly, without the fucking shitballs).

  4. G said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 9:08 am

    "Bathos" is usually defined as doing this unintentionally or to ridiculous effect, but it seems to me that most examples are in fact deliberate, and that it can be applied just as well when the contrast does not become ludicrous.

    Wodehouse of course was the master of comic bathos.

  5. GeorgeW said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 9:23 am

    Thanks, I just learned a new word 'fromunda' although I don't know that I will have many occasions to use it. But, it is nice to have it in reserve.

  6. The Ridger said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 9:30 am

    Russian writer Aleksandr Arkhangelsky engages in this – mixing registers to grand effect, dropping street slang into otherwise elevated prose. I have a native Russian colleague who goes into raptures when reading him

  7. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 9:56 am

    At the end of that first paragraph, what syntactic category is mindfucking in? Is it an extension of fucking, in its adverbial role? Or did he mean to write mindfuckingly? Or what?

    [(myl) I presume that it's an extension of the process alluded to by Geoff Nunberg in "On second thought, make that 'fuckingly brilliant''", 11/3/2003.]

  8. Dan said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 10:55 am

    I don't think that the Greek rhetoricians had a word for the juxtaposition of disparate styles represented by passages like [these]

    But of course, TVTropes does.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 12:24 pm

    Koppelman also uses this technique in his New Yorker article: "demanded that he shut Ayanbadejo up."

    It's classic with AAVE and SAE. I had a great-grandboss who was fond of it, but the most famous example must be "If the glove don't fit, you must acquit." (I assume Johnny Cochrane used a lot of standard English in that speech.)

    In Kluwe's rant, I get the implication that he wants "narcissistic fromunda stain" to be taken as just as precise as "without fear of persecution by the state".

  10. L said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

    For those who live in multiple strata, or have lived in multiple strata, this is readily recognized as an example of the entirely natural codeswitching shit that goes on every goddamn day.

    Greek rhetoricians may or may not have had a word for this, but modern ones sure as hell do.

  11. L said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 12:42 pm

    Oh, and here's my rant:

    "As a Delegate to the Maryland General Assembly and a Baltimore Ravens Football fan, I find it inconceivable that one of your players, Mr. Bendon Ayanbadejo, would publically endorse Same-Sex marriage"

    Dear Mr Emmert C. Burns Jr.,

    It has come to my attention that at some time during or prior to writing this sentence, you must have successfully formed this conception. However much you may disagree with it, you have nonetheless managed to present a cogent restatement of it. For this reason, I must deny the major premise of your argument and thus all statements which depend upon it.

    Please feel free to resubmit a corrected summary of which ideas you are capable of conceiving.

    Go Ravens,

  12. Ray Dillinger said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

    I have a lot of opinions about this, but they're mostly political rather than linguistic, so I'll spare you on this blog (or at least abbreviate them to 'Kluwe is right') and concentrate on the linguistically relevant aspects.

    Kluwe's codeswitching amounts to a demonstration that he does not resort to obscenity due to stupidity, ignorance, or deficient vocabulary. A common misperception held by many people whom others swear at a lot is that the people doing the swearing don't understand the issues, are stupid. or are at least low-class and therefore unimportant. Such elitism is an emotional defense mechanism, if nothing else; it allows the denigrated person to dismiss the denigration by devaluing the opinion or importance of the person whose disapprobation they have earned.

    Kluwe heads it off very effectively. He first demonstrates that he is articulate and has a functioning brain and a functioning vocabulary, understands issues such as the constitution which certainly ought to concern Burns, and is entirely capable of the 'prestige dialect' whose absence would result in Burns' dismissal of him as an idiot or lower-class or otherwise unimportant. He then drops register to explain exactly what he thinks of the legislator.

    In so doing, he demonstrates that the extremely low opinion he voices is not one that can be dismissed as mere stupidity or the dialectic obligate vulgarity of those who know no other way of expressing themselves. Instead, it is a carefully chosen vulgarity intended to very deliberately insult a specific person in a specific way.

    By my count the Ravens have scored twice here and the legislator has only managed to incur a foul. I rather doubt that Burns is calling his own plays, or this would have come about sooner. Probably he is under considerable pressure from some backer or other (possibly his political party) to 'do something about' the issue. So I surmise it probably isn't over. We'll just have to wait and see how the game develops.


  13. Michael Briggs said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 2:03 pm

    Did he really write "publically" and misspell the player's name in his letter? As quoted in various places on the web, he gets "publicly" right and consistently spells the name right. Or, has there been some silent correction of the text?

    [(myl) No, those were my scribal typos. Fixed now.]

  14. ALEX MCCRAE said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

    I must confess, I was obliged to consult the online URBAN Dictionary site to pin down the unfamiliar (to me) phrase, "fromunda stain", which I assumed was NOT a complimentary term tossed Maryland state legislator Emmert C. Burns Jr.'s way, by irate NFL-er, Chris Kluwe, in his open letter to Mr. Burns, in his (Kluwe's) admirable defense of same-sex marriage.


    Holy foul bodily secretions, Batman!

    Hmm…. would the alternate phrase, 'smegma stain' have been any less damning? (At least it has a bit of an alliterative ring to it. HA!)

    Clearly, Viking's punter, Kluwe, w/ his impassioned, vitriolic open letter to legislator Burns, IMHO, went a long way in dispelling the stereotypical knock against many NFL pros, that brawn generally trumps brains, and most players tend to be intellectual lightweights…. not the sharpest knives in the drawer, if you will.

    (Frankly, all those crushing blows to the head, and histories of serial concussive skull trauma that many NFL players sustain over a lengthly career on the gridiron, would have to addle the brain, muddle one's cognitive thinking, and affect memory recall, to varying degrees. Nothing really to do w/ native intelligence, per se, but definitely a possible impediment to coherent speech delivery.)

    And here, prior to looking it up, I thought "fromunda" was some kind of European cheese. (WRONG!)

    I'll be sticking to Dutch Gouda and Ementhal Swiss thank you.

  15. Brian said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 2:48 pm

    Liberman's Aristotelean analysis, plus the expansion of the theme provided by Ray Dillinger, has convinced me that this letter would make an excellent study case for a class on rhetoric.

  16. casino implosion said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 3:26 pm

    Professional wrestling's "The Rock" (incidentally a former footballer) was also known for this style of diction;also to great abusive effect.

  17. Circe said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    Here is a somewhat different attempt: of using (what I believe is) "upper class" British accent for street slang (you probably have to wait for the mother of one of the pilots to come in).

  18. Ellen K. said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

    I love the Urban Dictionary. It fills a needed niche. I too, looked up "fromunda" there. (First thought: why are those two words smushed together? Second thought: Look the word up in Urban Dictionary.)

  19. L said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 5:20 pm

    > Kluwe heads it off very effectively.

    @Ray Dillinger: I suspect only for people who already agree with him. My personal experience of codeswitching, which is pretty large actually, teaches me that the people who are under attack will use whatever defense mechanism comes to hand, in this case ignoring Kluwe's elevated speech and simply denigrating him for his lower-register codeswitch.

    Dude, it don't frickin' work! I've done this my whole life, and I always end up cursing to the choir.

    As to stereotypes, Ayanbadejo is identified as a "second-string linebacker" – the corresponding stereotype would be "second-rate meathead." He clearly does not fit the stereotype, but the stereotype is another handy-dandy defense mechanism; and those of us who already agree with him, don't need defense mechanisms.

    Kluwe is a punter, and the stereotype there would be "skinny guy who almost, but not quite, made the soccer team."

    Pernt bean, all this is very effective if you don't have an inbuilt need to reject it outright.

    Done it my whole life.

    Never worked yet.

  20. Geoff said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 8:22 pm

    "lustful cockmonster" was the highlight of his screed

  21. Rebecca said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 9:01 pm

    Another example of Kluwe's skill in register switching is the profanity-free version he was persuaded to write:


  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 11:02 pm

    Here's an example of that preacherly switch from the KJV register to the more vulgar noted above in reference to Glide Memorial: "These are the same people that tried to pin the name Judas on me. Judas, the most hated name in human history! If you think you've been called a bad name, try to work your way out from under that. Yeah, and for what? For playing an electric guitar? As if that is in some kind of way equitable to betraying our Lord and delivering him up to be crucified. All those evil motherfuckers can rot in hell." Bob Dylan, in a new interview, and no I don't know what to make of the usage of "equitable" and whether it's what he really said or a transcription error of some sort.

  23. Brian said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 11:11 pm

    OMG Rebecca, that version is just as hilarious as the original, though for completely different reasons.

    It's also interesting to note that his introductory text touches on some of the same subjects brought up here in the comments.

  24. Mark Mandel said,

    September 13, 2012 @ 11:16 pm

    W.r.t. "equitable", my money's on a cupertino for "equatable".

  25. Keith M Ellis said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 1:59 am

    "Dude, it don't frickin' work! I've done this my whole life, and I always end up cursing to the choir."

    You're right that the targets are most likely to seize upon the vulgarity as evidence-for-summary-dismissal.

    That aside, I do think that what's more interesting is that to whatever degree to which it's otherwise effective, it relies upon the speaker having already established a primary and relatively unquestioned prestige credibility, to which the vulgarity code-switches effectively without much resistance. If you're assumed to already be of high prestige and you slum, the presumption is that you're doing it for a good reason. In contrast, if you are assumed to be already of low prestige and you utilize prestige dialect, there's inherent suspicion and the attempt may well be seen as being grasping or even comically inept, especially when there's accompanying vulgarity.

    (And you can see this in narrow subcultural contexts where the wider normative standards are reversed — such as suburban white teens appropriating black urban culture.)

    So, generally, the tactic that Ray Dillinger describes is asymmetric — it only reliably works within a context where the speaker is secure in their (locally) high cultural status such that the low-status signalling represents a kind of rhetorical/cultural flanking. Sort of saying "I'm at least as secure as you in my high sociocultural status, as evidenced by my prestige usage, but lookee here, I can dance circles around you in registers you may not even recognize." Or, at the very least, it's like punching someone in the nose after they've slapped you with their white glove — it signals a kind of practical ruthlessness.

    What doesn't work so much is when someone of low or uncertain status attempts to signal high-status competence by prestige usage and then arguably confuses the issue by including low-status usage.

    So, again, this is an example of how class and status intersects language register and usage and that, very often, there's an asymmetry whereby already possessing high status allows one to utilize language in ways that only reinforce that status, where those lacking that status are far more limited.

  26. L said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 10:55 am

    @ Keith M. Ellis

    Yes, I am in complete agreement, but there is at least one more configuration to consider. It don't woik out so good dere neidah.

    Kluwe's letter, if read by a low-register speaker who is in strong agreement with Delegate Burns, is likely to trigger the parallel defense mechanism in which the "high-falutin'" language is the excuse to reject the argument – the view that Kluwe is "elitist" and can safely be ignored. I get that also, just in different circles.

    A respected member of the low-register status, speaking in low-register to an audience of the same status, strikes home as surely as a respected member of the high-register group does when speaking in high-register to a high-register audience.

    What works best, is to speak credibly in the language of the listener. Codeswitching of any kind is a handy excuse for the defense mechanism, and identifies the speaker as being at least partly "not like me" and thus, there is an emotionally easy excuse for dismissing the speaker as "not understanding my world." It is not intellectually valid, but it's very very powerful.

    I suspect that the reason preachers (as noted by Vance Maverick, way above) succeed with codeswitching is that their audience is predisposed to be accepting of the preacher's point of view and message. By and large, any congregation of co-believers are apt to be in some general agreement and have some expectation of general agreement; moreover they expect the preacher to be speaking from study, knowlege, and piety, notably a piety of which they approve and share or seek to share.

    If you don't disagree with the message, then defense mechanisms are a whole lot less relevant, and codeswitching is not an excuse for rejection.

    Can I get an amen? I suggest to you that I can only get an amen from people who agree with me.

    And that's ok, that's what amens are for in the first place.

  27. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 11:06 am

    It seems to me that the comments suggesting that Mr EC Burns Jr. will seize upon the 'lower register' parts of the letter in order to dismiss its message are possibly missing the point, which is to publicly humiliate Burns. The intended audience is actually other people who, on reading the letter, will recognise what a fuckwit Burns is.

  28. Keith M Ellis said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 11:36 am

    @Jeremy Wheeler: well, I think L's comment was correct and insightful in that this code-switching works best with friendly audiences and can be self-defeating with hostile audiences — but the intended audience isn't the hostile audience, anyway.

    It's not really so much that Burns will respond negatively because, honestly, he was destined to and no one expects such an exchange to result in Burns admitting he was wrong. It's all a public performance and not an earnest discussion.

    But in that context, I don't exactly agree that the "intended audience" will recognize that Burns is a fuckwit (in the sense that they already hadn't). The intended audience is the friendly audience and they already have decided this — Kluwe is publicly ridiculing him to a hostile audience. This is really a powerful and apt attempt by Kluwe at pitchfork-waving vilification. "Apt" because, well, it's Burns who was initially trying to play that role, only in a more genteel manner.

    And this is part of the semantic work that this code-switching into vulgarity does — it has a kind of more explicit violence, it's more overtly threatening. The vulgarity sort of responds to the covert threat by Burns with something less covert, something more self-evidently aggressive while, in conjunction, the high-status register reinforces factual and other credibility (which even with friendly audiences the vulgarity might otherwise undermine). And, of course, the particular dissonance of this is absurdly humorous and that alone is a powerful rhetorical tool. Taken together, Kluwe's criticism is pretty powerful. But mostly only to friendly audiences.

  29. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    @Keith M Ellis: I think you are right. I was so keen to use 'fuckwit' in an otherwise standard English comment that I paid too little attention to my own argument.

  30. L said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

    @Keith M. Ellis

    > Taken together, Kluwe's criticism is pretty powerful. But mostly
    > only to friendly audiences.


    Amen to that, and amen to Ayanbadejo and to Kluwe, but in an odd way even to Burns. Burns is not really trying to convince the other side, anymore than Kluwe is. Kluwe's readers see Burns as a fuckwit, but Burns' readers voted for him, and I'm sure he'd very much like for them to do so again in, say, ten weeks or so.

    Burns is, to his side, probaby about as "pretty powerfule" as Kluwe is, to his.

    As another angle on codeswitching, it occurs to me that it's not simply register – there are more dimensions, if you like, than merely that one in play.

    For example, if I were to codeswitch from my native low-register Bronxese, to a Suthun Melland [Southern Maryland] low-register, or to that of Bawmer or to that of Baww-tea-mawr, hon, and then into Cockney, Scouse, Hip-Hop, Bob & Doug McKenzie, and finish up as Cousin Minnie Pearl…. they'd all think I was nuts, and they'd all laugh me out of the room.

    It's not just register.

  31. GeorgeW said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

    @L & Keith M Ellis: I think code switching can be a very useful rhetorical device more generally. As an example, Abdul Nasser in Egypt was famous for code switching in his radio speeches, although he did not use profanity. He would switch between formal, standard language (appropriate for an official occasion) and the Egyptian dialect (which was a way of bonding with ordinary people).

    I am not sure, in the case at hand, that the intention was disabuse a homophobe of his position. I think the intent was to show the writer was an educated, informed man and to demean the homophobe. I found it much more effective than one code.

  32. the other Mark P said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

    For the Kluwe "side" to win in the long run, they have to persuade the young.

    Young people, in my experience, will find the put-down part of Kluwe's reply very amusing. That it code-switches will make it more amusing. They have not yet reached a (alleged) maturity that finds cursing a sign of poor intellect. Those that are at that point are already persuaded, one way or another on this issue.

    What Kluwe is doing, from the point of view of the young, is making it clear that you can – and should – engage Burns's argument head on. That means taking on establishment figures and figures and institutions and giving them no deference on this matter. The cursing is intended to achieve that lack of respect.

    Burns is voted in by a largely older electorate. In the long run though, Kluwe's side is winning hands down.

  33. L said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 5:03 pm

    @The other MP – no question about it, all you say is just so. While each letter appeals mostly to those who already agree with it, I agree with you that the code-switching adds some fireworks.

    That also is why, imho, Sam Kinneson's codeswitches were effective in his comic rants. Much like a preacher in a church service, a comedian draws an audience who are self-selected for a basically approving attitude. Cheerleading the already on-side is important, of course.

    It occurs that there's yet another social context. The NFL has a strange part-conservative, part-jingoistic, and yet part-young-rebellious whiff to it. Playing off the various aspects gives each of these writers a certain referred cachet. But most of all, the NFL is traditionally macho. For a player in such a league to support same-sex marriage is to challenge the old notions of macho, linebacker manhood. This gives Burns a chance to show off his support of the old notion, to a local electorate who presumably cling to it – – – or at least, he seems to think they do; maybe November will show otherwise.

    But consider that it had to be the linebacker first, and the punter second. Had it been the punter first, a whole other set of stereotypes would have been invoked (putting aside that Burns is a Maryland state legislator, so that anything said in Baltimore is automatically more relevant to his career than anything said in Minnesota.)

    None of that has any bearing on the real validity of anything said, but it's all part of the showmanship.

    Also, it comes off differently when a Viking comes to the support of a Raven; had a second Raven spoken up, it might be dismissed as teammate-loyalty more than real conviction. (Imagine a Viking coming to the support of a Packer! Or maybe "Packer" is unfortunate…)

    There are so many status markers flying around this one, that the head spins.

  34. Rebecca said,

    September 14, 2012 @ 5:23 pm

    Elsewhere, Kluwe has attributed his style, in part, to his avid participation on-line gaming discussions: "I'm a child of the Internet," Chris says in light of his writing style in the initial version. "If you can't hold a barbed debate with various epithets that are cleverly constructed, then it's very hard to be a member of a gaming board."

  35. Chris Waters said,

    September 15, 2012 @ 6:41 pm

    Seems like an excellent example of what the TV Tropes Wiki calls "Sophisticated as Hell".

  36. ajay said,

    September 17, 2012 @ 8:20 am

    "As a Delegate to the Maryland General Assembly and a Baltimore Ravens Football fan, I find it inconceivable that one of your players, Mr. Brendon Ayanbadejo, would publically endorse Same-Sex marriage"

    Dear Delegate Burns:

    You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    C. Kluwe, Esq.

  37. L said,

    September 17, 2012 @ 7:42 pm

    @ajay NICE!

  38. WNBTv Presents: Mr. Emmett C. Burns Jr - A Narcissistic Fromunda Stain | WNBTv - will not be televised said,

    September 20, 2012 @ 4:57 am

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